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Thursday, August 11th, 2011

The Road Less Travelled: Eight Comedy Stars Who Took Different Paths to the Top

Oh fame, you are fickle temptress! While the Bill Hickses of the world receive your clammy embrace only after death, you mount yourself on a Dane Cook like a teenager after her first taste of Peach Schnapps! But there are no guarantees in this life. And there are no sure paths to becoming famous. Hundreds of top-notch stand-ups and sketch/improv performers are toiling away in obscurity at this very second (okay, maybe not this very second, but you get the gist).

So, how the hell do you become the next comedy sensation?

While most of our most renowned comedy performers have come up either through stand-up or sketch/improv (the two have been combine for brevity’s sake), there are a few talented writers and performers who find a work-around. Here are their stories.

John Hodgman:

On Nov 16, 2001, John Hodgman appeared on The Daily Show to promote his new book, The Areas of My Expertise. Hodgman got along so winningly with host Jon Stewart that he was asked to come back as the resident expert, which has now turned into a recurring gig. Before his book was published, though, Hodgman was a literary agent at Writer’s House, working with, among other literary lights, Bruce Campbell. He also contributed to McSweeney’s and The New York Times.

Since his appearance on The Daily Show and the steady sales of his books, Hodgman has been the go-to guy for casting directors looking for smug, nerdy types in film and television. Perhaps most famous for his role as PC in the Mac commercials, Hodgman has appeared in numerous other projects. However, he still keeps it real with his podcast, Judge John Hodgman, which is a consistently hilarious weekly show in which people argue their very trivial cases to Hodgman and agree to abide by his verdict. This sounds much dryer than it is, but I point you to episode 22 in which Hodgman must decide on the verdict of a case involving a stolen stuffed Ernie.

Danny McBride

McBride has become so ubiquitous in the past few years, it is hard to believe that before his appearance in the 2007 Andy Samberg vehicle Hot Rod, he was essentially unknown. Of course, it was his brilliant portrayal of Kenny Powers in the dark and hilarious Eastbound and Down that earned him real notoriety. However, it was the low-budget film he cowrote with his friends Jody Hill and Ben Best, The Foot Fist Way (which is pretty much Kenny Powers as a loser karate instructor) that brought him to the attention of Adam McKay and Will Ferrell. McKay and Ferrell liked the movie so much they helped it get a small arthouse release. With no huge stars in the movie and a protagonist that remains unlikeable throughout the entire movie, it is easy to see why it has remained a cult film that will most likely never be embraced by the masses.

Bob Newhart

Like any legendary comedian, it is hard to think of a world where there is no Bob Newhart. His deadpan delivery and incredulous stammer made him the perfect audience surrogate for the crazy world he created on stage. Not only has he released several top selling comedy albums (there used to be such a thing before cable!), he has had two (!) hit sitcoms and has appeared in supporting roles in films such as Catch-22 and more recently, ELF.

Before all that, though, Newhart worked as an advertising copywriter and before that as an accountant. It was only after recording his now famous one-sided telephone calls and sending them to a local DJ (apparently, this was in a time before radio DJs were universally known to be giant douchebags) that he scored a record deal with Warner Brothers Records. The album, The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart, went to the top of the Billboard charts, kicking none other than Elvis Presley off of the number one spot. It wasn’t until after the wild success of that album that Newhart had to learn his stand-up comedy chops, in order to perform in the best nightclubs of the day to support it.

Bo Burnham

It is easy to hate this guy. He is young (20 years old) and he is a guitar comic. But mostly he is young (Fucking 20!). Like Newhart before him, though, his career started as a lark. He began writing songs for classmates in his high school and took to uploading them to YouTube to share with friends and family. The videos became sensations. To put this in context, think about the literal millions of YouTube videos with people talking or singing straight into a camera and how watching even 5 seconds of that was enough to wish for a rogue, insane clown to come by and stab your eyes out with knitting needles. The only difference between those videos and Burnham’s is that he crafted catchy, clever songs that got people to actually want to finish listening.

Turns out that difference is a big one. His You Tube channel has gotten over 20 million hits and Burnham now tours throughout the world. He has recorded a one-hour special for Comedy Central called Words Words Words and released a comedy album based of the same name. He was recently on Paul Provenza’s Showtime series, The Green Room, appearing on the same episode as Ray Romano, Gary Shandling, and Judd Apatow. The little fucker!

Ricky Gervais

The Office may quite possibly be the most influential sitcom of the 2000s. It only ran for two six-episode seasons, but it has had a seismic effect on what the sitcom is capable of. Eschewing a laugh track and favoring awkward, cringe-inducing moments over huge, obvious jokes the show set the bar high for discriminating comedy fans who had lost faith in the modern sitcom.

Before creating The Office, however, Gervais had struggled in the music industry for years, first in the band, Seona Dancing, then later as a promoter. He ended up working some years later at a radio station Xfm where he met Stephen Merchant. They became writing partners and wrote sketches for few different television shows, with varying degrees of success. Gervais also appeared on a satirical news show called 11 O’clock News, sort of a British version of The Daily Show, which also launched the career of Sacha Baron Cohen.  The Office ended up launching Gervais into international stardom, but intriguingly, he did not begin doing stand-up comedy in earnest until after he had become a worldwide phenomenon.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone

Throughout the late 80s and 90s, The Simpsons was easily the most irreverent and satirical animated shows ever produced on television. South Park changed this in a big way. Almost overnight, The Simpsons went from one of the most subversive animated shows ever created to being the most family friendly. Not ready to sit on their laurels, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have gone on to make films, both of the live-action and puppet variety with their coup de grace being the smash Broadway hit The Book Of Mormon, which is currently sold out months in advance. South Park remains the heart of their empire and has doled out satiric criticism to both liberal and conservative ideologies, as well as featured many controversial swipes at every major and not so major religion humanity has yet to come up with.

Before they became comedic titans, however, they were just a couple of college kids who created a cartoon as a goof. A short, animated video using the same cut out animation that would become their signature style called The Spirit of Christmas. This video came to the attention of Fox executive Brian Graden, who turned around and asked the boys to make another video for him that he could pass out as Christmas card, which was also called The Spirit of Christmas. This video, more popularly called Jesus vs Santa, became a viral video hit in the early days of the internet and a deal with Comedy Central was made a couple of years later. In between the two videos, Parker and Stone made a student film called Cannibal: The Musical, which has gained a fervent cult following and has been mounted for the stage, albeit off-off-off Broadway.

Chris Elliot

Chris Elliot has been around for a while now as the go-to actor to get for characters who are only as arrogant as they are stupid. He perfected this unusual concoction while playing the 30-year-old paperboy in his short lived Fox sitcom Get a Life, but used his time as a writer and performer on The Late Show With David Letterman as an incubator of sorts. It was while working on Letterman that Chris Elliot premiered such ridiculous characters as “The Fugitive Guy" (a spoof of the television show The Fugitive), “The Guy Under The Stairs” (which is exactly what it sounds like), and “Chris Elliot, Jr.” (a spoof of then controversial talk show host, Morton Downey, Jr.). Chris Elliot’s turn as these character set an absurdist tone for late night talk shows that had not yet been explored. Conan O’Brien undoubtedly owes a great debt to Elliot for pioneering the brand of surrealist humor that has become his bread and butter, and he returned the favor last year by producing the hilarious Adult Swim show, EagleHeart, starring Chris Elliot.

Before becoming a comedy icon, though, Chris Elliot worked at NBC as a tour guide. He impressed David Letterman with his quick wit and nerve so much that Letterman hired him as a writer a few months after meeting him.

The Onion

Justin Bieber Found To Be Cleverly Disguised 51-Year-Old Pedophile
Okay, now hear me out. This may not be a human being, or at least not yet (I’ve heard things), but there is no denying the huge impact The Onion has had on American satire and the comedy world in general. In the past few years, The Onion has branched out into films, television, podcasts, books, and radio with hit or miss results. The Onion Movie was an out and out failure, and of the two Onion shows that premiered this past winter, The Onion News Network and The Onion Sportsdome, only the former one was picked up for a second season.

In 1988, two Wisconsin advertising students, Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson, started The Onion to make some cash selling advertising. One year later the two sold the rights to long time Editor-in-Chief of The Onion Scott Dikkers and Advertising Sales Manager Peter Haise. The Onion picked up and moved its headquarters to New York City in 2001 and has since continued to evolve as one of the most respected and hilarious sources for print humor and satire since the late, lamented National Lampoon magazine of the 70s and 80s.

* * *

Surely there are quite a few people who read this website with aspirations to work as a professional comedian one day. What this article proves more than anything is that there is always room for someone who works hard and has a singular point of view or comic voice. Watching stand up and sketch or improv, there is nothing as disappointing as seeing someone with talent and potential trying to “be” someone else. There are a ton of good comics out there right now who are trying too hard to “be” the next Louis CK. After reading this, hopefully they'll come to the conclusion that best track toward becoming a great comic is by simply being themselves.

Justin Gray is a stand-up comic, podcaster (is that a word now?), and writer living in NYC, which is a fancy way of saying he is poor.

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  • sunnyciegos

    WHAT OF THE LADIES

    Sorry, maybe that was obvious. But yeah. What?

  • Steve Reynolds@facebook

    It goes without saying that the Tyler Perry should be in the list as well, but overall nicely constructed.

    • http://twitter.com/petegaines petejayhawk

      @Steve Reynolds@facebook It was probably best left unsaid.

  • BrynneDuh

    what about Whitney Cummings, who obviously got famous by giving blowjobs? Is that her stage name -an homage to her secret to success?

  • Nichelle Stephens@twitter

    The "Areas Of My Expertise" is a classic but it didn't come out nearly a decade ago. It was released in 2005.

  • http://twitter.com/petegaines petejayhawk

    Chris Elliott is also the son of a comedy icon. He wasn't just a random kid off the street giving NBC tours.

    • SpyMagician

      @petejayhawk Exactly! Seeing Chris Elliot on this list and the complete non-mention of Bob Elliot (aka: “Bob” of “Bob & Ray”) is stupefying. It’s akin to ignoring the fact that Bill Murray’s big break was connected to the fact his brother Brian Doyle Murray got him into “Second City.”

      Seriously, 100% nobody in “the business” has a clear path to their rise and recognition, so this whole list is quite forced. I mean, David Letterman was a weatherman and now look at him: Failed weatherman! And Steve Martin apparently plays the banjo and was a magician as a part of his early “all-around-entertainer” life and now people wonder why he’s so into the banjo now? He has always been like that!

      It’s a really painful worldview to believe anyone in one specific field achieved success by being strictly focused on that one field. And sadly the comedy world seems to think having other creative “ventures” is a liability. Yeeesh. Just be creative and have fun! It’s not like you can simply spend 4 years at UCB/Pit/Magnet and then *BOOM* fame and fortune!

      Blah. Think outside the box. Like Señor Wences.

  • Justin Gray

    @Nichelle Stephens@twitter Yes, that was a good old fashioned typographical error! @sunnyciegos I didn't come across too many examples of women while researching, but I am sure there are some out there-I do know that The Onion has a few great female comedy writers, though.

  • Peat Suebi@twitter

    Sorry for the pedantry, but it was the "11 O'clock Show", not "…News", that launched Baron Cohen. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_11_O'Clock_Show

  • Peat Suebi@twitter