Watching Rare Early Comedy from Jay Leno and Freddie Prinze
The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
When one thinks about the standup comedy boom of the 1980s you probably think about comedians with household names like Seinfeld, Ellen, and Ray Romano. You probably remember shows like Live at the Apollo, and An Evening at the Improv. And you probably think of hacky premises like airline food, the DMV, and observations about the differences between black people versus white people. Well all of those things have a connection back to Budd Friedman’s Improv theaters in New York and LA. Today we look back at one of if not the first specials recorded inside this storied theater, and HBO’s first ever comedy special: On Location: Freddie Prinze and Friends.
Now if you’re a child of the nineties, you might think that I stopped typing Freddie Prinze Jr.’s name too soon, but today we’re going back to 1976 when troubled comedian Freddie Prinze recorded the only footage of himself performing in front of a nightclub audience, creating a unique snapshot of the world of standup comedy in LA during this time. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Prinze’s work, he started in New York after dropping out of high school during his senior year to pursue standup. In 1973, at the age of 19, he performed a star making set on Carson’s Tonight Show and became the first guest to be called over to the couch during their first appearance. The following year he was cast in the title role of the NBC sitcom Chico and the Man. Unfortunately by January of 1977 he had fallen deeply into drugs, and committed suicide at the age of 22, ending an all-too-short career.
On April 26, 1976, however, at the peak of his powers, Freddie elected to share the spotlight with his friends, and give them exposure when he could have instead taken the full hour for himself. The special stars The Improv just as much as it stars Freddie with it’s frequent shots of the audience, the opening panning shots across the bar, filled with wonderful 1970s fashion, and having Budd Friedman introduce the evening, cigar in hand.
Freddie’s bread and butter on stage was ethnic humor. On stage he referred to his part Puerto Rican, part Hungarian background as “Hungarican.” The bulk of his material during his special involved his observations about different ethnic groups. Today, such material is seen as overdone and easy, and part of the reason that is because Prinze already wrote the book on the subject. Several times throughout his set, Freddie will propose a situation and then show you how various stereotypes would respond in such a position. For example, what would happen these different ethnicities were in that brand new movie Jaws? Black guys would be all, “Swim on sucka. Raggedy ass teeth. Gimmie a cigarette.” The Puerto Rican guy kneels and starts praying to Jesus. The gay guy would say, “Go ahead and eat me!” And the Jewish guy would try to buy the shark. Some of this material may have been somewhat insightful for its time as it hadn’t moved into the realm of pure cliché that it is today, though a lot of it rode along on shock value. The second you analyze the Jewish joke above it falls apart. It’s meant to get an audience reaction to him mentioning money and “Jewish” in the same breath. All the same, it’s incredible to see such a young comedian command the crowd the way Freddie does here. They follow him so closely throughout the set, and by opening with the broad, ethnic material first, he’s able to get a bit more clever as he moves forward, deconstructing Gerald Ford’s presidential career, his pardon of Nixon, as well as the disgraced president’s sex life saying “he had the clap… because you don’t screw 200 million people and not catch something.”
Freddie’s first guest performer for the evening is given quite the introduction. “He’s achieved a kind of an immortality here: Bud named a hamburger after him… He’s a former Rolls Royce salesman, and he’s a good friend. Jay Leno.” And then, a young Jay Leno hops on stage, wearing a fedora on top of his large mound of black hair, a flannel shirt, and brown leather vest. First a little context: anyone over the last twenty years who has disparaged Jay Leno’s Tonight Show always seems to preface such complaints by first saying that he was an amazing standup. Unfortunately, his set during this special gets a little too inside as he starts to make some very specific jokes about The Improv itself and Bud Friedman, but for the most part, those naysayers don’t seem to be wrong: Jay does some solid standup here. He talks about health care, the nude beaches of California (he’s only moved to California in the last four months), and local newscasts, but the bulk of his set is focused on dumb commercials. Just as how he would go on Letterman in the early days, with a copy of TV Guide, and just deconstruct, Leno shows his laser focus for pop culture here as well. He cites a commercial that, to him, sums up America’s attitude in the seventies: A kid walks out of a hockey rink, depressed, where he meets his consoling father. “When I lost a big game,” dad says, “it took me a whole roll of Life Savers to get over it.” Jay pauses for effect before exclaiming, “Two generations of losers!” He then complains about milk commercial that offers “some great new ideas” for the product and then imagines the reaction from home viewers: “Honey get the recipe book! This shit is amazing! All these years I’ve been pouring milk over pizza and fish! Who knew?”
Next is Elayne Boosler, who began as a doorman at the New York Improv before Andy Kaufman pushed her to do standup. She brings a low-key energy to the evening with her smart comedy that answered, “yes, women are funny” to a question that would unfortunately be posed for the next forty-something years. She starts with a discussion of what it’s like to go to singles bars in California and that her definition of “getting lucky” has become “not going home with any of those people.” Playing on the trope of the idea that women are trying to find their fathers when dating, she muses that the idea of an older man who gives her money and is sleeping with her mother doesn’t sound all that bad. As the sole comedienne of the evening she says that a lot of people expect her to get up there and do jokes about her weight…”but I am putting it on.” She then does a series of really solid jokes about gaining weight that today seem cliché, but in spite of that, still seem pretty clever. Instead of eating rocky road ice cream, she just rubs it on her thighs, since that’s where it’s going, or how she knew she was getting fat when she stepped on her dog’s tail and it died.
Next on stage is the incredibly high-energy Tim Thomerson who cycles through a variety of accents, impressions, and sound effects throughout his set, including a pretty good Charles Bronson impression (who he claims to have seen order food at a McDonald’s in order to set up his bit), a mellow health food restaurant owner who speaks of bad vibrations, a cosmic flow, and bowls of dirt, before ending with his impression of the entirety of the film Stagecoach. The last chunk is his closer, a five minute piece featuring a ton of horse running and gun noises made into the microphone, musical numbers, a large number of characters, ending with a standing ovation from the crowd. Prinze then brings him back out to bow again.
Bob Shaw is up next, and is introduced as a “running buddy” of Prinze’s from New York. While not totally unexpected from a comedian of this generation, there is very little about Bob Shaw to be found on the Internet. So little in fact that the first page of his Google results features a review of his act in Chicago from 1987 that claims that his jokes seem to be stuck in the 60s (but they do tell us to keep an eye on promising newcomer Jeff Garlin, so there’s that). Unfortunately that doesn’t seem like a bad description of his material in the seventies, either. He talks a little bit about words you learn in school and never use afterwards like “lavatory” or “tardy,” before breaking off into a long chunk about working in a Baskin-Robbins and serving people who were clearly stoned. It didn’t helped that his act was sandwiched between two of the most manic, high-energy acts I’ve ever seen, but Bob didn’t stand out too much to me.
To close things out, it’s the “unique comedy” of Mule Deer. A very tall man in a powder blue suit, American flag bowtie, and enormous black afro, takes the stage, picks up a typewriter, and immediately launches into a newscast parody, making the sound of typing keys in the background. His entire act moves quickly from piece to piece, from prop to prop, as he goes to a commercial about credit, a clip from Voyage to the Bottom to the Sea, and a Bicentennial slide show. The material is peppered with dozens of throwaway one liners, such as one that asks viewers who want to do something about their government to write “Let’s Pretend c/o Washington DC.” In his final bit he says he’s going to play a song. He straps on a guitar, when suddenly he’s interrupted by Western movie music. He rips off the guitar, puts on a jacket, and prances around the room on one of those horse heads attached to a broom handle. He returns to the guitar when he’s interrupted by the Jaws theme. He puts on a snorkel and swims across the stage. Back to the guitar, which is again interrupted by the Mickey Mouse show theme. He rips off his button up shirt, revealing a Mousketeer shirt underneath and puts rubber bands in his hair, forming his pom pom of hair into two mouse ears.
Returning to the stage, Freddie helps Mule Deer pick up all his props as he wishes the audience everyone a good night, sealing this time capsule of 1970s standup comedy. As one watches, one sees a lot of tropes that became cliché over the years, but that’s because these are the comedic faces that launched 1,000 acts. This is ground zero for that material, and while some of the names may have been forgotten, the world of modern comedy is built on their backs.