Interview: Ritch Shydner on the 1980’s Stand-Up Comedy Boom

Ritch Shydner


With producer Jim Carrey’s television version of I'm Dying Up Here coming to small screens in June, the illustrious, notorious past of America’s stand-up comedy scene of the 1970s and the 1980s has come sharply into view. Not only was comedian Ritch Shydner a longtime part of that golden era, he’s been one of its keenest documentarians. In addition to writing on series such as The Jeff Foxworthy Show, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Roseanne and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Shydner authored 2007’s I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America's Top Comics, as well as the recently-released Kicking Through the Ashes: My Life as a Stand-Up In the 1980s Comedy Boom, the latter book released the same time as his General Maladies live stand-up album.

A.D.: You’re from Pennsville, New Jersey, but didn’t truly start a career in comedy until you got to college in Virginia. Did you have the humor bug – especially in a writing sense – as a local kid?
Ritch Shydner: I had a sense of humor, but all of my friends were funny, too. I wrote little stories in high school but never showed them to anyone, for fear of ridicule. It wasn't till I got to Gettysburg College did I realize that maybe I had a gift for comedy.

A.D.: You sent stories and ideas to MAD Magazine and National Lampoon but found little success at first. Your new book is as much a how-to in navigating stand up’s pitfalls, as it is a sociocultural road map through 80s comedy. But for those who wish to solely write humorously - for magazines or scripts - as opposed to perform, what would you offer by way of opinion is a start point? Other than ‘be funny’?
Ritch: With today's online world, it is so easy to get feedback for your writing. I think the key, just as it is in performing, is repetition. On stage or on the page, the audience responds to quality of course, but also to those who want it the most. If you put a funny story or joke out there every day, people begin to look for it.

A.D.: You wrote previously about the aesthetics of stand-up in I Killed (2006) and you were a large part of the 2010 documentary I Am Comic you produced. What is it about the process, the feel, of stand-up, that makes you wish to essay its ups and downs?
Ritch: Besides the fact that stand-up is my life's work and obsession, it is an American original. I don't know if there is another art form that comments on society and culture in a more immediate fashion. It can be reflective and reflexive. Stand-up is so filled with contradictions, as are its practitioners. Nearly forty years into this thing, and I still haven't figured it all out.

Kicking through the Ashes by Ritch Shydner
A.D.: Kicking through the Ashes is a handsomely focused work on stand-up comedy’s true boom. Do you feel, first and foremost, that the 80s differed from the 70s due to the proliferation of then-new cable outlets? I ask because everyone from Carlin to Steinberg to Klein – guys making major inroads in the previous decade – hit pay dirt when cable became de rigueur.
Ritch: There was huge hunger for raw, immediate comedy that the early comedy clubs and cable shows exposed and fed. Without getting into a chicken and egg discussion, I think the comedy clubs and cable shows boosted each other's growth. All three of the comics you mentioned were established stand-ups with many network appearances, comedy albums and followings before cable. It was the younger generation, as a group, that benefited the most from cable TV exposure. In my opinion, Sam Kinison was the first star created by cable exposure, and that wasn't until 1985.

A.D.: You were out there on the road back then – did you feel the sea change when clubs and audiences craved more-more-more comedy, a feeling I gather that was NOT UNLIKE being in Seattle after Nirvana hit?
Ritch: Absolutely. As I wrote in my Kicking through the Ashes, in late winter of 1980, I went to perform at the new Comic Strip in Ft Lauderdale, probably the second paying comedy club on the East Coast. From there I took a phone call that led to successive weeks at new clubs in Canada - Ottowa, Montreal and Toronto. In those first couple of years in the 1980s, it seemed I played a new club in every US city. Without a TV credit, I stepped in front of wild, excited, packed houses every night. They weren't there to see me, but stand-up. We felt like rock stars.

A.D.: Did you keep a running diary – copy books and pens – during this time? Were you writing down personal asides while you writing jokes?
Ritch: I didn't keep a journal, but I had joke books, and commented in the margins with bits of stories or events. When I transferred my joke files to the computer in the late 80's, a lot of the comments made the journey too. Many stories were easy to remember because I had been telling them, offstage, for years.

A.D.: You were no angel from what the book describes. How do you ultimately believe that you outlived or outran the lifestyle pitfalls that felled many stand-ups who ascribed to the sex-drugs-comic diet?
Ritch: I had become a cliche, the drunken fool who was sick and tired of being sick and tired. My prayer was just me sitting at the bar saying out loud with each shot of whisky that I wanted to quit drinking. That ridiculously simple plea for mercy was answered when the bartender told a newly sober comic to do what he could to remove the nuisance that I was. That comic took me to a group of individuals whose sole purpose was to stay sober and help others do the same. I've been doing what they taught me for over 31 years of the good life. The short answer - my formula for success in sobriety was pretty much the same as stand-up - good fortune, hard work and desire.

A.D.: Johnny Carson. Some comics from that era have warm feelings. Some cooler. Your feel for him – beyond just whether he invited you onto the couch or not?
Ritch: Carson was the King of Comedy, maybe the last. His power to make or break stand-ups was immense. Beyond that, his love for comics was so obvious. Everyone loves to laugh and none more so than comedians. When I made Johnny laugh it was like making my dad laugh. There was no single laugh that meant more to me.

A.D.: How is the relationship between men and women – the act of sex – in comedy changed?
Ritch: I do think the male comics can't do jokes about random encounters as they did in the past, while the female comics score big laughs with material about casual sex. The old double-standard had been turned inside out, at least in stand-up comedy.

A.D.: Are you a fan of the literature documenting the golden 80s of stand-up? Norm Macdonald touches upon it in Based on a True Story, and of course, there’s William Knoedelseder’s I’m Dying Up Here.
Ritch: Yes, I buy everything that comes out. Since many of the stand-up books depend on anecdotal research, who and how many people the author interviews determines whether the history outlined in the book was accurate. Norm's book was not a real memoir, didn't really document the era, but it was a hilarious bit of fiction. I laughed out loud often while reading it. Steve Martin's Born Standing Up may be the best book I've ever read on stand-up.

A.D.: Is there one stand-up from that moment that you hung tough with that you miss the most, and why?
Ritch: Bill Hicks.I miss him not just as a friend, but to see where he was going to take his stand-up. He was only 32 and just starting to feel his power.

A.D.: You have tackled two books so far, and you do a beautiful job of capturing the feel of what comedy is deep down in a man’s soul. Do you have another book in you, and what might that be?
Ritch: I don't know about another book about stand-up, unless I one day decide to take on the history of stand-up. My next book will be a novel, a coming of age story.

A.D.: That's funny.

Photos courtesy of Jonas Public Relations

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Posted on Wednesday, March 29, 2017