Most people who are stand-up comedians, comedy writers or comedic actors have their own “aha” moment where they realize that comedy is a career you can pursue.
Before that, though, they often fall in love with a stand-up comedian, actor, group or show that is so funny it makes an indelible impression on them that forms the foundation of their love for humor or comedic performance.
My first three
In this article, I am going to ask comics from different generations who the performer, group or show is that made that first impression on them. I’ve got dozens of favorites myself – but here are my first three in chronological order.
‘I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together’ — ‘The Carol Burnett Show‘
I’m really dating myself with the first one. Carol Burnett was brilliant and often doesn’t get the credit she deserves among younger comedy consumers.
The entire cast and show were memorable – the comedic timing, the cast struggling not to break character, the writing – all stellar. However, above all, Tim Conway and his unforgettable characters sent my family and me into uncontrollable fits of laughter that are forever etched into my comedic psyche.
Carnac says: Johnny Carson
There were several great talk show hosts before Johnny Carson and a handful of gifted comedic hosts after, but Johnny will always be No. 1 for me (David Letterman is a very close second).
Carson’s delivery of the monologue was iconic – whether a joke landed or bombed he could still make you laugh. He was likable and gracious – and his approval of a young comic’s debut on “The Tonight Show” made many of them stars overnight.
There’s a penguin on the telly — ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus‘
The Beatles of comedy, British import Monty Python’s Flying Circus was arguably the first UK comedy troupe to cross the pond with great success (apologies to fans of “The Goon Show”).
Combining over-the-top-silliness and absurdity with clever humor unlike anything I’d ever seen, my friends and I would listen to their early albums and watch their TV show (available only on PBS) and marvel at the creativity, naughty hilarity and irreverence that was otherwise unavailable to our inquisitive teenage ears. Plus, a British accent makes everything funnier. Fact!
I asked several Minnesota-based comedians this question: Who was the first comedian, group or show you remember that made an indelible impression on you or helped inform your sense of humor – even before you knew you wanted to do comedy?
Here’s what they said:
Midwest Emmy Award-winning comedian David Harris, who is headlining Fat Pants Brewing’s pre-Halloween comedy show on Friday, Oct. 28, said, “It’s hard to remember who was the first for me – possibly Johnny Carson, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal or Eddie Murphy. I saw them all on TV and they looked like they were having so much fun and everyone around them was having fun too.”
Mary Jo Pehl
According to comedian, writer and actor Mary Jo Pehl, who is probably best known for her hilarious acting and writing contributions to the popular Comedy Central TV show “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” (which, notably, was produced for many years in Eden Prairie), “Doing comedy myself was never a thought. It was always other people who did that. Until I got onstage at an open mic for the first time and ‘got it.’ Prior to that I’d seen comedians on ‘The Tonight Show,’ and the Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas shows, but the comics I saw live who blew me away were Steve Martin and Judy Tenuta, as well as cartoonist Gary Larson.”
Twin Cities comic Ben Marcotte remembers seeing Ron White. “Ron White’s set on – I think the first ‘Blue Collar Comedy Tour’ DVD – was the first set that left a big impression on me. He was just so punchy and tight and his character as a kind of ‘sarcastic drunk’ was really endearing and unique to me,” said Marcotte. “I memorized that whole set and would recite it to my mom over and over, trying my best to copy his tone and pacing. I must have been terrible, but I might not have become a comedian without that.”
Comedian Karen Pickering, co-producer of “Day Drinking with Mom” at the House of Comedy, has a trio of memorable shows/performers. “I was an ‘I Love Lucy,’ Joan Rivers and Lily Tomlin addict,” says Pickering. “Joan Rivers was the first, starting when I was 11 years old. I was the oldest kid and finally earned the right to stay up late and watch Johnny Carson. My parents always wanted me to see women in the lead so we watched Joan any time she was on.”
Ira Ford, who is a house emcee at Acme Comedy Company in Minneapolis, says Bernie Mac made a big impact. “Bernie Mac was the real influence,” says Ford. “I found it fascinating how hundreds of people would buy tickets just to hear him talk. I was like, ‘I’ve got to look into that.'”
Bo Burnham is the performer that Calvin Murata, winner of the House of Comedy’s 2022 Funniest Person with a Day Job contest, remembers. “Bo Burnham was one of the first comedians who I felt this way about,” Murata explains. “His songs were so creative and funny and I didn’t know comedy could be done that way. Watching Bo Burnham definitely inspired me because of how original he was.”
Upcoming comedy shows in the southwest suburbs
Oct. 28, 7:30 p.m. Fat Pants Brewing, Eden Prairie Yellowbrickcomedy.com Stand-up comedian David Harris with Jodie Maruska and Calvin Murata Oct. 28 & 29, 8 p.m. Chanhassen Dinner Theater, Chanhassen Stevie Ray's Comedy Cabaret Nov. 5, 8 p.m. Mystic Lake Showroom, Prior Lake 'My Name is Not Mom' (sold out)
Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of a monthly comedy-focused column, Little Joke on the Prairie, by Eden Prairie resident Pat LaVone. He is a writer, speaker, stand-up comic and storyteller. During the original comedy boom, Pat began performing stand-up and sketch comedy in the mid-1980s. After a brief 30-year hiatus, he returned to the stage to perform stand-up and storytelling shows as well as humorous keynote presentations. He currently produces shows for YellowBrick Comedy and performs at various theaters and clubs around Minnesota.
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