Comedy is not easy. Writing a comedy act needs special skills. Performing an act, you wrote, before an audience of strangers, is scary.
Public speaking scares people more than does death. A club comedian stands, naked, in a way, before a hundred or more strangers, twice a night, three times on Saturday. Each stranger paid a twenty-dollar cover charge, with a two-drink minimum; they expect to leave amused.
The comedian has three or five seconds to grab the audience. To do so, she or he may offer a pithy comment or personal information; Dan Nainan opens by saying, “I’m half Indian and half Japanese. I get my sushi from 7-ll.” There’s also a script, written in blood and polished with brass over a years or months, which carries the act or not.
If the audience doesn’t like an act, the comedian can’t run off stage, not if she or he wants their measly pay or a future booking. Humiliation and assaults on self-respect are part of the job description; integrity and dignity are always in danger. Bad news also travels fastest in the comedy world.
Here’s where Gabe Abelson, above, can help. His frame of reference is full of the nuances of everyday life and he has a gimlet eye. His punch lines are effective, the result of much blood, sweat and tears.
Abelson wrote late-night television monologues for David Letterman and Jay Leno, among others. His writing is Sinatra smooth; his success is deep and wide. Once a full-time comedian, touring clubs, Abelson is now a comedy coach.
If a mature act needs refreshing, Abelson works one on one, with the comedian, to create killer new material. If a novice needs an act, Abelson offers comedy workshops. Aspiring comedian, Jason Visenberg, took a workshop offered by Abelson at the Burbank Comedy Festival, in 2014. “It was an awesome experience,” he says.
“I learned,” says Visenberg, “how monologue jokes differ from stand-up jokes.” If someone wants to write late-night television monologues, Abelson offers unique insight and shrewd advice. This is his strength.
A joke is a joke, says Abelson, but monologue and club jokes are not always transposable. For a monologue joke, the set-up often comes from the daily news; it’s mostly true. In a stand-up routine, the joke set-up is whatever the comedian thinks leads best to the punch line; truth is not an issue.
No matter where delivered, during a snappy late-night television monologue or in a dingy low-ceiling club, reeking of stale flatulence and cheap perfume, a joke is two stories. The first story is the set-up. The second is the punch line.
“For our twenty-fifth anniversary,” said comedian Henny Youngman, “my wife wanted to go to a place she’d never been before. We spent the night in our kitchen.” “If laughter follows the telling, you’re a comedian,” said Morey Amsterdam, the satirist.
In this interview, Gabe Abelson talks about jokes, comedy writing, past and present, as well as working as a comedian, which he doesn't advise.
Grub Street (GS) You began as a stand-up comedian.
Gabe Abelson (GA) Yes, I experienced success quickly. In my thirties, I felt I’d been working the road, touring comedy clubs, forever. I was making a good living; it was a time when someone could make a good touring as a stand-up comedian. Those days are gone.
GS Bill Hicks, the late comedian, saw comedians and cowboys, of the old west, as similar. A club act was a gunfight.
GA The comedian is one person. She or he stands on a stage, of some sort, in front of a live audience, performing an act. The act is a script the comedian is endlessly writing, rewriting and polishing, over months or years.
GS Is there more to stand-up comedy than words.
GA The stand-up routine often involves facial expressions or body contortions. This is why many jokes, hilarious in a club or during a monologue, fall flat when written on a page.
In a comedy club, the audience is part of the act. For a comedic play, the role of the audience is to laugh, at the right time and place. In a comedy club, the comedian often breaks the fourth wall, making the audience part of the show.
A club comedian may ask an audience member, “What do you do for a living?” She or he will then work the answer for laughs. Alternatively, a club comedian might say, “Oh, you know, I have such a hard time getting out of my car. Just like that fellow, over there. He’s having a hard time getting out of his chair.”
GS How does a comedian build his or her stand-up routine?
GA Stand-up comes from inspiration gained through experience. Few comedians can sit down and say, “I’m going to write ten minutes on the Post Office.” It won’t happen.
Those ten minutes come from going to the Post Office and watching. Jerry Seinfeld, for example, was waiting, in line, at the Post Office. The clerk went in to the back to recover a package. Seinfeld screams, “He’s going in the back, again.”
Seinfeld wonders why there are pictures of criminals at the Post Office. “What do they want me to do,” he says, “Write to these guys? I’ve had it up to here with these people. I look at the fellow next to me, if it’s not him [from the poster], that’s all I can do.”
Stand-up focuses on observation and much attitude rooted in experience. Stand-up comedy doesn’t rely on the writing precision that a late-night television monologue does. If part of a stand-up performance is working, well, a good comedian will try to follow the audience.
What part of a routine is the audience getting into the most? Stand-up must be more flexible than a monologue. This calls for a writing and presentation style that’s different from a late-night monologue; it’s often reactive or ad-libbed.
“What I want to know,” Seinfeld says to end his Post Office bit, “is why didn’t they hold on to the guy when they were taking his picture? Is the picture, of the front of his face, when they had him? Is the side picture when he’s escaping?”
A stand-up comedian needs to experience life more than does someone delivering a late-night monologue on television. Experience inspires the stand-up. Perspiration, hard work, drives creation of the monologue.
The stand-up comedian is looking for something that’s unique to him or herself, but within the general experience. The stand-up goal is an idea, with which everybody can identify, such as riding the bus or buying groceries, and linking that to a joke or a string of jokes.
For instance, the other day I was working with a famous comedian, in his forties. We came up with a line that fit him, well. “I want to have kids when I’ve fifty, so I’m dead when they’re unemployed adults.”
It’s funny because of his age. Most everybody can identify with that sentiment, in a funny-but-true way. There’s no need to have children to laugh.
GS There’s no need to be an adult to laugh at that joke, either.
GA This joke is specific to this comedian, that’s exactly how he feels. He keeps putting off having children. He wanted to reveal this feeling in his act; stand-up comedy is about the comedian convincing the audience she or he is revealing something deeply personal.
GS That’s social intimacy.
GA The joke, about having children, emerged from our discussion that day. I read how it costs one million dollars to raise a child to age eighteen. He said, “After that I’m supporting them when they can’t get a job.”
The joke came from a personal feeling, understood universally. A little honing and the final joke came. It’s a good joke because the idea behind it is shareable, the content reveals a little bit about the comedian and it gets a laugh.
The parking ticket joke, I use in my act, is similar. I say, “I found a way to avoid parking tickets.” Drivers and non-drivers identify with parking tickets.
GS What’s your solution?
GA Remove your windshield wipers.
GS That is good satire. The listener must think. It doesn’t work as well in print, though.
GS At some point, you began to de-emphasise stand-up.
GA Baring my soul makes stand-up hard for me. There’s nothing especially unusual about me. I’m not ethnic, in a way anyone would notice. I’m not skinny. I’m not fat. There’s nothing and nowhere for me to hang my hat, as can Louis CK, Sarah Silverman or Dave Attell.
I found and find it uncomfortable to talk about some topics, which a stand-up comedian should discuss, today; my personal life is an example. Thus, I became an observational comedian, which worked well until audiences wanted personal revelations. Then I discovered monologue writing.
I realised I do better writing monologues than doing stand-up comedy. For some reason, I’m hard-wired to think monologue and less so stand-up comedy. Writing a monologue calls for different skills and techniques than does writing a stand-up routine.
GS Many or most viewers think Jimmy Fallen, Seth Meyers or David Letterman write their own monologues and jokes.
GA They don’t have time to write much, if at all. There’s an entire show to ready. Monologues must be fresh, ideally topical and suited to the late-night host.
Although some overlap might accidentally exist, here or there, monologues, for late-night television are different from stand-up routines. The differences outweigh likenesses. The differences can influence success in either or both milieux.
GS Jay Leno would do a monologue at a 5:30 pm taping of “The Tonight Show” and a different stand-up act at 10 pm in a Las Vegas showroom.
GA As I said, stand-up comedy, today, involves revealing your hopes and fears. Audiences want to know your inner self, your thoughts, your take on life and so forth. The audience wants to hear know how this information shapes the attitudes of the comedian.
GS I can’t image Jay Leno revealing much personal information.
GA Stand-up relies on the comedian, his or her ability to perform a script, well, perhaps with gestures and facial expressions, as does Brian Regan, say. Stand-up is about the comedian. If a stand-up act focuses on anything but the comedian, it and she or he may struggle.
The late-night monologue contains jokes. These jokes ground in observations shared by host and audience. The punch line or word comes simply.
A late-night television monologue shouldn’t depend only on the host. The late-night television monologue takes a simple fact, say, from the news. To this fact, attach a joke.
It’s important to know how to write a joke. Using jokes in a monologue takes hard-earned skills. I work with comedians that are more armchair joke writers than stand-ups. These women and men get the idea of building a monologue right off: fact, link, joke.
Pulling the skills together is the tricky part. The premise, the set-up, of monologue jokes, relies on a fact; monologues are objective. “"When I found out I had to have quintuple bypass surgery,” says David Letterman, “my entire career flashed before my eyes.”
The set up cannot be funny. It must be a simple statement of fact. Usually, the set-up is true, something from the news. There’s no need to create the set-up, it’s ready and waiting for you to attach a joke.
Off the set-up, the monologue writer tries to find another topic that links, in a funny, yet unexpected, way. That’s when the joke comes out.
GS A monologue is almost a mathematical formula.
GA Yes and David Letterman was a game-changer. He reinvented the talk show. Until then, the talk show was a standard format, whether it was Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin or Mike Douglas and so forth. Suddenly, there’s a host wearing tennis shoes and a sport coat, throwing bowling balls off the roof of the building where he worked.
The Letterman show was revolutionary. Most late night hosts will be the first to tell you he was their biggest inspiration. David Letterman has almost thirty-five years of late-night television talk show experience.
GS He’s confident.
GA He sure is confident. He’ll say, “I was walking through Central Park, today.” He usually doesn’t mention he was with his wife, Regina, or son, Harry; he turns the joke on himself. He’s the bumpkin that causes the laugh.
Jay Leno started monologue jokes with “Did you hear or about this or that?” Then he put a spin on what we heard about. Seldom were the jokes about him.
GS Most viewers under thirty years old get their news from “The Daily Show,” hosted by Jon Stewart.
GA Right, but viewers don’t tune in to find out about Stewart. They want a spin on the news. They want something they can use at the water cooler the next day.
Even Johnny Carson, after thirty years, left the audience mostly wondering about him. Who was Johnny Carson remains a fair question in pop culture. What do we know of David Letterman?
We know, for one, that he’s a curmudgeon. He’ll say, in a grumpy way that’s funny, how he bought a new piece of technology and can’t get it to work. A few years ago, he brilliantly diffused one indiscretion by facing it head-on, immediately.
When his brief affair, with a “Late Night” staffer became public, he openly talked about it on the show and apologised to his wife, son and the audience. This showed Letterman as decent and forthright, which is good. He also seems liberal, especially on world hunger and such, which his audience loves.
GS That makes him responsible.
GA Right, that’s what separates Letterman from his competitors as well as Carson, his mentor. He reveals more of himself than do others. Still, during the monologue, he sticks to the fact-link-joke formula.
GS The daily news supplies the monologue set up.
GA Yes, half the joke writes itself. Then, ideally, the writer finds another news item that’s unrelated to the set-up. The host reveals how the two connect.
The second item is usually the link to the punch word. It fits, in a surprising, unexpected or funny way. How the writer ties the two news items together finds the joke.
If it’s not the news as set up on late-nights, it’s the Kardashians, say, or some other pop culture figure, say, OJ Simpson, although he’s fading. The club comedian waits to find inspiration from his or her life experience. The monologue writer doesn’t have to wait, nor does she or he have time to wait for something to happen.
For a monologue, the writer uses the news, from whatever source, which is second-hand experience. She or he takes the major stories as well as the human interest stories and finds a spin. In two or three hours, he or she has twenty jokes.
Then the jokes go to the television show. The writer sends an e-mail containing new material for every show; ten writers might be emailing material to the show. In all, the writers may send more than one hundred jokes a show; eight or ten jokes might make it into the Letterman monologue.
That’s how I started writing for Letterman. I sent jokes for possible use in his monologue. I learned, quickly, that for monologue writers, joke volume is the key.
The “Late Night” monologue uses ten jokes, maybe. The host is only going to like or consider using a few jokes from a hundred or more received. The more a writer sends, the better the chance one or two of his or her jokes become part of the monologue
GS What’s an example of a monologue joke?
GA I was lucky enough to be with Letterman during the years Bill Clinton was president. Writing jokes was much easier during the Monica Lewinski scandal. A joke about the scandal usually closed the Letterman monologue each night.
David Letterman is much more methodical than is anyone I know when it comes to putting a monologue together. I learned a great deal from him. For example, we always began with writing or picking the last joke in monologue. From there, we worked toward the top or the first joke.
He wanted the last joke to get the biggest laugh. In the late 1990s, the last joke always involved Lewinski. This allowed him to do a dirty joke, of a sort, in a clean way the CBS-TV censor missed or let go.
Normally, he couldn’t do jokes about fellatio or cunnilingus in the “Late Night” monologue. That, however, was the implied factual base of the Lewinski affair; we could thus get away with implying fellatio. The audience always laughed hardest at these jokes; the humour came in the implied, not the spoken.
GS My sense is audiences enjoy jokes they must work, a bit, to get.
GA That may be true. Preparing for one show, I found out President Clinton hired two spiritual advisers to come and pray with him every week. That was an ideal set-up. The joke was, “That’s great, just what we need, more people in the Oval Office on their knees.” The joke worked, well.
GS How did you come up with that joke?
GA I read that Clinton hired spiritual advisers. I free-associated with the idea. I wondered what links to this fact.
I thought of robes, robes with a loose sash, maybe there’s a stain, as there was on a dress worn by Lewinski. Maybe there’s a link to priests, prayers. Nothing worked until I hit on a second fact, praying usually involves kneeling. The two facts fit, but in an unexpected way related to Monica Lewinski.
GS In a way, the joke wrote itself.
GA Yes and there are a million examples, literally. A key, though, is for the audience to recognise, easily, the topic and the link. If the topic or the link is ambiguous or abstract, the chance of a big laugh drops.
OJ Simpson is in prison. His currency as the topic of a joke is fading. One day, I read a cafeteria worker caught him stealing cookies; there’s a joke in that fact.
GS Something makes me think that a prisoner stealing cooks from the cafeteria is also a joke of its own.
GA True, sometimes the true part, the set-up, is outrageous. You can’t come up with a punch line to follow it. In the OJ case, we needed a joke because he was fading from public attention.
As well, popular opinion casts a dim light on OJ. That he tries to steal cookies reinforces and reaffirms a public judgement; thus, it’s funny. Still, Letterman gets much more from this incident by adding or tagging that “this time OJ left a trail of crumbs.”
GS Seems a punch line, in fact, is often a punch word, although it doesn’t work as well on the page as it does verbally.
GA Yes, the line that gets the laugh, in fact, is usually a word. Originally, I wrote the joke about Clinton hiring spiritual advisers, as “That’s what we need, more people on their knees in the Oval Office.” The words that followed, knees, vanished. There was nowhere to go after saying knees.
Then, I changed the word order. “That’s what we need, in the Oval Office: more people on their knees.” The punch word ended the joke, which got a huge laugh.
GS How do you decide what the audience will recognise?
GA If the set-up is from the news, 98% of the audience will easily understand. If the set-up is obscure or abstract, the audience knows the host is truthful and thus accept the set-up as fact. Audience acceptance of the set-up as truthful or factual comes from their experience watching the show.
GS Stand-up routines, heard in a comedy club, say, and monologues, heard on late-night television shows are thus different.
GA Yes. A late night talk show host’s monologue wouldn’t work as well in a comedy club as it does on late-night television. It’s true the other way around, too.
The comedian working a club isn’t doing a monologue. David Letterman, say, does, when uses a few jokes or comments, usually written by others, that change each night. The comedian repeats and works the same scripts over months or years, which she or he writes.
GS Some monologue jokes do not work in stand-up.
GA A monologue joke grounds in something topical. That said, I remember how John Steward impressed me. He had ten new minutes in his standup act every night, seemingly spontaneous, on what happened in the news that day.
Mort Sahl was the first comedian I saw, live. He used the news of the day as the basis of his act, too. He walked onstage, with a newspaper, usually the New York “Times,” folded open under his arm.
Stewart and Sahl are unusual. Comedians do jokes she or he has done for months or years. Maybe they try out a new joke or two, here and there. Starting a stand-up act with one topical joke, something from the local news, say, makes the entire act seem fresh.
GS Why don’t monologue jokes work in a club routine?
GA There are two reasons. If, on television, Jay Leno says, “Oh, did you hear there’s a guy in Minneapolis that set fire to his penis,” the audience knows it’s a true story. Even if event is new, the audience is hearing about the penis fire, it’s true.
GS The audience learns that late-night monologues contain at least an iota of truth from watching night after night.
GA Right, the audience knows late-night monologues don’t often make up facts. If you state the same fact, in a comedy club, the audience assumes it’s for the sake of setting up a joke and truth is not an issue. That’s what club audiences know from experience.
The same joke, told in a club, has to be ten times funnier than is necessary in a late night monologue because the audience believes the comedian is making up a ridiculous story. What punch line or word will top the set up fact? It’s nearly impossible.
The other reason monologue jokes don’t work as well in stand-up is that, today, factual information, truth, such as news, is not usually part of a club routine. Stand-up is more personal, today. There’s more self-revelation, what the comedian likes or dislikes, his or her fears and so forth.
GS Club audiences won’t accept monologue jokes, any more.
GA I think that may be true. Stand-up comedy is much chattier, today, because it’s become so personal. A monologue joke is seldom chatty; it begins with a factual statement. In a club, if a comedian starts with a comment about the penis fire, everybody assumes it’s fictional; this means the punch line or word must be all that much better or it won’t work.
When Bill Maher says, “I’m half Catholic and half Jewish,” it’s clearly true. He’s talking about him, not some fellow in a news item. Now the audience knows something about the comedian, which works in stand-up, but seems less relevant in a monologue.
Detachment is a large part of monologue jokes. Detachment doesn’t work, won’t work, in stand-up, more personal revelation is what comedy club audiences want these days. In ten years, club audiences may want something else.
GS How does content differ for clubs and late night?
GA The content of every television show goes through a filter. Sometimes a producer may ask for change or a censor, working for the network, demands changes. The stand-up comedian and his or her audiences are filters for that act.
Joke after joke is necessary to keep the audience engaged and the act connected. The host of the show delivers the monologue. It has eight or ten jokes to convince viewers to stay for the commercials and next part of the show. Yes, Jay Leno used up to thirty jokes, but that was an exception.
On television, a stand-up comedian has maybe four or five minutes, at most, to knock his or her material out of the park. In a club, she or he may need twenty to sixty minutes of material. Laughs, in a club, won’t be rat-a-tat; for a television guest spot, joke after joke is almost a need.
In a club, the comedian paces his or her shows as they wish, usually in response to the audience. She or he can walk up and down, take a drink of water or, maybe, look at the audience as if he or she is thinking. A club comedian can include blue material in his or her act that wouldn’t make it to air on television.
GS Still, it comes down to jokes.
GA Yes, there are club jokes and late-night television monologue jokes, although these jokes are not mutually exclusive,
When I started in comedy, the big names were Jerry Seinfeld, before his monster television show, Larry Miller, Robert Klein, the late David Brenner and George Carlin.
He, Carlin, was by far my biggest inspiration of them all, and the biggest stand up name of all when I started. I grew up across the street from where he grew up, in the Morningside Heights area of New York City. Although I didn’t meet Carlin until I worked on “Late Night,” as a child I knew his mother; she beguiled me with stories of her son the comedian.
GS It’s a small world.
GA Yes, but getting back to Klein and Brenner, they focused on observations. “Do you remember,” said Brenner, “when total recall meant you had a great memory? Six or eight weeks ago, General Motors had a total recall of 248,000 cars for a minor problem: when you step on the breaks, you don’t stop.”
Robert Klein was a huge influence on me. He told jokes about his dreams, “Hot dogs chasing doughnuts through the Lincoln Tunnel.” You don’t have to be Freud to figure out that dream.
The same was true for Brenner. He told jokes about cruising, “When I go to a bar, I don’t go looking for a girl who knows the capital of Maine.” What did I learn about him from this joke?
GS That he was practical. Brenner fooled everybody about his age. He convinced fans he was roughly twelve years younger than, in fact, he was. Only when he passed, in 2014, did we find out.
GA When I began as a comedian, these A-list comedians focused on, “Hey, did you hear about X?” The focus was on a topic everybody could identify with, “You’re on the subway and ….” Then they made a joke about the topic.
Today, Louis CK, Sara Silverman and David Attell, among others, focus on themselves, for comedy material. What scares them? What they like or dislike. What excites them?
Stand-up comedy is no longer about watching the world around you. It’s about looking inside, peeling back the layers of the onion that is you. Stand-up comedians, today, expose their souls for audience pleasure.
GS It sounds creepy, put that way.
GA Louis CK says, “Talking is always positive. That’s why I talk too much.” Dave Attell is more direct. “I know some people are against drunk driving. I call those people ‘the cops.' [Still], you know, sometimes, you've just got no choice: those kids gotta get to school!”
GS At least she or he convinces the audience they’re exposing their soul.
GS The late Phyllis Diller said her success was in revealing herself to the audience.
GA I think Diller was revealing herself, but in a staged way, which, of course, is okay. What Diller did was different from the way Louis CK turns the light on himself, today. The audience sees every ugly facet of Louis CK.
Diller would say, “We spend the first twelve months of our children's lives teaching them to walk and talk and the next twelve years telling them to sit down and shut up.” That hardly reveals her soul. Louis CK talks freely and pushes the envelope as far as possible: “I don't have a gun, but if I did, I would shoot a baby deer in the mouth and feel nothing.”
Diller was a great. I’m proud to have worked with her. For her time, she pushed the envelope, but you didn’t get inside her mind. She did husband jokes; she called him Fang, he was short and cheap, which was enough to get a good laugh in the 1960s.
GS One of her best lines was, “A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.”
GA Still, Diller wasn’t peeling back the layers. The audience couldn’t tell if, in fact, she was hurting, say, or hunting for a laugh. Her heyday was the 1960s, a much more innocent time, at least for comedians.
GS “Housework,” she said, “won’t kill you, but why take chances.”
GS Dave Attell was influential in changing the face of comedy. He has much success with a dark, brooding approach. I’m a worthless person, he implies, here’s why. “As you can see,” says Attell, “I’m trying to take back Bald Street, with my hair. I’m bald with a ponytail.”
Diller didn’t tear open her soul with Fang jokes. Male comedians used mother-in-law jokes, at the time. Diller used Fang to the same purpose.
Attell tears his soul open. “It’s a new year,” he says, “and you know what I say, ‘New year, new toothbrush.” This seems where comedy has moved and is moving, today.
GS You worked with David Letterman, on “The Late Show.”
GA Yes, late-night talk shows usually have ten to fourteen writers, on staff. “The Late Show with David Letterman” usually has one full-time monologue writer as well as a team of writers working on everything else. The monologue is most important for Letterman.
For a while, I was the head monologue writer; it was my first job in television. I worked, with Letterman, in his office. He and I prepared the monologue for every show. The only other staffer, with such access to Letterman, was the fellow who did the cue cards.
The show also has a team of approved writers that e-mail in two or three pages of jokes for every new show. That’s how I started on "The Late Show,” sending jokes to the show.
GS You were fortunate.
GA That job, with Letterman, on “Late Night,” involved the most responsibility I ever had. He and I spent an hour in his office, every day, writing the monologue, mostly from the jokes sent to the show by approved writers. I recommended jokes from those sent and wrote a few, myself. David Letterman made the final decision about what jokes he used.
After the show recorded, we’d go back to his office to watch it. We’d discuss how the show went, what we might need to avoid, in the future, and so forth. Working with David Letterman was maybe the most thrilling time of my career, being in the room with him, going over jokes, picking the right ones.
GS The word is that he’s intensely private.
GA Yes, David Letterman is a private person. The staff doesn’t get much face time with him, if any. I was doubly lucky.
GS Your responsibilities, with Letterman, were crucial.
GA Yes, my decisions about what jokes to recommend and his decisions about what jokes to use were momentous. The popularity of show rode on those decisions. If the opening monologue doesn’t work, viewers have other choices.
GS Is having an outside writing team typical for late-night shows.
GA Yes and no, Jay Leno had an outside team for the “Tonight Show.” Then he didn’t. Then he did, again. I think it used to be more common than it is today.
GS Can anyone get the e-mail address, say, through an agent, and send material.
GA Mostly, yes, anyone can send sample material, in hopes of getting on the outside writing team. If a writer can write monologue material, his or her chance of making the team is good. If a writer can write monologue material in the voice of David Letterman, she or he is on the team, almost for sure.
GS Writing for Letterman calls for rare skills.
GA Yes, it’s a tough nut to crack. I still write in the voice of David Letterman, even when I write for another show. I think in the voice of David Letterman; he has a specific voice.
GS How does Letterman select jokes for his nightly monologue?
GA He reads the jokes sent via e-mail. He decides what he likes, at first. Those jokes then go on cue cards.
He does a run-through, of the monologue, in his dressing room. At this point, he makes the final decision about which eight jokes to use in his monologue.
Sometimes, Letterman picks a joke because it is clever, not just because he thinks it’s funny; he doesn’t care if the joke bombs. One night Letterman says, “Everybody in New York is sick with the flu. In fact, the two fellows that wrote this joke got sick with the flu. They had to go home and couldn’t finish it.” He laughs hard at the line, but the audience is silent.
GS What’s the story behind that joke?
GA As well as the outside writing team, Letterman had two staff writers, former writers for Johnny Carson. They wrote the “How hot is it?” jokes for Carson. They live in Los Angeles.
These writers wrote the line about the flu. The day they wrote that set up line, they stopped early. They had the flu, too.
No other late-night host would risk using such a joke. The audience remains silent, but anyone in the business, is laughing like crazy. Can you imagine any other late-night host using that joke? It’s my favourite Letterman joke.
GS Are there no writing rooms for late-night television shows, where writers toss around ideas for jokes, as they create the monologue.
GA Not on “Late Show,” but, yes, it does happen on other shows. Leno had a writing room for a while. I think it depends on how the host wants to devise his or her monologue.
GS Do writing rooms exist for scripted shows, such as sitcoms.
GA Yes, that’s what it takes to get the show scripted, pitching jokes and ideas, on a single theme, back and forth.
A monologue is a set of jokes. The jokes reflect the take, of the host, on a topic. Only the host decides on the content of his or her monologue.
GS A writing room, in the sitcom sense, might not work for a late-night television monologue.
GA That might be true, but it depends on the host that delivers the monologue. There’s seldom a storyline to a late-night monologue. The late-night host talks about the latest adventures of Kim Kardashian, political foolishness or unusual weather, say, in New York City.
A sitcom needs jokes related to a storyline. This means cooperation among writers in the writing room. Still, one or two writers will prepare the final script, after pitching ideas in a writing room.
GS Late-night shows have three acts, as do sitcoms, I think.
GA Yes, late-night television talk shows call for three separate scripts. First and most important is the monologue.
Then come the desk bits, which the host does from behind his desk; say, small-town news, on Letterman, the newspaper cuttings Leno used or the thank you cards Jimmy Fallon writes on Fridays. The sole purpose of the monologues and desk bits is to deliver jokes. If a desk bit formula works, the host sticks with it, say, "Thank You Notes," from Jimmy Fallon or the “Top Ten” list on Letterman are examples.
The third part involves remotes, such as “Jay Walking.” Pre-recording remotes is typical, although some may be live. On “The Tonight Show,” one or another writer creates and produces the remote; Letterman does fewer and fewer remotes, as time passes.
GS Late-night hosts often seem impatient.
GA That may be true, now, but Johnny Carson had an uncanny ability to know when a guest was doing well and sit back. He didn’t feel the need to disrupt, to hijack a story the guest is telling. David Letterman shares this skill.
Once, Letterman was interviewing James Franco, who’s funny, but not a comedian. Franco tells a long, painstakingly funny story. He was killing. Six minutes passed without Letterman saying a word. It takes incredible confidence to do that.
GS You wrote for Leno four years after you wrote for Letterman.
GA Yes, between Letterman and Leno, I wrote for Bill Maher and Craig Kilburn.
GS How was working with Leno?
GA Writing for Leno was across-the-board, great. For the sketches, say, the George W Bush look-a-like, all the writers would contribute. If a writer came up with an idea, say, for “Jay Walking,” he or she would go on remote, with Jay, and produce the piece.
GS Did Leno use actors for some of the remotes.
GA No, those are all real people, with real answers; people can be that dumb. After a while, I accepted the dumbness and wrote for it. We’d shoot hours of footage, needing only three minutes for the show.
GS That sounds as if it might grow tiring.
GA Honestly no, that was the big difference working for Leno. For Letterman, I only worked on the monologue; he rarely did remotes. For Leno, I produced remotes and parodies, from beginning to end.
If I wrote a parody, I would hire the actors. I would tell a set designer what I needed from the prop department, what I needed mocked up, such as a phoney cereal box. I would direct the shoot. I would sit with the editor during editing. The bit was mine, from beginning to end.
GS Is Leno aloof.
GA No, Leno is approachable. His door was always open to everyone that wanted to talk with him. I think he had the smallest office of all.
GS You wrote for Bill Maher.
GA Yes, several years ago, I wrote for Maher, host of “Politically Incorrect.” He’s brilliant. He’s not up only on politics; he’s as knowledgeable about the inner workings of Washington, as are any beltway insiders.
“Politically Incorrect” began on ABC Television, which was too limiting for the show to work, well. Maher needs to have a full edge. On Comedy Central, Maher could almost go almost as far as he wished.
On HBO, he’s free. He takes full advantage of it and is on top of his game. He has more latitude than does any other late-night host.
GS Maher is in a rare, enviable position.
GA Yes, still he uses traditional monologue jokes, only demanding a sharp edge. I didn’t approach Maher any different from how I approached Letterman or Leno. The only difference was being able to go with a sharp edge on the jokes.
GS How does writing “Politically Incorrect” differ from other late-night television talk shows?
GA Everyone contributes to the monologue. This was how Leno worked, too, but not Letterman. With Maher, I knew I almost had to give a joke the sharpest edge I thought worked.
Our other responsibility on “Politically Incorrect,” was preparing topic discussions. These are background briefs for Maher. Part of “Politically Incorrect” is a round table discussion, on three or four issues, involving the guests and overseen by Maher.
Each writer prepares what amounts to a small essay or briefing on each topic. The briefing paper grounds in issue-related facts tied to jokes. These essays allowed Maher to familiarise himself with the topic.
GS The writers contributed to his preparation.
GA Yes, we suggested what might come up during the round table. We gave him many places to go with the topics. In each place, we suggested jokes, say, to make a transition.
Sometimes, we included questions for Maher to ask the guests. He wouldn’t memorise our extra content. It was an introduction or reference for him.
Maher is sharp. I don’t know how much help he needed. The essays were insurance, I think.
GS “Politically Incorrect” could be a tricky show, but Maher pulls it off.
GA Yes, he’s good at what he does. Johnny Carson said Maher reminded him of Jack Benny. This is a major compliment, as Carson idolised Benny.
GS Maher has a difficult monologue.
GS Yes, as a monologue writer for Maher, I had to add a great deal to my mental Rolodex. A foreign policy news item would catch my attention. I’d roll it around and around to find a second fact that fit.
Audience recognition, of a fact, was more difficult with Maher. It was a balancing act. If you give the audience too much information, you might make them feel dumb, which is an insult. If you give too little information, there’s too much processing needed to identify the reference and find the joke. This isn’t just true for Maher, but for every single monologue joke on any show.
The audience needs enough information to solve the equation fast. When they see the fit among facts, when they fill in the blanks, they feel smart. There’s nothing better than an audience that feels good about itself; that feeling transfers to the host and the show.
GS The audience is in on the joke.
GA That’s right.
GS If they don’t get the joke, they feel out of it. If they get the joke, they feel like insiders.
GA Exactly, the idea is to bring them inside.
GS What advice do you offer someone that wants to be a comedian?
GA I would urge her or him to find a time machine. Fly it back to 1982, say. In those days, an aspiring comedian could make money; this doesn’t happen any more.
In some ways, it's possible a comic has a better chance at a career, today. Since “Seinfield” aired, more comedians get a shot at their own sitcoms. That wasn’t so in the 1980s.
Twenty years ago, in 1994, Bill Maher wrote a novel, “True Story.” The book is about several comedians, on the road, performing in Baltimore, Washington and so forth. The setting is the late 1970s and early 1980s. The clubs he mentions existed. The characters reflect comedians working those clubs at the time. The storyline is fictional.
On the jacket, of “True Story,” is a quote from Jerry Seinfeld. “Anyone considering a career in stand-up comedy should read this book and then consider something else because all this great stuff is over.” There were many clubs, in the 1970s and 1980s; a stand-up comedian could work the road and make a living.
In 1994, comedy clubs were going strong, but not as strong as in the 1970s or 1980s. A resurgence of comedy clubs occurred in the early 2000s. Still, the comedy club business was never the same after 1994 or thereabouts.
GS Is another boom in comedy clubs likely.
GA Stand-up comedy is not what it once was, nor do signs exist to suggest it might return to the salad days of the 1970s and 1980s. The Seinfeld comment remains remarkably true. If you have a healthy trust fund, try for a career in comedy; otherwise follow the advice of Jerry Seinfeld.
I think, if you ask comedians that, today, are worth millions, they’d say it would be great to return to the salad days, when they struggled. The 1970s and 1980s were an electric era for stand-up comedy. I’m forever grateful I was a part of it.
At a comedy club, in those days, Eddie Murphy met Chris Rock. Murphy gave Rock one line in “Beverly Hills Cop 2.” On that one line, Chris Rock built a huge career.
There are many exciting moments from those days. Robin Williams, gawd rest his soul, would drop by to improvise. That era was exceptional.
Such spontaneous events occur, today, but it’s not the same. Twenty or forty years ago, the regular show might end at 1 am. Only then, would men and women, trying to find a place in stand-up comedy, take the stage for five minutes and no pay; these shows would end at 3 am or later.
GS It was an exciting time.
GA Audiences couldn’t get enough stand-up. An unknown could make a living on the road. A middle act made a solid living. A feature act did well.
That world doesn’t exist any more. For someone, starting in stand-up comedy, today, if you can find a way to fill seats, you can make a living. This doesn’t mean you must be world famous, only famous in the comedy world.
GS Did the increase of stand-up comedy shows on television kill the clubs?
GA Probably, why spend money when you can get it free, without paying for gas, parking, maybe a babysitter and so forth.
GS How does a stand-up comedian make a living, today?
GA Working corporate events or cruise ships, I’d guess. In the 1980s, there were comedians that headlined, nationally, in clubs; they weren’t necessarily famous, but had strong acts. These comedians wouldn’t do cruise ships, which paid good money. They made as much or more in clubs.
Today, there is no money for the same acts in clubs. They’re climbing all over each other to do cruises, corporate events and, maybe, colleges. Touring comedy clubs is no longer practical for most comedians.
Here’s an example, from many years ago, when times were good, to show how club work declined, even then. In 1988, I played a comedy club in Westchester, New York, not far from New York City, as an opening act. I had a few years of experience. I was doing five shows, each thirty minutes, two on Friday and three on Saturday.
My pay for five, half-hour shows was roughly $750. I was twenty something, my expenses were low, as I lived in New York City. That was decent weekend money.
In 1990, I went back to the same club, as a feature act, to do five forty-minute shows. The pay was roughly one hundred dollars less, $650 for the weekend. A few years earlier, I would earn one thousand dollars for five shows as a feature act, that is, an act that appears in the middle of the show.
In 1991, I returned to the same club as the headliner, which meant five, fifty-minute shows. I had to be funnier than ever, the funniest act on the show. I earned five hundred dollars for that weekend.
In four years, I went from opening act to headliner, but my pay dropped by one-third. Stand-up comedy was slipping, fast, as a way to make a living. Touring money was evaporating.
From that example, you can get an idea of what’s what, today. If I went back to that club, now, to headline, I might earn two hundred dollars. The opening act might work for no money.
GS What other advice would you offer the determined newcomer to stand-up comedy?
GA The only way for a comedian to gain experience and get better, is to do stage time. It's all about the feedback. You can't practice by yourself. Standup doesn't work in a vacuum. There's no fourth wall in a stand-up set, so every performance is a give and take. You need to get those live reactions to know what works and what doesn't. Which is why comedians should tape every show.
If you hope to make a living doing stand-up, work clean. Corporate events and cruises, where there’s still decent money for stand-up comedy, won’t tolerate any blue material. I don’t think there’s much choice on this matter.
GS Dan Nainan offered the same advice.
GA As well, know who you are and how the audiences views you, onstage. Show your personality from the moment you step onstage. Be as honest as you can.
GS When you say set up your personality, do you mean a stage persona?
GA Right: set up a persona. Know how to reveal bits and pieces of your persona, during your act. Don’t dump every joke you have in your kit; leave the audience wondering what else they can know about you. Also, leave the audience laughing and comfortable knowing a bit more about you, each time they see you.
GS Should a personal revelation open the routine?
GA If it’s possible. When a stand-up walks on to the stage, the audience assess him or her. Years ago, the late Freddy Prinze used a great opening line, “I’m half Hungarian, half Puerto Rican. I’m a Hungarican.”
Bill Maher uses a similar line. He says, “I’m half Jewish and half Catholic. I go to confession, but I bring a lawyer with me. I say bless me Father for I have sinned. I believe you know Mr Cohen.” It’s brilliant.
Although he’s losing weight, now, Louie Anderson is a large man. He used to open with, “I don’t know if you can see me, here, behind this microphone pole.” This line relieved the audience of concerns about laughing at a huge man telling great jokes.
Prinze, Maher and Anderson set up who they are with those lines. The audience saw an ethnic comedian, but Prinze didn’t appear as Latino as the audience might expect. His opening line answered their question and set the room at ease.
Similarly, Maher is average looking. He needed to let the audience know about him. So, too, did Anderson. If the material, the jokes, fit the proffered persona, the act works, well.
If the comedian has a different view of him or herself than does the audience, there may be a problem. For instance, there’s nothing ethnic about me. I have a round face. I look younger than I am. I look Middle American, even though I’m from New York City.
I have a dark sense of humour, but I don’t look the type; no one sees me as a bad boy, such as Sam Kinison. There are many jokes I can’t do because I don’t appear edgy enough. I need to keep my material in line with how I present, else the audience gets away from me.
Carlin got an edgier look as his material moved in that direction. So, too, did Dave Attell. I give the edgy material, which I do write, to other comedians that appear edgier than do I.
GS That’s interesting.
GA What advice do you offer about ending a stand-up comedy set?
GA A super-funny joke is the best ending. The final laugh should be the biggest laugh, your strongest material. Ideally, the last joke builds from the beginning of the routine.
Think of the Post Office routine from Seinfeld. He builds to the funniest line. “What I want to know,” Seinfeld says, to end this bit, “is why didn’t they hold on to the guy when they were taking his picture? Is the picture of the front of his face when they had him? Is the side picture when he’s escaping?”
GS What’s the best way to handle a heckler?
GA Ignore, as possible, and always remain calm. If a comedian stomps on a heckler, in a calm matter, it’s funny and goes over, with the audience. The heckler doesn’t matter. If the comedian loses his or her cool, even if she or he doesn’t yell and scream at the heckler, there are no laughs, the heckler wins and that show may be in trouble.
GS I wonder if anyone heckled Sam Kinison.
GA Not twice, that’s for sure. My best advice is to ignore hecklers. Paying attention to a heckler is upsetting. It takes energy away from the act. Often, only the comedian notices the heckler; the audience may think she or he is a shill. The rest of the audience has come to see the comedian. Don’t draw attention to the heckler.
GS Why is the heckler doing what he or she is doing?
GA They’re drunk, probably. Their friends tell them they are funnier than is the comedian. They want attention.
If the heckler continues, get the audience to hate the heckler. Once the heckler notices the audience is against him or her, they stop. By this point, the club manager takes over. The manager tells the heckler to stop or leave.
Sometimes, the club manager won’t handle the heckler. When that’s the case, the comedian diverts the show to making mincemeat out of the heckler. That’s easy, but always the last route I want to take.
GS Is there consideration of the distance from the beginning of a joke to the punch word or line.
GA Yes, I would say much more so in monologue writing than for a stand-up routine. A monologue joke is three lines or less, on the page. If there’s too much material to take in, the audience won’t remember it for the punch word.
GS Remind me of the break down.
GA With a monologue joke, the first sentence is where essential information lies. It’s a simple statement of fact: “President Clinton hired two spiritual advisers to come to the White House and pray with him.” Then, the second sentence is both the observation and the road to the punch word: “Just what we need, more people in the White House on their knees.”
I shorten every joke my students write. It’s hard to see non-essential words, which must come out from what you write; it takes an editor. I don’t think anyone ever understood that point better than does Jerry Seinfeld: he never has an extra word.
GS Is a joke similar to a block of stone a sculptor chisels away at to form a statue.
GS Seinfeld says it takes him a year to write a joke.
GA Probably, he keeps chipping away at the joke. He’s always asking himself or others, I guess, “What more can I cut from this joke.” A great joke takes time.
GS All good writing is chipping away.
GA Yes, it is.
GA You grew up across the street from George Carlin.
GA Yes, 123rd Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam, in an area of New York City called Morningside Heights. Carlin grew up on 122nd Street. As a child, I knew his mother. She was elderly, when I was a little kid. We’d sit on a bench, near our homes. She’d tell me stories about him.
I performed on shows, with David Brenner, Robert Klein and many others, but never got to work with Carlin. Thirty years ago, I worked on an A&E show, “The Comedy Hour.” The show booker often talked about working with Carlin.
GS That must have whet your appetite.
GA It did. I decided to write Carlin a letter. I had never written a fan letter.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to write a fan letter. I wasn’t sure what to do. I wondered how it would go over.
Eventually, I decided, firmly, to write Carlin. I needed an address. A woman, at A&E, gave me a contact for him.
To ensure he wouldn’t dismiss me as another fan, I included information I could only know if I knew his mother and grew up in the same neighbourhood, as did he. I told him I wrote comedy, the shows I worked, how much he had influenced me and so forth.
I needed to say, “Thank you,” to Carlin. He had influenced me so much. I felt I owed him.
I mailed the letter and forgot about it. Three months later, my wife runs into my office. “Oh my gawd,” she says, “George Carlin is on the phone.”
Carlin called me! We talked for more than an hour, mostly about the old neighbourhood, how it changed and so forth. Once I began working with David Letterman, I met Carlin, in person.
GS Morningside Heights was a famously rough section of New York City.
GA Yes, it’s rough. The day I was moving out of the apartment, where I grew up, the police arrested more than one hundred people right across the street from me. I always thought the area was safe, but that bust, the biggest in city history, made me think it was time to leave.
GS Carlin called it White Harlem.
GA Yes, he thought Morningside Heights too meek, which it wasn’t.
GS Does George Carlin influences your comedy.
GA Yes, his earlier material influenced me most. In the early part of his career, Carlin relied on observational material. The hippy-dippy disc jockey and weatherman, say.
During the latter part of his time, he seemed sincerely angry. He arrived at a point when his anger overtook his humour and the scowl became permanent, no longer part of his stage persona. He ranted, rather than rely on his ironic way of thinking.
GS The ironist, say Carlin, can’t be angry, whereas the satirist, say Bill Hicks, must be angry or so it seems.
GA I think so. There was never a better ironist than Carlin.
GS Anger got over with Hicks, as he was telling the truth. He made audiences laugh at the truth and join his anger, in a way.
GA Yes, but Bill Hicks had jokes along the way. Still, he never seemed as angry, to me, as did Carlin. I think that’s the difference.
GS Who are your favourite comedians?
GA I’ve worked with hundreds of comedians. I’ve seen at least that many other comedians, with whom I haven’t worked. It’s hard to say who is best.
Many are extraordinary. These include the late Sam Kinison. Bill Hicks, if he had lived, could have been a superstar, maybe the greatest of them all.
Woody Allen is one of my favourites. His work from the 1960s holds up in a big way.
GS Did you like Lenny Bruce.
GA Yes and I listen to Lenny Bruce albums, today. I appreciate him for what he did, in face of great odds. He took club comedy to new heights, in his time.
GS As he climbed to new heights the law waited for him.
GA Yes, but, today, I don’t laugh aloud at the dated Bruce albums the way I do at Woody Allen comedy albums from the same era.
GS Fifty years ago, a Bruce comment about the Pope giving priests permission to cross-dress got a huge laugh. Today, that comment is too obscure and, maybe, too meek.
GA Yes, but the Woody Allen material holds up, well. “Sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as far as meaningless experiences go, it’s damn good.” That will likely go over, with audiences, in one hundred years.
Bruce is an example of why stand-up comedians don’t want to be too topical. They write a script, the world changes, quickly, especially today, and the script is old. Bill Hicks was open about this problem, he said, “When Clinton beat George F Bush for the presidency, I thought, ‘there goes half my act.’”
GS Besides Kinison, Hicks and Allen, in no particular order, what other comedians do you like.
GA George Carlin, Robert Klein and Richard Pryor influenced me the most. Pryor was the comedian as actor. When he did the panther routine, he became that animal and everybody knew it.
Pryor was likely the first hugely successful comedian to bare his soul. Coming from Middle America, Peoria, Illinois, he was the opposite of the Borscht Belt comedians, such as Marty Allen, Milton Berle or Joe Besser, that dominated the east coast clubs and television shows.
Pryor was the best writer and comedian, no doubt. Most comedians are best at either writing or performing. Maybe ten per cent can do both, well.
Rodney Dangerfield, for whom I wrote a few jokes, was brilliant, too. He may be the unsung Titan of stand-up comedy. He bridged from jokes, one-liners, I guess, to self-revelation.
Of Rodney Dangerfield, Robert Klein said, “He was my mentor. He was my Yale drama school for comedy.”
GS I think Dangerfield said his wife wanted to sex in the car and for him to drive.
GA In stand-up, it doesn’t matter if Jerry Seinfeld reveals himself or not, his material is so strong. Seinfeld builds concise material. If you read his act, in a book, in this interview, you still laugh. Maybe the laughs aren’t as hardy when you read his act as when you see it; his passionate, enthusiastic delivery takes the material higher.
Then there are comedians that are mostly personality, with little or no humour to back them up. They run around the stage, make faces and so forth. Examining their acts, closely, few jokes, often with weak punchlines or words, emerge.
GS Well-crafted, polished acts lacking much substance.
GA Yes, but sold as comedic superstars, with great talent.
GS Sometimes audiences don’t know the difference or care.
GA That may be true. Perhaps the untalented star is good-looking. This can help sell the act. Perhaps, she or he is charismatic, which draws an audience.
GS You mentioned Robert Klein, who is A-list talent.
GA Yes, he’s one of my favourite comedians. He has unbelievable timing. He knows what words to accentuate.
GS I like that Klein knows how to over-exaggerate words, without seeming an idiot.
GA Yes, he knows exactly how to say exactly what he needs to say. He knows when to stop, too.
GS I think Klein was the first comedian that didn’t work blue to use the word, f**k, in his act.
GA I feel his style is closest to my own, although I don’t do a Robert Klein tribute show. I don’t pretend to be him.
GS What did you think of Andy Kaufman.
GA Unbelievably exceptional, it seemed he was never out of character. Someone I work with knew Kaufman, well. Kaufman was on the sitcom, “Taxi”; he portrayed Latka Gravas. The Latka character had an annoying, nasal voice, which Kaufman used on and off the show.
One night, my friend went to dinner with Kaufman. He was Latka Gravas, all the time, never out of character. My friend tried to get Kaufman to break character, but Kaufman could not do it.
I don’t know what was going on with Kaufman. He would go onstage, with an old record player, and lip-sync “Pop Goes the Weasel” or the theme from the “Mighty Mouse” cartoon; it was hilarious. There was no joke, only a reaction. I tip my cap to that no matter who’s doing it because it just takes real balls to do that.
GS When comedian starts out, she or he is at the edge of society. She or he watches, say, conventional life from the edge. This is the core of ethnic humour.
GS As the comedian becomes increasingly successful, she or he moves away from the edge of society toward the centre. He or she becomes more accepted, but his or her comedy becomes blander.
GS Carlin remained on or right around the edge. He never got into the centre or didn’t remain there for long. Bill Hicks would have never got into the centre, if he had lived one hundred years.
GA I like that. Success changes comedians. There is something to that idea.
Take Jerry Seinfeld, even though he’s not personal and reveals little of himself in his act, once he’s worth half a billion dollars, he’s suddenly the man. He’s not us any more. He’s the man.
GS When the comedian has an honest critical outlook, she or he must abandon it or remain near the edge of society.
GA I don’t think Carlin was willing to make the change. In his early days, the hippy-dippy DJ era was closer to the centre, but he was still an outsider. Then he abandoned it for the irony of truth from the edge.
Bill Hicks, although his early passing didn’t give him the chance, seemed willing to remain at the edge, with the truth in his satire. I don’t think Sam Kinison would have abandoned the edge, either. The late Richard Jeni didn’t think about it one-way or the other; he just did what he thought was funny.
GS I thought I sensed a battle, within Richard Jeni; this might be a part of it.
GA Moving away from comedy, I think someone, such as Paul McCartney, has made much the same move. The Beatles, at the end, were edgy, moving, maybe, from somewhere around the centre to much nearer the edge.
GS From pop, which is near the centre, to rock, which is closer to the edge of society.
GA McCartney, once he became a solo act, reversed that move, heading back to the centre.
GS Perhaps it’s more success, more fame, more money and a more general acceptance by the centre that leads to more blandness. Hobnobbing with the important women and men is always a welcome benefit.
GA I agree. I can imagine many examples. Maybe staying near the edge reflects a willingness to accept less material success.
GS I talk to old musicians, in their sixties, who bemoan the fact they’ll never have another hit record, although Tom Petty, aged 65, recently did. My take is the success drains their motivation and they don’t want to return to the edge, where hit material might lie, but life is more remote and, perhaps, more difficult.
GA There is something to that idea, too. The more you describe it, the more possible it seems. Robert Klein, like Jeni, was never edgy. They’re purely observational comedians commenting on life and its innate silliness.
GS Maybe Rodney Dangerfield bridged edge and centre: his comedy on the edge; his business, the club and whatnot, were in the centre.
GA Yes, I agree.
GS I think it happened with Robert Klein. He has a higher education and he’s an intelligent fellow. I think he may have been a teacher, at one point, and married to an opera singer.
GA Yes he was, that’s right.
GS He was still on the edge, around 1970. Then maybe two or three years ago he had a HBO comedy special. He had moved so far into the centre I couldn’t watch him. His act was bland, even the throwback material he performed was bland.
GA Yes, I can’t stop my leg and all that.
GA I have tremendous admiration for Robert Klein. I was at Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, on the Bowery at Chrystie Street, in New York City. It’s not a good neighbourhood, but this restaurant has been there since the neighbourhood was comprised of Eastern European immigrants in the early half of the twentieth century.
It was a birthday party for Robert Stein; thirty years the musical director for Robert Klein. Some friends got up during dinner to roast Stein; they were all funny, but not comedians. Then Klein came up. I honestly worried he couldn't follow these non-comedians.
Klein destroyed the crowd for about a half hour, improvising half of it. People couldn't breathe, they were laughing so hard. It may have been the strongest I'd ever seen him. Maybe the best live set I've seen in thirty-five years of stand-up and all of Klein’s material new, never before performed.
GS I think that’s all for now. Thanks so much, Gabe.
GA You’re welcome.
Streeter Click is editor of GrubStreet.ca.
Click above to tell a friend about this article.