Watching a New Comedian is Like Getting a Front Lobotomy With a Shotgun
You have to literally drag me into a showroom to watch a new stand-up comic. It’s not because they’re so bad, and many of them are, or they’re so good, and some of them are, or remind me too much of myself, which many of them do. It’s just that no matter how many drinks I have, or how distracting my date is, good, bad, or just plan annoying, it becomes an analytical experience, every word and movement the comic makes is measured. The bad comics are especially frustrating when I see their cheap jokes drive an audience into hysterics. I don’t know who to hate more: the audience, the comic, or my date, who somehow talked me into going to a comedy club in the first place. Maybe I simply hate how the bad comic species continues to survive. Even if the comedian is bad and the audience hates the comic than I do, (which makes me feel slightly better), I see and hear the obvious mistakes or ways to make the jokes work better. Sure, every once in awhile I’m surprised, or knocked out by some new comic, who actually makes me forget I’m a comic and I laugh out loud. I’m not sitting there making the usual remarks to myself like “that’s funny,” or “that’s a great line,” or “that’s a cheap shot,” or “can I get up and leave? (hopefully without even my date noticing).” Unfortunately those nights when a new comedian blows me away are too few and too far apart.
I once asked Richard Lewis if he watched new comics on TV or the new comics opening for him. He told me he looks them for a minute or two and can tell if they’re funny or not. He says he’s watched so much stand-up, he’s just about seen it all. If, by chance, he sees someone who’s totally original, he doesn’t watch them for more than a minute, because they might touch on subjects that he hasn’t yet. It’s not out of jealousy. It’s out of his need to be a purest and he won’t go near the subject again. Even though he knows his take on it might be completely different, his mind shuts off that avenue.
I do enjoy watching the comedians I started with. In those early years there we so few of us doing stand-up it formed a bond that is unbreakable. That special camaraderie was the reason I wrote my book, Standup Guys. From that group there are so many guys I enjoy watching, two of my favorites, who I can watch over and over again are Richard Lewis, and Gilbert Gottfried. Richard is always changing his material. He uses about 80 to 90 percent new material every show, plus his neurotic character is even more neurotic and more hysterical if you know Richard. It’s like you watching the real Richard wage a war with the stage Richard, which adds a whole other dimension. With Gilbert Gottfried, it’s an entirely different experience; you never know what he’s going to say at any moment, all of it outlandish and bordering on danger. If Gillie’s friends are in the audience he’ll start doing impressions of obscure 1940’s character actors, not caring that the audience has no idea what he’s talking bout and is no laughing. There are others, I watch for different reasons: style, quickness, craftsmanship and to see their growth. I’m always impressed by a how much a better a comedian’s become. Of course, there are crazy comics you never heard of like Jack Graiman, a cross between Kurt Vonnegut and Captain Kangaroo, who can’t be described in a blog. In Standup Guys I tell, what I think, is one of the great comedy coincidences, and also the near death of a Jack, by the hands of, the usually mild mannered, Rick Newman, owner of Catch A Rising Star. I was lucking enough to watch Larry David do at set, for the pilot of Curb Your Enthusiasm, besides being hysterical, it was just so damn enlightening. The material LD was doing was just as off the wall as it had always been, but now instead of getting killed by the audience, he was killing them. Because of his fame and the acceptance of Seinfeld, they came to the show with the preconceived idea that he was funny – expecting to laugh, expecting something totally outlandish to emerge. Today there are so many more comics to weed through, it makes it difficult to find the good ones. But each generation produces its own uniquely talented comedians, who someday will have the same dread that I feel when watching new comics. And they’ll watch and analyze and hate both the comic and the audience, but every once in awhile they’ll get lucky enough to see a comedian who allows them to escape from their comic selves and actually laugh out loud.