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CHICAGO--It's absolutely spectacular here in Chicago, weather-wise. We're here in town to cover the Chicago Comedy Festival for the third straight year. We're staying just up the road from Wrigley. The stadium is a real presence around this neighborhood, even when the Cubs aren't in town. Signs along the curb scream about permits and sandwich boards on the corner remind all of the impending Cubs homestands-- and when to brace yourself for the tightening of parking spaces.
I was walking through an alley when it hit me: I love this particular neighborhood because it evokes memories of Ocean City, NJ. We spent the occasional week down there when I was a kid. Being a contrary youth, I often chose to use the alleys instead of the streets for getting around.
I feel like I'm on vacation whenever I visit Chicago. And why shouldn't I? Mighty Lake Michigan might as well be an ocean. The plazas off of Lake Shore look more like something you'd see in the Old World. And everyone talks with a funny accent. What more do you need to feel like you're in a foreign land?
Regarding that Chicago accent: It's not as prevalent as it once was. There's a lot of outsiders moving in. They're watering down the accent. Pretty soon, Chicagoans will sound like Ohioans who will sound like Indianans who will sound like... no one in particular. Too bad. Things could be a lot worse. They might sound like they're from Philadelphia.
I cringe when I look at old video of me. I have dozens (hundreds?) of old videotapes of me performing at the old Comedy Factory Outlet and other venues, some of which date back to 1983 or so. I cringe because, for the first three years of my career, I still hadn't rid myself of what I identified as my Philly accent. I grew up in New Jersey, just across the river from Philadelphia. But most of us, from Trenton to just north of Norfolk, from Atlantic City to Reading, are afflicted with one of the most annoying accents in all of America. At least to my ears.
If you've never heard a Philly accent, it's hard to describe. Most people think that Jersey folks talk like Joe Piscopo's "Jersey Guy" character on SNL many years ago ("I'm from Joisey! Are you from Joisey?"). This is only true for certain unfortunate folks who live in North Jersey. It's a variation on the Brooklyn or New York accent. South Jerseyites, like myself, fall into a different region, a different linguistic zone. I may be mistaken, but I think it's also been identified as a Chesapeake accent. It's victims seem to be unable to open their mouths wide enough to properly pronounce certain vowel sounds, particularly the long "O." If you ever get a chance to see the movie "52 Pick Up" (based on the Elmore Leonard book with Roy Scheider and Ann Margaret), check out the villain, played by Jon Glover. His portrayal is one of the more memorable screen villains in modern film. Making him all the more creepy is his accent. It jumped out at me immediately. I knew he had to be from around here somewhere. Turns out he grew up in Salisbury, MD, down on Maryland's eastern shore. It's a textbook example of the accent.
When we worked at WYSP, we had Jon Polito on the show as a guest. His character, Det. Crosetti, had just been killed off of Homicide: Life On The Streets. He told us how, when he auditioned for the role, he used a Philly accent, (Polito grew up in the Southwest part of the city and he could nail the accent perfectly). The producer told him he could have the part, but he couldn't use the accent. We figured that they were fearful that it would be too annoying for the viewers at home. That's too bad. It's virtually identical to a Baltimore accent. It would've given an already realistic show that much more authenticity. Hardly anyone on Homicide spoke with any kind of accent. You can hear one once in a while when they cast someone from Baltimore AFTRA. The occasional fireman or patrolman can be heard to speak like a local.
I had made up my mind early on in this comedy thing that if I was going to be accepted by crowds from Montreal to Mobile, from Jersey to Juneau, I had better erase any traces of my accent. Comics like Rocky Laporte or James Gregory or Yakov Smirnoff have an accent that is integral to their onstage identities. They use their curiously quirky speech to great comedic effect. I can't imagine any of them, or Jackie Mason or Andrew Dice Clay, feeling compelled to erase their accents. But I was determined to get rid of mine.
I've heard that there are classes offered in such major cities as Atlanta and Charlotte for folks seeking to lose their southern accents. They feel that they're stigmatized by it. They think that it might hinder their progress up the ladder in business or sales or real estate. As more and more native Georgians find themselves working alongside people from Ohio or Washington or Colorado, they find their way of speaking to be an impediment, and outfits like The Learning Annex have discovered that there's piles of money to be made in the Henry Higgins racket. I didn't go to any classes, though. I merely listened to audio tapes, I reviewed videotapes and I listened to myself speak as I was performing. With very little effort, I was able to flatten out my speech to the point where no one could listen to me and guess where I was born or raised. I now speak with what might be identified as the "standard American accent." My old ways only pop out when I am very tired. (Or when I want it to, which is rare.)
I am attuned to accents. I can identify them with a fair amount of accuracy. I can tell if someone hails from Chicago or Syracuse just by listening to his voice. A useless skill if there ever was one. It wasn't until I went off to college, to Ohio, that I discovered that I spoke with anything that could be considered an accent. Of course all the Ohioans I hung out with thought they were speaking without any trace of regionality. They didn't get out much. My mode of speaking marked me as an outsider. Not such a bad thing when you're a freshman in a large university. It forced me to listen to myself and it forced me to listen to others. When I returned to the Philadelphia area, after leaving Ohio for good, I noticed the local Philly accent. I would watch the local newscast and mock the man in the street. I grew to hate the sound of the Philly accent.
I'm glad I expunged it. If anyone has any trouble understanding me, it's because of the sound system and not the way I speak. I worked for a week at Catch in Princeton with Don Gavin, one of the Founding Fathers of comedy in Boston. It doesn't get much more rapid-fire funny than Don Gavin. I watched him for about nine shows straight in Princeton and I noticed that he would be whipping the room around pretty good until he'd get to a bit, a short bit, where he'd get nothing-- just for a second or two, then it would go right back to a sustained kill. I noticed that he mentioned potatoes in the bit and he'd pronounce it "buh-day-duhs"-- it must be a New England thing (kinda like when certain Pennsylvanians call a sink a "zink."). I thought it was fascinating that here in Princeton, NJ, not 250 miles from Gavin's hometown, the people in the audience just couldn't let go of the fact that the comic was saying "buh-DAY-duhs" instead of "po-TAY-toes." Kinda makes what we do seem all that much more astounding.
It makes me wonder what adjustments must be made when
an American tries to get laughs in England or Australia or
Ireland. That's something I've been wanting to do
for a while now. I've been told (on more than one occasion)
that I'd do very well in Australia. Now how the hell do they
know? What is it about me and my little prepared remarks
would make someone think that folks a half a planet away
would laugh? Mind you, I have no doubt they're right. I don't think
that adjusting the act of a comic from New Jersey for
consumption in Melbourne or Dublin or Amsterdam would
be any different than tweaking it to make it fly in Knoxville
or Tampa or Austin. I'm not saying it would be easy, but
I am saying that it's not something I haven't thought about.