The Unfunny Truth!
(An episodic look behind the scenes of the lives of Stand-Up Comics) Crooked Views by
*These Blogs are “my truths!” I stake no logistical claims, nor research to support my opinions and experiences.
Part 2 – Comedians (Believing Your Own Bull)
It has been echoed, “that every Comedian wants to be a Rock Star and every Rock Star wants to be a Comedian.” I cannot speak for the Rock Stars, but I have been to some concerts and they do attempt to be humorous. I have, however, been around and studied enough Comedians in 3 decades (myself in particular) to say with certainty that this is true. God knows, 1/3 of the Comics (& bookers) I have known, were in the music field once. There may or may not be some correlation to that last sentence - with the whole secret Rock Star fantasy thing - so let us read on and see what we learn.
The Boom – What was it? I will save you the history lesson, as there is always a plethora of information at your Google savvy fingertips and personally, I think live links within articles, take your attention off the article at hand. So, I will do my best to give you “the short of it,” and basically explain why EVERYONE is literally a Comedian today, whether at one time or presently. Dear Singers and Actors - sorry about the competition (lol)!
The 80s were not the invention of the Stand-Up Comic, but they certainly were the period that popularized the profession. There were a handful of well-known Comics that typically turned up on Variety shows and Late-Night TV and basically the major cities had a small handful of mainstream clubs/venues for them to perform at, live. Maybe blame cocaine or that whole era of excess, but whatever the reason, Stand-Up Comedy and Comics alike became those Rock Stars, that we Comics who started out then, are still longing to be today, but never will again. It was not uncommon that actual Music stars would pop into clubs (like Catch A Rising Star comedy club in New York City), to catch the latest Comic who had a buzz going (*buzz - growing in popularity and industry interest).
I do not want to get into who was great, who is my favorite and why, etc. I hate that question and I get it all the time from people. For one thing, my answers as to who and why are not cut and dry. They are multifaceted and tend to bore people as I ramble on about the topic with “shop talk.” People just want one name, at the ready, with no long-winded explanations and it is usually someone from that well-known generation. Comics are the only people, who think about comedy as much as we do. The public is much simpler in their needs. They want funny! Some like offensive – some do not and it kind of ends there. Every other analytical (i.e., intelligent, persona, style, delivery, etc.) falls to a much smaller percentage of the layman.
I digress – so much for, “the short of it,” as mentioned earlier. Comedy becomes very mainstream during this time in history…you know, barbeque talk (that’s sarcasm)! People know who the Comics are by name. Typically, it is based on their *schtick (*a gimmick/routine/style), which was a key element during the Boom. As the legendary Pat Cooper told me (circa 1991), in his unmistakably harsh yet amusing tone of voice, “Today, you gotta be the comic Who! It’s not what you say, it’s what you do. Look at that guy who put a paper bag on his head (re The Unknown Comic), he sucks, but he puts a bag on his head and he’s all over the place!” That is Pat Cooper, and I could do a whole blog just on him and his influence on me, but back to The Boom. There was a loophole in Pat’s advice though. Comedy was so popular, that people of all ages were quoting Comics and sharing their jokes with each other like a value pack of Juicy Fruit gum. The popularity of comedy creates a demand and club locations explode and every person who ever made their family and friends laugh wants in. Trying to be a Stand-Up Comic, now rivals the Garage Band’s vision! Then, saturation happens, as it always does with a good entertainment idea. Every channel (and realize cable has come of age now also) has a Comedy show, devoted to Stand-Ups. It has gone far beyond the days of the six-minute spot for the next break out comedy star on The Tonight show - Comedians are everywhere. Eventually, this “Boom” will destroy the business of live comedy for years to come.
In the mid to late 90s, it is no longer popular in its pure form. In other words, at one time you could simply hang up an 8” by 11” flyer, even inconspicuously, and write, “Comedy show” and people would just show up! So many bad shows, with so many bad Comics, were put on in this fashion, feeding the hunger that the public had for comedy. Most individuals that were just not ready to be paid for being called a Stand-Up Comic were doing it. Bookers and Promoters (many times these were the new comics themselves creating venues for themselves to work at) trying to take advantage of the public’s thirst for comedy and paying these comics (a title not yet earned) hardly anything, combined with the would-be Comics’ desire to be Comics, (because they/we were witnessing Comedians getting Sitcom deals left and right), incited overkill. Largely factored into the equation is comedy being on the Tele 24 hours a day, altogether this latter tossed salad of facts, kills the perception of the art form for the paying audience. Now, the club owners, bar and restaurant owners, and a slew of other Scum possessing a rectangular room with a microphone want you to put “assess in the seats.” Oh, if only a nickel for every time I heard that phrase in response to me defending what a good Comic I am. Plus understandably, these Proprietors have the financial overhead that the Wanna-Be Comic/Booker/Promoter does not have when they hang up a bed sheet with the words, “Silly’s Comedy Club,” in an unused room in the back of a bowling alley and it sells out, and so the business owners are pissed off. They will not book the Comedian, so the Comedian gets frustrated and says, “I’ll create my own venue.” Comedy is now a pop-up puppet show … it is a GIANT MESS … and I am barely scratching the surface. These same club owners have now begun to BLAME the Comics for the empty houses … and social media will eventually seal this comedy funeral casket for us, forever!
In Part 1 – Comedians, I promised you, “drag some very real people (without naming names), rightfully so, through the mud!” As I started to write about the Boom though, the foundation for all this cutthroat-backstabbing behavior, it became more and more apparent to me that elaborating on the metamorphous of such awful people was necessary, perhaps to understand the decline of a business intended to MAKE PEOPLE LAUGH! After all, this piece is subtitled - An episodic look behind the scenes of the lives of Stand-Up Comics. I hope I did not bore you with the background and now I shall move forward with the finger-pointing and how that shite all turned out.
The Road – We loved that term in the 90s. For most, an illusion of a career and an extension of the Rock Star fantasy (sex, drugs, drinking, money, …). In reality - it is a string of Honkey Tonks venues run by the purveyors of Boom opportunists. As we fight for titles (i.e., “I’m a headliner, blah, blah,” etc.), an extra fifty dollars, and pursue our passions to be Working Comics, yet are really taking ourselves further from the mainstream and potential career opportunities, true character reveal comes to light! Do not get me wrong, as a Sucker myself, it WAS fun, albeit a dirty vortex of fictitious characters who, unfortunately, were very real!
Although wrapped up in the goal of making a living by working 2-3 nights per week and leaving my day job, I was still, “slaving to get it right,” while others sought the Brass Ring, utilizing marketing, such as My Space (the Grandfather of Social Media). They learned early on that Smoke and Mirrors … or believing your own bullshit (a term I will elaborate on) was what mattered most. My struggle to be a Perfectionist and the ongoing Purist belief that it is not ready yet, caused me to miss out on the Salesman type tactics, which I realized way too late, and still cannot seem to embrace to this very day. Talent Smalent! Some Comics figured out that people did not know what entertainment costs and were charging Restaurant owners and Volunteer firehouses alike, inflated budgets. In turn, underpaying good talent and pocketing a good living. Still, others created a good brand. What is a good brand? Well, no one really knows until something hits or works to advance one’s career, and then, that is the brand, and it was a good idea all along, even though no one believed in them prior to their popularity.
When I got into the game, there was constant talk of levels. You were supposed to achieve certain career plateau’s (headlining clubs, an appearance on Letterman, offers during Pilot season, and the mothership – an HBO special) – a steady climb for all, as it were. Even in my earliest days, I knew I was green, but I also knew I was good at this art form. I used to have this analogy that Stand-Up Comedy should be treated more like a traditional job. You try it for one year. After all, everyone should shoot for their dreams. After a year, if you are not getting laughs, you need to be asked to leave or quit of your own fruition. But nope – you can stay in this gig for as long as you want to and continue to disappoint paying audiences repeatedly, or you can have a modicum of success with some gimmick, but either way, you really do stain the industry for Comics who care about the craft. The birth and enormous popularity of Social Media leveled the playing field and in the worst sense. For if you had thirty seconds of silliness, that cultivated followers, views, subscribers, and all the other mysterious digital accolades that we are all trying to figure out and gain, a person who does not have the ability to hold a live audience in the palm of his or her hand for an hour, again and again, can achieve success and a nice income.
It comes down to believing your own bullshit. A trait that I picked up on and a phrase that I coined to describe it. I have witnessed far too many people invent and create who they were, without the chops to back it up, and go through life (Comedy life anyway) believing in this made-up persona and succeeding because of it. They do not leave the stage having been brilliant and think to themselves, wow, did you see that? They WALK IN THE ROOM spewing out this fantasy from every pore of their being and people buy into it. Screw integrity, they are the ones working the angle, not necessarily the art. These character types have no room for real friendships and real loyalty. It is all about them, greed, and a few other sins, and they hurt feelings, destroy perception, and they really do not care. They are the stereotypical Used Car Salesman! But readers “if you build it – they will come” (Field of Dreams movie quote), is true.
Perception – A Stand-Up Comic chooses this profession because they have always been able to make people laugh. Turns out, on stage, they are quick-witted and can provide this gift to strangers.
Reality – Anyone can grace that stage and if they can sell tickets, they are permitted to do so, more than any devoted-foolish Starving Artists.
“He’s bitter!” No, I am not! I understand my BUSINESS of Comedy and I speak of it realistically. Just because I have never succumbed to the options that I have had, does not mean I do not tip my hat to those who took full advantage of them. As my wonderful acting teacher used to tell us, “this career choice is not real, so have fun with it. Besides, people think we are crazy for doing this, so do not prove them wrong (I am paraphrasing a tad, but that was the gist).”
But perception is reality and whether it be favoritism, politics, or their actual attendance draw, most that fall into this open Manhole cover usually by accident (a term here that refers to getting injured and winning a lawsuit against a city or large entity), believe that they are worth the accolades and have little room for graciousness and gratitude. At the least, very … VERY short-term memory of who aided them when they once shared the same metaphoric life raft of common goals and frustrations! If you kept that good day job, with all its perks, and did this for fun and extra money, you were smart. If you stepped in shit (aka had good luck) and think you earned it, you are probably soulless (not everyone is a bad seed) but can now insulate yourself enough from the presence of your former friends, so as to never have to look at yourself in a mirror, thus you are a genius. If you have a conscious full of “Rock Star” reminiscent praise, a heart full of good deeds accomplished but pockets full of lint, then you … you are everyone else!
Next week, I will begin to delve into the gum under the tables of seedy coffee shops, who achieve arousal from tugging at the Marionette strings of gifted artist … also known as, the industry!