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My Top Ten Favorite Current Stand Up Comedians
I Love to Laugh!
My kids know this quote. They've heard me say it enough times. They attribute it to me on a regular basis when they see me laughing at something they don't think is all that funny. They are mystified by the way I can find something to laugh at in the worst sit-com or sorriest stand up comedian. That doesn't mean I laugh at everything or watch the bad comedy for very long. When I was a kid, rolling on the floor, holding my stomach, laughing so hard I was clearly in pain, my father would shake his head and mutter, "I had a toothache once that was about that funny, but it went away." I was watching something on TV like Monty Python's Flying Circus ("Jack Riley... He's that most rare of criminals ... a blancmange impersonator and cannibal.") or listening to a George Carlin album ("Wonderful Wino! More hits more often") or something else which didn't quite reach his funny bone. That isn't to say we didn't share many similar tastes in humor from Spike Jones and the City Slickers to Abbott and Costello to Red Skelton. We both preferred Dean Martin to Jerry Lewis and the Smothers Brothers to the Marx Brothers.
But who knows what makes each of us laugh? It's as amorphous as what makes each of us bored. However, I have noticed that I am more likely to become a fan of comedy which requires my participation in the humor, makes me think first and then get the joke or is clever enough to work on a reversal on my expectations to my delight at being taken in by the well-crafted ruse.
As stated before, I will laugh at almost anything genuinely funny, slapstick, physical humor, zany, broad, rude, sometimes even shocking humor, but I am more likely to be impressed in a lasting way by an interaction with a comedic mind that I laugh with instead of at. Even in one-liners, I love the reversal. When Rodney Dangerfield says, "I called my wife and told her I was thinking about the last time we had sex. She said, 'Who is this?'"
As a kid, I would play comedy albums until I almost wore them out. Other kids were playing the Beatles, the Stones, Paul Revere and the Raiders. I had every Bill Cosby album memorized. The Smothers Brothers, I could do both parts. And Woody Allen. To this day, if I drop, "The moose was furious!" into casual conversation and someone responds with, "The Moose and the Berkowitzes lock antlers," I know I've found a kindred spirit. The same for Cosby: "The giant has money" or "The belt was nine feet long and had hooks on it." Later, I discovered Bob and Ray and eventually owned every single audible and printed word that anyone put out from their earliest radio days to Broadway and NPR. Any mention of the McBeeBee Twins or Steve Bosco rounding third and being thrown out at home will have me in stitches. I also made an exhaustive study of everything Lenny Bruce. Masked man, Christ and Moses, no such thing as dirty words. You had to take that guy in one lump sum. There's no bit or routine which would give you even a decent grasp of Lenny.
From there, I started noticing and remembering comedians who were showing up as my contemporaries. Steve Martin, (one of the first comics I paid money to see in person), Garry Shandling, Eddie Murphy, Paul Resier were all favorites, but I developed an affinity for the rare oddballs who would never make it as headliners. In particular, Dennis Wolfberg, Bill Kirchenbauer, Art Metrano, Jimmy Martinez, Chris Rush, and a few others I'm sure I've let slip. That preference for the unique and brilliant comic has persisted as will be obvious in the following top ten. It's not constant, what makes us laugh.
During the formative years described above, I came across a young pixie of a comedian named Emo Philips. I was put off by his fay appearance and sing-song delivery. I do remember laughing, but deciding his act wasn't for me.
Fast forward to:
"I got in a fight one time with a really big guy, and he said, "I'm going to mop the floor with your face." I said, "You'll be sorry." He said, "Oh, yeah? Why?" I said, "Well, you won't be able to get into the corners very well." and "How many people here have telekenetic powers? Raise my hand." and the clincher was his classic religious denomination joke: I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said "Stop! Don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" he said. "Well, there's so much to live for!" "Like what?" "Well... are you religious?" He said yes. I said, "Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?" "Christian." "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant ? "Protestant." "Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?" "Baptist" "Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?" "Baptist Church of God!" "Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you reformed Baptist Church of God?" "Reformed Baptist Church of God!" "Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!" I said, "Die, heretic scum", and pushed him off.
Now, he is my favorite currently active stand-up comedian. When I go to his shows, I laugh so hard and so long, I can barely finish the two drink minimum.
Jim Gaffigan was a funny comedian until he started talking to himself during his act. Then he became an absolutely sidesplitting hilarious comedian. The insecure Gaffigan performer is always being critiqued by the critical self-conscious inner Gaffigan as if he were in the audience. As long as he is being cut down to size by his alterego, he can make fun of anything or anyone and never come across as arrogant or superior. The audience is always on his side. He beats them to the punch.
"I'd like everyone to feel comfortable. That's why I'd like to talk to you about Jesus."
Audience Gaffigan: "He better not."
“I don’t know much about the bible myself. I haven’t read it. ‘Cause I don’t have to. ‘Cause I’m a Catholic."
Audience Gaffigan: "Oh, he's going to hell."
AG: "He did a Jesus joke and he was electrocuted... It was the best show I'd ever seen." Even as a Catholic, it's hard to stay offended. Even if he does get to heaven. AG: "Oh, you're here?"
I heard John Pinette before I saw him. I was already laughing before I knew what a heavy-set fellow he actually was. His humor didn't make fun of being fat as much as it exploited the reality of his size and the personal quirks which made him who he was. I was never laughing at him as much as I was laughing along with him on his way to the buffet ("I'd be like the leader. I'd kick in the door. 'I'm starving! I have me and 300 friends from weight watchers!"), on a water slide ten stories tall ("That's not a slide, that's a drop. If you reach around and your ass is not touching slide, that's a free fall."), or surviving the Las Vegas heat in the summer ("Clear! --jolting sound of a defibrillator-- Don't worry, Mr. Pinette, it's a dry heat.").
Since then, John has opened for Frank Sinatra in one of his last tours, was in the final episode of the Seinfeld TV series, starred in the Broadway musical and it's touring show, "Hairspray" in the drag Edna Turnblad role, and lost over 200 lbs. and survived a rehab stint for a drug addiction from medications prescribed for several surgeries including the removal of enough skin to cover a skinny guy. I worried that the loss of all that weight would cause John to lose his cherub-like demeanor, but I needn't have feared. He is still bigger than a medium-sized man at best. (And if the judge was a big man, he would agree with me.)
He is taking the first part of 2014 off from touring to recover, and I hope and expect him to bounce back as funny as ever. "Everyone always says there's a skinny man inside a big man waiting to get out. Well, mine got out and this is what I have left."
Unfortunately, John Pinette did not fully recover. He passed away in April from a pulmonary embolism after suffering from liver and heart disease. I don't have the heart to take him off the list. Nor do I want to.
Brian Regan is sometimes billed as the king of clean comedy, but in his view, he just tries to relate what he thinks will be funny, and thus far, he hasn't found the need to use a lot of swear words or to include a lot of scatological references or topics to do that. His humor is most often of the sharp observational variety as it pertains to the common man.
For instance, exercise gimmicks: "My step is coming in the mail today!" The doorbell rings...and then they run down the steps to get it."
Or trying to ship boxes by UPS: "Ok, I don't know what the weight is and, umm, I don't know what girth means. So this is true. I figured I would call back and just make up some numbers. So I called back, "Yeah, umm, I have 10 boxes and -- No, I'm another guy. Yeah, and they all weigh exactly 22lbs and they all have a girth of 3" '3 what?' "3...girth units! Come pick 'em up, please! I'm begging you! They're boxes and they're brown and they have tape all on 'em. And they'll probably fit on a dolly! Why must you torture me?"
Or seeing signs on the highway: "I saw this sign posted once, it said, 'Blasting Zone Ahead.' Wow! Shouldn't that read: 'Road Closed'? What do you mean there's a blasting zone, what am I supposed to do, 'Hey-- ah, you might wanna buckle up, blasting zone coming up. Yeah. Just saw the sign. Put the helmets on back there! Yeah I think we're-- (Pow!)-- Oh! We're getting close! (Pow!)-- Oh! This is gonna be a bad blasting zone! Remember that last one--we lost Billy?"
Lewis Black doesn't joke. He rails. He rants. He skewers. All, for the most part, while trying to remain collected and congenial. It is this interplay which makes watching Black perform more fun than merely listening to him. His expressions, his gestures. He waggles his hands and jabs his forefinger like a dagger as sharp as his wit. Some people find him too far to one side or the other on political matters, but his mode of operation appears more interested in pointing out the hypocrisies in our modern world and leaving the humor up to the beholder.
Not long ago, he summed his philosophy on politics:
"In my lifetime, we've gone from Eisenhower to George W. Bush. We've gone from John Kennedy to Albert Gore. Now, if that is evolution, I believe that in about 12 years, we're gonna be voting for plants."
"140 characters? I haven't even started a sentence in 140 characters."
On the country's desire for smaller government:
"You idiots are paying more for cable TV than you do for clean water. When a country's people want television more than they want clean water, they've lost their grip."
Often, on the verge of apoplexy, he'll twitch that finger at the audience and through gritted teeth say,
"...and if you didn't know that I'd like you to wear aluminum foil on your head so I know who you are."
Rocky was a truck driver whose route took him through some rough neighborhoods. He took a bullet once and while recuperating decided to finally take a chance on doing stand up, something friends had been telling him he should do for a long time. Was it scary? "It was easier than getting shot."
It didn't take long before Tim Allen, the Tonight Show, and the producers of the TV series, "Cheers" gave him work. He even filmed a pilot for his own sit-com. Most of LaPorte's humor comes from his "average joe" perspective. It also relies on his deadpan delivery, a supposedly slow guy saying some very astute things.
"So, the doctor gives me a prescription. I read the side effects. It said: May cause vomiting, dizziness, and chest pains -- and then it said 'if it becomes bothersome. How can all that be bothersome? I like when I'm dizzy. It keeps my mind off the fact that I'm vomiting and having chest pains."
"I was horrible in school. I was the only kid in my eighth grade who was over in Nam."
"I remember when I was a kid my neighbor was mad at me, he goes, 'i'll fix your wagon!' How did he know I even have a wagon? I was like 19. I hardly ever used it anymore. One time, he told me he was gonna cook my goose. He didn't even fix my wagon yet."
This guy has been at or near the top of stand up comedy for decades. His kernels of wisdom are legendary and have helped define our lives:
"It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to paint it."
Delivered in a barely audible mumble squeezed dry of even a single drop of inflection or enthusiasm:
"I'm addicted to placebos."
He basically invented his own commodity, Steven Wrightisms, not quite a joke not quite an epigram:
“You know when you're sitting on a chair and you lean back so you're just on two legs and you lean too far so you almost fall over but at the last second you catch yourself? I feel like that all the time...”
And my all-time favorite:
"I went down the street to the 24-hour grocery. When I got there, the guy was locking the front door. I said, 'Hey, the sign says you're open 24 hours.' He said, 'Not in a row.'"
Francis is sometimes dismissed as a comedian who only tells one-liners, and although he is a master of that exacting craft, his sets are much more creative and elaborate than a list of funny zingers. There is a narrative with inventive callbacks and running motifs which build up until later one-liners are funnier in context.
One can be impressed by the internal twists and turns within each:
"My Dad took me fishing once, and I remember thinking after I swam back to shore, 'My Dad doesn't like me very much."
"My wife and I decided we don't want kids. So, if anybody does, we can drop them off tomorrow."
But later he comes back with:
"Who likes to play golf? I don't. My father took me once, and I remember swimming out of the water hazard thinking, 'Golf is a lot like fishing."
"My Dad was a man of few words, but I remember him saying (pauses a long time, furrows brow) 'Grab your trunks, we're going to the library."
"In college, I wanted to join the debating team, but...someone talked me out of it. You should know, I went to college on a swimming scholarship."
Patton Oswalt has become an accomplished actor in sitcoms like "King of Queens" and "Parks and Recreation" as well as movies like , but his true talents still lie behind a mic on a stage delivering funny commentary. It could be his memorable take on KFC's Famous Bowl as the failure pile in a sadness bowl or the homeless guy passing out in the middle of an open mic set, you have to see his act to get the full effect. The Big Fan
Birbigs is a little like Oswalt in that you have to see an entire show. That's why he has been so successful doing one-man theater shows like Sleepwalk with Me and Thank God for Jokes. He even plays a little guitar.