Happy birthday Kevin McDonald. He’s the least popular of The Kids In The Hall.
I think the adjective “brave” is overused when talking about people who’ve just been diagnosed with cancer or are about to start treatment. We don’t say someone with a cold is brave for staying in bed and eating chicken soup. Surgery and chemo may be a lot harsher but most of us are numb right after we’ve gotten the diagnosis. Even once we get past that all we want is to get better, we want to survive, and we feel there’s no other choice. There’s nothing brave about doing something when it’s your only option. The real test of a person’s bravery comes after the treatment. Real bravery is defined by how a person moves on with their life even if they’re lucky enough to be in remission. Maybe it even takes more bravery to live in remission because there’s no clear path for those of us who’ve fought the crab and won.
Even before her cancer diagnosis Tig Notaro, whose birthday is today, was brave. She pursued a career in standup comedy, voluntarily going into something where there is no clear path. In 2012 just after her diagnosis she did a now legendary live set in which she told the audience she had cancer. Two years later she performed part of a set topless, showing the audience her double mastectomy scars. In her comedy she sometimes strips away pretense, purposely violating the rules of standup, and with that act she confronted people with the reality of life after cancer. She’s been described as dry and unsentimental, a comedian who keeps audiences at a distance, but talking about cancer with inspirational thoughts and platitudes would be the coward’s way out. Tig Notaro made a choice to be brave.
And this is just hilarious.
On my first trip to Britain I flew British Air. A lot’s probably changed since then but the amenities were unbelievable, even compared to other airlines at the time. The seats were comfortable, alcohol was free, and it was impossible to sleep because every ten seconds somebody was coming by to offer me tea and biscuits. And the crazy thing is this was regular coach. What did people in first class get? Four star meals? Individual hot tubs? Massages? I’m not sure I want to know. It’s even more incredible to look back on it now when airlines nickel and dime passengers in a dozen different ways—although I guess British Airways shillings and bobs them, but that’s another story—and are looking for ways to pack in even more passengers.
Anyway the most surprising feature was the airline radio. If you’re of a certain age you may remember that some airlines had a headphone jack in the armrest and you could tune it to a small number of stations: easy listening, contemporary jazz, light rock, death-techno-thrash-metal, and, of course, an endless loop of babies crying. I remember some airlines made you pay for the headphones. I’m pretty sure British Air would have given them away for free but since this was the early ‘90’s and I was a college student I had a Walkman and my own headphones. To save the battery and to enjoy the soothing sounds of sobbing toddlers I plugged them into the armrest and discovered that in addition to the music stations British Air had a comedy selection. The whole thing ran about an hour and was composed of short bits from various comics, most of whom I knew. And then this guy started talking about a mole problem. If the seats hadn’t been so wide and comfortable—I swear I’m not being paid by British Air which is probably bankrupt now for being so nice anyway—I’m sure I would have disturbed everybody around me because I was laughing so hard.
The comedian was Jasper Carrott, whose birthday is today. My British friends were pleased and a little surprised that I liked Carrott so much and the local video store provided several of his performances, including American Carrott. He’d been to America. I wonder what his flight was like.
Here’s the mole story.
Standup comedy is an interesting phenomenon. Even though people have probably always gotten up in front of groups and told jokes it didn’t really take on a form we’d recognize in the United States until the 1950’s. In coffee shops and other small venues performers got up and, instead of repeating borscht belt jokes and other worn routines, would talk. For people of color it was a terribly oppressive time but across the spectrum it was also subtly oppressive with great pressure to conform. Standup comedians acted out against that. It was part of what caused Time magazine in 1959 to dub them “sicknicks”.
It’s Trevor Noah’s birthday today. You probably know him as the current host of The Daily Show, which he took over in September 2015. I wasn’t familiar with him before that and I still don’t watch The Daily Show all that regularly but I’ve watched and listened to Noah and I think he’s hilarious. And I think there’s something very profound about his experience.
Listening to him on NPR’s Fresh Air—it’s an amazing interview–I thought about how Noah, who grew up in South Africa under Apartheid, is in some ways more in touch with the spirt of the original “sicknicks”. Oppression still exists in the United States but what he grew up with was more vivid and maybe even more brutal than it was here even in the 1950’s. He left South Africa after his stepfather attempted to kill his mother in 2009. He came here as a comedian and has really taken hold here, but who he is and where he came from informs his comedy. That’s what makes him a great choice to host The Daily Show. He’s brought an international perspective to something rooted in American tradition.
Most of the time I’m behind on things, but once in a while I hear about something before it gets big. And that’s what happened when a friend introduced me to a brilliant young comedian named Eddie Izzard, whose birthday is today. Several years later I’d see him live at the Ryman Auditorium, which was interesting given that it’s a former church. And maybe he realized that because he seemed to want to challenge the audience, to make us angry by provoking us on the topic of religion. Izzard’s clearly a guy who loves a challenge–in 2009 he ran 43 marathons in 51 days. In his book Dress To Kill, a loose autobiography, he says, “I like things that work, even in difficult circumstances. I like doing gigs even when I’m fucking dying.” Although interestingly he dropped out of the military because he was passed over for promotions. He felt the system was arbitrary and lost interest. The world of comedy–and entertainment–is better for it.
What was strange about seeing him live, though, is that he couldn’t seem to get the pushback from the audience he wanted, and that’s not surprising. He was facing people with t-shirts that read “Cake or death?” and all he had to do was a few lines in a James Mason voice to elicit cheers. In the taped performance of his Dress To Kill show you can tell he loves it when a heckler yells, “Move on!” And if you listen to some of his earlier shows–even Glorious, which is his best performance so far–it takes him a bit to warm up the audience. In the show at the Ryman he got a standing ovation as soon as he came out and couldn’t have gotten heckled if he’d begged for it.
So, yeah. Here’s to many more challenges to come. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite Izzard bit, but here’s a great one. If you’re unfamiliar with his work be sure to turn up your speakers really loud and gather your children or co-workers around.*
In the late 1990‘s, when the web was still a novelty, long before YouTube, there was a website, khaha.com. It’s defunct now. It played continuous streaming comedy, mostly standup bits from every comedian you’ve ever heard of and quite a few you’ve never heard of. Doing some mindless task I’d sit and revel in the jokes. One voice stood out. Did he just say what I think he said? This is the filthiest thing I’ve ever heard. And then I started laughing. And I started listening for the sharp-tongued sarcasm of Robert Schimmel, whose birthday is today.
Unlike other X-rated comedians Schimmel often made himself the butt of the joke–sometimes literally. He told a joke about a woman suggesting he try anal beads. He balked at first but then thought, who’s gonna know? Beat. “So I’m in the emergency room…”
He also sometimes went too far. As he told an audience he’d been banned from a late night talk show after telling a joke about the time his dentist said, “You’re gonna feel a little prick in your mouth…”
And he wasn’t always dirty either. He applied that same intense wit to everyday situations, like his daughter’s pet rabbit.
I got her a rabbit like Easter time and about three days later it’s actin’ real sick and it’s just layin’ around and my wife goes, Gee, maybe we should take him to the vet. I said, Yeah, why don’t you just let me take him for a drive? I’m not gonna take a five dollar rabbit to the vet.
Beat. “So we’re at the vet…”
It didn’t surprise me that Schimmel was recognized as a major new talent. He got an HBO special and a sitcom deal.
And then came cancer. Specifically non-Hodgkins lymphoma. In his book Cancer On $5 A Day* (*chemo not included) he describes getting the diagnosis.
“Just my luck,” I say. “I get the one not named after the guy.”
He has a show that night. He then goes on,
I realize instinctively that even though I’ve been told I have cancer, I haven’t been told that I’m going to die. And to prove it, I’m going to do the one and only thing that shows that I am very much alive.
I am going to make the audience laugh.
The original title of his book, by the way, was I Licked The Big C. When he was in remission he went on a late night talk show. He opened with, “I licked the big C!” When the audience’s cheers and applause died down he added, “And I beat cancer!”
The joke wasn’t just cut by the producers. They stopped taping and took him backstage for a little chat.
When I got my own cancer diagnosis I thought of Schimmel. His doctor told him, “If you can keep your sense of humor you’re going to be okay.” I’d read his book years earlier and I didn’t just remember the jokes. I also remembered how honest he was about the trauma of chemotherapy, and a conversation he had at his lowest point with his father. His parents survived the Holocaust, and the conversation saved his life.
I have mixed feelings about sharing this because even though Schimmel beat cancer, even though he went on to make jokes about how he celebrated remission by swimming with dolphins and was told not to stick anything in the blowhole–”What’d I spend fifty bucks on then?”–he died in September 2010 following a car wreck.
But four years later I knew if I could keep my sense of humor I could lick the big C.
Hail and farewell Robert Schimmel. And happy birthday.
Some comedians tell carefully crafted jokes, but Paula Poundstone, whose birthday is today, seems to just open her mouth and funny things fall out without her even realizing it. Maybe that’s why, even though some of her performances have been captured, every performance is unique. She has prepared material but it’s always her improvised interactions with the audience that are the funniest, and whenever she’s a panelist on Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me I think, oh, here we go and I tense up like a tightly coiled spring just waiting for her to point out the absurdity of a scientific study or ask a bizarre question or just offer some brilliant observation that no one else could think of.
It’s also what makes her book There Is Nothing In This Book That I Meant To Say such a fun read. It’s not a typical memoir but is instead as meandering and funny as Poundstone herself can be, but as a bonus with each chapter she takes a notable person–Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Charles Dickens, The Wright Brothers, Beethoven, and Sitting Bull–and uses brief biographical bits about each one as jumping off points to talk about her own life.
Speaking of that it must be a bit of a bummer to have a birthday right after Christmas when everybody’s exhausted and the last thing they want to do is wrap and give more presents and right before but not actually on New Year’s Eve which is the biggest party of the year so no one wants to schedule anything right in the middle there, but here’s hoping it’s a happy one anyway.
You may not know the name but the picture of him might look familiar. Maybe you remember him from a brief appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation as a holodeck character, or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where he, er, also appeared as a holodeck character, but at least he was in several episodes. Or you might remember him as Murray Futterman from Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch or a doomed pawn shop owner from The Terminator. Or from more than a hundred and fifty other cameos.
Or you might recognize him as a hip vacuum cleaner salesman from the original 1957 Not Of This Earth, or the original 1960 Little Shop of Horrors as a customer with real taste in flowers. If you’re familiar with those you might also know his only starring role as Walter Paisley in A Bucket Of Blood. I’ve written previously about that film and my history with it here.
As a character actor specializing in cameos Miller tends to get overlooked and since today is Christmas Day it would be easy to overlook the fact that it’s also his birthday. I wanted to give him a special mention. Dick Miller, you’ll always be a star to me.
It’s risky to judge celebrities by their work, but I think there are some things that can be gleaned from looking at a well-known person’s career. Take, for example, Eugene Levy whose birthday is today. He’s had a long and varied career but he’s frequently reunited with fellow SCTV cast members and has had roles in Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries Best In Show, Waiting For Guffman, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration. The current show Schitt’s Creek also stars SCTV-alum Catherine O’Hara as well as Levy’s own children Daniel and Sarah.
Maybe I’m extrapolating too much but it seems like somebody who appears with the same people over and over must be both a real pleasure to work with and to know.
And speaking of SCTV it was where I saw Levy first. His version of Floyd from The Andy Griffith Show…I laughed so hard I woke up the neighbors.
There’s a saying that if you want a comedian to do something tell them not to do it. I’m not sure who said that. Maybe it was me because I seem to have seen so many examples of it. One of the most prominent is a story told by Rick Reynolds, whose birthday is today. It’s from his one-man show All Grown Up And No Place To Go. He ranges from very funny to very serious and always, even when joking, deeply personal.
He uses this story about a prison gig to illustrate his own childlike tendency to blurt out the most inappropriate things, but I think it’s also a valuable lesson in standup comedy.