“There has always been a mystery, to me, about ad-libbing, that was answered maybe 20 years ago,” he says. “Jonathan Winters is the only man that I know who would walk out and hell’s a poppin’. The only one. I think that the rest of us mortals – 12% on a fantastic night – ad lib. So everything that I do when I’m working comes from the thought of something to writing, whether I’m walking with no pencil, no paper — just walking and thinking and setting the thing in story form. That’s the way I work, in story form, so that I could have a funny idea or an idea that says, look there’s got to be something funny about all this, right?
“I’ll take you all the way back to the time I was playing Greenwich Village — and by the way I don’t care what anybody says, my place was the Gaslight, not the Bitter End. It was the Gaslight. I’m in Manhattan, I’m living there, I’ve gone from $60 a week to $125, and I’ve made my mother very unhappy because I left Temple University, I’ve made my father very unhappy because my father wanted me to play my senior year and maybe go into pro ball.
“I live over the Gaslight in the storage room, and I bathe in the bathroom. I play basketball at Waverly Place, I finish, and I come back and shower. I think, there’s got to be something funny about riding up the subway train, because when I’m riding it, things happen. I know there’s something, but I can’t in storytelling put it together. I write and I talk about what I see on the subway. It doesn’t feel funny, and so the audience also told me that. But I’m still working in a storytelling mode. The trick comes in as I’m talking to someone about New York City, Manhattan, Broadway, off-Broadway. The night clubs (with their) three-drink minimum. Manhattan is very, very expensive.
“The idea comes. I now have the setup for what I’ve been saying about people on the subway train. … This city is very, very expensive. Don’t forget, this is 1963. But New York is also very benevolent. What the city has set up, on the subway trains you pay — and I don’t remember what the price was – and you are entertained because New York City has put a nut in every car. And I would imitate the different acts.
“So that’s what it needed, was what most comedy writers called a set-up, so people would see clearly. In my writing, I will also keep my senses open. Even with what you saw, I was still thinking. I was still working. I was still searching … If I’m John Coltrane and the song is ‘Bye Bye Blackbird,’ and time, the seconds, everything is ticking, and there’s movement as I speak, it’s the beginning, middle and end — but there’s also a opening, listening to one’s self, that never gives up on a piece. You can’t tell time by what I do. When you don’t see (the flexibility) any more, that means I don’t know anything else about this piece.”
Cosby has a new special–his first in 30 years–on Comedy Central this weekend.
Al is great. Give us the chocolate cake.
(The video is out-of-synch but that’s okay, just listen…)
What do you get when you mix King Tee with Richard Pryor? Fun, dummy, fun is what you get. King Tee’s “Act a Fool” already had Pryor cut-up on the record, we just added more because too much vintage Pryor is still not enough.
Around this time 13 years ago I got together with my friend Alan to make a mix cd of the rap records that has been released that year. A rash of good hip hop records came out in 2000, from major label and underground artists alike. There were joints from name brands like Jay Z, Snoop, Dre, Eminem, Ghostface, MOP, Common, Xzibit, Wu, Outkast, and De La Soul. The veterans were still heard–Biz, Phife and Sadat X. But some of the records I liked most were from so-called underground artists like J-Live, Quasimoto, Dialated Peoples, Kid Koala, Slum Village, Cali Agents, Rah Digga, Encore, and The Nextmen.
Alan and I had known each other for a few years and always talked about doing something together. Alan was a record nut and an engineer. He’d programmed drums for Tori Amos, Madonna, and C&C Music Factory. Worked with Francois Kevorkian and Steinski.
Alan was a whiz at Pro Tools, a professional audio editing program. It was a chance for me to make a dream mix because of what Alan could do technically. I figured we’d make a little cd that I could give to friends for the holidays.
Alan lived in Midwood, Brooklyn, I lived in Carroll Gardens. I’d go over to his place with my records and video tapes. What started as a quick project turned into something more substantial. Four months and more than 120 studio hours later we produced an album-length mix cd we called “Borough to Borough.” (By the time we finished I’d moved to the Bronx.)
After each session, Alan burned a cd of what we’d done. I’d take it with me, listen to it for days, make notes, and the next time we saw each other, we’d make corrections before moving on to the next track. We shared similar sensibilities so there was an easy shorthand between us–remember that Bugs Bunny cartoon when?, what about that George Carlin line? Still, it was the first time I ever truly collaborated with someone. I learned that I couldn’t always have my way. Sometimes, I had to let Alan show off like when he reprogrammed the drum pattern on a Jurassic 5 record because there was no place on the instrumental where the drums were in the clear. And I was always happy to let him do his thing because it sounded great but also because I admire watching a craftsman at work.
If the project was a fantasy come true for me, it was liberating for Alan. He could play and do anything he wanted to do; he wasn’t just a hired hand. So we played and played, and honed the sombitch until we were satisfied. Then we packaged it and sold it and even got reviewed in a few British music magazines.
So here you have it. An audio collage, featuring rhymes, scratching, dope production and a host of spoken word and movie clips. You’ll recognize the voices of Fred Gwynne, Jack Nicholson, Elliott Gould, George Carlin, Marv Albert, Bill Murray, Frank Oz, Holly Hunter, Steve Martin, Elaine May, Walter Matthau, Al Pacino, Jack Palance, Joe Pesci, Goose Gossage, Richard Pryor, Mel Blanc, John Sterling, Mel Brooks, Bill Cosby, Earl Weaver, Nicholas Cage, Jackie Gleason, Chris Russo, Mark Rydell, Albert Brooks, Michelle Pfieffer, Gabe Kaplan, Mike Tyson, Robert De Niro, Orson Welles, John Turturro, Art Carney and Fat Clemenza.
Intro. Beat by DJ Desue (Barber Shop Emcess…”Music, Money and Women”)
Yes. J-Live, produced by Emmai Allaqueva
Tour Guide. People Under the Stairs
I Don’t Know. Slum Village
Crookie Monster. Produced by the Alchemist
Oooh. De La Soul
Dew It. Biz Markie. Produced by Ill Chemist/Al D
What’s Up Fatlip? Fatlip
Microphone Mathmatics. Madlib
Lyrical Fluctuation. Jigmastas, beat by DJ Spinna
Service. Dialated Peoples. Cuts by Babu
Take Over. Joey Chavez. Cuts by DJ Revolution
Any Champion. Pacewon. Cuts by DJ Revolution.
Worldwide. Defari. Beats by Joey Chavez
Love/Hate. Encore. Beat by Nextmen
Rhymes. Get Open featuring Sadat X
Nasty or Nice. Beat by Y@k Ballz
Lesson of Today. Rah Digga. Produced by DJ Premier
Rockaparty. J B Lee. Produced by Ill Chemist, Al D
Loop Diggin’. Madlib
Ass Finish First. Beat by DJ Nu-Mark
J-Liveness: Produced by Pete Rock
Players/Fall in Love. Slum Village
Barhopper. Kid Koala
Just One More Thing. People Under the Stairs
Them That’s Not. J-Live
Nighty Night. Beat by Madlib
Picture of me in Gravesend, Brooklyn with Sammy’s 62 Dominican Republic shirt from the ’98 season and Nathan’s cup of soda. Picture by Alan Friedman.
What people who don’t write don’t understand is that they think you make up the line consciously — but you don’t. It proceeds from your unconscious. So it’s the same surprise to you when it emerges as it is to the audience when the comic says it. I don’t think of the joke and then say it. I say it and then realize what I’ve said. And I laugh at it, because I’m hearing it for the first time myself.
I never see a frame of anything I’ve done after I’ve done it. I don’t even remember what’s in the films. And if I’m on the treadmill and I’m surfing the channels and suddenly Manhattan or some other picture comes on, I go right past it. If I saw Manhattan again, I would only see the worst. I would say: “Oh, God, this is so embarrassing. I could have done this. I should have done that.” So I spare myself.
In the shower, with the hot water coming down, you’ve left the real world behind, and very frequently things open up for you. It’s the change of venue, the unblocking the attempt to force the ideas that’s crippling you when you’re trying to write.
J.S. Thuuuh pitch. And Gardner hits a fly ball deep to right-center field, Victorino back, back — home run! A Yardy! For Gardy!
S.W. Brett certainly got all of tha —
J.S. A Yardy! For Gardy! And the Yankees take a 1-0 lead.
Now Robbie Cano, the second baseman, settles into the batter’s box. A .294 batting average, with 20 home runs and 59 runs batted in. Robbie’s been struggling a little at the plate, but Suzyn, I ask you: how do you predict baseball?
S.W. You can’t really, it’s —
J.S. Exactly. You can throw the numbers out the window.
J.S. Thuuuh pitch. High and outside, a hanging curve that never broke. That hanging curve brought to you by the State of Texas. We don’t hang ’em anymore, but we do the next best thing. Texas.
S.W. Actually, Jawn, I think that was a changeup that —
J.S. And Cano rockets one to right field. It is high, it is far, it is — gone! Home run! Robbie Cano, doncha know! It’s a back to back! And a belly to belly!
S.W. You know, Jawn, I’ve always wondered what that phrase means.
[Illustration by Chris Morris]
From Patton Oswalt:
All I care about is the profession I work in. Stand-up comedy. I also care about the continued, false perception the bulk of the general public has about stand-up comedy. And what I care about, most of all, is the maddening false perceptions that other people in the creative arts have about stand-up:
Comedians don’t write their own jokes. They all steal. All great artists steal. You can’t copyright jokes. It doesn’t matter who writes a joke, just who tells it the best. Don’t musicians play other musicians’ songs? There are only so many subjects to make jokes about, anyway. I’ve seen, like, five different comedians do jokes about airplanes – isn’t that stealing, too?
Most people are not funny. Doesn’t mean they’re bad people, or dumb, or unperceptive or even uncreative. Just like most people can’t play violin, or play professional-level basketball, or perform brain surgery, or a million other vocational, technical, aesthetic or creative pursuits. Everyone is created unequal.
But for some reason, everyone wants to be funny. And feels like they have a right to be funny.
But being funny is like any other talent – some people are born with it, and then, through diligence and hard work and a lot of mistakes, they strengthen that talent.
But some people aren’t born with it. Just like some people (me, for example) aren’t born with the capacity to make music, or the height and reflexes for basketball, or the smarts to map the human mind and repair it. I’m cool knowing all of those limitations about myself.
I’m even cool knowing my limitations within comedy. I think, after nearly 25 years pursuing my craft, that I’ve become very very good at this. But I’ll never be as good as Jim Gaffigan, or Louie CK or Paul F. Tompkins or Maria Bamford or Brian Regan. Never reach the plangent brilliance of a Richard Pryor or the surreal mastery of a Steve Martin. I’m okay with that. I still get to be creative – on my own terms, and purely on my own work.
But why is it – and this only seems to apply to comedy – that some people so deeply resent those that can write jokes, can invent new perceptions of the world that actually make people laugh? Resent them so much that they have to denigrate the entire profession, just so they can feel better about themselves? Do they really think they’re less of a person if they can’t make up a joke, or be funny in the moment? Why is it so crucial to them? Is it because all of us, at some point of darkness or confusion or existential despair, were amazed at how absurd a thing as a simple joke suddenly lit the way, or warmed the cold, or made the sheer, horrific insanity that sometimes comes with being alive suddenly, completely, miraculously manageable?
A few weeks ago I had a phone conversation with Red Smith’s biographer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Ira Berkow. He told me:
Walter Matthau once told me that his idea of good writing is that you have to come in on a slant. You want the reader to pause for a moment before it hits them. It’s telling a good joke.
I’ll give you an example. Matthau’s wife was good friends with Oona O’Neill who was Charlie Chaplin’s wife. When Chaplin finally came back to America Mathau and his wife gave them at a party at Matthau’s Palisades house in New Jersey. Matthau went out onto the lawn with Chaplin and they overlooked the Atlantic Ocean which was dotted with sail boats. Chaplin looked out over the ocean from Matthau’s backyard and said, “Must have cost you a fortune.”
Matthau told his wife the line and weeks later they’re driving on a hill near their home and they see the same scene–gorgeous view of the ocean. His wife said something like, “After you bought all those boats it must have cost you a lot of money.” And Matthau said to her, “That’s not good writing. You have to come in on the slant.”
Red did that kind of thing.
Marc Maron hosts a celebrated comedy podcast. Check out episode 67 with Robin Williams. It’s a beaut.