Tuesday 27 Sep 2016

Elayne Boosler
Jennifer Flaten

Elayne Boosler is the dream of every American man. She looks good and talks, with authority, about baseball. Can life get any better?

Well, yes, it can. Boosler is hilarious, a top comedian. Her pet rescue group, "Tales of Joy," is among the most successful in the USA.

A great many comedians make us laugh, often until we hurt. As soon as the jocular aches ease, we want more. Boosler nourishes the soul, in a lasting way.

"When women feel down," says Boosler, "they eat or shop. Men invade another country. It's a whole different way of thinking." The truth lingers.

Who is Elayne Boosler? Why is she such a success? Why is she so popular? Some of her lines or versions, of her lines, are posted on 31,800 web sites?

Born Monday 18 August 1952, in Brooklyn, New York, Boosler, fate foretold, is fair of face and strong of mind. Father Charles J. was a tool-and-die maker. Mother, Marcia or Muriel, depending on the source, was a ballerina; she escaped from Russia. The parental pairing is a mother lode of material for the Boosler act, which she never used.

The Booslers lived near Avenue Z, in Sheepshead Bay. The Bay, named for a fish, not a woolly mammal, separates Brooklyn from Coney Island. Larry David, co-creator of "Seinfeld," grew up in Sheepshead Bay, as did Terry Gross, host of "Fresh Air," on National Public Radio.

An only child needs grounding. Boosler spent a year or so at the University of Florida, Tampa. "I majored in life experience," she says, and it influences her stand-up comedy: "I live in New York City. I have six locks, on my door. When I go out, I randomly lock three. As thieves work through my stack of locks, they're always locking three."

Back in New York City, Boosler waited on tables. "It's the dream job of every American woman," she says, "and there are so many opportunities to get fired." At the same time, she studied musical comedy and jazz, at the HB Studio, and ballet, at the Joffrey School.

Boosler claims her talent came through hard work, not birthright. "Pushing my body," she says, "stretching my instrument, contorting in dance, bracing for operatic notes." This prepared her to work dinner theatre: "In Mahonoy City, Pennsylvania," she says, "and in "Jump for Joy,' at the Lucayan Beach Hotel, in Freeport, Bahamas."

Between dinner theatre bookings, Boosler took a job at The Improv, a comedy club in New York City. For three years, she worked at the door, collecting the cover charge and ensuring all talent entered through the kitchen. At The Improv, she met Andy Kaufman and found her comedic voice.

Budd Friedman opened The Improv, in New York City, in 1963. Improvisation is a sudden, creative response to the unexpected. All art forms, not only comedy or jazz, view improvisation as an important creative act.

In 1974, a second Improv opened on Melrose Avenue, in Los Angeles. Today, there are twenty-four Improvs, including Tampa, Louisville, Atlantic City and Kansas City. The Levity Entertainment Group holds the controlling interest in The Improv: the funny business is almost as corporate as building cars.

Most every name comedian, over the past 50 years, performed at one Improv or another, including Bill Hicks, Drew Carey, Joan Rivers, Gilbert Gottfried, Phyllis Diller, Robert Schimmel and Rodney Dangerfield. Dustin Hoffman, the actor, played piano at the Los Angeles Improv. Often, comedians appearing on "The Late Show, with David Letterman" give their act a dry run at The Improv in New York City.

One night, Andy Kaufman arrived at The Improv, surprisingly, as himself. Kaufman portrayed Lathe Gravas, on the ABC-TV sitcom, "Taxi," but might appear, in public, as anyone. Tony Clifton, an abusive Las Vegas lounge singer, may be his most infamous character.

Kaufman called himself a song-and-dance-man. His talent defies passable reporting. To end a Carnegie Hall appearance, Kaufman invited the audience to cram into twenty buses and go, with him, for milk and cookies; most did.

Kaufman proudly disliked comedy. Elaborate hoaxes, the subtlest of satire, were his strength. Kaufman and superstar wrestler, Gerry "The King" Lawler, performed a well-staged outburst on "Late Night, with David Letterman," without telling Letterman or his producers.

David Letterman didn't like the hoax, but this was genuine Andy Kaufman: eccentric, seemingly impulsive and astonishing. Most audiences missed the point of his elaborate, satirical stage work; for example, when he lip-synched only the chorus of the "Mighty Mouse" theme. Satire, Kaufman knew, means stripping away the trappings to expose the absurd core, such as a cartoon rodent saving the world or the worst Elvis impression, imaginable.

When showing Andy Kaufman to a table, at The Improv, the natural, offhand humour, of Boosler, impressed him. He urged her to try comedy and asked her out. They cohabited for three years.

"Kaufman provided my comedy education," says Boosler. "This is what it's supposed to be," he said. "You're in a tunnel. There's a light at the end of the tunnel. If you don't keep going, you'll end up staying in the tunnel, not finding the light."

She's quick to add that Richard Belzer, Jimmie Walker and Ed Bluestone helped, too. Belzer portrays Detective John Munch, on "Law and Order: special victims unit." As a comedian, Belzer is caustic, often rightfully mocking and seldom nasty. An audience might view a typical Belzer line delivered by any other comedian as mean.

In this sense, Boosler resembles Belzer. She's sharp, incisive and often taunting, but seldom malicious. About the 2009 Tiger Woods scandal, Boosler said, "Blame it on the Bootie Nova."

Walker was JJ, "Kid-a-Dy-no-mite," on the hit television show, "Good Times." In the middle 1970s, he managed Boosler. She integrated his unbridled on-stage enthusiasm, lack of blind optimism and relentless, if not always successful, search for satire over comedy.

For more than thirty years, Ed Bluestone has been in and around comedy. "I have a great diet," he says. "You can eat anything you want, but you must eat it while seated among naked fat people." How he influenced Boosler is difficult to detect.

During the time Boosler worked The Improv, it also employed singing servers. After the comedian finished his set, and it was mostly him, in those days, a server, a woman, typically, sang for a while. "This let the audience eat their meal in peace," says Boosler, "without someone yelling at them."

True to show business lore, the singing server called in sick. Budd Friedman, owner of The Improv, knew Boosler was training as a singer. He asked her to sing between comedy sets.

She leapt at the chance to perform. "I'd do anything to get away from the tables," she told a class, at UCLA, taught by Franklyn Ajaye. "The customers were always yelling: 'more butter, more butter.'"

"I didn't sing," says Boosler, "I did a comedy set. I was an instant success. Almost the moment I started, the Improv emptied. Friedman closed early. This allowed him to go home, try to save his marriage and have a second child."

Whatever she did, worked. "Friedman let me keep my job," she says, "working the door and waiting tables. Later I was a host. Sometimes I sang."

Of her time working The Improv, Boosler says, "I became a triple threat" "I sang. I danced. I told jokes. Later I learned to act. It's ironic, after all the pushing, straining and striving, physically, I talk for a living."

By 1975, Boosler was on tour, doing stand-up comedy. Her freshness was a take on life from the view of a woman, but not a feminist. "In life," says Boosler, "if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman."

"Of about 650 working comedians in 1976," said humorist Steve Allen, "642 are men." Perhaps most notable among the women doing stand-up comedy, at the time, were Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller and Totie Fields. Still, the male view ruled comedy.

As Boosler toured, her offhand style took shape. "I read the paper," she said to the UCLA class, "in every city I worked. It's great to bounce-off local news, for ten or twenty minutes." The audience likes the effort; the performer seems sincerely interested.

Boosler claims not to script her act. "I read the paper. I'm enraged. I go on stage and talk about what I read, why I'm in a rage."

Not scripting her act, she claims, keeps her conversational. Boosler doesn't wait for a laugh, at the end of each sentence, she keeps chatting. She talks, with the audience, about the news, as does Mort Sahl, or, more pointedly, as did Will Rogers.

Her content, reactive more than reflective, rolls with time, but won't outlast her. "I get kicked in the head by a horse," Boosler told the UCLA class, "I'm dead. There are no files." This may change, as she claims she's writing a book and a search of her name results in 30,800 pages.

Boosler descends more from Celine "Jean" Carroll than from Rivers, Diller or Fields. Carroll began her stand-up career in vaudeville, in the 1930s. "What attracted me, most, to my husband," Carroll says, "was his pride. I saw him standing, on a hill, his hair blowing in the breeze; he was too proud to run and get it."

Women comedians existed. Fanny Brice, a comedic actor, portrayed characters, such as "Baby Snooks," in burlesque, vaudeville and on radio. Sophie Tucker, mostly known as a singer, wove risque comedy into her act. Sarah Midgely and Gertie Carlisle, stars of vaudeville at the turn of the 20th century, specialized in short sitcoms and had a country-wide following.

By 1942, when her husband left vaudeville for war duty, Carroll was ready for a solo act. She constantly walked on freshly fallen snow. Sill stand-up comedy, in the 1940s or 1960s, was no place for a woman, alone.

"Moms" Mabley was an exception. She did stand-up as early as 1912 and was herself. Born Loretta Mary Aiken, in Brevard, North Carolina, Mabley ran away from home, in 1909, urged by her grandmother. She began a song-and-dance career in Cleveland, but her comedic ability made her a star, of the Black vaudeville circuit.

After a show in Dallas, Texas, Mabley got her break. Butterbeans and Susie, the most popular comedy team, in Black vaudeville, asked Mabley to join them. This was the 1921 vaudeville equivalent of an invitation to perform on the "Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson."

Jackie Mabley, she took the name from an old boyfriend, unabashedly relied on the perspective of a woman for her comedy. Her stage presence, based on her grandmother, was petulant and cheeky. She expressed a romantic preference for handsome young men, not old geezers, and wore tacky house dresses.

At the height of her career, Mabley earned $10,000 a week at the Apollo Theatre, in New York City. She sold out Carnegie Hall. She headlined the "Ed Sullivan Show," many times and, at age 75, was the oldest person to have a Top 40 hit record, a version of "Abraham, Martin and John."

Jean Carroll had much in common with Mabley. She was radical, for her time, a woman fearlessly standing along, telling jokes and in command of the audience. "My daughter," Carroll said, "is now a hippie. Her hair is as dirty as her blue jeans and I understand, but why the beard?" Boosler fits this mould, well.

A year into touring, Boosler signed with a manager, Jimmie "JJ" Walker. He arranged for her to appear, with guest-host, Helen Reddy, on the "Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson." As is often the case, for talent, the "Tonight Show" appearance set the Boosler career afire.

After the "Tonight Show," Boosler toured larger showrooms. In 1978, Anna Quindlen, of the New York "Times," wrote, "There are two kinds of comedians: those you laugh at and those you laugh with. Boosler, age 26, with her Farrah Fawcett fluff and her Bain de Soled tan, is the second kind.

"She tells jokes about being a single woman," says Quindlen. Although never married, Boosler claims divorced status. "If I say I've never been married, people think I'm weird."

A cable television special, then the acme of comedy success, eluded her. "By 1985, I was ready for a cable special," says Boosler. "I had talent. I could sing, dance and do comedy. What I missed was anatomical: only male comedians got a cable comedy special.

"I knew I could do a successful comedy special. No one agreed. The thinking, at the time, by mostly male executives, was a woman comedian wouldn't draw a big enough audience."

This made no sense. "My live-show audiences were at least half women," says Boosler. "What, women wouldn't stay home, for one night, one hour, cozy, not putting out all that money for a live show, to watch me on cable?"

Boosler started Brooklyn Productions, in 1986. Using her savings for seed money, she filmed, "Party of One," at the Bottom Line, a comedy club, in New York City. "Party of One" was a huge success and Showtime bought it, but only after viewing it.

John J. O'Connor, television critic for the New York "Times," was seldom enthusiastic. About "Party of One," he wrote, "Boosler focuses on the potential pitfalls and occasional triumphs of a woman in urban America, specifically New York City. If the Boosler character is sharp, independent and occasionally scathing, she is not abrasive."

Boosler told O'Conner, "I don't do a feminist act. I'm a human in the body of a woman." This is different.

"I have to cope with dates," says Boosler, "In the morning after, they expect breakfast. They want toast. I don't have such recipes.''

"She entered the male preserve of straightforward, stand-up comedy," O'Connor said, "without having to make funny faces or act outlandishly. Too often, female comics felt obliged to become almost grotesque. Boosler simply picks up a microphone and tells funny stories."

She needs no frills. "Groceries, now that's a concept," says Boosler, during her show. "I thought kitchen shelves were beams holding up the house."

Her territory is familiar, her angle and vision pointed and new. O'Connor decided, "How refreshing, a woman who doesn't have to tear her own skin off for our amusement. An attractive [woman] simply standing there being funny, the first to feel she doesn't have to be grotesque."

About "Party of One," Boosler says, "I wanted to deliver a full-circle, rich evening of entertainment ... without distractions. I also wanted to get off work early enough to be able to get food.

"I worked as many jobs, on the special, as I could," says Boosler. "I was the producer. I directed segments. I was the line producer because it was my money. Oh yea, I was the star, too."

Showtime immediately signed Boosler to a three-comedy-special deal. HBO leapt on the bandwagon, offering a series called, "Women of the Night." Suddenly, thanks to Boosler, women comedians were on television, successfully.

Only children like to take charge. Boosler manages her career and books her dates. "There are office people," she told the class at UCLA, "who collect advances and execute contracts. I negotiate. I decide where to go."

Boosler is not alone. Jay Leno takes the same approach. There's so much money, involved, today, says Boosler, and everyone wants a piece.

"When I started doing door shows," she says, "I decided what was necessary to cover in my contracts, with clubs." A door show means the talent works for all or most of the admission or cover charge. The ten dollars you pay to get into a club, to see a comedian or band, goes to act; the minimum charge, say, for two drinks or dinner, goes to the club.

Her list, of contract items, included "No personal or cashier's discotheques only certified checks [that are] payable before the last performance." Boosler says, "Never perform with any monies outstanding. Get a round-trip ticket, so you [can get home] and a mandatory deposit that's due thirty days in advance.

"No [complimentary tickets to my show], the tickets belong to me. If you want guests, you pay me for them. [Club owners] didn't invest in me early on, so [today, they] live with the drinks [or food they sell.]

"It's hardball. It's ugly. It's horrible, every time. It never gets better. I hate it."

Boosler follows in the tradition of Moms Mabley and Jean Carroll. Male comedians talk about the foibles and challenges that face men. Boosler, as John O'Connor noted, talks about being a woman.

"Boyfriends," says Boosler, "need to understand that if women are worshipped, the world will be a better place."

Diller, Rivers and, perhaps, Kathy Griffin copy male comedians, are grotesque or both. These women are funny, but after ten seconds, at most, you need another joke. A male view, delivered by a woman, falls flat, as does a female view delivered by a man.

Jean Carroll was different. She was elegant. For an "Ed Sullivan Show," she'd wear a cocktail dress and elbow-length gloves and smoke a cigarette on a foot-long holders. She overdressed, perhaps, to play down her job. "You see. I know how to be feminine, now listen to what I say."

Still, her perspective and attitude were definitively female. In May 1948, Israeli became a nation state and the United Jewish Appeal held a benefit. Jean Carroll took part. One line, from her show, provides an example of how topic and grounding effectively cohered with her fearlessness to speak from the viewpoint of a woman.

After many inspiring speeches and much singing of "Hatikvah," Carroll was up. "What a delicate spot," she said, in later interviews. "What do I say?"

Here's what she said. "I've always been proud, of the Jews, but never so proud as tonight [pause] because, tonight, I wish I had my old nose back."

Boosler shares the defiant, cantankerous attitude of Mabley and Carroll, but adds much cynicism. "Jews," she says, "agree with that Holocaust-deny Bishop: we can't believe it happened, either."

"I live in New York City," says Boosler. "I'm out walking, with my boy friend, the other night. He says, 'Let's go down by the river.' I say, "What are you nuts? I have money. I have jewellery. I have a vagina in my jeans. Tomorrow night, I'll leave my stuff at home. We can go wherever you want.'"

Her topic, dating, isn't specific. The attitude and grounding, that is, steadfastly guarding one's genitals, are specific. The deeper issues, assault and rape, which form the core of the "joke," are of much more concern to women than to men.

Elayne Boosler remains an enigma. We know her for what she does, comedy, but the person remains shrouded. A precious few comments, excessively repeated and often misstated by others, comprises most of what we know about her.

Perhaps the dearth is because she lives. Increasingly well-known, and thankfully so, are Groucho, Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce, all long gone; the more we know of these satirists, the more we understand their insights and what we can learn from them. A flood of information about the late George Carlin, a studied ironist, surely lives on the horizon.

A few comedians, such as Woody Allen or Bill Cosby, enrich themselves or their families for work. Many comedians make up family or personal information. Most living comedians hide such information.

The question is why do they hide this information? Of course, there's a need to dampen excessive invasion of privacy by gossip and rumour mongers. There's much personal information no one needs to know.

Still, why are on-line legal documents and family obituaries the only way to find information? "Gee, Margaret, an only child and his father just passed away. Just like me, huh. I know how he feels. I'm sure it's hard, even if you're a star." When fans sense they share something, with the celebrity, the celebrity career is more enduring.

Sometimes shared experience comes through work content. Who believes what a comedian says, during his or her act. Some disclosure, sharing, here and there, is good.

Perhaps rightfully, the comedian gets upset. "Why are you digging into my life or through my garbage?" Well, honestly, you're important and we like you, we see you as a friend and friends engage in disclosure.

Why the need for more disclosure than the comedian wishes? A reasonable knowledge-about exists for only 250,000, of the 107 billion humans, who survived infancy, over the past half million years. Why must comedians give it up?

Comedians claim much influence; this is their horn of plenty. There's a need to know all that's possible about the women and men who influence, no matter if they're comedians or presidents. In this age of celebrity, comedians, especially those who like to comment on the news, exert more influence than do many local officials.

Such influence supposedly grounds in credibility. Celebrity, today, equals credibility: talking head, on CNN, say, is ostensibly credible solely based on their television appearance. This is how historian, Daniel Boorstein, defined celebrity: someone known for being well-know.

A celebrity is thus credible. Is some vetting or fact-checking credibility, by the media, say, called-for? Besides, does the comedian understand his or her responsibility?

Everyone has a basic human right to her or his opinion. If you can earn a living venting your opinion, that's great. Rights carry responsibilities, such as some disclosure, especially among the influential.

A fellow, standing at the end of a bar, spewing opinions, after too many drinks, is of little concern. When the opinions flow from celebrities, on television, say, watched by millions, breeds much concern. The primary way to confirm responsibility and credibility is to ask, "Who are these women and men," and expect an answer.

In a practical sense, lack of disclosure creates interest. Why won't he or she disclose more background information? What does she or he have to hide?

We know their opinions, but how can we trust them? "Look, Henry, he's on with David Letterman." "There's something about him, Stella, he's sketchy; makes me feel creepy. Turn on Fox, see who O'Brien has on."

---------------------

Franklyn Ajaye (2002), "Comic Insights: the art of stand-up comedy," published by Silman-James Press.

Judy Carter (2001), "The Comedy Bible," published by Simon and Schuster.

Gregg Dean (2000), "Stand-up Comedy" published by Heinemann.

Jennifer Flaten lives where the local delicacy is fried cheese, Wisconsin. She writes about family life, its amusing or not so amusing moments. "At least it's not another article on global warming," she says. Jennifer bakes a mean banana bread and admits an unusual attraction to balloon animals and cup cakes. Busy preparing for the zombie apocalypse, she stills finds time to write "As I See It," her witty, too often true column. "My urge to write," says Jennifer, "is driven by my love of cupcakes, with sprinkles on top. Who wouldn't write for cupcakes, with sprinkles," she wonders.

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