Thursday, February 25, 2016

A Golden Age of LA Comedy

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post because I drifted into nostalgia and just kept writing and writing. So stagger down comedy memory lane with me.

BA wonders:

I saw a bowdlerized version of the NatLamp documentary on the History Channel and I thought there was a lot of comedy talent on the East Coast. What was your experience as a DJ with West Coast counterparts like The Credibility Gap, the Committee, and the Ace Trucking Company? I know there's a few alumni out there like Shearer/McKean, Howard Hesseman and Fred Willard.

I remember going to see THE COMMITTEE numerous times at the old Tiffany Theatre on Sunset in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. Howard Hesseman, Gary Goodrow, Valerie Curtain, Richard Stahl, Carl Gottlieb, Peter Bonerz, and if memory serves, Rob Reiner (although don’t hold me to that) were among the performers. I recall Valerie distinctly because I had a crush on her.

THE COMMITTEE came down from San Francisco as did OFF THE WALL (pictured above), founded by Dee Marcus. That’s how I got involved in improv. I joined one of Dee’s workshops in 1979. That group featured many brilliant performers including Andy Goldberg, Paul Willson, Wendy Cutler, Robin Williams, Bernadette Birkett, Tom Tully, Harry Murphy, and Chris Thompson. I never performed in an actual OFF THE WALL show for one very good reason – I sucked compared to all of them.

Around the same time, a group from Minneapolis hit town with FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK. Michael McManus, Doris Hess, John Bates, Nancy Steen, Pat Proft, and Neil Thompson were among their standouts. I apologize if I’m leaving out any names.

And performing in a small theatre in Hollywood was THE WAR BABIES. Archie Hahn, Renny Temple, Mary Edith Burrell, Caren Kaye, Susan Krebs, John Welsh, Peter Riegert, and Marsha Myers were members of that great group.  I must've seen them at least twenty times. 

But the biggest local improv factory was clearly THE GROUNDLINGS. Their roster of stars is too long to list. But just a small sample off the top of my head: Phil Hartman, George McGrath, Lorraine Newman, Lynne Stewart, John Paragon, Jon Lovitz, Edie McClurg, Mary Cross, Robin Schiff, Kip King, David Ruprecht, Craig T. Nelson, Will Ferrell, Paul Reubens, Bill & Cheri Steinkellner, Cynthia Szigeti, Cassandra Peterson (Elvira), Phyllis Katz, Wendy Goldman, and that’s all in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They have a long roster after that. THE GROUNDLINGS was a feeding station for SNL (and probably still is). 

Many of these performers moved around and were in multiple groups. Although I was never in THE GROUNDLINGS I worked with just about everybody I listed. Same with FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK and WAR BABIES.

For awhile I was in a performing group called THE SUNDAY FUNNIES, featuring a lot of the names I already listed.  There were times there were more people on stage than in the audience.  I think we lasted six months.  

Around St. Patrick’s Day, Tom Tully always had a party at his apartment and EVERY improv performer in town would attend. We were just packed in. You can imagine the laughs. And amount of alcohol consumed. It’s the only time I didn’t mind being in a room where fifty people were funnier than me.

The ‘70s was a golden age for comedy in Los Angeles. That’s just the improv scene.

There was also the stand-up world. I lived near the Comedy Store on Sunset in the mid-70’s and it was not unusual on a Tuesday night to just pop in, grab a drink for a few bucks, and see Richard Pryor, who would appear unannounced to just try out material. A typical Saturday night line-up might include David Letterman, Jay Leno, Al Franken & Tom Davis, Elayne Boosler, Andy Kaufman, and Crazy Charlie Fleisher (among many others) all on the same bill.

For TV we had ALL IN THE FAMILY, MASH, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, MAUDE, RHODA, and THE ODD COUPLE. Starting mid-‘70s SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE exploded onto the scene, followed shortly by SCTV.

For movies we had Woody Allen (when he was still trying to be funny) and Mel Brooks.

And for radio, LA was blessed with Lohman & Barkley, Robert W. Morgan, Hudson & Landry, Gary Owens, the aforementioned CREDIBILITY GAP, and Sweet Dick Whittington.  

Fortunately, I didn’t take all the drugs they do on VINYL so I was able to appreciate it all at the time.

16 comments:

JW said...

As interesting as Al Franken & Al Davis would have been as a comedy act, I believe that should be Tom Davis.

Bill Jones said...

That photo of the Groundlings is awesome. Can someone with knowledge of that time/place identify the people in the picture? The only ones I recognize are Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens, and Edie McClurg.

Bugdun said...

Phil Hartman: Genius.

My son has a DVD of Phil's SNL highlights which includes his actual audition for the producers. It is jaw-dropping. What an incredibly talented guy.

Can you imagine what it must have been like to sit next to that guy in school?

Donald said...

In posing a Friday question, as in comedy, timing is everything. This relates to the James Burrows tribute last week. I'd be interested in an instance where a Burrows direction helped elevate your material.

Canda said...

Remember seeing War babies in New York in the early 1970s. At the time, there were many people who would stop you on the street, especially on the Upper West Side, and ask if you wanted to attend a Buddhist meeting. War Babies did a hilarious take off on that, which featured Peter Riegert as the guy who was approached, and didn't have the time. This evolved into a very funny point-counter point on the meaning of "time" in the Buddhist world vs. the New York world.

Canda said...

Remember seeing War babies in New York in the early 1970s. At the time, there were many people who would stop you on the street, especially on the Upper West Side, and ask if you wanted to attend a Buddhist meeting. War Babies did a hilarious take off on that, which featured Peter Riegert as the guy who was approached, and didn't have the time. This evolved into a very funny point-counter point on the meaning of "time" in the Buddhist world vs. the New York world.

Peter said...

Friday question

Everyone who works in Hollywood is either married to or dates someone who's also in the industry. So I was really surprised when you mentioned in the Kevin Smith podcast you did that your wife is a social worker. My question is how did you even meet to begin with, since you can't get two more different worlds than Hollywood and social work.

Wayne said...

Don't forget OFF THE WALL, with Dee Marcus, Andy Goldberg, Wendy Cutler, Paul Willson, Tony DeLia, Tom Tully, Susan Elliot, Rod Gist, other fine talents I'm not confident to spell correctly. Oh, and sometimes John Ritter & Robin Williams.

B.A. said...

Thanks for this post, Ken. I'd only add I don't know about the Credibility Gap playing Chicago but do remember WXRT playing their albums (besides the Lampoon and Firesign Theater stuff). Do you have any thoughts about "The Great American Dream Machine" on PBS or "The Groove TUbe" (both with Chevy Chase and Marshall Efron)?

Charles H. Bryan said...

@Peter. Ken can certainly attest to this better than me, but I think being a successful and well-regarded producer/director/manager requires a lot of human understanding.

Jim said...

Speaking of comedians, I'd be interested in your critique of "The Comedians," a new book by Kliph Nesteroff. It was favorably reviewed by the NY Times. He probes the history of comedy from vaudeville to SNL, using many interviews with comics.

Liggie said...

Saw a Committee sketch on a "Flip Wilson Show" rerun. IIRC, a man wants a tailor to make a suit for his friend's funeral, and then brings in his friend's body so the tailor can take measurements. Liked it.

David Arnott said...

Not quite the '70s, but I remember somewhere in 81-83 going to see Instaplay many a Saturday night at 11 (midnight?) over at the theater on McCadden (or was it El Centro?). That was, IIRC, Deanna Oliver, Jonathan Stark, James Dean (not the famous dead one), Cheri Steinkellner (though she was Eichen then), and Bill Steinkellner. I saw some amazing stuff during those shows.

DrBOP said...

So how would this go.....Phil doin' Trump.....Prior as a ghetto Obama.....Belushi as Rubio......Robin trampin' Hilary.....Kinison ROCKin' Bernie.....Candy blowin'up Cheney.....Kaufman's Elvis as First Man Bill.....Hicks as Cruz......(young) Moms Mabley as Michelle.....Redd crankin' Sharpton.....



......sigh.

Unknown said...
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Renny Temple said...

Hey, Ken, this is Renny Temple, one of the founders and performers in WAR BABIES. Thanks for the great shout out!! Good times; good laughs.
I want to mention that you left DEBBIE WHITE off your list of our members. Debbie helped found the company in New York. In fact, she brought in a lot of the people who, together, eventually, formed the group. She came out to Hollywood with the group and later went back to NY. We couldn't have done it without her. Deb was one of our pioneers.

Hey, and nice blog...