Reference Checks


Monday January 27th, 2014 – Island Lake, IL

When I first started performing standup comedy, I would go out of my way to study any and all other acts I could find at every level of development. I would watch all the others on any shows I happened to be on, but also seek out TV shows, live performances or anywhere else I could find.

I couldn’t get enough not only of standup comedy, but pop culture as well. I knew that I should familiarize myself with what was happening in the world so if I didn’t do jokes about it myself at least if someone else did I’d know what they were talking about. It took a lot of work but I did it.

Once in a while I’d see an older comedian use some reference that was painfully outdated, and it left a sour impression. It felt like ordering a sandwich in a restaurant and having it be served on really stale bread. It leaves a bad first impression, but it’s too late by then. The damage is done.

An example that still sticks in my mind decades later is a friend of mine from Pittsburgh named John Knight who told me about going to see Shecky Greene. John is of my comic generation and a very funny guy. He’s also a student of the game, and I’ve known him since I started in the ‘80s.

The same brothers that owned the Funny Bone Comedy Club in Pittsburgh where John started opened one in Milwaukee a few years later, and it started an exchange program between the two cities. We were like comedy cousins, and grew to know each other’s towns and each other well.

Shecky Greene is an old school act, but John was one of the few smart enough to know that it’s possible to learn from anyone so he went to see him. Had I been offered the opportunity, I would have joined him. I still would. I have a great deal of respect for anyone who has braved the wars.

I remember John telling me he enjoyed the show, but then told me of a bit Shecky did that used “The Bay City Rollers” and a song they did called “Saturday Night”. That’s a band that had their very short heyday in the mid ‘70s, and even though John and I both were familiar with them they were long out of the public’s eye by then and it made Shecky look like a big idiot – at least to us.

Cut ahead decades later, and now the performers of John’s and my generation are in exactly the same position. We’re probably close to the age Shecky Greene was John saw him, and the acts of today look at us the same way. John still performs and is a pretty hip guy, but it’s still a concern.

Neither of us have acts directly based on using many current references, and we’ve been smart enough to craft relatively timeless material that can hopefully continue to earn us our livings for the foreseeable future. Those who don’t develop this skill will get burned now more than ever.

For veteran performers it gets easy to ride a reference too long, and I’ve been guilty of it many times. I’ve been around the block quite a bit, and have all kinds of references that used to be hot but are now as laughable as Shecky using The Bay City Rollers. I have to constantly keep track.

Sometimes it’s fixable. I used to do a joke about a “Walkman Radio”. How dated is that? I’ve since changed it to “iPod” and I can milk it a while longer. I hope. Eventually it will be obsolete, but then again so will standup comedy. Some robot will be built to take my place. “Robocomic”.

I can make jokes about it, but I’m only fooling myself. This really is a major issue that needs to be addressed now more than ever. There are just too many things to keep track of, and with all of us going in so many directions on the internet it’s getting harder and harder to keep up with life.

It used to be if someone liked sports for example, there was a relatively limited amount of info available about it to the general public. They could read the same newspapers and magazines and all share basically the same information. It wasn’t in depth, but it was enough to stay informed.

Now there are websites and blogs and a whole new level of scrutiny that has never been around before. If someone likes sports now, it can easily become a full time obsession. Then stories like Alex Rodriguez on steroids or Dennis Rodman in North Korea become actual hard news stories.

Every subject that people used to be able to get away with just a passing knowledge of now has an entire subculture attached to it, and there aren’t enough hours in a day to keep current with all of them. For an up and coming standup comic, it’s harder than ever to have broad based material.

I’ve hosted a lot of showcases in the last few years that feature younger acts, and I admit that I watch a lot of them and have no clue as to what they’re talking about. They’ll go off on a movie I haven’t seen or band I’ve never heard of, and I’m totally lost. They might as well speak Chinese.

It becomes very easy to let this get out of hand, and I totally have. Part of the reason is that I’m just not interested in pop culture of today. I find it extremely boring, and not intended for me. All that I see coming out I’ve seen before, and I wasn’t necessarily all that fond of it then. It stinks.

Other than a very VERY few songs, I find the music of today absolutely horrific. Lady Gaga is a warmed over version of Madonna – and I never liked Madonna with her hairy armpits and gap teeth. I found her derivative, but she was able to carve out a career. Good for her, but I’m over it.

Even sports don’t come close to holding my interest like they once did. I used to easily be able to name every coach or manager of every team in most of the major sports if not current starting lineups. I could also go back at least ten years and name all the teams that won a championship.

Now I bet I couldn’t name who won the last championship – and I don’t really care. Unless the Packers win the Super Bowl, I’m pretty much over that too. And even when that happened just a couple of years ago life went on shortly thereafter. I’m just not into what’s going on in the world as a whole. I have enough to worry about with my own life, and that’s about all I can deal with.

Still, as a professional entertainer I can do better than I have been doing. One of the many wise things my grandfather taught me was to look through the entire Sunday paper. He would open all the sections and look at all the articles from cover to cover. He wouldn’t read all of them, but if a headline grabbed his attention he’d at least skim over some of the article to broaden his life base.

I used to do that for years, but I just lost interest somewhere. That’s just plain not acceptable if I still intend to grow as any kind of creative entity. There has to be more fuel added if I intend to keep the fire burning, and I don’t want to look like Shecky Greene to young audiences. I can still throw some heat, but it’s smart business to have a clue as to what’s current in pop culture today.

Shecky Greene had a tremendous run as one of the top nightclub comics in Las Vegas. Much respect.

Shecky Greene had a tremendous run as one of the top nightclub comics in Las Vegas. That is SO not easy to do. Much respect.

The Bay City Rollers had a short run of hit records in the mid '70s. I bet they thought they were SO cool when this picture was taken. Times change.

The Bay City Rollers had a short run of hit records in the mid ’70s. I bet they thought they were SO cool when this picture was taken. Times change.

Despite his deadpan look, my friend John Knight from Pittsburgh is one of the funniest comedians working today. I've known him since the '80s. www.comedyknight.com.

Despite his deadpan look, my friend John Knight from Pittsburgh is one of the funniest comedians working today. I’ve known him since the ’80s. He’s hilarious. http://www.comedyknight.com.

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