COMEDY AIN’T PRETTY…
And it’s unjustly ignored as a great art form. But I’m going to start to right that wrong**…
I grew up watching the classic spotlight performances on Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson, heard every comedy recording from family friendly Allan Sherman and Bob Newhartto crass bootleg tapes of Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley. Watched as TV made comedy silly (Laugh In), subtle (George Goebel on any talk show panel) and controversial (Smothers Brothers). I remember George Carlin first doing Al Sleet and wondering why people like Jack Burns and Godfrey Cambridge weren’t more famous. Years later I watched comedians like Michael Keaton and Kevin Pollock become such good actors that their stand-up careers seemed like my delusion; I also remember seeing some of the funniest people on the planet live in clubs and being floored that they weren’t getting the recognition that they deserved. Some things never change.
Saw the classics, from Milton Berle to Jonathan Winters to Lenny Bruce to Rodney Dangerfield to Robert Klein. The intellects like Mort Sahl, the schtickers like Shelley Berman and the deadpan Jackie Vernon. Love the absurdity of Steven Wrightand how that DNA could twist a generation later into Mitch Hedberg. The lightning fast mind of Jonathan Winters reincarnated in the mania of Robin Williams. The fearlessness of Lenny Bruce inspiring a brilliant Bill Hicks, and later, Doug Stanhope. The great ones always have an edge.
Television tried to turn every comedian into a sitcom star, and certainly many (Seinfeld, Romano, Brett Butler, Roseanne) succeeded. And with cable came tremendous new outlets for new comics, from Rodney Dangerfield‘s Young Comedians Specials and Def Jam to Premium Blend and the half hour shows airing on HBO and Comedy Central Presents. And I’m glad to see that the late night talk show hosts are still staunch supporters of the art, carrying on the tradition that Sullivan and especially Carson started. Letterman, Conan, Leno, Kimmel, Ferguson – being comedians themselves, of course – are a godsend to a comic’s career. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg to what’s going on in the clubs, and there are many great comics and comedy albums sailing under the public radar.
I saw Sam Kinison three times in six months; the first in a club so small that the paint nearly singed off the wall from his incredible performance. The next gig was in a room five times bigger, and by the time I saw him in a larger auditorum it just wasn’t the same…funny, yes, but I was safely out of his flamethrower range. A few friends who were with me at that first Kinison show still talk about it with the same revernce as I do, but also agree that the show that left us in the most pain (from hurt ribcages, a good thing) was a ninety minute Gilbert Gottfried performance. There probably wasn’t one laugh on par with Sam’s “Feed The Children” routine, but Gilbert has us laughing continuously without a chance to catch our breath. By the time he got to the punch line in the last joke – about the aliens who landed in his backyard – we were goners. All we have to do to this day is mention that punch line and we’re right back there, laughing and in pain.
Chris Rush was another favorite. His First Rush album was one of the funniest I had ever heard and was one of the more quotable comedy records of its time, at least for the six or eight of us that had ever heard it. Years later a hack comic in my town – opening for a rock show, no less – started to recite Side Two as if it was his own material. I was pissed…but since I knew the album word for word, I receded to shout out the lines just a half step ahead of that joke stealing prick. Killed him like Raid on bugs. Chris, wherever you are, you’re welcome.
Like many, I thought the comedy club boom of the 80s would last a lot longer than it did. It was a great opportunity to see a lot of people I might have otherwise missed, but even then the art of the comedy album seemed to be lacking. Richard Pryor scored big, of course, Steve Martin, Andrew Dice Clay and others sold a lot of records but they were huge audience shows, not the intimate smaller club recordings that have that unique charm. Nothing against Dane Cook, but when you have to play that broadly to hit the guy in the last row of The Enormodome, where’s your subtlety?
I could list a hundred comics – and eventually I will – but of all the art forms out there, I feel it’s the least appreciated. Everybody loves a clown, but unless you’ve ever stepped up there and tried it yourself, you may not appreciate what it takes and just how difficult it is to be good one time. Now try having to do that all the time. For lack of a better term, great comedy is interactive magic, it’s not a light switch you flip on and off to produce a static result. Maybe that explains why Last Comic Standing sucks as bad as American Idol.
So I’m going to do something about that. I’m going to honor the work of the great well-known comedians but also introduce you to some you might not know about. I’ll talk about albums you might have heard (or heard about) but also link you to some brilliant material that will make you wonder what rock you’ve been living under. We’ll celebrate the brilliant ones gone too soon but also meet some of the great minds working the rooms today.
Check back soon, and often. I hope you enjoy it, because I will.
**After starting with the horrible phrase Wit Pleasure I’m going with Stand Up Wit for my comedy tag. Lame, I know.
Top Ten Comedy DVDs of 2010
Top Ten Comedy Albums of 2010
Top 25 Comedy Albums of 2009
Keep an eye out for these:
- CD/DVD Reviews: Usually posted under the Stand Up Wit Banner, but I’ll also be adding links as they are published in other media.
- Features in Progress: My schedule has been horribly derailed, but I swear that I’m going to finish my piece on Canadian comic Darren Frost, a man who steps over the line and dares you to keep up. (Truly one of the most daring, fearless guys out there. And I mean out there!). Other interviews pending but I owe Darren to get this one done.
- Maybe seven years later, it’s time for Comedy Central to revise its Top 100 Stand-up Comics list. Not that they still wouldn’t make some horrible mistakes, but at least this time they couldn’t claim it was by accident.
- Maybe I’ll do a list entitled 25 Comics Unjustly Left Off That Damned Comedy Central List. Or perhaps Ten Comics On That List Who Wouldn’t Even Crack My Top 250!; that would be even more fun. (But making these lists is a lot harder than you think – try your “Top 25” anything and see how firm you are in your decisions over even a short period of time.)
- Of course the British have a different take, not to mention a stronger appreciation of Bill Hicks. (NOTE: the list has been revised for 2010 – here is a chart showing the comparison between 2007 and 2010.)