Funny Business

I was talking with Stu Shostak last night and he mentioned some comedians he thought were awful. A couple of them were folks I think are hilarious but I understood why he didn't. I'd seen those comics perform live, meaning I saw long sets. He was judging them by five minutes on some talk show. I used to do that too but I've come around to another viewpoint and a big reason was Sam Kinison.

You remember Sam Kinison. I vividly recall several times I saw him up at the Comedy Store doing a half-hour or forty minutes. This was early in his stardom when he hadn't quite "made it" by any reasonable standard and his laments about how crappy his life was rang true. Not long before he died, I saw him with Superstar Headliner status on stage at Bally's in Las Vegas and that material didn't work so well. Not in that context. But of course, by then his act largely consisted of doing his famous yell at the audience. Then they'd yell back at him. Then he'd yell back at them. Then they'd yell back at him. Then he'd yell back at them. I once heard Steve Martin explain why he gave up doing stand-up. He said it was because audiences didn't want to hear him do actual material. They just wanted to hear a medley of his catch-phrases.

Back at the Comedy Store, Kinison was incredible. He would stalk about the stage, obviously saying a lot of what he said on other nights but not in a strict, memorized delivery. So much of it felt so honest and so much of it was grippingly, fall-down funny. If you never saw the guy in that setting, you missed a lot and I don't think it's there on his record albums, either. I've seen most of the great comedians of my generation live and Kinison, those nights up at the Store, was as good as any of them.

That was then and there. When I saw him on TV, I thought he was boring.

A little of that was because of censorship. A little more of it was because any act loses some amount of immediacy and contact when you see it on TV as opposed to in-person. Most of the difference, I think, was that Kinison was just a guy who needed room. He had a great 40 minute act and a lousy seven-minute one. It's like how your favorite 300-page novel might not be so wonderful if someone yanked out a 20-page excerpt. Some comics can score in six minutes and some can't.

I keep that in mind now when I see a disappointing stand-up spot on some TV show. Some new comic performs, fails to impress me and I think, "Gee, that was as bad as Kinison was when he did stand-up on Letterman's show." That might be as good as that new guy gets but there might also be more to him than that. Stu said he didn't like Paula Poundstone. If I'd only seen her on TV, as he has, I might feel the same way. But I've seen her in person and enjoyed her act tremendously. Just something to think about.