I’ve been in comedy for a minute, and I’ve seen some truly great comedians emerge and find themselves. Every morning when I check the mirror, heh heh heh. But there are great comedians, and then there are capital L Legends. The ones you see live and in the flesh and tell your hypothetical grandchildren about someday.
I’ve seen a depressingly small amount, and I really want to get out there and watch them while I still can, since my chances of seeing these guys get smaller every day. Which is why I heartily encourage you to get out there and see these comedians while they’re still alive and performing. Especially since truly great comedians, like musicians, never seem to fall off too terribly in their old age, unless left physically incapable of performing.
With that being said, I did limit the qualification for being a comedy legend a bit. While comedians like Louis CK and Patton Oswalt and Sarah Silverman and Jim Gaffigan, as an example, have raised their game to the point where they are consistently turning out great material, enough time hasn’t passed from their peak popularity and performance to judge where and how it drops off. That being said:
Let’s get this one out of the way. I’ve seen Cosby twice now, and I am very grateful I had the opportunity before supporting him or his works became indefensible. Because even if, as a person, he’s a complete monster, as a comedian he is still The One To Beat. Look, I’m not saying I’m the real victim here; I’m just saying I’m grateful I could enjoy Cosby while i could.
I saw Carlin in the late-’90s, when he’d fallen a bit from his peak as a social observational comedian, and was more concerned with message than punchline. It’s a lot easier to appreciate what he was doing now that he’s gone, and I can watch his specials out of that context, but at the time, the expectation going into a George Carlin concert was seeing “Seven Dirty Words” Carlin. Which isn’t to say I am not grateful for the chance to see him at all.
It was a time when I had started doing standup, had gotten fired off my first tour, but I was still burning off the last of my classes at Queens College before quitting entirely. So, because I was also the Op/Ed editor at my paper, when we were given courtesy tickets to see Carlin live on our campus, I snagged two. I brought my fellow open mic’er Ritch Duncan, and he returned the favor a year later, when the radio game show he was hosting got some tickets to see:
I saw Newhart at Carnegie Hall as part of the Toyota Comedy Festival, which may be the only nice thing I will ever have to say about the Toyota Comedy Festival. Newhart doesn’t generate new material; he’s a major sitcom star who still tours the standup for fun. So it was definitely a “greatest hits” package, which was fine with me. His greatest hits are pretty goddamn ridiculously great. In fact, the only change he made was explaining that his act was written in the early 1960s, decades before political correctness had become a thing (this was the late ’90s also). And he acknowledged that jokes about women drivers may be passé, and I think he made a point of changing an offensive Asian joke. Otherwise, it was vintage Newhart.
I almost feel like this shouldn’t count because of course, everybody I know saw Louis back in the day at Luna Lounge and Rififi. I also saw him on one of his surprise shows at The Bell House, warming up for a tour a couple of years ago. If you can see a Big Comedian in a smaller space, I highly recommend it. Past 400 people in the audience, and the show is still one of the best in the country, but you lose that feeling of intimacy that, to me, creates an event.
I went to see a Simon & Garfunkel reunion show in the ’90s. It was pretty great; Paul Simon did some solo work, Ladysmith Black Mambazo came out and did a few songs from Graceland, and of course, Simon & Garfunkel. Before The 59th St. Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy), they brought out surprise guest Steve Martin to introduce it. He explained that he remembered when he was a kid lighting up a joint and dancing along to that song, and he wanted to recreate that moment. So he did, rolling and lighting a joint, and dancing around while Simon & Garfunkel played the song. Considering he’d retired from standup decades before I got into it, that’s as close as I’ll get.
Another hero who put away his standup shoes before i was born (unless you count his appearance at the 2002 Academy Awards, which I kind of do). In advance of the release of Small Time Crooks, Woody gave a talkback at NYU for film students, which I got invited to thanks to an intern at a company I was working at at the time. While he wasn’t particularly “funny,” a kid asked his favorite joke and he gave a nonsensical answer about a horse sitting on watermelons in a stream. Still and all, I’m grateful to have had the chance to be in the same room as the guy.
I saw Tap play at Carnegie Hall. The Folksmen were their opening act, years before A Mighty Wind had come out, and the crowd spent the whole set shouting for Spinal Tap, not realizing that that was Spinal Tap playing.
THE KIDS IN THE HALL
Caught these guys at Town Hall on their first reunion tour. Considering how Brain Candy had gone, I was a bit concerned, but I shouldn’t have been. Top notch stuff.
AND OF COURSE:
Two of the great thrills of my career.
TRIUMPH THE INSULT COMIC DOG
I got to write material about myself for Triumph to say: