Even major international headliners need to simplify their lives. Liam will be updating his eBay store here:
My good great friend Robyn Chapman is not only a terribly gifted cartoonist in her own right, she’s also an editor with a keen eye for talent and a monster indie publisher.
For the sequel, Robyn illustrated a story I used to tell in my standup act. I’m glad it’s preserved for history in a form where I don’t have to tell it again:
Back in 1999 – you know, back when Bill Clinton was treating the country so shitty that I had an awesome dot-com job that gave me the best health insurance plan you’d ever heard of.
Anyway, I had a really bad finger infection. It was summer, and I was at my friend’s beach house in Connecticut and I noticed that my finger was swollen right under the nail to a genuinely alarming degree. I get back into Manhattan at two in the morning and go right to the Mt. Sinai Hospital Emergency Room. Surprisingly, I’m able to see a doctor right away.
If you’re not in New York, the Emergency Room waiting rooms are famous for being great places to catch up on things you always meant to do – read Moby Dick cover-to-cover; knit an entire scarf; build a civilization and watch it crumble into dust three generations later.
This is true – there was a guy who was told that he had to stop smoking in the emergency room, not because it was a health hazard but because there was a tribe of cave people in a corner who didn’t know what fire was.
I got in and I was treated by an intern, a nice young fella who told me it was an infection and that he was going to prescribe antibiotics. Then he said, “I’m also going to prescribe you a painkiller. What do you want, some codeine?”
And I said, “I don’t know.”
Then he winked at me, pointed, and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll get you something good.”
He then prescribed me a month’s worth of Vicodin, with two months’ refills.
I don’t know if you’ve ever taken Vicodin, but man, there’s a reason that shit is super-addictive; it kills every kind of pain including the pain of existence. After a week when my infection was completely healed, I had to give it away because it was too good.
Anyway, the world sure is different!
This week, the world lost a gentle soul. A true legend of the New York City comedy open mic scene.
I wasn’t 100% sure how to approach this. When you eulogize someone, the temptation is to be overly kind. Exaggerate his qualities. The good he did became staggering works of charity felt across the land. His creative output a river of genius.
But I was always pretty straight with Gary when he was alive, and I think that was part of why I got along so well with him, because I didn’t condescend, and I didn’t pretend.
So let me start by saying: Gary Marinoff was an oddball, an outsider, a fringe artist. So fringe, in fact, that it took a few days to get confirmation that he was, in fact, truly dead.
He lived to be 56, and those were some hard years. i’ve known him literally my entire adult life. I first met him at the open mic at Rebar in Chelsea, on the corner of 8th and 16th. He worked in the music section at Barnes & Noble in Chelsea, then, and lived with his mother, going out at night to hit mics.
All this is covered in the interview I conducted with him for the TYF! podcast, embedded below. When his mother died, he hit hard times. Gary supported himself doing extra gigs; he worked consistently as an extra on 30 Rock for five seasons, supporting himself during the summers when the show was off air doing odd jobs, other low-paid extra work.
There’s a temptation to look back at Gary’s output and call it great, to say that this was an Emily Dickinson situation, with a backlog of undiscovered great works sitting in a drawer waiting to be discovered. The truth is more complicated.
When Gary’s mother died, it seemed he was cut adrift, and not just financially, but spiritually. And it seemed as if he saw Tina Fey as the next mother figure who would save him. He was an extra on the first season of her Kimmy Schmidt show—in fact, during the interview he received repeated phone calls from a producer trying to track him down for a shoot the next day. He was convinced that this would be his big break. And if not then, it would be around the corner.
There were those who didn’t like Gary. He was odd. Because he lived in the shelters and on the streets and in shifty SROs, his hygiene wasn’t the best. And when I had him on my podcast, some people were surprised. But to me, he was the soul of New York City’s standup comedy scene. To me, he was the person whose story any fan of any art form needs to hear. He gave it all, he sacrificed everything, his finances, his body, his future, his health, because he had a dream that he could be not just a comedian. Whenever he outlined his career, it was always in terms of being the next Richard Pryor, the next voice and conscience and soul of a disenfranchised people. He sought immortality through greatness, not just of success but also of spirit.
The last time I saw Gary, I was on my way to the mall in my neighborhood in Queens to buy sneakers. I was walking down a street I never travel, and about twenty feet ahead I saw him, shuffling, bald, bowed. We walked and talked, and when we got to the mall entrance it began pouring, so we stepped inside and talked some more. He told me he lived in a room in a Chinese family’s home in Corona. He called it the nicest neighborhood he could want to live in, and I guess if you’re a small, stocky middle-aged Jewish man with a pronounced speech defect who had spent the last few years moving through the shelter system of New York and Hollywood, Florida, it would be.
But here’s the thing you might not catch about that, because what i said is incredibly sad. But that was the day that Gary taught me gratitude. He taught me dignity, and he taught me grace. Not just in a “There but for fortune” way. We who do comedy, who pursue the creative fields as a full-time job, tend to get angry about the short-term, about the gigs we didn’t get, the shows we didn’t get booked on. Gary had none of that. If he didn’t teach me the finer qualities of the human spirit, he certainly served as a reminder that they exist. Yes, he had his frustrations, and he had his down moments, but he never once stopped feeling gratitude for the small blessings he found every day in his life.
This was a man who had been given every right by this world to be bitter, to spit venom, to curse the heavens and stomp the ground until the shaking reached Hell. but instead he kept his eyes down and focused on the things he could focus on.
If Gary were reading this, I know he would want me to talk less about his character and more about his comedy. If you watch footage of his act, you’ll notice he lacks the things that most great comedians know innately; joke construction, comic timing, an ability to read an audience. But he made me laugh like hell, and many other audience members blindsided by his comedy style. If a comedian could be called a folk artist, Gary was a folk artist of the first caliber.
Gary wrote poetry. He self-published a chapbook. Gary wrote original rap, which he would perform a cappella at the drop of a hat. Gary did standup comedy, he did improv, he loved performing for an audience wherever he could find one. And whatever you may think of his performance—and not everyone was a fan—Gary had the soul of a first-rate artist. In that, he felt a compulsion to create and to share, purely for the reward that comes in the joy of creating and sharing.
And if his material was oddly filthy for someone who was determined to perform on the Tonight Show, then so be it. That was Gary’s dream.
This week, Liam sits down at ShowBriz Studios and talks to bestselling mystery novelist Lawrence Block. Block is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers’ Guild, and the winner of the prestigious Edgar Award. His books include the “Hit Man” series, the “Burglar Who…” series, and, most famously, the “Matthew Scudder, PI” series, which includes the books 8 Million Ways to Die, A Dance at the Slaughter House, and A Walk Among the Tombstones, which was made into a film starring Liam Neeson.
Liam talks to Block about his career, about following one of his characters out into Greenpoint, about letting go of your work when it’s adapted into a Hollywood movie, and about his writing process.
You can buy all of Block’s work on Amazon in either Kindle or paperback, and also help support the podcast.
Twitter is actually allowing that comedians who post jokes on their service hold a degree of creative ownership, and are deleting theft posts from joke-aggregation accounts. This is fine; we’ve reached a point where some people make a very good living reposting jokes.
All this comes with social media users reexamining the free-and-easy spirit of Web 2.0, and “creative ownership.” I promise this blog entry stops being deadly dull in another couple sentences. For a long time, the idea has been, “once content is out there, it’s anybody’s.” This is the spirit behind the comfort in which not only jokes, but copyrighted “content” like music, standup, TV shows, and movies, get so freely shared for free.
I have a Twitter account. I post a lot of jokes, observations, pictures. Some get ignored. Some do well. Some do very very well. But I mostly post topical stuff, or jokes with a serious expiration date, or observations that are only maybe interesting in the context of my personal life as I choose to share it online. And I never post jokes or ideas that I would actually use in my own act or projects, because I’ve learned a long time ago that once you put it out there, it takes just one unscrupulous hack to use it, own it, and burn it for you for good.
12 years ago, I had a blog that i updated with some stories, but mostly bits, half-baked ideas, and fully-formed jokes from my notebook. In hindsight, that seems like a terrible idea, but it really helped; I got quite a few paying gigs out of the blog, including a private party performing in front of Tim Robbins, I mean literally, and I’ll tell that story some other time. When I was on Best Week Ever, I used my blog to showcase what i thought were my best jokes that the show cut out, and that helped the writers and producers of the show see that i was constantly generating way more material than they could use, which I believe extended my life as part of the cast.
That was also when Gawker, a big media site with hundreds of thousands of hits, had a daily blog roundup, and usually about once a week or so, they would highlight something I’d written. The point being, that for a while, my blog was a happening thing, and in hindsight I really should have pushed for some kind of book deal, because I had the readership numbers that blog-to-book deals were based on in the early 2000s. But I don’t regret that too much. But…
With that broad readership, though, came a problem I never thought would pop up. See, I thought that having my material out there, in written form, dated and stamped, would mean that I had an ownership of this material. But the other side of that was that I started seeing my jokes popping up in other comedians’ acts on late night. At first, I assumed it had to be parallel thinking, but after a few months, and I’d seen the fourth or fifth comedian on a TV show–a TV show which wouldn’t even consider me, mind–killing with a joke worded almost exactly the way I’d written it, I realized I had a problem. I was supplying material to people who had better representation than writing ability.
I never accused anybody, publicly or even privately. Because what can you say? I’ve been accused of joke-thieving a few times, and all those times I had proof that it was a case of parallel thinking, two comedians thinking of the same joke about the same premise. Here’s an example: I have a joke about sex and the Olympics. It leads off the trailer for Tell Your Friends! The Concert Film!, a movie filmed in 2010. The story of how I wrote that joke is one of my favorites, and maybe I’ll post it some day. But needless to say, I have an old notebook with pages and pages of jokes about the Winter Olympics that became that one-liner.
I like the joke very much, but it’s not my favorite. In fact, that film was taken during the second taping of the TYF! movie, when I would toss off one-liners while the crew set up the next shot to keep the crowd going. It’s part of a chunk of one-liners that leads off an album I recorded in 2013. And apparently, a comedian in Canada has been using it as his big closer the last few years. Which wouldn’t bother me; after all, there’s no disputing whose joke it is, or at the very least, there’s a ton of proof that i came up with it separately and independently. Except that a couple of years ago, different accounts on the internet started popping up in places where my act, or the TYF! movie, were posted, accusing me of joke theft. I can’t say if all these fans of an obscure Canadian comedian got this idea in their head at once, or what happened, but I e-mailed the guy privately through his site and never heard back from him. The comments stopped soon after.
So I know, it’s entirely possible that these comedians on late night TV shows were coming up with my premises and punchlines independently. Until it happened with a NYC comedian who, the year before, had told me he was a fan of my blog. To see him on TV doing a joke lifted from my blog was the final straw. I should have stopped much sooner, in hindsight, but until that moment the risks of running a popular comedy blog were far outweighed by the rewards.
I took down many of my old posts. I took to updating once or twice a week, and mostly to promote gigs. I started losing my following. I got a writing job not long after that, so it was an easy transition to former blogger.
There’s an aspiring comedy writer who is suing Conan, because four of Conan’s recent monologue jokes were very similar to jokes this guy posted to Twitter. He’s suing for $750,000, which is ridiculous, and tells me that he wants to grab $100,000 and stay a happy amateur. Part of me roots for the guy; that’s more than most people make in their entire careers before they quit.
Of course, it’s ridiculous. Not just because with so many people writing jokes about the same subjects, you’re bound to get the same take on it. But I also know almost everyone on that monologue staff, and they’re all really decent people who just wouldn’t steal from the Internet like that constantly. Not that it doesn’t happen; combine the pressure of grinding out new jokes on a daily basis with the pressure of making a six-figure salary to do so, and some people on some writing staffs have been known to engage in shady behavior. But like I said, the people I know on Conan really aren’t like that. In fact, they’re some of the best original joke writers I’ve ever met, and that’s the truth.
Once upon a time, a friend was writing for a TV show. He sent around an e-mail to a few friends, saying in essence, “Famous Celebrity X Who Is Not Known For Being Funny is going to be on the show in a couple of months and what the hell do I do with this guy?” I was at dinner with a friend who was in the bathroom when I got this e-mail, so I dashed off a ridiculous premise based on some trivia about this person and sent it in an e-mail. And then forgot about it.
Sure enough a few months later, this idea appeared on TV and then started getting shared around the Internet. My friend then had to embarrassedly say that he had forgotten about my email, and the idea was pitched by another writer on staff whom I know and trust to be an original comedy thinker as well. I had one of those what they call “moments of truth,” where I realized that I had an electronic email trail, and that even though I trusted my friend hadn’t ripped me off, if i really wanted to, without even creating a public stink, I could screw him over and shake this TV show down for some money.
I decided not to do it, because I’m not a scumbag, and because I really did believe that it was just coincidence, and because this guy was my friend, and because you never want to be known as That Guy anyway. And because it was a good reminder to me that, even if at that time I didn’t have the big writing gig, I still had the right instincts and ability. And that helped when I’ve had to continue pursuing a living in this business.
So I don’t ever put my stuff “out there,” which can be vexing for people who seem to think it’s okay to record a comedy show without asking first. But until you can put it out there in official form first, there’s no controlling your material once it’s out there.
I believe that constant success from an early age makes you lose one of the most important things a comedian needs to truly be great; perspective.
For several years I really struggled in comedy. I came close to quitting, especially when I was deep in the trenches of one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had. And yet, now that things are happening, and continue to happen, in my career, I can really appreciate them.
I was listening, the other night, to a comedian complaining that he could “only” get on television a few times a year these days, a figure that would be astonishing to anyone in the business, but especially, I bet, himself when he was doing open mics. And whenever I’m tempted to complain about the good things in my life, I remember where I was a decade ago. … Continue Reading
When I was a kid, I watched the footage of the Berlin Wall being dismantled. I wasn’t old enough to have lived through the bulk of the Cold War, but I’d grown up in the shadow of the threat of nuclear annihilation; one of my favorite movies as a kid was War Games, a lighthearted romp about a young kid who hacks into NORAD’s computers and almost accidentally triggers total nuclear war. Another was Dr. Strangelove.
But I certainly knew enough that what I was watching at the time was history in the making. It was quite possibly the most significant global political moment in my young lifetime, and still one of the most important I’ve ever witnessed on live television (another would be the day the entire country watched Obama announce he had killed Osama bin Laden).
I felt that same way today, watching footage of the removal of the Confederate Flag of the Southern Secessionists, a mere 150 years after they lost the Civil War. There’s a lot of sentimental attachment to this flag, and frankly, if you want to fly it from your home, your pickup truck, you want to wear it as a bikini or paint it on the roof of your car, I don’t… well, I won’t say I don’t care. I personally despise everything the flag symbolizes, but I also wouldn’t want the police taking away your right, as a private citizen, to wave it, to worship it, to wear it, to take it home and make love to it even.
For all its faults, and all the mistakes its government makes, I believe the United States in America is one of the greatest experiments in a citizen-led republic in all of recorded history. I do believe that the Bill of Rights is one of the most noble documents ever forged, and that the beauty of the Constitution is that it’s strong enough to form an entire society, but flexible enough to change along with the times. That our Founding Fathers, for all their faults, were geniuses, and men of vision.
To remove the flag of the Confederacy is to acknowledge that this is the United States of America. It’s ironic that to this day you will hear “America: Love it or leave it,” from people who proudly wear the emblem of those who tried to leave it. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that this is the dawning of a new era; people are people. Stubborn, angry, prejudiced, flawed. And everything that i love about people is attached to the same things that make me hate them, too.
And to those who are upset that the flag was taken down by an honor guard; don’t be. Sure, it owuld have been nice to have it removed by the courthouse janitor in the middle of the night, but by giving it a proper military removal, we remove the power to make it a symbol of martyrdom.
My biggest regret is that i won’t live forever, so I won’t get to see the myriad ways in which history will play itself out over and over. But I’m always glad I get to see it being made.
Watch the full ceremony at C-SPAN.