THE BIG THREE
(and, no, I don’t mean FDR, Churchill and Stalin)
Hollywood Daze has asked me to reminisce a bit about my time as a struggling comic in LA in the late 70s, the Golden Age of Standup. I had tasted some success as part of a four-man comedy troupe in Santa Barbara, The DeLuxe Radio Theatre. I wagered that our peculiar brand of off-beat, satirical humor would go over in the big town as well.
Not so much. But my timing was excellent because I got to witness firsthand the meteoric rise of the Big Three – Jay Leno, Dave Letterman and Robin Williams.
Jay Leno was the first one I got to share a stage with. It was 1978, at the dear departed Westwood Comedy Store, a branch office of the main Comedy Store in Hollywood. The room that weekday night was half-empty and dead. Everyone bombed, myself included.
Then the emcee introduced a guy with a big chin who looked about sixteen years old. And the room snapped to.
Jay Leno in 1978 was precisely the Jay Leno you know today – brash, quick and bursting with East Coast attitude. He killed.
I only remember one line. Jay riffed off the men’s room, which had those newfangled hand dryers. “Anybody use dose things? I seen guys in six-hundred dollar suits wiping their hands on their lapels.”
Not the funniest joke of all time, but the way Jay told it, it worked like crazy. I watched him with a mix of envy and amazement. The guy was younger than I was. How in the hell had he progressed so far, so fast?
I got a glimpse of his fascination with vintage cars a little later. I was out in the parking lot, smoking and commiserating with my fellow comics when we saw Jay drive off in an old car. Not a fancy buffed-out Fleetwood or Packard like he drives now. It was the car that Ralph Nader wrote about in “Unsafe at Any Speed.” A 1962 Chevrolet Corvair.
I have no idea if this is true but the scuttlebutt at the time was that Jay was living in it.
Dave Letterman was the coolest of the Big Three. Leno would work the room like an alderman on election eve, slapping backs and pressing flesh. Robin Williams would run up and down the room and occasionally bounce off the ceiling. But Letterman would hang back, wrinkle his brow sardonically and make the audience come to him. It helped that he was wicked funny.
Years later, when I first saw Dave on Late Night on CBS, I was shocked at how much he had amped up his persona to fit the role of prime time host. He lost his ‘hippest guy in the room’ rep when he did that as far as we comic purists were concerned.
Back in the day the rumor was that Dave was a lush, however I never saw him slur his words or lose his cool. I do remember how he used to cling to the mike stand for dear life as he swayed to and fro, making us laugh, snigger and guffaw without seeming to try.
I first saw Robin Williams in 1978, working with an improv group in West Hollywood. This was just before he burst onto the national stage on Happy Days which led to his starring role in Mork and Mindy. It was appropriate he played an alien on TV because his energy level was otherworldly.
That was not necessarily a blessing for the other members of the improv group he was performing with, however. I remember one point in the evening when Williams was so wound up (or coked out) that the audience was paying more attention to his offstage antics than to the poor schmucks trying to improvise a scene onstage. When Robin did bound onstage he barely gave his fellow thespians time to speak.
But standup comedy was the perfect setting for his talent. I remember an evening at the Hollywood Comedy Store when RW was in full flower. He had just made a run up the aisle, dragged along by his imaginary pack of baying hounds. When he reached the stage he turned and stood stock still for a good sixty seconds.
Why? Because the audience was laughing so hard he feared we would die of asphyxiation!
He was the greatest standup comic I ever saw. By far. Was his material the greatest off all time? Nope. But his rapid fire timing, brilliant mimicry and sheer athleticism put him in a class by himself.
I learned something important about comedy from watching the Big Three. Style trumps substance every time, material is less important than presentation. The audience first has to ‘get you’ before they will laugh with you.
I didn’t have that instantly identifiable style or persona onstage. I was all over the place, serving up droll one-liners followed by loud parody bits. Which is why I eventually moved on to something I suspected I could do well in the privacy of my book-paneled study.
Write fiction. Still…
Hey, where are you folks from? I know you’re out there, I can hear you breathing…!
Causes John Knoerle Supports
Paralyzed Veterans of America
St. Labre Indian School