The Master

Originally posted January 5, 2009

The lights lowered at the Benedum Theater and a hum of excited chatter rose from the huge crowd.  It was Saturday night and everyone was there to see a “strange, little TV friend” of theirs whom they had gotten to know for the last few decades.  After opener Larry Miller (you might remember him as the overly-sensitive door man on Seinfeld) closed a very solid set, Jerry Seinfeld leapt from the side of the stage and slid, very Kramer-like, to the microphone stand.  “Pittsburgh, PA!” he yelled over the crowd whooping and hollering at his very presence on stage.  “How do you handle the excitement of living in this city?”

I went to the show by myself, unable to find anyone else who was willing to depart with nearly $100 for good seats.  I was in attendance for two reasons.  The first as a dedicated fan wanting to take in the show of a great comedian whom I have laughed with and at for as long as I can remember.  The second reason was as a fellow comedian, I was there to take mental notes and watch a master professional work his craft.  I was not dissapointed in either regard.  Seinfeld delivered a great set of mostly new material different from what I have seen him perform in recent years.

Ever since third grade one of my ambitions (I have the school project to prove it) was to be “as funny as Jerry Seinfeld.”  I suppose my initial draw to Seinfeld was that I was just becoming cognitively aware of what comedy was during the height of the Seinfeld craze.  My parents watched it every weekend and I attempted to join in eventhough I didn’t understand 90% of the jokes until the final season (I think I was 12 years old at that point).  What was great about becoming a fan at that point was the fact that I was able to backtrack his career and enjoy his earlier standup as well.  It’s like buying the latest Red Hot Chilli Peppers album and enjoying it, only to realize that there is a whole discography of past albums that hasn’t even touched your ears yet.

He made Carson appearances and killed on Letterman spots, the top shelf showcases of comedians in their prime.  I remember admiring a certain bit about clothes in the washing machine and how it’s like a Speakeasy for garments.  You open the door and everyone just stops shimmying around.  The sock that makes a break for it.  No one can latch onto a concept and find so many things funny about it better than he.

His comedy was always good because it was funny, but it was great because it was accessible.  This is the part where his genius kicks in.  Around the early-90’s the Def Comedy Jam was in high gear, causing a huge stir in the comedy world.  In the midst of comedy hurricanes likes Martin Lawrence, Damon Wayans, and Chris Rock, there stood a unimposing clean-spoken Jew from New York holding down the fort for a gentler type of comedy.  He’s not good because he’s clean; he’s great because you can tell being clean or dirty has no bearing on his material.  His voice is genuine and original and it just happens to be non-offensive.

Let’s face it; being vulgar is funny.  Being offensive is hilarious.  But it’s easy.  The words speak for themselves, not the material or the comedian.  As I went home that night, in awe of a great performance that had just as much insight and strong material as a Louis CK or Bill Burr set, I happened to see a list on about “Top Emerging Comedians”, and the contrast between Jerry and the comedians on the list was stark.  I had just come from the Benedum Theater, where ballerina’s and opera singers perform regularly, a stage that has been graced by Prince, the Grateful Dead, and Bob Marley.  I sat looking at a webpage that listed the emerging comedians, each of which’s profile contained at least two abortion jokes and some mention of raping something.  I suppose it is a harder endeavour to get people to like you when you say heinous things as opposed to not.

As I sat browsing the website, my mind drifted back only a few hours earlier to the concert hall.  Seinfeld’s performance was the height of glamour.  But not the vulgar Rock-of-Love type glamour.  It was a glamour that elicits respect and admiration of those watching the performer.  People of all ages and economic situations were dressed to the nines, enjoying a night out on the town.  Seinfeld is an example of someone who has kept the art of Stand-Up Comedy elevated out of the basement and onto the main stage.  This is a quality that I admire and hope to emulate to my fullest potential.

People always say trust your conscience when making decisions.  I think this is bad advice, because your conscience is just an aggregated interpretation of the influences around you.  It’s susceptible to decomposition.  I think a good rule to live by is: “Would my Grandma be OK with what I’m doing right now.”

I’m certainly not ashamed of my comedy.  In fact, getting up on stage is really one of the few things I’m one-hundred percent proud of.  But I fell into the trap early on of going straight for dirty rather than thoughtfully putting together material.  And I have never allowed my grandparents to come to my shows.  I was too embarrassed of what they might think of me after they heard what I had to say.  Which is a shame because both of them think I’m funny and I am hardly ever crass or base around them.

I don’t think it’s lame or gimmicky to be clean.  If that’s where the voice comes from and that voice can make an audience laugh then do it.    Some people think you need to use words that would make a Pirate blush just to be funny.

But I don’t want to be a Pirate!!!

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