Kliph Nesteroff’s The Comedians really is as good as people say it is. The only thing wrong with it is that it’s several volumes too short. Chapters like “Vaudeville Comedians”, “Television”, and “The Stand-Up Comedy Boom” could serve as pitches for a book apiece. But Kliph’s overview is remarkably inclusive, exhaustively researched and about as entertaining a thing as I’ve read in years. He’s a wonk’s wonk in his field. Knows his onions.
Among the adventures recounted in The Comedians is one that might be called “The Quest for the New Dave”, or “The Coming of Conan”. I’m reading along, thrilled to be a fly on the wall, when…there’s my name. And I’m like: oh, right.
Santa Maria! It had slipped my mind!
I was working on Coneheads at Paramount. Funny people, crazy tech, old friends and new. A nice gig. One day, Lorne Michaels told me he was shopping comics to replace David Letterman, who was moving from NBC’s Late Night to the CBS Late Show. Lorne asked if I’d introduce some of the prospects at the Improv. I said sure. I was provided with a list of names, some of which (Drew Carey, Paul Provenza, Ray Romano) I knew, others I did not.
The Coneheads shoot that day (don’t know the date) went well into the evening. The estimable Mimi Won grabbed me from the set and drove me the two and a half miles to the club while I changed clothes in the back seat. It wasn’t until I was struggling into my Thursday-go-to-Improv pants that it occurred to me I might have given some thought to the event beyond getting there on time. But no: I’m there to intro these highly skilled comedians, not to pitch Mikey for the fine folks of NBC. So, I did my emcee duties, introduced everybody, did a few jokes, sang a song at the piano, said goodnight. I had a pretty good time. And I thought any one of the guys I’d seen would be a great fit.
Conan O’Brien was announced a few weeks later. He had worked briefly on a 1988 comedy special I directed and I liked him a lot. It sounded like a good call, and indeed, it was. I finished Coneheads, went on to Airheads (sadly, I never competed the proposed trilogy: financing ran out on Shitheads in 1998), and followed up with a year at Saturday Night Live. Another story, another time.
I offer this bit of fine-tuning in service of the truth. I was never a serious candidate for Late Night. And I hadn’t really given that evening much thought over the years until I read Kliph’s book and saw my name amongst the likes of genuine contenders Drew, Paul, Ray, Dana Carvey, Jon Stewart, et al. I’m sure each of them has a story. This was mine. Just wanted to reposition myself, without false modesty, as a footnote to the proceedings.
After writing the above, I attended a screening of Mike Birbiglia’s excellent new film, Don’t Think Twice. The scramble from the lower-middle to the tippy-top of the biz, and what that does to the brain, heart and ego, is beautifully, painfully portrayed by the terrific cast. Much of the film concerns an SNL-style show cherry-picking talent from The Commune, a struggling improv company. Jealousy and self-doubt poison the well and imperil some very close relationships.
If Kliph’s book is essential reading (it is), Mike’s movie is essential viewing. Both can give you a Gibraltar-sized rock in your belly because they deal with human beings with all their angsty baggage, living their real, imperfect lives while trying to make us laugh. Comedy can be a shit-fight; the winner is the guy with the cleanest dinner jacket.