Sunday, September 9, 2012

Funny You Should Say That.

When I came back to stand up last fall, one of my first objectives was to re-connect with many of the comics and bookers I had known in my previous incarnation. It seemed logical that by doing so, I might be able to speed up the process of finding work, getting stage time and working my way back to headlining again in a relatively short period of time. So between September of 2011 and now, I did the open mics, hosted some shows, moved up to middling, and was right on target for headlining again, which is where I am right now. Most of the people I knew were still around and have been extremely supportive. They let me work at my own pace, and knew that when I felt comfortable enough to close a show, I would tell them. One booker, an old friend, said he appreciated my candor and respected me for being honest. He also added that so many of the younger acts want to make that leap to closing a show way before they were ready to do so. In short he was lamenting the fact that no one seemed to want to pay any dues anymore and work their way up through the ranks like the comics of my generation did. 

Now at the risk of sounding like one of those venerable Catskill comics, who complained endlessly about the “young kids” who took over the business from them and changed the face of standup, it appears that to some extent, that booker and several others have a valid point. Then, as now, some comics do come up too fast and do want it all before they learn what they are doing up there; SOME, not all.

 On the flip side of that argument though, I have met dozens of hardworking young comics who do open mic after open mic for years, traveling all over the place just for the opportunity to get precious stage time. So in terms of development at least, the serious young comics who love what they do and want to be better are working as hard now as we ever did, and that’s great. But looking around, I see that many of the non-famous veterans with 20+ years of proven ability have become irrelevant fossils in the comedy world and it truly bugs me.

Our business, of course, has always had a penchant for young, fresh faces. In the early days of the boom, my generation of comedians was the one that provided legends like Carlin, Pryor, Seinfeld, Murphy, etc., names that still evoke respect and awe in both the comedy and civilian world. All came from that class of 1970s, 80s and 90s East and West Coast showcase clubs, those places where veterans and newbies could learn and grow together. However, the iconic names I mentioned did not just pop into the public eye. They worked for years before that in obscurity, working everywhere they could and honed their skills, so that when the time was right, audiences all over the world would know their talent and names.

There were those, like me, who did not catch the brass ring. We went on the road for weeks and sometimes months at a time working wherever we could and making a decent living at it. Along the way, we became pros and rarely found an audience we couldn’t master. Some of us went on to write, produce, and act, and some of us stayed in standup, our first love. Some of us got out altogether, mostly out of frustration, and at least one of us had a life altering experience that sidelined our careers for ten years.

I guess that I was being a little na├»ve to think that at 60, the industry might view me as being relevant. This is not to say that I don’t think I am, because I most certainly do. I believe I have more to say now than ever! I also believe that my skills are at a level I never had when I left the business ten years ago. But I am not alone in feeling this way. There are so many brilliantly talented people out there who are being ignored by an entire industry simply because they’ve ‘aged out’....and it’s terribly sad; for the business, the country, and the young comics who could benefit from them.

Network television has never been a medium that spots trends. It has ALWAYS lagged behind and tends to capitalize on them once they filter upward to the programmers. At that point, the trend has usually ‘jumped the shark’ and has peaked. At that point, you usually can spot the demise of a trend as the other non-creative folk copy the format of a ‘ground breaker’ in the hopes cashing in, usually with no success.

Cable shows and networks are a little quicker to respond and in some cases actually take some risks and put up programming that re-defines and elevates comedy quality. The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert are perfect examples. But these shows are staffed, hosted, and written by pros with years of performing and writing experience.

By now you probably know where I am going with this entry. Why is a comedian denied the opportunity for a national voice simply for the crime of aging, when no other art form ostracizes its masters in this manner? Even dancers, who are forced from actively performing due to the physical demands put on an aging body are respected and continue their careers long after their last performance.

It makes no sense. Writers create their entire lives and find depth in their writing that was unthinkable in their youth. Actors grow into their age and often reach new heights in their career by finding the deep, meaty part that eluded them in their youth. Musicians continue to perform into their 70s, 80s and 90s, and in many cases get better with age. And yet comedians, who work as the reporters of life, are often cast aside just at the very time they are not only mining and striking new veins of comedic gold,  but now have the skills to deliver it them in ground breaking ways. It’s mind boggling to think that if Carlin, with his magnificent mind, were in that category of ‘never discovereds’, who were denied a chance to be seen because of age, would probably have remained an obscure entity; respected and admired his peers, but largely forgotten by everyone else. Using that scenario, where would the art of stand up would be today? 

Aside from the creative disadvantages in ignoring the older comic, there are economic ones as well. Over and over I hear from club owners how the ‘numbers’ just aren’t there for live comedy in the way they used to be. And yet it hasn’t occurred to them that by limiting their acts to the 18-30 demographic that they might be shooting themselves in the economic foot. The fact of the matter is that there is a tremendous amount of disposable income in the upper age ranges. Maybe they aren’t coming out to the clubs because they don’t relate to what they are seeing on the stage or television! How else can you explain Jeff Foxworthy’s success or Louis CK’s?

I hope that I’m not coming off here as a bitter old comic because that is not my intention at all. I’m not saying that the newbies and up and comers should be denied anything. They are the future of stand up and should have all the opportunities in the world to grow and develop. But you can’t tell me that there is sound logic in telling a comic with years of experience that she‘s too old to work at a venerable New York showcase, when she’s only in her fifties? You can’t tell me that comics my age, who can go into a club and destroy the room any night of the week in front of ANY AUDIENCE  are not worthy or relevant enough to be put up for a  TV executive to see. Maybe if the club owners listened to the comics, who to the person believe that funny is funny regardless of the age, their business might actually improve!

It’s time that the comedy business muckety-mucks who are the movers and shakers understand that what we do is not the domain of the very young. Everyone...EVERYONE has a place, especially in these tough times. All it takes is a little know-how. To say that older comics’ time has passed is as ridiculous as saying there are no funny females. It is insane to think that in the age of instant communication, no one seems to have had the marketing smarts to understand that comedy is universal. It transcends age. Yes, some comics may have more appeal on either end of the age continuum, but the vast majority of us can cross over and draw, because we are professionals.  

I applaud those club owners, managers, and bookers who see the value in age and experience, and who don’t discriminate. There are many out there I’m sure, and I hope to meet you someday. Keep doing what you’re doing! For those of you who don’t believe that older is at the very least equal, and often better, give us a shot. Market us properly and we’ll show you the money!

Oh, by the way, Phyllis Diller worked into her late 80s. Betty White is almost 91 and is not only on a hit TV show, but hosted Saturday Night Live last year. Rodney didn’t ‘hit’ until his late 40s. Ellen De Generes, Wanda Sykes, and a long, long list of people are still relevant, still funny and still selling out the house. Why? Because funny truly IS any age!

That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat. Abbondanza!