SOA Top Five Comedic Personalities featuring Inching Towards Mediocrity

10 Feb

My dear readers, I was born to be – or attempt to be – a funny guy, as some of you might have noticed. I will go to extraordinary lengths, often risking life and limb, for the benefit of a cheap laugh. Engendering amusement in others is like crack to me, as long as they’re laughing with me and not at me – but anything in a pinch, really. I guess what I’m really doing here is coming out of the closet as a total attention whore: I crave the spotlight and I crave external validation, so the two go neatly hand-in-glove with trying to be clever.

In a paradox of Fortunately/Unfortunately, there are plenty of people in the world who have more comedic genius in one pinky finger than I do in my entire body. Fortunately, I can draw on them as sources of inspiration (and for quotes when I’m lazy), but unfortunately they set a bar I couldn’t reach with a jet-powered pogo stick and a trampoline for a launch pad.

In the interest of lauding these funny folks for their considerable influence on my writing and my personality, and in the interest of being completely transparent for those of you who haven’t figured out where my inspiration comes from yet, I’ve decided to run down, in no particular order, my personal top five comics Most Influential to State of Affairs. I cannot wait to read the hate mail this post is going to generate. Bring it, bitches.

And before you get all over my tits about it, you probably won’t see your favourite comedian or comedic personality on this list.  Why?  Because it’s the list of people most influential to me, not you.  I’m not saying Richard Pryor wasn’t influential or important, but his stuff wasn’t directed at me and has nothing to do with the work I do every day.  And sorry — most of your favourite comedians are probably terrible.  Dane Cook is not, has never been, and will never be funny.

[NOTE: My good friend and Correspondent Lu Galasso over at Inching Towards Mediocrity (who is actually much funnier than me in real life) has decided to hop on this gravy train for today’s posts, so be sure to check out his responses to my choices at the end of each subtitle – and if you’re interested I’d highly suggest you checking out his personal top five (and my responses to his choices), which I’m sure will suck. At least if you’re asking me. And you should be asking me.]

George Carlin

There’s no better place to start than at the absolute top of the pile (yes, I said it’s In No Particular Order, but I have to give credit where credit’s due). I first discovered Uncle George in high school thanks to a friend who lent me a copy of Class Clown, which contained arguably his most famous body of work, the “Seven Things You Can’t Say On Television”. A lot of my classmates were titillated by the Seven Things because of all the glorious cursing, but even at that young age I found myself fascinated by Carlin’s ability to deconstruct the English language with such dexterity.

I’ve never been a big fan of observational comedy; the whole “what’s the deal with airline food” thing got played out for me very fast, but his manipulation of the language and its consequent exposure as glorified Newspeak was a major factor in my decision to pursue rhetoric as a field of study. Those of you who frequent my blog are well aware I’m a bit verbose at times (if by “a bit” I mean “obnoxiously”, which I do), so you can raise a glass to Uncle George for starting me down that needlessly (but impressive) wordy path.

You really shouldn’t need me to tell you Carlin had some small influence on, oh, everyone, but in case you need further proof: when Carlin died, a host of comics spent the next year paying various tribute to his genius. This list included the likes of Lewis Black (who dedicated the entire second season of “Root Of All Evil” to Carlin), Louis CK (dedicated his “Chewed Up” tour), Jerry Seinfeld (who wrote a tribute for the New York Times the day after Carlin’s death), and Bill Maher (who appeared on a tribute show along with Seinfeld and CK hosted by Larry King). I even wrote my own eulogy for Carlin when I heard news of his death; it affected me more profoundly than I could ever have anticipated. Apparently that eulogy went the way of the dinosaur when I closed my ancient Myspace blog, but you’re not missing much: it was really long. Duh.

Dozens of current comics from all stripes of the genre count Carlin as major influences on their work, and I’m happy to count myself in that number. Rest in peace, George.

Lu’s Rebuttal

Carlin is about as influential a comedian as you can get (that’s not named Richard Pryor, anyways). The man had a knack for the English language like no other, for sure, but it was his ability to tear down conventions and his understanding of humanity that made him truly standout. And, I think it goes without saying, that his “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television” is probably one of the best pop culture rants I’ve ever heard.

Eddie Izzard

Now here’s a name you’re repeating to yourself, saying “I know this name, but why?” Chances are you know Eddie not for his comedy, but for his acting. For such a funny guy, he’s an accomplished actor who has taken on roles that span the gamut of genres: he’s appeared in films as diverse as Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen, Across the Universe, Valkyrie and The Velvet Goldmine to name a few, not to mention his notable television role as Wayne Malloy on the HBO series The Riches.

Oh, and the other reason you might not know his standup? When he performs as a comedian, he does so in drag. It’s not a gimmick, either – he’s a genuine transvestite (or “male tomboy” as he prefers), and he’s become something of a patron saint of the LGBT community for his outspoken support of alternative orientations.

I discovered Eddie thanks to my good friend Ant Martin when I visited England about seven years ago. Somehow he’d escaped my attention beforehand, but Ant remedied that misstep rapidly and we spent a fantastic evening drinking beer and watching Izzard perform his trademark stream-of-consciousness, surrealist interpretation of comedy. I could immediately see why John Cleese once called him the “lost Python”: his seamless blend of history and religion with flights of fancy and fantastic mimicry, not to mention his self-referential asides and his extremely physical on-stage persona, has married him to the Python legacy in a completely natural way. Here he is explaining the Creation of the world by God (who is played by James Mason in this film) and how unpleasant it would have been for Jesus to minister to the dinosaurs.

Those of you who read my blog regularly won’t see a lot of Izzard’s signature style in my writing, because quite simply it wouldn’t work in text alone. Certain comedy requires physical presence to be effective, and I’m not just talking about Carrot Top’s inexplicable need for moronic props – the sheer fact that Izzard is Izzard means nobody, not even me, could ape his style on the page. Of course, I tried anyway: see my Pat Robertson stage play in which the voice of God is played (in my mind!) by Eddie doing Mason. And if you haven’t already done so, go check out Dress to Kill and Circle – both good places to start on your enjoyment of Izzard’s long and hilarious career.

Lu’s Rebuttal

While I’m not as fully aware of Eddie’s career as Alex is, what I have seen I like. He’s definitely something of an anomaly in the comedy world; a very bizarre comedian with a truly unique style. I appear to be more familiar with his film work than his stand-up (my first introduction to Izzard was the Ben Stiller bomb “Mystery Men”) but I seem to recall thinking that a bit of his about the cafeteria on the Death Star was nothing short of brilliant.

Dylan Moran

Oh, the Irish. They say God created whiskey to keep them from taking over the world, and some days I agree with They. A good example of why is Dylan Moran, a comic much like Eddie Izzard in that you haven’t heard of him except you have. Ever seen Shaun of the Dead? Remember that goofy Harry Potter lookalike who gets his shit ruined by a streetful of zombies towards the end of the second act? Dylan Moran. Remember the guy in Notting Hill who tries to steal a book from Hugh Grant’s store by sticking it down his pants? There he is again. And for my UK readers, if you ever saw the show “Black Books”, that was him too. But far from being a bit-role player in films and television shows you’ve never seen, Dylan Moran makes my list for being one of the best observational comedians I’ve ever seen.

His style isn’t dissimilar to Izzard’s in its surreal take on everyday events, but in order to get an idea of what Moran is like you have to imagine Izzard put through the filter of Irish misanthropy and alcohol consumption (he regularly appears on stage with a glass or five of wine). In fact, I think those are the two elements of his style that most appeal to me: I’ve said before there are lots of people out there who say they don’t care what other people think – the distinct sense I get from Moran is that he is one of the very few who mean it. He’s quite happy to bash religions, creeds and cultures from all spectrums of the universal rainbow, up to and including the Irish (perhaps especially the Irish), and he seems to extract a paradoxically world-weary glee from winding people up.

Quite often in writing this blog, I find myself listening to voices in my head. Now before you commit me, let me explain. My personal, physical voice, as anyone who listened to the first SoA podcast can attest, is kind of bland. I don’t really have the knack for “sounding” funny, if that makes any sense; at the end of the day I’m probably much funnier on the page than I am in person (not a high bar, believe me). So sometimes I find it beneficial to imagine my words on the page being spoken by someone funnier than me in person. With the possible exception of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, who didn’t make this list because he’s a game critic and noted writer, not a comedian, Dylan Moran definitely tops this list. Here’s his voice for reference:

Now go back and read my funnier stuff with that voice in your head. See what I mean? Thanks for helping me pretend I’m more amusing than I actually am, Dylan.

Lu’s Rebuttal

Again, I’m not as knowledgeable about Dylan Moran as Alex is. What I have seen of him, and that’s pretty much just his role in “Shaun of the Dead,” I liked. (But then that’s a pretty hard movie not to like). At the end of the day, though, I pretty much just know him as a dude who was torn apart by zombies. Which, admittedly, is pretty fucking cool.

Bill Hicks

If George Carlin taught us anything, it’s that being a comic does not mean you can’t also say something of substance. It’s not all dick and fart jokes (hard as that might be to believe here at State of Affairs), and sometimes comedy serves as the most expedient vessel to deliver some heavy science to an otherwise-deaf crowd. The undisputed king of serious political messaging vis-a-vis standup comedy is without a doubt the late, great Bill Hicks.

Hicks exploded onto my radar posthumously; although he passed away in 1994 his legions of fans continued exposing dullards like me to his performance art, and more importantly to his message. One such fan was my friend Sean Smith, who was so intent that I should have my face rearranged by Hicks’ keynote performance “Revelations” that he nearly tied me to the chair. And yes, my face was suitably rearranged.

Certainly, Hicks’ stage show was unusual in my experience of comedy: with one or two exceptions, the comics I’d seen wanted the audience to like them, not to be two steps from forming a lynch mob by the end of the performance. Quite simply put, Hicks didn’t give a shit, and in fact he went out of his way to make his audiences uncomfortable – a lot of comics lay claim to being “raw” or “edgy” but the truth is ninety percent of them couldn’t hold a candle to Hicks and his very real rage.

But his stage show wasn’t even the important part to me, and it’s not why he made this list. At the end of the day, Hicks wasn’t exactly a comedian, not really. A lot of people called him a prophet, and while I won’t marry myself to that nomenclature, I can say that he was motivated by something more than just making people laugh. It wasn’t even just a Carlin thing either – he wasn’t satisfied with just pointing out the inconsistencies in our culture; he genuinely wanted to effect positive change. How do I know this? Check this out:

This from a guy who would later die of pancreatic cancer. Heavy enough for you? It sure was for me. I can’t put it any more plainly than this: Bill Hicks was an American hero, and I can only hope to deliver a message half so positive to you, my dear readers, in my struggling attempts to fill his very big shoes.

Lu’s Rebuttal

Bill Hicks is definitely influential, or at least should be, to anyone who considers themselves a student of comedy. While Hicks didn’t make it into my top five, I assure you, it was tough to leave him out. Hicks seemed to be generally disgusted with the world he inhabited, but I believe that disgust was born more out of disenchantment than general hatred. He didn’t want to tear shit apart just to tear shit apart; he wanted to tear it apart to expose it, and hopefully attempt to eventually repair it. Prophet? Maybe not – but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t worth listening to. And believing every damn thing he had to say.

Henry Rollins

Okay, I already know I’m going to take a lot of shit for this choice, because more than anybody else on this list, Rollins actually isn’t a standup comedian at all. He’s billed as a “spoken word artist” (among other things) and the fact that he’s very funny is sort of a byline. But he has an indelible place on my list of personal influences.

I’ve known about Henry Rollins for years, thanks largely to my pop culture go-to guy Brent Chittenden of the Two Assholes. I knew of Henry’s old band Black Flag when I was still in high school, and I was peripherally aware of the Rollins Band as well, but what I didn’t know what that Henry had a very long and successful history in writing, publishing, and performing spoken word. So when Brent handed me the double-disc Live at the Westbeth, I didn’t really know what to expect. I was impressed that the 2.13.61 website (Henry’s personal publishing company/webspace) was selling these double-disc packages for something like ten bucks apiece at the time (a portion of which was being donated to a local LA charity), considering most double-disc albums at regular retailers went for at least three times that much, but as far as his content went I was completely in the dark.

When I got done with that album I immediately went back to Brent begging for more.

In a word, Henry Rollins has done more in his life than most of us could aspire to. He’s toured all over the world averaging one hundred shows a year for the last twenty-five years. His work has spanned just about every medium you want to mention, including print (everything from prose to journalism), radio, television (check out his excellent show on IFC), film, and of course the stage. Most recently he’s dedicated his time to performing as part of the United States military’s USO show; despite his vocal disapproval of his government’s wars in the Middle East, he is stalwart in his support of the troops whose job entails, in his words, “being brave as a motherfucker”.

The wealth of experience his years on the road have garnered him makes his spoken-word shows entertaining, informative, and – at the risk of sounding like a fanboy – inspiring. He blends the social commentary of Carlin with his own brand of Hicks-esque affirmation; his shows are like being entertained by a dinner guest you’re reluctant to send home. It’s very difficult for me to find a clip that encompasses all I’m trying to say here, but this ought to give you an idea:

Most important, in his castigation of the world around him, Rollins never separates himself from the rest of us. As a few friends have pointed out, Henry might be full of shit, but he’s well aware of it and happy to point out his own shortcomings and turn the scalpel of his criticism on his own life just as quickly as he’ll turn it on politicians, musicians, and other embodiments of mediocrity.
Henry, on the off chance you’re reading this, State of Affairs owes a lot to you, and I’d like to thank you for your positive influence on my life and writing. I’m not holding my breath for an interview, but if you ever find time in your ridiculous schedule, I’ll clear mine. For weeks, if necessary.

Lu’s Rebuttal

Self-important douchebag. Pass.

So What Did We Learn?

That’s it, folks – it’s all out there now. You know the location of the wellsprings from which my creative and comedic genius largely flow, and you are now all quite capable of calling me out when I steal jokes or ape other people’s style. In retrospect, this was probably a terrible idea, so in the interest of redeeming myself, I’m going to take a moment and respond to Lu’s top five comedy picks. You can find my responses on his post at Inching Towards Mediocrity, which as I said at the beginning of this missive, you should have already checked out because he’s great (but don’t tell him that, his head is big enough as it is.)

6 Responses to “SOA Top Five Comedic Personalities featuring Inching Towards Mediocrity”

  1. Brent Chittenden February 11, 2010 at 1:05 AM #

    Your list is decent with exception of one choice.

    Eddie Izzard? Really?

    Neither influential or funny.

    With a world full of funny comics you went with him?

    What about Bill Cosby? Billy Connolly? or Woody Allen?

    In fact your work has a lot in common with Woody Allen’s stand up as he was the original neurotic comic (and the best).

    But if it makes you feel any better, your list is much better then the other guy’s

  2. Ryan February 11, 2010 at 11:31 AM #

    It’s Funny how much we can learn about life from comedians.

    …(See what I did there? :p)

  3. Stephanie February 11, 2010 at 2:55 PM #

    Hey!! Henry Rollins will be in Toronto March 26 for a spoken word show!! Im going to go, you should come too!!

  4. Alex James February 11, 2010 at 3:01 PM #

    Hey Stephanie: already got my ticket. I try to keep on top of when Hank is in town; hate finding out too late that I missed him.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Top five of the funny – people, that is. (Now with 12% more State of Affairs!) « Inching towards mediocrity. - February 11, 2010

    […] a cross-pollination of comedy goodness. Check out Alex James’ blog State of Affairs for his personal top five as well. Mine’s better of course, but his is his own […]

  2. Arts and Entertainment - July 14, 2010

    Arts and Entertainment…

    There are lots of video production editing jobs on the market, but you might have trouble finding them….

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