by Chad Lehrman (Twitter: @chadlehrman)
How did attending Yale’s Drama School and Second City prepare you to be a stand-up comic?
Yale was not important in terms of what I later did in stand-up comedy, and even in my work in the theater and movies. I was 20 years old getting out of college, and to send me out into the real world would have been ridiculous. All my friends were in medical school, so I had to go to some graduate school, right? Why not drama? The fact is, Second City was crucial, and I even got paid for that. I didn’t have to pay tuition. It gave me acting training because we did set pieces every show, like a play. Then, after each of those shows, we would take suggestions from the audience. So it was a 2-fold training. That’s the way I write the new stuff- I improvise like I learned at Second City. New stuff comes out, I record it. I listen, and if it’s worthy, if it got a laugh, I try it again, tweak it, rewrite, tweak it- and that’s how a new repertoire is born.
So you just kind of go up on stage with a topic?
Well, yeah, I’ll write a topic… I’ll see Senator Craig from Utah, I mean, I can’t let this go. If this went to C-SPAN, it would be sensational: “Senator, you’ve done wonderful service for America, but the topic at hand- now this wide stance to hold your pants up, were you doing number 1 or number 2?” It would be the best C-Span ever. Now, I generally tend to not do current events in my HBO specials cause they will show for a long time and I don’t want something that everyone’s forgotten about. I don’t think anyone’s likely to forget about that though. Or maybe I’ll decide it’s something they will forget and I’ll decide to not put it in the show. I kind of want to speak about politics more historically, speak timelessly- do stuff that won’t disappear from people’s minds so quickly.
I read that when you were promoting your autobiography, you said, “America dumbed down just when I chose to write a book.”
I think that’s true. I can’t prove it, but I bet anything it’s true. Newspaper readership is down, readership in general is down. Young people may forget the feeling of the heft of a good book in their hand and the well-lit quiet space it requires to read it. Computers are indispensable, they’re here to stay, but everything is in your face now. Whether it’s the fast-cutting in music videos, or the quality of video games, everything is in your face. I think it’s sad that young people can’t tell analog time. “Well Pop, the big hand is on the uh…” The battles over whether the government should give any money to the arts. The whole idea of creativity of any kind is not valued enough by this society. It’s become a wrestling slant down, a Howard Stern society, lacking the subtlety. I’m not a doomsayer or something, I love silliness as much as the next guy. I love Laurel & Hardy, I love the Marx Brothers, I love physical jokes and stuff like that, but a lot of elegance has been lost. I’m not a prude- I use profanity in my act when it’s necessary, when it’s apt. Just like a writer or a novelist. But poor Lenny Bruce suffered so badly. His sacrifice seems ironic now, in that it led to Def Comedy Jam and others. By the way, there’s a lot of young talent on those Def Jam shows- it’s really good, but the whole idea of some of the subject matter- it seems like everything is either profane or about bodily function. There’s a time and place for that, but it seems to be so pervasive. When you think of Lenny Bruce and the detectives going up on the stage in Chicago because he made a joke about the Pope, and arresting him- you don’t want that, but the pendulum has swung so much the other way. I’m not for any government censorship of course- you censor with your pocketbook or your hand on the dial. I don’t know, there’s a lot of talent out there making some really good comedy, but I wonder about the general dumbing down, I really do.
Was Lenny Bruce a big influence on you?
Oh yes, him and Jonathan Winters were my most important immediate influences. I was influenced by every comedian I saw on television, and live comedians I saw in small resorts north of New York City in the so-called Borscht Belt. These were guys you never saw on television but they were big in their own field. They would come in and absolutely wreck the audience for 35 or 40 minutes, get into their Cadillac, go somewhere else and make other people laugh. It looked like a great way to make a living and a wonderful calling. When the time came when I was considering trying it seriously, then I heard these albums and saw snippets of Lenny Bruce and watched Jonathan Winters religiously on Jack Paar and wherever he appeared. These guys made it into a theatrical enterprise- no standing there with cufflinks making fat girlfriend jokes, these guys were a theatrical enterprise by themselves with their noises and their improvisations, and their being every character in the sketch. Jonathan Winters, who I got to know a little bit, is a wonderful guy and a tremendous genius- he was apolitical in his work. Nonetheless, it was a quantum leap beyond what I had ever seen stand-up comics do. Bruce also had great voices and noises but he had social significance as well. Some of his bits are just elegant now. The cursing in them seems so innocent. He cursed for a reason. He satirized organized religion, which is so common now.
Did you ever get a chance to see him live?
Never. The best I ever saw live was Richard Pryor. Pryor and I became friends at the Improv in ’66, ’67. He was collegiate then. Never mind cursing, he wore cute little white sweaters and he was hilarious. Then he disappeared from the scene around ’68, with all the assassinations that terrible year- Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King. He disappeared for a couple years and came back a new, more authentic Richard Pryor, complete with profanity but you see, that was the language of his youth. When we became friends, I asked him what college he went to and he laughed for 5 minutes. He was brought up in a whorehouse among tramps and various hard livers. The guy had a heart attack and he did the most incredible bit I ever heard about it. He was amazing. I think it’s unfair when people like Eddie Murphy, who is a great movie star, but I think it’s unfair when Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence, they’re put in the same paragraph because they’re black comedians and they’re profane. There is a world of difference between him and everyone else. I did see him in person a number of times at his peak and he was top-notch.
What do you think about Dave Chappelle performing a 6 hour stand-up set?
I never saw it. I certainly wouldn’t sit through it, but the guy is good. When is he gonna do it? Is this an event that is happening?
Well, he’s already done it twice.
I don’t approve of that, but look, if they want it, to each his own. Some people sit through a 4 hour opera. He’s good though, at least. Dane Cook for 14 minutes is pretty tough. 6 hours of Chappelle is probably better than a half hour of Dane Cook. With Dane Cook, I just don’t see it. I’m going, “where’s the beef here?” I just don’t get it. He made a career for himself on the internet.
What is your memory of performing at the hungry i in San Francisco?
I loved it. It was an elegant club, they cared so much about the audience. Most comedy clubs don’t even have a dressing room. It was a great performance town. I first played there in the fall of ’67 and performed for 3 weeks. Jon Hendricks of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross was the headliner. It was a beautiful engagement and it was a beautiful city, my first trip there. One girl asked me if my moon was ascending, and no one had ever asked me that before. Each subsequent trip to San Francisco, it lost its innocence more and more. It’s a great performance town, smart people. Next to New York, it’s my favorite American city. I’ve never been to Cobb’s, I’m really looking forward to it.