Happy Birthday.

Everybody sing!

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.

The Doctor Is In.

Source: Wikipedia

I’m highlighting a number of birthdays this month partly because there are a lot of people I think deserve it but also because I have a December birthday. I know how easily it can get missed in the holidays but my mother always made sure my birthday was treated as a separate event.

There’s an old saying that the only difference between therapy and stand-up comedy is in therapy you pay someone to listen to your problems while people pay to listen to stand-up comedians talk about their problems. And it’s true too, at least in my experience. Once with a therapist I started making jokes about my fear of doctors and it turned into a whole twenty-minute bit. I finally said, “Could I get a copy of your notes?” She said, “I don’t think you should share this with anyone.” I asked why. “Is it because of privacy concerns?” She said, “No, because it’s not funny.”

Anyway it’s Jonathan Katz’s birthday, best known for the hilarious series Dr. Katz Professional Therapist. A lot of the comedians and actors who serve as his patients are funny but as I rewatched the show the running gag of his dysfunctional relationship with his son Ben (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) and his office assistant Laura (Laura Silverman) became my favorite part. I also just loved Katz’s obvious love of old corny jokes.

Feel free to use the therapist joke Mr. Katz. Consider it a gift.

Update: The amazing Ann Koplow of The Year(s) Of Living Non-Judgmentally met Jonathan Katz and wrote about it in a post. And she was lucky enough to take a class with Ron Lynch who appeared in two episodes (one here and one here).

Here’s one of my favorite episodes.

Big Yin, Big Yang.

It’s hard to know where to start with Billy Connolly whose birthday is today. Maybe that’s kind of fitting. His biography, Billy, opens with him about to go on stage. He confesses to his wife that he has no idea what he’s going to say and she realizes “He’s not bluffing”. He’s said in at least one interview, “I don’t know the first thing about comedy. I’m just glad to be there when it happens.” This is a guy who started out as a folk singer and one night he confessed he couldn’t remember the tune he was going to sing so instead he told the story. That got huge laughs and launched the career of one of the world’s most amazing comedians. And I’ll just mention the biography Billy again which is by his wife Pamela Stephenson and it’s not, as I expected, a fluff piece that would be more about her than him. I didn’t realize she’s a trained psychologist and author, which is at least partly why her biography is a serious study tracing Connolly’s family origins back a few generations.

Maybe I should start with when I was in college. One night a friend of mine came to my room and said, “You’ve gotta see this guy.” He popped in a tape of Connolly’s HBO special and soon we were laughing so hard people from down the hall were coming in to tell us to be quiet. Then they stayed and the laughter got louder and eventually I had three hundred people packed into my room gathered around the television and every laugh sent ripples through the room like we were a giant blob of Jell-O. Bits from that became part of our daily conversations. Being college students getting drunk and throwing up was part of our regular routine and thanks to Connolly queries about diced carrots and tomato skins became an indispensable part of that routine.

Here’s part of that show.

Joan’s Arc.

Happy birthday Joan Cusack.

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that Joan Cusack was the voice of Jessie in Toy Story 2 and 3. I can’t explain why exactly. Jessie was a brilliant character but she was so much more centered than the characters I’m used to seeing Cusack play, like Principal Mullins in School of Rock where she was both incredibly funny but also so believable and sympathetic as someone under so much pressure it’s amazing she holds it together as well as she does. And then there’s Addams Family Values in which, in my humble opinion, she steals the show. That’s no small feat considering who else is in the cast.

To celebrate her October birthday here’s her grand moment from that film. Warning: this clip contains spoilers as well as electrocution, a flying baby, and a rage-inducing Malibu Barbie. Because Joan Cusack can play a wide range of characters but Malibu Barbie IS NOT WHO SHE IS.

You Don’t Have To Be Crazy, But It Helps.

Mental illness and comedy often go together. The clown who’s crying on the inside may be a cliché, but it got that way because so many comedians struggle with depression. Maybe the impulse to get up on a stage and try and make a roomful of strangers laugh is a form of mental illness, and even if it’s not the time spent on the road and the frustration of dying and the euphoria of killing has got to take its mental toll.

It’s not something most comedians talk about, which is surprising. There’s a strong stigma around mental illness, but most comedy comes from talking about what’s taboo, or at least what makes people uncomfortable. I’ve heard several times that the best way to get a comedian to talk about something is to tell them not to talk about it.

Maybe that’s why Maria Bamford talks so openly—and often hilariously—about her battles with obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder. She’s helped make mental illness less scary, although in her acts she covers a wide range of topics because her problems are only a part of who she is.

Happy birthday Maria Bamford. Keep taking care of the pugs.

Happy Birthday To That Fat Bastard.

If you’re of a certain age you remember the show The Young Ones either on the BBC or, bizarrely, on MTV. Back in the late ’80’s when MTV was still mostly a music channel it featured some British comedy, starting with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but that’s another story. If you remember The Young Ones you remember Alexei Sayle whose roles on the show varied. His roles in life have varied too: comedian, author, philosopher, commentator, Mussolini impersonator, and runner-up in the 1993 Miss Universe Pageant. His first collection of short stories, Barcelona Plates, had me hooked from the first line: “Barnaby’s girlfriend thought the funniest thing in the world was people being killed while they were on holiday.” His second collection The Dogcatcher offered up even more stories that were darkly funny, or just plain dark. And I loved his memoir Stalin Ate My Homework, which provided insight into how a boy raised by ardent communists in London in the sixties grew up to be one of the most beloved cartoon characters of all time.

‘Ullo Alexei. Got a new motor for your birthday?

 

Lizz On.

lizzfreeHappy birthday Lizz Winstead.

She’s best known as a political commentator and co-creator of The Daily Show, but she started in standup comedy and theater, and her book of personal essays Lizz Free or Die provides some hilarious and poignant insight into her background. She explains a lot about who she is and how she moved so far from the conservative Catholic family she was brought up in.

She discusses her decision to take up babysitting even though she didn’t really like babies, and how babies knew she didn’t like her and would “scowl” at her. “Every photo of me as a kid holding a baby looks like a poster promoting a heavyweight championship fight.” And her young obsession with a praying hands statue mounted on the wall—wondering whose hands they were and why they’d been amputated—cracks me up every time I reread it.

Like these.  Source: Amazon.com

Yeah, I can see why these would freak out a kid. Lucky me I was raised by Presbyterians.
Source: Amazon.com

Winstead also takes more serious turns, such as when, almost completely ignorant about sex other than how to do it, she got pregnant and her first boyfriend left her to deal with it on her own. Then there’s, among other things, the time she put in paying her standup dues. Winstead started at a time when comedy was notoriously unfriendly to women comics and she faced plenty of unfriendly audiences, including once disastrously opening for Frankie Valli.

The book seems to cut off too soon—she briefly covers her time creating and working on The Daily Show, but ends there—but that’s okay. Yes, I would like more, but she does some pretty serious soul baring in her essays, and it would be unfair to expect anything more.

Shakespeare in the slums.

Happy birthday Danitra Vance. If you don’t recognize her name that’s not surprising, but also sad. She was the first African American cast member on Saturday Night Live, as well as the show’s first lesbian (although this wasn’t made public at the time). Her tenure on the show, and her life, were too brief. Born July 13th, 1954, we lost her to breast cancer a little after her fortieth birthday in 1994.

She did a few sketches on SNL, including some recurring characters, but it’s Shakespeare In The Slums that I remember. It was hilarious, but so tight I was afraid if I laughed I’d miss something.

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