I have always loved watching stand-up comics. I remember how cool it was staying up late to see Don Rickles or Buddy Hackett of The Tonight Show. Watching them deliver a few minutes of anecdotal shtick and spotting Johnny Carson in the shadows, bent over his desk in hysterics, always made me laugh. I enjoyed The Ed Sullivan Show and his knack for mixing up-and-coming comedians with the respected names of the field. George Burns and Jack Benny shared a stage with George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Even though the humor was from opposite ends of the spectrum, it was all funny.
When I got older, I was able to go to see comedians in local clubs. My favorite was "The Comedy Works," a cramped, narrow room two flights above a Middle Eastern restaurant (aptly name "The Middle East") in the historic district of Philadelphia. For under ten bucks, you could see an emcee, three warm-up comics and a headliner of some note. At different times over several years, I saw Bob Saget, Jackie "The Joke Man" Martling and Tom Wilson (a year or two before he went on to play "Biff" in the the Back to the Future trilogy). One night in the early 80s, the billed headliner was Richard Jeni, fresh from a few appearances on The Tonight Show. Before Richard took the stage, a young man performed... and he had the entire place rolling in the aisles with laughter. He was so funny that everyone missed parts of his routine because they were unable to be heard over the laughter. When poor Richard Jeni began his act, no one was paying attention. Everyone was still laughing and talking about the young man who had preceded Mr. Jeni. The young man was named Eddie Murphy.
The Comedy Works also featured an "Open Mic" Night. At these mid-week, marathon shows, patrons paid just a few dollars to sit and watch a combination of club regulars trying out new material and amateurs taking a stab at a possible career path. I went to "Open Mic" nights often with my friends. Most nights were pretty uneven with average Joes delivering poorly written, unfunny material. Their few minutes in the spotlight seemed like hours and their embarrassment was palpable. Then a pro would take to the stage and bring the meager audience back to life before the next human anchor would drag the waning crowd down again. After attending a few "Open Mic" Nights, I was persuaded by my friends (my drunk friends) to make an onstage attempt at stand-up comedy with words of encouragement like, "You're funnier than these assholes!" Not one to balk at a challenge..... who am I kidding? I balk at a lot of challenges. But, in this case, I answered the call. Over the course of five months, I observed everything that went on around me and wrote down everything, hoping something would be funny. When the big night came, I stocked the audience with friends and family. The show started at 9. I went on at midnight. By this point, the audience was hammered. I could have read the Yellow Pages aloud and got laughs. Honestly, I did not bomb, but I never made a return engagement, labeling my one-and-only foray into the world of stand-up as "Mission Accomplished" (and not in the George W. Bush sense).
I love watching comedians on TV, but lately I have been disappointed by the recent crop of comics. It seems to me that a great many are just not funny. Or ones that were funny are no longer funny. My biggest complaint is the way comedians are presented. There's an audience filled with people sitting and waiting for a funny person to come on stage and be funny. It is implied "This is a comedian, therefore, he is funny and you must laugh because that is what you do when you see a comedian." Then, they proceed to go on for an hour and offer five, non-consecutive minutes of funny material. But, if you watch the reaction shots, the audience is hysterical for the duration.
In the last few years, I've been to comedy clubs in Philadelphia, where I saw one funny headliner and a gang of lame warm-up acts. Ben Bailey, the host of the TV game show "Cash Cab," was very funny, but the supporting acts elicited crickets from the audience. Emo Phillips (admittedly an acquired taste) was great, but the opening comics were awful.
I have seen recent stand-up specials by Jim Gaffigan, a comedian I once thought was really original and very funny. He is no longer funny and his "I'm fat" shtick is repetitive and not amusing. I have seen Patton Oswalt, whose last special started and ended with a bang but the forty-minutes in the middle were totally forgettable. I watched Demetri Martin, who I thought was very funny — but not for as long as his special's entire running time. I saw Norm MacDonald, who I thought was surprisingly good, but I can't remember any part of his act. I saw T.J. Miller, who I loved on HBO's "Silicon Valley," but I couldn't make it past the first five minutes of his painfully manic and unfunny performance. Recently, Mrs. Pincus and I watched Ellen DeGeneres's new Netflix special — her first in sixteen years. I always liked Ellen's irreverent routines on Johnny Carson's show and previous specials, but this one was disappointing. It was very uneven and her overarching premise of "now I'm rich" wore thin after a while.
Other comedian's specials have been recommended to me, but I have to admit, I am a little gun-shy. I don't want to invest an hour of my time watching a comedian who is not funny. They have one job —to make me laugh. Instead, many have become preachy and introspective and unnecessarily philosophical. You wouldn't go to a dentist and sit in the chair to have your shoes shined, would you? (Wait, the way some people fear dentists, perhaps that is a poor analogy.) I guess I'll have to scroll endlessly through the selections on Netflix, HBO and other entertainment offerings to find that elusive comic that will just simply make me laugh.
Or maybe I'll just watch the old-timers on YouTube. Although, they're sometimes not even as funny as I remember.
Hmmm.... maybe it's me.
Now that's funny!