Column: Comedy Matters with Mike Birbiglia, Lewis Black, more

By | January 6, 2009 at 1:13 pm | 2 comments | Features

MY “BEST FRIEND” RICHARD BELZER

So I’m at The Friars Club at the book party for Richard Belzer’s new book, I Am Not A Cop, which right away surprised me because I was certain he was—a cop, that is. As one who believes everything he sees on TV, as I’m sure you do, it was absolutely shocking to find out that Belzer is not really a cop.

“Belz” as he’s known in the trade, (what trade that is no one actually knows) has made television history by portraying “acerbic” Det. John Munch, on no less than 10 different TV shows, including Homicide: Life On The Street, The Wire, and Arrested Development, besides Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, where he currently resides.

I’m sitting at a table in The Milton Berle room, where most of the book parties take place, and I wind up at a table of only three people, me, Belz, and Paul Shaffer, who I’ve known even longer than I do Belz. As proof I offer the classic three in one photo that we started taking many years ago.

Richard Belzer

Three-in-one photo of me, Belzer and Shaffer taken at The Friars Club.

A few years later, I brought that original photo with me when we were together and took a photo of us standing in the same order holding the original photo, and then did it a third time years after that.  So it’s a photo of me, Belzer and Shaffer, holding a photo of me, Belzer and Shaffer, holding yet another photo of me, Belzer and Shaffer. We actually tried for a fourth, but it didn’t come out.

So this night at The Friars, it’s not like I was invited to specifically sit at the honoree’s table, it just happened to wind up that way.

Shaffer looks over at Belzer and says to him, “You know how long we know this guy?” meaning me!  Belzer doesn’t say much, just gives him that look that says “Yeh, we know him a really long time.” I felt like that would be the right time to ask Belz to sign my book, which I had just bought in his honor, but he had no pen. Comes to a book signing party with no pen!

Lewis Black

Lewis Black and Dick Cavett at Belzer’s book party

For some unknown reason, I happened to have a Sharpee marker with me, and let him use it so that he could inscribe the following “lifelong friend” message – “For Jeff, Best Wishes, Richard Belzer.”

I took the book back wondering what heartfelt message he could have written so quickly, but could not contain my surprise when I read what amounted to something you’d write to a perfect stranger.

I looked at Shaffer and said, “Look at what this M-F’er wrote in my book. Can you believe it? You’re saying how long we know each other, and he writes like we just met this afternoon.”

Belzer says, “Gimme your pen back.” He grabs the book and adds – “To my dearest friend ever,” and says, “Is that better now?” I was overwhelmed with emotion, and could hardly speak.  It was just so sincere, and I was so touched, I haven’t slept well since! Anyway, get the book, cause it’s funny, and Belzer needs more money! He has a castle in France to support.

One last thing.  In the aftermath of the overwhelming experience of the Belzer shower of emotion, I managed to take time to bore actor Tony Roberts to death with the story of how I originally met him through Woody Allen many years before when they were in Play It Again Sam.

Tony Robbins

Me with Tony Roberts holding Belzer’s book at The Friars Club.


SLEEPWALKING AND OTHER MENTAL ILLNESSES

As a young child I had a lot of scary dreams. I dreamt of two men named Bunce and Bunce-Labin, (I swear those were their names, and if you don’t believe me, ask my parents!) who came into my room at night, and ran their very long, sharp fingernails over my body hoping to wake me up so they could hurt me. I was a very strange child. But never, … not once, did I ever dream of a jackal entering my room.

Had I dreamt of a jackal entering my room, I would probably be in worse psychological shape than I am today. And only an innovative mind like the kind owned by Mike Birbiglia could dream of the kind of jackal where you might have to take a karate stance on your bed in order to defend yourself. Of course he did this in his sleep, because his new show, Sleepwalk With Me at the Bleecker Street Theatre, is all about his troubles as a sleepwalker, including defending himself against this sleep-induced jackal.

Now I have to admit that I have been a fan of Mike Birbiglia for many years.  Probably since the first time I saw him perform. He’s sharp, clever, very funny, and really laid back onstage, which is very appealing, and his sold-out audiences seem to agree.

So I was not surprised that I thoroughly enjoyed his show. I would have been surprised if I hadn’t. But this column is rarely about reviews. What I wanted to know is how he got Nathan Lane, the king of Broadway, to present it for him.

So I went backstage and taped his story, which somehow disappeared even though I downloaded it onto my computer.  The recording disappeared and the computer file disappeared. Lately, I’m losing a lot of s**t!

Anyway, not wanting to bother Mike again, I’m going to try and tell you the story from memory. Mike was either preparing for a television special, or a tour, and canceled all of his club appearances except for Carolines, cause you don’t do that to Caroline. If you are scheduled to headline Carolines, you DON”T cancel.  The repercussions would be worse than having a jackal in your room.

So he goes to the Carolines gig and finds out when he gets there, that Nathan Lane is in the audience. Nathan doesn’t come back after the show, but leaves Mike a note with his number.

So Mike calls, and Nathan tells him how much he liked the show and invites Mike to see HIS show, whose name I can’t remember, but it’s a hit, cause everything that Nathan Lane does is a hit.  They hit if off and become friendly, and start hanging out.

Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia and I backstage with their coats on in case they have to leave suddenly.

Because Mike, according to him, lives in a fantasy world where he believes that anything is possible, he told Nathan about the one-man show he wanted to do, and asked him if he might consider presenting it, to which Nathan replied in the affirmative. Which just shows you that sometimes you have to take a shot.  The worst Nathan could have said was “No, and I hate you and your family, and don’t ever call me again.” But he didn’t say that.  He said “Yes” and now Mike has a playbill that says “Nathan Lane presents – Sleepwalk With Me.”

Go and see it. It’s there through March. Tell Mike I sent you!

NIGHT OF A MILLION JEWISH COMEDIANS

There was a time when all comedians were Jewish, even the ones that weren’t.  For whatever reason Jews like to laugh, and mostly at themselves. It’s a gift we were given for being The Chosen People!  As we were leaving The Promised Land they gave out gift bags, and each one of them had a certificate for a sense of humor.

Comic/Impresario Dave Konig put on a wonderful show, which was a benefit for The Actor’s Temple, a nice little “shul” with a rich showbiz heritage going back to Sophie Tucker and two of the Three Stooges.  All the Stooges were Jewish, but I guess one of them didn’t like going to Temple.

Tom Shillue

(L-R) Scott Blakeman, Steven Scott, Tom Shillue, Bob Greenberg, and Dave Konig, who wasn’t able to make it but he sent his head.

It was a packed house. It was a great show with Stone and Stone, Bob Greenberg, Steven Scott, Scott Blakeman, Michelle Balan, Rena Strober, and a few token “goyim” like Tom Cotter, who just looks Jewish but isn’t, (you have to know him to get that!), Joey Callahan, and Tom Shillue, who if he looked anymore like a Wasp he’d have a stinger!

SHORT TAKES

Two things to see if you get a chance: First is Sal Richards’ film, Mr. Laughs – A Look Behind The Curtain. On the DVD cover it says, “a true story about the life of acclaimed entertainer Sal Richards” …  as opposed to the made-up stories which have been circulating about him for years?

Sal is one of those hardworking comics who has worked every big venue around the country, but brings the class, and feel of the old Vegas showman with him.   He’s always impeccably dressed, and is a real pro.

The film has testimonials from legends like Sid Caesar, Don Rickles, Red Buttons and Norm Crosby, but what struck me most was the honesty of the hardships that Sal has had to endure in his life. Yet he showed up onstage to make people laugh. You have to admire a guy like that.

And speaking of honesty and courage on stage, the second thing to see, the  next time she does it is Vanessa Hollingshead’s one-woman show Drunk. Produced by Jeanne Heaton, the tag line is: “My friends tried so many interventions on me that I just leave the plastic folding chairs set up in a semi-circle in my apartment.”

Vanessa Hollingshead

Vanessa Hollingshead and Jeanne Heaton at Gotham Comedy Club

It’s not like an A.A. “drunkalogue,” because Vanessa tells both sides of the story. She had a lot of good times while drinking, (from what people told her), but she’s a good performer who opens herself up to the audience the way very few can.  And I love her ability to do dialects.

I still remember her show That’s My Time which she did many years ago at the 78th Street Lab. I don’t remember most things in my life, (which is why I hope I got Birbiglia’s Nathan Lane story right!), but for some reason I remember that show.

Last but not least, Eve Ensler who wrote The Vagina Monologues, held a charity event at ABC Carpet of all places, and I ran into celeb DJ Donna D’Cruz, and super model Josie Maran who was in town promoting her new cosmetics line.

Josie Maran

Josie Maran and I at the opening of Greenhouse.

WENDY WILLIAMS — QUEEN OF COMEDY

I’ve been a fan of Wendy Williams on WBLS for many years, but she was one of the few people I had liked who I had not had an opportunity to meet, so when I found out my boy Drew Fraser was hosting her show, The Wendy Williams Experience at Carolines, I called him up and asked him to hook a brother up!

She is as much The Queen of all Media as Howard is The King. Her radio show on BLS is Number One. Her TV show on Fox has recently gone national.  She’s an author, with two New York Times best sellers, a lecturer, and a gorgeous, elegant woman, and I absolutely love her voice.

So every Wednesday night, at 9:30 she brings the heat to Carolines.  She actually comes out onstage and opens the show. The night I saw her she pulled up in a red Bentley that made my white Jag look like a roller-skate. She sat in the restaurant like a Queen and all her subjects came to pay homage.

Wendy Williams

Wendy Williams and I at Carolines.

She was surrounded by her ex-co-host on BLS, Charlamagne Tha God, who was recently let go due to budgetary concerns, and her husband Kevin Hunter, who is the nicest guy; and it’s a good thing, cause the man is like a building with clothes.  I was afraid to compliment Wendy in his presence, even though she looked so hot. I think I whispered something to her so he couldn’t hear! (Just kidding Kev!) So check out her show any Wednesday if you’re in New York. It’s a definite winner.

Y’NEVANO

Why any comedian would look outside the comedy community for financial stability is beyond me, but Wali Collins is experiencing the excitement and success of starting his own clothing line. Not just regular clothing, but an inspirational clothing line called Y’Nevano.

A multi-faceted guy, Wali is not only a comic, but also an actor, writer and in college studied Architectural technology which led him to work as a building designer. One day he confided in his Mom that he wanted to be an actor, but doubted he could do that from Springfield, Mass. where he was from. His Mom looked at him, smiled, and said “You never know.”

Kyle Grooms

(L-R) Kyle Grooms, me, and Wali Collins at Gotham  at my workshop for Black History Month.

Wali took that and ran with it. Being the creative guy that he is, he changed that to Y’Nevano, and now carries a line that includes tee shirts, hats, jackets, sweatshirts, and travel bags.  It’s clothing that inspires people to achieve their goals. Check it out online  at ynevano.com.

COMICS AT COMIX

Rumor has it that comics like to party. Especially when there’s a holiday involved, and Comix threw a really big holiday party this year. The place was slammin’ and there was a show and lots of good cheer.

I came with Richie Tienken, the owner of The Comic Strip, and comic Brett Eidman who is working really hard to get ready to debut his one-man show, Brett Eidman-One Angry Man.

Judah Friedlander

Judah Friedlander and Gary Gulman at Comix holiday party.

I caught up with Judah Friedlander and Gary Gulman, who were both pretty psyched about being in a photo together, and they both promised to come and do interviews for my new book on the history of The Comic Strip.

About a week later I was back at Comix downstairs in Ochi’s Lounge, “the little room that could” to catch the comedy stylings of Mandy Stadtmiller of the NY Post, who was a past winner of the Funniest Reporter Contest produced by Ryan McCormick as part of the NYC Underground Comedy Festival. Mandy proved why she won!  Maybe some day I can get her to tell me who “Ochi” is, and why they named a lounge after him!

Mandy Stadtmiller

The funny and sexy Mandy Stadtmiller with Jeffrey at Ochi’s Lounge.

RICHIE TIENKEN IS IN THE HOUSE

Speaking of holiday parties, The Comic Strip had the party to end all parties on the Sunday before Christmas. I originally wrote “Xmas” but Kevin Flynn sent me an e-mail chastising me for not respecting the holiday and spelling it out in full.  I wrote him back, “There used to be a comic named Kevin Flynn. By any chance is that you?” He admitted in writing that that was a good come back!

Richie, who opened The Strip in 1976, and managed Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Colin Quinn, and Tony Rock to name a few, provided the home club for guys like Eddie, Chris Rock, Larry Miller, George Wallace, Paul Reiser, and Jerry Seinfeld.

Lucien Hold ran the club for many years, but when he died things began to change. Then when Richie took sick a couple of years ago, the club was being run by people who became less and less popular with the comics, to the point that at last year’s holiday party only about 30 people showed up. There was no longer any energy, or camaraderie at the club.

Robin Byrd

Robin Byrd and I at The Comic Strip holiday party.

Now that Richie is back in good health, he took back his club, to the resounding applause of the over 300 people who were at this year’s party.  The party was so good it wound up on Page 6 of the NY Post, the most powerful gossip page in the country. I had the pleasure of co-hosting the party with him, and we invited all the Friars and my entire party list. I’m sure many of you were there.

Former stand-up comedian (and current political pundit) Alan Colmes  showed up, as well as 30 Rock’s Friedlander, TV’s Robin Byrd, radio’s Chuck Nice, TV’s Jane Velez-Mitchell, and comic/LateNet host Ray Ellin among others.

Alan Colmes

Alan Colmes wearing his original Comic Strip jacket with me and Richie Tienken.

Richie took the stage and publicly announced the comedy projects that he and I were working on together, which I will be sharing with you in upcoming columns.

In the meantime, I would just like to wish you all the happiest, healthiest and very Happy New Year. And until next time, remember, … COMEDY MATTERS!!!

Find me at jeffreygurian.com or youtube.com/guriannewsnetwork.

About the Author

Jeffrey Gurian

Jeffrey Gurian is a comedy writer who has written for lots of big names, and is currently writing the book on the 35 year history of The Comic Strip. Contact Jeffrey at Jeffrey@jeffreygurian.com.

  • http:/www.drmenahem.com/ Sam Menahem

    If you get a testicular transplant from a black man-does it mean you are automatically backballed?

  • anthony

    Damn, Alan Combs is one ugly bastard!