Friday, October 29, 2010

MC Mr. Napkins/Zach Sherwin album finally has a release date

MC Mr. Napkins in action
When Zach Sherwin, a.k.a. MC Mr. Napkins left Boston for L.A. last year, he already had an album recorded. The question has been, when will it finally see the light of day?

That question finaly has an answer. And it won't be long. MC Mr. Napkins: The Album comes out 11/30 on Comedy Central Records. Here is the track listing, straight from Sherwin himself:

1. Sphygmomanometer
2. Irrevocability
3. The Aggressive Bee
4. Smoothies
5. Street Cred
6. Goose MCs
7. Krav Maga
8. Mussolini Miscellany
9. Oberlin
10. Flora/Fauna
11. Tae Kwon Do's and Don'ts
12. Bike Stop
13. Geography Trivia (Live)
14. Antepenultimate
15. F-Bombs (Live)
16. Get 'Pon My Arm, Homes!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Ego and the Oracle tonight at the Burren

The Ego and the Oracle tonight at
The Burren in Davis Square
The Ego and the Oracle is unlike any show you'll see in Boston. That much is clear as soon as you walk into the Burren's back room and the the stage. On one side, there is a band, Jim's Big Ego. On the other is a man seated next to a box for questions. Behind them both, a giant wheel with, as we soon learn, the names of different Jim's Big Ego songs.

The process is this -- audiece members put their questions in the box, host Shawn Peters picks one, and the audience member who asked it comes onstage and spins the wheel. Jim's Big Ego plays the song, and Peters interprets why the song answers the question through the mysterious "Oracle."

It's a funny show, both because the man with the questions Peters is adept at fielding the questions from the audience, and because Jim Infantino's songwriting is as witty as it is tuneful. Which is why it's also a great concert.

I caught up with Infantino and Peters on camera at the last show. The next one is tonight at the Burren, and the next one after that is December 2. Here's a bit of how it works, followed by an interview with Infantino and Peters.

Answering the question, "Parakeet?"

All questions answered in the end:

The Interview

The Boston Comedy Interview: Joel Hodgson on Cinematic Titanic and Mystery Science Theater 3000

Joel Hodgson brings Cinematic Titanic
to the Wilbur Oct 29
Joel Hodgson says he feels grateful and lucky a lot. Grateful he was able to do stand-up comedy and appear on HBO specials and Saturday Night Live. That he was able to drive Mystery Science Theater 3000 into existence. And that he can work with a lot of his olod friends from that show on Cinematic Titanic, his latest movie riffing project, which comes to the Wilbur Theatre October 29.

Cinematic Titanic reunited Hodgson with Trace Beaulieu (Crow, Dr. Forrester), J. Elvis Weinstein (Tom Servo), Frank Conniff (TV’s Frank), and Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester) from MST to once again make good art out of bad cinema. That means five of the funniest minds in comedy riffing on a movie in one show, which produces hundreds of laughs per movie (they have actually counted them).

In December of 2009, the CT crew moved in a different direction, releasing their first live DVD, skewering East Meets Watts. It was the funniest of their releases to date, and a bit of a revelation for Hodgson and co. Since then, they have released The Alien Factor and Danger on Tiki Island, both live discs, capturing the energy of riffing for a live audience. It’s a much more immediate format, and one they won’t likely be changing soon.

Fans will have opportunities to see their favorite MST folks all weekend long, starting tonight when Trace and Mary Jo talk Cinematic Titanic at M.I.T. The Wilbur is not only hosting the premiere of a new Cinematic Titanic movie on Friday, it is also hosting w00stock on Sunday, featuring former MST3K cast members Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy (both of whom are now part of RiffTrax with Mike Nelson, who replaced Joel when he left MST).

I spoke with Joel by phone last week about Cinematic Titanic and the ever-expanding MST universe.

So how have the live dates been going?

They’re great. I’m so grateful we get to go out and do these shows. This month we’re doing three shows. We’re in Washington, DC, Providence, Rhode Island, and then in Boston. I love the work. It’s fun to do it. The audiences are great. I love the people I work with.

How many movies are you touring with at once?

We’ll be doing the premiere of our newest movie in Boston, called Rattlers. That’ll be our 13th movie. We can pretty much do any movie that we like. Currently the movies we’re working on are our newest movies, that helps get them ready to release them by bringing them out and performing them live. We can always pop in a new one. If we go to a new city, we can look at our catalogue.
The Cinematic Titanic crew

Has the touring become a more important element than it was at the beginning of Cinematic Titanic?

Part of the premise of Cinematic Titanic was to do it live. For the very first Cinematic Titanic, we also had booked a live show. So within the first week, we had a studio show and a live show. They really are kind of hand in hand. But what we learned is that the live show is the state of the art. Coming from Mystery Science Theater, we thought we needed to a studio show. But we found we just did better in front of an audience.

Are you sticking with the live format for the next releases?

Yeah. We just feel that’s the state of the art. We do better for shows, trying to get up for the shows.

Do you think there are still MST fans out there you haven’t reached yet, who don’t know about Cinematic Titanic?

Oh, I think so. I think absolutely. I’m a U2 fan and I haven’t bought a U2 album in about thirteen years. I’m sure there are Mystery Science Theater fans who haven’t heard about what we’re doing. I just think that it takes time. But so far, we’re able to play different venues and different theatres. We can sell them out. Pretty much consistently we’re able to draw good crowds, even though I’m sure we haven’t saturated the whole MST [crowd].

How does the DVD and live format differ for you from the old MST format of having a weekly studio show? How does it compare to producing a weekly TV show?

When we did a weekly show, we had a lot of resources. We had money coming in. We had an office to hang out at and work at. We had a studio. All those things kind of in one place and available. Designated prop builders. Cinematic Titanic is much more stripped down. It’s kind of us, we write and produce everything. But again, the premise is a lot stealthier, also. It’s us at the microphone with our scripts riffing. It’s not the heavy concept of a guy trapped in space with robot companions. The production part is not there. It’s just us doing a concert of movie riffing. That really was the original premise of Cinematic Titanic.

When you were here at MIT last year, you had said you and Trace were working on back story for why everyone was on the Cinematic Titanic. Is that still in the works or has the live concept changed that?

Trace and I were working on it, feeling like we had to make it like Mystery Science Theater. I think we were really struggling with, should we do it live or do a high concept show, which our studio shows were becoming. I think ultimately we felt like we were aping Mystery Science Theater. Doing it live, we could throw all that away, and it becomes, we’re the Mystery Science Theater guys, and it’s about riffing.

Doing it live eliminated any need for a concept. I liked it. Because I wasn’t really satisfied with what we had. I was kind of like trying to fill it in. Trace and I were trying to get something to happen. It was a bit harder, I think, because we were kind of doing it as a group. Conceptually, Mystery Science Theater was a little bit easier. I got kind of frustrated. Doing it live

Does it feel more like your stand-up days doing it this way?

Absolutely. We all met doing stand-up and I think that’s why we love doing it so much. That’s how I found [everyone for] Mystery Science Theater, in the clubs. That’s where we found Josh [J. Elvis Weinstein]. That’s where we found Mike and Frank and Mary Jo. Everybody, pretty much. Paul Chaplin.

Do you ever come across your early stand-up on HBO specials or on Saturday Night Live?

Oh sure. Mostly, people will remind me of it. Yeah.

What do you think when you see it?

It’s fun. It seems slightly unreal. It was a long time ago. Almost thirty years ago, when I started. I’m really grateful.

If it hadn’t been for MST, what direction do you think your career would have gone?

I couldn’t tell you. I really don’t know.

You’ve done set building and writing, was that in your head at the time, that maybe you’d wind up doing that?

I guess so, but I guess I just don’t have the personality to work, I’m not quite good enough to kind of work people... That’s why I got to do this. I can do a lot of things kind of competently, but not anything really great, not any particular thing really well.

And yet you have fans who are dedicated and have been for decades, and you’ve been called a genius more than once in print.

Uh… yeah? [laughs]

What are your thoughts when you see all of these people praising you for what you created?

Again, it kind of goes back to my stand-up, I just look at it and go I’m really glad I did it, I’m really glad I had the energy and the persistence to get it out there. That’s the thing that I think about most, is I just wanted it, I wanted to make it happen. I’m kind of amazed and glad and just grateful that I was able, I had that drive to do those things, to do stand up, and I had the vision to do Mystery Science Theater, to bring it to life. I just feel really lucky. It feels unreal. I’m just amazed that people care.

Has the live show affected the 600 riff per movie ratio? Are you still able to get as many in as you were with the studio product?

It’s not as much because the laughs eclipse the set-ups for other jokes. It’s not as dense, there aren’t as many jokes. The jokes are all set ups. Whereas the jokes in Mystery Science Theater were much more dimensional and much more, probably, slapstick.

It just amazes me that movie riffing works live. It works beautifully. As Josh says, an uncommonly funny theatrical experience. It just works that way. We couldn’t have started this way. I don’t think it would have worked to do Cinematic Titanic first and then Mystery Science Theater. I think we had to do Mystery Science Theater first. And now people get it enough, it’s been around enough, that people think, oh, these are the people who did that.

Also, I would think you have a community built with a particular taste and sensibility, and you’re able to play to that and to some extent know what’s going to make those people laugh.

Yup. It’s really true. We were able to build this whole thing on the back of the Mystery Science Theater fanbase.

Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson on MST3K
Has the success of Cinematic Titanic given you any more leverage over how Shout Factory handles the Mystery Science Theater catalogue?

These guys at Shout Factory are really special. They really understand the fanbase and they understand us. And they really care, they happen to be fans. They’ve kind of consulted me, and I’ve just been available. I want to help as much as I can.

One thing that I will tell you that is very interesting, sales for Mystery Science Theater have gone up really impressively since Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax started. So it’s grown Mystery Science Theater’s business, just by finding new people and alerting people that we’re out there.

Do you think you’ll ever do a riff-off with the RiffTrax folks?

Oh, I don’t know. We were just at DragonCon with them. We did an event, and we did a panel. So we do stuff with them. So it’s completely likely.

I think that would be a huge event for MST fans. Seems like the fans really would like for you to be friendly, and there are some reports try to make it seem like there’s a rift there.

That’s the great thing about our fans. They love us all equally. And I think that comes from years of flame wars going on between Joel and Mike. And they’ve just kind of figured out this higher consciousness where they just like all of it. And they’ve really set the tone.

Friday, October 22, 2010

What to do tonight: Max Goldberg at the Studio

There are plenty of good options for comedy tonight, if you're browsing and looking for alast minute decision. Ron White at the Wang, Betsy Salkind at MIT, Martin Plant at Mottley's, Jimmy Dunn at the Kowloon in Saugus (featuring Tom E. Morello's last shows -- see the previous post).

Consider heading out to The Comedy Studio, though, to see Max Goldberg. He's back in town doing one show only tonight. Angie over at the Examiner has the interview.

The Boston Comedy Exit Interview: Tom E. Morello

Tom E. Morello has two more Boston
shows at the Kowloon.
The Boston scene loses another one of its own soon when Tom E. Morello
heads to San Antonio. Morello has been a staple here for several years, a regular at The Comedy Studio. He'll say goodbye to Boston with two shows at the Kowloon tonight and tomorrow, opening for Jimmy Dunn.

What made you decide to leave Boston now?

Life intervened in a wonderful way for me, as I met an amazing woman and fell completely in love with her, (while simultaneously planning for our respective moves to Los Angeles together). She is an immigration attorney, and her contract working on the California/Mexico border was expiring in September. California is in the midst of a state-wide hiring freeze, and she was offered a substantial career advancement opportunity in San Antonio. She was emotional about telling me this great news, thinking that it would be a potential deal-breaker between us. It took all of 3 seconds for me to respond to her fortune with a very genuine, "San Antonio sounds perfect!"

For many years, I had let comedy steer where my life was headed, and frankly, that was a strategy that provided me modest success, but the method had outgrown it's usefulness at this juncture. This is the perfect time for me to reverse the course, and let my life dictate where my art goes. Comedy can be packed up and shipped around, but great women come but once in a lifetime.

What are your plans when you get to San Antonio?

I've always been fascinated at the prospect of parachuting my act into uncharted territory, and I'll certainly have that chance! I'm a lifetime New Englander, and my first time ever spent in Texas will be when my car crosses the state line as I move in. My New England-style act will be a change of pace at every show I'm on, and I certainly won't be the only Latino comic on any showcase lineup, a distinction that was both blessing and curse in Boston.

The Tex-Mex comedy scene is alive and well in that belt, and I look forward to carving my niche among the established players there. My act always works well in the "fish out of water" scenario, and I've never been further from the stream than I will be in Spurs country.

What do you think you gained from learning comedy in this scene?

Everything I am as a comic, I owe to the Boston comedy scene. What other kid without a college education or formal training gets to perform in front of Harvard, Boston College, M.I.T. students and faculty, but also entertains construction workers, firemen, and police at a Chinese restaurant in Saugus?

I got to do exactly that for 11 years, and the forced adaptation you develop by telling jokes to academic geniuses seated next to working-class warriors can't be duplicated. A comedian can't survive in Boston with only smoke and mirrors, because it is a no b.s. comedy scene. If you are derivative, mediocre, green, or're dead in the dirty water.

Any one particular show in Boston stand out in your memory?

The last time I performed with the late, great Kevin Knox will always stand out in my memory. The show itself was fun, (as Kevin made every show a party) but something motivated me to pull Kevin aside after the crowd had left, so that I could tell him how much I appreciated him. I had no idea his health was about to turn for the worse, and though Kevin was great at many things, he always deflected praise with a smile. Kevin allowed me the chance to say my peace, he gave me a big hug, and thanked me for the sentiment. It was the last time I ever saw him, and I'll always treasure that memory.

I was never close friends with Kevin, but I personally viewed him as a scion of the cosmos. On a very spiritual level, Kevin Knox was the comedian I modeled my performing style after. So many comics had callously stolen that man's jokes, or ripped off his stage persona, but I carefully watched him work and always tried to absorb his boundless energy and joy for performing. No one could ever duplicate his act, (and sadly, so many have tried) but Kevin taught me that I could do my own thing and still learn from the way he went about his business. He was a beautiful human being, and I will always be grateful that the geography of performing comedy in Boston allowed us to work together many times.

What will you miss the most?

I will miss The Comedy Studio and Rick Jenkins, who are basically one in the same. Rick is a dear friend, and it was a pleasure being one of the regular players who watched the Studio evolve into a well-oiled machine that produces such great comedians at a nearly break-neck pace. I was never really a comedy "blue chip" prospect, and I didn't have a whole lot in the way of training or natural ability. I was raw, pig-headed, and it took me a long time to reach competence as a stand-up comic.

Rick was the most consistant voice whom I could trust would look out for my best interests in comedy. He also allowed me to help produce hundreds of shows from the booth, (working sound, timing and filming the comics) which gave me a keen eye for rhythm, and the basic foundations of stand-up. I think that Rick excels in challenging comic sensibilities, and figuring out how things play in regards to the many different audiences that will receive a performance. One producer might find an act too dirty, but a cable network might find the act not edgy enough, and a comedy club audience might totally love that very same performer. Rick is really good at pointing out those distinctions, and has a great mind for the art of building, telling, and ultimately marketing the joke. He's as solid a comedy emcee as there ever was, and his act flies under the radar enough that many don't realize how great a performer he truly is.

I'll also miss late-night drunken shouting matches with Rick on the second floor of the Hong Kong after the Comedy Studio shows, where we loudly called each other out on our respective stubbornness.

Ultimately, I will always value and respect his counsel and our friendship. Rick Jenkins is a really great guy, and I'm sure we'll be yelling into the phone at each other over comedy industry semantics in the near future.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Comics Come Home line-up, November 13 at Agganis

A good chunk of the line-up for this year's 16th Annual Comics Come Home, which will take place November 13, 7:30PM at BU's Agganis Arena, was announced today. As always, Denis Leary hosts. On the bill so far: Jim Norton, Adam Ferrara, Lenny Clarke, Joe Yannetty, Pete Correale, and Thomas Dale. I'll update if and when any additions are announced.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bo Burnham's Words Words Words, taped at the House of Blues, debuts tonight

Bo Burnham's Words Words Words
tonight on Comedy Central
Those who saw Bo Burnham tape his new comedy special, Words Words Words, at the House of Blues in May got a glimpse of a comedian taking a couple of steps forward. The special airs tonight at 11PM on Comedy Central. And that will show part of the story, but not all of it.
Burnham was already a YouTube sensation when he recorded his first “Comedy Central Presents” at age 18. He was clever, a little blue, and had a dorky white boy trying to be hip appeal. His story has been told frequently since then – the Hamilton native who made videos in his bedroom that led to a hit album, working with Judd Apatow, and a mountain of accolades and exposure.

So it’s a relief to see his wordplay is getting smarter, his premises are getting more inventive, and to see that he is completely aware of how ridiculous his sudden fame is. All of that is in the material on tonight’s special. Burnham has a tour and an MTV show coming up, so I’ll save some of the more specific ideas for then, but I was impressed with what I saw, and I’m hoping that translates on tonight’s show.

Don’t get me wrong, Burnham hasn’t ditched the silly, scatological stuff that caught people’s attention in the first place. But you can see him turning that over a bit, trying to add something to his repertoire, whether it’s Shakespeare references or parodying stand-up itself.

The thing you probably will never see are all the retakes Burnham had to do after going through the whole show, how he seemed genuinely sorry addressing the crowd and asking for their patience. He did throw a couple of jabs at the Comedy Central crew for having to repeat a few things, but he did a good ob keeping the audience involved, which is important if you want them to look alive while you tape something to punch into the rest of the show.

Words Words Words is also out on CD October 19.

Bill Burr schedules fundraiser for brother Bob's campaign

Bill Burr at the Wilbur 10/20
In case you missed it, Bill Burr just scheduled a date at the Wilbur Wednesday night. Burr explains the short notice thusly in his newsletter: "Hello peoples! I'm going to be at the Wilbur Theatre on Wednesday, October 20th at 7:30PM. This is a special show to help raise funds for my brother Bob who is running for State Senate in the state of Massachusetts. All proceeds will be donated to my brothers campaign. I'll be telling a lot of family stories that I usually don't tell in my act. So it should be a great night."

Bob Burr is the Republican candidate for Massachusetts State Senate in the Norfolk, Bristol, and Plymouth County District running against Democrat Brian A. Joyce, not to be confused with comedian Brian Joyce, co-host, along with Derek Gerry, of The Whole Truth on Tufts Radio every Wednesday.

Newton and Precious Saltwater attack the Web

Newton and Precious Saltwater at
The Gas November 5
Newton and Precious Saltwater aren’t new to Boston audiences. They have brought their good time variety show to ImprovBoston and Mottley’s, singing and arguing and trying to spread the Good News in there somewhere.

They will be back in front of local audiences on November 5 as part of the Boston Comedy Festival playing The Gas at Great Scott in Allston. In preparation, they are starting to get their act together. They just launched their own blog, over at, and have posted their first podcast, an interview with Gas host Rob Creen.

Also fresh today, they have posted a new song, “Don’t Touch My Hair,” about the difficulties in looking good in Allston. Or at least that’s what I took out of it. You can read the lyrics and listen to the song here.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Guest Blogger: A comic's New York story

Today FunnyGrownHere features a story from guest blogger Ray Charbonneau, a freelance writer who followed a comedian friend to New York City to see how tough it is to break into the clubs there.

Ray Charbonneau's book, Chasing the Runner's High, has been called "a hard look into the mind of a runner." It's available in paperback or as a "name your own price" eBook.

Doug on his way to NYC
For a Boston comedian like Doug Fitzgerald, it’s hard to resist the gravitational pull of New York City. Millions of people, a wealth of big name comics, and more industry to spot you and give you that big break, all just a $17 bus ride away.

Doug’s real name is “Kevin,” but a grammar school bully named him after the Nickelodeon character, and the name stuck. It fits with Doug’s unprepossessing appearance and thinning comb-forward, an appearance that matches the stage persona he describes as “a cross between cute lovable single guy and creepy guy.”

Two years into his standup career, Doug’s starting to get regular bookings at local clubs like The Comedy Studio and ImprovBoston. He wanted to see how his act would play outside of Boston, so he emailed the Gotham Comedy Club in New York to ask about getting a gig. He knew about the Gotham because it’s been the host of a number of TV shows, including episodes of “Last Comic Standing” and Comedy Central’s “Live at Gotham.” Jessica Kirson, the booking agent at the club, offered Doug a slot on their Monday night “New Talent Showcase.” It’s an audition show, where lesser-known comedians can get stage time to show whether they’re worth asking back for a set on another night.

The show is what comedians call a “bringer.” Comedians hate bringers. In order to go on, a comedian has to bring a certain number of people along. In theory, that makes it a step up from an open mike night. Acts have to have enough of a following to get a few people to show up. In practice, comedians who have to do bringers are still trying to build a following, so they have to count on their friends to show up. The real reason clubs do bringers is to ensure there’s someone besides other comics in the audience, so someone’s paying admission, buying drinks, and laughing at jokes.

After the initial email exchange, Doug had the impression he needed to bring four people along to get onstage. He knew it would be tough to get people from Boston to go down to New York for a Monday night show, but he had some friends in New York who might come. He posted a message to Facebook on the Thursday before the show to see if anyone wanted to go and if anyone had a place for him to crash after the show.

Friday, he got another message from the Gotham. This one said that he’d need to bring ten people, not just four, in order to go on. Four seemed possible, but ten was a much higher hurdle. Doug posted an update to Facebook with the new number. One friend from Boston said he’d go down for the show, and a few more who were already in New York chimed in to say they’d be there. That brought the number up to around five or six.

On Saturday, Doug posted another update on Facebook. When I noticed the message, I came up with the idea of writing a story about a comedian’s first trip to the big city. I knew other comedians, some who’ve made the move to New York and some still in Boston, who would be able to flesh out the story with their experiences.

I thought I might even find some synergy between the struggles of a new comedian and my attempts to get a writing career started. I’d finished a book on running and was poking at some short fiction ideas, but I was having some trouble getting going. Maybe taking time for a bit of journalism would help. If nothing else, it was a way to put off working on my fiction, and my other methods were starting to wear thin. All that, along with the cheap bus fare, flipped the switch, and let me justify the effort to myself and Ruth, my wife.

So Sunday, I called Doug to see whether he’d be interested in having me tag along to go to the show and write a story. Duh. All comedians want attention, or they wouldn’t be getting up on stage. And whether or not I ever wrote or sold the story, he needed bodies for the bringer. If he got any extra publicity out of my story, that was just a bonus.

Doug told me he had a ticket for 7:30AM Bolt bus Monday morning, which would get us into Manhattan about noon, enough time to wander around New York before the show. I e-mailed a few of my contacts in New York to see if they’d have time to talk with me that afternoon. Dan Hirshon was working in midtown and got out at 1PM, so another piece fell into place.

Then Doug’s friends started backing out. Your friends want to be nice, so they tend to overstate the likelihood that they’ll show up for a show. “I’ll go” means the person might go. “I’ll probably go” means they probably won’t. And “I might go” means they definitely won’t. They’re trying to let you down gently, but what they’re really doing is setting you up for a bigger disappointment later on. But counting on friends to show up is tough on them too. If they’re good friends, they’ve probably seen your act a few times already, and noticed that the funniest stuff tends to get repeated and that it gets less funny every time.

The cost of the show also seemed a little high, especially to people from Boston. The Gotham wanted people to pay $12 for a ticket, plus the cost of a two drink minimum (at inflated club prices), for “new talent” on a Monday. Monday night in Boston, any comedy show is likely to be a free open mike designed to bring in a few people to buy drinks on an otherwise slow night. If nothing else, the comedians end up buying a few to drown their sorrows after another night of telling their jokes in front of nobody but other comedians who’ve heard most of the jokes before.

When Doug’s Boston friends added in the bus ticket and the cost of eating out, and took into consideration that the trip required nine hours on the bus and taking one or two days off from work, it started to look like the costs outweighed the benefits.

Doug called me to discuss what we should do. He told me he already had his bus ticket, which was a major expense on his comedian’s budget. He decided if he couldn’t get ten people to commit, “I’m gonna show up and see if I can use my charm, wit, and charisma to finagle my way on the list.” If not, he’d find an open mike to get some stage time. I checked with Dan, who said there was a good open mike in the area at 9PM if we needed it. He also said that he’d signed up for a four person bringer at the Gotham and when his people didn’t show, they still let him go on. So Doug and I decided to give it a try.

We met at South Station for the 7:30 Bolt bus to New York. Even though the tickets were cheap, the bus looked clean and new. They even had wireless Internet service on board. We got our seats, and after the bus got going, Doug and I started talking about his experience as a stand-up and his plans for this trip to New York and afterwards.

Doug started doing standup by taking an adult education course. He kept with it because, “it was something to do that I really, really like and it didn’t cost me any money. It never cost me any cash to go do open mic nights and I realized I was kind of good at it. I started getting booked shows and I started getting recognized. People started liking my set so I just kept with it. It’s kind of like going to the gym but less costly and my arms don’t hurt the next day.”

He’s only been paid for one gig, $20 for an appearance at ImprovBoston’s Naked Comedy Showcase. “Two girls bought me a drink after the show,” he said. “They said they liked what they saw, and that my material was pretty good too.”

He has hope for the future. “I definitely want to make a life of this. Next season I want to do ‘Last Comic Standing.’ I want to see myself on ‘Comedy Central Presents.’ I want to get my own sitcom, on FX. None of this ABC Family crap.”

He thinks he’s ready to take the next step. “I was told that if you can make people laugh in Boston, every other place in the country is so much easier,” he said. “I’m going to put that to the test today. I know Boston likes my material, I know Cambridge likes my material, I know Somerville likes my material. I want to see whether New York likes my material.”

Doug worried about whether he’d bring enough guests, but he had some flyers and he was going to do what he could. “I plan on wandering the city and prostituting myself to people, see if I can get people to come.”

We settled down to the tedium of a long highway bus trip. At one point I got up to go to the bathroom, and I found that Doug had left his joke notebook there. I considered waiting for him to figure out it was missing, but I decided to be kind. It turns out that Doug finds sitting in the bathroom a good place to work on material. It’s up to the audience to decide whether that’s reflected in the quality of the jokes.

Arriving in NYC
The bus dropped us off on the sidewalk in midtown Manhattan at 34th and 8th, next to the Tick Tock Diner. It was a bright, sunny day. The light brought out the riot of colors in the storefronts and the clothing of the thousands of people rushing around. I was reminded of my first trip to Las Vegas, in that it was bright, flashy, and a little overwhelming at first. I focused on the little things, like the garage where it cost $6.76 to park for a half-hour, or the fact that every woman who had a pocketbook had one with a short strap and carried it with her elbow clasping it tightly against her side.

Doug and I walked up 8th to the Port Authority station at 42nd. He went inside to buy his return ticket, since he couldn’t buy one online because his comedian’s budget didn’t stretch to money in the bank to fund a debit card. I walked on to 50th, where I would meet Dan Hirshon at 1PM, when he got out of work.

I went into the Applebee’s at 50th and 7th, mostly to find a bathroom. The bathrooms and the main restaurant were on the second floor. On the first floor, there was a separate bar, with a lounge area with benches, pillows, and funky designer tables, unlike anything I’d seen in any other Applebee’s. At noon on a Monday, the bar was empty. I ordered a soda and called Dan to let him know I was there.

When Dan arrived, the waitress came over to take our order, but Applebee’s was too expensive a lunch option for Dan, since he was also living on a comedian’s budget. The waitress was cheerful, not at all a stereotypical New Yorker. She even turned the loud music down when I said we were doing an interview, though it was already apparent that we wouldn’t be ordering any food.

Dan moved to New York three years ago. “I didn’t really have a specific plan, but I just wanted to get out of Boston and try something new,” he said.

He started with standup while he was attending Brandeis, and he had been working in Boston for seven years, when he made the decision. “I had my circle of friends and a lot of them were moving down to New York and so, at a certain point, it wasn’t going to be too crazy,” he said. “I had a guy who was looking for a roommate down here who was also a Boston comic, and then I had a few friends in the neighborhood, the neighborhood being Astoria. A lot of comics live there. So when I moved down I was already kind of with a support system.”

The move was harder than he thought it would be. “I wasn’t ready for it,” he said. He got stage time, but “it’s just the audiences I wasn’t ready for. In Boston, I kind of figured out what worked and then I had my act. And then I moved here, and you get tourist audience and you get urban audiences and you get alternative audiences, you get older, younger, mixes of everything.”

He worked hard to adjust. “When I first moved here, I was at a club where you did like six sets a night and like audiences from all over the world and sometimes there’d be five people and sometimes a hundred and when there’s like five, sometimes none of them spoke English,” he said. “You gotta learn to deal with that.”

Dan found that the New York comedy scene allowed him to take more risks. “I think in New York a lot of the time some people will take more chances and are willing to bomb, just because it happens more,” he said. “When I was in Boston, ratio-wise there were more audiences that were showing up to have a good time, whereas down in New York a lot of them are barked in, a lot of them are from all over the world. They don’t know what they’re getting into, they’re just looking to do some crazy New York thing.”

I asked him why he stuck with it. “I question that a lot, every day,” he said. “When I think about other things to do – I don’t enjoy anything else. No one enjoys their job 24/7. You put up with a lot of shit sometimes, a lot of stuff I don’t enjoy about standup up. It isn’t the stage, it’s dealing with bookers and trying to convince people that I’m ready to go on stage.”

Dan recently had to take a part-time job, but he’s still focused on his comedy career. “I don’t have any crazy dreams or anything,” he said. “I just wanna be like a working comic and have an act that I love to perform.”

Ray's Pizza boxes
After we finished, he took me up to 53rd St. for a slice of pizza. It wasn’t until after I ordered that I noticed we were in Ray’s Pizza. It’s all about me. We ate, and then Dan left for home and I wandered down Broadway into Times Square with my camera out and my head swiveling around, just like any other tourist.

I made my way down to 23rd St. in Chelsea, where the Gotham Comedy Club is located. It’s right next to the Hotel Chelsea, famous for the creative personalities who’ve stayed there, and as the location of the deaths of Dylan Thomas and Nancy Spungen. It was only 4:30 and I wasn’t supposed to meet Doug until 6PM, so I walked down 23rd and napped in the Hudson River Park before heading back to the club to meet with Doug and his friend Emily at the Starbucks on the corner. Emily moved from Somerville to New York back in May. She lived in an “affordable” section of Brooklyn and worked in a theater prop warehouse downtown. Rather than travel back and forth after work, she was waiting for showtime with us.

Doug spent the afternoon looking around the city and giving out flyers, trying to get people to come to the show. He was thrilled when he stumbled across the Museum of Sex. He was also excited by the networking possibilities that apparently popped up just by being in New York. He was sitting in a bar, tearing apart the flyers that he’d printed two at a time, when a stranger came up to him, identified himself as a business consultant, and told him he should get the fliers cut across the street.

“He started talking to girls next to me to help promote me to get them to come to the show and I was immediately enamored with this man,” said Doug. “This guy is totally pitching for me and he doesn’t even know my name yet. He hasn’t even read the goddamn sheet.”

As Dan had said to me earlier, “Down here it’s just easier to meet with people who have the expertise and drive and are also willing to work for free, just because the market’s so saturated.”

Doug was still worried about whether he was bringing enough people. He kept trying. When he went off to the bathroom, he came back thinking he might have found one more. “The girl waiting with me to get into the bathroom, when I said I was from Boston, she started flirting with me. I told her about the show and she said she might come.”

I left to get a sandwich before the show, and then met up with Emily at the club. Doug had already gone in. We checked in with the guy at the door to let them know we were here to see Doug and were escorted to a table by the side of the stage.

The main floor of the Gotham is a good-sized room, decorated in reds and blacks in an Art Deco style. It was dark, but we could see that the room was about three-quarters full, so it would be, by far, the largest audience Doug had ever performed for. Apparently $12 plus drinks for comedy in Manhattan on a Monday wasn’t too much to ask after all.

There was a guy set up in the back of the room running a video camera. I went back talk with him before the show. His name was Mike Codispoti, and he’s made a business out of setting up in clubs and offering the acts a video of their performance. He charges $40 for anything up to a half-hour set, which isn’t a bad price for a quality video, especially since he also mikes the stage himself to make sure he gets good sound. Mike told me that the Gotham mixes professional comedians into the “New Talent” in their bringers, which made me a little less concerned about the quality of the evening’s entertainment.

At 8PM, the show started. Doug still had only two guests. He was counting on his friend Krystal, who said she’d be bringing a few friends but she might be a little late. I ordered my first $5 Coke-flavored ice as the show began.

Sherry Davey at Gotham
Sherry Davey was the MC for the night. Each comedian waited off to the left of the stage, behind us, while Sherry was introducing them. As the show went on, I kept turning back to look at the comic waiting for the next set, to see if it was Doug’s turn.

I was looking forward to seeing Doug’s set. I’ve seen him three times, first when he opened an improv benefit show put on by some of our friends, and most recently at the Comedy Studio in Cambridge on a bill with Myq Kaplan. Each time, his presentation has improved and his jokes were more finely honed. I was interested to see whether he’d taken another step forward.

About an hour into the show, Doug came out to Emily and me and crouched behind us to pass on some news. Krystal and her friends hadn’t shown up, and Yonah Ward Grossman, the guy running the show, wasn’t going to let Doug do his set with only two people there. Grossman said maybe if there were five or six, but two just wasn’t enough. The club said Emily and I wouldn’t have to pay the $12 admission since he wasn’t going to get on, but that wasn’t really important.

Doug wasn’t happy, but we had to keep the discussion quiet to keep from disturbing the show. I looked at my watch. It was a little after 9PM. The open mike we knew about on 40th St. had already started, so there wasn’t any way we were going to get to in time for Doug to go on. Emily and I offered to leave anyhow, but Doug decided to go back and see if he could work something out.

Jim Gaffigan at Gotham
Emily and I settled back to watch the rest of the show. A little later, when the comic on stage finished his act, Davey came on to announce that a special guest had dropped in to do a set. Jim Gaffigan hopped up onto the stage and went through a new bit on working out and eating at McDonalds, using the “I’m Lovin’ It” slogan as a clear callback to his “Hot Pockets” routine. We wondered if Doug had been bumped to make room for Gaffigan, but later Doug told us that he’d already been bumped before Gaffigan showed up.

While Gaffigan was onstage, I took out one of my business cards and wrote a message on the back: “Please ask the mgr to let Doug Fitzgerald do a set.” When Gaffigan’s set was over, I handed him the card as he walked by us on the way from the stage. Afterwards, I could see him reading it while he was sitting against the side wall with Davey, but nothing came of it. It was worth a try.

The show finished up around 10:20. The night’s better known comics, in addition to Davey, were Mike Vecchione, and Godfrey. Most of the comedians weren’t bad, and some of them were pretty good. Only one was truly horrid, a set of tired old vaudeville jokes told by an older guy. He wore heavy black lens-less glasses as a costume, or as some sort of homage to the old-school Jewish comics that he stole his jokes from. Doug’s set might not have measured up to Gaffigan’s, but he wouldn’t have been embarrassed to be there either.

We paid our bill and left the club. I got our revenge. I took all three of the pens printed with the club logo from our table when I left.

For future reference, one way to deal with bringers at the Gotham is to get 10 people to go in and give your name. Since they don’t have to pay for admission until the end, they can leave before the bill comes (before or after the show, depending on their level of honesty).

Doug in the Gotham loby
Doug was upset after the show. He was angry with Grossman, who found room for Gaffigan and for 15 minutes of his own comedy, but wouldn’t give Doug five minutes even though he’d traveled from out of state to be there. I gave Grossman a chance to explain why he didn’t let Doug go on, but he wasn’t interested.

I could see it both ways. The club needs paying customers to make money, and a requirement to bring ten people is one way to ensure that unfamiliar comics are at some minimal level of competency. But the rule wasn’t hard and fast. If five or six people would have been enough, why not be a little more flexible and let two be enough? They ran 20 minutes past their intended 10PM finish without Doug. Why not let Doug go on in one of the less desirable slots near the end of the show, after the people in the audience who were only there to see their comic friend had left? It would have been easy to do, and nice.

We were standing outside in Chelsea at night with five hours to kill before our scheduled trip back to Boston. Plenty of things were open, but we didn’t have anything to celebrate and Emily had to work in the morning, so we took the C train to the Port Authority station to see if Doug and I could get on an earlier bus. There was one leaving at 12:15. We couldn’t exchange our tickets, but we were told we could get on it if there was space available. So we found the terminal, in an unrenovated corner of the Port Authority basement, and waited at the gate over an hour, watching more and more people get in line for the bus to Boston.

The ride to New York had been full of promise. The weather was warm, the sun was bright, and the bus was shiny and new, with WiFi and other modern amenities. The ride back to Boston that night was depressing, starting from a dank bus terminal, on a skuzzy bus with broken shocks and crumbling seats that smelled of defeat. One guy behind Doug started snoring, loudly, within five minutes after the bus left the dank terminal. The guy sitting next to him had to call someone on his cell phone every few minutes, to update that person on his current location. The pirated copy of “Despicable Me” that Doug bought at the terminal for $5 to watch on his laptop during the ride was supposed to be a copy of a review copy, but turned out to be made by a guy sitting in a theater with a video camera.

The only thing that worked well was the A/C, which was set uncomfortably high. All the little nozzles that normally twisted to control the airflow were missing. We slouched in our seats, hugging ourselves to try to stay warm, and dozed fitfully through the night.

We arrived in Boston at dawn, just in time to catch the first Red Line train back to our homes. Doug was disappointed that he’d missed his chance for his first out-of-town appearance at a major club. My story didn’t work out the way I had anticipated. But my day wasn’t wasted. It was a beautiful day, and I got to see Manhattan for the first time. The comedy show wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I’d feared, a top shelf pro had made a surprise appearance, and I didn’t have to spend a few hours hanging out with hookers and drug addicts before the bus trip home.

Doug and I split, too tired to do more than shake hands and say goodbye. He was already planning his next trip. Seems there’s a bringer that only requires four guests….

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Review: Dick Gregory at the Wilbur - More Than Laughter

Dick Gregory at the Wilbur Theatre October 10
It’s hard to put a Dick Gregory show in the same category with other stand-up comedy shows. Stand-up comedy is a rich and diverse artform, a mix of slapstick, satire, storytelling, and simple set-ups and punchlines. Gregory has a deep toolbox to draw from, with the added benefit of the enormous weight of his personal history. And a stand-up show is rare on his busy schedule of lecture dates.

During a two-hour set at the Wilbur Sunday, Gregory was political, personal, briefly profane, goofy and deadly serious. The 77-year-old comic held court over a crowd of a little under 500 people who hung on his every word for a Sunday afternoon show. Gregory would sometimes whisper into the microphone, and the crowd would hush to hear him.

Gregory started out serious, making points about how black-on-black crime is over-reported, at least compared to white-on-white crime, and how it’s “crazy when you benefit from a negative.” He was referring to his high school days, when most of his teachers had Ph.D.s because a black person with that education had a hard time finding a job anywhere but black high schools.

Gregory said he didn’t know there were ugly white people until he got to college. All of is heroes were white movie stars. He also didn’t know there were dumb white people, and his family nearly didn’t believe it when he told them. “See if you can bring one home for Thanksgiving so we can all see one.” First big laugh of the night.

He was shocked to fail English in high school – the one language he could speak, he said. So he told his teacher he was going to get a brick and come back and smash his head. His grade changed to an A plus. “So he did understand what I was saying,” Gregory said.

He had some good advice for high school students, something he says he told his own kids – treat high school like you’re going to the movies. “Just enjoy yourself and try not to bother the people sitting next to you.”

Gregory spoke about the Jackson family, and praised Joe Jackson for raising ten kids in harsh economic times that never stole. He mentions he taught Michael Jackson how to fast, and said when Jackson was 40, he had once asked Gregory if he thought Jackson were weird. Of course he was weird, Gregory said. “You know what its like to be 40 years old and never had to beg for no pussy?”

It was a shocking moment from a guy who never uses profanity onstage, and sometimes cited younger comics for relying on it too much. This tiny island of blue material in the sea of Gregory’s larger act stood out, as he went on to talk about his own experience begging.

Gregory makes a point of challenging his audiences. It was the state that killed Christ, he points out, “not some drunk chariot driver.” So how can any Christian be for the death penalty? And if Christ did come back, he’d probably get the electric chair. “And then we’ll all be walking around with big chairs around out neck,” he said.

Gregory is a vegetarian, which is part of an overall philosophy of kindness. But that’s not the only way to go about it. He said that Martin Luther King taught Gregory to love his enemies, and he “could eat the booty out of a cow.”

Gregory also made some challenging claims toward the end of his set about soy, blaming them for increased rates of cancer and thyroid disease, and, disturbingly, for messing with male and female hormones to produce more gay people. That, again, could be considered a small island in the greater sea of Gregory’s philosophy of truth, love, and kindness, but a troubling one, nonetheless.

Gregory told me in an interview for this blog last week that the laughter is the point, that if he solved a crowd’s problems during the course of a show but didn’t make them laugh, he’d leave defeated and probably give them their money back. He accomplished that Sunday. And though he might take issue with me for saying it, there was a lot more than laughter.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Boston Comedy Interview: Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia's Painfully True Stories
Tour at the Wilbur 10/13
It’s a good time to be a Mike Birbiglia fan. On Tuesday, fans will get their first chance to pick up his debut book, Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories. Wednesday, they’ll get to see him at the Wilbur, performing material from his new one-man show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, the follow-up to 2008’s off-Broadway show, Sleepwalk With Me, on his Painfully True Stories Tour. You can hear him on This American Life or see him at the popular MOTH storytelling events.

You might even get to talk about the new book at an Awkward Make-Out Party to celebrate the book. Birbiglia will be missing that, as he has missed most other awkward make-out parties, but he and his brother Joe have designed a special blacklight poster to send to a few groups who host the parties.

It’s not unusual for a comedian to write a book, appear on the radio, or even have a one-person show. But comedians don’t often put them together the way Birbiglia has. The Shrewsbury native has taken a real step forward since his beginnings in stand-up in Washington, D.C. and, closer to home, at the Comedy Studio.

He has gotten more personal without becoming self-indulgent. He is self-effacing without coming off as a tortured artist. And his art has become more sophisticated and more relatable at the same time – a pretty neat trick.

I spoke with Birbiglia last week by phone from his hotel in Washington, where he was performing on the current tour.

How difficult was it to write Sleepwalk With Me? You hear comedians who write book talk about how it’s such a different process and difficult to contend with.

I think the hardest part is that I wrote it. Often, comedians and personalities don’t write their own books. Someone else writes them. They sit in a room with a tape recorder and tell them stories. So yeah, I actually wrote it. I think the hardest part about it is that you’re dealing with this… you’re dealing with this thing that seems so permanent. Books feel so permanent, and you’re just trying not to mess it up in a certain way.

I know with the one-man show, you were learning the physicality of it. That was something that was a bit different to you. And with the book, it’s sort of the opposite, everything has to be there on the page.

Yeah. That’s right.

Doing that back-to-back, doing the one-man show and then the book, was that a strange experience?

They’re definitely completely different exercises on the sense that, onstage, you can express something with a look or a piece of body language or a pause, and in the book, it just all has to be there. You have to put people in your shoes through words, and that’s very difficult. It was definitely very challenging and ultimately taught me a lot about writing.

It seems like the one-man show is sort of the midway point between the stand-up and the book in the sense that, in the book, there are a few stretches where it’s more serious, and you can get into a lot more detail. You don’t really have to have the jokes per minute set-up.

Absolutely. The show definitely got me more focused on making sure everything is thematically tight, and the book is like doing that but on a much bigger and broader scale. But then it affords me some allowances, too, which is, you can digress a bit more on a book, or you can get lost in a description or something and still land on your feet and continue telling the story.

Are you somebody who, when you’re writing for the stage, do you overwrite and trim back? If so, did any of those details get added back in the book?

Yeah. It’s funny you should ask that. That definitely happened. A lot of times with the book, when I was brainstorming what stories to tell in the book, there are actually very few that crossover directly into my stand-up, but often I would listen to my own CDs of My Secret Public Journal and I would take something that was a joke that was maybe twenty words or fifteen words long and it would kind of transport me back into a place an time in my life where those things happened and I thought, what was I thinking then and what was happening then, and my old CDs served as a sot of good inspiration, or at least a good way to prompt memories.

Some things, there are four or five paragraphs that are directly from the stand-up.

Sure, yeah.

Sleepwalk With Me out 10/12
Did you find yourself getting sort of precious about – when you went to put down something that was in your stand-up that you’ve worked maybe several years to hone, and then you have to put it in a different medium – was it hard to decide, I have to sort of change this or that about it?

I mean… I’m trying to think…

If it doesn’t leap out at you, then probably not.

A specific thing that was from my stand-up that made it into the book quite a bit was the Promise of Sleep chapter where I talk about my addiction to news and the Internet and phones and pizza and big meals. That was one that had a lot of stage material in it. That was actually kind of fun because I was actually able to, like you said, go off in ways that, it wasn’t exactly a laugh every fifteen seconds or whatever the desired laugh quotient is. I could kind of dig into stuff more. So the answer is no, I didn’t really view any of the stand-up material as sacred.

I know there were also serious moments in the one-man show, but they pop up a bit more here. There’s one moment earlier on that sticks in my mind where there’s a kid getting punched on his front steps by his father and you and your friend just decide to never say anything. That’s, I would imagine, a sort of hard moment to remember or maybe even to admit.

Yeah, that was one of those moments in my life that always stuck with me. That was an incident where, that was a joke in stand-up that I always told in a much lighter way, which is, “I was always a little afraid of my dad but I was even more afraid of my friends’ dads. Your dad starts going off, you know what he’s capable of. Your friend’s dad starts going off, this guy’s a wild card. I don’t know what’s going to happen. He just kicked the dog. What do you think he’s going to do to us?”

That was kind of the joke incarnation of that actual incident. But when you have a platform like a book you can actually write out those moments. That’s actually a good example of that.

That, and there are a couple of things where you tag a more lighthearted story with a close to that part, not necessarily to the chapter but to that particular section, with something a little heavier. There’s that one and there’s also the idea that a priest got sent away.

Yeah, yeah. It’s intentionally ambiguous, because I don’t really know exactly what happened to that guy. I just know that he’s gone. [laughs] And we never heard from him again. It was like, he’s needed somewhere else, whatever the line is, and that’s exactly how it happened.

Is it hard to remember these things? Are all of these things from your life at your access?

A lot of it is stuff that, I would remember kind of pieces about it. And then I would call people who were close to me during that period of my life and, “Do you remember this? Do you recall anything about this?” My brother and my sisters were very helpful with that. My mom was helpful for that. My mom told me that story about my sister Patty and the horses. That’s a ridiculous story. And yeah, I don’t have an outstanding memory, but I don’t think anything in the book is extraordinarily specific [laughs] where you go, how can he possibly remember that?

On a personal level, whenever I try to remember a story from my childhood, and any time there’s sort of a neat punchline or ending to it, I feel like I’m remembering it wrong.

That’s funny. There’s definitely a lot of stories on the cutting room floor of this book. This book is just about two hundred pages, and the rough draft was probably about four hundred. It was probably about twice as long. And I couldn’t find those neat endings and resolutions to the stories. If something didn’t have a thematic resonance that was worth putting down on the page, it pretty much didn’t make the book. That was one of the rules of thumb when I was working.

I would write the initial draft and then I would work with my director, of Sleepwalk With Me, Seth Barrish and my brother Joe and I would show them what I had and I would say, what do you guys like? What’s working and what’s not? And generally it was the stuff that skewed away from memoir and closer to essay. The kind of essay that, if it were This American Life, that I would go with. The more it skewed toward memoir, the more it was like, well, who gives a shit about Mike Birbiglia anyway? Who am I? I’m not Joan Rivers. I’m not David Letterman. It’s not like I have some sort of extraordinary track record that we have to go back and dig through the annals of history that made it all possible. It’s more like, do you have good stories or don’t you? Are they funny? Are they poignant? That’s really what I was looking for.

I’d imagine appearing on things like This American Life and the MOTH would be extremely helpful on that regard. A lot of those people aren’t necessarily Joan Rivers or David Letterman either.

That’s absolutely right. I think both of those shows veer away from that. It’s kind of not what they want to do. Which I respect a lot. Working with Catherine Burns at the MOTH and working with Ira Glass at This American Life and working with Jane Feltes at This American Life and Julie Snyder is probably the closest I’ve come in getting a master’s degree in anything.

Were there any stories you regret you had to cut?

There are some. There’s stuff, like, for example, I did a full, blown out version of both the celebrity golf story and the c word story from My Secret Public Journal album that were well written and shed more light on those stories than just the stand-up versions, and ended up cutting them, probably because, in a way, the whole book build toward the sleepwalking incident that happened in 2005, so it happened when I was about twenty, twenty-six years old.

And so what I wanted to do was have everything that was building toward that help set the table for that final chapter. So in the final chapter, and it’s the same way in the one-man show, the final chapter is the most satisfying that it can possibly be. I felt like with the celebrity golf story and the c word story that, they have to do with an aspect of my personality but not the aspect of my personality that’s pertinent to the sleepwalking stuff.

It reminded my of Tom Perrotta in a way. There’s an element to it where, there’s enough humor that that’s on the back of your head, that all of this has to turn okay in a way, and then there are some startling turns where you realize there are real problems here.

That was definitely a choice. There were certain people in my life who tried to steer me away from that. And I actually had to hold my ground and say, no, I think that stuff is important, like the moment you were saying abut my friend getting hit by his dad. Or the masturbation stuff is a bit like that, where it’s pretty raw. Maybe funny for some, maybe gross for others. But real.

Do you feel you’re more of a storyteller than a stand-up comedian now?

That question I’m asked a lot – am I a storyteller or am I a comedian. I don’t know. It’s like, ultimately, I’m inspired by what I’m inspired by. And that is, the movies of Woody Allen and James Brooks, and recently Cameron Crowe and Judd Apatow, and the books of David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace and Sarah Vowell and the plays of Kenneth Lonergan. So you get inspired by what you get inspired by. In stand-up, Pryor and Seinfeld.

You get inspired by what you get inspired by, and then you sort of put out what you put out. I don’t really have a thing where I think, I want to be the greatest comedian of all time. I want what I’m doing to be authentic. The kind of artists I’m describing are the kind who make me feel something with their work, and I’m trying to make people feel something for my work, whether it’s a book or a movie or a play or stand-up.

Is there anything else coming up that I haven’t asked about?

Yeah. I have a new one-man show, which is called My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and I think we’re going to open up off-Broadway this winter. In the meantime, I’m doing all the material from it on my new tour. And then I’m doing it in Sydney, Australia in January. And then opening it in New York. And I’m working on a film adaptation of Sleepwalk With Me. Ira Glass is producing it, and we’re probably five or ten drafts into the script. We’re hoping to make it next year.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Comedy Tribute to Kevin Knox - Oct. 24

A Comedy Tribute to Kein Knox, Oct 24 12:30
It has been less than a year since the Boston comedy scene lost Kevin Knox to cancer. After he passed on November 16, 2009, a few hundred of his close friends and fans got together for a memorial service, which happened to include some of the funniest people in the city. Knoxie's bike was onstage. The stories were touching and heartbreaking.

On October 24, many of those same faces will gather for a tribute in the same auditorium, The J. Everett Collins Center for the Performing Arts in Andover. Lenny Clarke and Tony V. will co-host a line-up that includes Ken Rogerson, Steve Sweeney, Dick Doherty, Mike McDonald, Jim Laulette, and Johnny Joyce.

And because you knew you couldn't keep Knoxie down forever, he'll make an appearance by magic of moving pictures, performing his Halloween pumpkin routine.

Get tickets here.

Or RSVP on Facebook here.

VIDEO Asian Country Song

The prolific duo of Robert Woo and Taylor Newhall at Hard Left Productions bring us their latest hybrid, the "Asian Country Song."

The Boston Comedy Interview: Comic legend and political activist Dick Gregory

Dick Gregory at the Wilbur 10/10
When Dick Gregory says, “Let me tell you something,” be ready to listen. Gregory is there somewhere in snapshots of American history over the past fifty plus years. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, JFK, Richard Pryor, Mort Sahl, Medgar Evers, Hugh Hefner – all people Gregory knew or knows personally. With some of them, he made history, which fills the pages of his memoirs, Callous On My Soul and Nigger.

Gregory was the first black comedian to, as he says, stand flat-footed and address white audiences. It was a delicate balance, having to entertain or even pacify crowds in a racial tinderbox, and Gregory was able to do it without pandering or making himself look foolish.

Gregory is coming to the Wilbur Theatre 10/10 for an early 4PM show. If you love comedy, satire, and history, you should be there for it.

I spoke with Gregory years ago for the Boston Globe, but never got to see him perform. He spends most of his time on the lecture circuit, and Sunday’s show is a rare opportunity to see him perform stand-up.

Our conversation this time was long and wide-ranging, from the advice Gregory would give Obama to modern technology to comic timing. Some of the most interesting stuff comes near the end, where Gregory explains his drive as a comedian and as an activist, where those things come together and where the separate.

At 77, Gregory will wear you out. He’s got more to say than you can possibly have questions to ask, and I’ve always found it to be a good policy to listen to people like that.

I’m excited that you’re coming to the Wilbur because this will be the first time I have gotten to see you in person.

It is so much fun out here now in this day and age. I’ve been doing a lot of shows with Mort Sahl, but he’s been kind of slowing up his pace now. And so I’m just out here all by myself now having fun. But usually when I’m with Mort, see, I’ll be 80 in two years, and Mort’s five years older than me. So I told the folks, I said, “I’ll be 80 and Mort is five years older than me, so if ya’ll laugh real long and clap real hard, you might see somebody die onstage tonight.

I was happy to be able to see Mort a few times up here at Jimmy Tingle’s theatre up here when that was open, and I think the last time I spoke with him I may have ruffled his feathers a bit. We were talking about Kinky Friedman using the phrase “They don’t make Jews like Jesus any more.”

Oh please. Once you put it out there, it’s in the ether. Do you know what I tell people when they say that? How do you feel about using somebody else’s moon? Somebody else’s sun?

Well, that was the last time we spoke, so I don’t know if he’s terribly happy with me.

Listen, it don’t make no difference how comics feel about you. It’s the way you feel about them. The biggest laughs that people had in they life didn’t come from a professional comedian, they come from friends and relatives. It’s not, you come in the club and I’ll teach you how to laugh, you’ve been laughing since before you could talk, when you was a baby.

The difference between being a comic and telling a joke is timing. Just like you write, okay. There’s a lot of people who can write but they couldn’t get a job at the Globe or the New York Times or Time Magazine because writing is a style and a system. You hear a story, and you know, I can put this in four words or I can put this in four pages. And that’s what comedy is. You develop that over the time. The one place there’s no school for is being a comic. There’s a school for everything. They even got schools that teach you how to be criminals. They’ve got schools that prostitutes go to to better their skills. But there’s no school… yeah, I’d like to teach at that school, too.

Just the ads for that I think would be pretty good. There are people who claim that they can teach you comedy and there are classes, and those come under fire a bit.

Trust me, they can teach you how to write. Most folks don’t know, writers, comedy writers, make ten times more money than comics. If Bill Cosby made a billion dollars for his TV show, Ed Weinberger, who used to be a writer for me, as a matter of fact, I claim I taught him how to write, Ed Weinberger had made ten billion. Ed Weinberger’s one of the richest cats in Hollywood. It’s the writers that make the money.

A lot of black folks didn’t understand that. Before Hugh Hefner brought me into the Playboy Club, a negro was never permitted to work a white night club. You could sing and dance, but you wasn’t permitted to stand flat-footed and talk to white folks. And so up until then, we were hustlers. And I don’t mean negative. We was only working black nightclubs. So we would take the situation that black folks had been going through since slavery and twist it around and make it funny. So then when we [start] working in white nightclubs, you couldn’t be hustling any more. It become an artform.

Now out of that, Hugh Hefner, one man – out of that came Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and Whoopi Goldberg, and writers. And writers, we can be writers. We never had that before. Comedy writers. And so consequently, when you stop and think about how many Richard Pryors a hundred years ago was here. How many Bill Cosbys a hundred years ago were here. So consequently, that’s one day the whole world is going to have to say “thanks.”

I was at the rally last week here in Washington, D.C. and an Indian comic got up. He just happened to spot me in the audience and he said, “There’s my brother Gregory. Brother Greg, if it wasn’t for you, there wouldn’t have been no me, there wouldn’t have been Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Ed Murphy,” and he said, “There wouldn’t have been all the white comics.” You see, before that door got kicked in, if you listen to all the old time white comics, they was telling mom and pop jokes, and the woman always got the butt end of the joke. And after that whole mind set changed.

Somebody told me one day, one of the great TV shows in the history of TV was All In the Family. And a guy told me, one of the writers said, had it not been for you, there couldn’t have been an All In the Family. Because once the networks and everybody in the world watched you stand flat-footed when everybody thought in the 60s that black folks and white folks didn’t have nothing to laugh about, he said, forget it, here it is. And so once you could do it, there wasn’t no problem with the other writers writing that kind of stuff.

And I take it back to Hugh Hefner. One man. At that time, when Hefner brought me in, about 98 percent of all nightclubs was owned by the mafia. And everybody thought the mafia was bad. Here’s a little lonely guy named Hugh Hefner that had no mob ties that did something and changed the whole world. Even women comics. Women comics had to be silly. And now women comics can stand flat-footed, they can get their own TV show. They can do a whole lot of things that they wasn’t able to do, so every time I get a chance, I say thank you Hugh Hefner.

And so it’s that thing, nobody can teach you comedy. That’s like somebody can teach you how to pee.

Do you feel people recognize you for your contribution as often as maybe they should or is due?

Oh, no no. But there’s a reason for that. See, what happened to people like me is the same thing that happened to newspapers. When television came in, it didn’t bother you. But when the Internet came in, and the fastness of the news – people got too many things occupying they minds. Look, I was born in 1932. So on Christmas and Easter, Thanksgiving, old black family members, you see them only on holidays. They come and they tell the same joke every year, and we all fall on the floor, right? We didn’t have nothing to do. You come by my house this year and come back next year, if a plane crash in Afghanistan why we talking, before this interview is over, the bodies is in your living room.

The way the brain is being wore out, you know the biggest thing 25 years from now? You open up a nightclub called Be Quiet. People come in and get ‘em a drink and just sit and be quiet. Put they feet in a whirlpool, just leave it there and say, Ah, it feels so good.

But no, what happens is, there’s so much stuff out here now that you could want to remember something, and then something comes up the next day. The next day. The next day. At one time, I thought that nothing could ever take the place of comedy. I thought it was god’s gift to humankind. ‘Til Kennedy was shot in Dallas. And I realized the only thing that saved us was that all the networks, they didn’t have no commercials, all they did was play music for three days. And that’s when I really learned to respect the power of music.

When you’re a little child, your mother sings a lullaby. She don’t tell you no joke. A child of three or four don’t get no damn jokes. But it’s that thing. And now you could walk up onstage and do a whole act on how stupid it was for Kennedy to go to Dallas. Once you add time, and then all comedy is, is a disappointment with a friendly relations.

Do you have any children?


Okay. If you’ve been around children, you know that you can pick a child up in a crib and you can throw them in the air, and they get this horrible look on their face, and when you catch ‘em, they just laugh and say, “Do me, do me again!” But if you come in as a stranger and do it, they won’t do nothing but cry, because they see the disappointment without the friendly relations. If someone tickles you, man, you’ll fall over. If a stranger puts their hand on you and tickles you, man, that’s a criminal offense. Why? Because the disappointment was there, but the friendly relations wasn’t.

And so to go back and say you can teach comedy, you can’t. It’s a rhythm. You can go to school to be a brain surgeon, but I sure would hate to be your first customer.

I’ve actually often thought about that, for the more dangerous professions, how that first time on the job went.

They’ve got a robot that can do brain surgery. And it’s impossible for it to make a mistake. So people said, that’s crazy, I said, wait a minute. They got rockets that go up in the air on a rendezvous twenty years from now at twelve, noon, and they punch one button and it rendezvous on time. So don’t tell me about machines.

But the reason I wouldn’t mind a robot doing brain surgery, see, my doctor might wake up tomorrow to do my brain surgery and find his brother in bed with his wife. Or an alligator ate the dog. What kind of brain surgeon do you think I’m gonna get? That robot, it ain’t been out all night chasing women or chasing men. That robot ain’t been out all night drinking and come in tired. So give me a robot any day.

To go back to your question. Here’s how fast it moves. If you and I were sitting around a hundred and twenty years ago discussing, one day horses would be obsolete, they’d put both of us in a mental hospital. For thousands of years, all we’d ever known was horsepower. And then today, the only thing a horse is used for is a museum. That’s how fast this is changing. You look at women. The quickness that women are moving. And most of that goes back to the civil rights movement.

The great thing about the civil rights movement is, when civil rights legislation came through, because of the civil rights movement, it didn’t say “for negroes only.” Nobody knows how important that is. That means everybody was covered. And before the King movement and we all went to jail, a white woman couldn’t be a pilot for a commercial airline. A white woman couldn’t be a mechanic at the airport. A white woman couldn’t be a supervisor. The only thing a white woman could do at the airport was be a stewardess. And that woman had to look like something out the center page of Playboy magazine.

A black women couldn’t be a stewardess, a black man couldn’t be a pilot. And because of the civil rights movement that didn’t say “for negroes only,” any time you get on a commercial airline and see an old, ugly, fat, tired-looking white stewardess, we got her that job. Not her white brother. Not her white daddy. Not the United States Marines. We got her that job.

You see woman cops. You could walk down the street and see a fire truck with a woman driving it. My god, man! When you think about… When I was a little boy, a school teacher, if she was married, she couldn’t be a school teacher, because of the pregnancy thing. Men could be married, but a woman schoolteacher couldn’t be married. A woman couldn’t be a cop when I was a little boy.

Now you’ve got women head police departments. A woman couldn’t be in the FBI. You’ve got women head of sections of the FBI. You’ve got women head of homicide, head of arson squads and all of that. That’s what that little bitty civil rights movement did in America. And America hasn’t slowed up to say thanks yet, and my mother told me, thanks shows good manners. So America ain’t never had good manners.

Of course now the idea is, questioning exactly how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go. And I know earlier this year you did an interview where they asked you about the whole idea of Obama fixing the race issue, and you said he wasn’t qualified to do that.

Well, wait a minute. There’s a different qualification for being president and fixing the racial issue.


Let me tell you, the first African-American president, right? Who would’ve believed that the first time we get a black president in America, he wouldn’t have no slave genes? What do you think the odds of that is? Think about that. His momma wasn’t a slave, his daddy wasn’t a slave. The other thing is this – he is the most powerful man in the world, but he can’t go to New York or Boston tonight by himself and get a cab. If Queen Elizabeth were in New York tonight and a cab passed, she’d kill ‘em all.

So I have people ask me, Dick, when you was going to jail in the early days of the civil rights movement, did you ever think there’d be an African-American president? I said, we weren’t out there to guarantee an African-American… We was out there to say the least among us, with no education, have certain basic rights under the constitution. That’s what we was out there for. What comes out of that? You know the wisest of all of us in the civil rights movement wasn’t the black leadership. You know who was smart? The smartest people? Those little redneck Klu Klux Klansmen. They were saying, “If you let ‘em vote, they’ll be in the White House.” They were right.

Well, maybe if Obama did have slave genes, they wouldn’t be questioning his birth certificate. Maybe that’s what they’re looking for as credentials.

It’s more than that. Let me tell you. Here’s a man that darn near didn’t become president because a church he belonged to in Chicago – you remember that? – and the name of the church was Church of God and Christ. You can’t find no more names than that, right? That almost kept him out the White House, now you’ve got these people saying, wait a minute! He’s a Muslim! What you gonna do with Church of God and Christ? He belongs to the Church of God and Christ. That’s a Christian church.

What we’re looking at today, what you hear people say is, the Tea Party is a bunch of racists. No no no no no no no. Whoever’s racist in the Tea Party, they were racist before the Tea Party. Let me put it this way. If you go back and study the Great Depression, right before the Great Depression, lynching went down to point-zero, without an anti-lynching bill. Point-zero. The Klan was obsolete.

Portrait of the satirist as a young man
When the Depression hit, lynching went further than it had ever been. More people got lynched than any time… The Klan came to Washington with almost half a million people. Why? Fear. When you get scared of something you have no control over, it destroys your manhood or womanhood, so you start blaming it. If you’re walking through the woods and get scared you get a gun. Okay? But if you don’t know who to attack, you got to attack somebody else other than you. That’s what Obama is seeing now.

Look, if Boston is broke, the city, right? And you get a major fire, like you had with the Chicago fire, those fire folks come out, they don’t worry how they’re going to pay for it until after they put the fire out. California is broke. They’re passing out IOUs. When they had them forest fires, you didn’t hear them say, well, we can’t send nobody out because we couldn’t afford to pay ‘em. When it comes time for an emergency, you send people out, you take care of what you have to. When he came in, he inherited a mess. We call it DOA, dead on arrival. So for two years he’s stomping, trying to put fires out. He don’t articulate that, though. He don’t articulate that.

What they need, they didn’t need a negro like him, they needed a negro like me for president. That’s why said if I can be born again, let me be born white. I didn’t know how lucky white folks was until Obama came in. They get a nice behaved negro, Harvard, well-educated. They can call him everything, they can’t call him dumb. He went to the best schools, and he brought an intelligence into the White House with him.

I ran in 1968. The first thing I would have done, if I would have won, the first thing, I would have gone on TV the next day and said, all ya’ll get a good look at me. Because I bes your president. Whether you like it or not. I control the army, the navy, the air force, the Marines, okay? Whether you like it or not. I own the missiles, and I determine the nuclear bombs. So before I do anything about the economy, I’m going to New York, and I’m bringing 5,000 tanks with me, and I’m going to sit on the corner, and I wish one of you cabs would pass me by.

Second thing I’m going to do, I’m going to have an all negro cabinet. I know ya’ll gonna get black preachers on TV, you’re gonna interview them and say, oh, you can’t do this. I’m telling ya’ll now, I’m gonna have an all negro cabinet. Now, what’s gonna make black folks mad, I’m gonna tell them, most of ya’ll don’t qualify, black folks in my cabinet, because I’m not picking no negro that can read or write or have more than a third grade education. You think that wouldn’t get black folks and white folks together? They’d all be marching on me.

Now here’s my philosophy. If you white folks can control the White House for two hundred and some years, and you’ve got all these Ph.Ds in the cabinet and all of these Harvard folks, and you can mess up the country like this, let me try something new. And I want you to know that my cousin, Jabbo Jones, from Kansas City, can’t read or write, can’t talk, he’s going to be my secretary of defense. I can just see them interviewing him on 60 Minutes.

“Mr. Secretary, what are you planning on doing about defense?”

“First I’m going to fix it, then paint it.”

Now, when people say, black folks expect too much out of Obama, no no no. Let me tell you something, if you and I was brothers, and you didn’t like me and I didn’t like you, and we ain’t spoke in twenty years, if you win the 400 million dollar lottery, for some reason, I just expect you to come by and give me something. Now that don’t mean you will, you follow me? But those are the expectations you have when you see your own. You might never have had no job, you might have been homeless, once you win that 400 million, I kind of expect…

First, I think he hasn’t handled the economy like the situation he inherited. What he need to do is talk to the American people. They scared. They ain’t thinking about no Iraq, this and that. They scared, they worried. It’s one thing to talk about how the economy is changing. Its another thing when you’re sitting home, and you’re working to put children through college, and you sacrifice and make it through that, and now they got a Ph.D., now they’re back home living in your basement apartment. We don’t see this. You don’t see this on TV. There’s a fear in this country, that, if somebody don’t deal with the fear…

That’s what I loved about Roosevelt. Roosevelt wasn’t nothing but an old thug. Just a hoodlum. But you know what he did? He had a Fireside Chat. You’re not old enough, but I know you’ve heard in history he had Fireside Chats every Thursday. And he didn’t talk about the economy, he didn’t talk about war. You know what he talked about? He didn’t talk about banks. He said you’re going to have two chickens in every pot and a car in every garage. And that made people feel – he didn’t say he was going to put them there. Okay? And then he said, I’m on your side. I’m on your side against the bankers. I’m on your side against big business.

That’s what people want to hear. They don’t want to hear all of them facts. You tell them all these facts and they go into the grocery store, the biggest day that Walmart and Kmart have is the last day of the month. People come out that don’t come out no other time, because they take their little five hundred dollar, their little government food stamps, and they shop all night long. Okay? That’s never happened before, and you know what’s most frightening than losing your job, is scared you gonna lose your job. What’s more frightening than think you’re going to get sick with no medical insurance? It’s believing you’re going to get sick with no medical insurance. And that’s what he’s not articulating.

If I had the president’s ear, you know what I’d tell him? To hold a press conference and say, “Look, starting tonight, in the White House, every Wednesday, we gonna eat beans and a salad. Every Tuesday, we gonna eat greens and a salad. Every Sunday, we’re gonna eat our regular meal, Saturday, we gonna eat sandwiches.” Now, as long as the White House is doing that, then I don’t feel like my dignity is lost when I have to do that. I mean, if a damn cow can go out and eat nothing but grass, then how come I got to go and put a steak on my plate and five other types of vegetables and potatoes. Look, there’s a lot of protein in a steak. Okay? But cows don’t eat steak. They eat grass.

So again, I’m saying, if the president is going to say, I identify with you, here’s what we’re going to do, that fear would leave because fear and god do not occupy the same place. Don’t nobody give a damn about him going to the University of Wisconsin and talking to all them young children. I bet he better not go and find all the youngster in America that couldn’t afford t go to college and talk to them and ask them some questions. And talk to they parents.

What I was hoping he would do was put billions of dollars in community colleges. Why? Because if I can’t afford to go to Harvard or Yale or Morehouse, there’s a community college. When I go away to school, there’s certain things I’ve got to take. I’ve got to take luggage, I got to take an attitude, I got to take certain clothes. When I go to community college, that’s around the corner from my house. I don’t have to buy no new clothes. I don’t have to buy no new sneakers. I can go there and go into a community college waiting until the economy changes, then I can go to Harvard and Yale and Morehouse. But right now, you’ve got young folks now, they can’t go nowhere, so what they gonna do in the three years that they waiting?

It’s the same thing as, if I were president, I would say, don’t fire people. Cut they work schedule down. In other words, instead of working eight hours, work four. Why? Because when the economy changes, you don’t have to bring new people in and retrain them. There’s so many things you can do during this period of time. Let the president let the people see him get on the damn subway and go to his apartment. Let the president go and sleep in a homeless shelter for a weekend. And now he can come and speak with some authority on what I went through, and this is the sacrifice I made. And that’s what Roosevelt was doing – I relate to you. He wasn’t doing nothing but bullshitting but it made me think.

Let me tell you something, we all know about the story of the Jews wandering around in the wilderness for forty years. You know that story? Now let’s change one word. They wandered in the wilderness for forty years. If they wandered through the wilderness, you change one word from “in” to “through.” When you walk through a storm, you can walk on the other side. When you walk in a storm, you’ll be in there as long as there’s a storm. One word change.

People say, they tried to repossess my car, what should I do? Don’t park in front of the house. Don’t see the tragedy. Oh, Sears and Roebuck just sent me final notice. Let me read this – thank god we won’t be hearing from them no more.

So when you stop and think about any time General Motors, the number one corporation in the world, goes bankrupt, huh? That’s kind of telling you something. And the president should hear, he should hear that and feel that. If I was the president, I would cut my salary in half. The other thing would do? I would hold a press conference tonight and say, I don’t want to be but a one term president. So everything I do, I don’t have to be worried about, can I get reelected. Here’s the things I’m going to do, I’m going to do this, this. And I guarantee you, if he’s bold enough to change this economy around, the Tea Party, black folks, white folks, will call him Black Magic.

So I’m looking at fear. If they bring me to your hospital and I’ve got a fractured skull, a broken foot, a punctured lung, before you do anything to work on me, you’ve got to give me a shot for pain. That’s what Obama has failed to do. He hasn’t killed America’s pain.

Is that something you’re hoping to do through comedy?

Oh, no no. Look, look. When I go up onto that stage, I don’t go up there to heal nobody. I go up there to be funny. If I healed everybody’s problems and I didn’t get one laugh, I’d walk out of there defeated and I’d probably give them folks their check back. When I’m out there demonstrating for women’s rights and human rights and everybody laughs, I’m defeated.

We will find a cure for cancer. We will find a cure for all that ails us and it won’t be through no comics, it won’t be through no entertainers, it won’t be through no athletes. Some little people who we ain’t never heard of, the girl you probably wouldn’t even go to the high school prom with. A little nerd, right? That’s where this is going to be found.

When I walk up on that stage, I take my god-given talent. First, I enjoy doing it. I’m like one of those cooks who weigh five hundred pounds, they enjoy eating their food. If I couldn’t sell it, I’d eat it all. When I walk up on that stage, it’s like a house party. I just enjoy…

Let me tell you how I got like this. When I was starting out in negro night clubs, one day said to the guy – the largest black night club in the world was Robert’s Show Club in Chicago. I was making ten dollars a night, three nights a week. And I said to this old handyman, he’s hanging around and making like he’s playing the xylophone. He’s just there. And I said if you meet me here tomorrow morning with the keys, I’ll give you fifteen dollars. And I was just making ten dollars a night, so he showed up, I gave him fifteen dollars.

That was in 1958. He was happy. I said, all you have to do is come in – see, they don’t come in to clean up the night club until the afternoon. So I said I want you to rearrange the chairs for me and fix this up like we’re getting ready to have a show. He did that, we worked and we put it together.

And then I’d get up on the stage, and I said would you turn the mic on. And he turned the mic on. And for two hours, I worked to an empty house. And when I left there, I had a new respect for human beings. I don’t care what kind of heckler come in, it can laugh if it wants to. A chair can’t laugh. Fill up my chairs. Fill up my chairs with some people. From that day on, I’ve never been nervous. I’m nervous if I walk on and I don’t see nobody and I’ve got to work to an empty house. Give me some people.

I spend about a thousand dollars every twelve days buying newspapers. People say, get it off [the Internet], I say, no, no, no. I want to look at it. I want to see. And when I walk up on that stage, there’s almost nothing that I can’t talk about or you can’t ask me about that we can’t talk about. Now, with the research out here, you just go into it. And I’ve been funny all my life. Somebody said, you’ve been fasting for forty years, what does your doctor think about it? My doctor’s been dead thirty years.

On the other hand, you’re making serious points, and I would assume you want those to land with people.

Listen, when I go out to give you brain surgery and I wash my hands, right? That burden is on me, not on you. When I walk out there, I go out there to be funny, man. I’m not out there teaching. Look, if you came to the club and I was passing out dinner, you might enjoy it. You might say, what a beautiful thing. No, I came there to make you laugh and not to pass out dinner.

If somebody gave me twenty thousand dollars to give to somebody Sunday, I wouldn’t give it to a poor person. You know why? They’d say, thank god. I’d give it to somebody who’s got a nice job, and they’d say, “Thank you, Dick Gregory, now we can get us a movement going.”

You just figure out the whole human piece. When I walk up on that stage, I’m up there to make you laugh. To be funny. And you see this little corny guy walking down the street… My second language is profanity. They Think Rahm Emanuel can curse? That boy could take lessons from me when I was eight years old. But when I walk up on that stage, ain’t nobody ever heard me cuss. And when the comics come to me and say, why don’t you use profanity? I tell them, I was born October the twelfth, 1932, and there ain’t been a new curse word invented since I was born. I don’t want to be part of something that’s that limited.

Richard Pryor, he turned four generations of comic on to profanity. Why? Because Richard Pryor was a genius. And I tell people, if you took all of Richard Pryor’s tapes and his records and clipped the profanity out, they’d be just as funny, because Richard never used profanity as a punchline. But I blame Richard Pryor. People want to be successful and they say, how’d he do it? And they want to be just like him.

You can’t be a genius. There’s been three genius comics in the history of America. The first is Mark Twain, and I shouldn’t mention the other two in the same year I mention Mark Twain’s name. The others are Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. There’s something, I don’t know where it came from, I don’t know where it went to. But wow. And Richard was a personal friend of mine. I couldn’t stand to be around him. He was so bashful and so shy. It embarrassed me.

Malcolm X was the same way. When that camera came on, Malcolm was something else. When that camera went off, he was so [polite]. He said yes sir, no sir. He said yes sir, no sir to his children. To white folks. To black folks. But when that camera came on, he was something else.

So it’s definitely a part of being an entertainer. I loved it. But I don’t use that. I just walk up on that stage and be with my children. I be funny. And I’m not trying to raise them to do something. They told me they wasn’t going to black college. My kids were raised in Plymouth, Massachusetts. There ain’t no black folks there.

If you’ll forgive me for pressing this one issue, I know the point is laughter, but at the same time, if that were your only motivation, it would have been much easier for you in 1958 to not stand flat-footed and address white audiences the way you did. It would have bee much easier for you to play the more traditional role of the song and dance guy.

But let me tell you this, I was on the front lines. I was running in Mississippi under that gun. So I didn’t need the other. I was seeing things happen. President Kennedy called me one night. I used to drink a fifth of scotch a day, man. I came in, if you’d seen Lillian, you’d think god had bit her out. I came in, she said, “Where you been?” She’d never asked me that. “The president’s been calling you all night.” I said, “Oh, come on.” She said, “He said he’d be up until you came in.” “It’s five in the morning, you think he’s still up?” She said, “You’re not sleeping in this house and not call the president back.”

So she called him back. The president is asking me, Sunday night, please don’t go to Alabama and join king in the morning. Now, ask how many comics the president called in the morning. My glamour around the world comes from my human parts, not my comedian parts.

Let’s go back to ’58, okay? Let’s say you own a night club in Mishawaka, Indiana. White club, okay. And you take a chance and bring me in. Now, those people are your customers, right? You see them every week, they come there. They keep you in business. So if one of them yells out and says, “What’s that nigger doing up there?” Now I’ve got a problem, because, one, the audience can’t laugh at me when they feel what they felt. The owner would have been better off not bringing me in because those are his customers that are angry now with one another, right?

And so, I was ready for that day. I’d say, “Shh… be quiet. I think somebody called me Roy Rogers’ horse. He called me Trigger.” And people just laughed and laughed. And I said, “Come on now, you know he called me nigger. Well let me tell you about me contract. My contract reads any time I hear the word nigger, I get fifty dollars more. So would ya’ll stand up in unison and say, ‘nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger.’ I want to bankrupt this owner.” And then I’d go back to work.

When I went up to Hugh Hefner’s that night, I didn’t know that was a group of southern white men that was there for a frozen food convention. Somebody had rented out all the rooms to a group from Alabama. I walk up on the stage and go, “So ya’ll from Alabama. I spent twenty years there one day.” Wow! It was that type of thing.

If I’m a brain surgeon and the Klu Klux Klan gets shot in the head, it ain’t my job to punish him in that hospital. It’s my job to operate on him the way I would anybody else. I’m not in that room to deal with my likes and dislikes. I’m not in that room, a prostitute came in and got shot – she’s the one who stole my wallet. And that’s the same way I was when I was in that night club.

I had a guy from the New York Times ask me in the 60s, “Mr. Gregory, how many of these white folks do you think are laughing at you because they’re embarrassed or they’re nervous?” I said, “First, to be a negro in America like I am, we got some negroes that’s whiter than white folks. I can’t look in that audience and know if that’s a white person or a negro. You, as a press person, you have a right to go out and ask them if they were laughing because they was nervous or embarrassed.” That’s the way I’ve always...

So when I go down to Mississippi, and let me tell you, with a wife and a family, I went to Mississippi many times knowing I wouldn’t come back. But I went anyway. Could somebody tell me today that I could sit and talk to you and tell you that the head of the Mississippi State Troopers is a black man? The head of Social Services in Mississippi is a black woman? I didn’t know this was going to happen. Martin Luther King didn’t even make sense to me, okay?

Let me tell you what made sense to me. I’ve been looking at John Wayne all my life. And John Wayne said, if you right and they wrong and they don’t listen, get your gun and kill ‘em. John Wayne was my man. I don’t talk about no left and right wing. I go by John Wayne.

So I went down to Mississippi in spite of my hero being John Wayne. I didn’t believe you could do nothing with love. And then I watched the whole thing change. The whole thing change. I said, wow, that’s my humanity. Not up on that night club. Not up on that stage. No, no. I’m down there in Mississippi. My wife’s down there. My children, I take down there.

I didn’t believe in this crap, I want this for my children. When I went to Boston and bought me a Rolls Royce, I wasn’t buying it for my children. I was buying it for me. I had no guarantee that they wouldn’t grow up and marry someone who didn’t like me and won’t let me ride in theirs.

I was getting these rights for myself. I wanted to feel free to walk down the street and see a white cop look at me and think I’m a criminal, because it might not be a white cop, it might be a light-complected black guy. I wanted to feel what it’s like driving down the street with two Ph.Ds and hear a siren and I squeezed the steering wheel. And then he pass me, and I thank god, he wasn’t after me in the first place. That’s what I wanted to feel inside of me. I wanted to feel what a human being feels like.

I was a little boy, I had a fine brain and a fine mind and I didn’t have to be validated, but all I wanted to do was own me a shoe shine stand, man. If you was going to get married as a negro in St. Louis, or you were going to celebrate your fiftieth anniversary, the two hottest clubs in St. Louis were the chauffeurs’ and waiters’ clubs. The chauffeurs had a club, the waiters had a club. Those were the hottest clubs. And if you were going to bring somebody in town, like they bringing me in on Sunday, back in them days, if you were going to bring in an act in the negro community, you brought them in on Wednesday night. You know why? Because Thursday was the maid’s day off. They could come out and holler all day because they didn’t have to go to work on Thursday. All of that.

When I was a little boy, if you was my daddy’s brother, and you died in Memphis, we had to go to the church minister and get what we called a “pee route.” Because you couldn’t go in no place and use the toilet. You had to find sisters and brothers in the church to go sleep with, because you better not be caught on the highway, at least you didn’t believe you wanted to be caught be a redneck sheriff. All of that. I wanted to know what it was like if I didn’t have to do that. So I was getting this for myself. That’s why I was willing to die. That’s why I was willing to take my wife and my children. Let’s do it.

I become one of the most famous names in comedy. They teach a course, I don’t know if they do now, at the Sarbonne in France, called Dick Gregory’s Humor. I was asked one time, how come you don’t think they teach Dick Gregory’s Humor in colleges in America. I said if I was from France, I wouldn’t be teaching it here.

I’m just so glad that I knew people like King. My whole life changed. My whole life changed.

How often are you out onstage these days?

I do about 240 dates but most of them is lectures and seminars and stuff. I do 40 or 50… I’m a regular at Caroline’s in New York. That’s probably the number one comedy club in America.

I’ve been covering the scene here since 1998, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen you come in and do a comedy show here.

Oh, no. I got out of show business. The last show I did was the Sugar Shack there in Boston. I got out of comedy in 1973. I didn’t know anything about second-hand smoke. I just didn’t want people who loved me to have to come and catch me in those surroundings. Where you had to take a drink. As the scene started opening up and the law was you couldn’t smoke in clubs, I went back in.

When was that?

Maybe ten years ago.

Sunday’s show, would you characterize it as a stand-up comedy show?

Oh yes. Stand up. I’ll be funny. They in for a treat.

I have the State of the Union triple CD from a while back, and it seems like even in the lectures, you have a hard time not being funny.

That’s the way I’ve been all my life. My mother, we went past spanking. My mom used to whup me, I’d be funny while she was whupping me. “I dare you to do that again.”