When I started this series I knew that sooner or later I would be writing about Jay Leno. No comedian has been as villainized in the past two decades as much as Leno. As soon as he replaced Johnny Carson as the host of The Tonight Show, Leno has been inundated with criticism from just about every corner of the comedy world. Almost overnight, Leno went from being a standup wunderkind to a representation of everything that is soulless and mediocre in the entertainment industry.
It didn't help that all of the dirty details concerning NBC’s handling of Carson’s torch passing was meticulously detailed in Bill Carter’s illuminating book, The Late Shift. While David Letterman came across as a man wronged by corporate incompetence, Leno was portrayed as a craven and insecure man-child, allowing his manager to fight his battles all while he hid behind his nice guy image. Adding insult to injury was the fact that Leno owed much of his success as a comedian to his frequent appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. David Letterman, at this time, was the hippest and edgiest face of late night, and appearances on his show carried a considerable amount of cache’.
Not only was Leno repeatedly asked to come on Late Night, he usually sat with Letterman for informal “chat” pieces. And when the two of them got together, there was palpable electricity that comes from two sharp comics attempting to one up each other on national television. READ MORE
By the time I got to middle school, I was pretty much a comedy geek. All the signs were there: I would sneak out into the living room and watch the comics on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, I would listen to Steve Martin’s Wild and Crazy Guy album over and over again, and while other kids my age were interested in either sports or pop music, I was obsessed by the standups who appeared on the dozens of standup comedy shows that littered basic cable at that time. However, no one quite tickled my funny bone at that time as much as Robin Williams.
This was at a time when the cable channel Nick at Nite aired old Mork and Mindy episodes every night of the week. There is no question why Williams’ irreverent, naïve, and wacky Mork would appeal to an awkward 12 year old and at that time, Robin Williams was practically a god to me. It wasn’t just that he was funny, but he was fearless. He was not afraid to be foolish, but in that foolishness was a kind of wisdom and sensitivity that was more powerful than brute force. I saw in his frenetic energy and wacky hijinks a fearlessness that I hoped to emulate one day.
I suspect that a lot of people my age, especially those who have chosen standup comedy as a career or at the very least dabbled in it, felt the same way about Robin Williams at a certain time in their lives. The looming prospect of adulthood was scary as hell, but knowing that a grown-up as silly as Robin Williams was out there and seemingly doing okay made everything seem a bit more manageable. Imagine being twelve years old and seeing this (although feel free to skip past the baffling opening sequence): READ MORE
Creating a comedic character can be a tricky process. To a certain extent, every successful standup comic has a comedic persona. Listeners of the Todd Barry podcast may be surprised to find that instead of the glib, sarcastic comic they love will discover a warm and genial host. Likewise, comedians who have an open and friendly demeanor onstage can be complete dicks once the spotlight is turned off. Part of finding that “voice” as a performer is figuring out how best to present the thoughts and subjects one wants to talk about.
However, there are times that persona or character can bite you on the ass. Steve Martin created one of the most indelible comedic characters in history, so much so that “his” popularity compelled Martin to retire as a standup at the very height of his success. Andrew “Dice” Clay has made attempts to recalibrate his persona to become more mainstream, while also remaining the vulgar wordsmith his loyal fan base has come to expect.
Which brings us to Pauly Shore. The progeny of Mitzi Shore, owner of the legendary Comedy Store, and Sammy Shore, a comic from the old guard who opened for acts like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley (also, can we take a moment to acknowledge how weird it was back in the day to have comics open up for musical acts?), Pauly Shore was born steeped in comedy history. One foot in the world of the explosive vanguard of the comedic experimentation that defined The Comedy Store in the 1970s and 1980s and one foot in the old school cabaret type comedy that defined the 1950s and 1960s.
In many ways, Pauly Shore’s early act reflected this dichotomy of thought. His character was broad enough that he could fit in well with comics from his father’s generation of comedians, yet weird and fresh enough that he captured the attention of kids growing up in the 1990s. READ MORE
Before we start, let me say that I know there are many that will take issue with Janeane Garofalo’s inclusion in this series and understandably so. She is, after all, one of the architects of the so-called “alternative comedy” movement and despite a lower profile compared to her 1990s heyday, still commands quite a bit of respect from the comedy community and continues to perform throughout the country as well as appear in film and television.
However, there are those within the comedy community who, to this day, take issue with Garofalo’s reliance on notes on stage, not to mention the many people who abandoned her idiosyncratic style of comedy during her foray into the realm of political activism during the George W. Bush administration. Sprinkle in a healthy dose of lazy sexism and you have a comedian who, despite being instrumental in practically re-inventing the form of standup comedy, receives little of the accolades that she deserves. READ MORE
Russell Brand is one of those comedians who, despite selling out theaters all over the world and starring in several films throughout the past decade, I have simply not paid much attention to. Perhaps it's due to my American-centric worldview, but Brand never quite jumped on my radar as far as standup comedy goes. It seems that I've been guilty of a particular form of American exceptionalism, in that I don’t really pay attention to standup from other countries nor give foreign standups much of a chance at all. This is a particularly hypocritical on my part as I write weekly about keeping an open mind toward all kinds of comedy, as well as self identify as an unbiased liberal with a healthy distrust of exactly that kind of mindless xenophobia.
While my prejudice may have played a part in my disregard for Brand, this wasn't the only reason it took me so long to get into him. Brand often seemed to me too smug, self-referential, and, quite frankly, stupid to ever give him the benefit of the doubt. While finding him generally appealing in films like Forgetting Sarah Marshal and even Get Him to The Greek, I found that his standup (or the bits that I had seen of it) left me cold. However, in the last few months, I've slowly come around to Brand. In April, Brand appeared on Norm MacDonald’s video podcast Norm Macdonald Live, and I found that his lascivious, free-love persona contrasted well against MacDonald’s particular brand of sexual repression. (MacDonald refers to sex as a “filthy, vile act” throughout the podcast.) Of course, it was Brand’s appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe last month that made me rethink my assumptions about him. READ MORE
Winston Churchill once said, “Show me a young conservative and I will show you a man with no heart. Show me an old liberal and I will show you a man with no brain.” Now, he was probably drunk when he said this (unless he said it during breakfast) so take it with a grain of salt.
However, no comedian working today embodies this quote more so than Dennis Miller. As the anchor for Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, Miller became the avatar of hip, aloof cerebral comedy, cutting down both vapid celebrities and blow-hard politicians alike with an acidic, arrogant wit that could be alternately brutal and goofy. In recent years, though, he has earned the ire of many on the left as his act has become increasingly conservative, relegated to talk radio and occasional guest spots on The O’Reilly Factor. The conventional wisdom has been that Dennis Miller has lost his edge and simply isn’t funny anymore.
But is it true? Before we look at where Miller is now, let’s take a look at his first HBO special from 1990, Dennis Miller: Black and White. READ MORE
I have a secret. A dark, terrible secret that I have trouble even admitting to myself: I don’t hate Dane Cook. I know I should. Practically ever since Dane Cook arrived on the national stage over a decade ago, his critics have been extremely vocal. He has been accused of being a joke thief, a douche, and plain old not funny.
However, despite all of these accusations, Cook is arguably the most successful standup comic working today. Numerous film roles, stadium gigs, and a double platinum comedy album (a feat not accomplished since Steve Martin’s A Wild and Crazy Guy in 1978) are just a few of the stand out accomplishments Cook has accrued throughout his career. And yet, naysayers within the comedy community constantly hound the man. Like a lot of comedians that have been covered in this series, Dane Cook’s career often seems like the twist ending of a Twilight Zone episode: he is incredibly successful, yet no one seems to like him. READ MORE
Many shows throughout the decades have attempted to capture the antagonism and love shared between working class heroes Ralph and Alice Kramden in the seminal 1950s sitcom The Honeymooners. None have come as close as King of Queens. The mistake other shows have made in the past is under-developing the roles of the wives, making many attempts seem like some kind of bizarre hybrid of The Honeymooners and Donna Reed, which would lead many viewers to wonder, “Why would this beautiful and intelligent woman stay with such an ass?”
However, the chemistry between Kevin James and Leah Remini as Doug and Carrie Hefferman is spot on. While James’ Doug is a stubborn slob always plotting for his own agenda, Carrie was often just as stubborn and underhanded as Doug. James is so great at playing a loveable lunkhead that we were never really upset when he pulled the rug out from under Carrie. Likewise, Remini is so great at being a bullying, yet ultimately caring wife that we never find her to be overly shrewish when dressing down Doug (which was often a complaint viewers made about Raymond’s wife Deborah on Everybody Loves Raymond). One of the things that King of Queens got right, and led to its huge success, was that they portrayed the relationship between the two as being equal, though hysterically flawed.
It's no wonder that they fought so hard to get Jerry Stiller on as Doug’s live-in father-in-law, Arthur Spooner. Not only is Stiller terrifically gonzo in the role, his presence announces the show's Seinfeld; splitting the difference between Everybody Loves Raymond’s sentimental side with the selfish scheming of George, Jerry, Kramer, and Elaine. READ MORE
Writing a joke is a tricky thing. Sometimes a joke comes to you fully formed, perfect, and complete. Most times it comes in the form of a garbled premise; you know there is something there and after weeks or in some cases years of bending, shaping, and wrestling with the idea, the jokes is pulled into shape. It is an experience that is as frustrating as it is rewarding once you have the finished product.
Beyond artistic achievement and the satisfaction that comes with crafting a new joke, there is also a pragmatic and financial benefit. New jokes mean that when you revisit a town you were in 6 months ago, the small following you may have cultivated will not be disappointed in seeing the same act all over again. Jokes are important to a comedian because they feed, clothe and put a roof over the comedian’s head. That is why the one unpardonable sin in comedy is joke theft.
Which brings us to Carlos Mencia. When I started this series I knew that sooner or later I would get to Mencia. In fact, there was many a time that his named popped into my head when contemplating the next comic to write about for this series. However, I resisted writing about Mencia for one reason: I am incredibly lazy.
While I have written about the likes of Carrot Top, Larry the Cable Guy, and even Jeff Dunham, I have found something in their acts that is redeeming: Carrot Top’s self effacing silliness, Jeff Dunham’s virtuoso ventriloquism, and Larry the Cable Guy’s commitment to character. However, Mencia is more difficult to defend because, while the other comic’s jokes are not exactly original, they are not stolen. And even if Mencia’s act is only 8 percent stolen, that is a number that ultimately corrodes everything else he has worked on. So, what is there about Carlos Mencia that we should give begrudging respect to? READ MORE
When I have a tool in my hand, like a screwdriver, let’s say, or a power drill, I become riddled with anxiety and begin to sweat profusely. A tool offers less in the way of helping me fix things than it does a brand new opportunity to fail at something. My brothers built trucks when they were teenagers, and my Dad used to hang around with them, offering instruction and insight into the inner working of the combustible engine. Where was I? Probably in my room, nose firmly planted in a book. Or masturbating. Yeah, probably masturbating. So, a trip to a hardware store for me generally tends to go a bit like this:
Like Marc Maron in this terrific episode from his new show Maron, I carry around a certain amount of shame for my total ineptitude when it comes to doing anything even remotely manly. However, I do believe I have it in me to still walk into a hardware store and gaze at the endless rows of tools and think, “Yeah, with these, I could solve everything.” It is a particular delusion that men seem to live with, and no man captures that delusion quite as well as Tim Allen. READ MORE
Madison Square Garden has a capacity to fit over 19,000 human beings in one area. The fabled stadium is host to both the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers. Hundreds, if not thousands of musicians from almost every genre of music have played at this stadium, but only a handful of standup comics have had the ability to headline this vast monolith, most recently Kevin Hart and Eddie Izzard. However, only one comedian has performed here and completely sold out the stadium two nights in a row. That comic is Andrew “Dice” Clay.
Let that sink in for a moment. For a brief run during the late 1980s, Andrew “Dice” Clay was so popular that he was able to not only play Madison Square Garden, but also completely sell it out two nights in a row. And, should there be a need to point this out, he was no crowd-pleasing everyman comic like the great Brian Regan. His comedy was brutally politically incorrect and absolutely filthy. Groups for women’s rights, gay rights, and conservative values crowd regularly protested Dice’s shows. The controversy he engendered culminated in the departure of Saturday Night Live regular Nora Dunn when Dice hosted in 1990.
Andrew “Dice” Clay in fact represents the crass excesses of the 1980s and the last gasp of truly politically incorrect comedy. While it could be argued that type of comedy is alive and well in Anthony Jeselnik and Amy Schumer today, both utilize a wit and intelligence in their shocking humor that betrays a winking nod to the audience. It is a carefully choreographed dance the two perform, while Dice hits the audience over the head with a hammer that leaves no room for subtlety. READ MORE
The Benny Hill Show towered over even Monty Python in terms of worldwide appeal and popularity in its hey day, which is just astounding. However, history rewards the victors and while Monty Python looms large over sketch comedy even today, Benny Hill has been reduced to a curious footnote in comedy history. While both share an enthusiasm for absurdity, Monty Python’s sketches often featured a healthy dose of cerebral satire buried within the anarchic foolishness. Hill, however, strikes modern viewers as broad and cartoonish, avoiding subtly altogether.
Make no mistake; Benny Hill was a huge comedic presence for twenty years (1969-1989) during the run of his titular The Benny Hill Show. The show was produced by Thames Television and was distributed to a worldwide audience of 93 different countries. The show consisted of a variety of sketches in which Hill gropes a girl, and then gets slapped and then they run around to the tune of “Yakety Sax”, which if you are familiar with Benny Hill at all is a song that is already rolling around in your head. You’re Welcome! READ MORE
This week, I decided to write about Rob Schneider after listening to him on Marc Maron’s WTF. The man who starred in dreck like The Animal, The Hot Chick, and Big Stan was on the show and he was laid back, interesting, and funny! He also had some fascinating insight into stand-up comedy. For example when talking about a venerated San Francisco comic, Schneider points out that while funny, the comic lacked the discipline to put together an act, which Schneider feels kept him from breaking nationally. Which is a pretty damned astute and reasonable advice for any comedian. READ MORE
Every once in a while the concept of “clean comedy” will come up, though never among those of us who are passionate about comedy because to us it simply isn’t an issue. We love comedy and whether that means listening to Doug Stanhope tell a filthy hooker story or Brian Regan talking about Fig Newtons, the only deciding factor in our enjoyment is, “is it funny?”
However, in the mainstream this is still a subject of fascination. They tend to marvel at comedians who choose to avoid dirty language in their acts as if those comics are pulling off some kind of magic trick. Unfortunately, this tends to have the reductive effect of dismissing comics who do use foul language, while coming off as patronizing toward the comic who chooses to perform without that language.
“Awww, look at you! You told a funny and didn’t even use a swear! Here’s a nickel, go get yourself some taffy!”
Sure, in my mind everyone still speaks like they live in the 1930s, but that doesn’t change the fact that this line of thinking can be aggravating. Do some comics use bad language as a crutch? Absolutely, but they tend to be either newbies or simply bad comedians. The dirty comics who are uncompromisingly filthy are often that way because after years of trial and error, found that through bad language they were best able to express their worldview. Seriously, does anyone think that Doug Stanhope or Jim Norton telling a hooker story on stage would be better served if they cut out the language?
And the “clean comedy” label is one that Sinbad has long bristled at himself. Like any human being, he does not like being put into a group and, in his words, “To me, you just play my comedy when you just call it clean.”
Sinbad’s got a point. It must be frustrating for any kind of artist to spend years developing a craft, just to have some critic come along and reduce your life’s work down to two words. It is also incredibly lazy. READ MORE
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