Filed under: Arts & Entertainment, Countdowns & Lists, Movies & Films, Television & New Media | Tags: alex james, awkward, bill clinton, bill hicks, carrot top, celebrity jeopardy, chris farley, comedy, conan o'brien, conando, courtney thorne-smith, curb your enthusiasm, extras, funny, george carlin, larry david, late night, new york city, norm macdonald, phil hartman, richard pryor, ricky gervais, saturday night live, seinfeld, snl, stand up, state of affairs, the office, turd ferguson, will ferrell
Comedy has always been very important to me. Whereas many of my peers grew up learning an instrument, or musical notation, I was attempting to hone my skills as a comedian. People like George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin were my rock stars, and the people I invariably looked up to.
Now I’m all growed up, and really, little has changed.
I have attempted stand-up comedy before, even going so far as to perform my material onstage at Yuk Yuks in Toronto. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t very good; stand-up had never been my forte, nor my passion within the comedy world. I had always focused more on the writing and sketch performing aspects of comedy, aspects that allowed me to create original characters, and perhaps more importantly, interact with other comedians on stage.
This is why today’s post may be confusing to some people. In listing my personal top five of most influential comedians, I have neglected to add any who are strictly stand-up comedians (or, at the very least known specifically for their stand-up comedy). While this may seem like a fairly substantial oversight, I assure you it’s not. I also assure you that while I both love and respect the likes of Pryor, Carlin, Hicks as well as a host of other well-known comedians, they did not directly add anything to the comedy cohesive whole that is Lu Galasso. Brilliant, sure. But their impact on my style and form was limited at best.
The comedians I am about to discuss did however have a lot to do in creating my comedic style and voice. While one could argue (and in some cases, rather easily) that they are not nearly as brilliant or as influential as some of the gentlemen I mentioned before, we’re not discussing comedians who shaped comedy; we’re discussing comedians who shaped me.
(And, just for the record, Lenny Bruce doesn’t count for either list. Lenny Bruce was a gimmick, and he was shit. Get over him).
His own wrong opinion.
Right. Preamble done. Begin postamble:
Anyone who’s read this blog before knows full well my unabashed love for the red-headed warlock of NBC. A graduate of Harvard, Consey wrote for both “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons” (during its best seasons, no less) before taking over “Late Night” from David Letterman, and RESHAPING TELEVISION AS WE KNOW IT.
Alright, so Conan clearly didn’t reshape television in any way shape or form. What he did do, however, was take Letterman’s format for kooky characters, ridiculous sketches and non-sequitur writing, and reshape that into his own image – one that was perhaps even more outlandish than Letterman’s show, but with a more whimsical, likable host, far removed from the sarcastic bitterness that made Dave so inaccessible. That is one of the things I like best about O’Brien. His self-deprecating humor allowed him to operate on the same level as his audience, and his quirkiness only enhanced that. Never afraid to try something completely stupid, and then mock whatever outcome is reached from doing something completely stupid, Conan was early on able to effectively separate himself from the rest of the late-night pack. Extraordinarily intelligent, with a quick wit, Conan never takes himself to seriously – nor should he. He’s a comedian for Christ’s sake!
Here now, for your viewing pleasure, is a clip from Conan’s “Late Night” show, where our hero lends a hand during the New York City transit strike:
Alex has his say:
I’ve never understood late-night television. I’ve watched all the major players at one time or another, usually because I’m interested in the musical guest they have on, but the basis of the shows themselves as platforms for comedy never made any sense to me. Conan O’Brien is no exception. While I appreciate his comedic talent from a writing perspective (his work on some of the best episodes of The Simpsons, for example) I never found his on-stage persona particularly amusing. I might get crucified for that opinion, particularly given the recent Late Show debacle, and I’m not saying I don’t think he’s a cool guy (he seems to be), I just don’t find that head-wavey thing he does nearly as hilarious as the rest of you seem to. For the record, though, he’s not a bad guitar player.
While Conan didn’t necessarily reinvent television, there’s a good chance that Larry David did. Creating a show about nothing is easy; creating a show about nothing that became an enormous something…that takes some wicked talent.
“Seinfeld” was, is, and forever shall be the pinnacle of sitcom television. Strip away all of the awards, the hype and the popularity, and view the show for what it really is – the day-to-day minutiae of four very self-absorbed, very terrible people. Yet, despite this, audiences were still able to identify with Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer, though I’m sure they were disgusted and horrified with themselves when they did.
Larry David was able to transport every normal person’s abnormal thoughts, foibles and secret desires into four characters that managed to express and represent them in “the real world.” While you may not always approve of their behavior, you can’t necessarily fault them for it, and usually find yourself wishing that you could act out the way these people do. David’s writing is brilliant because he understands people – or at least the darker parts of people that people don’t enjoy talking about or admitting to. His second show, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” expanded on this theme, creating a sort of heroic everyman in Larry David – a guy with his own, unique outlook on life, who feels that those around him should adhere to this code…despite the fact that the people around him may not even be aware that such a code exists.
Utilizing the darker aspects of the human psyche (jealousy, greed, self-indulgence) to create so many memorable – and surprisingly likable – characters is Larry David’s trademark, and also his gift. No easy task, that, but Larry David has managed to pull it off consistently, and more importantly, perfectly.
Alex has his say:
Larry is another one I can agree with from the perspective of importance. Clearly he’s responsible for one of the most popular and successful sitcoms in television history, but I’ve got to come out of the closet on this one and admit to not liking “Seinfeld”. In fact I’d go so far as to say I’d prefer being bashed about the testicles by an angry German woman with a wrench than watching more than one episode in a sitting, but I’d have to qualify that statement by saying it’s not Larry David’s fault. I’ve watched a ton of “Seinfeld” trying to get my head around it, and I’ll agree the writing is excellent – but the acting is piss-poor and obnoxious. I guess it’s a good thing Lu didn’t put Jerry on his list. Final word: Larry David = good. Larry David’s casting choices = abysmal.
Whereas Larry David’s characters are self-important, though moderately successful, assholes, Ricky Gervais’ creations aren’t quite so lucky. Playing up his own physical appearance and neurosis, Gervais has created some truly memorable losers who you can’t help but love – despite the fact that they rarely seem to give you a reason to love them.
Let’s start by stating the obvious: Ricky’s version of “The Office” (the original version) is leagues ahead of the limp American remake. I may come off as an elitist prick by saying that, but it’s 100% true. Ricky’s David Brent (the pathetic office manager he plays on the show) is a truly great comedic creation. Obnoxious and devoid of any common people skills, you can still easily identify with Brent and his desperate campaign to be loved and respected. (Whether or not he deserves to be loved and respected is another story entirely).
And, love it or hate it, Gervais is something of a pioneer in the new-fangled “awkward comedy” that all the kids seem to be into these days. The original “Office” could at times be almost unbearable to watch, as you witnessed realistic people virtually collapse onscreen under some of the most uncomfortable (but startlingly true to life) situations ever devised by man. Watching a cartoon character or a caricature fall apart under ridiculous circumstances is one thing; watching somebody you can identify with, in a situation you can completely understand and may or may not have been in yourself at one point, struggle to right whatever social wrong they’ve created, is painful.
But oh, so funny.
Alex has his say:
Whee, one I get to agree with unconditionally. Ricky Gervais is hilarious. I’ll admit to having a soft spot for British humor as a general rule, but Gervais really stands out in my mind. I love The Office (the real version) and his recent antics at the Golden Globes had me in stitches. I don’t have a great deal to say about this man, because I’m far better at tearing down than I am at building up, so I’ll just say he gets a pass in my book.
Norm MacDonald is a strange beast. Extraordinarily talented comedy-wise, he’s (more or less) worked fairly steadily during his career, but has yet to really break through to the masses. Hailed by his contemporaries and peers as one of the funniest men alive, Norm seems comfortable with that role, and has never really pushed himself to be the mainstream success he probably could be.
Norm is best known for his role as anchor on “Saturday Night Live’s” weekend update. He got this job, I’m assuming, because he can’t act and he wasn’t very good in sketches. His sarcastic, detached reading of the fake news was a huge highlight of the show. He would tell jokes like he didn’t give a fuck, and, considering it’s Norm MacDonald, he probably didn’t. Rather than beat you over the head with an telegraphed punchline or elicit a manufactured response from the audience by making obvious statements they could agree with, Norm would instead tell jokes that he found funny – and then usually follow these jokes by staring awkwardly at the audience if they didn’t laugh or “get” them. This is why he was Chevy Chase’s (SNL’s first weekend update anchor) favorite anchor on the show – after Chevy Chase, of course. This is also why the studio bosses completely fucking hated him. They wanted someone safe and controllable, who would pander to the audience – kind of like Jay Leno, only…actually, exactly like Jay Leno. Instead, they got a rogue anchor who would say whatever the hell he wanted with as much awkward sarcasm and randomness that he could possibly muster. To many, it was confusing and not very funny. To those of us who got it, though, (and who can keep up with the questions asked on “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” without getting a headache) it was a breath of fresh air – and absolutely hilarious. Later, though, Norm would be unceremoniously fired from the show – and some of us would forever pinpoint that moment as the moment when the show began to start tumbling downhill.
Below is probably one of my favorite Norm moments. The clip’s a bit long, but the finale when he brilliantly (and for no apparent reason) tears apart Courtney Thorne-Smith’s new movie (in his defense, it stars Carrot Top) is unbelievable.
Alex has his say:
Ah, Canadian comedy. This is definitely a hit-or-miss category in my books, usually favouring the latter. I typically don’t like anything that’s defined from the bottom up as “Canadian” because that’s usually code for “Little Brother Syndrome” in that we seem to go out of our way to remind everybody what they’re watching is Pure Canadian and not at all like those awful Americans we profess to hate but whose approval we secretly crave. Thankfully, MacDonald doesn’t fall into this category. His deadpan approach to standup and Lu’s well-taken point about him not giving a fuck really endear him to me. In fact, this is the one guy on this list I can see directly influencing Lu in real life. Solid choice.
As stated above, stand-up comedy isn’t really my thing. So I suppose it stands to reason that one of the most influential comedy figures in my life is one who had no stand-up credentials on his resume.
Nicknamed “The Glue” (for his ability to always hold a sketch together) by co-star Adam Sandler, Phil Hartman was the king of sketch television. The man was completely untouchable within that realm. Read any list describing the best cast members of “SNL,” and Hartman is always firmly located at the top. He was a consummate sketch artist, seemingly able to do or play anything. Sure, Hartman was best known for his straight man roles – the father, the boss, the co-worker – each character playing it straight against the wilder aspects of Chris Farley or Adam Sandler. But he was also key in creating some pretty ridiculous characters in his own right, and every one of them memorable. Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, Frankenstein, The Anal-Retentive Chef – the list goes on. Add to that his impressive repertoire of impressions (Bill Clinton, Frank Sinatra, Phil Donahue and Ronald Reagan, among others) and you have one of the best utility players in “SNL’s” long history – and quite possibly the best cast member in the show’s history. Rest in piece, Phil – you taught me a lot.
Alex has his say:
Sorry, who? Hang on a second. Wait a minute, wasn’t he Troy McLure, and the creepy neighbour from “Jingle All The Way”? I’ll be right back – I have to go see what else he’s done, otherwise this is going to be a really mean rebuttal.
Oh, he helped Paul Reubens develop the Pee-Wee Herman character. Thanks for that.
That said, he does a fabulous Ronald Reagan, but I don’t have the patience to watch all the way through his entire SNL career. So I’m leaving this one undecided.
Oh, wait. I just watched the Bill Clinton at McDonalds thing. Gold.
So there you have it.
Laughter is amazing to me. The sound of it is just great (unless it’s the sound of children laughing – which is quite chilling). In fact, my desire to make people laugh is completely selfish. I love the sound of it. I love the look of it. I love that feeling you get when you knock one out of the park and leave a whole crowd in stitches. It’s a high unlike any other.
But more than anything, I love that it’s involuntary. You can’t force it. You can’t plan for it. It comes naturally, and only when it’s earned. It’s an important aspect of it to point out – if they’re laughing, they’re laughing. It’s real, and there’s nothing quite like it in the world.
These five men (and, to a lesser extent, Alex’s choices) are (or were) all masters of that. They understood the medium and they knew how to work it.
And they all deserve my (involuntary) thanks.
(Christ, I’m bad at wrapping stuff up).
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