Sometimes it’s fun to play stupid games like, “Who is the Richard Pryor of today?” So why not? But, before we get into this, I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to argue that any of these modern comedians are on par with the legends I am comparing them to. Nor am I saying they’ve necessarily been influenced by them, either. All I’m saying is that when I watch these comedians today, I can’t help but be reminded of some great old comedians. Maybe they’re just similar comedy souls born at different times.
Not quite sure what that means, but hey it sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Sure it does. Anyways, I tried to pick some comedian pairings that would be interesting without being too much of a stretch. We’ll see if that’s true, I suppose.
One-Liners and Straight Faces
Dan Mintz & Steven Wright
You probably know Dan Mintz best for his voice acting. Mintz plays the voice of Tina in Bob’s Burgers, but that isn’t all he does. He’s also a writer and a pretty darn funny stand up comedian who tours all around the country.
If you’ve ever watched the show, you know that Mintz has a pretty unique voice. Extremely monotone and low, but also a little squeaky and high-pitched at times. It’s weird. And that unique voice plays into his one-liner delivery.
A couple of years ago, I went with a friend to see Mintz headline at Cobb’s Comedy Club in San Francisco. I didn’t know who Mintz was at the time. But, my friend was a huge fan so we got there early enough to get a seat in the front row. And, as it turns out, early enough to have a lengthy conversation with our rowdy neighbor about what me and my friend were going to do with our lives. I can’t remember his drunk advice exactly, but I remember our neighbor being sober enough to wholeheartedly suggest that my friend and I were very stupid for pursuing comedy ourselves.
It was the typical show format; a ten-minute opener, a 15-20 minute feature, and then Mintz for 40-60 minutes.
At the time, I didn’t know Mintz at all. I didn’t know what was coming. I wasn’t ready for an hour-long barrage of the most boring, yawn-inducing monotony of language I’ve ever heard. I’m talking about the way Mintz talked, not what he said. Because what came out of his mouth was pure brilliance. All of his one-liners were spot on, fantastic writing. It was painfully slow one-liner after another and I thought it would tire everyone out, but it didn’t. The audience loved the last joke just as much as the first.
There are a lot of famous comedians who have done what Mintz does in his stand up: Emo Philips, Mitch Hedberg, Demetri Martin, me right when I started (less famous). But, Steven Wright is probably the most classic example of the true one-liner comedian (we’ll get to Emo Phillips later, so hold your horses). At least, that’s how I think of him; Wright was the originator of the one-liner and Hedberg perfected it.
You could really compare Mintz to any of those comedians, but he’s definitely the most Wright-like, in my head. If you were to pick one of those other comedians to point to and go “that’s Steven Wright reincarnated,” I think Dan Mintz would be the closest. And yes, I know, Steven Wright is still alive. None of them are the perfect fit, but I could easily cast Mintz as Wright’s shy, socially awkward grandson with Wright as the kooky, crazy old grandpa. Now that would be a very monotone show.
“I think it would be really confusing if you’re performing an abortion and someone runs in saying, ‘Abort! Abort!'” – Dan Mintz
“I was Caesarean born. Can’t really tell, although whenever I leave a house I go through the window.” – Steven Wright
No they aren’t exactly the same. Mintz is definitely more modern. He uses more references to technology and fancy stuff like that, but just listen to some examples and you’ll see what I’m saying. That slow, monotone delivery is the same. They’re operating on slightly different tones and frequencies, but they’re doing the same things. Here is Mintz on The Late Show in 2014.
…and Wright on The Late Show in 2009. Distantly related? Who knows.
Seeing Mintz should have been a real treat for me. But, to be honest, it actually convinced me to do other types of humor besides one-liners. Can you imagine listening to Mintz for a whole hour? It made me go, “Wow, I need to be interesting and think of more things to say.”
Another fun little thing about Mintz: I actually met his brother at an alumni event at my school. I asked Dan’s brother if that’s really how Dan talks. He said, “Yup, he’s always been weird like that.” Just in case you were curious.
Smart Comedy Music
Bo Burnham & Tom Lehrer
“Quotes are for dumb people who can’t think of something intelligent to say on their own.” – Bo Burnham
“If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend or, perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.” – Tom Lehrer
Yes, it is a little bit of a stretch to compare someone like Bo Burnham, who gets a lot of shit for being young and not being a “real stand up comedian,” to a proven great like Tom Lehrer. But, guess what? Tom Lehrer isn’t a stand up either!
And yes, it might be a stretch to compare a kid to didn’t go to college to a Harvard professor. But cut the kid some slack!
Both of these comedians are similar in that they are musical, they have some smart songs, and they aren’t “traditional” comedians. And do note, I said “some” smart songs. Burnham has a lot of silly rap songs, but I think he also has some clever ones too. Let’s not forget that Lehrer’s “periodic table song,” perhaps his most famous, is literally just a list of all the elements on the periodic table sung with his accompaniment. Not exactly brilliant all the time, either.
Am I assuming too many people know who Lehrer is? Check out my personal favorite song of his, Poisoning Pigeons in the Park:
What’s cool about Lehrer that the funny part about his music is really the combination of his words and the music. He cheerily sings to an upbeat tune…about assassinating animals in public.
Burnham uses his music to evoke emotions in his audience as well. Listen to his song, Art is Dead.
In the same way that Lehrer toys with our emotions, playing a happy tune while singing about something sad like killing animals, Burnham sings a sad song about something that should be happy: being a famous artist.
He plays this in the middle of his COMEDY special. And it’s sad. Really sad. The top comment for this song on YouTube is…
“Bo, you’re always so funny. But this song fucking breaks my heart. Into little tiny pieces that can’t be put back together.”
What’s cool about Burnham is that he doesn’t care how sad the song is. And the song is great because of it, because the lyrics of the song are spot on. That’s what makes it funny. Not in a laugh-out-loud way, but in a way that makes you think.
Burnham also realizes that he’s a kid. He’s not trying to be too smart and he’s not trying to make big statements like “this is what’s wrong with the world” like Lehrer satirically does in some of his songs. Who would listen if Burnham tried to say something serious? He’s a young guy.
What he can do is talk about his own experiences in a smart way. Lehrer astutely attacks a lot of the hot topics of his time: religion, sexuality, war, etc. Burnham isn’t covering that. But he is self-aware. He knows he’s kind of just a “child star,” in a way. But he’s smart. And he sings. And some of that singing he does in a smart way.
Mike Birbiglia & Bill Cosby
“Someone said to me at a party once, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re a comedian? Then how come you’re not funny now?’ And I just wanted to say, ‘Well, I’m just going to take this conversation we’re having and then repeat that to strangers, and then that’s the joke. You’re the joke later.” – Mike Birbiglia
“Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.” – Bill Cosby
I’m not sure anyone wants to be compared to Cosby nowadays. But, rape allegations aside, I think this is actually a very interesting comparison. When seeing Mike Birbiglia perform today, I don’t think a ton of people would go, “That’s Bill Cosby 2.0!” But, I do.
Mike Birbiglia is a storytelling master, just like Bill Cosby is. They have extremely different styles. For one, Bill prefers bright-colored sweaters whereas Mike prefers hoodies. They also sound really different on stage. Cosby has that syncopated rhythm and that tone of voice that is so distinctly his. And Birbiglia is the common man, the guy that everyone can sympathize with, and who, when it comes down to it, is really just “a nice guy.” He’s found a way to tell stories in a different way, but just as effectively.
They might be different, but they’re both storytelling masters. Listen to Cosby talk about his family and hear the audience hang on his every word.
Most of the Cosby I know is family material, but Birbiglia can talk about dating and falling in love in just as relatable a way.
Neither of these examples are out-and-out “jokes” so much as they are talking about things we’ve all experienced that are funny in the moment. They talk about the subject matter in different ways, but the effect is the same: an engaging story that links through an entire set worth of material. That’s something I’ve never seen other comedians do quite the same way. When it comes to comedy, growing up I pretty much exclusively listened to Cosby’s stories. And, one of the most amazing sets I’ve ever seen live was a bunch of stories performed by Birbiglia.
Mark Normand & Rodney Dangerfield
“When my friends strike out with girls at a bar, they always say, “Screw this! Let’s go to a strip club!” I don’t get that. That’s like going fishing, not catching anything and saying, “Screw this! Let’s go to the aquarium!” – Mark Normand
“My wife’s jealousy is getting ridiculous. The other day she looked at my calendar and wanted to know who May was.” – Rodney Dangerfield
Mark Normand is an up and coming name in the NYC comedy scene. Well, actually on the national scene, too. He’s been on Last Comic Standing, he’s performed on several late night shows, and he just recently filmed his Comedy Central half hour special. He’s all over New York and I’ve seen him several times live. He’s fantastic and everyone keeps talking about him for good reason.
If you watch the two back to back, you might see why I’ve paired him with Rodney Dangerfield. No one is quite like Dangerfield, of course. However, both of these comics have an unmistakable delivery style very much their own. Normand is one part common-sense nerd, one part infomercial, and one part 1920’s businessman. And Dangerfield actually did come out of the twenties.
If you listen carefully, I think there’s something about their rhythm that is very similar. They whisk their way through the joke and hit the punchline hard. They know exactly where the punchline is coming and they let the joke sit with confidence. And, they’re both pretty memorable.
Maria Bamford & Emo Philips
“Some of my friends and family have tried to challenge me to do jokes that aren’t as self-deprecating, where I genuinely express my own opinion in my own voice.” – Maria Bamford
“I love to go down to the schoolyard and watch all the little children jump up and down and run around yelling and screaming. They don’t know I’m only using blanks.” – Emo Philips
We’ve finally gotten to Emo Philips. Although he’s really a one-liner comedian too, it isn’t any one-liner comedian that reminds me of him the most: it’s Maria Bamford. To me, the common strand between the two comedians is more their eccentric personalities than it is their style of humor. They both have strange voices that can overtake their audiences. Often, the way they say a joke is just as funny as the content of the joke itself.
Philips might not be a genuine character like Bamford is, but the two provide pretty similar aesthetics. Philips’ voice is often described as confused and falsetto and has been compared to the voice of a child.
You get the same sense that Bamford’s material is childlike too. Although a lot of her characters are extremely realistic imitations of adults, her normal talking voice is very tiny and dainty, like a voice she never grew out of. Bamford also does the sort of crazy things, like performing one of her comedy specials in her home with only her parents there to watch, that I could totally see Philips doing. If you can put aside the writing, they’re really both just weird people making other people laugh.
Two cool connections I have to Emo: while in college I researched paraprosdokians (a particular type of sentence which Philips is famous for writing a lot of) and Emo and I are from the same town – Downers Grove, IL.
Anthony Jeselnik & Lenny Bruce
“I’m not a religious person; I would call myself an atheist. I don’t have a good story behind it, I’m just reasonable.” – Anthony Jeselnik
“Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.” – Lenny Bruce
Yes, Lenny Bruce might be one of the biggest figures in the history of comedy, but that doesn’t stop me from seeing him in Anthony Jeselnik. Does that mean I think Jeselnik will alter the future of comedy? Hardly. But it does mean that I think Jeselnik is challenging many of the more P.C.-driven people that are becoming all the rage today. In a world where people are hanging on every word, almost anticipating a slip-up, Jeselnik is doing things like making jokes about the Boston bombing…on the day of the bombing.
Not quite the same as Lenny Bruce being imprisoned for saying his jokes and fighting through obscenity charges in court, but I think it’s still important. Enjoy the dark humor while you can still do it without feeling guilty.
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The featured Image for this post is a poster illustrated by Joseph Karg for the Whiplash comedy show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in NYC.