In my act, on stage, and in my thinking about material off stage, I leave out the people that make the news, and rarely call up a name. I may’ve had a few instances where I’ve used “Einstein” as a substitute for “smart,” and I do one joke where I use JFK and Reagan (airports) as an example of the division of DC politics. But otherwise, I don’t call out anyone current (or alive). I leave that task for the late night hosts to perform (and their writers to write). They do it daily, sometimes wonderfully, and also sometimes wearily.
Writing about those in the current stream of public consciousness is a different way to write than what I’ve cultivated for myself. I just don’t think about Kardashian, or Trump vs Clinton jokes. For one, I’m terrible with names, and am not getting any better. For another reason, it just doesn’t seem to be humor I want to do.
It’s not bad, it’s also not my cup of tea. I did do it for over a year when I submitted material to Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. While I sold some, I soon learned it wasn’t for me, it just didn’t feel right. Preying on someone’s accident, or word, or stupid behavior wasn’t fun, and because I had other options, that’s what I pursued.
I’ve long joked that the true reason I don’t write topically is that I’m lazy; I prefer writing jokes that will be here / that I can do five years after I write it. For whatever reason, my brain is calibrated as a telescope of the everyman/woman/person experience rather than the microscope of the one and his or her easily exaggerated foibles.
As I say in one routine, the rich and famous, and politically popular / powerful are the easiest targets. Kind of the lowest hanging fruit on the comedy tree, and—as you can tell from my act—I prefer to pick up my fruit…off the ground.
But after I had the privilege of talking to a high school comedy group in New York recently, who had more questions than I had time to answer. The one thing that bugged me most was my answer to “Who were my influences?” I have been asked this many times, but recently changed my usual answer. I kept in Shelley Berman, (see my post on him) and Bob Newhart as the first comedy voices I heard. I included my hero Bob Hope on his annual Christmas special where I found out being a “comic” could be a REAL JOB!!! With maturity, I admired Richard Pryor and George Carlin for presenting serious issues with boldness and honesty. As well as many a modern trend-setter, but most of those were my foundation.
One performer who would have been near the top of my list years ago, but whom I didn”t mention at all is Bill Cosby.
It seems un-PC in this PC-charged world, to give someone kudos when he is under a cloud of possible terrible behavior. Yet, in my search to be honest as a starting point, despite the exaggeration of an ending point, I’d have to say Bill Cosby’s material was formative to my comedy thinking. He weaved the honesty of so many stories from sharing personal experience, from being a child, to playing sports, to having a marriage, to raising children, to growing older, to so many things I was drawn to. I admired his thinking, his presentation, and his clean delivery. His comedy pieces were (are) timeless. At Johnny Carson’s request, Cosby performed Johnny’s favorite “Noah” routine at one of the final installments of The Tonight Show. The bit was 30 years old and still fresh. (He stopped mid-way and said something like: “I can’t remember this thing…” to big laughter)
But now, after hearing horrid allegations and, through unsealed testimony, terrible revelations, I feel let down by someone I admired and even patterned aspects of my career after. It’s uncomfortable. For a long while now, I’ve wrestled with the question whether one can ever separate a performer’s act on stage from his acts in real life. Will I ever laugh at some of my favorite routines again? Should I?
No matter what verdict Bill Cosby receives, I will long miss the innocence of my early days of enjoying and learning from that laughter.