Posted by Melanie Chartoff
Not to be confused with, yet reminiscent of a current film by the same name (both feature lots of depressing nights in bars) Standup Guys: A Generation of Laughs by John DeBellis (on Amazon) is one of the most hilarious histories of any artistic era you'll ever read, much funnier than Kerns’ Team of Rivals, or Caro’s book on LBJ—Passage of Power. A book with purposes beyond decorative, it’s palliative, yet stimulating, educational, yet entertaining, and darn flattering (I’m in it).
So, John--wonder how it's possible that you've gotten even funnier with age.
I don’t know if I’m funnier or people’s sense of humor has gotten worse. Actually, the truth is that I’m learning to be less funny. I used to try to punch up every line. It’s like a pitcher learning to take something off his fastball, changing speeds to make the fastball more effective.
I know-- laughing at you was wearing out my mouth. Since our formative years together in NYC, have new traumas gotten integrated into your psyche?
I didn’t have any new traumas, the old ones seem to still be working. Maybe when they run out I’ll have to get more.
I think you can get some at trauma centers. Do you feel your book can help people cope with the PTSD of crazy families?
No, I can just make them feel better knowing that other people are suffering. And learning from my toxic childhood that it’s possible to handle tragedy without cutting up and eating a neighbor.
Was it your profusion of photos of successful friends that prompted you to write the book?
The pictures came later. And there wasn’t one person who refused to let me use a picture of them. That’s great considering comics aren’t the most handsome bunch on the planet.
Funny was always handsome to me. In recent years you’ve gone from quite a head of hair to none. Did it take a lot of courage to shave your head, or were you honoring and emulating L. David’s emerging skull?
No, the only thing I’d want to emulate in Larry’s life is his bank account.
It started when I was on the phone with Pat Benatar and asked her what I should do being newly divorced and she said the shave your head, grow a beard and get an earring. I was meeting LD for lunch and he must have spotted the earring from a hundred yards away and let me have it for the entire lunch.
He was always so helpful. What impact did all the Jewish Comics have on the art form when we got started?
Standup in the US had been adopting the Jewish rhythms, that have a natural timing mechanism built in, for decades. I think the way
Jewish people speak was made for comedy; they tend to pause and to punctuate at all the right places. Jackie Mason used to point and me and say, "You're funny. You're a Jew." It's like Italians are usually good singers because of their culture and genes. Except for me when I sing deaf people won't even look at my lips.
Groucho Marx may have reflected the Jewish influence on television better than anyone. Jackie Mason then made that cadence more pronounced. Woody Allen made it his own and was my personal comedy hero.
Standup Guys: A Generation of Laughs will definitely generate laughs from any English speaking reader. But how will it play in Spanish? German? Japanese?
My humor works the same in any language, in fact it’s appreciated even more by the deaf and blind. See, I was the only comic who would go to hospitals and work to people in comas.
My spelling would definitely be better in those languages. Actually I had a professional editor correct the spelling in my book then retire prematurely.
How do you regard the up and coming comedians of today, compared to our peers who continue to have so much impact on TV programming?
It’s painful to see the changes in standup. Today when I see a comic, it’s like a game, “search for the hidden punch line.” Not that I’m saying stand-up was better when we did it. It was just different. Today there is less concern for the language or the purity of wit. It’s like reading novels now, so few writers worry about the color and sound of words, they just lay it out without any flare.
One of Webster's Dictionary definitions of “stand up” is 'informal courageous and loyal in a combative way'--how might that terminology apply to the comics you encountered back in the early days at the Improv and Catch a Rising Star?
There probably was no one more combative than Larry David, nor courageous. He bombed more than anyone, because of the nature of his material, which was way off beat, borderline insane. And even if a chair squeaked at the wrong time LD would lose his temper, thinking he was being mocked.
Michael Richards hated being interrupted, too. I used to combat hecklers by breaking down in tears (“Look what you’ve done!”) – those classes with Stella Adler paid off. I remember L.D. heckling the hecklers back. Very bold.
That was the best. When he got mad, you never knew what he’d say, but to us it was always hysterical. He’d slam the microphone onto the stage and call customers out to fight, or he’d throw gum on them. Larry and I spent a ton of time together in those early years so there’s lots of LD stories in the book. In fact the first person to read the book was Larry. I wanted to ok it with him. The only thing he made me take out was something positive I said about him.
How does the comedy scene differ today from when we were in our 20's, desperately sacrificing our families and dignities for a cheap laugh?
I don’t know much about the scene today. I just know that back then we were compelled to do standup. There was no money. It was just something inside us that had to come out besides the ninety-nine cent breakfasts. I never gave a thought about offending my family members -- most of my stuff did. One difference was that back then, us starving comics, despite our limited wardrobe, dressed to look successful. Today even the successful comics dress to look like they’re starving. I think I like it better today.
But, it was a creative time in the seventies. When we started at the Improv, it was run by Chris Albrecht who was twenty-five. I don't think there was anyone in the club over thirty. Gilbert Gottfried couldn’t even legally drink. So, the Improvisation had a real loose atmosphere that was encouraged creativity rather than relying on results. For Catch a Rising Star you had to be more polished and the Comic Strip grew its own great group of comics, like Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, Larry Miller, Eddie Murphy.
So many of our gang became creators of shows and talk show hosts in this era. How has the scene changed in late night for stand ups?
One of the reasons for the change in standup comedy, is the loss of Johnny Carson. Johnny was our God. He would bring on a new comic or two almost every week. And he loved them.
He knew better than to let me stand up, shackled me to sit down on the couch comedy my two stints on “Tonight.” But, he was lovely-- a lot of our friends got their starts with Johnny.
You hardly ever see Stand-ups on late night now. Since Jay Leno has been the host of the Tonight show he introduces very few. Letterman is very loyal and you see some of his old buddies like Richard Lewis, but not nearly as many new comics.
Did you enjoy writing for comediennes, too?
Yes, lots. The first joke I ever sold was to Elayne Boosler. It was “You know you’re getting fat when you step on your dog’s tail and he dies.” I didn’t find it any different writing for women. Maybe some of the subject matter was different, or I would change a set up a little. If it was funny for a guy, for the most part it could be adjusted to be funny from women. If I wrote a dick joke, I’d just make sure it wasn’t in the first person.
I loved Elayne Boosler and my acting classmateRita Rudner’s work. If you think her act is funny, you should’ve seen her do Blanche in "Streetcar." Thanks for including me. My life doesn’t seem that funny anymore.
You’re still in the book. You were a major part of the scene. Sorry I couldn’t keep the story about your boyfriend at the time stealing the Woody Allen caricature from Sardis as a Christmas gift to you.
I had to have a sense of humor because I didn’t know the word for “restraining order” in those days. Speaking of gifts, this book might be a lousy one for aging friends. It should come with a warning and a rating: Children’s Guidance (CG 80) Any older, folks might die laughing reading it.
I don’t know if I’d like to have someone die reading my book, but I could appreciate a good stroke, or a reader being forced to spend some time in a mental institution. I’m joking, of course, but, you know, in some ways, having a person die laughing at one of my jokes is not a bad legacy to leave.
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December 11, 2012 | 5:24 pm
Posted by Melanie Chartoff
My stench of desperation split the Red Sea of Apple addicts as, wild eyed, I made a beeline for the hallowed Bar of Geniuses. Stature decimated, starved for insight, prisoner of a cell phone I couldn't comprehend, I'd parked illegally, defying security in the bowels of the mall, fording a moat of mad shoppers during Holiday Hell to get help.
I was driven by peer pressure. The sirens who had shamed me into abandoning my Android, enticing me into their Yuppy, uppity App-y Iphone planet, were sick of explaining its unnecessary assets to me. Even my multi-deviced mate, who'd proposed making me a member of his "Verizon Friends and Family Plan" (a big step) regretted it. All who'd been kvellling about their new toys, were now yelling, telling me to go find some I.T. guy, suck out his brain and leave them be. They preferred to be lost in their screens not in me.
The clipboard female intuitively found and informed me I was an hour early for my appointment. She was nondescript, denatured, any vestige of the guiles of our gender neutered in her digital monotone and Apple T. I smiled, but, there was no velcro for vulnerability on this young woman. She was one step up from robot in her job description, hanging on by a thread of evolutionary luck. I asked for a restroom. With the blase of the bladder-less, she said they had none. She sped away. I spun seeking refuge.
There was no place to sit, to wait, to pose pretending to be cool. I was left to feign interest in my surroundings. I strolled with veiled glance. The complexity of the items displayed and the drooling of those lusting for them, made my brow ache, made me long for the comforting keyboard of my Motorola Click, a workhorse and pacifier at alienating times like this.
I loved how fast I was on that artifact. With this Iphone 5 I was all thumbs, clumsy prehensile thumbs that were not the graceful tools of the times. I could barely eke out a text without its predictive presumptions putting a spin what it thought I should be saying, causing rifts with intimates, nonsense with business. Oh, how I missed my low maintenance machine that accepted me as I was without constant corrections and complex obfuscations. But, I could not turn back.
I felt so alone in this crowd. The lighting was garish, my self-comparisons cruel. Everyone working here was younger, electronically endowed with chips embedded in their shoulders, preoccupied with products not people. Keyed up amidst a herd of keyboard-less nerds, I sensed another customer, another wild-eyed cow smelling its own slaughter seeking comfort in me, but the whites of my eyes avoided hers. If there was a pecking order here, it would not be wise for the beakless to conspire.
Were I the big Apple owner, I would've had a decoy from my demographic greeting me, like they have at Bed, Bath and Befuddled-- aged, underemployed, warm with a "born in the same boat" air of compassion begging "May I help you?"---plodding along next to me like those tired nags they use to soothe high strung horses, like therapy dogs in hospitals. But this was a cold, cruel store on Black First-Day-of-Hanukkah, and I was not at all welcomed. So, I stood facing a small piece of wall, eyes closed, focusing on my panting-- a form of speed meditating, accompanied by a pointless roll of my shoulders and a neck stretch which only served to make me more tense. I would beat this belittling atmosphere. I would survive.
And then Marcus melted into my perimeter. Lanky, multi-colored like a Benelton ad, clad in an Apple T, jeans and wool cap, he exuded cool by my side.
"Melanie at 1:50?"
"Yes!" I responded, far too gratefully.
"I can help you."
"Oh, I hope so."
He led me to a high counter crowded with tete a tetes of the the young talking down the older, like air traffic controllers landing rudderless pilots in a tsunami.
I pulled out my list. Conundrum Number One did not stump Marcus. He'd heard it all before. He handled it easily. Number Two was mere button instruction and I felt foolish asking. His responses were so rapid, his terms so new, my pretense of grasping them so false, I would never retain anything that way that day.
I begged him to stop. I told him I needed to go slow. He respected my feelings. I pulled out a pen, searching for paper in my cavernous purse, from which I mined a tiny Iphone instruction manual, a wet nap, a tissue, an antique tampon in tattered wrapper, but, no writeable paper. What a predicament. I did not own an Ipad. I couldn't touchscreen to take notes on the Iphone, which he currently cradled in his handsome hand. I needed to write. things. down.
This issue stumped Marcus.
"Paper?!" He glanced around bewildered.
"Does anyone have a piece of paper," he repeated rhetorically to his cohorts.
They shook their heads. They smirked. I cringed. To advanced Applers, I was Apple-achian.
I redeemed myself by recycling. I tore a strip of paper from a Bloomies bag, and poised myself to write, slooowly. He smiled; he assessed; he paused to pump up his patience. He produced a sudden stool from beneath the counter and invited me to perch. Would he? He didn't need to sit, he said. Apparently no one here perched or used paper, or urinated. Throwing image to the winds, I took a half-cheeked seat. My social standing here would be nil, but, my need to evolve, to keep up with my demographic, exceeded my self-consciousness.
"Let me see what programs you're running," he said, huddling his fragrant head of hair next to mine. He was not a man--he was an environment. The seduction began. He liked what I'd named my email accounts and groups. He admired, then gently, deftly removed the violently purple protective cover of which I was so proud. Side by side we peered into the private parts of my pale, naked Iphone. He began to stroke the screen with his finger and made the open apps shiver then disappear. He dragged on my name with his thumb, and it lit up and moved whereever he beckoned it to go. He turned it off. He turned it on. He was the Iphone whisperer. Oh, what gentle but potent power he had.
And as he began perusing my screensaver, my programs, my purchases and downloads, the way I had set up my emailage on my Iphone, I went into an Idream sort of euphoria. He was focused on this extension of my personality, at my technical choices on this separate aspect of my identity, but, it was as though he was caressing the back of my eyeballs with his attentiveness to my Iphone. A tranquil, sensuous feeling overcame me, like when childhood friends would brush my long hair, or teacher would read my essays aloud. I wondered if any other woman in the Iworld had ever felt this way.
I didn't want it to end. I went through Conundrums Three through Eight, scribbled the answers with occasional understanding. I was ashamed to ask if I could rehearse the tasks in front of him, to lock the learning in. But, I knew some wisdoms would stick and I would be way better off than before meeting Marcus. Then I stalled for time, peppering him with questions about the two built in cameras I'd hardly touched, subtly letting him know things about myself. He asked what I did for a living. He asked what I wanted to do with the cameras. We went beyond our allotted ten minutes to twenty. I made him chuckle. I had his interest. This was daring, this was getting dangerous.
He told me I needed a shotgun mic to make the movies I suddenly intended to make. He said he had a media plug to make everything work better for me, better earbuds to fit perfectly in my ears, into which he murmured that he could record sound on my film shoot for me, as it was his course of study in school. I hesitated. He asked if there was someone else. I told him of my mate and my recent inclusion on his family plan. There was a pregnant nano pause. Marcus had meant on my movie crew. With that silly misunderstanding, the mood began to shift. Chivalrously, Marcus told me of a forked headset meant for two listeners and headed off for it. He pulled several products from the walls as I floated footlessly along behind him like in a cinematic daze, still hooked on our connection.
He was Johnny AppleSeed, propagating equipment-laden ideas in my mind. I spent hundreds to elongate the contact between us, to buy my way into his Iworld. I was motivated all the more to make my movie so I could contact him via his personal email. This felt illicit; thrilling. Like we'd broken the rules. In the Eden of the Apple world, where the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge hung low, we had a future. But only there.
He left me and my credit card at the counter and sped away to his next assignation. My Ispirit sagged like a pricked balloon. I was now alone with my 5, and sobering information about myself. How easily my head got turned by Apple. I was an ordinary, impressionable, highly suggestible human. Then grateful remembrance of my real life washed over me. How happy I'd be to share my newfound tricks, and earphones built for two with my low tech but highly committed mate this Hanukkah. I knew we'd love listening side to the same CD's and DVD's in tandem for a long time to come.