January 7, 2011
If you walked into my apartment and straight to the bathroom you’d see two picture frames containing headshots of several great comedians. I once read somewhere that if you put up pictures of people who inspired you, you’ll be reminded constantly of what you need to do to be successful. I put a lot of thought into which comedians made the ten slots. However, over the winter break I re-evaluated the personnel in the frames and decided that I need to make some adjustments. Here’s the current list and the three names that I’ll need to change.
1) Jerry Seinfeld – The end all be all of stand-up for me. I wrote a post about 2 years ago after seeing him perform at a theater in Pittsburgh which confirmed my idolatry. He is an old-school entertainer. By that I mean, polished, professional and extremely talented. He always seemed like a very normal, well-adjusted guy which appealed to me greatly. So often comedians are portrayed as idiots, losers, alcoholics, etc. Jerry was a person to buck that trend and say that it is possible for nice guys to be funny.
2) Dave Chappelle – “Killing Them Softly” is still hands down the best comedy album I’ve ever heard. It is one of the (many) reasons why I’ve never recorded a CD. It’s simply too intimidating to try and ever match that level of greatness.
3) Chris Rock – He was practically the only name in comedy for many of my formative years. When I was in middle school his album “Bring the Pain” was forbidden fruit. I remember kids passing tapes of that around like they were bootleg contraband. Somehow I got a hold of it. I was exposed to a very different veiwpoint from what I was used to in the suburbs. It was very intense and very angry. Then “Bigger and Blacker” came out. I think it was the first time I learned that “Black people hate white people.” And I was astounded. I realized that I was a just a “cracker-ass cracker.”
4) Bill Hicks – There are several comedians on this list who I started to appreciate only recently. Bill Hicks is one of them. I’d say that he is far and away the most copied comedian in the world of stand-up today. His delivery was misinterpreted as anger. It was really just compassionate frustration. It’s like he was saying, “Don’t you idiots realize what we’ve got here? Let’s cherish this thing and stop being mean to each other.” He spoke about the human condition from an outsider’s perspective, as though he were an alien who had lived amongst humans for most of his life.
5) Richard Pryor – I actually thought Richard Pryor was over-rated for the bulk of my comedy career. His reputation had been built up for so long that I didn’t want to give credit where credit was due. Then I saw his performance “Live on the Sunset Strip.” Despite appearing to be a confident man with a ton of natural swagger, he showed vulnerability in many of his bits. He talked about getting his heart-broken, his drug-addiction and his refusal of help from friends. I think one of the reasons why people liked him so much is that they wished they could open up and express those feelings of conflict and weakness that they themselves had.
6) Steve Martin – Steve Martin is a jack of all trades. Stand-up, actor, playwright, novelist, banjo player. He has been immensely successful in all of these endeavors. His eye for the absurd tastes of audiences is still mind-boggling. I would be scared out of my mind if I was going on the Tonight Show to do a bit called, “The Dog Comedian.”
7) Larry David – Larry David’s on stage/acting persona is honestly how I feel about 95% of the time. He examines the minutia of daily existence and consistently asks the question, “Why is society forcing me to do this?”
On the chopping block:
Right now I have Bill Cosby, Woody Allen and Rodney Dangerfield all on the chopping block. You’ll notice that George Carlin isn’t on this list anywhere. They’re all lumped in to this category for the same reason: I simply was born too late to appreciate their humor in their prime. Somehow Richard Pryor and Steve Martin transcended that trapping. But I had seen to many comedians trying to channel all of these comics to really appreciate the source material. I still respect what they did for comedy, but they didn’t influence me personally.
Who should be in there:
Jeff Foxworthy – Here is a comedian who despite being wealthy beyond belief, still does not receive nearly enough credit as a legit artist. Foxworthy perfected the “If…Then…” joke with his You Might Be a Redneck bit. If you are a comedy consumer, you have no doubt seen a comedian using his exact same set-up but applying it to jokes about their life or up-bringing. His album, You Might Be A Redneck was a favorite of my family and we would frequently listen to it on vacation trips. It was the very first stand-up comedy album I ever heard.
Tina Fey – She was the head writer for SNL in its prime and 30 Rock is the only reason why I own a television. You can tell from her comedy that her “character” is really just a magnification of her own personality. That is extremely comforting. She’s the reverse Richard Pryor. Her external guise is a meek, nerdy, and fragile, but underneath is a confident person with strong convictions. Plus she often alludes to German-ancestry. You go, Frau.
Weird Al Yankovic – The first exposure to consumable comedy. I got a tape of Weird Al when I was probably 8 or 9 years old and I was hooked. My parents (as most do) thought that Weird Al was just a harmless clown singing songs about fat people and eating things. However, if you looked a little farther down the track listing on several of his albums you found some dark and twisted material camouflaged in polka music. The “Night Santa Went Crazy” is about Kris Kringle snapping and rampaging around the North Pole. “I Remember Larry” is a ballad about murdering an annoying neighbor. The lyrics to “Why Does This Always Happen to Me?” describes a guy witnessing horrific events and then complaining how they effect him.
I think he successfully tapped into my inner pyromaniac and for that reason his comedy was inspiring.