I first started covering comedy for The Buffalo News in the spring of 1998. At the time, I was a couple of years out of college and editing almost exclusively awful books for a firm conveniently located next to the runway of the Buffalo airport (you can read more about that traumatic experience on my other blog, The Optimistic Curmudgeon). The local Funny Bone and Comix Café mostly booked road warrior comics, people with the fortitude to drive around the country never knowing exactly what they’d be facing when they got there.
I heard some stories from people like Angel Salazar (who had a bottle thrown at his head opening for the Monsters of Rock Tour), tried to keep up with Bobby Slayton, and saw a young Christopher Titus trying to figure out how to restructure a one-man show for a comedy club audience. I loved Titus and bought a t-shirt from him at his show to support his comedy. He signed it without me asking him to. I was worried it was going to run in the wash (it did).
Circumstances both fortunate and unfortunate brought me to Boston. The unfortunate was personal, the fortunate professional. I started working in the Web department for The Boston Phoenix, which allowed me to stop editing those bad books (which I was doing through the mail at that point). I started writing about comedy for The Phoenix and Stuff@Night (and landed a couple of pieces elsewhere, as well, including Playboy and Playboy.com). George Carlin was one of my first interviews for The Phoenix, something I will always remember fondly. I had him on speakerphone with a cassette recorder pushed tightly to it to record the conversation.
I started going out to The Comedy Studio, The Comedy Palace, The Comedy Connection – everything with the word “comedy” in the title. I was lucky enough to see the Ding Ho 20th Anniversary Reunion show at the Somerville Theatre a couple of days after my birthday in 1999. I had no idea what the Ding Ho really was then, other than a couple of things I had read about the show. I was impressed to know that Bobcat Goldthwait, a favorite of mine since high school, was on the bill.
I learned a great deal about Boston comedy that night. It was my real introduction to the history of this scene, as comic after wonderful comic took the stage for more than three hours. The show was son long they broke up hosting duties. I got to know Tony V., DJ Hazard, Barry Crimmins, Don Gavin, Lenny Clarke, Jimmy Tingle, Mike McDonald, Ken Rogerson, Chance Langton, Teddy Bergerson, and more than I can mention. All from Boston. All of them funny.
Comic Fran Solomita was also on the bill, and showed early clips from a film that several years later would become the documentary When Stand Up Stood Out. If you haven’t seen it, take a look. You’ll get a taste of what I experienced that night.
I spoke to Dane Cook after a break out performance at Comics Come Home. I interviewed Lewis Black by phone when he was covering the presidential primaries in New Hampshire for The Daily Show. I covered a show Jimmy Tingle organized in Roxbury with Sue Costello and Patrice Oneal. I covered a wide spectrum of comedy – Robert Schimmel, Jonathan Katz, Kids in the Hall, Dame Edna, Jonathon Gates’ Black Comedy Explosion (for which I was nicknamed “Jerome” and made to curse loudly in front of the crowd), Jon Stewart at the beginning of his Daily Show stint, Margaret Cho’s first stand-up film, and Bob Zmuda raising the specter of Andy Kaufman.
One of my favorite stories was covering WAKKA, the Warring Komics Army, for Stuff@Night. WAKKA was a collective of promising young local comics, and they “kidnapped” me to tell me their story. I got a note telling me to go to a house in Somerville. When I got there, a big old boat of a car backed out from the driveway. Chris and Dave Walsh jumped out, blindfolded me (poorly), shoved me into the car, and then drove forward about fifteen feet, back into the same driveway, opened the door, and decided I had to take off the blindfold to avoid tripping on my way to the stairs. I was led to a basement where Tim McIntire, Dan Sulman, Kyria Abrahams, ringleader Sam Walters, and a couple of others waited with coffee and donuts. It was the nicest guerilla kidnapping I can ever hope to experience.
Early in the summer of 2001, I started writing about comedy regularly for the Boston Globe. I talked to Brian Kiley about his amazing ability to juggle brilliant bursts of material on the fly. I covered Paul D’Angelo coming back to Boston, Jay Mohr and John Pinette doing a double bill on the South Shore, and followed Lenny Clarke and a few other Bostoners to the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal. Dan Kinno and Dan Levy were also kicking around Montreal then, and I remember Kinno dropping in on an interview I was doing with Zach Galifianakis to introduce himself. It was an interesting mix.
Over about seven and a half years, I furthered my education in Boston comedy, and comedy in general. Clubs opened and closed. Comics like Brendon Small and Eugene Mirman graduated to LA and New York where they made great careers for themselves. I saw Tony V. and DJ Hazard mentor the young kids at the Comedy Studio, and other veterans like Steve Sweeney, Clarke, and Denis Leary at the annual Comics Come Home shows at the Orpheum, and then Agganis Arena.
I tried to take as wide a view of comedy as I could writing weekly for the Globe. Sometimes it strayed into the realm of theatre, sometimes it was authors with a sense of humor like Steve Almond, cartoonists like Roz Chast, musicians like Tom Bianchi. There were also legitimate legends like Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, Mort Sahl, Tim Conway, and Dick Gregory. Some weeks, I got to write about personal favorites when they came to town, like Patton Oswalt or the folks from Cinematic Titanic (formerly of MST3K).
My weekly column with the Globe ended in November 2008, when many freelancers lost work as the paper trimmed its bottom line. I still write for the calendar section and contribute the occasional feature. But I started this blog to try to take up the slack in coverage. Plus, I don’t have to stop writing about local comedy.
The most satisfying thing has been to watch really talented people go from the local clubs to finding a wider audience. Mike Birbiglia spent a short time playing Boston and The Comedy Studio in between college and is move to New York. To see where he is now artistically and professionally is truly satisfying.
I’m not ashamed to say there are people I’ve covered here that I actively root for. The Walsh Brothers are in LA now, fighting for the industry to notice them. If somebody doesn’t find the right vehicle for him, it will be the industry’s lack of imagination, not the Walsh’s. Jon Fisch is in New York now, and stronger every time I see him. As of this writing, Kelly MacFarland just released her first album and is working on a book. From his sandbox in Allston, Robby Roadsteamer has created a locally-produced sitcom for MyTV with the impossibly lofty goal of creating enough opportunity so people don’t have to leave Boston. Good luck to all of them, and many others.
For all people may talk about how comedians are damaged, spiteful people, I’ve met a lot of great people doing this job, some of whom may also happen to be damaged and spiteful. It’s easy to ignore that when you’re laughing so hard.