January 11, 2013
Standups of the 70’s—Still Stars Today
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.