These are not the ravings of a lunatic
For his first Comedy Central special, Andy Kindler '78 wound up in an unfamiliar venue in Las Vegas before a crowd that expected to see George Lopez. “Many times when I bomb it can be fun for me because I can comment about it. But this was not fun for me. Not fun for the audience. I could see my manager in the back of the room looking terrified.” The network never aired the show.
Comedy is the only art form that has hecklers.
“Nobody yells at painters,” says Paul Reiser ’77. “Nobody heckles dancers.”
It’s because everybody believes they’re funny, he says, but not everyone, even funny people, can do standup. Telling a good joke to friends is one thing. It’s quite another to write 45 minutes’ worth and deliver them night after night to a roomful of strangers. That’s an act of a madman.
Comics are the first to admit it. Their early years are a string of successes and adrenaline rushes punctuated by painful, public failures. All comics bomb, even the most talented, yet they come back again and again. And they can’t tell you why.
“If I stopped and looked at it, I probably would never do it,” Reiser says. “When you go onstage … whatever comes out of your mouth, the presumption has to be, ‘Really? That’s what you went onstage to do? That’s what you thought was so important that you asked for a spotlight and a microphone so that you might say that?’ It’s absurd. By definition, it’s an arrogant thing. I don’t feel arrogant doing it, but if you think about it, who would stand up and say, ‘Listen to this’?”
Every comic loves the attention. There’s something powerful about commanding a room, making people laugh and having everyone like you. That’s why many do it. Some like the writing part more. They like expressing themselves and feeling the immediate connection to the audience. And some comics use standup simply as a stepping stone to a larger career.
There are about as many reasons to be a comic as there are comics, and just as many personalities. Some are thick-skinned — bombing doesn’t bother them. In fact, they find humor in it. But others take it more personally. One comic interviewed stayed away from the stage for a year after an exceptionally bad performance.
One thing they all share is an appreciation for the purity of the art form — it’s just the comic, the jokes and the audience.
Reiser recently returned to standup, where he started before creating and co-starring in the 1990s sitcom Mad About You. He has performed about 12 shows since spring as he begins the long process of developing a new act and knocking rust off skills long out of use.
“The last few months for me have felt like a great outlet … it’s not writing for a show, it’s not writing for six actors, it’s not having to sell the premise and get funded and get picked up and all those things,” Reiser says. “The simplicity of it is very appealing: Here’s something funny — I’m just going to perform this without any of the clutter.”
When Reiser got into standup, clubs were springing up all over. A producer could take a shining to a comic, put him on The Tonight Show and launch a career overnight. Andy Kindler ’78 got in about the same time.
“It was when we had this comedy explosion in all these clubs in all these cities,” Kindler says. “Within a year of going on my own, I was on the road like 40 weeks a year.”
He went on to have a recurring role in Everybody Loves Raymond and is a regular correspondent on The Late Show with David Letterman.
In today’s fractured media landscape it can be much harder to gain attention as comics compete with hundreds of television channels, an endless stream of Internet silliness, three new Hollywood movies every week and on-demand video just a click away. How does a lone comedian stand out in such a crowd?
Comics can’t rely on their act alone to gain attention. At a minimum, they need a website and a comedy reel to send to producers. They should be trying to build a following online. Dane Cook is the classic example, garnering millions of hits on his MySpace page before mainstream America ever heard of him.
When going into meetings with producers, comics need to bring ideas — for sitcoms, reality shows, specials and even movies.
With all the hustling for attention, it’s surprising how supportive the community of standups is. Every comic interviewed says jealousies and rivalries exist, but are minimal because, unlike other areas of show business, there are enough gigs to go around. A comedian can play a club Tuesday and tell a friend, who can play it Friday. It’s not a zero-sum game like acting, where one person gets the part and one doesn’t.
Kindler says that sense of community, which is similar to the one he fell in love with at Binghamton University, is one of the things he likes best about comedy. “When I go to a club, we all hang out afterward, we always talk, we always give each other leads. I feel very lucky to be a standup because of that.”