Monday, November 9, 2009

I blame you! (...for my love of comedy!)

I've always been a comedy nerd. My whole life. There was always a love of all-things-funny through my household growing up, and I was was weened on some of the greatest comedic actors, stand-ups, improvisers, sketch troupes, and hilarious film classics. I'm blessed to be able to make my living through comedy--as an actor, improviser, and writer...and as Co-Founder/Co-Creative Director of SF Sketchfest, the San Francisco Comedy Festival (check it out here: It was started as a labour of love by my old sketch group Totally False People (seen above, in our earliest incarnation in 2001!). We were a bunch of goofy college kids, with a weird sense of the absurd and a passionate love of comedy. The fest is entering it's ninth year now, and what started a little lark has turned into one of the biggest independently run comedy festivals in the U.S. I'm so proud of what we've created...and I thought it would be fun to look back at some of the biggest influences on me as a comedian and lover of a good laugh. So, in no particular order...

As a wee one, I thought Fozzie was HILARIOUS. Whenever the Muppet Show came on, I shouted to my folks that it was time for "The Fozzie Show!" I tend to say "Wocka Wocka Wocka" and weird and inappropriate times. Henson's endless creativity and vaudevillian sensibilities really struck a chord with me as a kid.

I always tuned into The Tracey Ullman Show just to see the short, crudely animated adventures of the Simpson clan (I particularly remember one where Bart when out for a long football pass and was told to oncoming obstacles, like a hedge and ultimately a cliff). It's amazing to think that the spin-off show has been on the air for 20 years! I also really dug Groening's Life is Hell comic strip and collected books--I may have been a little young for them, but they always cracked me up.

They were probably the most influential on my love of sketch comedy--I taped countless episodes off of Comedy Central and HBO and quoted favorite recurring characters like hellish film spoilers Simon & Hecubus, back-packed bike racer Gavin, the bitter Headcrusher, and the life-loving Chickenlady. My old roomie and fellow TFP/Sketchfester Dave and I performed the Citizen Kane sketch for our "Acting for the Camera" class at San Francisco State. In fact, during the 2000 KITH tour, our sketch group was just forming, and we took our name from a line in Mark McKinney's bio from the tour program ("Rumours that he was gay--totally false, people!--led to...). It was a real surreal thrill to have all five of them reunite for our fest a few years back.

Hand in hand with KITH were the short-lived but ridiculously good The State, MTV's late 90's sketch collective that featured now-stars like Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, Thomas Lennon, Ken Marino and David Wain. Coming out of college in NYC, the eleven member group wrote and performed some of the most memorable and influential sketches that I can recall--including Barry & Levon's pudding; the oh-so-outta here Doug; a mailman who delivers tacos; and a porcupine racetrack. Last year, we were honored to reunite all of them for a tribute and an intimate sketch performance, a lofty idea that magically came to fruition. The reunited group is seen above, along with myself and partners David Owen and Janet Varney.

Oh how I love the Satellite of Love! I used to have sleep-overs in high school with a couple of my buddies, and we would watch the Friday night broadcast on Comedy Central. The wisecrackin' bots and hosts Joel and Mike really appealed to my comic sensibilities--I've always been a film aficionado, good and bad, and their wry and goofy commentary was always a blast to listen to. The sketches in between the film segments were inspired as well. I've been fortunate enough to do a handful of RiffTrax Presents tracks with Janet Varney for Mike Nelson's, and am honored to call Mike, Kevin and Bill friends.

A comedy genius, pure and simple. His writing is so clever and funny--as evident in films like Lost in America, Real Life, and my favorite Defending Your Life. He was robbed (ROBBED, I TELL YA!) of an Oscar for his brilliant portrayal of Aaron Altman in James L. Brooks' incredible Broadcast News. I continue to be amazed by his engaging sense of humor, and his bits as a guest on The Tonight Show still have me in stitches no matter how many times I've heard them. If you haven't, hunt down his two comedy records, Comedy Minus One and A Star is Bought. They are amazing!

How can one do a list of comedic influences and NOT include Monty Python? Sublimely ridiculous, combing weird absurd sketches with Terry Gilliam's funny animation, they are the masters of the anti-ending and interesting sketch transitions. It doesn't get any better than Cleese's Ministry of Silly Walks or the Spam sketch.

Say what you will about the hit-and-miss tendencies of this late night TV staple, it was incredibly influential on me growing up. From the original Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players to the latest incarnation, every generation has had its gifted performers and memorable sketches. My all-time faves: Chris Farley's motivational speaker Matt Foley ("Living in a van down by the river"); Richard Pryor & Chevy Chases word association ("DEAD honkey!"); Dana Carvey as Tom Brokaw pre-recording Gerald Ford's death announcement ("Gerald Ford dead today from an overdose of crack cocaine!"; the great Phil Hartman as Charlton Heston doing an audio-book recording of Madonna's Sex ("I like my vagina..."); and pretty much any Wayne's World (and the movies to boot).

I took my first improv class when I was 12--it was "Improvisation for Teens" and was offered through the Sacramento Area Regional Theater Alliance (SARTA). It was taught by Buck Busfield, brother of Timothy and owner of the B-Street Theater. One class, and I WAS HOOKED. I've been doing improv continuously in some incarnation or other for 20 years, from my high school group Improv Core at Davis High to my college troupe Small Chicken at San Francisco State, to several venues in SF and LA, I'm always doing it. I started in short form, and THE program I watched repeatedly was Whose Line, the original British version featuring performers like Ryan Stiles, Greg Proops, Colin Mochrie, Tony Slattery, and John Sessions. Proops and Stiles were especially influential.

I saw Guffman three times in the theater, and I can watch it over and over without tiring of it. I did a lot of community theater growing up, so the universe created by Guest and his crew of amazing character actors rang so incredibly true to me. Willard, Levy, O'Hara and Posey are all hilarious, and Guest's Corky is one of my favorite film characters of all time. Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration are all incredibly enjoyable as well.

A couple of seasons on Comedy Central, the hilarious sketch world of UCB mirrored a lot of the same energies and innerworkings of my group. Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts and Amy Poehler are an incredibly ensemble, and their theaters in NYC and LA turn out some of the best improvisers in the country. The UCB were integral in the success of SF Sketchfest, having signed on (along with Fred Willard) to the second ever festival and helping to put us on the map. Many thanks and much respect, UCB!

This Canadian Nickelodeon staple of my childhood was a rather silly collection of sketches and slim. Why I liked it so much, I don't know (WATER POURS ON HEAD). There was a certain tongue in cheek, self-aware quality to it that I really appreciated. Plus, it had Alanis Morrisette. What more do you want?

The mockumentary that set the bar for all to follow, Rob Reiner's depiction of the UK metalers is one of those rare films that works as both a lampooning and a tribute to those kind of bands. So many great moments--Nigel's amp that goes to 11, getting lost on the way to the stage, Derek's non-working cocoon, and tiny little Stonehenge. As funny now as it was when it was first released, it really taught me a lot about character commitment.

HBO's hilarious sketch show was anchored by Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, but featured a tremendous ensemble, including Jill Talley, Tom Kenny, Paul F. Tompkins, John Ennis, Brian Posehn, BJ Porter, Jay Johnston and Dino Stamatopoulos. We only got 4 seasons, but what great seasons they weird! Fave sketches: the audition ("Can I use this chair?"), Titannica, Pit-Pat, Megaphone Inventors, and the pre-taped call-in show. One of my favorite Sketchfest shows was the Tribute we did to the show back in 2006.

As most of my friends could tell you, I can't resist a good pun. Or a bad pun. And man, the Marx Brothers were the masters of punnage, and of brilliant physical comedy and wordplay. My favorite film of theirs would have to be Horse Feathers, which has some amazing sequences in it (the password bit at the saloon door might be the best). I also find Animal Crackers, A Night at the Opera and Duck Soup infinitely watchable. When I have kids one day, I savor the opportunity to introduce them to the Marx Brothers.

Boy, do I love this all-star treasure chase comedy. Clocking in at 3 hours, it features most of the best comedic minds of the 60s, including Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Buddy Hackett, Dick Shawn, Jim Backus, The Three Stooges, Phil Silvers, Spencer Tracy and sooooo many more! This is one of those perfect Sunday afternoon movies, always entertaining. I chose the pic above, 'cuz Thomas and Berle punching fists is one of my favorite movie laughs of all time.

Savage Steve's first film feels like a bunch of sketches kinda weaved together--so many memorable characters! Cusack's Lane Meyer is great, but for my money it doesn't get any better than Curtis Armstrong's Charles De Mar. Also great are Diane Franklin's Monique and Dan Schneider's Ricky. Oh...and we can't forget the psychotic paper boy ("I want my 2 dollars!") or the Howard Cosell-speaking Japanese racers. I admire the commitment to the sillyness that is the backbone of the film. Savage's other films, One Crazy Summer and How I Got Into College both hold a special place in my heart. It was truly an honor to meet and interview Savage and Diane at last year's fest.

When I was really little, my parents took me to a live performance by Steve Martin at Michigan State. I was pretty small, but I remember the arrow through the head and the banjo. His early, goofy films like The Jerk and The Man With Two Brains are staples, but Martin has evolved in interesting and great ways as an actor, screenwriter, playwrite and novelist. I'll dig up my copy of Cruel Shoes every once in a while for a smile.

Atta boy, Luther! The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is one of my favorite sweet-natured comedies, and Knotts' rubber-faced double takes are classic. Nobody did nervous or trepidatious like he did--I was fortune enough to see him shortly before his passing at a benefit at SF State. He did an old bit about a nervous public speaker, and it was hilarious. Love him.

These guys were such an amazing team--such different energies, but they meshed so well together. Silver Streak was just the start of their great partnership, and the scene where Pryor attempts to disguise Wilder as a black man is timeless. Wilder made an appearance at the Fest in 08, speaking after a screening of Young Frankenstein (one of the greatest comedies ever made, period). Having dinner with him is one of the highlights of my life.

I'm a big fan of both Arkin and Falk, and their pairing in the original In-Laws is one of my favorites ever ("FLAMES! THERE'S FLAMES ON MY CAR!"). Dave and I went on a giant Arkin kick back in our days of working at now gone video store Movie Magic. There's something magical about his deadpan delivery and takes--witness his incredible extended spit take in John Cassavetes' Big Trouble. Plus, I love him in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming ("Emergency! Everybody to get from street!"). I was so excited to see him win the Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine.

Ok, I realize these aren't great movies, but they are packed with stupid, funny gags, and as a teen I was in love with them. From dumb running gags (the little dog that is constantly being sat on), to meta refrences (as seen above, "I loved you in Wall Street!"), they never fail to make me laugh.

My favorite of all movie pairings, Lemmon and Matthau had such a wonderful chemistry that you just can't fake. So many of their movies are counted as my favorites, including The Fortune Cookie, The Odd Couple, and Grumpy Old Men. It's hard to believe it's been almost 10 years since they passed.

One of the greatest comediennes of all time (strike that--comedians), Kahn's delivery, by nature, was just funny. She played these high-strung, high-maintenance characters perfectly--from her Mrs. White in Clue ("Flames!"), to her kiss-dodging bride in Young Frankenstein, she was often the best thing in any project she did (see Mixed Nuts). So sad we lost her in 1999.

Individually, they both sport impressive comedy resumes as writers and directors, as well as actors. Together, they crafted the 2000 Year Old Man, one of my favorite comedy records as a kid. Brooks' parody films have always been faves of mine (Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, Spaceballs, and Blazing Saddles, in particular) and Reiner's writing on The Dick Van Dyke Show and work as director of Summer School are faves as well.

THE greatest comedy director ever, his scripts were razor sharp and he got brilliant performances out of every actor he ever cast. He understood pacing and joke structure more than anyone (witness the famous maraca scene in Some Like It Hot, where he utilized the instrument to act as a hold for jokes). Check out Cameron Crowe's book interviewing Wilder if you have a chance, it's an amazing read.

A pre-cursor to those Hot Shots movies, no one packed in more gags per minute than the ZAZ team. So many classic comedy moments--Striker's drinking problem, Kareem's co-pilot, Ethel Merman's "War is Hell," "Billy, you ever seen a grown man naked?," and countless others! The same touch is on display in the great Police Squad! show and the Naked Gun movies.

Burnett's sketch show is incredibly funny and well-performed--he great cast featured Tim Conway, Harvey Korman and Vicki Lawrence. I think often about the Gone With the Wind sketch with the drapes dress (as scene above), and about all the times Conway and Korman cracked each other up. They need to put the complete seasons on DVD, pronto.

One of my favorite all-time stand-ups, Regan can do hours of brilliant observational humor, all without uttering a single curse word (I'm no stickler for keeping comedy clean, but it's pretty impressive to be able to work that clean and not draw attention to it). See him live sometime if you can, and I guarantee you that you'll laugh a ton.

Dudley was such a gifted physical comedian, and his portrayal of lovable rich drunk Arthur is amazing. His early work with sketch group Beyond the Fringe (with the great Peter Cook) is phenomenal. I even dig the remake of Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours with Moore in it.

A wonderful stand-up and improviser, Rick Overton literally had a giant influence on my comedy career. As a college freshman, I jumped up onstage with Rick at the old Cobb's Comedy Club in the Cannery in San Francisco after one of his shows to do some improv. I did well, and was approached by Nancy Hayes, a casting director in town, who then hooked me up with some background work as well as my first agent, Mitchell Talent. Rick was always very encouraging of me, and I've sat in with him several times in the past--so I thank him immensely.

An incredibly smart stand-up, Proops is also a fantastic improviser. He is largely responsible for my fledgling comedy career as well--after a New Year's improv show with him at Cobb's seven or so years ago, he urged me to move to Los Angeles and pursue my comedy and acting dreams. It was his validation that really tipped the scales and started my migration south. Thanks Greg!

I'm sure there are others that I have neglected to include...and please, leave me comments and let me know some of yours!


  1. Yep. You pretty much covered it. I kinda want to be related to you now. Although you didn't mention the circus, or Pee Wee Herman. I'll let it slide.

  2. I love that Madeline Khan and "You Can't Do That On Television" made the list.

    For your consideration, Bert & Ernie, the greatest comedy duo of all time.

    Judy Tenuat - Particularly when used as Dr.Pepper spokesperson !

  3. That was supposed to be "Tenuta" and that was supposed to be a hyperlink and I was *supposed* to proofread my post before commenting.

  4. OH! How could I forget Pee Wee?! We did a tribute to him back in 08! Reubens is a real sweet guy. I used to watch the Pee Wee Herman Show special on HBO over and over.

  5. On a trip to England I had a walkman and my poor collection of tapes.. But one of the other guys in my group had 2 George Carlin tapes, 2 Monty Python Tapes (and a Sigue Sigue Sputnik tape.. but thats a different post) I went through tons of batteries that week. But it definitely changed how I looked at comedy. Carlin was raw and dirty and blunt and topical.. Python was surreal and random and musical and hilarious. Beyond that I have to thank my uncle for teaching me sarcasm and TERRIBLE puns.. as well as my aunt for taking me to see Hot Dog the Movie as a little kid by accident to get a handle on terrible jokes but an appreication for boob jokes too ;)

    There were STACKS of old MAD and Cracked magazines in my grandmothers house that we read endlessly not to mention as many joke books and stuff that we would pick up at flea markets by the ton. My mother has an amazing sense of humor and my Dad pretends he has none so a big challenge was to tell a joke that could make him grin.

    I'm sure I forget a ton of little things. If I was home I would be pouring through the shelves for books now.

  6. Great piece. I think Albert Brooks is the most influential of all the American comedians. If you see what he was doing in the late sixties and early seventies it seems like this guy invented irony. I like all your choices though. Keep up the good work.

  7. Wow that's a rather extensive list! I'm so glad Madeline Khan was mentioned...she's brilliant and whenever people lament a dearth of truly funny women I'm like hello? Though Gilda Radner was also a personal hero of mine. LOVED her. Just genius.

    Glad to see I'm not the only one who still loves SNL...been watching it since I was a kid (grandma would 'rest her eyes' and we'd get to watch the whole thing...Eddie Murphy as Gumby and Mr. Robinson...classic stuff...I even remember the original airing of the Steve Martin/Gilda Radner dance sketch...I'm sure you know what I mean...)..Jane Curtin and Dan Akroyd doing Bag O Glass for Unsafe toys..good times. My not-so-secret dream job has always been to be a cast member on that show. I honestly can't think of anything I would love more....different all the time, awesome group of creative, funny people, getting to meet and work with new celebrities every week...sign me up!

    I did improv too waayyy back in the day...high school and college...and loved it. Still do. Would love to do it some more...something so fun in thinking on your feet and loved Whose Line since its first inception in Britain (I lived there for a time and got hooked on it there)

    I'm babbling now. Great blog. Great list. Woo-hoo!

  8. Hmmm... Who would I add to this list? Only a few come to mind.

    One, Michael Richards. I ADORED him on the show 'Fridays' that was on ABC in the 80s. In fact, that show in general was quite good and an interesting alternative to SNL.

    Martin Short is another. Brilliant.

    Mike Myers, even tho he's lost his way.

    Rickles! If you haven't seen the documentary his son made about him (you must have), DO check it out.

    Bob Newhart!

    And finally, I don't think a list of comedy influences can be complete without mentioning Lucy. Love her or hate her, the influence she and Desi had on comedy, and on the TV medium, are felt to this day. Especially notable for a woman of that era.

  9. Wow, I'd have a hard time adding to this list, although on the literary side of things I would have to add the likes of Douglas Adams and Dave Barry (along with a few others.) And Weird Al on the music side. I'm not sure how many sides there are, so I'll just stop there for now.

    Anyway, I agree with the bulk of this list to the point where it would be a waste of time to eliminate any of the ones with whom I'm unfamiliar (though I need to check out Brian Regan now.)

    Oh, and Victor Borge. (Adding to the list, I mean. Sorry, my mind is still reeling from this amazing list, hence the disorienting structure of my comment. Yes, it's your fault somehow.)

    Brilliant post!

  10. Since you were a tad light on some of the great female comics that have highly influenced me (although I was glad you added Carol to your list), I'd like to mention some amazing women: Bea Arthur, Anne Meara, Joan Rivers, Janeane Garofalo and Ellen Degeneres (as popculture as she may be).

    And although they're not a comedians, per se, I have always been influenced by Charles Bukowski and Oscar Wilde.

    Shit. I just looked at my list there and noticed they're all smartasses. Maybe this was a little too revealing.

  11. Many of those are favorites for me too. I would also include Woody Allen, Douglas Adams, Margaret Cho, and Maria Bamford.

  12. What a great post! Very touching. I'm a sort of young, aspiring comic, so my influences are a little newer (Patton Oswalt and Maria Bamford for instance). But I also love classic performers like Monty Python (of course) and Emo Philips. My older brother/comedy partner and I used to stay up every Friday night and watch MST3K on ABC. I was only 6 years old and my brother explained all the references to me. That shaped my sense of humor immensely and made me love comedy. Mr.Show, Kids in the Hall,UCB, britcoms like Father Ted, SNL, Letterman, and Conan soon followed. My family was very funny and encouraging and exposed me to all this. But a year ago, I became disenchanted and was going to give up the dream and I discovered the Riverbottom Nightmare Blog. Named after one of my clan's all-time favorite specials, your blog made me laugh in ways that reminded me of when my brother and first started joking around 14 years ago watching MST3K and learning new references. This blog then solely inspired my humor blog Werepoodle and my zine Freak Flag. So you're already a big influence on young comedy nerds like me. Thanks a million, Cole.

  13. Cole, you are so lucky you had friends to watch MST3k with back in the day. None of my friends "got it" so I had to enjoy the MSTie goodness in solitude. That did have advantages though - I could freely quote from the show and take full credit for the funny. Ha!

    British-era "Whose Line" was BRILLIANT. The "perfect show" as I would call it would include Proops, Stiles, Mochrie, and Slattery. Let the hilarity ensue! Oh, and I used to have a crush on John Sessions. I was a weird 12-year-old.

    Mel Brooks is the reason I am a filmmaker. PERIOD. The brilliant thing about "Young Frankenstein" is, even though it's a spoof, it still works as a legitimate horror flick! There were parts of it that truly freaked me out as a kid!

    I could quote "Airplane!" til I puke. I have a friend from college with whom I comminicate almost exclusively in "Airplane!" quotes.

    I don't know who or what I could possibly add to this list. You've pretty much hit all the worthwhile ones! :-)

  14. Um, this list is pretty amazing, and I feel like we grew up exactly the same becasue these are all of the same things that influenced me, with some left out:

    1. Already mentioned, but Pee Wee Herman for sure.

    2.Bill Murray: from SNL to "Meatballs" to "Stripes", he set the tone for fast-talking before Vince Vaughn, and he set the tone for dry wit before adult Bill Murray.

    3. off that, Ghostbusters. Probably one of the best comedies, with Murray, Aykroyd, and Ramis perfectly cast.

    4. Chevy Chase. In the 80's, there was no one better, and it's great to see him in an great role on "Community". For my money, "Fletch" is one of the most quotable performances by a comedian period. The first three Vacations, Foul Play, and this gem...

    5. Caddyshack. I know it gets quoted on every fraternity T-Shirt, but this movie is the blueprint for "Old School" and "The Hangover", as you have three huge comedic names in the same film. Every player is at the top of his game, and the most underrated person, the late Ted Knight, steals the movie. And the scene with Bill Murray and Chevy Chase in Carl's shed is probably one of the best comedic scenes of all time.

    My two cents.

  15. brilliant list!'s like you made a blueprint of my brain!...however, you missed the room that had Dana Gould in it...