APRIL 2006 – NO. 5
A sold-out club of boisterous drunks shift about their folding chairs, downing their pints while simultaneously hailing the waitresses for another. Three comedians pace backstage, awaiting the commencement of Saturday night's show.
The comics have engaged in years of trial and error onstage, some nights spilling their guts to complete silence, other nights to uncontrollable laughter. At home, their notebooks and napkins sit decorated with premises for jokes. Later, their beer bottles and shot glasses will crowd the bar while they trade stories about the road.
I am proud to be a part of Boston's comedy scene, standing before a wide variety of audiences each week, experimenting and refining routines, completely addicted to the rush that accompanies risk. Yet, for many veteran and retired comics, the current scene is just an aftershock of the 1980s, the decade of the comedy boom.
Fran Solomita, who regularly performed throughout Boston during the boom, went on to depict the scene in the documentary When Stand Up Stood Out (2004). The documentary reveals comedy shows, which often played out like parties, as well as the fraternal bond amongst the comedians. According to the documentary, Boston gained so much recognition at the time that stand-ups from New York and L.A. would venture there to get a feel for what the buzz was about.
Comedian Bill Campbell has been touring throughout the U.S. and Canada for over 25 years. He recalls the boom as a time when the Comedy Connection would sell out three or four shows on a Saturday night, while the Ding Ho, a Chinese Restaurant/comedy club in Somerville, would sell out another four or five. While New York and L.A. ruled most of the market, Boston was developing its own scene, experimenting with foundations that have since grown established. Their initial experimentation was the creation of an all-comedy showcase, a concept previously unheard of in New England.
Campbell started his career during the late 1970s when there were no places to perform standup except open mikes, usually organized for folk singers. He remembers when comedy started to become increasingly mainstream in Boston. When local street performer Sean Morey opened his own show at the downtown theater, The Charles Playhouse, he eventually gave Wednesday nights and Friday nights to comedy class teachers Bill Downs and Paul Barkley. This was the origin of one of Boston's most prominent clubs, the Comedy Connection. One week after the Boston Globe ran a review of the Connection there was a line out the door. The line continued to appear for a decade.
Meanwhile, across the river in Somerville, comedians Barry Crimmins and DJ Hazard started the Ding Ho with shows running the latter half of the week. Between the Connection and the Ding Ho, many of the shows featured bizarre acts, such as Mr. My Way, a performer who would have a woman bite into his bicep and then lift her up by the teeth while singing Frank Sinatra's My Way. Often the comedians' unrestrained performances were met with hostile reactions. Hazard recalls when Lenny Clarke, host of Wednesday nights at the Ding Ho, had to talk his way out of having his legs broken for consistently ragging on a local lounge singer. Clarke, who has since gone on to perform around the world and appear in such films as There's Something About Mary, became especially notorious during the early '80s for putting on wild shows that would run until 1:00 a.m., with comics taking the stage under various influences.
From there, several other clubs, including Nick's Comedy Stop, Play It Again Sam's, and Catch A Rising Star all opened up downtown. Television programs such as The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson helped roll the snowball of publicity, especially following appearances by such Boston acts as Steven Wright. Campbell explains that by the late '80s, "every pizza shop was running a comedy night." This was, however, the beginning of the end. Hazard mentions that, "The 'boom' created too many rooms and not enough good comics. Open-mikers became openers, openers became middlers, middlers headlined."
There are several theories surrounding the supposed rise and fall of Boston's comedy boom. One is that television made comedy too accessible for every household. As a result, people no longer needed to leave their homes to watch standup. Because "it's a live performance," Campbell adds, "comedy doesn't do that well on TV."
Rick Jenkins, owner of the Comedy Studio in Harvard Square, agrees that television did have a major impact in transforming the scene from the '80s into what it is now. "I think there's just more of a shift in focus…. Back then [comedians] didn't think in terms of 'I want to get on television.' They were just doing comedy because they wanted to do comedy. Now, you can start and see a picture, you can have a goal."
"There was a period in the '90s when everyone had their hat on backwards and an attitude … to get on TV," adds Campbell. "Since they can't make money off the clubs, management is pushing them to get a sitcom."
In spite of these shifts in the Boston comedy scene, Hazard doesn't feel that the quality of comedy has changed. "Eating at a sidewalk bistro seems different now than during Nazi Germany, but the food tastes the same. Funny is funny. I think there's just as many mainstream and experimental comedians and there's work and advancement for both."
Others, like Jenkins, believe that we are currently in the golden age of comedy. He explains that the television networks are starting to consider a new generation of comedy. One notable example of this is Boston native, Dane Cook, whose comedy album debuted at #4 on the Billboard charts last August, and who hosted Saturday Night Live last December, not because of a TV or movie role, but because of his success in standup.
"Everyone likes to think that [the 1980s] was a golden age. I think that's partly because we were younger then … the scene [now] seems stronger than ever." Jenkins also believes, however, that there was more creativity during the '80s because audiences had "no preconceived ideas of what comedy should be …. You could do props, you could do anything because people coming to the show were coming to see this 'thing' and they didn't know what it was. Now they're going to a comedy club so they're thinking it's like Seinfeld."
Campbell agrees that the reason why the '80s were so fun was because things were so new for comedians. The scene had not yet been established. There were "no older people that were better than you. You were the first." Rather than diving into the complete unknown, up and coming Boston comedians today are following in others' footsteps while trying to outgrow them. Whereas the opener/middle act/headliner shows have led the way for a more noticeable hierarchal system in Boston comedy today, Hazard explains that Boston used to have its own "isolated experiment." Rather than going last, the headliner hosted the show. "He/she had his/her own night at a place and ran it like some kind of variety/vaudeville show on acid." The rest of the comedians on the show shared the same status, performing for the same amount of time.
Hearing all these stories, I begin to realize that it is not just the lucrative paychecks or even the number of shows that are missing from Boston comedy today. While each of these factors has fluctuated since the boom, it seems that innocence is the dynamic that has been truly lost since the '80s. "At that time, just the idea of a standup show was new. A comedian was usually someone you put on with other acts. To have all comedians on a show was odd," explains Jenkins.
While expectations have replaced experimentation in many respects, however, comedians are still challenging conventions politically and artistically. Many, including Dane Cook, Louis CK, Gary Gulman, Eugene Mirman, and others are graduating from the Boston scene with their own styles and standards. Just like before, a younger generation is starting to open its eyes to comedy's capabilities and experience the kind of innocence that surrounded the 1980s.
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