I remember everything about the first time I heard Lenny Bruce. I was filing records in the Modern Music House in Baltimore, Maryland. They were Miles Davis records, and I was putting yet another copy of his masterpiece, Kind of Blue, in the bin, and one of the neon lights that ran on the store’s ceiling was flickering on-off-on-off, giving the record store a kind of five-o’clock-rain-with-the-sun-out feeling. And across the aisle was Ben Jensky, a huge, hulking guy I’d gone to high school with (now dead from a bad heart), wearing a yellow V-neck sweater, and khaki pants with a buckle in the back, and pebbled English walking shoes. Blond-headed Ben, whom I always felt tongue-tied around, who made me feel so damned white and Methodist. Ben, who stayed up all night getting high and listening to Jackie McLean blow his sax, and who drove to Washington five nights in a row so he could hear Sonny Rollins wail his perfect, lyrical cry. Jewish “black” hip Ben, who, like so many people I knew back then, was a teacher to me, who helped me find, however fleetingly, what I really felt and knew down there beneath the morass of pleasing Mom and Dad, being one of the guys, trying so hard to act like a jock, as I moved in my own careful way toward freeing myself from the great, dripping, stifling Fifties boredom.
But what I want to talk about here is Ben Jensky’s smile as he looked over at me and said, “Hey, Horatio Alger, cool it a minute and listen to this.” I laughed, red-faced, because he had me pegged perfectly: No matter that I had on Levi’s and was sporting the first pathetic attempts at long hair; the truth was, I was still square. Still, he thought I had potential—for a goy. Just the week before, I had started digging Mose Allison, and now I walked around affecting a Mose-type slur every time I spoke: “Like, down, man … uh uh uh …” So I stopped filing and started listening, and Jensky smiled and said to me, “Hey, you should dig this guy Lenny Bruce. Even a poor goy like you could dig him.”
Lenny Bruce. Even the name sounded hip. One whiplash word, straight ahead. LennyBruce. Jensky handed me the record jacket, The Best of Lenny Bruce. Christ, the best of, and I’d never even heard of this dude. And then I heard Lenny’s voice. It’s true, so help me: I knew from the first syllables of Lenny’s immortal prison movie routine, “Father Flotski’s Triumph,” that I was onto something that would change the way I looked at the world. It’s something that happens rarely, that moment when you hook up with an artist and his voice is you, says what you feel and know but shapes it, puts it into a context, pulls it out of the muck inside your head, breaking and kicking. It happened the first time I read Catcher in the Rye, when I was 15, and it happened the first time I read Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself, and it happen there, right there in the wavy, twilight neon of the Modern Music House with big Ben Jensky nodding his head and rocking back and forth on his feet and laughing his great, clenched-teeth hipster’s laugh, and I was floored, screaming with laughter myself, and feeling that I was hearing the truth. He was my hero, like Mose, like Salinger. Out there, on the edge, but telling it straight, beyond the square world laughing at it, sending it up in one great black cloud of killer hip jive.
Okay. I was wrong. Lenny wasn’t as out there as I thought. And he wasn’t the saint I wanted and needed him to be at the time. And he had a legal jones. The most defiant comic of his day, the man who gave birth to so many of the ideals and follies our generation embraced with a vengeance—dope, art and rebellion—this man believed that the same society he mocked and tore apart in his routines would come around and treat him justly, which shows that in his routines would come around and treat him justly, which shows that in his way he was perhaps a bigger innocent than I was. But the thing with Lenny was that he took stand-up comedy and created a new standard of excellence, a psychic dare. He said to every comic after him, “So you’re funny. Big deal … How safe will you play it? How much will you really say? How far will you travel on the edge? Is it enough to have a decent act? Maybe the point of the act is to destroy the act?”
It’s a dare only one comic has taken on since—Richard Pryor. Pryor is so brave and resourceful, so truly possessed, that he has gone further than Lenny. A better mimic (in fact, the greatest mimic of humans and animals I’ve ever seen) than Bruce, and a man of greater sophistication, Pryor started out as a Bill Cosby imitator, but one night in Las Vegas, while standing on the stage in front of thousands of chunky white folks, he suddenly realized that if he stayed there he would die. “I mean it, man,” he told me once, “I knew right then and there on the stage that if I didn’t split, I would end up being one of those old dudes on Hollywood Squares. You know, the cute, funny cat they drag out, making my hundred grand a year, but really being nothing.” He wanted to get out of that club so badly, he ended up scraping his face on the wall and having to knock down a set on the other side of the stage to get through. That was how badly he wanted to leave. He went home for a year, listened to club owners tell him he was unprofessional and that he’d “never work in this business again.” But when he came back, he was literally reborn. If you listen to his albums or see his concert films, it’s hard to feel the same about the world. Pryor’s is the voice of his generation that will last.
Laughter is power, and the comic who doesn’t understand that laughter is also a threat will never rise above the pack.
But what of today’s new young comics? Comedy clubs are springing up all over America—Richmond, Virginia; Columbus, Ohio; Portland, Oregon—and every town has at least one guy who dreams of making it to The Tonight Show. As comedian Kevin Rooney says, “The dream of the Eighties is to be the fastest kid on the block.” And, of course, he his right. Saturday Night Live gets the credit—and the blame—for much of this new interest in comedy. And after the SCTV’s wild and often funny crew. Bill Murray is the hottest star in Hollywood. In an age of unparalleled risk in moviemaking, Murray’s films have each earned huge profits. Three comedians—Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Michael (Mr. Mom) Keaton—recently signed long-term multi-million dollar deals with Hollywood studios. All over the republic people are paying to laugh, and there are a whole new crop of young comedians plying their wares at places such as L.A.’s Improvisation, run by Budd Friedman, or Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store. In my trips out west I often catch a set or two, but this time I wanted to take a close look to see if there was anybody on the stage who was trying for something else … somebody who was as mercurial and wild as Lenny or Pryor.
Somebody who would not only make me laugh but make me shiver at the same time.
I am sitting in the Improv, and on the stage a curly-haired comedian named Paul Reiser is pacing back and forth with a mike in his hand. You may have seen him in Diner; He played the incessant pest who drives his friends crazy. He’s got a way of spitting out his lines in short clumps of words, then pausing to let the joke sink in, and there’s a kind of cadence to his voice that reminds me of Jackie Mason, a comic I’ve never cared much for. But Reiser is funnier, and gentler than Mason. There’s something boyish and warm about him. Or to use the most devalued word in the contemporary American lexicon, he seems, ugh, vulnerable.
“The problem with life,” He says, “is that people are stupid—not us, others.” There’s a good long laugh from the audience, and Reiser shakes his head. “You know, you get in a lot of trouble telling the truth. But I think it’s interesting what you can get away with if you add ‘I’m just saying.’ I say to a friend, ‘Hey, you’re putting on weight.’ He turns and says, ‘What?’ and I say, ‘No, I’m just saying. Hey, if it was up to me you’d look terrific. I’m just saying.’” The audience loves that and laughs again. Not killer-hard but thoughtfully.
Reiser is about to continue, when a white-haired man comes stumbling into the club. He looks about 60, and his nose is like a great maraschino cherry. “Hey,” he screams up on the stage. “I’m in love … you hear that? I’m in love.”
Reiser doesn’t lose his cool, but stares out in the dark, shielding his eyes from the lights.
“That’s wonderful, sir. We’re very happy for you.”
The drunk wheels around, knocks over a chair and spies a woman he knows, a young, very beautiful blond who plays piano in a hotel bar. He staggers to her table and screams up at Reiser, “I have a date.”
“That’s great,” Reiser says, “when was your last one, 1932?”
“What do you know, you’re just a kid.”
The drunk pounds the table and Reiser says, without missing a beat, “Yessir, folks, I’d like to introduce you the Man Who Makes All Our Lives Just a Little Less Pleasant. That’s him out there. He goes from club to club, just doing his thing, making things a little less easy. Life’s going okay? Nobody’s got cancer … ah, but, here he comes.”
“You up there,” the man says, “If I didn’t have a date, I’d show you. Who the hell are you, anyway?”
Some of the audience laugh. The man, though a heckler, has a certain hapless charm. He does a small pirouette and exits the club.
Reiser stands perfectly still and stares at the audience. I feel nervous for him, trying to imagine how I’d feel if I’d had all my carefully worked-out timing destroyed.
But he smiles and shakes his head.
“The thing is, I can understand that guy. Hey, if I were 65 years old and I saw me up here, I’d want to know why I’m up here. Maybe I’d resent me being up here too. Young guy up on the stage, what the hell does he know? Maybe he’s right. From his point of view. But that’s the way it worked out.”
The talk has an oddly affecting quality. Not comedy per se, but informed by a true spirit of comedy—the feeling that life is impossible, a given—and it seems that Reiser is trying to figure it out, to come up with a point of view. It won’t be angry like Lenny’s or Pryor’s, but something else: reflective, thoughtful, and perhaps at the bottom, conservative. I go back again to see Reiser two nights later, and he spends time talking about the movie Daniel, which he has just seen. He doesn’t attempt to joke about it, but gets the audience into his own mood, thoughtful, but with occasional bursts of brilliant wit.
The next afternoon, I meet Reiser at Joe Allen’s restaurant for lunch. He’s wearing a suede jacket and expensive-looking pleated brown pants. He looks very much the fashionable and successful young comic, but his intelligence cuts through his well-heeled image.
“I love comedy,” he says. “It’s the only art form that’s also a social grace. You meet a sculptor at a party, you can’t say, ‘He’s terrific, look what he can do with the potato salad.’ ”
We both laugh at the joke. I take out my wallet, which has a Velcro flap, and Reiser immediately takes out his wallet with a Velcro flap.
“I don’t know, Bob. I understand you’re a novelist. A comic and a novelist with Velcro flaps. Does that say something about the arts?”
“The pressure on young comedians is the same as on young writers, painters and singers. If you don’t make it, get really astronomically famous, then you’re a failure.”
I get the feeling that every gesture I make is grist for Reiser’s mill, which is not the most settling of feelings, and yet there is something gentle and endearing about him. Even though, like all comics, he has an arsenal of ready put-downs, I have the feeling he doesn’t really want to use them. There is a quiet sincerity in his voice, and I think that one of the things I like about the 27-year-old Reiser is that there isn’t a great deal of difference between his stage presence and his private self.
“That’s true,” Reiser says. “I don’t think there should be a huge ‘act’ going on. The audience knows when you’re phony. I want to cut down the distance between the audience and myself. The other night when I got up there and talked about the Book of Daniel … well, I’d just come from the movie and I was deeply moved by it. It would have been impossible to go into a lot of show-biz jokes, so I trusted the mood I was in and used it.”
I smile. It’s the kind of thing Lenny Bruce would have done. Lenny was usually too busy being the Father of Hip. Reiser, on the other hand, seems to be feeling his way toward a kind of intricate intimacy with his audience, an approach that, in its own way, seems dangerous, and tricky.
During our lunch, Reiser and I talk about Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.
“I know what you’re saying about Bruce and Pryor,” Reiser says. “I think they’re both great, but you have to understand that it takes a long time for a comic to be accepted to the point where the can talk to the audience as nakedly as they do. That’s the advantage of being well known from films or television.”
“Yes,” I say, “but can’t it be a trap? You can get well known in the wrong way. That’s what Pryor had to rebel against.”
“You’re right,” Reiser says, “and that’s why I pick my spots carefully. I’m not trying to be an overnight sensation. I’m in this for the long haul. Even on the nights I’ve bombed, I never thought, That’s it, I’ll be a dentist.”
Reiser holds the world rather gently in his heart. He isn’t Lenny Bruce, and he isn’t what I expected to find. He’s himself, with a voice and a vision that are still developing. A voice that’s uniquely his own. A kindly voice with an occasional bite.
During the next few nights, I wander up and down Sunset Strip, listening to clever young comics like Argus Hamillton, 32 (“Coke’s so bad in Beverly Hills. There was a bust the other day, and a lot of people I know were wearing black nose bands”). And Steven Wright, 28, who was discovered by The Tonight Show at a place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called Ding Ho Comedy club, half of which is a Chinese restaurant. He’s a favorite among his peers, sort of a post-nuclear-blast Woody Allen, famous for his space-cadet, Magritte-like dead-pans (“I have a microwave fireplace. I can lay down in front of the fire for the evening in eight minutes”). And Bob Dubac. “You know, philosophy professors are weird guys,” he observes. “You can really freak them out easy. ‘Hey, prof, you know how to give yourself déjà vu? Ask yourself this question: Hey, prof, you know how to give yourself déjà vu?’ ”
Dubac has an interesting take on his generation: “I’m 29, and I think most of my generation are sneaks. They have seen what happens when people speak out. Listen, for a long time when I was a kid, I tried to latch onto the tail end of the Sixties generation. But that was dead. Most of my generation want to make money. Get that barbed wire around the house, build that fortress. I used to wish like hell that I had been around in the Sixties, but I wasn’t, so I didn’t get to riot in the streets. Now I riot in the clubs.” Dubac is a good-looking comic, and very funny, but there is a certain wistfulness in his voice, as though he thinks he really missed out on something important. Perhaps that’s why he likes hanging out with and fronting for rock bands, a job most comic hate.
His sad commentary on his generation gets me thinking about Lenny again. Though the Fifties were a dark and dangerous time, they weren’t marred by a cheapened televised celebrity, which has poisoned creativity to the point that people with standards, people who do hold out, are looked upon as schmucks, losers.
A friend of mine who is a painter and a part-time stand-up comedian put it this way: “In Lenny Bruce’s day, there was a tradition of underground artists—underground painters, and Evergreen Review writers, and comics who played little cellars. Sure, a lot of it was crap, but the important thing was, it was a legitimate alternative. Now that’s gone. The establishment view is the only view, and I think the pressure on young comedians is the same as on young writers, painters and singers. If you don’t make it, get really astronomically famous, then you’re a failure.”
I think about that as I cruise up and down Sunset, looking at the seventy-foot-high billboard of Eddie Murphy, smiling smugly.
One night, I talk to a young black comic named Arsenio Hall. Hall, 25, has already been featured on ABC’s summer replacement comedy show and is a great favorite around the Improv. He does a mean parody of L.A. basketball: “Hell, guys out here are wimps. In New York it’s no blood, no foul, man. Out here, guys stop the game and shake their heads: ‘I’m not playing one minute longer—this floor has a warped spot.’” He has a nice, easy style and lets his natural vibrancy and elegant physical appeal win over the audience: “I want to pick up hitchhikers, I really do … but man, they’re so ugly. I mean it. Bad skin and letters to Jodie Foster hanging out of their knapsacks.” The audience clearly likes him, even though I’ve heard them laugh louder at other comics.
That’s another thing I learn on this trip. The funniest comics, those who get the most laughs, aren’t always the favorites. There is something else a comic must have, and that’s what studio people call likability. The first time I heard this word, it seemed like some strange, arcane bit of Hollywood bunkum, but after watching more comics than I can assimilate in three days, I begin to see that like a few Hollywood terms, at least, likability has roots in reality. Arsenio Hall has it, and most people think it’s only a matter of time before he finds the right vehicle. He will never be a Lenny Bruce or a Pryor—he’s too good-natured and sweet for that. But like Reiser, he has something else—a kind of humanity that shines through. And, in his own way, he’s fighting a battle I’d never thought about:
“You say you like Richard Pryor,” he says as we sit at one of the Improv’s back tables, surrounded by other comics who trade bits while killing what is left of the night. “Well, I think he’s the greatest. He came on my show last summer for scale, just to help me out. He said he’d do it because he liked how I wasn’t trying to out-Richard Richard.”
“Are you by any chance referring to Eddie Murphy?” I ask.
Hall smiles and nods his head.
“I like Eddie. He’s a wonderful talent, but I’ve told him to his face that I don’t like the fact that he only shows one side of the black experience. It’s funny, for years a black man couldn’t be angry and wild. Richard changed all that. Then we get Eddie, and now people are telling me that I should be more like Eddie, more militant, more ‘street.’ Hell, Eddie didn’t grow up in the street. He’s from Long Island. I’m from Cleveland, and he would have died of fright in my neighborhood.”
Hall smiles again, to let me know that most of this is just in good fun.
“The thing is to have your own voice, your own style,” he points out. “I’m still working on all that, but one thing I know is that I want to represent my race, and I want to do it my own way.”
Talking to Arsenio Hall makes me feel better about what I have found in L.A., and I start to realize that things aren’t as simple as I had figured. Each generation of artists has obstacles to overcome. Richard Pryor had to overcome the cute, sweet Negro, Bill Cosby. Arsenio Hall may have to overcome the angry legacy of his friend Richard Pryor.
Laughter is power, and the comic who doesn’t understand that laughter is also a threat will never rise above the pack. We are often ambivalent about truly funny people. We don’t want to laugh too much at someone. It gives him too much control over us. It diminishes us. Makes us small and him huge. It kills us.
“I killed the audience tonight. Killed them.”
This was said to me by one of the funniest and most serious comics I met in L.A. His name is Kevin Rooney, and he is bald and looks exactly like James Watt. He uses this unfortunate likeness in his act. “It’s bad enough to be bald, but having to look like James Watt … Now I go into the woods and squirrels throw nuts at me.”
Unlike Reiser and Hall, who are still in their twenties, Rooney is 33 and didn’t know he wanted to be a comic until three years ago. He led a wanderer’s existence, joining the Army after his second year in college and serving as an artillery surveyor in German. He started by accident in the Anacostia Bar near Washington, hung out at the New York Improv and then moved to Los Angeles las year. His jokes are fast, hard-hitting and tend to have more meat on them than those of many of the younger comics I’ve met. And he favors the old-fashioned social satire, which has been out of style for some years now.
“You have to be bigger than any one joke.”
When he talks, Rooney doesn’t move around much, but bobs and weaves in front of the mike like a club fighter and spits out his lines with an old-fashioned anger. I can’t help but smile. They’re jokes Lenny or Mort Sahl would have liked:
“Reaganomics, that makes sense to me. It means if you don’t have enough money, it’s because poor people are hoarding it….
“Pot is like a gang of Mexican bandits in your brain. They wait for thoughts to come down the road, then tie them up and trash them.”
The night I see Rooney, the audience is dying with laughter. Every joke snaps out, whips at them, and yet I come away from the performance feeling that he needs to loosen things up a bit. It is odd. Of all the performers I’ve heard during my week in L.A., Rooney comes closest to being like Bruce—mad, social, hip, cool, yet emotionally timid in a way that Reiser is not.
A little later, in a bar out in front of the club showroom, Rooney sips a beer and shakes his head.
“You have to understand one thing about comedy. It’s the only art form that’s based on inane bar chat. Say we start talking about something; pretty soon I’ve got a bit going, and I come up with something funny. That’s why it’s so important for young comedians like myself to be around other comics.”
“Yeah, but what about stealing?”
“It doesn’t happen that much. If it happens by accident, someone might come up to you and say, ‘Hey, you know Joe’s doing that already,’ or ‘Didn’t Jim think of that?’ Most comics don’t steal intentionally. There’s stuff in the air. There are only so many things to talk about at any given time, and since we all make some of the same connections … well, it happens, but for the most part, it really is an accident.”
Rooney smiles and raises his eyebrows.
“However, for that evil one percent who consciously steal stuff, I prescribe hammer and tongs. No, actually, you get to know who they are, and pretty soon nobody’s hanging out with them. It’s like my friend Paul Reiser says, ‘You have to be bigger than any one joke.’ Still, stuff does happen. I did an audition at the Comedy Store one night, and Mitzi Shore, who owns the place, was supposed to listen to me. A comic I’d had a hassle with in New York talked to her all during my act, and it was as good as tonight. People were really laughing, and she didn’t hear one word of it. I know that was done on purpose.”
One afternoon a few days later, Rooney and I work out together. We strap ourselves into the Nautilus machines and begin pumping the iron up and down. Then we talk more about comedy. “Here I am,” Rooney says. “A wild young comic who eats salads and works out at the health spa. Lenny Bruce would laugh his ass off at that.”
“You’re right,” I say. “I’ve been here for a week and I’ve seen a lot of funny comics, and everybody is talking about getting ahead, getting a series, becoming hot, doing movies. What I haven’t heard is anyone saying they want to be great. I mean, there’s very little crusading going on. I don’t see another Pryor or Lenny Bruce yet.”
“I worry about it a lot,” admits Rooney. “I’ve spent two years getting to the point where I am now. I’m on the [Merv] Griffin Show a few weeks back, and I get a letter from a friend saying how ‘polished’ I was. I wrote him back saying, ‘Sure, soon I’ll be as polished as all the other comics. You won’t recognize me, and I won’t remember you.’ ”
“So maybe you need to find a new way to be … angry …”
“But that’s precisely the problem,” Rooney says. “You can’t come on now and say ‘the pope sucks.’ I mean, who cares? Lenny Bruce and Pryor have taken outrage as far as it can go. Plus, you can’t depend on the audience. There’s no feeling of cultural unity anymore. In Lenny’s day, it was Us versus Them. But now I might make an antireligion joke and get a laugh. Fine, so I back it up with a pro-abortion joke, but there’s total silence. Bruce knew his audience would agree on most of these issues.”
“If a comic comes on with too much craziness and anger in a basically conservative era, he won’t get laughs. A comic needs to be ahead of his audience, but not that much ahead.”
I get out of the weight machine. A couple of the other comics greet Rooney. One of them is very excited about appearing on The Love Connection. “The show’s a piece of shit,” he says, “but it’s good exposure.”
When Rooney and I walk out of the club, there’s a brown Mercedes with the license plate TOY 4 EGO parked in front. Rooney puts his hands on his bald head.
“Now you tell me, if you’re a kid in Watts and you see that, you’d want to throw rocks through the fucking window, right?”
“Right,” I say.
Rooney smiles. “Okay, so you think I should get that anger into my act. But remember this: A comic can’t be that far ahead of his times. Pryor became the Richard Pryor we know today as black people were finding out how angry they really were. He was their spokesman. Lenny Bruce became Lenny Bruce as society changed. A novelist can be further ahead of his time because people read in private. Nobody knows what books you read, or if you agree with them or not. But a comic gets people laughing, and if you laugh, that’s an approval of the comedian’s point of view. So if a comic comes on with too much craziness and anger in a basically conservative era, he won’t get laughs. A comic needs to be ahead of his audience, but not that much ahead. It’s a very tricky thing.”
We get into his car and drive down Sunset Boulevard, and suddenly a punk rock record comes on. It’s full of “power chords” (like A, E and D) and snarling, pimple-faced sentiments, and suddenly Rooney leaps into a whole new routine.
“That’s the music of kids who think they’re wild but are actually only screaming at their parents when they leave home for the first time.” He screws up his face and starts yelling in a high, nasally white, “Screw you, Dad, I’m going to stay up all night and eat pizza! Drop dead, Mom, I’ve got an efficiency apartment hahahahaha. I ca eat Devil Dogs all night long now, Mom! Boy, am I wild.”
We both crack up. I ask, “Is it harder now because Lenny Bruce and Pryor broke so many taboos?”
“The truth is, taboos still exist,” says Rooney. “Sure, you can talk all you want to about sex and dope now. Society wants you to talk about sex and dope. But if I make a joke about one of the inconsistencies of the women’s movement, I’m liable to get nailed. If I make a joke about blacks—I don’t mean a joke at their expense, I mean, if I even do black guys’ voices—I’m liable to be called a racist. I had a joke recently that went like this: In some ways society is getting more and more liberal, and that’s a good thing. But I’d hate to be the first black astronaut, because once you’re up there in the spaceship, you have to constantly be talking on your radio saying, ‘Yes NASA, no NASA.’ It’s a cute joke, and I got some laughs, but basically people were uneasy with it. So I sold it to Arsenio Hall, who’s black, and when he does it, it gets big laughs.”
We drive down the freeway and above us the lights from the canyon look peaceful.
“Look,” Rooney says. “I want to do good work. On stage and TV. If I get to the place where I can say exactly what I want, I will, but you earn that right, and that’s as it should be. What everybody wants in this business is a series. But just as important as being on a quality show is finding a part that is like you. Steve Landesburg’s part in Barney Miller is him. That’s the trick. I mean, when you’re still coming up, sometimes any show can look good, but if you play an idiot in The Dukes of Hazzard, then try to go out and do college bookings, you’re liable to get introductions like, ‘Hi folks, tonight we’ve got something really special for you. Yessir, direct from Hollywood, the IDIOT, KEVIN ROONEY!’ But it’s tough. Be charitable and give these guys time. One of us might turn out to be the next Lenny yet.”
Since my last trip to L.A., I’ve thought a lot about what I saw and I’ve realized, with some embarrassment, how little I understood the making of comic greatness. In writerly terms, one sits down for years, doesn’t bend to fashion, and works. Perhaps one day, one writes something great. In a few rare cases, one writes something great and the work concurs with fashion, as in the case of a book like Catcher in the Rye, and then one becomes famous. But a comedian is tied in a way that a serious artists isn’t to the popular zeitgeist of his times. He hangs like an acrobat from the spiritual monkey bars, hoping you’ll notice him. He learns to ride what works.
In most cases, his talent becomes diluted. If he gets a role in a movie or a part in a series, too often what Kevin Rooney fears can happen: He becomes indistinguishable from the others. Most often, even the successful comics end up as guest stars on Hollywood Squares. And even the most serious comics I met had a large streak of the mercenary in them. They want the audience to love them, they want to score; the longer it takes, the less it matters how they do it. Yet in Reiser, Hall, Rooney, Wright and a few others, I sensed that they wanted something finer and were willing to hold out for it, to see if they could push their talent to its edge. And it is they who might get out there to that place where laughter and tears are indistinguishable from each other, the place where Richard Pryor now stands alone. The place where Lenny stood in his day.
It seemed to me, as I sat at the bar in the ultra-trendy Nucleus Nuance restaurant one night, the scariest way to go. There are many washed-out places on the road where a man can wreck himself … but worse, maybe not even notice that he had been injured. He’d just keep laughing.
“It’s no easy thing being funny, lad.”
All of these musings came home to me during one of my last days in L.A. while enjoying the nervous, good fellowship of the comics at the Improv. I was standing around with Rooney, who was just off his spot on Merv Griffin and was in the best of moods. Suddenly a dirt-encrusted young man with long hair and ragged clothes came walking into the club. I thought he was there to bum a quarter, but Rooney knew him as a friend. The ragged man had seen Rooney on TV and began to compliment him profusely. There was a deep, painful silence, an embarrassment and shame that was almost palpable. Rooney took a pack of Camels out of his pocket, but was so nervous that he dropped two of the cigarettes on the barroom floor. The man with the dirt and the caked blood on his forehead kept smiling and complimenting everyone, then reached down and cupped the cigarettes in his hand. Then, winking and acting as though everything were perfectly normal, he walked over to the bar and picked up the dregs of someone’s drink. Rooney and I said nothing, just watched the hapless man for a minute, and then went outside into the radiant California sun.
“You know who he used to be?” Rooney said to me.
“The biggest comic in this town. On his way up and fast. Then he lost it. Nobody knows why. Maybe he was here too long. Maybe he couldn’t take the pressure. Now he lives like that on the street.”
“Jesus,” I said.
Rooney gave me a fine, hard, Irish smile and grabbed my arm.
“It’s no easy thing being funny, lad,” he said in a perfect brogue. “It’s no easy thing at all.”