Musician, author, standup comic
1. We love Australia, but career-wise it doesn't seem like the best place for an American standup comic to reside for part of each year. Are we wrong?
You're right, moving to Australia was not a career move, but a quality of life issue. It has no guns, no God, and no gangster rap. As an Ethiopian cab driver said to me the other day when I was returning from a gig in Sydney, "Australia is a peaceful, democratic place." I like the relatively stress free lifestyle. It's worth the drop in income.
2. What took you Down Under in the first place?
I first worked here in 1985 when a club owner in Sydney wanted to bring over three comedians from L.A. Earlier in the year he'd had great success with three comedians from N.Y., one of whom was Rich Jeni who made a great impression on them. I fell in love with the safe, stress free lifestyle and the Aussie women who always insist on paying their way on dates. I felt that it was a place that I could live. Finally in 1997 I moved over. I was tired of the extreme nature of American society. Over here I produce my one man show for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, teach television writing at a university, do voiceover work, act in a children's action-adventure television show, and am a guest panelist on a popular weekly discussion show called "The Panel".
3. What is the current state of the Aussie comedy scene?
The Aussie comedy scene is nowhere as strong as the American and British comedy scenes. There is no network of national comedy clubs like there is in the U.S. and U.K. Also there is very little television which showcases comedians making it very hard to gain a national following. Interestingly unlike the U.S. where the top comedians end up doing television series, the most popular comedians in Australia end up doing radio.
4. In the dedication of your new book "Comic Insights" you wrote "To all the brave souls who step on stage to tell the truth and make people laugh." What exactly do you mean by "truth"? Are you referring to a universal truth or the type of truth that comes from bearing your soul?
I discovered a quote in a book called "Zen Guitar" in a chapter called "Make a Statement," which I've used to inspire me these days and it goes like this: "To make a statement with character means delivering an honest, uncompromising vision that stays true to itself and succeeds or fails on its own terms." To me that relates to the type truth that I referred to in my dedication. The type that comes from bearing your soul or speaking your mind. As Paul Reiser said, "Sometimes the personal is the most universal." Over the years I've found that to be true. When I've mentioned things that I thought only happened to me, or thoughts that I felt had only had crossed my mind, the audience response indicated that they seemed to have happened to, or been thought of by many people.
4. Who was the first comic you interviewed? Were you surprised by any of the answers?
The first three comedians I interviewed were Louie Anderson, Richard Belzer, and Richard Lewis. I was on location with them in Wyoming doing a terrible movie called "The Wrong Guys" which was shown on airplanes a week after it was released. That's how bad it was. I had no book in mind at that time, but was very curious as to what other comedians thought about what we do. Since it was the first time that I had an opportunity to spend a lot of time with a group of comedians I thought that I would find out what we had in common with respect to our profession. So I got them to agree to chat with me and allow them to be taped. The answers that caused me to think the most was Louie Anderson's concept of "servicing the gift" of creativity, and Belzer's admitting that sometime he did not feel up to the task of performing on a nightly basis. Belzer's answer surprised and resonated with me because I had often felt the same way, and was surprised to hear another comedian admit it.
5. Did interviewing other comics make you analyze your own approach to standup, both artistically and professionally?
Yes, it definitely made me reflect on what I do. Boosler's business savvy was extremely thought-provoking to me, and I was very surprised at her revulsion at the idea of doing a sitcom. I related to Bill Maher's delight in putting the puzzle of an act together, and Chris Rock's approach of just starting with the topic resonated because that was the point that I was at in developing my material. Also Richard Lewis explaining both why he left stand-up for two years, and how he got the passion back was very interesting to me, as I had given it up for a time period as well. I still read through the interviews periodically.
6. The first part of your book is more along the lines of a "how-to" guide to being a comic. What piece of advice do you think is the most valuable?
Honestly I think all of it is important, but I think being true to yourself is paramount. It's really the only way to be an individual and original. Having a plan when your starting out helps you deal with the inevitable fear one has, and is very important as well. And thirdly, taping yourself and making yourself listen to the tape of each performance no matter how bad is really important. There's always a nugget line or a direction pointed out to you in even the worst show.
7. What was the best advice you ever received?
Four pieces of advice stand out to me. Bob Newhart telling me to outline the topics I wanted to talk about. David Brenner telling me to get away from writing comedy for awhile when I had bombed at "The Troubadour" and had lost my confidence. Richard Pryor saying, "Don't try to be funny, just try to be interesting" helped me a lot when I was trying to come up with new material. It helped me trust my natural thoughts. And Johnny Carson saying to "use nervousness" totally changed my attitude to that scary feeling.
8. You emphasize the importance of watching standup before you actually attempt doing standup. Should the standup be seen live?
With so many stand up videos out these days it's virtually the same thing. That wasn't available when I was beginning. Listening to comedy CDs is also great way to see how a comedian paints the pictures in your head.
9. Who was the first comic you ever saw perform live? What were the circumstances?
The first comedian I saw live was Dick Gregory when I was in college, and to be honest I didn't find him that funny. He was more one liner joke oriented than I liked. Good but not great to me, and I had a vague sense that I could be funnier. Seeing Richard Pryor on my 21st birthday at the then Redd Foxx club was a mindblowing experience. His truth and the vivid pictures he painted of his neighborhod were hilarious, and I was struck by how my girlfriend at the time, a conservative Catholic girl who never used profanity, after an initial shock at his language, found herself laughing uncontrollably. She could not stop raving about him. It showed me how honesty could cut through inhibitions, and upbringing. It also made me think that maybe the things I talked about with my friends could be funny to a broader group of people. If you want to hear the material that he did that night get his CD "Craps After Hours" which was recorded around that time. Seeing Robert Klein at the Troubadour in 1972 also had a great effect on me because of the intellectual nature of his material. Afterword I went to his dressing room and could only think of asking one question which was "How do you keep from getting bored?" His answer was "Your job is to do each routine as though it's the first time."
10. One of the more fascinating aspects of the first part of the book is being able to read your performance evaluations from as early as 1972. Do you still evaluate yourself in such a way? Do you ever learn anything from reading the old notes?
No, I don't evaluate myself the same way after a show anymore because I've been doing it a long time and have a feel for what's working and what isn't. Reading my old notes for the book, I was struck by how diligent I was, but I never ever in my wildest dreams thought those very same notes would ever be in a book to be seen by others. It was just my way of trying to make sense of what I was trying to do. I always tell people that I just took the study habits that I had developed in school and applied them to stand up comedy. Reading my performance goals again was very satisfying because I feel that over the years I achieved them all. It showed me that I did have a vision of the type of performer I wanted to be. I was very diligent in those early days. I listened to comedy albums, watched comedians on television, and read books by Larry Wilde, Lenny Bruce, and Dick Gregory. The Larry Wilde book did the most for me in terms of giving me insight into being a comedian, though I really liked Lenny Bruce's jazz-like approach.
11. You are obviously an extremely analytical person but does the constant analysis ever interfere with your enjoyment of doing standup?
No, because when I get on stage I just get into the moment and trust my instincts. The first few minutes of the show I get by on professionalism, and then I find that my mind focuses and I'm off to the races. By the way I think that Jerry Seinfeld is far more analytical than I am about all aspects of standup.
12. While a law student at Columbia, you were encouraged by your friends to try standup. Why do you think your friends thought you could be a standup comic? Besides being funny, what did they see in you that they did not see in others?
My friends at law school saw an intellectual bent to my comedy. They were all very smart and wouldn't laugh at dumb stuff. But what really encouraged me was the fact that they were new friends of mine. Being raised in L.A., I had always thought that my friends had laughed because they had known me for a long time, but when my new New York friends (from diverse parts of the U.S.) told me that I was the funniest person they had ever met, it made me think that I had a special sense of humor that was worth trying out in clubs.
13. What character or personality traits separate the comics from the non-comics?
Being aware of every thought that's going through their head seems to be a common thread. Never taking their idle thoughts for granted. Also everyone in the book has a tremendous work ethic and passion for stand up.
14. At UCLA you taught students how to do standup comedy? How did you feel when they finally made their comedy debuts?
I was very proud of all of them, and happy that I had helped them get to that point, particularly the shyer, more insecure ones because I vividly remembered how terrified I was when I started out. They were a good group of people and I had earned their trust, and that made me feel good. I don't consider myself to have taught them how to do stand up as much as having taught them a more serious approach to stand up. An interesting thing is that as a gift, the class gave me a large Webster's Dictionary that they all signed with individual messages, with the inscription "Because the words are most important." It was a total surprise to me because I didn't remember stressing that, but it was something that they seemed to get from my class.
15. Did any of your former students pursue standup full-time?
I didn't keep in touch with them but at least four demonstrated real gifts, especially two of the really shy ones. Those two said some surprisingly funny and provocative things. I figure they're now either comedians or snipers.
16. You took some time off from standup for awhile. Why? During that time did you discover that you do standup because you need to or because you want to?
I took time off because I was burnt out by the travel, and didn't feel challenged anymore, so I jumped at the chance to write on Īn Living Color, and subsequent television shows. I traded freedom for stability so to speak for a few years. What I've discovered is that I have a need for self-expression that got tired of being filtered through a committee or writing staff which can be frustrating. So I came back to it.
17. In many of the interviews new comics--and by "new" we're assuming anyone who started after 1985--are often criticized for their intent and execution. Is the criticism valid or is it merely a tradition of one generation trashing the next?
I don't think that comedians have a tradition of trashing the next generation. Vaudeville comedians had joke writers and a particular form of comedy that was valid and great for it's time, and they all realized that the next form of personal expression stand up epitomized by Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Nichols and May, Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, Shelly Berman etc., in the late '50s, early '60s was a new advance in comedy. My generation was influenced by them and Robert Klein, George Carlin, and Pryor who came up in the late '60s, early '70s, and to be honest I don't think that our generation was a groundbreaking as them. And they certainly haven't trashed us. Once the comedy boom of the '80s and early '90s hit and comedy clubs sprang up all over the country, comedy seemed to shift from being thought off as an artform in itself and more a stepping stone to a sitcom. Not as much attention was given to developing the craft of being a good stand up with a strong point of view. So, many comedians were easily forgotten. While Roseanne pointed out in her interview that many modern day comedians didn't seem to be saying anything, I think it's more important to take serious the fact that Budd Friedman a comedy club owner and Buddy Morra a manager of comedians saw fit to note that the comedians weren't saying as much as they used to. However it's a pendulum thing. Chris Rock, and Lewis Black are saying as much with a strong point of view as anyone ever has. I think you have to have a strong point of view in order to stand out.
18. On a good night, what are you usually thinking about when you do your set? What are you thinking on a bad night?
On a good night, I'm just into the flow and seeing the pictures and words in my mind clearly before I say them. On a bad night, which to be honest are nowhere near as bad as when I was starting out, I just concentrate on performing the routines correctly. I focus on my delivery. If I'm perfoming the routines correctly and the audience isn't responding as I like than I can legitimately chalk it up to having a bad audience, but that hasn't happened in years. I can get through shows successfully with a sluggish audience which would've destroyed me when I was starting out. I'm also aware that each audience is different each night, and that some audiences can be really enjoying you even though they are not laughing as hard as you'd like. That's why it's important to listen to the silence, and distinguish between "bored" and "interested" silence.
19.In your early evaluations you used to give each set a letter grade. What do you have to do to give yourself an A plus?
If I'm crisp and economical in my delivery, have smooth transitions,
movement and animation, and flights of fancy, that would get me an A.
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