If, like me, you started watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? in its original run as a British program, which, on this side of the pond, ran on a fledgling comedy network that wasn’t up to making shows of its own yet, but that’s another story, you probably remember Sandi Toksvig, whose birthday is today. At least you should because she was brilliant. I remember that when the group improvised a gospel song she didn’t sing. She got down and preached, and not just to the choir.
Since then she’s taken over as host of QI, because she has that special gravitas that makes you feel like your IQ is going up just listening to her, was the host of The News Quiz and 1001 Things You Should Know, founded the Women’s Equality Party, co-hosts The Great British Bake Off, has written a slew of books for children and adults, and gave an amazing TED Talk, all of which makes me wonder where she finds the time, but of course she makes it look easy because she’s brilliant.
Preach on, Sandi Toksvig, preach on.
If I said “British comedian” without any other information what would your expectations be? If I added that he was born in Lancashire what would your expectations be? When I first heard Tez Ilyas, whose birthday is today, on a radio program where the host introduced him as one of her favorite comics I really only expected him to be funny, but I also thought his background—he’s of Pakistani descent–might be part of his comedy. And it is, and it’s really funny.
April 2017-The Freethinkers Anonymous fiscal year runs from April 1st-March 30th for reasons no one can remember and no one really wants to bother to research because the archive is located in the attic and there are wasps up there. This year the team responsible for writing the 2017/2018 annual report looked at the calendar and was faced with a crisis: delay because April 1st was Easter, or go ahead and risk getting egged? After much discussion the decision was made to go ahead when an assistant manager said, “If you’re going to postpone it you better hurry up and do it.” There was also discussion about whether April 2018 would be mentioned in the report, but this was put aside with a company-wide vote affirming that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb with really bad diarrhea.
May 2017-An internal audit revealed that sometimes the company finances are in the red and sometimes in the black and sometimes in green and once in a color that, after much research, was revealed to be Noodler’s Dragon’s Napalm. A team was put together to figure out whether there’s actually any money coming in and also to figure out what the word “amortize” means.
June 2017-A series of focus groups drawn from the general population was brought in and asked whether they preferred the 1977 Rankin-Bass animated version of J.R.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit or the three-part live-action version directed by Peter Jackson released beginning in 2012. Respondents fell into three broad categories: those who were unfamiliar with or had never seen either adaptation, those who preferred the 1977 Rankin-Bass animated version, and those who preferred the live-action version. The first two groups were dismissed. The final group was kept and asked a series of additional questions starting with, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
July 2017-Kevin was sent out for milkshakes. At the time of this report he has not yet returned.
August 2017-Blah blah blah productivity blah efficiency blah staff morale blah blah blah accounting something something pensions lost blah blah criminal charges blah prison time yadda yadda something something anyone else remember the show Hill Street Blues and the guy who called people “dogbreath”? What was that supposed to mean?
September 2017- Chuck: Let’s take a call. It looks like we have Gloria from Poughkeepsie on line 2. Hi Gloria, welcome to the show. What’s your question? Gloria: Hi Chuck. My husband and I have invested in a small property which we plan to use for short-term rentals. What zoning regulations do we need to look at most carefully, and what kind of insurance should we get in the case of property damage?
Chuck: That’s a great question, Gloria. That’s a really good question. Boy, is that a good question. You know, when my producer suggested we do a show on real estate I didn’t anticipate a question that good. In some cultures people eat leeches. To get back to your question, Gloria, it’s a really good question. That’s the sort of question you really put a lot of thought into. The Beach Boys used a theremin in their song “Good Vibrations”. Anyway, regarding your question, that’s a really good question. One of the most famous stage directions in theater is “Exeunt pursued by a bear,” from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, and on that note it looks like we’re out of time. Thanks for your call, Gloria! And the producer is telling me we still have a minute and a half, so I’m going to curl up into a ball on the floor until everyone goes away.
October 2017-The company corn maze was deemed an enormous success. The only dissenting voice came from Tom in advertising who suggested that it would have been better if the corn had actually been planted several months earlier instead of just scattered on the ground. Katherine in security took him aside and explained that if he didn’t think it was a success he’d be “sent out for milkshakes”. After this brief meeting staff approval of the maze was unanimous.
November 2017-A staff memo recommending that Kevin be put in charge of the office thermostat contained a typo with the result that the office thermostat was adjusted to Kelvin. Staff remarked that it did seem a lot warmer now that all temperatures were adjusted upward by 273 degrees Celsius or 460 degrees Fahrenheit.
December 2017-The annual office holiday party was held, as usual, at the Sheepshead Pub on 27th Avenue. As usual no one showed up.
January 2018-Management announced that this was the perfect time to wash the car. A focus group made up solely of managers was put together and subjected to a series of questions starting with, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
February 2018-Valentines were exchanged by all staff on February on Tuesday, February 13th, because that’s how we roll. Accounting reminded everyone that the question of black versus red ink had been brought up several months earlier but never fully resolved. A decision was made to use multiple colors and let everything sort itself out later. This was followed by a toast made with glasses of chartreuse.
There were a lot of funny people on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. I was already familiar with some while the show introduced me to others who were so funny I couldn’t wait to tell jokes the next day at work until my boss would have to interrupt and ask about the earnings reports, but that’s another story. One of those wonderful discoveries was Ron Lynch, whose birthday is today. And my boss was glad that repeating a Ron Lynch joke is nearly impossible, unless, of course, you’re Ron Lynch. Years later I was lucky enough to start reading Ann Koplow’s blog, and while she’s even luckier to have worked with Lynch I feel lucky to have learned more about him through her.
I’m going to use a term I’m not all that fond of, but bear with me. Normally when someone is described as a “comedians’ comedian”—or a “musicians’ musician” or, well, you can fill in the profession, especially if the profession is mason—it’s a backhanded compliment that means someone so brilliant at what they do their work is only truly appreciated by other professionals. Sometimes it’s really an insult, both to the performer who’s being subtly criticized for not being “accessible” and to regular audiences who are faulted for not getting it.
Some people might call Ron Lynch a “comedians’ comedian” because of the way he plays around, interrupts himself, and breaks down a joke—and, for that matter, because he frequently doesn’t rely on the traditional setup : punchline, but Ron Lynch is like a magician who shows you how a trick is done and still manages to dazzle you with it. Or, to put it another way, fool me once, that’s hilarious, Ron Lynch, fool me twice, you did it again, Ron Lynch, fool me three times, it could only be Ron Lynch.
Sometimes all it takes is one little thing. Back in 2012 comedian Josh Gondelman, whose birthday is today, co-created the Twitter account @SeinfeldToday which has spawned dozens of imitators. This is not to say that he stopped there, of course. He performs regularly. One of his life performances was featured on the Bullseye With Jesse Thorn podcast as part of the End of Year 2017 Comedy Special. He has a story about how he had what may be the most memorable wedding reception ever, and that’s all I’m gonna say.
And these are only steps in a career that’s been steadily rising. He’s had articles published in McSweeney’s and other publications, and since 2014 he’s been a writer for John Oliver Tonight.
Yeah, I guess now that I think about it that’s a lot of little things adding up to a lot.
Many years ago when I was in Britain I fell in love. And how could I not? Snooker is unbelievably complicated but also elegant and fun and I was absolutely smitten from the first moment I picked up a cue and potted a red ball. Granted I was, and still am, not very good at it, although there was a professor who fancied himself a bit of a snooker shark and liked to put other players in what he thought were impossible situations. And somehow I could always find my way out and he’d grudgingly say, “Nice shot,” but that’s another story.
Ronnie O’Sullivan, whose birthday is today, is an amazing snooker player, staggering to watch. Here is twenty years, and in record time, earning him the nickname “The Rocket”. If you’re unfamiliar here’s how it works: the game starts with fifteen red balls, worth one point each, and six balls of other colors—yellow (2 points), green (3 points), brown (4 points), blue (5 points), pink (6 points), and black (7 points)—on the table. A player must pocket a red ball first for one point and then can pocket a ball of any other color for the corresponding points. The red balls stay pocketed but the other balls are replaced until the red balls are gone. Then the player must pocket the other balls in order. If one player accidentally sinks the wrong ball the other player gets the points and the turn.
Comedy is often a way of crossing social boundaries which is why it fascinates me when comedians leave their home countries to do comedy in a completely different environment—and sometimes in a completely different language, which can require facing a steep learning curve. Sophie Hagen, whose birthday is today, left Denmark to do comedy in Britain and in English, and has succeeded brilliantly, challenging social conventions about body image. She co-created the funny and thought provoking podcast The Guilty Feminist and was a co-host for a long time. Before that she created the also funny—and sometimes thought-provoking Comedians Telling Stuffpodcast. It’s interesting because the comedians she talks to sometimes share funny stories and sometimes they share personal stories which may be funny or may be a little sad, or a little of both. Hagen herself also did funny introductions to each podcast in which she sometimes talked about recording in her room under a blanket, and also shared some of her own funny, sometimes even embarrassing, stories. For instance there was the time she was making out with a fellow comedian and confessed to him that she was dating another comedian at the time. He asked, “Is he bigger than me?” She reached into his pants and said, “No,” then realized that’s not what he meant.
There’s also a steep learning curve for understanding the culture of comedians.
I have a book called The Best British Stand-Up And Comedy Routineswith comedy bits by a dozen or so performers. The title is slightly misleading, I think, because it’s not as comprehensive as it sounds. It’s more of a sampling of some really great stand-up and comedy routines by various performers spanning about three decades. An interesting thing about it is there are two American included, only one of whom is still alive—Greg Proops, whose birthday is today.
Proops also performs solo, does two podcasts, and his book, The Smartest Book in the World, is full of his sharp, intelligent satire. And he really manages the neat trick of being really, really intelligent without being smug about it and he plays to the intelligence of his audience without blowing smoke up anyone’s skirt, maybe because he’s smart enough to know that real intelligence isn’t gauged by what you know but how well you know that everything you know is only a small facet of all that can be known and that the more you know the less you know because everything you know only makes you know what you don’t know.
Back in 2013 when Doctor Who was celebrating its 50th anniversary the BBC ran a series of retrospectives with various stars and actors sharing their remembrances about the show. One dapper gentleman kept popping up. He intrigued me and everything he said made me laugh. That was my introduction to Paul F. Thompkins, who was, at the time, already a successful comedian, but I’m always behind the times myself.
It’s his birthday today and he still makes me laugh and still intrigues me with his strangely varied career: he entered the world of stand-up just as the ‘80’s comedy bubble collapsed but managed to find success anyway. He had a small role in the film Magnolia, which was cut, he worked on the VH1 show Best Week Ever, where he met Weird Al Yankovic (whom he thought he already knew), he’s cut several comedy albums, and he talked to fellow comedians and performers in 68 episodes of the long-running YouTube series, Speakeasy. And those are just a few of the things he’s done. The guy seems to be ubiquitous, which is one of the things that makes him so intriguing.