Kicking a Comic When He’s Down

With 2 of my best friends, Dan Cummins and Jeff Oskay

So it was announced that after 2 episodes the new Paul Reiser show was canceled. This definitely falls under why did it take even 2 episodes?  Reiser has had a TV and Movie career, plus been given 2 big book deals.  The guy is a mediocre talent at best, but has always had great opportunities because he started doing standup at the perfect time, was decent looking, and was a New Yorker.  I’ve never understood his charm.  Always seemed like a 3rd rate Jerry Seinfeld.

Bill Maher was one of the comics who started in the late 70’s/early 80’s in New York doing standup.  I think he’s the best one who came out of that scene.  Maher wrote a fictional book of these beginning days in New York standup called True Story. It’s been quite awhile since I read it, but I remember I thought it was pretty good.  I also remember him saying that this was the peak time of standup and today’s youger comics (I’m guessing this was late 90’s) aren’t in the same class. What a fucking load I thought that statement was then and I think the same now.

During the 80’s, standup comedy clubs were a popping up all over the country.  Most of them were doing great business and the comics who were fortunate to be part of this wave made big money as the scene was the hot new thing, so clubs were busy even on Tuesday nights.  During these days middle acts would make 800 bucks and also get airfare. MC’s would make 400-500 bucks.  It was the 80’s so cocaine was being snorted up in the back rooms like it was part of your contract.  Since I started my career in the early 90’s, I didn’t see any of this, but I heard the stories.

While many comedy clubs started to close in the 90’s, it was still a good time for standups as TV networks were throwing big money deals at young comics to develop their own sitcoms.  With the success of Roseanne, Tim Allen, Bret Butler, Ellen, Drew Carey, and I guess Reiser to a certain extent, the networks were looking for their next Seinfeld.  It was kind of similar to what was happening in the music world where all the music A&R guys were seeking out Seattle to find their new Nirvana or Pearl Jam. Funny young comics like Greg Giraldo, Tom Rhodes, Greg Fitzsimmons, Mitch Hedberg, Joe Rogan, Anthony Clarke, Mark Curry, Margaret Cho, etc. were getting big checks to star in their own sitcoms.  Giraldo, Rhodes, and Cho series’ actually were picked up, but soon failed.  More veteran standups like Norm MacDonald, Thea Vidale, John Camponera, Jeff Foxworthy, and Richard Jeni also got their own shows. It was the golden age for standups getting on TV.

(Watchout: Scott theory coming ahead.) What shifted things was the sitcom, Friends. All of a sudden networks saw that really good looking people could be in sitcoms and they could be successful.  Since good looking people are more likely to appear on Entertainment Tonight or the cover of People magazine to help publicize their projects, the networks seemed to not be interested as much in standups.  Ray Romano and Kevin James seem to be the last 2 that were able to sneak in.  Billy Gardell (Mike and Molly) is the only standup comic that I can think of that heads a new show.

TV has went the direction of movies, using improv-type actors from the Groundlings or Second City.  Not sure what that is about but I do think it is part of the reason sitcoms don’t connect with as many people as they used to.  If you have traveled the country doing standup, you have a much better feel for what makes the average person laugh than some Harvard Lampoon writer or some improv actor who developed their comedy instincts from making hipsters snicker.  Irony and high concept comedy has its place like what you see on the Office, Community, and Parks and Recreation, but I’m not surprised that the CBS comedies do so much better in the ratings as they focus more on jokes.

When I hear younger comics mention they are getting into standup to become TV stars, I tell them they should join some improv troupe.  I got into standup comedy to perform in front of live audiences.  I’m glad that I have had always had this mentality because chasing a celebrity dream is a nearly impossible road for a standup, currently. I guess I would describe my views on my career to being a Broadway actor.  Sure you can make more money going for the movie or TV career, but there is something far more rewarding getting the instant buzz from a live audience.  Of course, that is what a guy who is hustling on the road 50 weeks a year would say to help feel better about his career path.

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