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Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

It's Never Too Late: 8 Comedy Late Bloomers

Oh, young people, just look at you! Wandering around with all of your stupid hope and possibility. You probably even think the future will be good or something. Just remember that life will beat the living hell out of you and one day your goals will turn from, “I am going to make a movie!” to “I am going to update my Netflix Queue!”

Well the good news is that as you get dragged kicking and screaming through life, there are always chances to make your dreams come true! Here is a list of comedians, ranging from stand-ups to writers, who didn’t make it until they were well into their thirties or older. I know, thirties, right? Gross!

Rodney Dangerfield
If there is going to be list of comedy late bloomers — and there is going to be one God damn it! — there is no better place to start than with Rodney Dangerfield. Dangerfield is pretty much the patron saint for comedians who have grown a bit long in the tooth and wondering when their ship will come in. Dangerfield actually started stand-up when he was a teenager, but after years of performing to little fanfare decided to call it quits, or as he put it, “When I quit doing comedy, I was the only one who knew.”

After getting married and starting a family, Dangerfield worked as an aluminum siding salesman. While he sold jokes to other comics here and there, he basically was out of the business for about 15 years. After a divorce, however, and well into his forties, he decided to get back into it. This time, he decided he needed a well defined persona. He took the name Rodney Dangerfield from a character in his hero Jack Benny’s radio program and started playing the clubs with his now familiar “No respect” character. On a fluke chance, Dangerfield was booked on the Ed Sullivan show after another comic dropped out and was an immediate hit. From then on, Rodney Dangerfield would be a mainstay comedian in film and television until his death in 2004.

Ricky Gervais
While audiences have soured a bit on Ricky Gervais in recent years, if he was only known as the creator of The Office, he could rest assured that his reputation as a keen comic mind would never diminish. Gervais was 40 years old when the original, British version of The Office premiered.

“Well, sure,” you may be thinking to yourselves, “He became famous in America because of that show, but wasn’t he already a sensation in the UK before that show aired?”

No, although he was particularly well received in The Phillipines while in his band Seona Dancing, whose song, "More To Lose", was a hit there. Gervais spent time after the dissolution of his band working in radio. In the 1990s, after meeting his writing partner Stephen Merchant (after Gervais hired Merchant to work for him at the radio channel so that Gervais could have more time to goof around, or should I say “Have a Laugh”), they began writing sketches together and contributed to radio programs until finally they were hired to work on television programs like The Sketch Show and 11 O’Clock News.

Phyllis Diller
While Diller's material may seem a bit over the top and corny to today’s modern comedy audience, her wit and contribution to the comedy world cannot be underestimated. She starred in three films with one of her biggest supporters, Bob Hope, and was basically unavoidable throughout the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s frequently appearing on television and film. She also prided herself on writing her own material (a somewhat rare occurrence when she was coming up in the 50’s).

Diller described herself as a “late bloomer” and did not start her stand-up career until she was 37 years old. After appearing on the classic Groucho Marx TV show, What’s My Line, her husband at the time (she had three) convinced her to try her hand at stand-up. After a few minor gigs, she kicked her career off at San Francisco’s legendary Purple Onion. She was booked for two weeks, but due to popular demand ended her residency there after an astounding 89 week run!

Not only did she create one of the most memorable and outsized comic personas ever, she also toured as a classical pianist backed by a full orchestra. Diller officially retired from stand-up comedy in 2006 at the age of 89 years old and passed away last month at 95, but her impact on comedy and her flamboyant persona will surely not be forgotten anytime soon.

Larry David
Of course, everyone knows who Larry David is today. While his career since the creation of Seinfeld has been pretty, pretty, pretty good (Listen, you try writing about Larry David and not use that phrase — it’s impossible, I tell you, impossible!), his career pre-Seinfeld was a little different.

David started stand-up in the late 70’s, right before the big comedy boom, but despite being loved by his comedic peers, found himself having a hard time connecting with audiences. While this may seem rather impossible to viewers who saw what is one of the only documents of David’s stand-up act on the one hour television special that would serve as a back door pilot to Curb Your Enthusiasm (the special had the same name and revolved around the conceit that Larry was starring in a documentary chronicling his return to stand-up comedy, which ends-as viewers might expect- disastrously) in which Larry deals with the good things about Hitler (he didn’t take shit from magicians) and whether one has more freedom being a married man in America or a single man in China (the single man wins), David notoriously walked onstage for one moment and, after instantly dismissing the audience, walked right back off stage.

Perhaps stand-up was not quite the right venue for him, but he soon found that writing was. Hired to work on the ill-fated sketch show, Fridays, David wrote sketches and was a cast regular. Unfortunately his follow-up to that gig found him writing for a notoriously disastrous season for Saturday Night Live in which he got only one sketch on the air. David wasn’t sure what he was going to do next and struggled for a couple of more years as a stand-up before he and Jerry Seinfeld wrote a pilot called The Seinfeld Chronicles. This, of course, later became just Seinfeld, and at the age of 42, Larry David finally found himself in a successful career, whether he wanted it or not.

Ron Shock                                                                                             
Ron Shock passed away this last May, but not before cementing his reputation as a great comic and master storyteller. A member of The Texas Outlaw Comics, a name self-applied to a particularly bright and vocal group of comics that included and was led by Bill Hicks, Ron Shock blazed a trail through the Texas comedy scene before making a name for himself on his own.

Ron Shock was 40 years old when he started his career as a stand-up comic and one of the great benefits of starting a stand-up career later in life is that a comic has a whole lifetime of experiences form which to talk about, where as young comics, especially young, male comics pretty much focus on their penis and where it is and isn’t allowed to go. As far as having a life lived that worth talking about, Shock had that covered in spades.

On his website, his listed of accomplishments before starting his stand-up career include student of the priesthood, car theif, member of the chain gang, prison inmate, and vice president of a Fortune 500 company (MacMillan publishers). So, yeah, this guy had shit to say. Drawing upon this remarkable resume, Shock shot up the comedy ranks pretty quickly. After doing a set in Los Angeles at The Improv, he was approached by Jim Mcauly, the talent booker for The Tonight Show  and asked him to come on the show. Shock, not being a fucking idiot, of course jumped at the chance earning him the enviable reputation of being the last “unknown” comic to break under Johnny Carson’s tenure as host.

In 1998, Ron Shock took a break from stand-up to care for his wife, who had been badly hurt in a car crash. After her passing in 2000, Shock moved to Las Vegas and made his tentative return to stand-up. However, once he returned he said, "The feeling I had when I first walked back onto a stage was how glad I was to be there. It’s more than what I do; it’s who I am."

Ron Shock perhaps never recovered the momentum of his career from the 1990’s, but was a consistent draw in clubs throughout the United States and toured close to 40 weeks a year. He unfortunately succumbed to his public battle with urethral cancer in May 17th, 2012 at the age of 69.

David Sedaris
While not a stand-up comic per se, David Sedaris’ contribution to comedy cannot be discounted. Starting with the publication of his first collection of stories, 1994’s Barrel Fever, Sedaris has become synonymous with the phrase dysfunctional family. Despite the rather large doses of familial neuroses, Sedaris grounds his characters with a deep feeling of affection and forgiveness for their foibles, revealing these selfish creatures to be fragile and all too human.

Despite trying on many hats before taking up writing — his adventures in acting and art are well documented in his books — Sedaris had a difficult time carving out a plcae for himself in this world. This would all change after being asked to present his disastrous experiences as an Elf at Macy’s famous Santaland exhibit in New York City on the popular syndicated radio program This American Life. Dubbed “The Santaland Diaries”, Sedaris was an instant hit with the TAL audience and became a frequent contributor to the program.

It was due to his overwhelming popularity on the program that Sedaris was offered a book deal and well into his late thirties, his first book of essays was published. Since then he has only continued to build upon this success publishing such well-received works as Me Talk Pretty One Day, Naked, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and his most recent and only work of pure fiction, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary.

While Sedaris’ books continue to be a publishing phenomenon, it is due in no small part to his frequent television appearances and live readings throughout the country. His soft spoken, genial, and sarcastic persona have only bolstered his reputation as a great storyteller both on the page and in person.

Lisa Lampanelli
Lampanelli's trademark insult humor and bold take on race has, despite its aggression and frankness, endeared her to the public in a way that has earned her several comparisons to the legendary Don Rickles. Like Rickles, Lampanelli has the unique ability to joke about taboo subjects without coming off as hostile or alienating.

Before she became the renowned “equally opportunity offender” as her website proudly displays, Lampanelli was a music journalist. She began her journalism career at a small paper in Connecticut, but after a brief time there, she worked for Popular Mechanics and Rolling Stone. After leaving Rolling Stone, Lampanelli worked freelance for several heavy metal magazines, interviewing the likes of Bon Jovi amongst others. After realizing that her “life had no meaning,” she went to school at Colombia to become a teacher, but after working as a teacher’s aid for six months, decided that she hated children and finally tried her hand at stand-up.

After many years of bouncing around different magazines and careers, Lampanelli found her path in stand-up comedy. She steadily rose through the ranks in the New York comedy scene as well as made a significant name for herself on the club circuit. After 2002’s Comedy Central Roast of Chevy Chase, she was vaulted into the rarified air of bona fide comedy celebrity. She became a fixture of the Comedy Central roasts which led to her own comedy special, Take it Like a Man, for Comedy Central in 2005, which was a huge hit and cemented her position as a true comedy star. Since then she has appeared in small parts in films, such as DrillBit Taylor with Owen Wilson, and continues to tour as a stand-up routinely selling out theaters across the country. Lampanelli has also tirelessly worked for LGBT rights and famously donated $1,000 for every Westboro Baptist Church protester who showed up to protest her appearance at a theater in Topeka, Kansas in 2011. 44 protesters attended and Lampanelli, after rounding the number up, donated $50,000 to the charity Gay Men’s Health Crisis in the name of Westboro Baptist Church.

Mike DeStefano
Mike DeStafano, like Ron Shock, also passed away in 2011. Also like Ron Shock, DeStefano already lived a hell of a life before trying his hand at stand-up comic at the age of 31. A former addict, DeStefano’s act put a human face on the dark, unseemly world of addiction, while always maintaining a grizzled humor that helped chase the demons away.

Despite the dark subject matter of his act, DeStafano had a big heart and was on his way to obtaining mainstream success due to his appearances on NBC’s Last Comic Standing. Improbably, for a comic known for his frank discussions about the underbelly of society as well as his prolific use of “obscene” language, he was a hit on the show, lasting until the very end of the season.

After the show ended, he started touring more than ever at bigger and bigger venues and began making appearances on the talk show circuit. However, it could be argued that it was his appearance on Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF, in which he truly broke through. The episode he appeared on is often regarded by fans of the show as one of the best of the series. DeStefano revealed himself to be an incredibly sweet and vulnerable man, but also a man with a truly funny and twisted sense of humor. Mike Destafano also won fans from his appearance on the popular podcast The Moth, a storytelling series featuring storytellers from every walk of life. Titled Frany’s Last Ride, Desatefano tells an incredibly moving story about his late wife and her struggles with addiction and the AIDS virus.

During an interview with Punchline magazine (now called Laughspin) Destafano is asked if it was difficult starting comedy at the relatively late age of 31. Typically, DeStefano pulls no punches with his answer, “I knew who I was the minute I hit the stage. There was no process. I didn’t spend ten years drinking and chasing pussy.”

So, being a late bloomer has its benefits.

Honorable Mention: Marc Maron
I was unsure as whether to include Marc Maron on this list. While he has never had the kind of success in his career he is currently enjoying, he has been a stalwart on the so-called alternative comedy circuit for over twenty years. He ran with the likes of Sam Kinison in his early twenties and had rubbed shoulders with nearly every well known comic of the modern era. It was my intention to only feature comedians who did not get going in their respective careers until they were at least in their thirties. However, leaving Maron off this list would seem disingenuous, as his career does fit the framework of the idea of the late bloomer.

Maron hit a low point in his career after being fired from his job as radio host on the ill-fated left wing radio station, Air America. Unable to find bookings in comedy clubs anywhere around the country (according to Maron), he started recording his podcast, WTF with Marc Maron in 2009. After a few months, became the most talked about podcast in the comedy community. Today, it is regularly featured on iTunes as one of the top ten most downloaded podcasts. The benefit to Maron was enormous. Not only did it save his career, it saved his life.

This was a podcast that showed comedians as the bright, humane, and yes, often fucked up human beings that they were. Every kind of dysfunction was on showcase here and Maron’s ability to draw out confessionals from even the biggest stars in the industry was a revelation. Not only were comics and comedy aficionados drawn to the open discussions on display twice a week, even people from the mainstream have found inspiration in the hard luck stories often told by the comics on the show.

To say that the podcast revitalized Maron’s career is an understatement. He went from a washed up comic who couldn’t get booked anywhere to a bona fide headliner, drawing huge audiences in America and abroad. After 20-plus years of struggle, Maron can now enjoy the fruits of success, including a sitcom based on his life that will premiere on IFC in the fall. It was the podcast that allowed Maron to drop the chip from his shoulder and made him realize that everyone was having exactly as hard a time in the business as he was. It also brought him more exposure than any of the other traditional media he had appeared on and in watching him, one gets the feeling that he has become comfortable with his voice as a performer.

But maybe the best reason to include Maron is because of the heartfelt keynote speech he gave at 2011’s Montreal Comedy Festival. It is a beautiful speech that demonstrates the power of comedy and the impact it can have on our lives. It is also an empowering speech that challenges those who are interested in making a career of comedy to do so with as much authenticity and vibrancy as possible and to remind us that it is never too late to realize your dream, whatever it might be.

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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  • DanceGrooves

    Cool read! Surprised there was no mention of Lewis Black. According to his interview with Howard Stern, he was a failed playwright until he got into comedy in his 40's

  • BobBalaban360

    Also, no Pepitone?

  • Former_scribe

    There's also a place (and another list story, probably) for so-called Overnight Sensations who have been in reality working for their break for years. The one I know about is Jeff Dunham, the Achmed guy, who seemed to burst on the scene all at once a few years back, but who has actually been onstage professionally since 1974 (I was in college then, I'm 60 years old now). WOW. How many times did he want to give it up, I wonder. WTG Jeff! (Source: I know a ventriloquist JD pals around with at an annual professional conference in Kentucky.)

  • http://www.FiveFeetOfFury.com/ Kathy Shaidle

    Was Diller first on What's My Line? or You Bet Your Life? I thought it was the latter… Could be wrong http://buzzerblog.com/2012/08/in-remembrance-phyllis-diller/

  • http://twitter.com/halhorn86 Hal Horn

    This one is from way back in the day, but Myron Cohen (1902-1986) didn't get started until he was in his Fifties.

  • Someone

    As your commenters indicate…maybe getting recognized in comedy "late" in life isn't as uncommon as youth culture would like to believe. Why does everything have to be sliced up by age? This society is wayyyy too hung up on judging anyone older than their twenties, which is super ridic especially now when people live much longer (in this country anyway) and they aren't forced to hang up their careers when they reach a certain age as the baby boomers used to assume was the case. "Hope I die before I get old?" Please. Over 30 is not old anymore. Not even over 50 is, really.

  • Gochris

    Groucho's TV show was titled "You Bet Your Life", not "What's My Line." Any writer about comedy should know that already.

    Otherwise, nice article.