Thursday, June 02, 2011

My Entry into Stand Up Comedy

I have a friend who is doing the "encyclopedia of comedy" and has included me in the top 150 comics in history. I was very complimented and humbled. He asked me to write a few words about ventriloquism's place in the history of stand up comedy. It was not an easy task, but since it took up the time I would usually have to write a blog I decided to publish it. The opinions expressed are my own and based solely on the years I spent going from Comedy Club to comedy club in the 80's.

Ventriloquism and Stand up Comedy
By Jay K. Johnson
Speaking on behalf of ventriloquism and performing ventriloquists, comedy is just one element of the art form. It also includes elements of misdirection, acting, puppetry and dialogue. Ventriloquism has not always been linked to comedy historically but certainly by now it deserves a place in its ranks. But the question is: what is ventriloquism's importance in "stand up" comedy history?

The term "stand up comedy", to me, implies a very specific era of comedy, that is relatively new. There have always been vaudeville comics and burlesque top bananas. But they were not referred to as "stand ups". Even after vaudeville that term was not used to describe comics.

I don't think Danny Thomas, for example, was thought of as a stand up comic, just a comedian. Yet he was the Jerry Seinfeld of his day parlaying his night club comedy into a television empire. The venue of Danny Thomas's day was supper clubs. The club usually featured dancing as well as a show and always had a house band, so music was part of the act. Ventriloquism was certainly a part of vaudeville comedy and later the supper clubs. Most of those clubs booked the acts featured on early Variety television, well populated by ventriloquists. A good appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show could keep an act working for a year. What is the distinction between a funny act, a comedian, a comic, a clown or a "stand up?"

To me "stand up comedy" refers to the post Lenny Bruce era when comedians didn't sing or play an instrument, tell jokes, work with a puppet, or wear a funny hat, they became comedy commentators on life.

When the comedy clubs of the late 70's and early 80's started booming there were very few ventriloquists working. Variety television had all but disappeared hiding behind a talk show format. A great shot on Johnny Carson's Tonight show could jump start a career, but the talent bookers were not booking "novelty" performers. The comedy "caste system" was created by the Tonight Show even though Johnny Carson himself started his career as a magician and a ventriloquist.

Because of my exposure on SOAP I performed in the new "stand up" comedy clubs, but it was rare to see any other novelty acts. Even comedy teams were scarce. There was the occasional "prop act". Anything other than the standard comic with a hand held mic was treated as second class by stand up comics. There was a tendency to lump ventriloquism and comedy magic into the "prop" category and dismiss it as such. After the prop act came jugglers and finally mimes, relegated to the bottom of the hierarchy. I never felt fully embraced by the comics I worked with back then, even when I was the headliner.

I never understood the pedigree. A laugh is a laugh and if someone was making an audience laugh, standing on a stage, they were a stand up comic; even if that someone had, as in my case, a puppet to help deliver the lines. Sometimes the distance an audience experiences watching a dialogue has much more comic impact than a monologue. It can keep a bit from getting preachy or talking down to the audience. A puppet can destroy an obnoxious heckler in a way that no human comic could. There are things a puppet can say on stage that would never be correct for a human. The rudest of funny comments are tossed off as fantasy, if said by a puppet, and the human behind the remark is never to blame. I found it to be almost a license to kill in some cases.

But still I was not thought of as a true stand up comedian of that day, just some strange hybrid. The subtle implication was this: if I was really funny why not go on stage alone to perform the *true* art of comedy. As if the quality of laughter was somehow more pure by virtue of the delivery system. It still baffles me. Record laughter and see if anyone can tell the difference in a way the comedy is delivered. The early laugh tracks for television were recorded during the silent mime act of Red Skelton and used on most of the sitcoms of the day. Skelton's mime was used because it produced a pure track of laughter, no need to edit a set up or over-lapping joke.
So what is the importance of ventriloquism in "stand up" comedy history? Ventriloquism, if done well, makes the audience laugh.There is no difference in laughter. We ventriloquists made the same audiences, in the same venues, at the same time, laugh just like every other stand up comic.

That is my take.
As you were,


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful summary of the history and status of vent in stand-up comedy. Working in comedy clubs I have felt the same look-down-the-nose attitude you described, even when I was getting bigger laughs than the stand-ups.

Thanks, Jay, for blazing the way for so many of us and and always elevating the art.

Bob Baker

Tom Crowl said...

Congratulations on being named one of the top 150! A major accomplishment based on the way we are perceived by the "purists". That is a great piece that shows a depth of the business I believe few modern stand ups understand.

Bob Conrad said...

Thanks for telling it like it is. You are absolutely right funny is funny! It's about time they stop looking down their noses at people that can do something they can't do.