There are probably more class clowns flocking to open mics now than there have been since the comedy boom of the 1980s….But how many of them know a lot, if anything, about the comedic performers who blazed the trail for them?
Yes, every aspiring comic who didn’t play high school football without a helmet knows who George Carlin and Richard Pryor are (and the 3 Stooges if you have a Y chromosome). But what about luminaries of the past , such as Minnie’s boys, who raced around vaudevillian stages with anarchic humor? What about those who pioneered radio comedy such as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and Gracie Allen…or stars of the golden age of television such as Lucy, Sid and Jackie? Even innovators of the modern stand-up comedy form other than Richard or George, such as Mort Sahl, Joan Rivers, and Robert Klein are unknown to many comedy newbies.
I was recently talking to someone in their mid-twenties about old movies, and this person did not know who Laurel and Hardy are. I run into that a lot.
Even the iconic comedy of Bill Cosby, whose routines were well-known long before many of his honorary degrees were rescinded, are gradually being forgotten.
I once attended a comedy open mic which had an audience of mostly other comics and a few “civilians” that wandered in from the bar during ESPN commercials. The last person to perform went to the mic with absolutely no introductory disclaimer stipulating that the material he would be using was not his own, and proceeded to pilfer material from Bill Cosby’s 1966, Grammy-winning, “Wonderfulness” album. Before he was finished with his second sentence, I knew he was reciting track 2’s “The Playground.” He was, of course, getting laughs. He followed this up with track 1’s “Tonsils.” I looked around at the other people in the audience, all of whom were greatly enjoying this comedic mastermind at the mic .
I happened to be sitting at a table with the manager of a local comedy club who was there to try out some routines of his own. As it turned out, we were the only ones there who knew it was Bill Cosby’s material. When I mentioned the joke thievery to the other comics in attendance afterward, they were all surprised and totally unaware that it was classic material from one of the most famous stand-up comics ever.
Now, if the young man who regaled the room with his Cosby monologues had acknowledged upon taking the stage that he was going to practice performing in front of an audience by doing someone else’s material, that would have been absolutely fine. I have seen others who were new to comedy and to public speaking who used open mics to get over their stage fright; telling old jokes, or sometimes just talking to the audience. But this person clearly wanted to get laughs without putting any work into it at all. That didn’t bother me because there was nowhere he could go with Cosby’s material anyway…at least once he left that particular bar. But the point I took away from this was that there are aspiring comics, with visions of comedy club audiences and TV sitcom pilots dancing in their heads, who are unfamiliar with the work of one of the most famous living comedians of the time.
Like politics; we tend to hear about the same handful of people all the time but know very little about most of them. Many young comic wannabees today focus on only current entertainers that are immensely popular and whom they want to emulate: Louis C.K….Amy Schumer…Louis C.K. That means you are a Schumer fan or a C.K. fan; but it doesn’t mean you are a true comedy fan. There are many other working comedians out there whom you might not know, and a rich history of comedy long before them.