John Wing is a master stand-up comic. Originally from Canada and now living in Los Angeles, he’s done everything from the Tonight Show and America’s Got Talent, to all of the festivals you can think of. John Wing is one of the most accomplished and funniest comics anywhere and we’re thrilled to have John in this week’s Guest Spot.
Sometime in the mid nineteen-eighties, I spent a little time one week with a comedian named Robert Altman. Not the film director. He performed under the name Uncle Dirty and it was a perfect name for him.
He looked exactly like a creepy uncle. I was just starting to headline a little, but mostly I was still a host. And each night after Dirty’s show, a bunch of us young guys would get high with him and he would tell stories, like the one about how he came back to L.A. from spending three years traveling the world, broke, unknown again, and ran into his old friend Richard Pryor at the Comedy Store.
Richard was at the time the most famous comedian in the world. He had a big house in Beverly Hills and he invited Dirty to come over later that night. He drove up to the gate, and was buzzed in by a security guard. He walked into Richard’s lavish living room to find him naked, with two naked Playboy models, sitting on the sofa in front of a giant brandy snifter full of cocaine. Dirty started to salivate, naturally, when Richard said, “You can’t stay, Dirty. I’m just showing you this for incentive.”
One night with Dirty, we asked him about making it. He had made it, sort of. Done the Tonight show – late 60’s – had a comedy album that sold very well. In a span of two or three years, he made a ton of money. And that was when he chucked it for three years to see the world. Now he worked clubs. He said to us, “I never tell anyone they can’t make it. Jimmy Walker made it, ANYONE can make it.” He also said, and this one really stuck with me, “The comedians who make it in the future will be the ones who get the closest to their own bone.” And here it is thirty years later, and wow was he right.
When I started, (cough! 1980 splutter! Don’t judge) comedy was still almost all craft. You wrote jokes, you commented on things, you talked about commercials, you did impressions, or funny songs, but you didn’t get really personal. Joke-writing, building a routine, understanding language sounds, these were the skills you needed to develop. But personal honesty was starting to make real inroads and the craft was becoming more of an art. I’ve had this argument with a lot of comedians, because I didn’t think standup was art, but as the years go by, I’m beginning to change my mind. Because as Dirty predicted thirty years ago, the best comedians are the honest ones.
Louis CK, like him or don’t like him, he shows his ass every show. So does Mile Wilmot. He exposes himself as much as he exposes anything on stage. Tig Notaro shows her breast cancer scars, for christ’s sake. And none of them ever forget that they’re trying to be funny. They’re not showing themselves to be courageous or make points, they’re trying to be funny where it is most painful. While I find Sarah Silverman’s joke construction to be possibly the best I have ever seen, and there’s no denying what a craftsman/artisan of comedy Jerry Seinfeld is, neither of them ever confide in the audience. Or if they do, it’s extremely rare. Doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy them. I do. Sarah might be the best joke-writer ever. But I always know it’s a joke coming. With Mike, Louis, or Tig, or a number of others, the audience is let in to a bone-scraping place that makes one forget sometimes that a joke is coming. And then it does come. And that’s art.
In the mid nineties I worked a week at am Improv somewhere with the great Al Lubel. And one night he did a bit about questioning whether or not he was gay. He went deep inside himself, not relying on cheap gay jokes and it was astoundingly funny and revelatory. It also made me furious, because I had gone through the exact same questioning period in my twenties and it had never occurred to me that I could write about it for the stage. I resolved after that night to pick myself clean. Whatever was in me was potential for comedy. Whatever I thought, whatever I knew, whatever had happened to me. All fodder. It’s a long way from Milton Berle. Hire a comedy writer to write you five jokes and a lot of shitty patter. A long way from wife jokes, mother-in-law jokes, have-you-seen-this-commercial? jokes. A long way even from Mort Sahl reading the paper onstage. I need to listen to the audio of last night’s show.
And after that, maybe watch ‘Lenny’ again.
Follow John Wing on twitter @JohnWing5.