Happy Birthday.

Everybody sing!

Someone To Root For.

Source: Vanity Fair

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 Airit’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.

So…Happy Birthday, yeah?

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.*

justkidding

He Licked The Big C.

schimmel

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.

 

There’s Something In This Post I Meant To Say.

poundstoneSome 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.

In Addition To The Holiday…

Source: Memory Alpha

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.

What A Guy.

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.

Go Ahead, Say It.

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.

 

I Hope He’s Poppin’ Off At Pop’s Sodium Shop.

“This is a fundamental part of your education,” an older friend said to me as he passed me a cassette tape. It was a recording of his old vinyl album of Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers. The first time I listened to it I didn’t know what to make of it. The second time I listened to it parts actually started to make sense. And then I listened to it five or six more times and it just kept getting funnier and funnier.

It was the album that made me a fan of Firesign Theater, so I can’t let the day pass without wishing a happy birthday to David Ossman, and his alter-ego George “Peorgie” Leroy Tirebiter. Tirebiter is of course best known for all those stupid Peorgie and Mudhead movies, as well as the first science fiction film set on Neptune, while Ossman should be better known for his writing, especially his writing on poetry. His first book is The Sullen Art, a collection of conversations with poets including Allen Ginsburg and Denise Levertov.

Now hand me the pliers.

 

 

 

I Hope He Still Has The Pony.

Today is the birthday of two comedians who, in spite of sharing a surreal style, are completely different. I’m starting with the one I knew first but look for a second post in a few hours.This placement is not meant to set one above the other but to treat them equally.

My friends and I were walking along the road when I noticed something white and plastic in the grass, so naturally I picked it up. I’d pick up almost anything I saw on the ground that looked unusual which led to me collecting a lot of odd stuff. On this particular occasion it was a cassette tape.

“Hey!” said my friend Jim. “That’s that guy who says Thanks.”

From the way he said it I knew immediately he was talking about Steven Wright. It was a cassette of I Have A Pony. I kept it and listened to it so many times I still have large chunks of it memorized.

I’ve heard it said that there are comedians and there are comics. Comedians, the saying goes, can improvise. They respond to the audience and can change their act at a moment’s notice. Comics on the other hand just tell jokes they’ve memorized.

This seems to me like it’s creating a hierarchy that sets some performers higher than others based solely on style, but, according to that definition, Steven Wright is a comic. In the book I Killed: True Stories Of The Road From America’s Top Comics Wright tells the story of how he once performed at a club with a rotating stage. While he was performing a fight broke out in the back of the room. He never commented on it and went on with his act but every few minutes he came back around and could see how the fight was going.

It’s a funny story and it doesn’t make me think any less of Wright as a performer. In fact I think it’s pretty impressive that he never let it interfere with his act.

A few years ago when Steven Wright came to Nashville he talked to the Nashville Scene about his career and how comedy never gets easier.

 

American Girl.

Somehow I completely missed Margaret Cho’s sitcom All American Girl when it was on. It was only after it had been cancelled that I heard about it and I’ve still never seen a single episode, although there’s really no excuse for that since it’s been on YouTube for years. I knew, and still know, her mainly from her stand-up acts which I find hilarious. And after hearing her describe some of the problems she had with her sitcom–including having to keep her weight down and endangering her health, which she somehow manages to make funny–maybe I should skip it. And it’s hard to imagine any sitcom being as risky and funny as her solo work.

So here’s wishing Margaret Cho a happy birthday today. And a special thanks to her mother.

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