Periodically stand-up comedians will go through the rigors of the newspaper interview in which the writer will ask the inevitable question about our comedy influences to complete the article. Citing people like Pryor, Carlin and Hicks is a lot more sexy than Captain Rowdy, Danny Martinez and Jimmy Pineapple– but these guys were awe inspiring, and I wanted to be each of them, together.
As a young comedian I was fortunate to be around the likes of Charlie Shannon and Sam Cox who personally helped me cultivate the proper attitude about the work ethic that is crucial to the success of a comic. They urged me to maximize on the expectation of success while respecting the stage and all those who stood there before me. However, my most prominent influences weren’t the comics I wanted to be; instead, they were the comics I never wanted to be. Below, are four examples.
THE PLAYED-OUT INFLUENCE
As a young comedian I never wanted to be that older bitter comic who would bask in the glow of what stand-up used to be while criticizing the status quo. Those guys were around all of the time, watching in the back of the room and highlighting obscure reasons as to why failure was imminent to those who dare trespass on that particular stage. For the most part they were substance abusing narcissists whose claims to fame were in association with comics of status.
They never really did much on their own other than years of sporadic road work and part-time jobs that enabled their pursuit of chicks, alcohol and personal delusions of grandeur. Confusing for the young comedian was the older comic who consistently bombed on stage but was critical of how others made people laugh. They were quick to vilify the fart joke but would routinely do an antiquated Cosby impression to close a less than mediocre set (everyone knows that a fart is more original than a Jell-O Pudding Pop).
Their artsy community of failed writers and musicians would gather in judgment of young comics, tossing around advice like they’ve been there while being silently envious of an undiscovered talent. Their tweaking groupies would secretly pass along their number to said amateur for an afterhours rendezvous at a neighborhood bar, normally ending with a romp in the back seat of her roommates car – and a request not to let her performance end up in the next show.
THE UNDERACHIEVING INFLUENCE
As a working comedian I never wanted to be the comic who based my success on that of others. These guys watch TV religiously, criticize sets on late night TV and scoff at the notion that anyone would be more deserving of an opportunity than them. Their petty jealousies move them to lie about network deals and non-existent career milestones.
Normally, these are the comedians who are “on” all the time. They routinely distribute comedy club passes and misplaced one-liners to future audience members who ultimately realize that they aren’t as interesting on stage as they are off. They make up credits for things they’ve never done and weave farfetched vanities into their sets.
In desperation they replace a creative work ethic with patterns of plagiarism, but are most likely to recognize a hack by the bit he wishes he’d stolen first. They want to have the look of prosperity, however will often claim that all comics are derelicts, because for him, martyrdom is far more impressive than anonymity.
THE OVERRATED INFLUENCE
As a headliner I never wanted to be the prima donna who because of a few career accolades carried around a severely warped sense of entitlement. These guys are normally on the cusp of greatness but are self saboteurs who complain incessantly while alienating the very people who can best advance their purpose. They normally wear the same pair of jeans every night but complain about inappropriate bedding.
They refuse to stay in the comedy condo but require rides to the show from the comic who is actually housed there. They manage the show by monitoring what ‘s done before them while blaming whatever goes wrong on something other than the obvious – Karma. You end up knowing far more about them at the end of the week because their massive volume of self-indulgence comes with its very own non-compete clause.
THE OBLIVIOUS INFLUENCE
As an open miker I never wanted to be the comic who allowed my opinion to outweigh my actual talent. These are normally the hipster types who are inherently more negative than creative and after a few years of hanging out at floating one nighters they often consider themselves the undisputed authority on the anatomy of stand-up. Tragically for them, laughter is merely a footnote for the comedians who can actually provoke it.
They often lead lives of quiet desperation after failed attempts at conventional acceptance and view the abstract nature of stand-up as the perfect platform to validate their awkwardness. These archetypes are self-proclaimed geeks who twist knowledge to their advantage while ignoring the concept of entertainment. They crap on everything sacred for mere shock value and mock an institution that won’t honor their “work” with actual work.
As a comedian I never wanted to be a “comedian”. In social settings my sense of humor is subtle at best and I rarely self-promote unless it’s accompanied by purpose. I’ll only offer advice when asked of me because I’d rather be a friend to a comic than a critic. Deep down I love the attention I get because of what I think is entertaining while never taking opinions on my work very seriously, good or bad.
I’m thankful for people who are impressed by my work, yet people who brag on me in public make me uncomfortable. I’ve realized that I’ll never be rich based on stand-up comedy alone but I’ve been blessed with other talents that could make up the difference. If anyone patterns themselves after what I have done in this business I hope that they first understand the humility I take with me to every professional scenario while maintaining the authority it takes to stand behind that microphone for an hour. The silence that you hear in my act is calculated and the passion I exude at my close is genuine.
All influences aren’t good influences, but ultimately the best influence on the comedian is the calculated influence that he has on himself.
Billy is currently on the Ask A Black Man Comedy Tour, which hits Omaha on Feb. 13 (Tickets here).