Friday, April 30, 2021
Standup Guys, Standup Gals
In need of laughs as April ends, Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog today pays tribute to 20th century standup comedy.
Spotlighted the hilarious Billy Crystal in the Easter 2021 post. . . why stop there? Here's Billy's pal and frequent collaborator Robin Williams, with a routine that should be played in its entirety prior to The Masters every year without fail.
The historical record of mid-20th century standup comedy performances begins with The Ed Sullivan Show; fortunately for us comedy and pop culture vultures, a slew of Sullivan Show excerpts have been recently downloaded to YouTube.
Stand-up comediennes have received at best short shrift, but The Ed Sullivan Show often featured one who broke ground, combining elegance and élan with Rodney Dangerfield-style intensity and rapid fire precision, the very funny Jean Carroll.
Of the many comics who appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, I especially enjoyed "sad sack standup" Jackie Vernon.
While standup comedians and The Tonight Show tend to be associated with Johnny Carson, the previous incarnation of Tonight hosted by Jack Parr provided a showcase for comics as well.
Have seen few episodes of the first version of The Tonight Show, hosted by Steve Allen, but understand that he often featured stand-up comics - most famously a cleaned-up Lenny Bruce.
Mostly recall Steve Allen's Tonight for an episode in which Ernie Kovacs was the guest host and turned the show upside down, sometimes literally (note: it's on this DVD box set).
Parr's Tonight offered free rein to comedians. The one, the only Jonathan Winters was a regular.
Not to be outdone, Johnny Carson made a point of booking stand-up comedy legends on The Tonight Show.
Carson would revel both in his role of King Of Late Night and in bringing combinations of comedy stalwarts on his shows, sometimes simultaneously (note - a longer clip from the following show can be found here).
A few years before the episode featuring Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters, arguably the very best ever to hit The Comedy Store stage were on The Tonight Show together.
Johnny was no fool. Richard Pryor, a one of a kind talent, was on often.
As a comedian who manages to be a storyteller, satirist, actor and social commentator simultaneously, Richard Pryor is still unsurpassed, 15 years after his passing.
David Letterman offered a showcase through his runs on both NBC and CBS. Dave's love of and respect for comedy and comedians is clear.
The best of the best were featured on both Dave's short-lived daytime show and his innovative late night program (note: by all means, consult the Late Night With David Letterman playlist on YouTube for mass quantities of comedy goodness).
Of the comics who appeared on Letterman, this blogger is particularly fond of the late, lamented, highly original and wildly imaginative Mitch Hedberg.
Saturday Night Live has had a complex and at times unfathomable relationship with stand-up comedians and comediennes, partly due to the show's genesis in Second City/Groundlings style improv.
Many Saturday Night Live cast members first made their name as stand-ups, with some enjoying breakthrough success and others having their difficulties withstanding the backstage politics and unrelenting pressure cooker of live television. Everyone from Stephen Wright to Sam Kinison appeared on the show. George Carlin hosted the premiere episode and Richard Pryor hosted the seventh one in 1975.
After the first five SNL seasons, quite a few luminaries from the world of stand-up comedy would become cast members, with varying results. The fearless, unorthodox and delightfully brutal Gilbert Gottfried, the most surreal of stand-up comedians and to this day the only comic to do a dead-on impersonation of Jackie Vernon, was mis-cast and mis-used on the infamous (but not entirely terrible - the musical guests are consistently top-notch) season 6, which also featured an inexplicably under-utilized Eddie Murphy.
There was a stretch, mostly during the early 1980's years when Dick Ebersol produced the show, in which Saturday Night Live frequently booked stand-up comics as guest performers and gave them the spotlight. Some, such as Stephen Wright, were several steps and universes ahead of the (by comparison) earthbound comedy sketches.
The show also featured such wonderful vaudeville-style acts as magicians Harry Anderson, Michael Davis and Penn & Teller back in those days. These creative performers were a welcome addition and it's too bad this practice ended as the 1980's did.
There are cases where things don't work out for even the most talented comedy performers, actors and actresses in the grinder that is television, when the cast blends like oil and water. When it comes to live TV, this sort of thing happens, even with a terrific cast, imaginative writers and the best of intentions. It's never due to lack of talent, creativity or enthusiasm; even the incomparable Your Show Of Shows cast and writers periodically produced sketches that were clunkers.
For reasons unknown to all who were not in the SNL writers' room in 1994-1995, season 20 was arguably the worst in the series' history, or at least tied with the infamous seasons 6 and 11, as well as the less infamous but lackluster seasons 29-30.
Lots went wrong, very wrong in the 1994-1995 season, even given the blazing comedy talent working on the show. in front of and behind the cameras SNL cornerstones and former stand-up comics Adam Sandler and David Spade, as well as the epic, larger-than-life physical comedian and Second City Chicago star Chris Farley dominated the cast. This did not leave much opportunity for new Not Ready For Prime Time Players to shine, although Molly Shannon and Norm Macdonald did break through that year and returned for subsequent seasons.
As had been emphatically the case with the entire doomed Saturday Night Live '80 troupe, the 20th season had difficulty figuring out way to do with new cast members. In her one-year stint as a cast member, filmmaker and comedienne Laura Kightlinger, later a writer and performer on Will & Grace, was seen less than The Invisible Man.
The powers that were at SNL, which was still reeling from the departures of two of the greatest cast members in the show's history, the irreplaceable Jan Hooks and Phil Hartman, as well as writers who left to join the Late Night with Conan O'Brien staff, could not figure out how to incorporate the new additions to the show into the mix. Such talented comedy performers as stand-up comedienne and prolific comic actress Janeane Garofolo and the hilarious Late Night With David Letterman comic Chris Elliott were repeatedly mis-cast and mis-used on SNL season 20. Go figure!
The unsuccessful efforts to incorporate Late Night with David Letterman's distinctive style of comedy into the Saturday Night Live mix brings to mind that Janeane Garapolo hosted Late Show with David Letterman when Dave was recovering from heart surgery in March 2000; in contrast to her extremely unhappy experience in a half season as an SNL cast member, she excelled and had fun in the process. Had she wanted the job, Janeane could have shined as a new kind of late-night host.
Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Norm Macdonald - brilliant stand-up comedians all - were indeed SNL cast members.
Other outstanding comedy performers auditioned but didn't make the cut; as the old saying goes, that's show business. The list includes some formidable talents: Jennifer Aniston, Marc Maron, Jim Carrey, Lisa Kudrow, John Goodman, Kevin Hart, Zach Galifianakis, Kathy Griffin and Michael McDonald (of Mad TV - not the pop singer/songwriter).
Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell also auditioned to be Saturday Night Live cast members, but ultimately found their way in as cartoon voice-overs on Robert Smigel's TV Funhouse, which originated on The Dana Carvey Show.
It has been extended tough sledding at this blogger's household, as we have lost two beloved pets in a short time, but after much quality time spent with the iconic comedians of silent movies (a.k.a. The Old Masters - Chaplin, Keaton, Chase, Langdon, Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy) and a deep dive into both favorite stand-up philosophers and the mid and late 20th century television programs that spotlighted them (many of which can now been seen on YouTube, Archive.org and Vimeo), hints of sunlight are visible on the horizon.
In closing, we extend big thank yous and several respectful tips of top hats worn by John Belushi, Bill Murray and Elliott Gould in the infamous (but funny) "Castration Rag" sketch to websites that have been reviewing Saturday Night Live in detail. These would include the One SNL A Day Project, the SNL Review index on Existentialist Weightlifting and My Saturday Night Life. Dove into both websites for research and screen caps in this post. In addition, there are now numerous Saturday Night Live shows of past decades on Archive.org.