The Best Stand-Up Performances Of Our Youths
By The Pajiba Staff | Guides | July 1, 2016 |
By The Pajiba Staff | Guides | July 1, 2016 |
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.
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
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
Robin Williams, “Comic Relief 1987” — I remember that every year of my youth I would look forward to HBO’s Comic Relief. There was something about seeing stand-up comedy in the time before political correctness took hold mixed with the absolutely political goal of eliminating poverty, I think, that has made me into the person that I am today. More specifically, I think that the routines by the manic and lightning-witted Robin Williams shaped the type of humor I grew to think of as my own.
People who have met me know that there are few things that I will not do or say to get a laugh. I will pretend to be a velociraptor in a crowd of people. I will put on an accent and spout any number of ridiculous things if I think it will bring joy or humor to a situation. I remember going through a phase of pratfalls on the cold, hard floors of my middle school and thinking that the pain and bruises were secondary to the laughs and smiling faces.
Robin Williams was the spark that led to my flaming insanity. He was always one step ahead of the audience and anyone who shared the stage with him. Williams had an ability to move from one scripted portion of a joke to a complete riff and then course-correct without the audience ever really knowing what category any of his musings fell into. And he did so with absolute, maniacal, shining glee. — Jodi Clager
George Carlin, “Jammin in New York” — I didn’t get into stand-up until relatively late in life, so when a mate of mine showed me George Carlin’s 1992 HBO special, ‘Jammin in New York,’ it was like an atom bomb going off in my head. I had never experienced anything like it. Carlin, having started out as a fairly straight and safe comedian in the early 60s, had over the decades grown into a caustic, hyper-insightful and fiercely intelligent critic of modern Western society. By the time he took to the stage at Madison Square Garden that night he was basically the industry veteran. When I first saw it, I had never heard of him. When it finished, I was a changed man — for better or worse. (Better: my understanding of what humour could do had fundamentally altered. Worse: a [thankfully] short-lived stand-up career of my own followed. But we won’t talk about that here. Here is for the actually funny).
All these years later I can re-watch ‘Jammin’ In New York’ and it’ll never once feel old, stale, or outmatched. It’s still the most complete stand-up show I have ever seen. Carlin marshals the entirety of his experience and the mastery of his form to deliver a blistering and hilarious attack on imperialism, hypocrisy, class, language, and obfuscation, as well as a fusillade of common-touch observational material. His rhythm and physicality continue to astound. Like a class clown with a degree in linguistics and an obsessive’s understanding of politics, he stalks the outsized stage, making it somehow seem tiny, connecting with every single person in that gigantic audience. He would despise such trite sentiment as this, but he makes you think as much as he makes you laugh.
Jon Stewart once said, and I paraphrase, ‘There are two things comedians of all stripes have in common: 1) the sincere belief that someone out there is telling worse jokes than us, but getting paid more money than we are; and 2) a deep and sincere respect for the life’s work of George Carlin.’ There is perhaps no better demonstration of the truth behind that second point than ‘Jammin’ In New York’. — Petr Knava
Eddie Izzard, “Dress To Kill” — OK, yes, let’s just call out the fantastically made up squirrel in the room, I’m a trans comic and I’m writing about Eddie Izzard’s comedy. It’s a bit obvious a choice, isn’t it? Well, fuck off, she seemed to say. Because while there were a lot of comics who inspired me to do comedy, I can say that without a trace of hyperbole that Eddie Izzard’s 1998 “Dress To Kill” special saved my life. I saw it randomly on HBO in the middle of my high school years, when I was at my most terrified. It was the time when I went through the most “binge” and “purge” cycles with my secret stashes of women’s clothing, when I would create usernames for online support message boards and then delete them out of fear that someone would trace me, and the most considering that maybe I would just be better off not being in this world. Now here comes this brassy, brilliant British comic who comes bounding out onto the stage dressed in full glam makeup, a tunic with shiny leggings, and opening with a braggard “In heels as well!” It was bold, it was beautiful, and it was mind blowing for me. Here was someone brazenly embracing all the things that I had buried deep within myself for shame of discovery. Here was someone telling me that what I was, wasn’t just okay, but actually kind of sexy and badass. If that wasn’t enough, the actual special remains one of the most brilliant works of stand-up I have ever seen, with just a touch on Izzard’s gender identity (“Executive Transvestite!”) and a deep dive into religion and history, stuffed with ad-libs, act outs, and absurdity. The rapid fire jumps from topic to topic, the random self-aware celebrity impersonations representing various characters was just awe-inspiring. I had never seen nor heard anything like it, and I’m here today because of it. — Riley Silverman
Dave Chappelle, “Killing Them Softly” — I was a senior in high school when someone slipped me Dave Chappelle’s ‘Killing Them Softly’ on VHS. No idea who made the copy or what I gave up to get it, but of all the illicit material I copped on the sly back then, his first standup special certainly left the greatest impression. The act - like his iconic sketch comedy series, Chappelle’s Show, did for two all-too-brief seasons - pairs withering social commentary with bone-liquefying laughter more skillfully than anyone since prime Pryor or Rock. Here’s a young, Creatine-free Chappelle on the cusp of superstardom, effortlessly charming his hometown DC audience with pointed observations on law enforcement double standards for white people and minorities, toddler weed dealers (“Fuck you, ni**a, I got kids to feed!”), problematic children’s programming (a bit that includes his legendary Oscar the Grouch line), and racism so stunning that anger isn’t the initial reaction. Most comics lack the perspective, intelligence, stones - or some combination of all three - required to tackle pointed racial issues onstage at 26, let alone do it as comfortably as Chappelle. ‘Killing Them Softly’ isn’t just hilarious. It’s impressive. It’s prescient. And it’s just as relevant today as it was 16 years ago. — Brian Byrd