The Greatest Radio Spot Ever Produced

I say so because I remember it vividly some 35 years later. It’s a vivid ad, but the fact that it was a promotion for a one-time concert that probably ran only over the course of a few weeks, at most, makes it all the more remarkable that I could recall every sensationalized second. (Sadly, I did not go to the show.)

This airing was recorded from Steve Lorber‘s infamous Mystic Eyes show on WHFS, which I was in the habit of taping because one never knew what to expect from Lorber. Insistently unprofessional, Lorber flaunted both his lack of a “DJ voice” and his enthusiasm for and encyclopedic knowledge of the then-current punk/new wave/weirdo music scene. I’ve left some of Steve’s back-announcing at the end of this transfer so that you can get a taste of his refined taste. Eventually, I’ll transfer the entire tape, and several more filed away in the Nuttycombe Archives.

You have been warned.

Sit Down, Already! Grading the Glut of Stand-up Comedy

Reprinted from the Washington Post

[NOTE: I’m re-posting this piece I wrote for the Washington Post in the early ’90s after reading funny and poignant excerpts from Ritch Shydner‘s forthcoming book, Kicking Through The Ashes: My Life as a Stand-up in the 1980s Comedy Explosion. I wrote about Ritch’s last book — and its local controversy — here..]

NO ONE CAN PINPOINT THE EXACT MOMENT, but at some time between 1989 and ’91 the inevitable happened: there were more stand-up comedians in the world than there were jokes. Today, even as the humor supply continues to dwindle (despite valiant efforts from the Bobbitt, Jackson and Harding camps), it seems as if every time you turn on the television there’s yet another anxious, annoyed young guy standing in front of a brick wall venting spleen, eking out subsistence laughter from an increasingly shell-shocked audience.

richard jenni

This is not your imagination. The current count of stand-up shows has reached double digits–twenty-two different offerings, from established mainstream fare like A&E’s Evening at the Improv, to obscure, low-budget efforts like Grins on Montgomery County cable access. With options as diverse and ubiquitous as HBO’s raunchy and influential Def Comedy Jam to Comedy Central’s politically correct, homocentric Out There, remote control jockeys risk carpel tunnel syndrome if they try to avoid all contact with the genre.

But if one is “lucky” enough to be a cable TV subscriber and amenable to this abundance of amusement opportunities, one may spend up to 72 hours each week on the couch watching nothing but stand-up. And these figures do not include the eight million sitcoms currently airing, 7.9 million of which star former stand-up comedians.

This comedy glut would seem to lend credence to social critic Neil Postman‘s suggestion that we are “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” To test his theory, I decided to Amuse Myself to Sleep by spending an entire evening glued to the tube, willingly–perhaps dangerously?–exposing myself to nothing but jokes.

Though the quips are flying 24-7-365, Saturday is the laffo di tutti laffo. Date Night Number Two offers a continuous gagfest from 9:30 p.m. to 4 in the morning. Bravely foreswearing the chance for romance, I opened a bag of chips, flexed my channel-switching muscles and settled in for my affair d’comedie. In a distressing early warning of what was in store, as soon as I turned on the set, at 9:24, the jests were already underway: Comedian Jeff Foxworthy was telling redneck jokes on a country music special.

I have put myself to this kind of pointless exercise before. In 1978, at the onset of the comedy boom, I found myself in Los Angeles and stopped by the Comedy Store for the spectacle of Open Mike Night. This democratic tradition allows anyone with the nerve or lack of shame to hop onstage for a guaranteed five minutes under the spotlight. I arrived at 8 p.m. I left at 2 a.m. when the club closed–5 into 60 times 6 equals a lot of comics. I left laughing. Maybe “giddy” is a better description.

THERE IS AN ENERGY TO A LIVE PERFORMANCE, even–or perhaps especially–a bad one, that keeps one from nodding off. Six and a half hours of relentless televised attempts at merry-making do take a toll. There is no single narrative or character to focus one’s attention. Indeed, on Comedy Central there is a show called Short Attention Span Theater. The clever irony of the title is quickly becoming moot.

ritch shydner

The evening’s low point came early at 11 p.m. with the syndicated Comedy On the Road. Hosted by the justifiably sad-faced John Byner, this program is so generic that two of the comics this night are named Scott. They were both forgettable except for the unpleasantness of their material.

I did manage to stay clear-headed enough through the jokeathon to glean this bit of comic insight: Fat is funny. On every show, the subject of obesity was raised, the number of fat jokes far outweighing (ahem) gags about airlines, television, people from other lands and the supposedly interesting differences between New York and Los Angeles, the next most-employed topics.

But I survived. Though the marathon was punctuated by genuine, if intermittent, laughter, more often there were only silent smiles and much sneaking a peek to check the time on the VCR clock. After a while, the steady parade of comedians blend into one blurred image: a rumpled, late-20s/early-30s male with an indelible smirk on his face, gesturing accusingly at the viewer. If all the comics seem the same, it’s because in many ways they are. The depressing fact is that Richard Pryor is sick at home, Steve Martin only appears on movie screens and all the fresh new comics have been sucked into the lucrative (for them) but largely insulting (for us) world of situation comedies.

What is left is mostly pointed exaggeration without a point; smug attitude with little comment, insight or significance.

How did the honorable and profound institution that is American television become captive to so much silliness?

“Naked greed,” exclaims William Morris agent Mike August with a hearty agent’s chuckle. August represents a variety of comedians and, as he views it, the swift rise of Robin Williams in the late ’70s gave many the impression that if he “can be funny and make a million so can I.” In the early ’70s, the number of stand-ups working in Los Angeles was estimated at no more than 15. Then came a white-suited man named Martin. Then came Mork. Then came the deluge….Stand-up comedy became a hot–and accepted–career path.

Tim Rankin, who joined that humor horde and now leads a triple life as stand-up, actor, and a manager at the D.C. Improv club, remembers the time when “if you could get ten or fifteen minutes worth of material you could work nationwide.” So, many wild-and-crazy-wannabes became “Road Warriors,” driving 42 weeks a year, from Improv to Laugh Factory to Funny Bone to Earl’s Strip-O-Rama.

bobby slayton

The smell of loot was so pervasive that, says August, “every bar in every podunk town stopped having dwarf-tossing and strippers and tried comedy.” All a bar owner had to do was set up a mike in a corner and “hire any bozo who could survive.” A particularly American endeavor, requiring little effort and less money. By the early ’80s operating a comedy club, says the agent, “was a license to print money.”

And that same economy of less-than-scale could be translated easily to the world of TV production: Bring a camera to the comedy club and hit “record.” No elaborate staging necessary, no whining writers, co-producers, costumers, etc. Just a long line of overly-eager jokers. Tape three comics and you have a show. Repeat the process a few times and you’ve got a series to syndicate for years.

So, notes Rankin, where once the television options for a stand-up were encapsulated in the single word, “Carson,” suddenly, “there was Comedy USA, then Carolines, then A&E’s Evening at the Improv, then came Sunday Night Comics…” At first these shows featured the top-draw, recognizable talents. As the name acts either burned out or moved into sitcomland and movies, they were replaced by, as Rankin puts it, “everybody who ever told a joke.”

THE SITUATION DEGENERATED to the point where clever actors in need of sample videotape for their resumes were jumping onstage, “acting” like comedians. The sad result, says Rankin, was that “you started seeing people bombing on TV. Omigod! It was scary.”

And while it may still be scary, this thematic excess is hardly new. During the 1958-59 television season, seven of the top ten shows were Westerns. (And there was no cable or PBS alternative.)

tommy davidson

The shoot-em-up has just been succeeded by the laugh-it-up.

Two trends are evolving that may affect the stand-up surplus. The One Man Show and the “Def Comedy Jam” type of comedy.

HBO’s Def Comedy Jam was created by rap music guru Russell Simmons and, like rap, it is marked by exceedingly frank language and topics and has become a lightning rod for outraged sensibilities. It is also, like rap, largely the province of young African-American males. Still, the TV shows and concerts are wildly successful and more and more black faces are being seen. Black Entertainment Television produces a “cleaned up” version, Comicview.

The other comedy trend is the one-man show, comedians wishing to separate themselves from the pack by eliminating the pack. Alone on the stage, they riff on a single theme which, they hope, has more resonance than “Take my wife, please.” The format may have begun with Jackie Mason‘s career-reviving Broadway show, but it was the runaway success of Rob Becker‘s gender examination, “In Search of the Caveman,” that has sparked the flood of “me-too” acts: Rick Reynold‘s “Only the Truth is Funny,” Ritch Shydner‘s “The Romantic Adventures of Canyon Man,” and so on. No less a figure than David Mamet is currently involved in the production of the New York one-man show, Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants.

ellen degeneris

Agent August, who happens to represent Becker, dismisses the pretenders as “What’s My Dysfunction” acts. But these are dysfunctional times and, to take ex-stand-up Roseanne Arnold’s career as but one example, dysfunction sells.

Early in my Night of a Million Comics, Bob Zmuda, president of the Comic Relief organization said, in a different context: “Where there’s comedy, there’s hope.” Let it be noted for those hoping for a reprieve from stand-up saturation that the nature of Def Jam comedy limits it’s broadcast to adult-oriented pay channels. And, except for a pre-Caveman appearance in 1988, Rob Becker has done absolutely no television.

How To Make a No-Stress Commercial

Here’s the new commercial I produced, shot, and edited for Middle C Music, D.C.’s only full-service music store. (Also played the swingin’ hi-hat cymbals.) The spot is running on Me-TV, the channel that airs all of the TV shows that were broadcast in the years before cable.

Which means not widescreen hi-def. So, I got out my trusty Panasonic AG-DVC30 miniDV camera, which was expensive state-of-the-art before inexpensive widescreen hi-def became the state-of-the-art. The Panasonic shoots in the same nearly-square aspect ratio (4:3) as the programs that air on Me-TV. So it was a good fit.

The downside production-wise is that the camera records to tape, which has to be transferred in real time for editing. I shot an hour-and-a-half of footage, so had to sit staring at the computer for an hour-and-a-half while the tapes played back.

But I finally used my last two DV tapes. So the camera is now for sale.

The song, or jingle, was created almost instantly by Middle C staffer Michael Sweeney, who is the fellow singing in the video. Darn catchy. I cut 60- and 30-second audio versions of the jingle and I’m trying to convince the store to run radio spots as well. I think this jingle will give Mattress Discounters a run for its money.

Special to the Washington Post, “Mad Men” Edition

Don Draper

Have a piece on the Post’s Style Blog about the people who tweet as characters on Mad Men. As the show is now finished, I wondered what they would do.

It’s a fun piece, but I didn’t get to delve too far into the background of why some of these people are spending so much effort pretending to be imaginary people. Here, two of Don Draper‘s most significant love interests, Rachel Menken and Sylvia Rosen, discuss their reasons for creating online lives.

Rachel Menken (@RachelMenkenNY):

I started tweeting Rachel in February, 2013, at the request of @DonDraperSCP. It was a good fit for me as I’m Jewish and live in New York City. I even spent a few years in the fashion industry at the beginning of my career.

In any event, when I started tweeting—even though Rachel hadn’t been on the show since season 2, I found that fans remembered her and wanted to interact. So I tweeted about fashion, NYC, being Jewish and of course, “Mad Men.” I started with 30 followers (most were other “Mad Men” characters) and two years later I have over 2,000 followers. I enjoy tweeting her, but over the two years—at certain times I’ve tweeted more, but usually I don’t spend hours doing it.

I think fans are very invested in these characters and as long as there is streaming and AMC, people will always be discovering “Mad Men” and show an interest. I think there will be a high volume of tweeting tonight, tomorrow and for the rest of the week. But, it will probably calm down after that. But if you connect with followers on a regular basis, they will continue to tweet with the characters.

I personally have had the challenge of tweeting Rachel while fans know she’s dead! But that hasn’t stopped me—so I will continue to tweet and see where it goes.

I always see Twitter as a highway—you can get on and off as you like, but the traffic continues to flow.

Sylvia Rosen (@SylviaRosenNYC):

Syl is my only fake social media account. All my social media time is zapped between my “real” social media accounts and Syl. I tweeted with some of the characters during season 5 from my personal twitter account. When Syl debuted in the first episode of season 6, I was compelled by her character and what she had to offer Don and set up the account the night of the season 6 premiere. The show has touched me deeply because I can relate to Don’s crises of conscience and I’ve also related to Sylvia. The lens of Don and Sylvia truly crystallized my vision of the path I am traveling.

The Sterling Cooper Mouse was particularly helpful in unearthing crumbs of fan-tweeting lore. Here’s a piece about one of the original Mad Men tweeters, who snagged the @BettyDraper account.

And here’s a Wall Street Journal piece about the people behind Betty, @PeggyOlson, and @Roger_Sterling (A different Roger than the one I spoke with, who is still going strong—as many of the characters.

And a piece about how AMC wised up after falling asleep at the wheel and allowed the fans to play with their characters.

I will miss this show terribly. Somebody buy me a Coke .

The End of the West End

west end cinema

In recapping my movie-going for 2010, I wrote this:

This year saw the appearance of a new movie outlet, the West End Cinema. Well, sorta new. It’s a fresh venue in a tired old location. When it was the Circle West End 5-7 in the ’70s and ’80s, I purposefully avoided the place. I loved the original West End, which offered a real moviegoing experience. (Saw Repo Man there. Also, John Cusack riding up to the box office on a bicycle.) But the 5-7 was in the basement of an office building and had all the charms that implies. And, though the new West End still has the same tiny theaters and tinier screens (see image above), the new owners are making interesting programming choices that mitigate the less-than-Cinerama experience. And they’re cleverly taking advantage of modern technology. Before a screening of the hysterical and disturbing Four Lions, they played a video that the director made specifically for this screening — and e-mailed to the theater. I think more films should start this way.

And now the West End is closing.

Indeed, the big difference between the West End Cinema and when it was under Circle management was the programming. (And please note, I loved most of the Circle Theaters; the Pedas brothers also ran a great operation. In this instance, they went a theater too far.) There was little point in watching a first-run Hollywood feature on a tiny screen when you could catch it at the Uptown, Avalon, or even a multiplex. And while West End also programmed first-run A pictures, more often it showcased indies, obscure indies, and even local films.

So I came off my high horse and added the West End to my regular filmgoing spots. The new relationship was not not without issues.

When the West End screened a documentary about L.A.’s famed Troubadour nightclub, I was first into the theater — only to be greeted by the menu screen for a Sony Blu-ray player. The screen itself was not all that much larger than the TVs of many of my friends. But I wanted to see the movie in a theater and the West End was the only place to see it.

And the film wasn’t great — I was expecting more on the Troubadour’s legendary owner Doug Weston rather than a tarted up James Taylor/Carole King concert film. But you can’t complain too much about spending time with James Taylor and Carole King.

When the film showed up on PBS two weeks later, I still wasn’t upset. Yes, I could have saved my money, especially as the Troub doc is exactly the type of PBS show you watch on your couch before bedtime. But so what? I got out of the house, had some tasty snacks, and shared an experience with strangers in a darkened room. That last bit sounds kinda dicey. But the West End was always a class joint. And I’ll miss the place.

I knew the end was near when the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square premiered at the West End — and at the same time on Netflix. Hard competing with that.

Fare thee well, Josh Levin and the West End staff.

Peak Bullshit: Getting Herky With Jerky

People, we have reached Peak Bullshit. I present to you this package of Jack Link’s Small Batch Handcrafted* Beef Jerky.

Several things about that: One, “small batch.” Along with “artisinal,” a term of increasing ubiquity and decreasing meaning, if any there ever was. For instance, an entire shopping rack of something professing to be of limited quantity found prominently displayed in one of the largest grocery chains in the country seems a bit of a stretch vis-a-vis small batchness. Further calling this notion of limited availability into question, the company, Jack Links, claims to be the “leading U.S. meat snack brand.” And you know how Americans love their meat snacks. Small batches will just not do.

But “handcrafted”? Before one pictures a lone yet rugged country farm hand tenderly stroking and pulling his sweet tendrils of beef flesh (or whatever; I’ve just made myself ill), please note the asterisk. Which is to say, the product immediately runs away from its own ad claim. However, trying to find the companion asterisk for the expected disclaimer proved suspiciously difficult. But when it was finally found — in nearly invisible ink almost off the package — there was only more confusion: “*Authentically prepared and hand selected.”

What the what? How does one claim relate to the other? An asterisk traditionally means to look for more information or a caveat. Aren’t all foods, nay, all products, authentically prepared? What does authenticity mean when we’re talking about beef jerky? Or is hand selection what qualifies the handcraft boast? Is to merely select something to also craft it? Meaning, somewhere in the factory a hand was involved? Pulled a lever, pointed a finger, flipped a bird? Who knows? Again, picture that lone, loving farm boy craftsman surrounded by his cherished shards of meat. Ah, can you smell the America?

And teriyaki flavor? Jack Links corporate PR says this small handcrafted batch “celebrates the brand’s rich heritage.” The company was founded in the north woods of Wisconsin in the 1880s, while Japan was barely coming out of its seclusion. Where, please, is this longstanding Wisconsin/Japanese flavored-jerky tradition? I’m generally a fan of the teriyaki, but this jerky flavor, however achieved, was not entirely apparent.

But is there really a market for upscale beef jerky? Or, to put it in the current lingo: Are there opportunities in the jerky space?

Perhaps so. My cat likes it.

That Was the Year That Was: 1995

Was going through my storage locker and found my datebook from 1995. I’m pretty sure I have datebooks from even farther back in history, all in boxes that I’ve been paying a monthly fee to keep safe and secure. Almost since 1995. Sigh.

Instead of doing the sensible thing and just tossing this relic out, I opened the pages to see what I was doing 20 years ago.

Rehearsals and gigs, mostly with my oldies band. Some visits to friends in New York City. I reviewed a lot of comedy shows for the Washington Post. And days and days — and a couple solid weeks worth — of video shoots for The Learning Channel show, Neat Stuff. Almost none of which was used. That’s another story.

Here are some highlights, as best I can tell from my horrible handwriting.

Jan. 7
“7:30 Ken Cen.”
I think this was some kind of Latino multi-culti performance art thing I was reviewing for the Post. There were songs about how the word “Hispanic” was insulting. Other than being mostly confused, I enjoyed the show.

Friday, Jan 13.
Jake Johannsen Comedy Cafe.”
For some reason, the Post really liked Jake Johannsen. I was sent to review him three times. I like Jake, too. But it’s no reflection on him to say that finding something fresh to write for that third review was pretty tough.

Jan 22
“Film Pat Rehearse”
My friends Pat, Jeff, and Dick sold a TV show to The Learning Channel, back when that network was actually about learning. I was offered an equity share, which I declined because I thought nobody is gonna buy a show about crazy toy collectors. I was wrong, but they were kind enough to bring me in as one of the players in various skits about collecting, which is how I came to ride in the Weinermobile. So my bucket list is pretty much complete.

Wednesday, Feb 1
“Improv 8:30″
No idea who. Back then, there were several comedy clubs, the Improv being one of the newer spots. And now basically the only comedy club in town.

Feb 10
Jeff Foxworthy Warner Theater”
I do not remember this.

Feb 17
Kevin Meaney Comedy Cafe.”
I do remember this show. Very funny fellow, Mr. Meaney. Whatever happened to him? I do remember the Comedy Cafe, which I kinda liked, even though the layout was ridiculous. Tiny, long, thin room on the third floor of a rowhouse on K Street. The stage was in the middle of the room, facing a mirror on the opposite wall, so performers would be staring at themselves all night. And the ceiling was low enough that acts could reach up and touch the acoustic tiles. The place was much like the Grog & Tankard. But a lot of good comics played there. And after the show, you go down one flight to the strip club. Or so I heard.

Sat March 4
Rich Hall Comedy Cafe.”
Another very funny fellow who dropped out of sight.

Friday March 24
Steven Wright Lisner.”
And yet another singular voice we don’t hear from enough anymore.

March 25
“Howard U”
Not sure what this was.

April 24
“MPAA film 10:30″
No idea what movie I was reviewing, but I will say that the Motion Picture Association of America screening room is a lousy place to watch motion pictures. Irony, eh? No popcorn, no ambiance. Plus, screenings are early in the morning. One reason critics hate so many movies is that they have to endure such crummy presentation.

May 13
“Headliners 8:30.”
Headliners was one of the other comedy clubs in the area. Was it at the Bethesda Holiday Inn? Greenbelt?

May 29 to April 7
“Pat shoot”
Pat is Pat Carroll, the noted cineaste, Travesty Films founder, and co-creator of Neat Stuff. We shot hours of comedy material for Neat Stuff and almost none of it was used. As I said, that’s another story.

August 3
Hoyt Curtin
Interviewed the man who wrote the Flintstones theme song, the Jetsons theme song, the Johnny Quest theme song — all of the great Hanna-Barbera music. Lovely man. Shame on me because I never got around to publishing it. Still have the cassette tape. Must transcribe.

Sept 1-3
“Neat Stuff.
Wasted time.

Sept 29
“Rosie 7pm KenCen.”
Rosie O’Donnell. I was reviewing for the Post and the pressure was on, as Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn were seated a few rows ahead of me.

October 8
“Write Chappelle”
The Post assigned me to interview Dave Chappelle as the once-local comic was starting to catch fire. Caught his show at the Comedy Cafe, the place where he first got onstage. His mother and grandmother were in the audience, which did not seem to impact his material. After the show, we had a rather rambling conversation in the stairwell. I’m not going to suggest that Mr. Chappelle was totally stoned, but, uh, yeah, Half-Baked.

The day after I turned my piece in, the Style section ran a full feature on the other black comic from D.C., Martin Lawrence, So my piece ran later in the week, trimmed extensively. A not uncommon occurrence when the paper was so large that one desk didn’t seem to know what the others were doing. Once I was assigned to review Lewis Black, another once-local funnyman. I spoke with him on the phone during the day, then found myself seated at the Improv next to a Post reporter who was doing a full profile of the man. As she was a staffer, I knew I was out-ranked. So I enjoyed the show — great seeing Black spew spittle at such close range — and gave her a ride home. My review never ran.

Oct. 27
Bill Maher Improv.”
I had recently read Maher’s funny book, True Story, which is a roman á clef about the comedy boom of the ’80s. After the show, I asked him if he was going to write another. He snorted, saying, “Too much work.”

Saturday, Nov. 4
This may have been my second Bill Cosby review, at the Kennedy Center. The first was his appearance at GW, just as the first Iraq war began. The second was shortly after his son was killed. Both times, Cosby allowed those elephants in the room to slumber until the very last moment, when he finally offered some of his typical professorial, paternal, Cosby-esque comforting words.

And now…

And now saying his name brings no comfort. On Twitter, Judd Apatow has been leading the charge to bring Cos to justice. (Marc Maron talks with Apatow on his latest WTF podcast and it is absolutely worth a listen.) My former colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates penned a brutal essay about Cosby. Coates and my former editor David Carr also chimed in. Along with every damn person on social media.

And I keep getting madder and sadder, at the same time.

I get mad at the people who seem so eager to attack Cosby because unlike them I grew up with the comedian. I don’t feel that they know him like I do. They don’t have the right to judge. It’s easy outrage.

But, uh, thirty-three women….

But I knew Cosby long before he both saved NBC and restored the sitcom format with The Cosby Show. Back when Cosby was merely a comedian, though he was never “merely” a comedian. I go back to elementary school with Bill Cosby. I spent many an afternoon as a kid, sitting on the floor at Scott Miller‘s house, or Mickey Hager‘s house or my own living room, listening and laughing to “Noah,” or “Why Is There Air?” or “Wonderfulness.” Then came I, Spy, which was almost as cool as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Bill Cosby was not only one of the funniest people alive, but also the coolest. He hung around the Playboy Mansion, he dug jazz, he had style. He was a champion for the African-American cause, donating millions to Temple University and Spellman College. What’s not to love?

Cosby was a hero, a comedy hero, a role model. Watch him in Jerry Seinfeld‘s film Comedian. Toward the end of the film, Seinfeld makes a pilgrimage to the master and we see Cosby sitting, in very unflattering light, looking like both Buddha and Yoda. Which, in comedy circles, he was.

But apparently he was also a serial rapist of the worst sort. Not that there’s a best sort of rapist, but Cosby seems to have been particularly heinous.

And there is no excuse. Thirty-three women can’t all be wrong. And to admit that is to toss not only Cosby, but so many of my happy childhood memories under the bus. Deep under the bus. Is this how children of criminals feel? “I love you, dad, but you’re a horrible person so stay in jail?” Like I said, mad and sad, but mostly sad.

Anyway, let’s wrap up 1995.

Friday, Dec. 1
Richard Lewis 10:30.”
The late show Friday is notorious among standups as being just the worst. I won’t say Lewis was phoning it in at this Improv show, but he did have lots of legal note pads and kept checking and reading from them. I’ve always enjoyed Lewis and his hyper-neurotic performing style. In 1978, I was in the audience at the Improv in Los Angeles for the taping of Lewis’ cruelly forgotten late-night TV movie, Diary of a Young Comic. (Featuring a terrific theme song by Loudon Wainwright III.) It’s only available as part of a Richard Lewis box set, but I wish it were available on its own.

Writing the standup reviews was a trying task. The shows were usually enjoyable, but the deadlines came quickly after the lights came up. In addition to the pressure of trying to find a couple hundred intelligent words to type, I had to send copy to the desk using ancient dial-up technology. Maybe not even a 14.4 baud modem. The DOS text had to be formatted in a particular way, with indents and double carets at the end: >>. Or maybe: < <. I had a bulky Toshiba laptop and I'd unplug the telephone and plug the line into the computer and call up a strange telecom program, type some codes, and whisk my words away into the aether. The next morning, there was my byline in a great metropolitan daily.

Good times.

Bang the Comedian Gently

I originally wrote this as a short book review for Washington City Paper, but the paper was in the process of being sold, then bankrupted, with various editors—and finally myself—leaving. So the piece got lost in the shuffle and I post it here because I still think it’s an interesting look at the supposed true history of punk rock and standup comedy in Washington, D.C.

The book that started the argument is I Killed: True Stories of the Road From America’s Top Comics (Crown, 264 pps. $23.95), co-authored by Ritch Shydner and Mark Schiff. It’s a heartily amusing Whitman’s Sampler of odd, outrageous, and inexplicable human behavior as experienced by traveling comedians. (Jay Leno gettin’ freaky—who knew?) The generally brief anecdotes may be savored piecemeal. Taken as a whole, the book is a horrifyingly hysterical tour of America after hours.

Shydner’s entry stands out, and is what started this investigation into D.C.’s comedy and punk-rock past. Titled “They Weren’t Sedated,” the piece concerns the comedian’s 1978 gig opening for the Ramones at “a big pub off Dupont Circle.” In an phone interview from California, Shydner confirms that the club was the Childe Harold. “I lived right around the corner at 17th & N,” he said. “I really hung out at the Childe Harold a lot.” Shydner was a George Mason student at the time, studying to be a lawyer. That career path veered wildly when Shydner got caught up in D.C.’s comedy boom.

As with the punk explosion in music, standup comedy also freed itself from the hegemony of “professional” show biz in the ’70s. Kids realized you didn’t need a tux and a spot on Ed Sullivan to tell jokes. Shydner credits Saturday Night Live, which began in 1975, with igniting the boom. Because before SNL, “you just didn’t see people your age or close to it doing comedy on TV,” he notes. “You just didn’t see it in a sensibility that you related to. SNL kinda popped it. And everybody starts doing comedy.”

The CBGB’s of D.C. comedy was a tiny dive bar on Pennsylvania Avenue in Anacostia called El Brookman’s. Future comedy stars such as Lewis Black and Rich Hall started there. And before venues dedicated to comedy appeared—places like Garvin’s on Connecticut Ave. and the Comedy Cafe on K Street NW—the eager young jokesters caught the attention of local booking agents seeking low-cost fodder for music shows—someone to fill time while the roadies set up the gear. Thus, the young Shydner’s early work was mostly in rock clubs, opening for bands. Here’s how he describes his Ramones show in I Killed:

“When the room was filled with two hundred people, all smoking and spilling beer, it was possible to experience the sense of death by suffocation with a stale gym towel.”

Shydner paints a very funny picture of an unnamed, coked-up bar manager betting the fledgling comic $100 he wouldn’t last five minutes in front of the overly-excited crowd. “I was not far removed from my high school and college jock mind-set,” Shydner writes, “so I tended to view each performance as an athletic event, a game to be won or lost.” He happily took the bet, and then the stage.

“The audience booed so loud I didn’t even hear my first joke,” Shydner writes. “Seconds later, someone threw a beer in my direction. It didn’t hit me, but there was no time to determine whether it was thrown as a warning or simply to gauge distance, because the next one DID hit me. Once they saw I wouldn’t move and they wouldn’t get tossed, the crowd had themselves a new sport.”

The beer barrage continued, with the plucky Shydner valiantly holding fast for the full five minutes. The manager paid up and one of the Ramones even offered congratulations as the band made its way to the stage: “You’re good man. Fucking good.”

A funny story, and one that contains a certain truth about the life of a performer. Shydner’s portrait of standup-as-gladiator is compelling. “I won the game,” he writes. Much of I Killed chronicles similar experiences, not always victories.

However, I mentioned the anecdote to Washington City Paper‘s former music critic emeritus Mark Jenkins, who instantly snorted that the story couldn’t possibly be true. “It wasn’t a rowdy scene at all,” he insists, further explaining that he was at all three shows that the Ramones played here. “I never saw a comedian open for the Ramones in D.C.,” he says flatly.

Turns out, Jenkins was not only at the Ramones’ first D.C. show, he was instrumental in getting the band booked here.

“This is how it happened,” he says, explaining that he and Howard Wuelfing—a member of such seminal D.C. punk bands as the Nurses and Slickee Boys—were seeking a place to get New York bands to play in D.C. “We went looking for the names of the managers of all these bands, Television, Talking Heads. We said, those bands are fine for the Childe Harold, but you don’t want the Ramones.” But the clubowners wanted a band with an album out and at that point only the Ramones qualified.

Jenkins also puts the Childe Harold show in ’76 or ’77. “It wasn’t that mad any times that I was there,” Jenkins contends, who characterized the group’s act as “performance art.” He recounts how at the same spot in every show, the band would stop. “Then Johnny and Dee Dee would take off their jackets—and then they would start again.”

Jenkins recalls the audience as mostly “curiosity seekers. Not many Ramones fans in the audience, it seemed to me.”

Jenkins’ timeline also has the Ramones graduating from D.C.’s small rooms early, making a Childe Harold gig in ’78 unlikely. “They were in the Warner [Theater] pretty quickly, with the Runaways, ’cause I ran into them at the Burger King at the Greyhound station on New York Avenue before the show,” he remembers.

Over the phone, Wuelfing wracks his brain a moment, then declares, “I don’t remember a comedian at all.” Wuelfing now runs Howlin Wuelf Media, a music PR firm out of Morrisville, Pa.

“I do remember going to maybe all the shows, if not all the shows. And it was pretty well-behaved. My main memory of the show was how big a PA they brought in.” The “huge” sound equipment dwarfed the “teeny” stage. “And there they were, crammed in between these huge, huge PA speakers, with [manager] Danny Fields sitting at a table—when I say right in front of it, I mean with his head was up against the speaker.”

Wuelfing recalls a scene much like the infamous 1976 Sex Pistols gig in Manchester, England, that inspired the creation of the Smiths, the Fall, Joy Division, etc. “I do remember the folks that wound up being the early D.C. punk scene were all there,” he says.

“To say it was a regular Ramones concert—well, none of us knew what a regular Ramones concert was,” he continues. “Well, I guess I did. Because I’d seen them play at CBGBs in a 15-minute set on a 10-band bill maybe a year before. But, yeah, I don’t remember there being any mayhem of beer-bottle-throwing. And I’m not sure how that could have happened. Because the original punk crowd was kind of an older crowd, for the day. It wasn’t a bunch of 16-year-olds. It was people more in their 20s and kind of on the intellectual side. And seeing the Ramones was a big deal. People were not there to start shit.

“The comedian thing is really throwing me,” Wuelfing says.

After more brain-wracking, Wuelfing becomes more convinced that Shydner’s story is wrong. “It sounds great, getting bottled off the stage at a Ramones show,” he says. “It’s what you’d expect. Because it’s in keeping with the punk mythology that arose down the line, but was kind of not like what it was. The whole idea of there being punk violence came around when you had kids, teenagers, getting into it. The guys like Minor Threat—not that Minor Threat were like that, but a lot of the dumber kids in that scene. Like the guys in Iron Cross and stuff. As more dopey people showed up at punk shows, the jocks and stuff like that.

“But the first batch of punk-rock people were music freaks and they tended to be smart from what I saw,” he continues. “And they just didn’t misbehave. The people who started misbehaving were people like fucking Henry Rollins. I don’t mean that facetiously; that’s what he did. He was a pain in the ass. ‘Cause he would get these places closed down. When [punk music venues] would open in Georgetown, he’d be in there and some off-duty Marine would make some crack or punch some kid, and notoriously Henry was the first to go in wailing. Which is really funny because now you hear [Rollins say], ‘Oh, yeah, it was tough being a punk kid and the Marines would come after us.’ Dude—yeah, good story. That’s not what was going on. He was the one who was doing it.”

Wuelfing also recalls the difficulty the early D.C. punks had in creating and maintaining any kind of scene, calling it “a pretty tentative thing.” Once a venue agreed to host a show, “the last thing people would want to do is start shit,” he says. “Because there you go—there’s a venue down. People wanted to see music. Nobody’s gonna go and throw a bottle at a stuffy place like the fucking Childe Harold and put that in jeopardy.”

Wuelfing suggests that Shydner is “misremembering.” The bottle-throwing scenario sounds to him more like a Bayou gig, the Bayou being the storied Georgetown waterfront club that closed in 1998 after nearly 60 years of hosting everyone from U2‘s first U.S. gig to frat-rock jam bands. “That strikes me as that would be more logical,” says Wuelfing, who characterizes the Bayou crowd as “It’s Friday night, let’s go out. Hey, we’re at a punk rock show, we’re punk rockers, let’s throw beer bottles at the comedian.” And I’m saying that kinda facetiously, but at the same time trying to recall the zeitgeist then and who acted like what. That’s a much more logical scenario. And it’s a long time ago, it could be that the guy is conflating a couple memories. Which is what you do when you make movies or write [books].

For his part, Shydner laughs off the complaints. “I was there that night,” he insists from outside an LA hospital where he’s taken his daughter for a checkup. (“Nothing serious.”) “I have a buddy who was there that night who had to walk me home.”

Shydner also discounts the idea that the show was actually at the Bayou. “I opened up for a lot of people at the Bayou,” he says. “I have a story about opening up for Rick Danko there.” (Shydner later sends the story, which is also quite funny and may wind up in a second edition of I Killed.)

Shydner will admit that the Ramones gig may not be “the absolute first time they came to town,” but insists that the crowd was not sitting quietly. “I never saw any show [at the Childe Harold] where they sat quietly. It’s not a symposium hall, it’s a little bar.”

And it was definitely the Childe Harold, of this Shydner is certain.

“I don’t know what [Jenkins and Wuelfing] saw, man, but I got crushed before I got up there,” he laughs. “Believe me, they would have remembered my show. They might have sat back down after they doused me. Trust me, they would have remembered my show. Sitting there quietly at a punk show—that’s hilarious.”

So, a stalemate of memories. Maybe it was the Bayou. Maybe it wasn’t the Ramones. Truth becomes slippery over time. And a comedian’s job is to tell stories that aren’t technically true. But there is truth within the jokes. And sometimes the truth hurts. Like a bottle to the head.