Why We Are The Way We Are: The Most Influential Stand-Up Routines Of Our Youth
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Why We Are The Way We Are: The Most Influential Stand-Up Routines Of Our Youth

By The Pajiba Staff | Seriously Random Lists | June 20, 2013 | Comments ()


Although an early love of stand-up comedy is not universal, it's certainly very common among us. Who are we? We are the adults who still take a child's gleeful approach to pop culture. We quote movies, we have an insane recall for actors and their projects, we love fictional characters. Like, love them. We do impressions. We are that guy at the party. We're the girl you call when you need a good movie to watch or a new TV show to get into. It's known. We are pop culture nerds. How did we get this way? Hard to say. Though, for me, this has always been a shockingly accurate depiction of life growing up.

For me, for many of us, early kinship with other people came from quoting the same stand-up routines and giggling over the same jokes. It's definitely not the only way to bond, but it is a potent one. But don't take my word for it, here are some members of the Pajiba Staff and their earliest, most formative stand-up loves. Feel free to share yours in the comments. - JR

Gilda Radner -- "Gilda Live": I don't know how old I was when I discovered Gilda Radner. But I know that Gilda Live was my first exposure to her. And I know that she was my instant hero. I was a comedy fan from a young age, watching MST3K and "Kids in the Hall" on Comedy Central on a daily basis, taping every stand-up and sketch special I could find. But it seemed everything I watched and loved heavily featured men. Which was fine. I guess I didn't know any different. But then I found Gilda, then Madeline Kahn, and Jan Hooks and the other amazingly funny women of the '80s and early '90s that would shape how I see comedy, women in entertainment, and shape me as a person. Watching Gilda Live, seeing this woman with no reservations, nothing holding her back, throwing herself gleefully into walls as the audience roared, singing "fuck you, Mr. Bunny" with a sweet smile, I didn't know comedy could be like that. I didn't know *we* were allowed to do that. And, of course, in this pre-easy internet time, I didn't know my hero had already passed out of this mortal coil by the time I'd discovered her. And finding out someone I already loved was already gone was like losing a friend (reading It's Always Something put me in fetal position on my floor like it was a last letter from a family member). But I'll always have Gilda Live and the legacy of a woman who made me feel like it was okay to be a spazzy, swearing, fall-down meticulous mess of a person. And I'll always love her for it. -- Courtney Enlow

Richard Pryor -- "... Is It Something I Said?": Because my parents had odd views of what was acceptable for children, I first heard Richard Pryor's profanely brilliant "... Is It Something I Said" way before it was appropriate, not to mention well before I even understood most of it. But I knew there was something funny there, whether it was his wickedly funny depiction of his sexual antics while on cocaine ("I want you to go on the roof, I'm gonna run around the house three times, and the third time I want you to jump off on my face"), or the bizarre opening skit featuring him giving a eulogy. Especially enjoyable was his homage to Muhammad Ali in a cut that is only available on the album's commemorative re-release. Pryor was a madman for much of his life, and there's a wistfulness to his bits as he reflects on some of his wilder days. Yes, he often played on the differences between whites and blacks, but it was neither cliched nor cruel in spirit. Instead, his humor was as much self-deprecating as it was blisteringly satirical. Race was a constant in his routines, and nothing was as biting and uncomfortable as the depiction of the Vietnamese as the "new niggers" of America. Particularly twisted was the depiction of the campaigns to save the poor minority children: "they be selling niggers for adoption on the TV... get one of these niggers, please. This big-head one here, he's alright. I'd take him home, but I have a dog." Pryor was a trailblazer, who along with the likes of Foxx, Mooney, and Gregory paved the way for some of the modern great black comedians. But he was also often sweet-natured and disarming in his brutal honesty, while still peppering it with a barrage of profanity and pointed social commentary. -- TK

George Carlin -- "Seven Dirty Words": I couldn't tell you exactly when I first saw Carlin's Seven Dirty Words, but what I do know is that besides making me laugh, it stuck--with me and likely anyone who has ever heard it. It isn't only the dirty words though; what makes this stand up stand out is the combination of Carlin's impeccable delivery, and his brilliant understanding and use of rhythm. In between analyzing the connotations of each word, he sporadically rattles off the list in this cadence or that, ensuring everyone who hears it will be able to walk out and easily recite it to friends. (A nifty little way to ensure more tickets, albums and videos would be sold.) A lot of comedians deadpan, or do that thing where they say a little something and wait for the audience to laugh, then expound on it. George, he would take us on a little journey--tell us a story that flowed and ebbed--and I fucking loved the shit out of that motherfucking cocksucker. -- Cindy Davis

Bill Cosby -- "Bill Cosby: Himself": You have no idea how hard it is to control a crowd using nothing but your voice. Try it sometime. You will not succeed. But that's exactly what Bill Cosby does in Himself, a 1983 stand-up concert filmed in Ontario. Sure, that's what every comedian has to do, but few -- if any -- have shown the mastery that Cosby does here. He's so in charge, so totally in command of his material and presentation, that he actually sits down for huge portions of the show. He just sits and talks and does his act, yet he never loses the ability to create imagined visual spaces with a wave of his hands or to bring the crowd around again by pausing in just the right place. The crowd is almost never seen, and instead of the typical stand-up concert transitions (crowd shots pasted in to mask edits and fades in laughter), the show moves along almost languidly with just a few lighting changes and camera rotations. The concert's also remarkably tight: Cosby only tells a few longform stories, allowing for tangents and observations within them but always circling back to the larger narrative. It's somewhere between a one-man show and what you probably think of as a stand-up special. But most of all, it's a master class in comedy from one of the best comics to ever pick up a microphone. -- Daniel Carlson

Dana Carvey -- "Critic's Choice": We didn't have HBO or anything close to it in my house growing up. For the most part, our TV consumption was a steady diet of black and white 1930s screwball comedies and reruns of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Hardly something that will win you friends or influence people. But somewhere around 7th grade I discovered the sanitized version of Dana Carvey's stand-up routine on Comedy Central. Carvey was someone I vaguely knew from "SNL" reruns. He was also a local Bay Area boy. And what could be a gentler introduction into the world of stand-up comedy than this khaki-clad dad telling jokes about OJ Simpson and shopping for toys? We taped this special. We watched it ceaselessly. This is when I was first inspired to try my hand at impressions. Even his impressions (Jimmy Stewart, Katherine Hepburn) were ones I instantly recognized and related to. The best part, though, of course, was that once I had these jokes memorized, I could crack them with my fellow middle schoolers. "Frappucino" and "broccoleh" became giggle-inducing buzzwords and, best of all, Carvey served as a gateway into a whole world of stand-up. Darker routines with fouler language and edgier content soon populated my brain. But, well, you never forget your first. -- Joanna Robinson

Howie Mandel: I fell asleep to cassettes of Bill Cosby's "Himself" and "Wonderfulness" every night for about four years, dreaming of thumping chicken hearts and chocolate cake for breakfast. But everyone knows how wonderful Cosby was, so I'm not going to share about him or the other "important" stand-ups that I loved as kid (Robin Williams, Steven Wright, Carlin, Pryor, etc.). Instead, let's talk Howie Mandel. Yes, "Deal or No Deal," crazy OCD, bald and bland Howie Mandel. When I was 13, a special he filmed right near me, at the sadly-now-defunct, theater-in-the-round Valley Forge Music Fair, aired on HBO. I recorded it and watched it ad naseum. Yes, his humor is simple and juvenile, and his routine more jokey than anecdotal. But his energy clung to me, and the insane amounts of ad libbing resonated with me. The single comedy bit that lives in my soul to this day more than any other is a simple gag Howie decided to pull on an audience member (it begins at about the 4 minute mark of the first clip and resolves in the beginning of part 5). It's not brilliant, it's not groundbreaking, it's merely amusing. But the look on the woman's face when everyone gets up, the realization that sets in as to what really just happened ... the notion of giving an audience member a moment like that infected me. I'm pretty sure that everything I did in the years to follow as a writer and performer, and still do to some extent to this day, was little more than an attempt to have that type of momentary impact on someone. Also, those suspenders. -- Seth Freilich

Chris Rock -- "Bring The Pain": My childhood was far from sheltered in many ways, but the topic of race was one that just wasn't part of it. I grew up thinking that I was colorblind to race, without having any clue that that's exactly the privilege being white in America earns you. I knew a few black kids, and had more Indian and East Asian friends than I did white ones, so I certainly didn't feel like I was living in some whitewashed world. And then freshman year of college, Chris Rock kicked me in my teeth. Using words I'd never heard outside of gangsta rap, Rock wasn't just funny, not just shocking, not for this college kid. Rock open my eyes to layers to the world that I hadn't realized were there, that were simply phase-shifted from the world I thought that I lived in. That race was a force in this country, chock full of identity and meaning that would still be present even if simple cut and dry racism ceased to exist. -- Steven Lloyd Wilson

Billy Connolly, "Masturbation" -- I grew up in a very permissive home -- perhaps too permissive, as the first movie I ever remember seeing was The Last American Virgin -- but I was very young the first time I saw Billy Connolly's bit on masturbation during, I believe, an HBO comedy special. It is the only time I have ever laughed until I literally soaked my pants. It was as funny to me as it was, no doubt, because Billy Connolly is a masterful stand-up act, but it also hit me harder because I was around the same age as Billy Connolly was in the bit in which he revealed his discovery of the "act," and I felt a keen sense of sympathy for the young Connolly. But the other part was that I was watching it with my father, who no doubt sensed in my uneasy laughter a certain relatability, and I could sense that he could sense my embarrassment which was an acknowledgement in and of itself that my father knew that I had engaged in the "act," and the confluence of the relatability, the awkward acknowledgement, and the humor in the bit itself sent me into something akin to shame laughter spiral: I fell off the couch, rolled under the coffee table as if to hide from my father, and continued laughing so hard that my bladder broke loose, and in the humiliation of that moment, I could only laugh harder, burying my shame and embarrassment beneath roils and roils of my own cackles, which I could barely hear over my father's buckled-over giggles. It was the strangest father/son bonding moment of my life. -- Dustin Rowles

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