“Comedy At The Edge” Quotes

I recently finished  “Comedy At The Edge: How stand-up in the 1970’s changed America” by Richard Zoglin.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it. Here’s some (okay A LOT) of quotes from it:

comedy at edge“New York City alone, as I write this, has nearly a dozen-compared with just three in their ‘70s heyday. But the sense of adventure has been replaced by the programmed predictability of a General Motors assembly plant. The comics all sound pretty much alike these days, with the same patter to loosen up the crowd.” (2)

“Stand-up comedians who reached their artistic maturity in the late’60s and ‘70s saw themselves as rebel artists. Unlike the comedians of an earlier generation.” (2)

“By their very presence onstage – alone in front of a mike, telling it like it is- they were advertisements for honesty and authenticity, a rebuke to the phoniness and self-righteousness of your parents’ generation.” (3)

“The old comics made jokes about real life. The new comics turned real life into the joke.” (5)

“Even at their peak of creativity and popularity, these stand-up innovators were often itchy to move on. They didn’t feel validated (or make enough money) until they proved themselves in other fields – movies, TV sitcoms, directing. Stand-up comedy may be the only major art form whose greatest practitioners, at any given time, want to be doing something else.” (5)

“Many of them had relatively short stand-up careers. Unlike rock stars, they couldn’t go on indefinitely with greatest-hits tours. The old jokes had to be constantly refreshed, and that became harder as they aged – as their material became familiar from TV and the cocoon of fame enveloped them, cutting them off from their real-life sources inspiration.” (5)

“The result was a brain drain that short-circuited the careers of many young comics, who came to regard stand-up not as an end In itself but as a road to sitcom stardom.” (6)

“”I’m a surgeon with a scalpel for false values,” Bruce once said.” (10)

“Lenny Bruce was incapable of separating the comedy from the comedian.” (13)

“Carlin was disciplined about his work, a compulsive student of his own career who kept a detailed log of every gig he did.” (19)

“Carlin said, “I think I was looking for familiar frames of reference that lend themselves to distortion. Because distortion is one of the most important things in comedy. You look at an ordinary event, an ordinary tableau, and you say, what element can I distort in this? And suddenly you have at least the potential for a joke.”” (25)

“Carlin showed that stand-up comedy could be a noble calling, one that required courage and commitment and that could have an impact outside of its own little world. And you could make a lifetime career of it, without burning out or self-destructing.” (40)

“Richard Pryor: “I wanted to do more black material, but I had people around me telling me to wait until I had really made it and then I could talk to the colored. I knew I had to get away from people who thought like that and the environment that made them think like that.”” (48)

“I was working very hard and wasn’t making great money but I loved it because I was doing the material I wanted to do,” Pryor said. “I learned what freedom is.” (50)

“The power of Pryor’s comedy had its drawbacks as well. Plenty of comedians, white and black, emulated his rough language and in-your-face style but missed the empathy and vulnerability that informed it.” (63)

““In stand-up, being ahead of the country is the same as being behind. All that matters is the right moment,” said David Steinberg.” (71)

“Robert Klein says, “I had an education. I was intelligent. I wanted to say something.” (77)

“If I was going to have a career on The Tonight Show,” Klein realized, “I couldn’t be talking past people.” (79)

““Klein wasn’t afraid of going over the audience’s head,” said Jerry Seinfeld.” (81)

“Like most people in show business, Budd Friedman’s interest in you was in exact proportion to how he could use you at the moment.” (89)

“Budd Friedman had his little principles: ‘You can never blame the audience. It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.’” (90)

“When Larry David went on, all the comics in the bar would rush in to see him,” says Albrecht, “and all the people in the audience would rush to the exits.” (105)

“Most comedians worry about being funny,” says Dennis Klein, a comedy writer who was friends with Albert Brooks for year. “Albert is the only one who doesn’t worry about that. He worries about everything else.” (110)

“What I thought was so amazing was that the audience knew Jack Benny’s persona so well that he didn’t do anything. All he had to do was react. Most comedians have to create the confusion. All he had to do was look at it. And that was such a profound, clear comedy character.” (116)

“As I studied the history of philosophy, the quest for ultimate truth became less important to me, and by the time I got to Wittgenstein, it seemed pointless,” Steve Martin told Time magazine. “Then I realized that in the arts, you don’t have to discover meaning; you create it.” (128)

“Says Martin, “I decided that to deny the audience the punch line was the secret of modern comedy. I sort of analyzed the one-liner, which was the style before I started working – OK, here’s the punch line, how funny do you think it is? And I thought, well, if there were no punch lines, it would create its own tension, and eventually the audience would start laughing and they won’t know why. And that’s a better kind of laugh.” (133)

Steve Martin: “I came up with a plan, which was to observe myself when I laughed, and figure out what it was that made me laugh, and try to put it into material. And the second biggest artistic and commercial decision I made was to drop the politics, to go very solipsistic. I just wanted to break from the depth of that political infestation in comedy. It was very pervasive. It was just making me another one of the group.” (133)

“The lesson for Martin: he needed to stop being an opening act and hold out for headline spots – even if it meant going to smaller clubs. “My opening act was going nowhere,” he says. “There’s a kind of psychological aspect to opening: even if you killed and you’re better than the headliner, they only remember the headliner.” (134)

“I think my material didn’t change so much as its delivery,” says Martin. “And the delivery was just that total confidence.” (134)

“When someone up front would leave to go to the bathroom, Martin would enlist the rest of the crowd in a practical joke: when the poor sap came back, Martin instructed them to laugh at everything he said even before the punch lines. Three thousand people playing a prank on one unsuspecting schlub. It was brilliant lunacy.” (135)

“When the crowd lingered, Martin led them outside, saw an empty swimming pool next door, and on an impulse, told everyone to climb inside, forming a human sea while he “swam” across their bodies.” (135)

“Says Lorne Michaels, “we were burned-out. He was sunshine. We were very much about being taken seriously. And Steve was braver than that. He didn’t care.” (136)

“I knew that while I was hot, I had better switch to something,” Martin says. “I had no intention of turning over my act and getting a new act. I knew it was over when it was over. And I thought, now’s the time. I’m hot enough to make a deal. You’re on a train and it’s going one way and another train passes and it’s going another way, you gotta leap onto that other train when your paths are crossing.” (139)

“Martin demonstrated that experimental comedy was not inconsistent with entertaining huge numbers of people.” (140)

“Once you got that Tonight Show break, you’d better be ready – with enough material to last more than one appearance.” (142)

“Seinfeld put off his Tonight Show debut for months while he gathered enough material to avoid the David Sayh trap.” (143)

“Then they open up that curtain, and at that moment you feel something nudging your Adam’s apple, and it’s your asshole trying to get out.” (143)

“Carson was so secure in himself that he never had a problem laughing his ass off when somebody was funny.” (145)

“What Leno demonstrated to me, by being on stage,” says Letterman, “was the importance of attitude.” (154)

“Leno was a glutton for the road, a comic who never met a crowd he didn’t want to win over. Letterman never liked performing outside of the comfortable cocoon of the Comedy Store.” (156)

“Kaufman, the conceptual comic whose big joke, most of the time, was that he didn’t have an ounce of talent in his body.” (160)

“My style in the beginning, especially in the smaller clubs, was not to be on the mike,” Kaufman recalls. “Because if you were on mike, you invited the standard thing where people could kind of lose track. So if I didn’t go on mike, they were immediately listening.” (162)

“Andy would always watch the audience,” says Zmuda. “The theatrical moment for him was not onstage, but what’s taking place in the crowd.” (174)

“Kaufman always felt inhibited by Taxi, and reduced the number of episodes he did in the later seasons. “He wanted to be on the cutting edge,” says Zmuda. “He felt all of TV was a sellout. We couldn’t tell the difference between Full House and Saturday Night Live.” (176)

“When Kaufman played Harrah’s in Reno, according to Zmuda, he paid a visit to the Mustang Ranch, the famed Nevada brothel, and vowed to sleep with all forty-two girls in the house before the end of his weeklong run. He accomplished the feat just under the wire, Zmuda says.” (177)

“An administrative law judge for the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the comedians, as independent contractors, could not be unionized.” (200)

“Oh my God, the parties we had there,” says Rick Overton. “Inexplicable stains everywhere. Waitress who go, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this,’ then when you’re looking for a condom, say, ‘It’s in the third drawer.’”

“Getting a TV sitcom, however, was a Faustian bargain for any stand-up comic who was serious about his art. On the one hand, it could make you famous beyond your wildest dreams. On the other, it neutralized your best talents by putting you at the services of formulaic scripts, ensemble casts, and network restrictions on language and content. You might get an ovation when you walked back into the Improv, but it wasn’t necessarily deserved. The skills of live stand-up needed constant maintenance; it wasn’t easy to pick up again after you stopped doing it regularly.” (213)

“The TV sitcom changed the dynamics of the stand-up profession. IT drew comedians from New York to Los Angeles faster than ever. It encouraged them to develop clean, family friendly routines that would be palatable to a mass TV audience. And it altered their career ambitions.” (215)

“They were the comics who got so good at their jobs that they could leave it behind – for movies or a TV series. In the ‘60s it would have been called selling out. In the ‘80s it simply meant that stand-up was losing much of its urgency and vitality, a sense that it was central to what was happening in the culture and the country.” (216)

“Any art works best when it’s the only pinhole of expression that a human being has,” Seinfeld says. “Everything that they want to express gets forced through that little hole.” (217)

Seinfeld: “Klein was a hipper guy, but he was talking to unhip people, and getting them to laugh. If I could sum up my entire philosophy of comedy in one sentence, it is to be hip without excluding. That’s the key: staying on the front of the curve, without leaving the mainstream audience behind.” (218)

“Seinfeld was known among his friends as the professor of comedy. He studied joks and worked diligently on new material. He made sure he spent at least an hour a day writing, compiling his ideas on a pad of yellow lined paper. “Jerry was the first one I saw who understood the importance of craft,” says Larry Miller. “He would write every day. I only started doing that about three years in.” “His life was always very efficient and clean and uncluttered,” says Resier. “He used to have a wallet that had one credit card and however many crisp bills he needed. And one piece of paper of one word ideas he wrote down that day. He’d try out that stuff. Jerry did new stuff regularly and methodically.” (219)

“I was at the top of the food chain in New York,” Seinfeld says. “I didn’t like everyone looking up to me. I figured that wasn’t good for my growth.” (221)

“Most of the great innovators of ‘70s stand-up, like avant-garde artists of many eras, faced the problem of watching their outsider art become part of the mainstream culture – rubbing them of their originality and their raison d’etre.” (222)

“Stand-up comedy in the ‘70s helped created the world we live in, and the way we look at it. It made us more cynical about our leaders, and more suspicious of authority of all kind. It forced us to take a close, skeptical look at the media world that has overwhelmed us. It made us more open about ourselves, and more willing to tolerate differences in others. It freed up our language and showed that our most embarrassing memories are nothing to be ashamed of, because others share them too. It made us observant and questioning and smart. It taught us not to sit still for anything, but to talk back.” (224)

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