The network late-night chat shows are dark this week (read: mutually agreed vacations), but that has not stopped some sites from taking note of how Steven Wright has become buddy-buddy with Craig Ferguson, appearing as an unannounced guest a few times recently on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Wright's rep tells me that the absurdist stand-up comedian has been hanging out in Hollywood this winter, and that his relationship with Ferguson and the show happened organically. I'm thinking it started in February, when Wright was already scheduled to perform on a taped program and decided to emerge from the green room during the taping of the night's scheduled show. This is the first time I saw Wright as an unscheduled guest, back on Feb. 12, 2009.
Yesterday, people wore shorts. Today, it's snowing. Am I in Las Vegas? Good guess, but no, this all has happened right here in Brooklyn (aka The Comic's Comic HQ). Yet another sign that up is down, down is up, and there must be news going on in comedyland. Let's catch up.
Anyone who still thinks the National Lampoon has anything to do with the landmark magazine or company of the same name that produced Animal House and Vacation a generation ago probably got snookered by the stock market scheme that landed the current Lampoon execs in court (NYT).
Rob Corddry took over Comedy.com yesterday because he could, and he shows you his favorite clips, and his favorite stand-ups.
NBC has promos up for Howie Mandel's new TV prank show, Howie Do It. Premieres Friday, Jan. 9, 2009. Hello, Larry.
Punchline Magazine is helping Marc Maron get a new one-man show off the ground, launching Scorching the Earth, on Jan. 3, 2009, at The Green Room at the Bleecker Street Theater in NYC.
The Apiary catches up with my friend DJ Hazard to see what's going on in his noggin. It's almost always stimulating stuff.
Which reminds me, up in Boston, they're throwing the Greater Boston Alternative Comedy Festival tonight, which is weird, because last time I checked, that's mostly everyone in Boston comedy these days. Read a new interview with The Walsh Brothers, back home for the holidays. Meaanwhile, the brand-new Boston Comedy Hall of Fame inducted Steven Wright last night in that alternative of venues, Showcase Live next to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough (you say Foxboro, I write Foxborough, let's call the whole thing off).
Max Silvestri liveblogged the awkwardly amusing Night of Too Many Stars benefit last night on Comedy Central so I wouldn't have to. The highlight of the night, though, had to be Chris Rock and Steven Wright trading off each other's jokes (video included when available -- the entire show can be streamed online for a limited time here, Rock and Wright are part 10).
George Carlin's latest HBO special, "It's Bad For Ya," debuted live Saturday night on HBO. For repeat viewings, it's On Demand and also airing multiple times, including 12:10 a.m. Monday on HBO2 (consult the HBO master schedule here).
If your DVR acted like mine, it cut out early. Ah, the beauty of live TV and its incompatibility with DVR technology. Here are Carlin's closing minutes, in case you missed them the first time around, as I did this morning. Note: Obviously NSFW due to language.
The hourplus essentially is the finished product of material I'd seen brand-new a year ago in Aspen at the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. Carlin refined the best parts and cut out the filler, going after the BS that we buy into as a culture and a nation, and how we've forgotten to question the BS or teach our children to, either. Religion and child-worship really come into his crosshairs. There's a section in the middle about boring people and their boring conversations that doesn't really fit, at least thematically, but it's a stronger and certainly more accessible set than his previous special about death. And that's even with Carlin talking at length about being old and his friends dying off in the first 10 minutes! Here, though, he turns it into a discussion about what to do with your dead friends and their contact info in your cell phone and email lists.
As I noted above, I had the chance to see Carlin workshop this material at its very beginning, when he read his thoughts from papers on the stage in Aspen. I also got a few minutes to talk with him after that initial set.
Was it a conscious decision to workshop instead of delivering prepared material, as you did when I saw you in Aspen for a free speech panel and award in 2002? "That had a single purpose and a focus and that was the topic," Carlin told me. "It wasn't George Carlin's show. It was me talking about having some freedom of speech and expression. This, obviously, is different. They asked me to do quote-unquote 'My show.' At whatever stage it was in, they didnt know when they asked me to be here. So it turns out they called me at the beginning of the cycle. It could as easily have been six months short of an HBO telecast and it would've been a more finished product. So it wasn't a conscious decision to do anything except show up. And that's what Woody Allen said is 90 percent of success, showing up."
Steven Wright had said the night before on national TV that he considered you the reason he got into stand-up comedy. How does it feel to be an influence on someone who has become a peculiar legend himself in comedy? "That's one I'm proud of. The more frequent thing I hear is, when I came along and started having these HBO shows and I had these albums in the 70s, Richard Pryor and I were in, of a given age group. And then a lot of people came along because of cable and comedy clubs, so they were of a different generation. But occasionally I'll hear someone say that they were, the last little bit of push they gave themselves to go ahead and do this, perhaps because they were, you know, 90 percent there in their minds, was they had seen my career, or they had seen Richard. They say this probably to more than one of us, so you can't really wear it as a badge, but it's true that some people have said that, 'You were an inspiration for me to go into this field,' and I always appreciate it. It's an honor."
Did Wright say what it was specifically about your comedy that he admired? "No, not at the very first moment. What he liked ultimately was the continued output of material. Because I have kind of a comedic diarrhea, I've been able to really produce a lot of material. I've been very lucky to be able to do that."
In which the author attempts, despite repeated crashes of his laptop computer, to briefly describe the shows he saw Thursday at the 2007 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.
Summer of Tears
Southern California sketch troupe mixed it up with videos. One took political TV ads and made the candidates potential boyfriends. Another looked at a botched submission for “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” And a third crudely wondered what really happened during Johnny Cash’s final recording sessions. Lots of sexual material. The troupe made use of one member’s uncanny Matthew McConaughey to good effect, but as my friend suggested, they might’ve wanted to put that sketch last. Later sketches only reminded us how much the guy sounds like him. Odd. Still funny.
Pete & Brian’s One Man Show
Pete is Peter Karinen. Brian is Brian Sacca. Together, they’re funny in a comfortably awkward way. Wait. Let me rephrase that. They’re comfortable in their awkwardness. Which makes their “one-man show” work. Their opening and closing sequences are simple yet creative. Much like their use of T-shirts to identify the various characters in their show.
“The General” with The Alloy Orchestra
A classic silent film by one of the great physical comedians, Buster Keaton, set to live music by Cambridge’s own Alloy Orchestra. Yes, the guy delivering the intro may have said that the orchestra has been in residence at the Telluride Film Festival for 15 years, but Roger, Terry and Ken are based in Cambridge, Mass. If you haven’t yet seen this movie, you must. It’s brilliant. Keaton is full of wonderful ideas and is a master of execution in delivering the funny without saying a word. And if you see this movie, I suggest you see it with the Alloy Orchestra. Their score is on the money. Hearing it live makes you forget you’re watching a “silent” movie. I only wish more people filled the seats at the Wheeler Opera House for it.
Michael Showalter, Mary Lynn Rajskub, John Oliver
Showalter’s 15-minute set includes much I’d seen before, including his musical selections of songs he’s no longer guilty of loving. It goes over much better in the clubs than in Aspen, mostly because the crowd here is, well, not quite as hip. They do seem to know the show “24,” though, as Rajskub poked fun at her alternate reality as Chloe. Oliver deserved to go last. His set showed he could tap into the local oddities that make up both Aspen and the festival, and he swiftly put a heckler in her place. “I’m guessing you’re not in comedy,” he said. “You smack of privileged local.”
Wright showed a more animated and feisty side last night than I’d seen in a while. He tried to deny it later, but bits such as his “Indian midget” joke or his routine about having a son certainly don’t sound or feel like the Steven Wright most people remember. Regardless, the audience lapped up Wright’s hourlong set. For good reason. He began with material familiar to those who’ve seen “When the Leaves Blow Away,” his 2006 Comedy Central special. But midway through, Wright started opening up. No, really. He’d bounce around the stage. He’d laugh. He’d throw his hands in the air. He’d look to the wings. As my friend and fellow Boston comic Shane Mauss noted during the set, “He looks like he’s having more fun.” Good for him and us both.
Host Eddie Pence brought an oddly low-key vibe to this midnight show. The audience brought an even odder vibe. A woman off to the side routinely shouted out, not quite heckling in a traditional sense, but still bothersome. Lisa deLarios went up first, and fared well despite her slot in the order. Taking what might be a typical relationship joke and shifting it to her dog was funny. Her bit about shopping at thrift stores -- “A onesie for grownups?” -- was very funny. Next up, Dan Mintz. Mintz seemingly stared into space while telling jokes he certainly didn’t tell during his appearance on “Premium Blend.” Young Chris Fleming (we go with a title of young when the performer isn’t old enough to drink in Aspen) had a slightly difficult time connecting with this audience, and it showed. Better luck next time. Michael Kosta: Air high fives. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. But it works for him. Ian Bagg had no trouble at all connecting with the audience, and finally brought some energy to this show. “My career’s going nowhere after this,” Bagg said. Let’s hope that’s not the case.
Thursday in Aspen: The 2007 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival
Before my recap, let's get straight to the latest installment of the Shane Spotlight, in which my comedy condo roommate Shane Mauss describes his day.
“I had some meetings yesterday with people who saw my show the previous night and liked it. Those went extremely well. Met more people. And then I had another show at the Belly Up, which comics have been complaining about a little bit toward being on the hit or miss side. From my experience that’s the way the show has been. But our group had a great show. I don’t think it conflicted with any of the important shows, so that helped a bit. First night I bit the bullet. Last night I went up third. That seemed to be a good spot. I mixed it up a little bit. I did about new stuff for almost half of my set. They told us not to. But I was right. Everything went fantastic. I had a great set. Everyone in my group had a great set. And a bunch of people were talking to me afterwards. They seemed to be interested in what I was doing. I got a lot of new contacts. It couldn’t have gone much better.”
Did anyone give you a pile of money?
“No, no one gave me a pile of money. Everyone talks about that, but no.”
Mauss also enjoyed seeing and meeting Steven Wright, and had this to say about the other shows.
“I’ve been incredibly surprised by the level of creativity by essentially every performer I’ve seen. Every performer different and unique, which is the most important thing,” he said. “I think I saw about eight hours of comedy yesterday -- which is a lot of comedy to take in -- and it was all good. that’s how much fun the festival has been.”
Wednesday in Aspen: The 2007 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival
Twenty-four hours after I boarded a Silver Line bus in Boston for the airport, I’m sitting in a condo on the side of the mountain in Aspen, coasting on my fourth wind into what already is shaping up to be one of the craziest weekends of my life.
Notwithstanding marriage and prison.
And those are two entirely different stories, mind you.
Focus, readers. Focus.
But first, an examination of how we (meaning I) got here.
Listed departure time for my United Airlines flight from Boston’s Logan airport: 7:49 a.m Eastern
Actual departure time: 9 a.m.
Why? After getting out onto the runway, the pilot announced we might have a delay in Denver, so we need to fuel up. Don’t we have enough fuel? Regardless. Or perhaps not without some regard, we taxi back to the gate, put some more petrol into the plane, and finally take off.
Listed arrival time in Denver: 10:30 a.m. Mountain
Actual arrival time: 11:30 a.m. Mountain
Why? See above.
Still plenty of time to catch the 12:43 p.m. flight to Aspen, only the flights are canceled. They’ve all been canceled. Wednesday and Tuesday. What to do, what to do. United Airlines books us on buses, which board and leave Denver from the airport tarmac. Yes, really. Our bus pulled away from gate B73 at 3:15 p.m., arriving at the Aspen airport five hours later, just in time to see the lights of an actual airplane landing there. What? Not that it could’ve helped us. That flight had arrived from Chicago. Apparently, not all planes are created equal, and the new planes from Denver somehow lack the wherewithal to land in Aspen unless the weather conditions are idyllic. Not that this should surprise anyone who has flown into Aspen before. The airport isn’t merely tucked or nestled among the mountains. From the air, you don’t even know Aspen or its airport runway exists until you’re on top of it.
Anyhow, my roommate for the week, comedian Shane Mauss, endured an even more arduous journey on Tuesday. He and other performers, including fellow Bostonian Dan Boulger, had attempted the flight from Denver, only to turn around just before landing in Aspen -- they then had to wait hours for a bus, which took six hours to reach Aspen since the mountain passes, were, um, not quite passable. They missed their official unofficial “warm-up” industry showcase. And they didn’t get their luggage until Wednesday afternoon. So who was I to complain? Exactly.
Anyhow. The luggage arrived with me, and we both made it to base camp, aka the festival and the condo, by 9 p.m., or a half-hour before George Carlin’s scheduled performance.
A brief high-altitude sprint and a well-placed phone call led me to the Wheeler Opera House with minutes to spare. The p.a. announcer noted that Carlin is celebrating 50 years in comedy (as is Don Rickles, subject of a special ceremony and panel later in the week), and film clips displayed Carlin’s transformation from goofball to social critic to what he is now, ultimately a little of both. A critical goofball.
He came right out and announced he planned to deliver 77 minutes of all new material. If the audience didn’t like it, well, please consult any of the seven dirty words.
“The audience doesn’t really figure into my plans,” Carlin declared. “The way I see it, you’re here for me. I’m here for me. And no one is here for you.”
So what about him?
Well, Carlin delivered closer to 80 minutes. He did acknowledge that the altitude might make the gaps seem longer as he caught his breath, and he noted more than once that he would rely on his notes and that this was a workshop. Not a show. But almost a show.
The strongest sections appeared to include a 15-minute riff on the b.s. we accept without questioning it, followed by a 10-minute discussion on people who won’t shut up, and ways to perhaps induce them into silence.
Among the less-successful, completely throwaway lines were a few disgusting street jokes and a joke that literally and figuratively felt ripped from a scene in There’s Something About Mary, as well as an oft-told bit about how all athletes shouldn’t be praising God for their success.
Carlin did share some insight by recasting the nuclear proliferation into religion and class issues, and ended with a different take on human rights.
The workshop should prove useful as Carlin develops his new act.
After a brief break, Carlin re-emerged for a few photographs and a few questions for the press -- the only other media reps there were a woman from the AP and a guy representing Sirius radio. Holding down the anchor slot, Carlin immediately noted my Irish name and Boston reference, asking me what county my family hails from. Carlin also comes from Irish stock. At any rate. Got in a couple of good questions and received some solid answers which will resurface soon enough.
But onto the next show.
Arrived at the night’s last stand-up showcase too late to see Mauss, but saw TJ Miller and Erik Charles Nielsen. Former local Jon Fisch hosted this group. I’d seen Miller and Nielsen before, but only on tape. I want to hold off on saying more until I see that group as a whole in one show.
Boulger spotted me when the lights came up, and we were off to the VH1 party at Bar Aspen. Plenty of comics and industry types milling about, taking advantage of the limited (two-hour) open bar. So Boulger and I didn’t stay long, instead heading back to the St. Regis, where I spotted two civilians talking to Steven Wright in the lobby. Without too much coaxing, I got Boulger to join me in engaging Wright in about a half-hour of comedy talk in the lobby. I won’t tell you exactly what Boulger offered Wright, 1) because I don’t want to spoil the surprise if he accepts, and 2) because I could barely contain myself from laughing at Boulger’s offer.
Everything went quite swimmingly. So much so, in fact, that I implored Wright not to say too much until I could break out the official recorder and notepad for a later date. Even at 1:30 a.m., you have to know when business and pleasure are getting awfully close to one another. Especially in a place like this comedy festival, where everyone feels so comfortable so quickly.
Another area of the St. Regis main floor has become the Sierra Mist Lounge. Ah, the commercialization of comedy. Searching for the appropriate cliché here: Perhaps, the more things change…
The lounge had specialty drinks, foosball and ping pong. Mauss and I teamed up for a friendly pong exhibition against Hari Kondabolu and Chris Fleming. We won. Not that you can win an exhibition. But we won.
Kondabolu also happens to be staying in our condo (or, should I say, I’m staying in his), and he quickly earned good vibes from me when Google notified me that he has New England connections -- having studied at Bowdoin and performed before at the Comedy Studio -- and that he moved from New York to Seattle last year (which, for anyone who knows anything about my own personal comedy history, translates into major bonus points). He and I already have played the name game quite well. More to come on that front, as he gets his first showcase on Thursday.
But the Sierra Mist lounge -- pretzels, mini corndogs and all -- closed all too soon, though, and after more than a bit of banter, we arrived at the UCB house after-party. More comedians, more amusing incidents. Met Seth Morris, artistic director for the UCB’s Los Angeles branch, who informed me that they’re going to launch some sort of “Wicked Pissah Funny” series this spring highlighting all of the Boston comics who’ve migrated to the Left Coast’s La La Land.
But that’s for another day and another post.
It’s now time for the first installment in the Shane Spotlight, in which I ask stand-up Shane Mauss about his day in Aspen -- at the very end of the day. Tonight’s installment occurred at, oh, somewhere past 4 a.m.
First, a news bulletin.
Mauss went up first tonight in his showcase -- biting the bullet, as they say -- only he chewed up the bullet and spit it out, letting everyone know that he would be bringing the funny this week.
So, Shane, how was your Wednesday?
“I woke up in dirty clothes with fuzzy teeth. My teeth were fuzzy,” he said. “I refused to buy a new toothbrush for three dollars because they said my bags were going to be here any minute now. Next thing I know, it’s been two days and I haven’t brushed my teeth or changed my clothes. And then I got all my stuff.”
How about your first show?
“I was the first comedian up after the host, Jon Fisch,” he said.
Had you met him before?
“I’d worked with him in New York a little bit.”
Did that make you more comfortable about starting the show?
“Going up first, I knew that might not mean the right number of people in the audience. I was more worried about people not showing up until after my set. But I almost preferred going up first tonight. I had a good time.”
Did it feel different at this festival compared to other gigs?
“I don’t know if I was nervous or my throat was really dry from the altitude. But I felt different. I felt nerves from time to time. Not that often.”
Whom did you meet today?
Mauss consults the program guide. “I went to Stand-Up A, I liked the bottom three the most,” he said. “But my group won.”
Steven Wright's first TV stand-up comedy special in 15 years, "Steven Wright: When the Leaves Blow Away," premieres at 9 p.m. tonight on Comedy Central (repeats at 11 p.m. tonight, 10 p.m. Monday).
The hourlong special shows Wright is still as funny as he was when Bostonians and everyone else first heard his unique yet simple takes on life back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Wright was kind enough to talk with me at length. Then again, most other comics, from wily vets to newcomers, say the same thing about him. At any rate. He told the audience at last month's Boston Comedy Festival to "trust your gut" and "you have to take risks," whether it's about comedy or anything else. Does taping your first TV special in 15 years count as a risk? Wright initially told me what he has told other interviewers. "I don't know. Maybe I should've. I just…I hadn't done one in so long. All comedians notice stuff. That's where the comedy comes from, from noticing things, but I didn't really notice that the time had gone by so fast, which is strange…I would look out at the crowd at the theater as they're coming in, there were 20-year-olds, and 30s, but mostly they were in their 40s and 50s and 60s. Which is fine. But the people who are in college now were 5 when I did my last one…The young people might think I'm the guy on the couch from Half Baked. Which I am. I did that. But they might not know that I did comedy. Will the young people be into it like the old people?"
At the BCF, Denis Leary said he was shocked to learn that his Emerson College classmate Wright had started stand-up comedy a year after they graduated. What did your classmates expect you to be doing? "I was so laidback and such a quiet, introverted person, which I kind of am in a way still, but I was way more at that time. Anyone who knew me in high school…the notion of me going onstage, it was opposite of my character." And Wright has said he was initially afraid to do stand-up. "I was focusing on radio when I was at Emerson. I was going to try to be a guy on the radio. I didn't think that this would happen. I fantasized about it and thought I would try it, but the other half of me thought this would never happen, so I better have something else going on. I thought being on the radio and saying funny things would be cool."
Wright's right, of course. And he did appear as the DJ on the soundtrack to Reservoir Dogs. Did you think you'd still be doing comedy at 50? "When I started doing this, I never thought about how long. I didn't think about that. I just wanted to someday go on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. That was my goal. That was my fantasy, because I loved him. I loved the show. I loved the comedians on there. He affected my life. He affected my life twice. First, he affected it by making me want to become a comedian, and then he affected it by having me on there…Then when I traveled around and did shows year after year, I never thought about how long this would go. Sometimes I don't think ahead. But now that you're asking me that, now that I am that age, if someone asked me when I was 23 when I started, if a fortune teller told me that I'd still be doing this 27 years from now, I'd be amazed. Wow."
Did you realize what impact your Tonight Show appearance would have on the Boston scene? "Now I see that it was an example of the fantasy that could come true. That's how I, if I did that, other people could do that, too. It made the dream a reality, not just for me but inspired other people to go on there. I think Kevin Meaney went on there, Jack Gallagher, Jimmy Tingle, Goldthwait, Paula Poundstone. So it showed that it could happen. I was lucky that the talent coordinator, Peter Lassally, liked me." Wright went on about Carson, though. "He always wanted you to do great. You could tell that. He really wanted you to get the laugh sitting there. Even though he was this giant legend guy, you felt he could relate to you because you were both comedians. You both felt that connection."
Of course, many young comics look to Wright as a giant legend guy. "I don't know if they consider me a giant legend guy. I know that I looked up to him and George Carlin and Woody Allen. And now some people tell me I influence them and they watched me when they grew up. Because to me, I'm just me. But then I have to step out of it and say, well, I guess. You don't think of that. You're so focused about just doing the show and hopefully having a good set that you're not really thinking of an overall impact. It's fascinating to me because, like I said, to me I'm just me, so to have that, it's kind of weird."
We talked a little bit about things we have in common. We also compared notes about the impact of crowd sizes. The smallest crowd Wright has performed in front of? "In the early days, 15 or 10-11 people. A weeknight, late at night, you're on last, it's just bizarre. It makes what you're doing, it makes it seem like a crazy angle to it. You're not only a comedian. You're also a crazy person. I don't know how it does that. The awkwardness because if you weren't up there, the awkwardness wouldn't be happening, so you being up there means you're to blame for the awkwardness, even though it's not you, it's the situation." Some comics point out the situation right away. Wright? "I think I would just try to do my act regular, so it was probably extra weird."
His previous specials aired on HBO. Tonight's debuts on Comedy Central. "Way more people see Comedy Central than HBO, I guess, because it comes with the regular cable package, and there's people like devoted to that channel. So we thought it would reach more people. It also has a younger base, I think, than HBO, so I think for trying to introduce me to a bunch of people who don't know me, it's really a good place to go. And they're hoping some of the older fans I've had for years and years would get drawn to watch me there and then they'd watch some of the other stuff, too."
Do you ever get an impulse to go see another comic perform anymore? "If I know someone who's performing, I might go out to specifically see them, like Kevin Meaney or Schimmel, or Gilbert Gottfried," he said. "I don't usually see the new people unelss I go out to try some new jokes. I've done that in the Comedy Studio. So in waiting to go on, I'd see these other people."
A lot of the new comics say you're very helpful with advice, which is something comics wish they'd get more often from established stand-ups. Wright says it's no bother. "I like talking to them," he said. "I just tell them simple things. You know, pretty basic things. They're hard to do, but it's basic."
Steven Wright made a rare live appearance (note: though it'd turn out to be part of his training for his first new CD in decades) on Valentine's Day in Boston for a benefit show called "A Funny Kind of Love" at the Avalon nightclub.
Wright's 32-minute set -- a nonstop barrage of non sequiturs, tongue-twisting mind-benders and premise-based stories -- even had fellow performer Lenny Clarke howling from the side of the stage. "I'm even laughing before the punchlines!" Clarke exclaimed about midway through Wright's set.
Here were a few of Wright's quips that night:
"I wish my first word as a baby was 'quote,' so when I died, I could've said 'end quote.'"
"What did Jesus ever do for Santa Claus on his birthday?"
"My problem is I was reincarnated without ever having lived before."
"My dog has a Web site. All it has is naked cats."
"You know the Earth is bipolar."
"Tomorrow I'm going to have an MRI to find out if I'm claustrophobic."
"I have two very rare photographs. One is of Harry Houdini getting locked out of his car. The other is of Norman Rockwell beating up a kid."
"I have a friend who is in prison for counterfeit pennies. I told him it wasn't worth it. You know how they caught him? He had heads and tails on the wrong side."
"I'm addicted to placebos. I could quit, but it wouldn't matter."
"A friend of mine has a trophy wife. But apparently, it wasn't first place."