The Great Ones of Comedy

When I was eleven or twelve years old in Montreal, I discovered that on weekends a local AM radio station would play comedy albums from 3 to 5 a.m. It was great to listen to the radio late at night. So began my love affair with stand-up comedy.

First of all, let’s get something straight… I’m no expert on comedy, much less an authority on good comedy. This is just stuff I like — stuff I like a lot. Second of all, the backstories to the comedy or the performers made the comedians even funnier or their humour sweeter because of some circumstance that the artist struggled with yet continued to deliver smiles to the world. In the late 60s there was no internet to search through the thousands of articles (and then make up your own mind of what is true and what isn’t) to find out what was really true about the comedians’ backstories.

There was the local library, I guess, but at that age it was hard to keep on track and do any real research of any kind there, what with books about explosives, cars, and airplanes. And then there was an elementary school classmate of mine, Charlotte, who looked like a child version of Elke Sommer, only brunette and Swedish, not blonde and German. If Charlotte was around, forget about looking in books… all the beauty in the world was sitting a few rows over.

As a dumb preteen I developed an image of many of the comedians based on what the host of the radio show said, rumours, and a vivid imagination easily influenced by the comedians’ characters and the yarns they’d spin.  I am including backstories to some of the artists or their work but they will just be my impressions. I didn’t do any real research, even on the internet because there is bound to be pictures of Charlotte floating around in cyberspace somewhere and if I found them, this list would never get posted.

So here’s a list of some of my favourite stand-up comedy.

The Jerky Boys

Right off the bat the list is going off topic! The Jerky Boys were not, strictly speaking, stand up comedians — they made prank phone calls to unsuspecting people, recorded what happened, and sold CDs. Pretty juvenile, right? Absolutely. The latest CD of theirs that I have has a bunch of people calling them in response to classified ads The Jerky Boys had placed. Supposedly, that change of tactic came about because people were suing them for pranking them and profiting from it or that the cops were after them because prank calling people is supposedly illegal. Sheesh, what killjoys!

But the thing is that they would come up with the most bizarre things to speak about with people and they would sometimes be able to keep people on the line for over five minutes! One of their bits involved a woman calling about buying something and the guy that answers says that it was his son had placed the ad. He excuses himself for a moment to check if the item was still there unsold. While the woman is waiting for him to get back on the phone, you can hear the man trip, break something, and fall on a dog. He gets back on the phone and asks if she would call back in ten minutes. She does, and he tells her that he broke his ankle and his foot is dangling by a piece of skin. She asks if he’s OK and if he would like her to call an ambulance, to which he replies that he’s OK, that it looks like a “clean break” and that he had already called his son who should be arriving in a couple of minutes so he won’t need an ambulance.

If you were born in the post-Caller-ID era and have never made such calls for fear of having the call instantaneously traced, believe you me… five minutes is an eternity when you’re prank calling. These guys are masters of what they do.

Bowser and Blue

You probably wouldn’t know these two guys unless you’re an Anglophone from Quebec. They did a lot of really funny political commentary about the beating the English-speaking population was getting at the hands of Quebec’s “tongue troopers”. They also wrote and performed some really great comedy songs, the very best of which were parodies of big hits. Unfortunately B&B were not able to afford the royalties, or just didn’t want to do the paperwork, to buy the right to parody those songs, like the Beatles’ “Do You Want to Know a Secret?”. They also had a bar on Bishop Street, which is right downtown, and they’d perform live in a very intimate setting and they loved people coming up and talking with them between sets. 

Cheech and Chong

Ah, the two best friends whose whole lives revolved around acquiring and consuming drugs. In today’s “war on drugs” world it just wouldn’t fly the way it did in the 70s. I don’t know how these guys got started… in stand-up or in films. I’m pretty sure it must have been stand-up but I got to know their work in both media at roughly the same time.

In their routines or movies, the druggie duo got themselves into the worst situations and occasionally one abandoned the other in the interest of self-preservation but in the end they were best of friends again and all was forgotten (no kidding “all was forgotten”, what with all the pot they smoked!).

Today Cheech has his own brand of hot sauce that is just fabulous… I have one bottle half full in my fridge and a different blend on the shelf waiting for the first bottle to be drained and believe me, the sauce is no joke! Chong spent some time in jail for selling, you guessed it, drug paraphernalia on-line. Together they work with organizations seeking marijuana reform. 

Derek and Clive

Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, respectively, played two lavatory attendants chatting about their sick lives and used vocabulary that still would not make it on the radio today.

In one of their bits, Derek recounts his being arrested to Clive. The reason for his arrest: he crapped his pants while a Royal procession was going by and the smell disturbed The Queen Mother. The police took him to the constabulary to participate in an identity parade (a.k.a. a police line-up). The cops scraped his pants clean and piled their contents on a table along with several other piles of human excrement and had The Queen Mother come in and give each pile a sniff. Unfortunately for Derek, she was able to identify his “evidence’ by its odour and he was charged with some crime. I’m telling you this story because it was one of the cleanest Derek and Clive stories I could tell.

From what I can remember they came out with only two albums, Come Again and Ad Nauseum. I’ve recently learned that the Derek and Clive material was all planned and recorded just like most other comedy albums were, except that they were almost impossible to sell due to the language and subject matter. The story I heard in the 70s or 80s, and believed for decades, makes for a much better story, even though it is untrue…

“What I heard was that before Moore and Cook even thought up the characters Derek and Clive, they were signed to a multi-album recording contract with a large label outside of England. Their popularity increased and they had all kinds of commitments to perform and asked the record label if they could postpone the recording of one of the albums but the label refused and compelled them to record on schedule. Well, Moore and Cook were quite upset so they asked a lawyer to look over the contract to see if there was any way out. The lawyer said that they were obliged to record two more albums’ worth of material before certain dates and they had better fulfil their obligations or the label would likely sue. The lawyer told them that the contract did give them complete artistic licence, so they could talk about anything under the sun, as long as there was enough material for two albums.

“They decided to go ahead with the recordings but they had a plan to get back at the label. During the entire trip to this certain other country, they drank heavily so by the time they got to the recording studio they were already drunk. They continued to drink throughout the taping, spewing the worst filth hitherto ever recorded by a major record company. For many years the label was unable to sell the resulting LPs but the pair had fulfilled their contact and were now free to pursue their careers.”

The previous story, once again, is supposedly untrue. Frankly, I like it better than the truth.

If you can get your hands on these CDs and really like vulgar comedy, this is for you!

Eddie Murphy

Raw and Delirious were great videos and tapes and I watched them when they first came out. Covering topics from his childhood and eating ice cream to zebra bitches, he never lets up, not even for a moment. His Saturday Night Live performances and films like Coming to America are classics. His impressions of James Brown and learning all about his childhood are well worth the cost of buying a bunch of his DVDs. On a personal note, “Mr. Murphy, I love you… even if your aunt is a Big Foot.”

Steve Martin

 Truly one of the greats. Whether he is playing the innocent and ineffectual doofus or the self-absorbed doofus, he’s hilarious. Get your hands on one of his movies like The Jerk, The Man with Two Brains, Bowfinger (which also has Eddie Murphy in it!), or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. One of my favourite old stand-up lines of his goes something like, “I’m the sort of guy that puts a woman on a pedestal and looks right up her skirt.” That pretty much sums things up!

George Carlin

His album Class Clown was absolutely fabulous. It was a delicate balance of observational humour, political commentary, and lust for life. His later stuff remained the same on the first two counts but lost a lot of the lightness and innocence from his older stuff and became more bitter, angry, and judgemental. Don’t get me wrong, Carlin became a master of the rant but I kind of missed the lighthearted “Hippy Dippy Weatherman” flavour. 

Denis Leary

I haven’t heard too much of his stuff apart from his CD Lock ‘n Load and his movie The Ref. I know he had a TV show in which he played a fireman but I never seemed to be able to catch it. Be sure to listen to his song “I’m an Asshole”. If you’ve read a few of my blog entries, you know I can appreciate a good rant and listening to Denis Leary saves me the trouble of spouting off myself. If you are unfamiliar with him, try to find his bit entitled “Coffee” on YouTube or somewhere.

Billy Crystal

Who doesn’t know Billy Crystal? He’s been all over TV, notably on The Academy Award and the 70s soap opera parody series that spanned three seasons simply entitled Soap. He seems like a truly funny and warm guy and if you want to hear some of his old stuff, run out to Amazon and get yourself a copy of his CD Mahvelous!

Robert Klein

His Child of the Fifties album used to play on the overnight radio comedy hour, mostly in the winter for some reason. In the album he mentions that he used to be a substitute teacher and since then every time I hear him, he sounds like a teacher to me. This recording sounds like he’s right up against the microphone, but in a good way — it sounds very personal, like he’s talking just to you. You’ve got to hear his bit “Civil Defense”.

Woody Allen

He’s done everything! He started out writing for hugely popular 50s TV shows, including the original Punk’d type show Candid Camera, he has written plays and films, he has acted, he has directed, and is also a pretty good jazz musician. Like Rodney Dangerfield, he also got no respect but in a whimpier kind of way.

His Stand-Up Comic: 1964-1968 was one of the albums that used to play on the overnight radio programme when I was a kid. I still love it. Try to find a sample of his bit “The Moose”.

Rodney Dangerfield

I didn’t buy any of his CDs because, I don’t know how to put it, I just don’t have any respect for the guy, so I just downloaded them for free. Just kidding, I didn’t download any of his stuff but it’s true I don’t have any of his CDs. I did buy a three DVD set of some of his stand-up and old TV specials. I loved him in Caddyshack because he actually got some respect for a change but stayed down-to-earth in a low-class millionaire way that only Rodney could have done.

In real life he was supposed to be a really sweet, caring guy that gave a lot of today’s comics their start and encouragement.

Jonathan Winters

The overnight radio comedy hour used to play The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters every once in a while. If you’re not familiar with this guy’s work, find a way to enlighten yourself! Robin Williams supposedly got a lot of inspiration from him. He’s probably the best comedic storyteller ever, and ad-libbed a lot. Many of his characters were simple country folk but this was not “hick humour” in the least, nor did he ridicule the rural populations… it was all in good fun.

In the 50s, he spent eight months in a mental hospital with a bipolar disorder but when he got out and back on his comedic feet, he even talked about the time he spent “away” during his act. He’s going to be 86 this year and he’s still making movies (these days voicing animation flicks)! Listen to him… he tells great tales in a way that sounds like they’re coming from a favourite uncle.

Robin Williams

What can I say? The guy is an absolute psychotic genius. He always seems to be “on”, yet he is still able to function on a movie set and say his lines. He’s great as a stand-up or in films and his films are not just non-stop zaniness, they always have a message.

Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner

I’m not even going to attempt to say much about these icons of American entertainment except to say that I bought the box set of 2,000 Year Old Man CDs. For those who don’t know about this, shame on your parents for not turning you on to them! Absolute genius. The stuff on the CDs is mostly about Carl Reiner playing a reporter and interviewing a 2,000 year old man (with a thick Yiddish accent) played by Mel Brooks.

The 2,000 year old man is asked many things about life long ago, history, and historical figures. When asked if he knew Paul Revere, the 2,000 year old man says that he was an anti-Semite bastard. When pressed as to why he thought that, the 2,000 year old man says that Paul Revere rode around town all night yelling “The Yiddish are coming! The Yiddish are coming!” The reporter informs him that what was really said was “The British are coming”. The 2,000 year old man then says something like, “Oi, I’m so sorry. I’m going to have to write his wife a note!” Just so silly… and priceless!

Don Rickles

While not the original insult comic, he was the first I ever heard about and nobody else has even come close to Don Rickles. a friend of mine had a vinyl copy of one of Don’s recordings, Hello Dummy. It sounds as though it was recorded in a dinner-and-a-show lounge. It is absolutely incredible that he can spew racial epithets at a live audience and nobody gets up to leave, but he manages to find the common ground between racism and comedy, i.e. absurdity, and makes it all work.

My favourite story I’ve heard about Don Rickles dates back to the 1950s when Don Rickles was just beginning to get the recognition he deserved but still was not a well-know star. He was friends with the members of the Rat Pack and one night he was at a club with a woman he was dating. On his way to the bar or washroom or whatever, he bumped into his friend Frank Sinatra and said to him, “Frank, I’m with a woman and I’d really like to impress her. Would you mind stopping by my table later and saying ‘hello’?”, to which Sinatra said, “Sure, Don. Anything to help you out.” So later when Rickles was back at his table with his date eating dinner, Sinatra came up and said “Hey Don. How have you been?” Rickles replied, “Hey Frank, can’t you see we’re eating? Why don’t you come back a little later.” Fabulous… blowing off Frank Sinatra is certainly more impressive than him saying hello to you!

Who have I left out?

So, that’s my list. I’m sure I’ve left out some world-class comics so I’d appreciate you letting me know about some of your favourites in the comments section below!

About HoaiPhai

I'm up late digging up the dirt. View all posts by HoaiPhai

7 responses to “The Great Ones of Comedy

  • theplaceswevebeen

    Nice list. I actually didn’t know Woody Allen did stand-up comedy. I learn something new everyday.

    • HoaiPhai

      Oh yes! It involves all the same themes he addresses in his movies, especially the older silly ones. Trouble with women, getting beaten up by those larger than himself, The System being unfair, references to being Jewish, etc. It’s really worth listening to if you like his style of humour!

  • punchiesmanifesto

    Was gonna post an amazing tv clip of uk comic Johnny Vegas talking about binge drinking but youtube took it down 😦

    Instead check out Rufus Hound doing the most insane, on the spot improv:

    • HoaiPhai

      That was absolutely great! The list I made was from a particular headspace of nostalgia, mostly, and by no means scratches the surface. Monty Python, Mike MacDonald, Bob Newhart(I’m going old school again), Chris Rock, which reminds me…

  • The Hook

    Awesome list, good sir! I couldn’t agree more!

    • HoaiPhai

      Thank you! Whenever I’ve been forced to come up with a list of people you’d want to meet at a dinner party or in heaven, my list is made up of mostly comedians. I have to throw in a non-comedian or two just to feign depth or sophistication. Also it’s fun to throw in one serious guy in case it ever happens…. I’d love to see Brian Mulroney in a room with Rickles and Seinfeld and getting strafed by the incessant zings and sarcasm!

  • Big ‘Uns « HoaiPhai

    […] – The Great Ones of Comedy [2927 words] – A largely forgettable post about some unforgettable comedians, this one never […]

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