Where Has All The Laughter Gone?1
I went to see Seth Myers a couple of weeks ago and I didn’t laugh. At all. This wasn’t a taping of Late Night. This was a standup set at Just For Laughs Toronto in a big theatre. I get comped on the odd occasion by JFL and my daughter and I were recovering from a family tragedy – which I am currently summoning up the strength to write about – so some levity was in order. Unfortunately there was nary a snicker in the one hour plus performance. I have met the former Weekend Update anchor/head writer in the past and he seems like a nice guy and I am not going to get too critical, even after that singularly unfunny hosting job at Saturday Night Live last night, because I still do some business with Lorne Michaels and JFL so no need to burn any bridges at this juncture.
Frankly I don’t even know why Myers was even out on the road on a Saturday night when he could have been home with his wife, apparently a state prosecutor, and his two children, one of which was born in their hotel lobby with midwifery by the doorman. His notably Jewish wife he might add, comedic ground long tamped down by the likes of Sebastian Maniscalco and Jon Mullaney to name a couple. It’s not that he needs the dough either what with the seven figures he makes at NBC and whatever he socked away from all those years at SNL. My only thought is that he truly needs to get away from the prosecuting wife and the two toddlers and this was a pretty good excuse. And that’s all the set was – hard proof that he was on stage rather then sneaking off to a Sex Island excursion. For he certainly wasn’t breaking any new soil on the netherworld of fatherhood as it is thrust upon goofy guys who are just so darn unprepared for the responsibilities. As Jim Gaffigan’s inner voice would whisper, “Parenting material. Edgy.”
Add in the usual quiver of tired shots at Donald Trump taken from a safe distance and it was off to the parking garage which was now a nagging expense. Truth be told I never would have paid a penny for my ticket. I don’t find Myers’ comedy, like so many others of his generation, much more than a smug sneer that says, “I’m Seth Myers and you’re not.” Chevy, at least, was fucking kidding. Or half-kidding. Whatever, the bottom line is that I don’t need to know that the comic on stage lives in a building with a doorman. Or is impossibly well-groomed. I want my comics to come in off the street just one small step ahead of the law, dusting the snow off their “ax” as did Mike Bloomfield when he came and played guitar for Dylan. I want my comedians to live at “no forwarding address”. With eyes that have no vertical hold, a head of hair that would send US Marine barbers running for the latrine and a spittle encrusted gash for a mouth from which gushes the existential effluvium of a mind stripped down to its id by the horrors of a world he wants no part of. What’s left of an ego is just enough to get him onto the stage. I remember the first time I saw Larry David at the Improv some 40 plus years ago. He looked like the bastard son of Larry Fine with a sense of humor so bent, so absurdist, he made Ionesco look like the Ice Capades. Same for Andy Kaufman. What the hell was this guy with the dickie (if you don’t know what a dickie is you’re too young for this blog…) doing with the conga drums and the accent? I don’t know but it was a very profound moment in my history as a comedy buff. I remember Sam Kinison showing up at Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto on a Thursday for a weeklong gig that was supposed to start on Monday. He didn’t perform so much as explode. I remember the late Mitch Hedberg, who had to be tracked so far outside the box, a lot of us couldn’t get back in. Most of these legends are gone and there’s nothing like these guys out there today. Comedy now is a “craft” for lazy slobs, a career move, the way to a soft gig on a sitcom or make six figures working the middle slot at Chuckleheads or whatever club will book you. I know because I spent years at JFL in Montreal, hoping for the sparks of the holiness I found in the 70s in New York. Not LA. It was far too commercial and the comics too poorly educated. That Showtime series I’m Dying Up Here was more about money and sitcoms than material that took us to the edge of sanity. Back in the day, standup was no more than the result of a series of bad life choices that left those that made them with their backs up against a wall. Literally. Watch Woody Allen on stage in the 60s. He performed like there was a gun to his head. Or so we were led to believe. What he really was was the first anti-Vegas, anti-Catskill comic. He wasn’t Berman or Rickles or Shecky Greene. Men of tuxedos and sweat and line after line. Allen was a nebbish in tweed and saddle shoes and that spiritual father of every Jewish comic that started in the 70s, from Jerry to Richard to Larry etc.
I stopped going to Montreal three years ago because I just couldn’t find anything substantial in the parade of frat boys with 2.0 grade point averages and foul mouthed female comics selling raunchy material that no man could get away with. Thank you Amy Schumer. No, that part of my life is over save for some Spin The Dial on Sirius where I do find myself laughing at the odd riff rom Gary Gulman and Kathleen Madigan. Other than that there is little chance I will laugh at comics thirty years younger than me. And unlike the great newsletterist Bobby Lefsetz, I just can’t keep whining that SNL is no longer funny. It’s a tired trope to compare Colin Jost and Michael Che, yes the inheritors of Myers’ self-satisfied mask to Danny, Billy, Gilda etc. Not because they aren’t as funny but because there is no joy in their performances, reciting lines while keeping one eye on the clock as it counts down to the after party. Pete Davidson appears to have had the same kind of substance problems that haunted Belushi but without a scintilla of the talent to match. Nothing. What keeps boomers like Lefsetz, and me actually, talking about SNL is that we realize that we have way too much invested in that stock. It was such a source of laughter in our youth that we can’t understand why it sill doesn’t give us that water cooler material any more. As if anybody has a water cooler any more. Or a job that even allows for informal gatherings during work hours. Or a job.
However, once in a while good fortune finds us and I was very lucky a few months ago, thanks to an old friend named Rick Moranis, to get some extremely rare tickets to the SCTV reunion in Toronto, a matinee interview/clip show hosted by Jimmy Kimmel for the benefit of Martin Scorsese’s cameras. It will form the basis of a multi-hour Netflix documentary of the storied Canadian sketch comedy show that, back in the early 80s, blew up late night TV “real good” in the words of John Candy’s Billy Sol Hurok, who co-hosted Farm Film Report with Big Jim McBob (Joe Flaherty).
SCTV was short for Second City Television, a concept built out of the storied improv brand and the Toronto stage roster that didn’t go to Saturday Night Live (Aykroyd, Ratner). It started in 1976 with a couple of short skeins of low low budget half hours built around a fictional local TV station staffed by a rag tag bunch of on-air personnel featuring Candy’s would-be celebrity impresario Johnny LaRue, Eugene Levy’s tribute to Vegas lounge acts Bobby Bittman, Catherine O’Hara’s self-explanatory Lola Heatherton, Dave Thomas’s Harvey Kaytel and one Harold Ramis who was also head writer because he had scribbled for National Lampoon Radio and Playboy. Whatever, many of the characters survived a one-year hiatus until the show made it to the CBC in 1980 with the key addition of gifted music and comedy hyphenate Moranis. It was then picked up by NBC in 1981 in a 90-minute version for two or so seasons that were the high point of the show’s history which coincided with the low point in the history of the Lorne Michaels-less SNL.
Whatever, that afternoon my friends and I doubled over in laughter we had not experienced in many, many years. The assembled cast was charming and added perspective on Kimmel’s panel but it was the well-curated parade of SCTV’s greatest skits that had us crying in our seats. Whether it was the tribute to Candy (who can forget The Crane Shot That Saved Christmas featuring a drunken LaRue making snow angels in real Edmonton snow!) or Martin Short doing an early Ed Grimley or the Levy-written classic Half Wits quiz show, we couldn’t control ourselves. Moranis as the overbooked Doobie Brother Mike McDonald was priceless. The best part was that none of this humor came at anybody’s expense. The impressions were really just homages rather than nasty swipes. Thomas talked about his friendship with Bob Hope that rose out of his singularly incredible take. Thanks for the memories, indeed. Most of this and more is available on You Tube so I advise even the most casual of SCTV fan to revisit.
The upshot of all this is the grim realization that we can’t, at this late point in our narratives, depend on external sources for humor. What I see now are guys lucky enough to be grandfathers laughing with and at the antics of their grandkids. I hear dads sharing stupid dad stories with their sons now writing their own histories. Laughing through the challenges of life – binding, healing and vitalizing. Pissing on Trump doesn’t quite do that for me. In my world, I do have a chuckle when my son or daughter remind me of something stupid funny I did to them when they were young. I don’t mind either if it gives me a reason to shed a tear or two. We should all be so lucky to get a rise from our circumstances.
In the meantime – “Try the veal. I’ll be here all week.”