Thursday, January 28, 2010

Howard Zinn, RIP

Nearly eight years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing historian Howard Zinn for my Comedy Notes column in the Boston Globe. Zinn dies of a heart attack yesterday at the age of 87.

When I was writing the column, I made a point to try to stretch a bit beyond just what was happening in the clubs, and in this case, I got to explore the relationship between Zinn and political satirist Barry Crimmins. I was thrilled the Globe accepted the premise of the column, which was published in 2002. What follows is the unedited version of the column I submitted, which I believe shows a slightly different side of Zinn.

Where comedy and politics meet
June 21, 2002

In its base form, comedy is about contradictions. Whether it’s an Adam Sandler movie about a rough and tumble misfit in a refined environment or a Tom Stoppard play about lost Shakespearian characters. When comedy turns political, as is the case with comedian Barry Crimmins, that contradiction takes the form of dissent. The job of the political comedian is to question consensus and common wisdom. Crimmins has been doing that since the Reagan administration, taking on subjects from the Iran-Contra hearings up to Enron and Afghanistan.

“Even mainstream humor trades in dissent, whether it be about pop culture, family life or any number of subjects considered by comedians,” says Crimmins. “Sassing back at things that encroach upon our lives is funny. It provides relief and refutation. Different answers to mind-numbing and predictable nonsense make us laugh.”

About ten years ago, Crimmins found a partner in dissent when he met controversial historian Howard Zinn, the subject of a documentary for which Crimmins will host a fundraiser this Sunday at the Green St. Grill. The two began to cross paths in the eighties, speaking at the same rallies and attending each others’ lectures and shows. For his part, Zinn was thrilled to see a comedian with a knowledge of history and politics.

“I had seen him perform, and was knocked out by his combination of comedy and politics, which I hadn’t seen before anywhere,” says Zinn. “That is, not since I was watching Dick Gregory, or, you know, that generation. But in this generation, he was the first comic I’d run into who had political intelligence.”

Zinn’s influence on Crimmins stretches back to the seventies, when his sister returned from studying at B.U., where Zinn is professor emeritus, and turned her younger brother on to Zinn’s work. Later, while Crimmins was helping to create Boston’s eighties comedy boom at the Ding Ho club in Inman Square, he was reading Zinn’s books, including A People’s History of the United States, a landmark work in the alternative history movement.

Neither of them can recall exactly when they first started talking on a regular basis, but they’ve been friends for more than ten years. Though Crimmins left Boston in 1994, he and Zinn still get together to drink coffee and talk about world affairs whenever they’re in the same city. Crimmins cites Zinn as a valuable resource for and influence on his comedy.

“When I think of Howard, it’s been amazing to me that I can read his stuff and that I actually know him and I can call him up,” says Crimmins.

He remembers a specific moment when he sought perspective from Zinn during a presidential election year. “One day years ago I was upset with the late Senator Tsongas because he was standing in front of a sweat shop announcing that we had to turn to these traditional American values,” says Crimmins. “He was announcing in front of the mills of Lowell that he was going to run for president – it was time we got back to these great values. And so I called up Howard, and he said, ‘Oh, Barry you’ve got to learn about the mill girls of Lowell’. And he told me about these horrible circumstances that these women worked in. I mean, I had read about them before, in Howard’s book. But just being able to call him and have him immediately cite it in detail…”

Zinn also introduced Crimmins on his 1991 CD, Kill the Messenger. “A lot of people would say, ‘Hey, I got Bud Freedman to introduce me’,” says Crimmins, referring to the founder of legendary comedy club The Improvisation. “Well, you know, I got Howard Zinnn. That’s pretty cool.”

Crimmins credits Zinn with the ability to make sense of esoteric political ideas in a way that encourages people to dig a little deeper into the issues. “In theory, I try to do the same thing with my comedy,” says Crimmins. “I try to take a very complex set of world affairs that we deal with and make them accessible to people in a way, and give them things so that they can understand things a little better. And it gives them a chance to refute some of the very oppressive conventional wisdom. And history has been nothing but conventional wisdom for a long time until we started taking different looks at it.”

Zinn believes Crimmins is in a unique position to challenge that conventional wisdom through political comedy. “What distinguishes Barry is that he’s bolder than anybody else, politically,” says Zinn. He believes comedy can be an important vehicle for communicating ideas, albeit an underused one. “To me, comedy can serve a very powerful social purpose, and it has its own special power that ordinary political rhetoric doesn’t have. And so, when it’s missing from the scene, then something very important has gone out of the culture. You know, I think we’re feeling some of that vacuum today.”

As for Crimmins, he acknowledges the limitations of art as a means of effecting immediate change, but does think stand-up comedians can have an impact on politics and society.

“We can continue to be provocative, you know, ask questions,” Crimmins says. “And we can smuggle content to people in the form of pop culture. Just the same as pop culture is used all the time to smuggle other ideas to people, like buy this product, look like this, be like this, go along with this. You can do the same thing and present other ideas.”

Crimmins will host a fundraiser at the Green St. Grill in Cambridge this Sunday for Howard Zinn: A Disobedient History, a documentary in progress. Doors open at two, show starts at three. For info call 617-287-5850.

Wong, Santorelli, Nardizzi and others join Doherty benefit shows for Haiti

Dick Doherty's various clubs around Boston will host events for Haitian relief, with 100 percent of the ticket sales going to the Ester Lafontant Charitable Foundation. The ELCF collects donations to send to Haiti, anything from blankets and candles to wheelchairs. Their Facebook page is here. There will be four shows in all, each with a different line-up, featuring comedians like Joe Wong, Frank Santorelli, Jim Colliton, Paul Nardizzi, and others, each hosted by Dick Doherty.


Feb. 3 - Dick’s Beantown Comedy Escape, 8PM
The Holiday Inn, 195 Westgate Drive, Westgate Mall Brockton
Tickets $25 - Golden Circle $50
Line-up: Frank Santorelli, Paul Nardizzi, Jim Lauletta, Stephanie Peters, and Mitch Stinson, hosted by Dick Doherty.

Feb. 4 - Dick's Beantown Comedy Escape, 8PM
The Old Court Restaurant, 29 Central Street, Lowell Mass
Tickets $25 - Golden Circle $50
Line-Up: Frank Santorelli, Dave Russo, Jim Lauletta, hosted by Dick Doherty.

Feb. 8 - Dick’s Beantown Comedy Vault, 8PM
REMINGTONS Restaurant, 124 Boylston St. at Boylston T Boston
Tickets $25 - Golden Circle $50
Line-up: Joe Wong, Mitch Stinson, Jim Colliton, Robbie Printz, hosted by Dick Doherty

Feb. 10 - Dick’s Beantown Comedy Escape, 8PM
The Crowne Plaza Hotel, 10 Lincoln Square, Downtown Worcester
Tickets $25 - Golden Circle $50
Line-up: Joe Wong, Chris Zito, Mike Whitman, Jim Colliton, Corey Rodrigues, hosted by Dick Doherty.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Jill Gibson's Open Letter to The Boston Phoenix

I found this letter through a link from Lainey SchoolTree's Facebook page. It's an open letter to the Boston Phoenix (thus the title) about the local arts scene, especially the performing arts, and the what's covered, and what's ignored, by the local media written by Jill Gibson of Axe to Ice Productions. She highlights many undercovered institutions on the local scene, including The Steamy Bohemians (a musical comedy duo of which SchoolTree is half). She focuses specifically on the Phoenix's annual "Best" issue.

Her thoughts are worth keeping in mind every time you read a "Best" kind of poll in a newspaper or magazine. These kinds of things are fun popularity contests, but they are often limiting in scope, and rarely reflect a true consideration of what a scene has to offer. That doesn't make them bad, but take them at face value, mostly as a celebration of shows and artists that you probably already know and read about.

But, before I hijack Gibson's point, here is her letter.

Dear Boston Phoenix,

I noticed that your esteemed paper is once again accepting nominations for “Best of” awards and I wanted to address the gaping void in your categories that irks me every year- the continued omission of underground, queer, and independent entertainment that fills this city. With such strict labels on categories, there is no hope for performers and producers like Vanessa White, Artistic Director of Babes in Boinkland, who produced a show for a second consecutive Christmas season that was attended by over 7,000 people (!) and funded on little more than life savings and the faith of a cast that worked at The Slutcracker because they loved it. There is no room for All The Kings Men, who for 8 years have pioneered a new genre in the queer scene, and seem to be recognized all over the country except for Boston. Though there is room for The Steamy Bohemians in comedy categories, these singer/musician/producers have pioneered the way for neo-vaudeville in Boston, and have certainly done it on more than their incredible comedy alone. There is no room for the legions of burlesque dancers, drag performers, aerialists, physical performers, puppeteers and other creative original artists in Boston who create their ongoing vision every day. And there is no room for shows like my company’s Bent Wit Cabaret, which is dedicated to producing the best variety in this great city and committed to working with these artists with a striking point of view.

All of these performers and producers have no funding and work for free or gamble rent whenever a show comes up, or trade amongst themselves in this flourishing community we have created. There is no sponsorship, no bluehairs, no promotional and media budget. Imagine writing a show, sewing your own costume, writing a press release, balancing a budget, creating a website… it’s amazing the skillsets you gather when you’re only you, but to be an artist you have to be all of those other things too, and work a day job to pay rent on top of it.

Boston is often compared to, and found lesser than, New York City. I choose Boston. I love this city. Here we can produce the art we want to produce. We can have a voice and a point of view, and make up the rules without fear. The independent art and theatre community has been for too long bypassed for “real” theater- and for a group of people that is so proud to continually cultivate the landscape of Boston’s flourishing art scene, it is a slap in the face to not have a place to compete in the “Best of Boston” categories. We create original, creative, affordable entertainment in this community and we rightly deserve a place in your nominations categories. Without us, I sincerely believe Boston would not be the same great city. I ask that you consider including our presence in your nominations.

Most sincerely,

Jill Gibson
Producer & Performer
Axe To Ice Productions

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Leno Replacement Suggestions

I shot this video last week (originally intended fro another site) before the news became official that Andover native Jay Leno would be moving to the 11:35 time slot, bumping Brookline native Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show back by a half an hour. Since NBC will now have five hours of airtime to fill, I thought I'd give them my suggestions. The video is on my new YouTube channel, FromTheCrawlspace, which will feature odds and ends from my own music and comedy. I'll post something here every so often.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Mitch Stinson takes over Mondays at the Vault

Mitch Stinson has some big shoes to fill taking over as the Monday night host at Dick's Beantown Comedy Vault. Stinson was today officially named to replace Kevin Knox, the beloved local veteran comic who died of cancer in November. Stinson plans to hit the streets and try to drum up a following for his version of the show. Mondays will continue to feature a showcase style show, and Stinson plans to emphasize his fellow comics as much as possible.

"The major difference I plan for Monday nights is that Kevin Knox was the true star of any show," he says, "I plan on making the Boston comedy scene the star of this show. I hope to attract the area's best comediens to put on a quality entertainment experience for Monday nights."

Stinson made the transition from Navy aviator to comedian in 2002, believing he had found his true calling. "I loved my time in the Navy but I always look for new challenges. To be honest with you, I can't think of anything more challenging than being a successful stand-up comedien."

For a few clips of Stinson's work, check out his "Jokes" page on

Friday, January 8, 2010

Joe Wong at Mottley's, on Letterman

Since Joe Wong made his debut on Letterman in April of last year, he's been racking up TV appearances. Ellen DeGeneres is a huge fan, and has tapped him to be on her daytime show and her variety show. His next Letterman appearance is scheduled for February 19 (but keep checking listings, the comedians often get bumped when the show goes long). You can see him in person tonight and tomorrow at Mottley's Comedy Club.

Here's Wong on the red carpet at the American Music Awards for Ellen:

Boston Comedy TV Notes - Myq Kaplan and Shane Mauss

Shane Mauss and Myq Kaplan both taped their half hour Comedy Central Presents... specials in November, and both specials now have official release dates. Mauss's special will air on March 12 at 11:30 PM, and Kaplan's airs April 30 at 11:30 PM. Both have CDs on the way.

Mauss, who is at The Comedy Studio tonight, will also be on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien on March 9. Kaplan appeared on the show December 16. Here's the video of the appearance.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Rooftop Comedy spotlights Mottley's

Mottley's Comedy Club is featured on the front page of this week, complete with a link to two pages worth of comedy clips from DJ Hazard, Bethany Van Delft, Josh Gondelman, and a few others, all shot at the club. For the uninitiated, does this with differnt clubs around the country, giving it a pretty deep reach into various local scenes.

Here's a bit of a sample from DJ Hazard's sold-out show in December.

The Black Comedy Explosion welcomes Freddie Ricks tonight

Jonathon Gates hosts Freddie Ricks, whose credits include Shaft and Def Comedy Jam, tonight at the Black Comedy Explosion at Slade's, 958 Tremont Street in Boston. Here's a bit of a sample for the uninitiated:

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

MC Mr Napkins says TTFN Boston

At about 6AM New Year's Day, Zach Sherwin, a.k.a. MC Mr. Napkins, left Boston on a flight to Los Angeles. But before he left, he hosted one more show at The Comedy Studio, where he has honed his craft these past couple of years. The show featured great sets all around, from Josh Gondelman, Andrew Mayer, Tom E. Morello, and Chris Fleming. Expect to see a Napkins album in the near future on the Comedy Central label.

I caught up with Sherwin in the stairwell of the Studio as he told Boston, ta ta for now.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Women In Comedy: Submission Deadline Extended

If you missed the first deadline for March's Women In Comedy Festival, I just got word from Festival co-creator Maria Ciampa that the submission deadline has been extended until Monday. For more, check the WIC Web site:

Here's the full announcement:

The Second Annual ImprovBoston Women in Comedy Festival's submission deadline has been extended to Monday, January 11, and both men and women are encouraged to submit for the 2010 festival! This year's festival will be held at IB Mar. 24-28.

Submissions from a variety of genres will be accepted this year, including improvisational comedy, live sketch comedy, stand up comedy, short film / TV pilot, scripted musical comedy, storytelling, and humor writing.

Please see the Women in Comedy Website to download a submission form and learn more about the submission process for each comedy genre.

The festival is a celebration of Boston-area and nationally-known women in comedy. The festival's mission is to create a forum for people to experience the unique comedic expression of women, see strong female and male performers and, most importantly, to have a great time.

Tom Kenny interview from Comedy Central

Before he was the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, Tom Kenny was a stand-up comedian struggling to find a voice in Syracuse, New York, and then Boston. Kenny doesn't mention Boston specifically in this interview, but the kinds of comedians who work hard on their acts sounds familiar from stories of boom-era Boston Comedy.

SpongeBob SpongeBash
Interview with SpongeBob's Tom Kenny
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