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I had the extreme honor of being asked to be a member of a panel at a recent comedy festival. Someone somewhere felt that I, as a 20+-year veteran of the standup comedy biz and as the editor and publisher of the WWW's most beloved magazine about standup comedy, was entitled to share the podium with a half-dozen other "experts" on "The Nuts & Bolts of Comedy." I must say, I heartily concur with this conclusion.
In the weeks leading up to the panel, I gave some thought to what I might say, what topics I might address, what I might choose to emphasize, what to play down. But, as I've witnessed some panels in the past and seen their capriciousness, I knew that any preparation was a waste of time and energy. I also knew that I have the ability to effortlessly and endlessly hold forth on nearly any subject even peripherally related to comedy at a moment's notice. I can extemporaneously jabber about standup, in complete sentences, while including wit, scalding criticism, history, scathing opinion and amusing anecdotes. It's one of the inevitable results of editing a magazine about standup comedy and being married to the other editor of that same magazine... who also happens to be a standup comic... and who can extemporaneously jabber with the best of them!
Allow me to summarize: Panel? Piece ofcake. I'll be there.
A curious thing happened on Panel Day. I was struck dumb. Unable to speak. Oh, sure, I was able to spin out my opening introductory spiel ("I'm the editor and publisher--blah, blah, blah"), and I even got a few yucks out of the assembled comics and industry types. But after that, I shut down. I was utterly horrified by what our "distinguished" panelees had to say about "the nuts & bolts of comedy."
Allow me to summarize: Ya wanna be a comedian? Piece of cake. Become an actor.
Glurf!? What the hell are you people saying?!?
Here was a ballroom full of comics (Well, to be totally accurate, many of them were "aspiring" comics with fewer than five years' experience.) and the overarching message from my fellow seminarians was, "Take acting lessons!"
It's as if someone were to corner you at your high school graduation party in 2003 and say, "I've got one word for you, young man: Plastics!"
Take acting lessons! That is soooo 1988! And soooo cynical, I might add. (Oh, sure, there were other bits of hollow nonsense like, "Always give it 110 per cent, even when you're performing at the laundromat, because you never know which top network exec might be in the crowd!" or "Send in a nice tape...and try to include microwave popcorn!")
Well, what did the aspiring comics do? How did they react?
They ate it up with a trowel. They didn't know any better.
They were in Vegas. The people up on that dais (myself included) are billed as being knowledgeable in the business of standup and, by golly, we better bring the Olympus Pearlcorder because they're going to spew out golden chunks of wisdom at such a wicked pace and we don't wanna miss one syllable!
That, and they were terrified. That's right, terrified. When you're new at this (or relatively new), the standup biz (the real standup biz where fame and fortune resides, not just one-nighters or local talent contests) seems like a swiftly spinning carousel and it's a daunting prospect and tricky business to try and hop onto it without getting your head split open. "Do I move to LA? Do I sleep on someone's couch in Brooklyn for a month straight? Is that guy from San Francisco really going to pass my tape on to Rick Messina?" After you hop on, however, it slows down a little. After a year or two (or three...or six!) you're over your fear and things are slowing down considerably and now you're looking longingly at Space Mountain!
Allow me to summarize: When you start out, you're easily scared by old, ridiculous (and often apolcalyptic) stories that have no bearing on reality. (And, as a corollary, you're easily intimidated by these tales. Coincidentally, the people who tell these tales quite often have no bearing on reality, either!)
Which is why, if I may be permitted to work in yet another fevered analogy, this panel/seminar/scarefest reminded me of a bunch of camp counselors sitting around a fire telling scaaaary stooorieees! Boo!
My particular fave was the one (told by he/she who shall remain nameless) about the poor comedian who was signed to star in his/her own sitcom. It seems that this comic was given the star treatment and got all the way up to The Day--that day when all the producers and the show runner and the writers and all the other sitcom's supporting cast are all gathered around the table for the first read-through of the first script of the first episode of The New Sitcom and... HORRORS! Our star can't act! Ears throughout the ballroom burn! Stomachs flip! "He/She couldn't act! He/She never took acting lessons! I think I know of an acting coach in Atlanta I could call as soon as I get back to my hotel room! Oh, holy Jesus! I hope I'm not too late! How could I have been so blind!"
Of course, all of this totally ignores the fact that the major problem here is that The Comic in this tale had a moron for a manager, maybe... or a dolt for an agent... or maybe three or four dozen best friends who didn't have the heart or the stomach to tell their best buddy (The Comic) that he/she had absolutely no facility for acting! But our attendees out there don't consider that. The obvious question, "HOW in God's name did this person get all the way to The Day without SOMEONE asking him/her if he/she could ACT?! The HORROR!" is never asked.
And another question totally ignored: Must one really be capable of acting in order to star in a sitcom? (Has anyone caught any episodes of the first season of Roseanne or Grace Under Fire lately?) The answer would be, "No."
And another question totally ignored: Can any of you up there cite any examples of someone who did it "the right way?" And, by that I mean, anyone who developed a killer standup act, moved to LA (or NY), hooked up with an agent and a manager, took tons of acting lessons, and glided smoothly into a sitcom which debuted in the top ten and stayed there for several seasons, resulting in untold wealth for everyone associated with our talented hero, from his manager all the way down to his pool boy? The answer would be... "Hmmm... I'll get back to you on that. Call my office on Monday and speak to my assistant."
The short answer is, "No." The long answer is that, while there may have been one or two people who did it "the right way" (as prescribed by our distinguished panel), they were the exceptions. The vast majority of comics who found themselves atop a sitcom did it exactly the wrong way. Way back in the 1980s, people like Roseanne and Seinfeld and Tim Allen, through their sheer brilliance (as exhibited through the vision in their standup acts) attracted the attention of some very powerful people who, through guile and connections and their own peculiar brand of brilliance, engineered the production of a sitcom around their client. Whether or not that client was capable of "acting" was, we can assure you, a minor consideration. And that sitcom either failed or it didn't. And the relative acting talent of that sitcom's star was not a huge factor. The list of projects that fit that scenario is lengthy.
The list of sitcoms that failed because the star had no acting chops is so small as to be inconsequential.
Where are all the acting schools named after George Burns and Bob Hope? Where are all the wannabe sitcom stars who are studying acting using The Jack Benny System? There are none. There are none because Messrs. Burns and Hope and Kubelski did it all the wrong way.
Which brings up a coupla questions.
Why do experts tell ridiculous tales like this at seminars that are purported to be about the nuts and bolts of standup?
Are they hopelessly out of touch? No, Virginia. They tell these stories because, by instilling a little bit of fear in the kids, they enhance their own power. ("Don't worry, Scouts! I'll lead you out of the woods! I have my special Anti-Ghost Flashlight!") That AND they're hopelessly out of touch.
Another question: Why the hell didn't I pipe up and tell these jokers where to get off?
Really! Why indeed! Why was I so willing to let these people spew this nonsense? Hmmm... I don't know, really. One thing was obvious: They weren't addressing the ostensible topic of the panel (Remember? The Nuts & Bolts of Comedy?) So I was hoping (foolishly) that the conversation would be steered back toward our real mission. It never happened. For this, I share some of the blame. But I will tell you this: I will never let it happen again. If I ever get on another panel, I will bring the hammer down on anything that even remotely fails to pass the sniff test. You have my word.
And, if you want SHECKYmagazine.com to come to your comedy
club or college campus or Jewish Community Center, just drop us
a line here at SHECKYmagazine.com and say, "I want SHECKYmagazine.com
to present their 'What They Don't Teach You At Harvard Standup
Comedy School' Seminar. It's a delightful four-hour lecture/workshop
on the nuts and bolts of standup comedy. And we don't mention
anything about acting! You have my word.
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