Thursday, March 28, 2013

Comics of a Certain Age

Sometimes the comedy business is like a great automobile assembly line. Talent moves down a conveyor belt where gigs, accolades, resume credits and accomplishments are added to the chassis of a newbie comedian. He or she slowly moves down the line for years until finally, the constructed talent is polished and takes on the patina of notoriety and/or fame. Those who reach the zenith of their careers, through talent, hard work and luck become stars, and the rest, missing one or more components, become ‘veteran’ comics eking out  a living at Uncle Hah-hah’s Comedy Emporium somewhere in America, or auditioning for whatever project comes their way. But always, there is that little glimmer of hope for them that this next ‘thing’ will finally be the ONE. Thus, I became a little optimistic when I recently received this call from an agent friend of mine.

“Yeah Julia, it’s an industry showcase. A casting agent is looking for comedians for some television project and I thought you’d be great for it. Be there Wednesday night. Show starts at nine pm and you’ll do four minutes. You in?” 

“Sure, why not.”

Little did I know that this seemingly innocuous phone call would begin one of the great karmic bitch slaps of my life.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the older we get, the greater the divide between the mind and the body when it comes to aging. While our bodies are busily withering away, our minds continue blissfully busy planning, looking to the future, developing ideas and material.....being immortal. It isn’t until the physical world meets the spiritual that we become aware of that horrible ugly thing which we refer to as reality.

This showcase was being held at one of the major clubs in NYC. I arrived early (my custom) and watched as the other auditioners began to filter in. Oh look, there’s so and so from the old days at the Improv, and wait...isn’t, she looks old! And what about....omg, what the hell happened to him?

On and on it went; Comedians who I had known in the 1980s and hadn’t seen in thirty years were showing up for this thing, which I came to find out was for, what else, older comedians.

We stood around in that room, greeting, hugging, and cracking jokes just as we did so many years ago at the Improv, Catch and the Strip. We reminisced about the horrible bookers and the hundreds of hell gigs we did on our comedic journey to fame. And as I looked around at all these people from my past, I couldn’t help wondering, what was to become of us now that we are 'past our prime'? Even though I may now need a step stool to get on the stage, why is there no place in comedy for comics of a certain age? Why are we no longer relevant just because we’ve committed the crime of aging?

Our culture is as youth oriented as ever. Young comics today look upon us as we did the Borscht Belt comedians in our day.  For them, age automatically qualifies us as outdated and schticky in our delivery and material, and in many cases they are correct. But I could point to dozens of young up-and-comers whose material is bland, derivative and soulless, and who are lauded nationally for no discernable reason other than that they are smarmy and crude. And with enough PR behind such a person, it’s rather easy to convince the public that an act like this should be elevated. And so, relevance to society has taken a turn. Whereas a comedian’s job used to be to comment on the inequities and inanities of society as Carlin, Pryor, or Tomlin did, it seems that today’s comedy is now judged by the appearance of social commentary and for TV purposes, the amount of jokes per minute. And that’s what passes as relevant.

This is not to say that there aren’t contemporary versions of the aforementioned comedic heroes. Certainly there are many there today who are carrying on the tradition and who will be role models for the generation that follows them. My question is, why does television limit the voices of the older comedian who still has something to say? Why does age automatically equate to irrelevancy? Surely an older comic with years of experience and life under his/her belt has a vast storehouse of experience from which to draw new material. Certainly, an older comic has a point of view that is still unique, don’t they? And if they are funny and original, what difference does it make how old they are?

But it does make a difference. The ‘suits’ that decide who gets on at a particular club or a particular television show have never been known to have great comic senses. It was true then, and it’s true now. In their minds young equals contemporary and hip. But this is only partly true. Content, which used to matter, is not relevant for the most part, but packaging is. And that point is, in my opinion, the reason why we see so much diluted dreck passing for comedy out there. And it is also why with each succeeding generation of comedians, our beloved craft, and our art, our voices will be chiseled and polished away to the point where all is smooth and shiny in order to succeed. What they don’t understand is that comedy was not meant to be smooth and shiny. It’s funniest when it’s jagged and a bit dangerous. People in the ‘mainstream’ media like Chelsea Handler, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Craig Ferguson get that. Leno doesn’t, although he used to.

There are older comedians out there who you don’t know and probably will never know who are saying plenty of those things and who are still very relevant to today’s world. They deserve a chance too. I know. I stood in a room full of them last week.

We all did our sets for the casting director and the very small audience in attendance and hung out for a while afterwards to chat. I don’t know if anyone else felt it, but there was a tinge of sadness in seeing how we have all aged. That night on the drive back to Jersey, I couldn’t help but think back to the beginning of my career. How many times had I made this drive on a deserted New Jersey Turnpike? Hundreds? Each time is just like the first. I think back over the set. Could I have done better? Should I have tried a different bit instead? Will anything come out of this? Why am I still doing this at my age? What more have I got to say?

That weekend, I performed in Pennsylvania somewhere. I drove a long way through snow and ice to a gig I presumed would be hell since it was a pretty conservative group. I didn’t alter one word of my content but it still got big laughs. And all I could think of after the show was, this was so worth coming all the way up here for. I didn’t back down and I didn’t edit. I just plowed ahead and I won them over. That ability comes from experience. That sense of fearlessness comes with age. I am relevant and I have a lot left to say! All I need, all WE need is a place to say it. Wake up television!

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


  1. Wonderful, Julia! Your wealth of experience in comedy comes from a wealth of experience in living. What young people don't realize is that while we older persons may look a little wrinkled or walk a little slower, the mind is as sharp as ever! The best of luck to you.

    1. Thanks Barbara! It's always an uphill climb to change attitudes. But you know what they say about a journey of at thousand miles beginning with the first step! Thanks again for the kind words.