I've curated a bunch of killer profiles of some of our finest comedians over the past few years. In case you missed any of them, please dig these pieces on Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, Robin Williams, David Letterman, Albert Brooks, Martin Mull, Doug Kenney, Andrew Dice Clay, Jeremy Vernon, and Charlie Barnett.
"The End of Lenny Bruce" by Dick Schaap (Playboy, 1966):
The truth is what is, not what should be. What should be is a dirty lie.
Lenny was a very sick comedian when he died. He had grown to more than 200 pounds, with an enormous belly, fattened by candy bars and Cokes, and his mind was fat, too, with visions of writs and reversals and certificates of reasonable doubt. But he wasn't a junkie. He wasn't strung out. He just wanted, on August 3, 1966, a taste of stuff. It was his last supper.
You really believe in segregation? You'll fight for it to the death? OK. Here's your choice: You can marry a white, white woman or a black, black woman. The white, white woman is Kate Smith. And the black, black woman is Lena Horne. Now make your choice.
"Maybe Tomorrow, Maybe the Next Day" by W.C. Heinz (Saturday Evening Post, 1968):
On some nights, in fact, it can be so tough that, like all men at some time, he will ask himself why. It is also a question he hears often from people who seem to understand why a singer sings but who cannot seem to understand why all he wants to do is to make people laugh. To them he usually throws the line about being too nervous to steal, but he knows the why.
"I want acceptance," he said once. "Doesn't everyone? In this world it's hard enough to get a few people to really accept you, but when I'm out there and it's going right I have the feeling that I've got hundreds accepting me at one time. I need it, maybe more than others, because, growing up, I couldn't find it."
Mel Brooks, The Playboy Interview, conducted by Brad Darrach (Playboy, 1975):
Playboy: An egg cream has healing properties?
Brooks: An egg cream can do anything. An egg cream to a Brooklyn Jew is like water to an Arab. A Jew will kill for an egg cream. It's the Jewish malmsey.
Playboy: How do you make one?
Brooks: First, you got to get a can of Fox's U-Bet Chocolate syrup. If you use any other chocolate, the egg cream will be too bitter or too mild. Take a big glass and fill one fifth of it with U-Bet syrup. Then add about half a shot glass of milk. And you gotta have a seltzer spout with two speeds. One son-of-a-bitch bastard that comes out like bullets and scares you; one normal, regular-person speed that comes out nice and soft and foamy. So hit the tough bastard, the bullets of seltzer, first. Smash through the milk into the chocolate and chase the chocolate furiously all around the glass. Then, when the mixture is halfway up the glass, you turn on the gentle stream and you fill the glass with seltzer, all the time mixing with a spoon. Then taste it. But sit down first, because you might swoon with ecstasy.
Playboy: But there's no egg in an egg cream.
Brooks: That's the best part. That's the wonder and the mystery of it. Talmudic sages for generations have pondered this profound question. Why is there no egg in an egg cream? Well, 1,000 years ago there may have been egg in egg creams. Joe Heller is very bright and he thought so. But Georgie Mandel and Speed Vogel are bright, too, and they applauded Julie Green's reasoning. He said, "Egg creams are called egg creams because the top of a well-made egg cream looks like whipped egg white." I can't offer you an egg cream right now, but how about a Raisinet? If you scrape the chocolate off 5,000 of them, you could have an egg cream.
"Richard Pryor is the Blackest Comic of them All" by Mark Jacobson (New West, 1976):
A few years ago, Richard could have wound up going back to Peoria to sit on the stoop and tell kids about how he was a great rebel who got crushed. Credit the black middle-class with changing the scenario. They had the money to spend and weren't so deep into bedroom sets that they couldn't relate to what Richard was putting down. No coincidence that Pryor's big break came in that all-time great black middle-class movie, Lady Sings the Blues. Ostensibly a screen bio of Billie Holiday, the picture was the phoniest thing to come down the pike since Sal Mineo got addicted to grass in The Gene Krupa Story. But Pryor, in the role of Diana Ross's hophead piano player and armed with firsthand knowledge, gave perhaps the most convincing portrayal ever of being stoned on the screen. People said he stole the show; you don't grow up one generation out of the ghetto and not know when someone's smashed or when they're just acting silly. Seeing a black man acting real on the screen was so unusual at the time that most audiences pronounced it "crazy." All of which neatly paved the way for Richard's "That Nigger's Crazy" album.
Crazy like a fox, maybe. Because when you compare Pryor's success to that of the other big-time black comics, it tells an interesting story. Cosby, Pryor's old idol-adversary, is cuter than ever; even if he's got a hokey variety show coming up this fall, he seems to have reached his natural metier doing peachy-keen Del Monte commercials. Redd Foxx, the classic black X-rated comic, has made his big killing. But now he's more Fred Sanford than Redd Foxx, and people say Foxx gets pissed when they won't let him get dirty in Vegas. Dick Gregory did the honorable thing by running back and forth for peace, but it makes you wonder if he wouldn't have more effect had he stood up on television more often. As for Godfrey Cambridge and Slappy White, where are they?
There was probably just a small opening for all that talent anyway. Pryor found it. And most likely it all comes back to Richard's willingness to call a spade a spade, so to speak. While the TV dials have been full of watered-down black street life since the "ethnic shows" got on the air, Pryor has remained hard. Too hard for TV, a medium he doesn't do well anyhow, except for rare shots like Lily Tomlin specials. Using the word "nigger" was the masterstroke. It aced him out of the mainstream, plus it made it quite clear where his racial allegiance lay. Everyone knows white people are not allowed to say that word. But, mostly, he was good. His "characters" are the essence of hanging-out humor. They're languid, more improvisatory, with more emphasis on performance than the punch line. And in the characters, Pryor found a basic difference between black humor and Jewish humor. Which is why he is the first comic to make meaningful strides past the humor of Lenny Bruce.
"The Comedian Who Loved Himself" by Paul Slansky (New Times, 1978):
"Martin is one of a kind," says Al Burton, one of Norman Lear's creative supervisors who caught Mull's show at the Roxy in Los Angeles and signed him for Mary Hartman. "He has this unique hateful quality while still being an appealing performer."
"Martin was a joy to work with," he adds. "He is one of the quickest-thinking wits since the old days of wits. The nuances that he got out of those lines were incredible. I know very few actors who can make a written word sound as if it's ad-libbed. I like Steve Martin, but I don't think I would have gone after him the way I went after Martin Mull."
In fact, Martin and Mull are good friends and have worked together on several projects. "There was a time when Martin and Steve seemed to osmose off of each other a little," says comedy writer Harry Shearer, whose credits include Fernwood 2-Night. "I think Steve picked up a little of Martin's arrogance, and I don't know what Martin picked up from Steve—three or four good lines probably. With Steve it's so obvious that he's putting it on, but with Martin it's a lot closer to home. You can never quite be sure whether he's doing a character or whether that's the guy, which is interesting."
"Everybody Should Have an Albert" by Paul Slansky (Village Voice, 1979):
The waiter brings my drink, and a chef's salad and iced coffee for Albert, who says that he might be going to Hawaii for a vacation in a few days. "Maybe I shouldn't see you again before you go," I say. "Then I'll have to go to Hawaii to finish the piece."
"Will your editors pay for it?" he asks. "Because if they will, here's what we'll do. When you get to Hawaii, there'll be a message waiting for you saying I've gone on to Japan. Then we'll go to China, and…" He stops himself. "What am I talking about?" he practically moans. "I'll never leave. I've been talking about a vacation for five years, I just never leave. It's sick, it's not healthy." He suddenly brightens. "You know what I've always wanted to do? I've always wanted to put a lung in a suitcase and send it through an airport security check. In effect, the guard would be looking at an X-ray of a lung.
Aside from Albert's comic instinct, the most striking thing about him is his confidence in it. His jokes are delivered as casually as they occur to him. It's clear that if he thinks something is funny, he goes with it—getting a laugh is a pleasant but nonessential bonus.
"I'll leave the tip," Albert says loudly when the check arrives. "Not really. That was just for the tape recorder."
"Albert Brooks is Funnier than You Think" by Paul Slansky (Playboy, 1983):
"When Rex Reed wrote that I had a face like an open-faced sandwich, that was the best moment so far," says Brooks. "It's just a thing of mine—I've always wanted to be compared to deli food."
Steve Martin was the guy with the arrow through his head who said "Excuse me." Chevy Chase smirked and fell down a lot. Cheech and Chong did dope jokes, George Carlin said dirty words and Andy Kaufman seemed to think that the point of performing was to make people nervous about laughing. For those of us who took comedy seriously in the Seventies, though, there was only the holy trinity: Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin and Albert Brooks.
Those three can't be summed up in single sentences, and part of our implicit agreement with them is that we encourage them to keep growing. Pryor and Tomlin became superstars, then almost self-destructed, he with his cocaine conflagration and she with her performance in the unspeakably bad Moment by Moment (Rex Reed loved it). Brooks has avoided the pitfalls of mass acceptance by avoiding that acceptance. At 35, after 16 years in the business, he is still not quite a star.
"The Life and Death of a Comic Genius" by Robert Sam Anson (Esquire, 1981):
The more people raved about his talent, the more he seemed to doubt it. Wistfully, he talked of the "serious work" he should be doing, the novel he should be writing, the "big movie" he should be making. After Lucy Fisher became head of production for Francis Coppola's Zoetrope Studios, he could barely contain his envy. Over and over again, he talked about Coppola's success obsessively, comparing it with his own "failure." Late one night, in the middle of a toot, he drove to the Zoetrope lot, accosted a guard, and demanded to see Coppola to, as he later related to Fisher, "tell him how to make movies." No one was able to console him. "He didn't respect his talent," says Michael Gross, the formerLampoon art director, who saw him frequently in California. "He was like Marilyn Monroe in that way. Everything came so easily to him, he didn't take it seriously."
The studio wasn't worried. The work, when it happened, would take care of itself. In the meantime, there were parties; more parties, after a while, than anyone could count. They were remarkable affairs, not in the scale of their pretensions, but in their all-inclusive nature. On a given evening (or day, since the parties often went on until morning), the array in Doug's living room might include studio chiefs, waitresses, actors, writers, secretaries, carhops, college classmates, and hitchhiking hippies—anyone, in sum, whom Doug had encountered in the last ten years. Before long, the word was on the circuit. If you need help, a bed for the night, an introduction at a studio, see Doug. He was the center of the network.
"David Letterman: The Vice-President of Comedy" by Peter Kaplan (Esquire, 1981):
The comedian who can make it on television is the one who can preside over the talk show landscape. He's the comedian who can keep things going and react to the traffic of guests sitting down on and leaving a couch; he's the comedian who represents security and durability to a network. Who knows, who even cares anymore, whether Johnny Carson is actually funny? We know that we like to laugh with him, but who knows whether he actually pushes the catch lever that leads to the joy-pain spasm? He is, more than anything, a triumphant and reassuring habit; he can react and act with the flow of the society, and because of that he's worth more than any eight sitcoms.
David Letterman is that sort of good horse, the good choice in the morning lineup to provide thirty or forty or fifty years of solid, non-scalding comedy for national consumption. Like Carson, he knows that the long run is left to those who know to hold off and save it for the stretch. He's not the one to wing it up toward the sun or to kill the audience a thousand times and himself last. When he works an audience, Letterman works at half speed so that he cangenerate while he goes; it's the broadcast tradition of the talker. He goes on and on when he works, sending tendrils out into an audience, practicing. Just a funny guy is David L., just a firm hand who keeps his hostility in check, unsheathing, like Carson, a measured fury, and this restraint is what entitles him to the right to endure in a television age. Someone's yelling "Hey-yo!" at Letterman, and because of that, all of that, NBC is paying him one million dollars a year. Letterman will inherit the air and the cables, gather his resources, and almost never reach for the emergency weapon—the lethal anger behind the sheet of glass—that the smartest ones keep in reserve for the moment of crisis when they doubt, and so need to demonstrate, that they are unchallengeably in charge of their audience.
"The Unfunny Comedy of Andrew Dice Clay" by Ivan Solotaroff (Village Voice, 1990):
"So I'm doin' this huh-mah-nicka solo on this litt-tle pig's-s fudge flaps-s," he breathes the first of his thick, emphatic consonants into the mike. He waits out another ovation before continuing with the little pig's response, an insecure, whining, grating warble that is going to be tonight's blanket "impersonation" of everything from women, to homeless men begging for a quarter, Geraldo Rivera, and Moonies. Ten minutes into the show, he delivers the punchline of his first actual joke, everything till now being either the assertion, "I'm the greatest comic ever walked fuckin' earth," or citations of people and situations he hates, followed by "Fuck you" or "Suck my dick." Halfway through, I pick up what seems to be an echo in the speakers, then look around to see the entire arena chanting "trim that pussy, it's so hairy," a follow-the-bouncing-ball routine that continues for the ensuing half-hour of nursery rhymes modified to feature genitalia and anal sex, followed by some fantasies culled from masturbatory responses to his childhood TV shows ("OK, Jeannie, you wanna please your master? Make your tongue six feet long and lick my balls from across the fuckin' room").
Though Dice Clay never slips out of character, it becomes obvious that one is watching a "performance"—not of some stereotype Brooklyn tough, but of the interior life of a man who's in serious regression. After a strange, est-like sermon about Following Your Dreams ("Just like I did"), delivered half in "Dice" grunt, half in a recognizably different, pudgy-kid-in-the-back-of-the-class voice, the blues band is called onstage, and the real psychodrama begins. One last doff of the cap to the "Dice" character—a five-minute ditty with one lyric: "Suck my dick/and swallow the goo"—is all he needs to settle into the entertainment portion of the show, a painful rendition of "Love Won't Let Me Wait," which is followed by a blast of Led Zeppelin from the P.A. system
"Cracking Up with Charlie Barnett" by Ivan Solotaroff (Village Voice, 1989):
At twilight I find Charlie sitting by the fountain, wrapped up in a white polyester-filled ski coat, watching a comic named Albert try to perform while a THC-crazed kid from Westchester aims karate kicks at his head from 6 feet off. An enormous man with a skull like a cinderblock is also lecturing the crowd about the $36 million the Defense Department owes him for stealing the sun from him, and Albert has given up telling jokes for the moment. Charlie greets me warmly putting his arm around my shoulder, and together we watch Albert's show disintegrate. "It's getting cold," he says. "People gotta go to work tomorrow. I hate to do this—"
Charlie walks 20 yards away, drops his coat on the ground, and starts screaming, "Showtime. Showtime, motherfuckers." Minutes later, he has every cogent person in the park in his corner and the show begins, Charlie down on his knees, pounding the bricks and screaming, "I hate that bitch. I hate that bitch. Robin Bitch, Ass, Fuckin' Givens wants $20 million for eight months of marriage and I know for a fact the Champ didn't get to fuck her ass but four times. That's $5 million a fuck. I know a woman on Third Street who'll do it for $20. Yo, Mike," he whispers, "spend the extra buck on the rubber—it's worth it. And I knew," he raises a fist in solidarity. "I knew ... she married my man for his money. Think about it. Would a bitch that fine fuck a gorilla for free?"
"More than a Shtick Figure" by Joe Morgenstern (New York Times, 1990):
Williams's own body is in great shape. A track star in school, he continues to run regularly and to work out in a gym. All the same, it's his head that has freed him to explore topical comedy, and this sets him apart from the other comic genius of his generation, Richard Pryor, a man who reached heights of brilliance by plumbing the depths of rage and pain in his own heart.
To be sure, the contrast can be overdrawn: can be overdrawn. Pryor wouldn't have succeeded without his superb intelligence, Williams wouldn't have succeeded without his abiding passion. Yet there's a world of difference between these two men, and the subject of Pryor prompts Williams to praise his colleague lavishly, while offering a cautious, conflicted appraisal of himself:
"He has this incredible ability to recognize the most basic human truths, to talk about deep-seated fears. I've never been able to talk personally about things, some of the negative things that obviously happened in my life. Some day I will. I'll be able to talk about them and make them funny, or at least get them out. But that's such a Pandora's box. Once you open it, can you deal with it? With your insecurities and your pains? Of course, it isn't that there's a lot of pain. I was an only child who grew up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. The joke is, I played with myself and that was it."
And if you've never read The Last Laugh by Phil Berger, do yourself a favor; it's a beaut.