Happy Birthday.

Everybody sing!

Coming To America.

Modern standup comedy originated in the United States but does that automatically mean that the U.S. produces the best standup? Comedy is such a subjective thing I’m not even sure that can be gauged. That’s what I thought about when I heard a This American Life story about French comedian Gad Elmaleh, whose birthday is today.

Elmaleh is incredibly famous in France. He plays to huge screaming crowds and has enjoyed great success and he’s left it all behind to come to America and do standup comedy in English. Why? This is how he explains it:

Because if you’re a great soccer player in America, you want to be with the Real de Madrid. You want to be with Barcelona. You want to be with Bayern de Munich. You want to be with Arsenal.

And it makes sense. My first thought on hearing that was that he was looking for an audience that understands and respects what he does. Standup comedy is still very new in France–what Elmaleh does is considered groundbreaking there. And then I realized there was something much subtler in his explanation. He’s got fame and respect in France. Doing standup in America isn’t necessarily going to earn him bigger audiences but, like an American soccer player joining Arsenal, he’s facing more competition, higher standards, and harsher critics. He had to get rid of most of his act because it just doesn’t work for American audiences. He’s not just learning how to work in a different language. He’s having to learn to do standup comedy all over again.

He hasn’t come to the United States in search of an audience. He’s come in search of a challenge. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that desire for a challenge is very common among standup comedians–that might be true of standup comedians no matter where they’re from. It just might be the one thing about comedy that’s universal.

Nothing’s Sacred.

Several years ago I was at a science fiction convention and wandered into a room where an author I wanted to meet was supposed to speak, except he didn’t show up, so they had an alternate speaker who I thought was even better. It was the cartoonist and author Gahan Wilson, whose birthday is today.

I was already familiar with Wilson’s work because my parents occasionally had issues of The New Yorker lying around the house and I didn’t read the articles but I did look at the pictures, and my father also had a collection of Playboy issues and I didn’t read the articles there either but I did look at the pictures—and by “pictures” of course I mean Gahan Wilson’s cartoons.

Wilson started with a story about the origin of one of his most famous cartoons. National Lampoon was looking for cartoons with the caption, “Is nothing sacred?”

Wilson didn’t have a copy of the cartoon he drew. He just described it to us. At first there were a few chuckles through the audience, then more of us started giggling, and by the time he got to the punchline the whole room was laughing.

There’s an old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words but Wilson effectively captured the picture in about a tenth that number. Even now I can’t say which is funnier: the picture itself or his telling. His telling had a bonus punchline: “National Lampoon thought it was too weird so Playboy bought it instead.”

He’d go on to have work published in National Lampoon with his long-running series Nuts, drawing on his childhood, but it’s still funny to me that they turned down such a brilliant cartoon. I guess they didn’t look at the picture.

Ummm…

As a child of the ‘80’s—well, technically I was born in the ‘70’s but came of age in the ‘80’s—I remember the comedy boom of that era when almost every bar or nightclub had regular standup comedy, comedy clubs popped up all over the place, and you could go see a movie of a famous comedian’s standup act and before it started in between the trailers there’d be an ad for a local comedy club that included a few comedy bits.

And then the boom exploded. Most of the clubs closed and while standup continues to thrive on television and the internet live comedy is no longer as ubiquitous as it was.

A side effect of that, although I think the internet has helped, is that comedy has spread out.  Since the boom we’ve seen at least a couple of new generations of comics who are more diverse, including Andi Osho, whose birthday is today. Being British with Nigerian parents she might not have gotten much attention in the ’80’s–even with the boom standup was still largely a guys’ club–but now I think of her as representative of how standup has gone global.

And she’s just hilarious.

 

Rule Breaker.

Source: Culturalist

Source: Culturalist

There’s a rule that prop comics are generally considered gimmicky hacks who use toys to hide their lack of talent. There’s also a rule that there’s an exception to every rule. Actually Lenny Schultz, whose birthday is today, is the exception to a lot of rules.

As a kid I knew who Lenny Schultz was. He was a comedian who sometimes appeared on the game show Make Me Laugh but mostly performed for kids. On a short-lived Saturday morning show called Drawing Power he played an animator—the show was a combination of live action set in an animation studio and educational animated shorts. And he did a series of public service announcements with the tag line “There’s a smart way to watch TV”, offering everything from how fight scenes are staged and why TV shows have commercials to suggestions that you should do your homework before you watch TV.

At least that’s who I thought he was. In the 1970’s Lenny Schultz was better known around his home town of Manhattan as a regular at the Improv who did outrageous, sometimes X-rated standup using props and costumes, encouraging the entire audience to say, “Go crazy, Lenny!” Some well-known comedians refused to go on after him because he could drain so much energy out of the crowd and yet many of them also admired his mugging and zaniness. He was respected as a high-concept performer and innovator and for his fearlessness. Once impersonating a lizard he ate a live moth.

And yet there was another layer to him under that. He was a successful comic who never quit his day job—a P.E. teacher at a New York public school. When he performed on school nights he’d usually leave the club early. And if you’ve never heard of him that’s because he mostly retired—occasionally performing at a few hotels near his home in the Catskills—in 1992. After years of “Go crazy, Lenny!” he went quiet, leaving the world to wonder who he really is.

 

Mockery Is The Sincerest Form Of Flattery.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

I have a theory that in any group of comedians there’s one who’s so funny, so out there, so quick that person is the one who makes the other comedians laugh. It’s not a well-thought out theory and, since I’ve neither performed comedy nor spent a lot of time around comedians–I’m just a fringe fan, really–I don’t have a lot of evidence for it beyond the anecdotes of a few comedians from their time on the road. Oh yeah, there’s one other thing that put this idea in my head: watching Colin Mochrie, whose birthday is today.

I started watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? when Comedy Central aired the British version and although he was a late addition to the show–it started in 1988 and he became a full time cast member in 1991–he stood out to me immediately as a funny guy. In any great episode of Whose Line every member of the cast brings something distinctive. Mochrie was, and still is, the wild card. He responds to good-natured insults from fellow cast members with a deadpan stare but can then go to full-throated lunacy right away. He’s straight man–or woman–or joker, whichever is needed, with a sly, natural goofiness. Whenever the cast joins together for a hoedown Mochrie is always placed at the end of the line. He makes up for his lack of singing ability with non sequiturs that make the rest of the cast laugh.

Oh yeah, and there are at least two dozen “Best of Colin Mochrie” videos on YouTube.

Do The Math.

Source: www.karen-corr.com

Source: www.karen-corr.com

Snooker is the hardest of all billiards games. I think. That’s been my experience anyway, having played many different billiards games except I’ve never tried that one with the weird bumpers. Snooker is extremely challenging not only because you have to hit the balls in a particular order–one of the fifteen red balls followed by any of the seven other colored balls. The red balls stay pocketed. The other balls get replaced until all the red balls have been pocketed. You then have to hit the colored balls in a specific order: yellow, green, brown, blue, pink, and finally black. Red balls are worth a point each and the other balls range from two to seven points. Confused yet? It’s not only extremely challenging–you can block your opponent behind a ball they’re not supposed to hit and when this happens they’re “snookered”–but there’s a lot of math involved.

One of the best snooker players in the world is Karen Corr, whose birthday is today. Corr began entering tournaments at the age of fifteen and the day after her twenty-first birthday won the Women’s World Snooker Championship, which would be an incredible feat at any age.

Since then she’s also made a name for herself in the United States–her nickname is “The Irish Invader” and I first heard of her when I saw her in nine-ball matches where she often excelled. If she didn’t win she at least made it to the finals and she was inducted into the BCA Hall of Fame in 2012.

And she still works hard at her game. As it says on her website, “The one crowning glory left for her to achieve is the World 9-ball Championship; she has been runner-up 6 times.”

I can’t imagine what it’s like to come that close that many times but I believe she’ll achieve that goal. She’s an amazingly skilled player and her success in snooker means she must be pretty good at math.

 

Hearing Voices.

Stand-up comedy must be an incredibly lonely job. I don’t just mean the lonely nights on the road or staying in strange hotels. Standup comedy requires a performer to be on stage alone without a supporting cast. The performer has the audience but even then facing a dark room full of strangers must be intimidating. How do comedians deal with it? In various ways. For comedian Terry Alderton, whose birthday is today, he always brings his own supporting cast with him.

It Was A Kick All Right.

When I was a kid watching the Academy Awards the category of Best Animated Short Film always frustrated me. They’d show little snippets of these films that looked funny and brilliant and I had absolutely no way to see them. Even though these were short films I know if they showed each one in its entirety it would make the ridiculously long ceremony even longer (I usually fell asleep well before the Best Picture was awarded) but it annoyed me that I was missing them.

And then we got cable TV and various channels, including Nickelodeon which, in those days, seemed to have trouble finding enough content to fill the twelve hours it was on the air, ran short animated films, including current and former Oscar nominees. They typically ran during the commercial breaks–the space that’s now entirely filled by commercials.

One of those was Kick Me. It was weird and hilarious and made no sense whatsoever and I loved it. I still love it. I think it influenced my sense of humor, or maybe it just spoke to the sense of humor I already had.This was before we got a VCR and it was only by luck that I’d see it, but I managed to catch it two or three times. I’ve never forgotten it, and thanks to YouTube I’ve been able to relive the experience.

It’s a short film by Robert Swarthe who, in addition to being an animator, has done special effects on some very well-known science fiction films, including Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. It’s his birthday today and here’s Kick Me.

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