Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Boston Comedy Interview: Author and comedian Dennis Perrin

Dennis Perrin, author and comedian
Dennis Perrin has an uneasy relationship with stand-up comedy. He came to it on a winding path, starting his writing career with the Army after high school. He was actually gung ho to join, he says, an “apolitical liberal” and “raised among rednecks” in Indiana. His drill sergeants tried to get him to go to officer’s school, but the Army also introduced him to drugs, which helped to ease the friction of the Army’s particular cultural cliques.
“I was a freelancer,” he says. “I didn’t belong to any tribe.”

Perrin is still a freelancer, and still not a member of any particular tribe. He found comedy as a writer and a performer, writing for Ray Combs, Sr., and writing a marvelously detailed book about Saturday Night Live’s subversive genius, Michael O’Donoghue called Mr. Mike: The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous. He is left-leaning, but his polemic, Savage Mules: The Democrats and Endless War, and his blog are not exactly kind to Democrats and liberals.

He is back into performing again, working on something he just calls "The Project," which will involve stand-up, the blog, and a new book. He'll be appearing with Barry Crimmins Friday and Saturday at Mottley’s doing a guest set on Crimmins’ first live show in three and a half years. I caught up with him by phone earlier this week.

What made you decide to come back to performing live?

I was watching more and more stand-up for some reason. I had tuned it out for years, because I just didn’t like what was happening. The rise of Dane Cook and Larry the Cable Guy. It was just like, you know, I’m tuning this out. There’s got to be more edifying cultural expression. There wasn’t much, but I figured I wasn’t going to find it in stand-up.

And also, over the years, I did do occasional stand-up bits for local anti-war or progressive political fundraisers. And I would do specific political material – register to vote, things like that. I did a bunch of those. But it wasn’t like an ongoing thing. They would say, hey, we’re having this fundraiser, can you do ten minutes or fifteen minutes, and I said sure. And then I would write a set just for that one appearance and that would be it. I’d never use the material again. And that was more memorized. I memorized everything. I wrote it out, memorized and rehearsed it. So it was more by wrote.

But I was watching more and more of the stand-up and I was just feeling comedic again. I just was. I’ve always been this way, I’ve gone in and out of it throughout my life. Especially at certain key moments where I could have been locked in for good or for a long time. So I think I just wanted to do comedy on my terms, and so that’s why I drifted in and out of it.

The drift I was getting this time was very strong, and that’s when I made the connection between not just doing political or satirical material, which is my forte, it’s what I’m good at, but also bringing in the personal, autobiographical aspect that ties into that, as well, because I have been in a lot of interesting situations. Instead of my just observing commercials on TV or politicians on the Web or something, I looked to integrate my own personal experiences in this culture as comedy. And that, to me, was different. And there was an autobiographical element to it, because now I’m 51. So, you know, I have a lit of material to work with and I’ve done a lot of different things.

The clincher was, and this is the honest to god truth, I watched the Judd Apatow movie Funny People, and while the second half of that movie turned into dumb romantic comedy with Adam Sandler as the odd man out and Seth Rogen as his one true love, the first part of it, while they were showing the stand-up and all the young stand-ups and everything, weirdly enough it just energized me. I said, if this is what stand-up is, I’ll have no problem getting back into it.

Now, that was arrogance of my age and my experience, but also just not being in the loop comedically, directly. Of course, that was dramatizing the LA comedy scene, which I have not yet participated in, but I’m going to start in January.

But I know New York really well. I lived there for almost 18 years. I really became an adult in New York, I became a writer in New York. I used to do stand-up in New York, and improvisation back in the 80s. I thought, I’ll just go back to New York. That’s where I’m comfortable. And what really sped it along was, I was looking for open mics on this site called BadSlava. There are several open mics every night, seven night a week.

I came across one, at the Village Lantern on Bleecker Street, emceed by Ray Combs, Jr. Ray Combs the senior, the old man Ray Combs, I used to write for back in the 80s when he was on the short list to guest host The Tonight Show. I co-wrote his Tonight Show set that got him on the couch with Johnny Carson his first time out, a very select group of comics have done that. Ray was one of them. And that put him on the map, that he later squandered his career by chasing the easy money by becoming the host of Family Feud.

I had bailed at that point. I had moved back to New York and began working with FAIR, the media watch group, and began doing public speaking about politics. I was as far removed from the game show world as possible, but I knew Ray really well, and I used to babysit his kids. Well, here’s his son. I wrote to him and said, you’re not the Ray, Jr.? He wrote back and said, yeah, I remember you, you used to babysit us. He said, you used to smoke weed on the back porch and come in and watch Warner Brothers cartoons with us and explain all the references. I said, that’s true. I used to do that. I still do that.

So Ray Jr is like 31, and it turns out he’s one of the top emcees in the city. So that really sped the process for me. When I got to New York, we met up. And he looks just like his father. But he’s a better comedian than his father. Much more honest. He’s really quick. Ray could be a star if he wanted to be. But because his father committed suicide and went through the show biz ringer as horribly as anyone did. I mean, it ended with him killing himself. That’s how bad it was. Ray Jr. is hesitant. Although he’s moving back to LA, apparently in June or something, late spring/early summer.

I got to see him up close and it was like, oh my god, you’re so much better than your dad. I wrote for your dad. So that energized me. But doing the stages in New York, I began noticing a certain type of comic that was very prevalent. Sort of the young hipster, ultra-ironic, but also foulmouthed comic. In other words, they’re so detached from politics and everyday concerns or serious concerns because, you know, it’s like, political, man. Who wants to be political. While being incredibly coarse. Fuck, shit, cunt, bitch. Incredibly misogynistic, a lot of fag baiting. I was really alarmed. I couldn’t believe it. This is New York City!

When I moved to New York in 1982, there were still alternative performance spaces. They didn’t just do comedy, there was also performance art. They may have it still, I don’t know, but where it is, I have no clue.

I know on your blog, you’ve been disdainful of a lot of what you’ve found. Do you think there’s a place for what you want to do?

Well, if not, I’ll make a place for it. I’ll just clear the table in the corner of the room and stand on top of it and see what happens. I’ve been told that in LA I’ll have more room to do what I want to do, but I’ll believe that when I see it. I don’t know. I can’t believe that it’s any better, or worse. But we’ll see. I don’t know.

I think there is, in a way, and it’s interesting, because I’ve gotten a variety of reactions, not just from audiences but from other comic in New York, to the material I’m doing now. And I’m really anxious to see how it’s going to go over in Boston. I’ve killed in New York and I’ve bombed in New York, with the same material. And I know that’s common. To comedians, I know that’s a very common thing. But the difference is, my material is so different from everybody else’s. I will say that. I really do stand out. And plus I’m older. I’ve got some grey in my hair and I don’t hide it.

What makes you stand out, material-wise?

When I do autobiographical material, I try to tie it into a cultural-political context. Which is very rare. When comics talk about themselves, they talk about their masturbation habits, their dating habits, just standard bullshit. One of the bits that I’m thinking about doing this weekend, which I’ve done several times in New York to varying… [laughs] levels of comprehension and reaction, and I’ve written about it briefly, is when I dropped acid with these black Muslims when I was in the Army. Which is a true story.

It sounds like Mad Libs.

But it’s true. I won’t go into specifics, but it’s autobiographical, but it’s also cultural. It’s a comment on a weird situation that I experienced that has a lot of comic elements to it. And not jokey ones, either. There are jokes that come out of the premise that are natural, but I’m not turning it into a joke. It’s just the humor is there. Ideally. It’s also about white people who think they’re past racism or think that they don’t have racist conditioning. In that situation, I revealed how incredibly saturated in racist conditioning I was. Because I was the only white person in the room.

The comedians looked at me with incomprehension. What kind of material is this? Even Ray told me, your stuff is so different. It stands out, but sometimes, it’s so different that people don’t know how to react to it. Because a lot of people go to comedy clubs or go to see a comedy performance, they have a precondition for what they expect to see. If nothing else, I am not pandering to that precondition.

In a sense, if you have to create your own space, does it even necessarily matter where you do it?

No. No it doesn’t. Because I’m also thinking of maybe expanding to poetry spaces or maybe performance spaces with it, as well. I might also expand it into a podcast. That’s another thing on the docket for 2011.

How do you see all of these things working together? Or are you not even at that point yet?

Ideally, at some point, hopefully sometime next year, I hope to have the first volume of my book written next year. I think once the book comes together, they’ll all come together. I think the book is the lynchpin. The performances can be seen – if they’re taped, they go on YouTube. But they’re ephemeral. I know people say that reading, nobody reads, and the publishing industry is imploding daily.

We know all this. But still, as avant-garde as the written word is becoming – the written word outside of cyberspace, I mean, actual “on pulp,” outside of any kind of electronic book – that’s the new avant-garde. Written word on paper. It’s true. As avant-garde as that currently is, I still think, in the end, that is going to be the anchor for the whole thing. So I’m betting the farm on an increasingly archaic artform. Which is really the story of my life.

A good friend of mine told me, “Dennis, you always go for the hardest angle.”

You’re on the blunted edge of technology.

Yeah. It’s just like, what’s the most difficult path I can take? But it’s not premeditated, though. I just go where I think – I lack a real strategic vision in a lot of ways. I have people helping me in that regard. I can’t do it myself. I just go where my mind takes me.

1 comment:

Paul Day said...

Mr. Mike: The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous - Man, I LOVED that book! "Laughter is the lowest form of comedy."