Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Excerpt 02

(Scotty Baron and the author in front of a Methodist church that hosted an open mic in the basement)

(excerpt 2 from "It Seemed Funny at the Time") rough

Modern Stand-Up; A brief history- 19Whenever to 1990

We’ll start with Vaudeville. The Vaudeville style of theatre dominated public entertainment for twenty years each side of 1900. It was a grab-bag show of the sublime and sacreligous. The term Vaudeville may come from "voix de ville", which means "voice of the city". It was the entertainment of an emerging middle class. The bar of acceptance for the performers was largely set by the audience; entertain them or be jeered and pelted with garbage.

Vaudeville was knocked out of the large theatre venues by the one-two punch of Film and Radio. The spectacle of film was cheaper and easier for the venue owners, and radio did home delivery. The peoples entertainment was no longer interactive, and the variety was homogenized for mass appeal. *A few notable comedians that made the jump to the new Media are W.C. Fields, The Marx Bros., Jack Benny, Abbott and Costello, and Bob Hope.

The “Borscht Belt” circuit of the Catskill Mountains emerged as an entertainers hot house after Vaudeville. It attracted displaced Vaudevillians, especially the comedians, and fostered emerging talent for radio, screen and eventually Television. The list of prominent names of this school of Comedy include Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, Henny Youngman, Rodney Dangerfield, Lenny Bruice, and Woody Allen.

Long before, along side, and after the Vaudeville era, there was what became known as the “Chitlin’ Belt”. Segregation fostered the emergence of a black entertainment road circuit throughout the eastern states and the South. This artistic vascular system of venues and theatres included the Cotton Club in New York City, The Apollo Theatre in Harlem, The Regal Theatre in Chicago, and the Ritz in Jacksonville. Comedic luminaries Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx, and Richard Pryor cut their teeth on what the PC now refer to as the “urban theatre” circuit.

These early circuits were all about variety, Comics shared the stage with burlesque, dog and pony shows, musical acts, raconteurs, magicians, activists, polititions, and then some. The formats were wide and inclusive.

The alchemical roll of the comedian in the Vaudville mélange of entertainment seemed to be that of unifier, barrier breaker. Sharing a convulsive laugh unifies people undeniably, and uncontrollably. The comedians were like social lubricators for circuit shows. They we’re emcees, in betweeners, warm up acts, and facilitators.
A laughing audience is a relaxed audience. Laughter makes us high and music is fun to listen to when were high.

An Entertainment Industry had emerged with the new media. Television needed comedians. Big stage names entered the television world through hosting their own talk shows, reprising their Vaudevillian role as the grease between the wheels. Pioneers of the genre, Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson defined the art of late night talk show hosting. They brought in their fellow stage cronies as guests and made them household names.

Television spurred the need of a place for young comedians to showcase themselves for the medium. The vacuum would be filled by Bud and Silver Friedman with the invention the comedy club; The Improvisation in New York City. The space serves as a base for a new generation of comedians to work out their act. It became a portal for the new talent to move from obscurity to celebrity. The club launches numerous careers, feeding acts into the opening maw of Television.

A decade later, Silver wins the club from Bud in a divorce. Forbidden to open another “Improv” brand club within 100 miles of the original, Bud fills the tank and heads for Hollywood.

In ’72, Sammy Shore and Rudy De Luca open The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. Sammy’s wife Mitzi wins the club in divorce soon after.

As LA’s only full time comedy showcase, it attracted the top Bananas from the Big Apple, young corn from the Bread Basket, and helped shift the capitol of comedy to Los Angeles. The Store became the new home for comedy veterans and the launch pad for future icons. It served as the front gate to TV and Film for close to ten years.

But Johnny was the Star Maker. Johnny Carson moved the Tonight Show from New York to Burbank around the same time The Comedy Store opened. Having done stand up for years, Carson was picky about the acts he endorsed with an appearance on his show, but once a comedian had a Tonight Show credit, they had a career, unless they worked overtime to screw it up. During the 70’s, The Comedy Store was the place to be seen by Carson and the rest of the Industry headhunters looking for the new funny.

These “Showcase” clubs charged a healthy cover and drink minimums, but the performers saw none of it. Performing at the Improv or the Comedy Store didn’t get you a check. It got you exposure to the Industry, especially the Store.

Comics and prostitutes were (and still are) two major aspects of the entertainment industry not organized in a union. The LA Comedians decided to strike anyway in ’79. The Comedy Store was picketed and the strike received media attention. Bud Friedman pleaded with strike leader, Tom Dressen to not strike at the Improv too. Instead, it sustained heavy damage from a Molotov cocktail and was temporarily closed. The comics heckled Mitzi from the picket line. Mitzi makes a small concession to pay a few weekend performers gas money. The Comedians then heckled each other. Some returned to the stage, some were black listed, and one threw himself off the roof of the hotel next door. The strike resulted in the practice of giving some of the talent some respect, which became a trend in clubs and theatres across the country.

The Improvisation launches “A&E’s Evening at the Improv in 1981. Cable Television was weaving across the country and taking the Improv brand of Comedy with it. The Comedy store had produced just a few yearly HBO specials in comparison; Mitzi was too buisy franchising the Comedy Store to nearby cities. Bud capitalizes on the national name brand recognition afforded by A&E and franchises coast to coast.

By 1990, The Comedy Store and the Improv had become the Hatfields and McCoys, entrenched in a fierce competition for the loyalty of new talent, and market domination. As a new comedian, we could audition for both clubs, but getting a spot at one would get you blacklisted at the other. New performers had to make a choice of which club they would not get paid at.

The Comedy Store became the black hat comedy club. Having enjoyed being the only full time comedy club in town, it was the reef on which the last big comedy wave broke, but the new swell was rising at the Improv. Improv comedians were family friendly. Comedy Store comics were more gritty and raw. This was the Regan /Bush era and political correctness was in. The national audience was being trained to just say no to anything they didn’t know.

Bud Friedman, and his partner Mark Lonow, capitalized on the conservative climate by feeding it . A&E’s Evening at the Improv, having been on the air for ten years, set the bar for most all the new cable comedy showcases. The stand up acts on MTV, VH1, and Fox, were all interchangeable with those of Evening at the Improv. They were mostly self described losers with no lovers and apolitical. There was little edge, little risk, and no guts. The standard became tight, polished, seven minuite sets of quirky banality. Comedy had been formatted to fit your screen.

The Improv became the main industry showcase and the Comedy Store receded into club status. Once a gusher of up and comers, the Store spewed Keenan Ivory Wayans, Jim Carrey, then began sputtering an embarrassment of Wayans brothers, Carlos Mencia, and eventually, Mitzi’s own spawn; Pauly Shore.

Just before the bust it had been the home of The Outlaw Comics like Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison. When they took to the road in lieu of the commercial waiting room of Los Angeles, a level of professionalism and stage integrity went with them and the black walls of the club seemed even darker.

1 comment:

Comedy said...

This is the era of entertainment and comedy is the one of the best way to enjoy yourself. Dangerfields Comedy Club