Happy Birthday.

Everybody sing!

Sophie’s Stuff.

Source: Wikipedia

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 Stuff podcast. 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.

Smart Guy.

Source: Wikipedia

I have a book called The Best British Stand-Up And Comedy Routines with 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.

If you’re a fan of Whose Line Is It Anyway? you know Greg Proops, especially if, like me, you started with the British version where he and Clive Anderson would trade barbs, like the time Proops explained for American viewers that when he said “naff git” that was British for “Clive Anderson”.

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.

You know?

Man Of Intrigue.

Source: Wikipedia

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.

Hip To Be Square.

Source: Goodreads

When I was a kid I read the newspaper comics section every Sunday while eating breakfast. The rest of the week I didn’t have time for it—if it was winter I was getting ready for school, if it was summer I was getting ready for the day’s excursions, and if it was Saturday I was too busy watching cartoons to read anything, and I only bothered with the Sunday comics because that was the only day they came in a special all-color section. I’d read through them and maybe laugh a little and not give them a lot of thought.

That changed with the introduction of a little cartoon called The Far Side, drawn by Gary Larson, whose birthday is today. I’d seen cartoons like it before, but never in the newspaper, and I started looking through newspapers for the comics sections during the week to find it. And I didn’t just start looking for The Far Side. A Far Side cartoon prompted me to look up Olduvai Gorge, and I got a kick out of Larson’s references to science, psychology, his anthropomorphic cows, ducks, and occasional slipping in of darker subjects like cannibalism.

Most newspaper comics were—and still are—aimed at kids and very general audiences. The Far Side was one of the few that took a more highbrow approach, that made it cool to be smart. Nowadays people are proud to let their geek flag fly. Being a nerd isn’t necessarily an insult or something to be ashamed of anymore, and I think The Far Side is partly responsible for that change.

Having said all that I won’t reproduce any Far Side cartoons here. Gary Larson has issued a statement asking that his cartoons not be spread via the web:

So, in a nutshell (probably an unfortunate choice of words for me), I only ask that this respect be returned, and the way for anyone to do that is to please, please refrain from putting The Far Side out on the Internet. These cartoons are my “children,” of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me. And, seeing them at someone’s web site is like getting the call at 2:00 a.m. that goes, “Uh, Dad, you’re not going to like this much, but guess where I am.”

I respect that. I also think about a hilarious bit he shared in The Prehistory Of The Far Side about the time a newspaper printed one of his cartoons next to Dennis The Menace but reversed the captions so in the Far Side a snake is saying, “Lucky thing I learned to make peanut butter sandwiches or we woulda starved to death by now.” And Dennis is saying, “Oh brother!…Not hamsters again!”

This was a huge improvement to Dennis The Menace and only made The Far Side slightly more surreal than usual, but I can see why he’d have concerns about his kids being passed around.

Plays Well With Others.

I used to listen to BBC Radio 4 at my desk at work. Sometimes it got too distracting and I had to turn it off, but I always made time for—and would sometimes schedule my day around—the show Just A Minute. It’s a hilarious show in which four panelists are given subjects to talk about for a full minute without hesitation, repetition, or deviation. And from the very first episode Paul Merton, whose birthday is today, stood out to me. That’s partly because I remembered him from the original Whose Line Is It Anyway, but he’s also one of the best players and most frequent guests—only Sir Clement Freud outnumbers him in appearances.

Some comedians like to work solo, but, as Merton said when he was interviewed for Richard Herring’s Leicester Square podcast, he’s never been comfortable working on stage alone. That explains why most of his work—and why he’s at his funniest—when he’s improvising with others. He’s also a scholar of comedy, having written a book on  early silent film stars. For Paul Merton comedy is a conversation.

Here’s a great episode of the TV version of Just A Minute from a few years ago, and the best part about YouTube is you don’t have to schedule anything around it.

The Alchemist.

Source: Twitter

I have a theory about comedy troupes and other groups of comedians that there’s always one, and that person may not be the most popular member or the one audiences like best, who the others in the group look up to, the one who really makes the others laugh. It’s a pretty shaky theory and really I think in any group that holds together for a long time there’s got to be a lot of mutual respect, but when the members of The Kids In The Hall are interviewed four of them always have praise for Kevin McDonald, whose birthday is today. And the funny thing is he’s jokingly referred to himself as the one that audiences call “The Kid In The Hall we don’t like”.

I’m not trying to sow any enmity here even if I could by focusing on him, but the other members have described him as a natural comedic talent, and at least one of them has said they think McDonald wasn’t born but grown in a laboratory by some mad scientist trying to create the perfect comedian. Actually I think it’s the other way around: I think McDonald is the mad scientist who cooked up The Kids In The Hall, which is fitting since the others have said he’s also the nicest member of the group and the one who’s held them all together.

Last winter Kevin McDonald was in Nashville, not far from where I live, and offering a comedy class. Unfortunately it was right in the middle of a major snowstorm when we got several inches—or, for him, being a Canadian, a “light dusting”. I was stuck at home, and missing the chance to even meet him is something I still regret. If he ever comes back I don’t care what the weather is doing—I will find a way to get to him because, hey, I like the guy.


The Right Person.

It’s been a few years since I watched Saturday Night Live regularly so I missed the addition of Sasheer Zamata, whose birthday is today, to the cast back in 2014. And it was kind of a big deal. There hadn’t been a black woman in the case since 2007, and only five in the show’s entire history. That’s pretty striking for a show that’s been as culturally relevant as SNL, and I thought it was even more poignant when Zamata did a segment for a March episode of This American Life called “You’ll Understand When You’re Older” in which she talked to her mother about the civil rights movement. This is how Zamata describes what she learned about the civil rights movement growing up:

When I learned about the civil rights movement in school, I got a pretty truncated version of it. I remember learning about the Little Rock Nine. And I saw that famous picture of them entering Central High School surrounded by US soldiers. And then desegregation happened. And now we get to use the same bathrooms. That’s pretty much all I got.

That’s not far off from what I learned in school too, but the major difference is her mother was one of the first children to attend an integrated school. Her mother, for a long time, was the only black student in her classroom, and subjected to regular verbal and sometimes physical abuse, from students and teachers.

Zamata’s a comedian so she finds some humor in her conversation with her mother, but she’s also brutally honest about how far we’ve come in the pursuit of equality and how far we still have to go. For most performers joining the cast of SNL is the start of their career. Most performers need it, but she was already a successful comedian and performer. It seems like SNL needed her.

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.