Friday, August 28, 2009

Lewis Black and the Boston Comedy Festival

[Note: I wrote a cover story for Friday's G section of the Boston Globe, you can read it here. Look for more in this space next week about the Festival, Bobcat Goldthwait, Tony V., and Erin Judge.]

When I first saw Lewis Black in person, he was playing the Comedy Palace, part of the Grill 93 in Andover, in February of 2000. It was a weekend gig, and a snow storm had kept most people away, so there were only a handful of people in the audience – maybe twenty or twenty-five. That was also the first time I saw Boston Comedy Festival founder Jim McCue, who was middling (Dave Russo opened the show).

According to Black, that may have been the gig where he first met McCue, but he says I’ll have to ask McCue. “He keeps track of that stuff like a girl,” says Black. Despite Black’s claim, McCue doesn’t remember exactly, but places it around that time. And it turned out to be a lasting relationship.

About a year after that gig, Lewis Black happened to be in town for a corporate gig, and wound up headlining and hosting a show at the old Comedy Connection as part of the fledgling Boston Comedy Festival. McCue liked to tell the story at the time that Black charged him a hamburger for the gig. “Pretty much, it’s always been that,” says Black.

I remember sitting across from the table from Black at the Connection as he nearly coughed up a lung laughing at Larry Lee Lewis and some other local performers. “That’s the best thing about Lewis is, you can always hear him laughing,” says McCue. “A lot of comedians don’t laugh, they stare and they analyze. But he really belly laughs when he thinks something’s funny. Which is nice.”

Then in 2005, Lewis Black did the first of his headlining shows for the Festival at the Emerson Cutler-Majestic, bringing on some of his favorite comedians and hosting the show. His presence for that show and the following Festival lent the operation some credibility, according to McCue. “We were able to do those Lewis Black and Friends shows, so that opened up a lot of things,” he says.

Black is playing the Wang Theatre tonight as part of the official kick-off for the tenth edition of the Boston Comedy Festival. And his roots here go back even further than that. He remembers being in a regular revue at Harvard’s A.R.T. in the early 90s called Media Muck. Between gigs, he would get out to play anywhere he could, including Nick’s Comedy Stop, the Grill 93, and Catch A Rising star, where he played regularly once Media Much was done.

“It used to be you could just work Boston and make a living,” says Black. “And so many good comics came out of there. And my affinity to it is, I kind of feel like that’s where I came into my own.”

His schedule doesn’t permit going to see many shows these days, but back in his early days, we would catch Boston comics like Kenny Rogerson, Tony V., Don Gavin, Nick DiPaolo, and Jonathan Katz when he was in town. “I generally like Boston comedy because it’s in your face and it’s funny,” he says. “It’s just flat-out, they’re funny.”

Which is why he likes supporting the Boston Comedy Festival. “Outside of the TBS thing now, there’s so few festivals,” says Black. “Boston was the comedy Mecca for so long. It just makes sense.”

Chance Langton headed to Nashville for Just Plain Folks

A month ago, Chance Langton would have been hard pressed to tell you about the Just Plain Folks Awards. Now, with his album I’m Better Than Them nominated for the music organizations Comedy Album award (along with fellow Boston comedians Jim Colliton’s Stories from the Suburbs and Paul Nardizzi’s Sucking A Cow’s Udder During A Solar Eclipse), Langton is heading down to Nashville for the Just Plain Folks Music Awards.

“I didn’t know it was happening,” he says. “In fact, I got the e-mail from Just Plain Folks about three weeks ago, I’m going to the ceremony in Nashville next week.” Langton uses CDBaby.com for his distribution, and they submitted their comedy CDs to the group.

So what does it mean to Langton to be nominated? “I would say at least a pat on the back,” he says. “The good part is that I know they screened a lot of CDs before they picked it so I’m just honored and flattered to be nominated. We shall see what happens.”

JPF describes itself as “the world’s largest grassroots music organization” and boasts it “the world’s largest independent music awards.” Langton will appear at the ceremony, but declined to perform. “They asked me to,” he says, “but they’ve got a lot of musicians performing and I didn’t think it would be the right setting.”

In other Chance news, Langton is also in the new indie film Boston Psychiatric starring Rich Gustus, Raj Jaiswal, and Harry Gordon, which premiered at the Coolidge Corner Theatre last week. Langton was impressed with the final product.

“I thought the film far exceeded expectations to me, because when you’re making a film, you can’t quite see what’s going on,” he says. “But they really put it together well. It moves right along. I think it has great potential as a sitcom.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Boston Comedy Interview: Chris White takes requests.

A few years ago, Washington comedian Chris White started taking requests for stand-up topics from friends, family, and his audience members. Now what started out as a dare has become a show White tours with. He builds routines around the suggestions, performs them live, and posts some of his work on his YouTube site (you can see an example below). But you can see the real thin in person at Mottley's Thursday, complete with trivia and multi-media elements, the full Chris White treatment.

How long have you been collecting topics?

Since mid-2006. Not as long as I've been involuntarily collecting racist street jokes from drunks after a normal show, but a few years now.

What gave you the idea?

As a nerd, I love homework. It was either this or grad school. Also, I'd watch a lot of stand-ups, and see them do brilliant jokes on subjects I'd never even THOUGHT about exploring. I wanted some help kick-starting my brain in new directions, and the No. 1 rule of showbusiness is "Exploit Other People."

What has been the most challenging topic?

Ancient Sumeria, as suggested by my older brother, probably as revenge for something I did wrong in a D&D game when I was 10. Comedy is about relating to ideas, and strangely enough not that many people are well-versed in Ancient Sumerian customs and lore. I blame public schools.

Are there any that just don't work?

Someone suggested "bleeding colitis," and after about two hours of thinking, I couldn't find the lighter side of massive internal bleeding and colon removal. Other topics are hard to stretch to 4 good minutes, but usually there's at least a one-liner that works.

Chris at work:


How big a part of the act is the suggested material? Do you still
write mostly about what you want to?


I still write jokes based on my own ideas, but at an "I Take Requests"
show 80-90 percent of the stand-up started as part of a challenge. The idea is you show up, watch the show, make a challenge, and then by the next time you see me, maybe your challenge is part of the show. And then we high-five.

What is the multi-media element of the show?

It's like Laser Floyd. Bring your own dry ice! Actually, I've been working on lots of video projects and sketches over the years. None of them have kittens, however, so they aren't going "viral." But I didn't want them to go to waste, so before the stand-up, I package three or four of them together and use that to warm the crowd up. Then, at the end, I bring back the projector for the ancient Japanese art of karaoke. I have a few home-made karaoke videos that are either hilarious or disturbing, depending on who you ask.

How does the trivia work its way in? How do you make that funny?

I run a trivia night at a comedy club in DC once a month and it's one of my favorite things to do. It's just a blast. At "I Take Requests," I'll give people something to work on as they file in, then at the very start of the night we'll do a little quiz. People supply their own laughs for trivia -- there's nothing funnier than your "genius" friend coming up completely empty. It's good fun, trust me.

Have you played Boston before?

I did the comedy festival contest back-to-back years, 2004-05, I think.
And I've stopped in the Comedy Studio a few times on my way through town, or when I was visiting friends. The town has a great comedy reputation and from everything I've seen it's well deserved.

What is the scene in Washington like?

We really only have one big-time club, the DC Improv, but there are also a ton of mid-sized theater venues. So we have big names in town every week.

There are also multiple open mics almost every night of the week, when you factor in the Baltimore venues an hour up the road; with that many stages, we have a lot of very good talent developing in DC. Everyone thinks it's going to be non-stop politics on stage, but it isn't -- we leave work at work. We have to compete with all the free entertainment subsidized by American taxpayers, but other than that I think it's a really cool scene.

If anyone wants some basic info, I run dcstandup.com ... check it out and feel free to ask me anything.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Boston Comedy Interview: The Daily Show's John Oliver

When I first spoke with The Daily Show's Senior British Correspondent John Oliver in November of 2007, the presidential election was still a year away, and the candidates were still gnashing away at each other in the debates. Oliver was the new guy on a show he’d always admired, and new to America, a country he hadn’t even visited before his TV gig here. And he was playing his first gig in Boston, at the Comedy Connection, which quit its Faneuil Hall location last year for the Wilbur Theatre.

Almost two years later, Oliver is no longer the new guy. He’s one of the best reasons to watch The Daily Show, and his stand-up special, Terrifying Times, was brilliant. He’s back at the Comedy Connection (in its new space) on Friday. I caught up with him by e-mail this week.

Have you gotten to tour around and/or visit America much since you were in Boston a couple of years ago?

Quite a lot, actually. The election last year meant that I was all over your country - from Sarah Palin rallies in Scranton to Mile High stadium for Obama's speech. I even got to shoot a piece with the Press Corps, inside the White House - and due to the fact that I was not American, had to have constant supervision wherever I went. I think as a British person they thought I might have come back to try and burn it down again.

You had said when we spoke last that it was still strange to you to be in a country where you could fly for five hours and land in the same country. Has that worn off yet?

I have pretty much got used to that now from the amount of traveling I have to do. The consequence of that is that whenever I go back to Britain, I see it as a laughably miniature excuse for a nation.

You also said you felt a little you weren't sure how you ended up with the Daily Show gig, why they were looking abroad and why they chose you. Have you settled in yet? Do you still get that feeling?

I feel very settled indeed, it's the most incredible place to work.
But I have to say, I still cannot fathom how or why I managed to end up in this situation. I still find myself walking away from work occasionally feeling like the luckiest girl in the world. That might be because I skip away from work every day dressed in a gingham dress and holding an oversized lollipop. It's just something I like to do.

I read where you have said that the Daily Show isn't a source of news, and that you and the other Daily Show folks aren't journalists. I'd have to agree how that reflects poorly on journalism as a whole, but why do you think the idea persists? Certainly comedy has functioned to inform and enlighten in the past, and your stand-up and your pieces on the Daily Show seem to function that way. Would you agree?

The persistence of the idea that The Daily Show is a key source of news, is just another example of the lazy journalism that has forced a basic cable comedy show to be mistakenly spoken about in those terms in the first place. The bottom line is that comedy has to be funny to justify it's dictionary definition. People are not going to walk away from a comedy show saying "Well, I didn't laugh much, but I feel so enlightened and informed it scarcely matters." If, as a comedian, you find yourself performing to a silent but fascinated audience, you are not doing your job. You are doing the job of a quality Chemistry teacher.

What's your sense of how America is perceived abroad since the election? Have you spent so much of your time here now that it's harder to get a sense of that?

Well, there is no doubt that the very election of Barack Obama challenged the lazy prejudices of anti-Americanism overnight. The key thing now, is for him to behave in a way which will not re-sow those seeds of resentment, and fertilize them with disappointment.

Mort Sahl said in an interview a while back that it has gotten harder to do what he does as a comedian because reality is stranger than anything he could exaggerate for effect. When you look at the birthers, town hall shoutfests, and the possible magnitude of the healthcare bill coming down the line, is it harder to make that funny?

No. Absolutely not.

How big is your part on Community?

Not at all big. I'll do a couple of episodes in these hiatus weeks, but that'll be it; I'm definitely not leaving The Daily Show. It's a fun thing to try, and is a nice change of pace, but I'm not interested in doing it full time. My heart, my head, and my limbs are all at The Daily Show.

What can you say about the movie deal you and Rory Albanese just signed with Paramount?

There's nothing much to say about it really. It sounds a lot more glamorous than it is. Basically, they are going to buy the next script we write. I think they are contractually bound to read it, and statistically bound not to make it. We'll see. It's something fun to do on the side of work - it's something we'd like to try to do, just to see if we're any good at it.

Is it something you will also star in?

That is very much not my decision to make. You are talking to someone with the kind of star power you would need a Hubble Telescope to detect.

Would you eventually like to segue into doing more movies and less TV?

I don't know. I love TV. More specifically, I love the TV show that I get to work for at the moment. I know that lots of people have used The Daily Show as a springboard to other work, but this kind of show is all I've ever really wanted to do. I like being afforded the opportunities to try other things around it (movies, etc) but there's never anything I want to do more than go back to The Daily Show office and attempt to trivialize the world's problems.

Dane Cook announces Boston date

Dane Cook announced more tour dates today on his e-mail blast, including a New Year's Eve date in Boston, location to be announced. According to the e-mail, all of the "TBA" shows will be on sale mid-Spetember.

Here's the full list of tour dates:

Fri, Sep 4 Atlantic City, NJ Etess Arena
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLXceXtE7b/

Sat, Sep 5 Atlantic City, NJ Etess Arena
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLVceXtE7b/

Sun, Sep 6 Atlantic City, NJ Etess Arena
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLTceXtE7b/

Fri, Oct 9 Las Vegas, NV Hard Rock - The Joint
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLBceXtE7b/

Sat, Oct 10 Las Vegas, NV Hard Rock - The Joint
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLzceXtE7b/

Thu, Oct 15 Columbus, OH Nationwide Arena
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLRceXtE7b/

Fri, Oct 16 Grand Rapids, MI Van Andel Arena
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLNceXtE7b/

Sat, Oct 17 Nashville, TN Sommet Center
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLxceXtE7b/

Sun, Oct 18 Milwaukee, WI Bradley Center
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLPceXtE7b/

Thu, Oct 22 Anchorage, AK Sullivan Arena
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLJceXtE7b/

Fri, Oct 23 Fresno, CA Save Mart Center
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLZceXtE7b/

Sat, Oct 24 Sacramento, CA Arco Arena
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLvceXtE7b/

Sun, Oct 25 Edmonton, AB Rexall Place
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLHceXtE7b/

Thu, Nov 5 New York, NY Madison Square Garden
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLtceXtE7b/

Fri, Nov 6 Fairfax, VA Patriot Center
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLFceXtE7b/

Sat, Nov 7 Norfolk, VA Scope
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLZceXtE7b/

Sun, Nov 8 Raleigh, NC RBC Center
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLLceXtE7b/

Thu, Nov 12 Austin, TX Frank Erwin Center
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLZceXtE7b/

Fri, Nov 13 Little Rock, AR Verizon Arena
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLZceXtE7b/

Sat, Nov 14 Moline, IL iWireless Center
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLZceXtE7b/

Sun, Nov 15 Highland Heights, KY Bank of KY Center http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLDceXtE7b/

Thu, Nov 19 Winnipeg, MB Location TBA, mid-Sept.
Fri, Nov 20 Saskatoon, SK Location TBA, mid-Sept.
Sat, Nov 21 Calgary, AB Location TBA, mid-Sept.

Sat, Nov 28 Honolulu, HI Blaisdell Arena
http://danecook.c.topica.com/maanlr4abSyLZceXtE7b/

Thu, Dec 10 Hamilton, ONT Location TBA, mid-Sept.
Fri, Dec 11 Ottawa, ONT Location TBA, mid-Sept.
Sat, Dec 12 Montreal, QUE Location TBA, mid-Sept.
Thu, Dec 31 Boston, MA Location TBA, mid-Sept.
Fri, Feb 6 Sunrise, FL Location TBA, mid-Sept.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Discount Variety tonight with Dan Margarita and Josh Gondelman

We’ve come once again to the third Thursday of the month, which means it’s Discount Variety time. This month, the show features the music of Dan Margarita and the comedy of Josh Gondelman. You may know Margarita better as a comedian, but he is also a songwriter, working on a new album called Kill the Messenger. Gondelman is a regular at the Comedy Studio and hosts the open mic at Sally O’Brien’s every Mondays, where some of Boston’s best comics come for a workout.

The show starts at 8PM at the CinemaSalem Cafe in Salem. For mor einfo, click the Discount Variety button in the sidebar to the right.

DAN MARGARITA

After a career in stand-up comedy, working at clubs and colleges across the nation with such noted comedians as Judy Tenuta, Lenny Clarke, Steve Sweeney, Jimmy Tingle and Barry Crimmins, Dan Margarita has turned his focus to music. His forthcoming CD Kill The Messenger, contains songs with humor, personal loss and social commentary.


How long have you been playing in Boston?

I haven’t been playing around town for all that long.

What are your favorite places to play?

Generally speaking, I prefer to play the smaller, intimate venues, where I can really be heard and get my stuff across to the audience.

Who are your favorite comedians, locally and nationally?

Locally, I’d have to say my favorite comic is Mike Donovan, but there’s an awful lot of good ones around here. Nationally, I was most influenced by the young George Carlin. I have to admit, I thought he was funnier when he was still doing drugs.

What is the best comedy show you've seen?

Best comedy show I’ve ever seen... just too many to even consider.

JOSH GONDELMAN

An unabashed dork, Josh Gondelman consistently earns the right to hang out with the cool kids by making them laugh until they snort milk out their noses. Josh blends a sharp and quirky sense of humor with a genuine good nature, the result of which is a hilarious and accessible blend of “some holds barred” comedy. Josh is the comedian that your grandmother would love, even if she didn’t get the jokes. Josh just finished his degree in English and Creative Writing at Brandeis University, and he performs standup, sketch, and improv comedy at clubs, colleges, and theaters all over the country. Josh Gondelman. He can talk smart without sounding smarmy. He can talk family without sounding familiar. And he can talk sex without being sexy. Wait. Scratch that last one. He’s very sexy. Just don’t tell grandma.

How long have you been playing in Boston?

I started out at the open mic at Dick Doherty's Comedy Vault about five years ago. My grandfather was very ill at the time, and every week I took a bus into the city from Brandeis where I was in school to visit him at Mass General, and then I went one stop over to Park Street to perform in the theater district. Too much information? That will probably be the theme of this interview.

What are your favorite places to play?

Over the past year, I've really come to value any place where the audience comes to listen and enjoy rather than judge or disapprove. Little theaters are great for that. I did a hugely fun show out in San Francisco a few months ago at the Darkroom Theater in the Mission (run by Pat Bulger, a super funny Boston transplant). The show had all sorts of things going on, music and standup and video, and the crowd came in ready to roll with it.

The Comedy Studio in Harvard Square has the vibe a lot, too. The crowd expects to enjoy themselves, and it makes performing so much more pleasurable than when you have to deal with lots of crossed arms or big chatty parties. Mottley's by Fanuiel Hall is like that, too. They book the great old-school Boston headliners like Tony V, and they also are very open-minded about up-and-coming headliners like Myq Kaplan and Joe List. It's very supportive and fun to play there. Non-traditional standup venues like ImprovBoston and the Anderson Comedy shows at the Great Scott area great because of how loose things can be.

Too much again? Good. I'm keeping on task.

Who are your favorite musicians, locally and nationally?

Locally, I feel like I've got to plug The Grownup Noise until they are famous. They're such talented musicians, and as a group their sound is so unique but not in a way that alienates listeners. It's like: "Oh, yeah! Of course eventually a band should have decided to sound like this."

Also, the Brendan Boogie Band recently put out an EP called Disposable Pop that sounds like Weezer back when Weezer sounded like Weezer.

Plus there are some really great music/comedy people in Boston should be/are aware of. Zach Sherwin (MC Mr. Napkins) writes a perfect rap every seven seconds or something. And Robby Roadsteamer is worth watching 100% of the times he gets onstage.

Nationally, I've been listening to The Hold Steady on a near constant basis. If in an alternate universe, Bruce Springsteen grew up in the 80's and 90's with an awareness that Bruce Springsteen had already existed, he would be the front man for The Hold Steady. That doesn't make any sense, but they're awesome. Plus, I look like a bearded, less out-of-shape version of their singer. So they've got that going for them. Or do I have that going for me? Probably neither.

What is the best music show you’ve seen?

About six years ago I saw Cee-Lo Green (of Gnarles Barkley), Lauryn Hill (accoustic), Jurassic 5, The Roots, and Outkast at the Tweeter Center, which is now the Comcast Center, and was formerly Great Woods. The Roots were unbelievable. Their albums are very good, but their live show is so much fun. They're the only rap group who can really get away with cover songs, which I think is one key. And they give their original songs so much fullness and energy in concert. And, as Jimmy Fallon has shown us, they're really funny. I get jealous sometimes, when I see a really funny musician. I'm like: "Who are you? Leonardo DaVinci? Stick to one talent! You're making me look very bad!"

Monday, August 17, 2009

Local Comedy Around the Web

Just a few links to keep you updated on comedy stories around the Web with local ties:

1. Dave Russo in Wicked Local Tewksbury: A straight profile of Russo.

2. Tommy Savitt on Tahoe.com: Savitt won the Boston Comedy Festival competition a couple of years ago (the Festival is back August 29th). Here, Howie Nave tells the story of how Savitt almost didn't make it to Boston to begin with.

3. The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival at The Brooklyn Vegan: The line-up for Mirman's festival, which takes place in Brooklyn September 17-20, with videos, and a bit of new about the new Mirman album on Sub Pop.

4. Paul Mecurio in Punchline Magazine: Punchline talks to Mecurio about his new Web series, Got No Game with Paul Mecurio, the REd Sox, and Boston's self-esteem problem.

5. Dane Cook announced a show at Madison Square Garden on his own Web site. The show will be part of the New York Comedy Festival, and happens November 5. It's called Dane Cook and Friends, but his site doesn't identify the "friends."

6. Jay Leno in the Boston Globe and theBoston Herald: Leno stopped by Emerson last week for a free show (not open to the public) and talked about his new NBC show, which premieres this fall.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Home of the Black Comedy Explosion, Slade's Bar & Grill hearing

Jonathon Gates just sent out a message on his Facebook page about Slade's Bar & Grill, the current home of his Wednesday night Black Comedy Explosion show. According to Gates, the City of Boston will have a haering about extending the venue's entertainment license Thursdays through Sundays and increasing their capacity.

Gates has been doing the BCE for more than a decade in Boston, making it a fixture on the scene from the days when it was at the old Comedy Connection in Faneuil Hall to the present. I don't believe this affects his Wednesday night show directly, but it may help the venue.

If you're interested in going, here are the details, from Mr. Gates:

Boston City Hall (Government Center)
Wednesday, August 12th at 11:30AM
Room 801.

Super Time Pilot's "Real Nice Rock"

Robby Roadsteamer has a new band called Super Time Pilot, and as previously reported, a new sound. Robby and Nikki turn in some nice work at the end of this. Stay tuned for more news abou the band and their new album.



The folks over at the Examiner spoke with Robby about the album and Quiet Desperation.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Baratunde Thurston hosts Popular Science's Future Of... tonight on the Science Channel

Former Boston comic and current vigilante pundit Baratunde Thurston has a new gig hosting Popular Science's Future Of... Check out the Facebook page and become a fan, or go straight to the official site. The show premieres tonight at 9PM on the Science Channel.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Walsh Brothers team up with Joe Pernice

The Walsh Brothers are back in Boston tonight for two shows, opening up for Joe Pernice’s book reading/concert for his novel It Feels So Good When I Stop and the accompanying album containing Pernice’s covers of songs mentioned in the book. The Walshes have been back in the area for a few weeks, partly because Dave Walsh just got married in a ceremony out on Cape Cod.

Dave and brother Chris will perform at tonight’s show at the Brattle and then follow Pernice on a short tour, carpooling, apparently, from city to city. I spoke with Dave at one of Lynn’s best pizza places (Fauci’s, for the Lynn-curious) about the show, their new “Ramada Boys” video, and how their Great and Secret Show is fairing in Los Angeles, where they live now.

How did you get involved in opening the shows for Joe Pernice?

I have no idea. [Ashmnont Records co-owner with Pernice] Joyce Linehan contacted us and asked us if we wanted to do what she thought would be a great fit for the show, because he wrote this book. And the book is kind of this rambling novel about a guy who is trying to figure out his life and has a lot of little stories within one great narrative.

We were coming home anyway, and it’s probably something that we would have come home to do anyway. We just love performing in different endeavors like this.

Were you familiar with Joe Pernice before? Did you know the Pernice Brothers?

Yes. I didn’t know of his band before them but I knew the Pernice Brothers. I had spoken with Joyce a while ago and she gave me some PR advice that I never took and should have. We might be in a different position than opening for Joe at this time. So yeah, when I had talked to her, I checked out all of his stuff. I loved it. It’s really great. And when we heard it was him – I don’t even know much of the back story. I just know that he has a great voice and writes some incredible lyrics and the music is wonderful.

Have you gotten a chance to meet him and speak with him about this?

I haven’t yet, but every time I talk to him on the phone he calls me a homo, and so that makes me instantly comfortable. He just has this way of joking with you and just kind of berating you and telling you we’re going to have a great time on the road. I haven’t met him but I feel like I know him already, from his music… Actually his music is probably more strange than talking to him on the phone or reading the novel. Because the novel is heartbreaking like a lot of his songs, but it still has… there is a lot of joking, but there isn’t a lot of joking in his music. There is a lot of irony. And in the novel there’s a bunch of irony, but it’s very blue collar. And it’s just a little different when you talk to him on the phone. He’s just way goofier than the novel or his music. So, that’s even better. It’s like the three levels of Joe Pernice. I can’t wait to find out what it’s going to be like in the car with him traveling from gig to gig.

Is it going to be the three of you in the car?

Yeah, it’s going to be three, and then he has some kind of lady boy he travels around with who helps him out named Jose.

Some sort of “lady boy” did you say? Want to make sure I transcribe that correctly.

[laughs] No, some guy, he’s a very good friend of Joe’s.

Would he object to being called “lady boy” in print?

He probably would because I don’t know him. But I don’t care. We’ll work it out on the ride.

That’ll be the first conversation when you get in the car.

“Lady Boy,” huh?

Be careful where you sleep, I guess.

Well, that’s the thing. I think he’s a lady boy because I think I’m sleeping with him. I think that’s how it’s arranged. According to Joe. We’ll see.

So this whole thing has nothing to do with a stage show, it’s just an elaborate, freakish thing Joe had planned.

A ruse. Yeah. A ruse to pull out my love of men dressed as women. Yeah, we’re all traveling together, just the four of us going from city to city.

What do you have planned for onstage?

Onstage? I’m not sure. Chris and I, we don’t have much planned. I don’t think I’ve seen him since the wedding, which was, what, two weeks ago. So we haven’t really talked about it. Chris might do a couple of characters. We’ve got a half [an hour]. So we’ll probably tell stories. We’ll figure it out and see what we get excited about.

Are you going to arrange that based on the book and what he’s doing at all? Or are you just doing what you do?

Yeah, we’re just going to do what we do. You know what we do better than we know. He’s going to do some reading from his book, but I think we’re going to do some reading from his book, as well. That’s one idea we had. We might take five minutes out to read from his book before he reads from his book.

So how long has Ramada Boys been done?

Ramada Boys has been done for about a year. A little less, I’m being a little facetious. We filmed it in July. Sony wanted it by the end of August, maybe mid-August. Then they went through a change where they kind of combined – they had three Internet arms at one point. So they combined them all, and it kind of got lost in the shuffle. Which is fine.

What was it created for?

It was created for Crackle. But Crackle ended up merging with a couple others. And the people who were in their stronger interactive media section kind of took over Crackle. So the guy who was initially running it isn’t there anymore. So once our guy was gone, with the project, they said, oh we don’t care too much. It doesn’t have any celebrities. It seems like the money for Internet videos is becoming more and more celebrity-driven. Every time we go in an talk to somebody they say, we’re doing a lot with celebrities. And Chris and I don’t really care for that.

We did have a talk immediately after we were done and they said, who do you see involved with this if you had to get a celebrity, and we said Joe Pesci as our father, Angelo Ramada. They said that was something they’d work on. That might have been the last conversation we had with Sony about it. So they gave us the rights and stuff. I think we own it, we might own it. What’s important is we own the idea. I don’t care about the video.

Are you going to pursue it and do more with it? It would be a shame not to see HoJo III again.

Ah, yes. And the La Quinta sisters. I mean, we had thirteen episodes outlined. And we got money for two. We’re sitting on another one right now. We have it ready. But we’re going to put it out at a little later date. It’s all outlined. We were talking with other people, that’s when MySpace had some money for videos. They all had money at one point. Atom had more money. We met with all of them. And then Sony gave us the best money for the two videos, and creative freedom, which was what was necessary. I love the characters and stuff, but I think it would end up finding a home on something else we would do, as kind of an interstitial within something else we’ve done. We’ve considered so many different things for the Ramada Boys. You could talk all day about it because the concept can go practically anywhere.

The more people you can introduce Erik Charles Neilsen to, the better.

I think he’s in every idea we create, which he has been involved in. As have a lot of other people who are in our lives. Mostly from Boston. I lot of people from Boston will do our show. Whoever comes through, we put up. We work with anybody. There’s one guy, his name is Fred Young, that we all hate, who’s very funny, went to Emerson. He did stuff with [defunct sketch and stand-up revue] Zebro. He’s really great – I don’t want him to read that – who does stuff with us weekly.

Does using people from Boston, doe sthat give you some kind of continuity that you can have the confidence to do what you want to do because you know you have people who can meet your expectations?

Yeah. Essentially. We cast and work with people who we kind of know their personality a lot. So you kind of work a character around that. Everybody who’s a stand-up, they want to do more stuff but they don’t know how exactly to do characters, just sitting grabbing a slice of pizza you can kind of work out a character, outline a character with them and then say, “Hey, remember that voice you were doing? Let’s work on that voice and make him a part of our world.” Every show we’ve ever done, we try to create a world. It’s about populating that world with people. We like to populate that world with people we know.

How is the show doing at the Improv?

The show’s doing well. As a result of doing our show, we did a “best of,” and when you do a “best of” out there rather than put it up at Jimmy Tingle’s or the BCA, you put it up at the Comedy Central Stage or the UCB and all kinds of industry comes out to see you. And that’s great because it kind of culminates, you get your audience there, the people who come to see you every week anyway, and then you get to perform for people who can help you make a living for yourself in comedy. So we’ve been able to do that and we’ve gotten a lot of great response and we’ve been talking to people. It’s going well. The hardest thing is building an audience because there are so many forms of entertainment out there.

Do you think you’ll get back to Boston to perform after this show at any point in the near future?

I don’t think so. We’ll be back at Christmas. We haven’t done a theater show in a while back here. So we’re just going to come back and do a two-hour show, and do so many dates.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Topper Carew on Why We Laugh

Roxbury native Topper Carew thought he might be an architect when he was younger. He even went to Howard University, and then Yale, and got his bachelors and masters in architecture. But when he started making documentary films about the subject, he found a new career. For more than twenty-five years, Carew has been writing and producing films (D.C. Cab, Talkin' Dirty After Dark, Robin Harris: We Don't Die, We Multiply) and television shows (Martin, which he co-created). He also founded Urban Neo, a label that produces films, DVDs, CDs, and books.

He's also interviewed in the new documentary, Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy, and he'll be on hand at today's screening of the film at the Museum of Fine Arts at 3PM, the closing film for the 11th Annual Roxbury Film Festival. You can ask your own questions at the Q&A to follow, I got to ask mine by e-mail this week.

How aware were you of some of this history – the early sitcoms, Amos & Andy, Moms Mabley – before this documentary?

I grew up in Roxbury in a home and with a family that loved laughter. And, I remember enjoying the feeling that I would get when I would make my family members laugh. So, in retrospect, I think my kinship with comedy and my gravitation to it came early in life. When I was about 6 or 7. In fact, the family would sometimes pay me to make them laugh. So when I was growing up and into my teen years, yes, me and my boys, would watch Amos and Andy regularly. And yes, I was a class clown and jokester.

And, yes I discovered Moms Mabley, and the Redd Foxx, party albums and Dolemite, and Pigmeat Marcum and Stump and Stumpy. They were all staples of the black comedy culture. And, when I could afford it, I would buy their albums and listen to them over and over again. Who they were was a part of the life that I lived, not a historical thesis.

What made you want to participate in the film?

I participated in the film because I was asked to by, Darryl Littleton, the author of the book upon which the film is based. Darryl is a friend and also a very strong comic with a very strong point of view. He would be best compared to Paul Mooney. He works as D’Militant. I like Darryl a lot, like his comedy and respect him tremendously. So, when he asked, I could only say yes. And comedy has been kind to me. I have lived it and made a living from it. So if Darryl felt that I might have something of value to say, I trusted him and was honored to be asked to participate in the project.

Was there anything in particular you wanted to say on camera for this?

That the African American community has always been an enormous contributor to the creativity, art, and economy of American comedy. And that laughter has always been a big part of our journey and struggle through adversity.

Is there anyone covered in this film you feel specifically indebted to as a comedian?

I feel especially indebted to Robin Harris. I used to go and watch Robin perform/mc at the Comedy Act Theater in South Central, Los Angeles. It was the first black comedy club in the U.S. Robin was the mc. We became friends. Because of him, I got connected to the urban comedy scene in LA. Not the Hollywood/agenting scene. But, the more authentic, underground, in the hood, comedy scene. And, subsequently, my writing and producing career got reinvigorated. And, he caused me to redirect my comedic voice away from the Norman Lear sitcom approach to the “keep it real” approach. And note, I am not a comedian. I am a comedy writer, producer and director.

How important do you feel Dick Gregory was, both in terms of black comedy and in stand-up in general?

Dick Gregory was and is a truth teller. He never compromised and was never about stupid, silly, degrading content. He was the first of the black comics to offer political observation and social commentary as a comedic offering. He was a brilliant and courageous standup.

How specifically do you think people associate comedy and comedians with the history and politics of their age? It seems there’s often a vague connection when people talk about Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, or Dick Gregory, but it almost seems like that’s more a file they put the comic in than a real connection to how a comic might synthesize and then influence current events.

I don’t think comics ignite events. Rather, comics comment on them. And thru their comic commentary and observation, people begin to drill down a little deeper into their own thinking about issues. So, what happens is this, comics teach. And people make connections, but never in an overt, politically organized kind of way. Instead, they have simply become more conscious.


Did you spend much time doing comedy when you were in Boston?

I was never a stand up. I was the class clown, and the jikester for family and friends. On the flip side, I was active in the civil rights movement, so a lot of people thought, I was this really serious person. Surprise !!! and when I was at wgbh, I did social docs and public affairs. But, when I left, I left to go to LA to write and produce comedy.

Were you aware of any racial divisions in comedy and entertainment when you were here?

In LA, you can count the number of black agents on one hand and the number of black studio and network execs on the other. And, as of late, you can count the noticeable absence of network black comedy series. I wasn’t into the comedy scene when I first lived here. So, I can’t comment on that. Now, I am back living here in Boston. When I did my Robin Harris feature doc, The Pheonix was the only one that would give it a mention. In Boston, in present day time, there seems to be a real non-connect between the black comedy scene and the media. An exception being when the comedy Connection buys ads for black headliners.

How did you feel about Robin Harris’s part in this film, considering your personal involvement in his story?

Some say that he was one of the two greatest standups who ever lived. Richard Pryor being the greatest, and Robin being the other. So, he has to be properly acknowledged. I have not seen the film, so I cannot comment about the film. But, know that because of him a new surge of urban comedy emerged and prospered. He was the impetus for the Def Jam Comedy series. And a whole lot of people got their start and launch on his stage and thru him. So, he is a saint to many of us. He connected me to Martin. Thus, the Martin Lawrence television series. Then, look at the number of comedy greats who gave testimonial to him in the film that I did about his life. Robin was a Moses who led us to the promised land.

Where does Martin fit in this history?

It’s too early to tell where Martin will fit into the overall tapestry of history. I will say this. he is one of the few comics to ever have 2 series on the air at the same time, Martin at fox and simultaneously the host of Def Jam. And, he is on of the few comics to ever sell out 5 consecutive, back to back dates at Radio City Music Hall. And, I suspect his box office cume is pretty high.

Where do you place yourself in this historic timeline of black comedy?

I may be the first indie producer of black comedy. In the late 70’s, early 80’s , I produced a tv series called The Righteous Apples for PBS. It was the first domestically produced sitcom for PBS. And I did it as an independent. When I went to LA, there was a handful of black producers. None but myself were indie. So black people in the industry refer to me as a comedy pioneer. I had to wade thru the racism. Allow me to illustrate it by telling you this. In the 80’s, I would go to meetings with white execs and see elderly black men come in, get down on their knees, and shine the execs shoes while I am in the meeting. I guess that’s part of the price we pay as a pioneer so that others might follow.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Dick Gregory interview from my archives and Why We Laugh

Those who get to see tomorrow's screening of Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy at the Museum of Fine Arts as part of the 11th Annual Roxbury Film Festival will get a healthy dose of Dick Gregory, the pioneerind comic who shook off the minstrel comic image and spoke to black and white audiences alike as a smart, socially engaged comedian.

Back in 2002, I interviewed Gregory for The Boston Globe (you can check the archives on Boston.com for that, under "CLARKE LOVES `JOB,' HONES STAND-UP ACT
Author(s): Nick A. Zaino III, Globe Correspondent Date: March 1, 2002 Page: D8 Section: Arts") and Gadfly Magazine when he was being honoered by the U.S. Comedy ARts Festival in Aspen along with George Carlin, The Smothers Brothers, and Bill Maher.

Part of this appeared in Gadfly as a Q&A back then (you can read that version here), and some of it was edited for space. This was a long conversation -- Gregory always has a lot to talk about and decades of history to draw from. I'll have to go back to the original tape and transcribe the whole conversation at some point, but this is what I have on record now. Enjoy.

What does it mean to you to be honored at Aspen?

Well, it means... There’s different types of honors. You can get an honor from, let’s say the Newspaper Guild, or an honor from your college, but to get an honor from your peers – those ones you can’t trick. These are comics. And people who have spent the biggets part of their life in comedy and performing. Then you have the joining with the free speech movement and First Amendment rights. These are folks, you’re not just getting an award because you are a celebrity or they are awed by you. You’re getting it because these are folks that have been able to dissect your career. It’s been on the front, looking and listening, so it means a whole lots to me from the standpoint as a comedian.

It means a whole lots to me from the standpoint of, I’ve always -- I have stood flat-footed when I started in show business, and I would do a routine about the mafia and how much grip they have on Chicago and the political machine. And I had cops who’d come by the club and said, “Man, you better be careful, they’ll blow this whole place up.” If that’s price you have to pay, let’s pay it. That’s easy, to stand in a nightclub, where most of the people that come in, they came to see you. It is mean to go to Mississippi marching, where the people who could kill you didn’t invite you. It was two different trends. It’s one, being on the stage tonight for people who basically love you, who’s paying to see you. And the next day you marching in a line.

And I reflect now over the forty years I’ve been marching, and I realize those white folks in Mississippi was right, because as we talk now, the state of Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state in America. And that was at a time, when we were marching, that 98% of black folks were not permitted to vote. And so, to sit and realize, when I sit back and I realize the level of fear that you spend, you could exercise your freedom of speech, but the other folks could, too. And you get courage from being with people who are not high visibility, who don’t have a job where they can make twenty-five thousand dollars in one night, to be arrested at two o’clock in the morning and see a little child arrested with you. And you say, “What are you hear for?” Because you’re embarassed. You don’t know what to say to them. You just ask them, “What are you here for?” And they say, “Teedom”. Couldn’t even say “freedom”.

To be in Birmingham when the firemen turned the hoses on us. And to get outraged, but before your outrage can get formed in your brain, you see something pass by you really swiftly from the force of that water, and it’s a little four year old, five year old child. Before your anger can come up, you see a white nun that sweeps past you, then a priest or an old black minister or an old black woman, and the line keeps moving. It’s almost like, you trying to get an attitude an you gettin’ in the way. Because you’re fixing to do something to the line that the cops and the hoses couldn’t do. I’m fixing to slow up their progress, cause I’m thinking, “My God, they treated all of us – “Then you realize, there’s something in this line more beautiful than me, and more beautiful than what they’re doing to let me decide which one of these I want to join. And I fall back into the line. And fell back into the motion where the people was.

It was just a wonderful feeling, sitting there at night realizing there’s something that happened that I couldn’t explain. I could not explain just ordinary people. And then one day, you sit back many years later, and you see some Chinese come out in some place called Tianamen Square, and they come out against tanks with no guns. You can just hear the newspeople, not reporting the story, but reporting admiration. And I say wow, wait a minute, we taught them how to do that. Nobody ever dared sit down in front of a tank with no weapons until they saw us do it.

Is that part of what led you away from the nightclubs in 1973?

No, because remember, I didn’t feel this. You know, you have caught up in moment. You’re building catch on fire, you don’t know where to go, you grab this woman that’s cripple – You didn’t go there with those intentions, and on your way out, the thing just played out that way. And consequently, about eighteen months ago, when that fellow lost the election in Bosinia, he told the whole world, ‘I’m not stepping down. I control the army’. And it’s twelve noon when the whole world is waiting for a bloodbath, 250,000 white folks came out to the town square with no guns singing "We Shall Overcome." And the army threw its guns down. And you realize, my God, that all started here in America, with a handful of people who had no power, but had a voice and decided we would use it.

I got out of the nightclubs because my loyalty was to the movement. And I just felt that I was doing you a disservice as a nightclub owner, that would bring me in at top dollar and then advertise for six months, and intense advertising the last three weeks, and then something come up in Mississippi or Alabama or Chicago, and I would go to it. So I just thought that I was being unfair to the nightclub owners. There were some nightclubs thta probably wouldn’t bring me in at all, but I wasn’t worried about them. I was worried about the ones that did.

And then the other thing is I sit and realized one day, do I really want to take this talent that I got, and use it to expose young folks to alcohol. At that time, we didn’t know that cigarettes, secondary smoke, was bad. I didn’t know that. And I made that decision at a time when I was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day and I’d been drinking a fifth of scotch a day. So I wasn’t making decisions based on what was right, or healthy or nothing like that. I was making it based on, I just felt bad, in a nightclub where they say it’s like x amount you pay to get in, and then a two or three drink minimum – people just seemed stupid to come in and get a Coke when you could get a rum and Coke and pay the same thing. Get a rum, they’ll give you the Coke.

From then I decided, now, I didn’t mean to get out of entertainment, but when I got out in `73, you didn’t have the major venues like you have now for concerts. What happened was, that the entertainment, the acts got so big, the audience was so, and the demand was so, and the pay scale was so high, you couldn’t afford to bring them into little clubs. And so they went into concert halls and to more concerts than anything else. When I got out, there wasn’t that many concerts or venues. People weren’t geared to that at all. It was a Vegas-style cabaret. Not one person or one group coming out for four hours, or thirty groups coming out with half hour intervals. That was the reason I got out.

Did you quit performing altogether?

No. Back then, when you got out of nightclubs, that was about 95 percent of where you would work. My act was more of a cabaret act than it was a concert act. I would do concerts. But my basically whole thing was to relate to the audience. It was the difference in doing a play and a movie. And after I got out of that, you know, whenever I go and speak now, I do about 200 lecture dates a year. It’s a different type of funny. I mean, I’m funny as hell. But nothing takes the place of walking out on that, you know, when I come to do a lecture, I don’t need the timing and the sharpness to do a joke. But when you just standing out on that stage, just raw naked, you and that audience.

I know in your 21st Century State of the Union [A three-disc CD], when you’re talking about a more serious subject, sometimes a routine will come out about what Stevie Wonder’s wearing now, or coffee, or something else. Does that satisfy your comedic impules?

No, that’s more humor. When you and your friend sit around, and you all laughing and talking, that’s humor. Comedy is a professional person that stands up and says, “Da da da da da da....” That’s altogether different. I enjoy it because all my life I’ve been like that. There’s no way I would talk all this time if I wasn’t saying something funny. That’s altogether different than walking on the stage, because when you’re walking on the stage, your breath, your move, everything is perfect. It’s all coordinated. It’s the difference between a boxer and someone fighting. It’s altogether different, and that’s the same way I feel I’m more of a humorist now than a comic. Although the comedic thing is still there but not at the intensity of where it was when I was up. When I was up on that stage I was the best at my game. There’s comics now, that, they do it every day twenty-four hours a day. It would be like an opera singer. You know, eighteen hours a day you studying, you go to bed, and you eat, sleep, and drink that stage. I don’t do that. When I walk up to do a lecture or a speech or a thank you, I’m under no pressure to be funny.

Do you consider yourself, you’re more of a humorist now and you were a comedian then? Or have you considered yourself always a humorist?

I consider myself always a humorist. And I think anybody who tells jokes or makes people laugh is humor. Because you make me laugh don’t make you a comic. A comedian is a person who, that’s how they make their living.

On inmates making 31 cents an hour answering phones for corporations:

So I get this triple serial killer called me the other day trying to humiliate me cause I’m late paying Neiman Marcus. So I said, okay punk, you come get the money.

On competing in a talent show when he was in the army:

That was a blessing in disguise. Because the winner got to go on the Ed Sullivan show. And had I gone on the Ed Sullivan show, as big as Ed Sullivan was at the time – that was the show – I would have failed as a comic because I was not a good comic. I didn’t know timing. And it would have been hard for someone to tell me that I wasn’t the hottest thing in the world. So I realize now that my blessing from God was that I didn’t make it on the Ed Sullivan show. And when I got out the army, I went to Chicago and walked into a nightclub, I told them that I was the funniest thing that just came from the East coast, and they put me up, and I was hilarious.

On Richard Pryor and genius:

What ruined a lot of good comics was Richard Pryor. Richard Pryor is a genius. Redd Foxx probably had the most profanity and risque material of any comic in the history of show business at that time. And when you were sitting around, and they brought out a Red Foxx record, you knew all the Christians was gone. You know anybody that felt anything about spirituality was gone. And then Richard Pryor came along, and we were so into his genius that we didn’t hear the profanity. So we played those records in the family room with the children, because we absolutely did not hear the profanity, we heard his genius. Well, to a five year old child, there is no genius. That five year old child heard the profanity. So when they came through, they wanted to pattern themselves after Richard Pryor. Cause there was one string in their after another, but the one thing they failed to realize, and rightfully so, if you go take all of Ricahrd Pryor’s tapes, all his comedy, all his raw, naked comedy, and take the profanity out, it’s just as funny because he never had to use profanity as a punchline. They didn’t hear that. So then you turn on Def Jam and you don’t see nobody on there that ain’t talking about something gross and filthy – and I have no problem with that, I have no problem with that at all, but not for television. And then they develop, and once you develop that kind of comedy routine, you can’t grow, because you have to top it.

There’s three comical geniuses that this country has produced. One was Mark Twain. And he was so far ahead, the other two I shouldn’t even mention in the same year. The other was Lenny Bruce, and the other was Richard Pryor. So out there. So brilliant, and of them self-destructed, except for Twain.

On race and comedy:

I didn’t realize, when I decided to be a comic, that a black person had never been allowed to stand flat-footed in America and talk to white folks. It never happened before. You could sing, you could dance, you could stop and tell a joke while you were dancing, but you could not just stand flat-footed. That was not permitted. When Hugh Hefner brought me in, that was the first time that had ever happened in the history of America. And when I went on the Jack Paar show, which was the old Tonight Show, I was the first black that was permitted to sit down on the couch and talk. I didn’t realize that when you came and did your act, nothing happened. But when you sit down, you become part of the family. My salary jumped from $250 a week to $5000 a night. That was the importance of that Tonight Show.

On free speech:

I think the level of where free speech is today, it’s incredible. My God. There is no comparison. I mean absolutely none whatsoever, compared to what women were locked into, what black folks were locked into, what Asians were locked into.

Now, that same free speech in comedy, I wouldn’t say that America has that same free speech. They will tolerate you doing humorous things. Jay Leno has leeway with free speech in comedy, but he’d better not open up his mouth and talk about those same issues seriously. He’d be out.