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Leone’s legends: Standup comedy, an ancient art form?

Leone 's -Legends --Joey -Leone ---column -header --photo

If you've ever seen one of those old movies about ancient Rome you'll always find the obligatory scene where the Emperor is sitting around getting fed grapes by some young maidens while being entertained by the "court jester." And the look of absolute fear in the eyes of the jester is one that anyone who has seen a comedian bomb will recognize. The ironic thing is that if the jester did not make the Emperor laugh he would be killed. This is where the term "dying" in front of a crowd comes from.

I've performed standup comedy many times during my career and I can tell you without any doubt that it is the hardest form of entertainment to pull off. Sometimes I would revert to comedy at a music show because of a technical problem, and would "fill time" until it was resolved. Or a few times I'd tell some jokes or funny stories because I had lost my singing voice. You know, the necessity being 'the mother of invention' deal.

In keeping with the format of my column I will speak of some of my favorite standup comedians, and also share some insight into the world of "funny," at least that is my hope.

As a child of the 60's I can tell you that the Tonight Show was the place comedy careers were launched. When you got "a shot on Carson" you went from being a $100 a night comedian to a $5,000 a night headliner in one fell swoop. And if you were lucky enough to get the wave over from Johnny, and invited to sit on the couch that was the endorsement that launched careers into super stardom. Comedians like Freddia Prinze, David Steinberg, David Brenner, Rosanne Barr, Tim Allen, and yes even Jay Leno were just a few of the anointed ones who went onto big paydays in Las Vegas and Hollywood.

But the comedian that was made on the Tonight Show was the great Rodney Dangerfield. Truth is that Rodney's first real big break was as a last minute fill in on the Ed Sullivan Show in the summer of 1967. His nervous demeanor and tag line "I get no respect" caught on quickly and in the next ten years he became a sure hit whenever he appeared on a number of shows, most notably the Dean Martin Show and the Tonight Show. His standup was the door opener to Hollywood, where Rodney enjoyed great success in movies like, "Caddyshack," "Easy Money" and "Back to School." Rodney Dangerfield comedy legend. We miss ya Rodney.

Ethnic comedy has always been the grassroots, proving ground for many up and coming standups. Whether it was the Borscht Belt (Catskills area of Upstate New York) Jewish comedians like Jackie Mason, Myron Cohen, or Henny Youngman, or great Chitlin Circuit (Southern black night clubs) icons like Redd Foxx, and Moms Mabley, ethnic humor has been fertile soil for great comedy.

We can also see in the last twenty years emerging styles like the "blue collar" comedy, that started with Jeff Foxworthy and his "you know you're a redneck if....." This can be traced directly to ethnic comedy, or sometimes referred to as "niche comedy." This targeting of a specific audience provided an opportunity for comedians to gain great crossover appeal, resulting in a larger and diverse audience. Nowadays you can walk into a comedy club and see a Chris Rock playing to a largely white audience, as well as see a wide demographic at a Jerry Seinfeld show, which only proves what we all know: "funny is funny."

In closing my friends I suggest in the YouTube era to check out some great old school comedians online, like Jackie Vernon, Joan Rivers, Richard Prior, Dick Gregory, as well as some of the above mentioned purveyors of comedic verbiage. Because there ain't no such thing as too much laughter my friends.

Tagged: Leone's Legends, stand-up comedy