Every Friday, SportsFeat picks a few great weekend reads for Deadspin. This week we're chipping in with our favorite long-form writing about comedians.
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Hilton Als • The New Yorker • September 1999
On the life and career of Richard Pryor, as he neared the end of both:
Although he reprised the history of black American comedy—picking what he wanted from the work of great storytellers like Bert Williams, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Nipsey Russell, LaWanda Page, and Flip Wilson—he also pushed everything one step further. Instead of adapting to the white perspective, he forced white audiences to follow him into his own experience. Pryor didn't manipulate his audiences' white guilt or their black moral outrage. If he played the race card, it was only to show how funny he looked when he tried to shuffle the deck. And as he made blackness an acknowledged part of the American atmosphere he also brought the issue of interracial love into the country's discourse. In a culture whose successful male Negro authors wrote about interracial sex with a combination of reverence and disgust, Pryor's gleeful, "fuck it" attitude had an effect on the general population which Wright's "Native Son" or Baldwin's "Another Country" had not had. His best work showed us that black men like him and the white women they loved were united in their disenfranchisement; in his life and onstage, he performed the great, largely unspoken story of America.
The Early Woody Allen 1952-1971
Kliph Nesteroff • WFMU • February 2010
A young Allen writes jokes for supper club comedians, decides he will never succeed as a performer, does, idolizes and is snubbed by Mort Sahl, and develops the comic persona which will make him a star:
Woody Allen found himself writing for the clever comedian Herb Shriner.3 Shriner had a folksy radio program that featured The Raymond Scott Quintet. It made a smooth transition to television where Shriner hosted a prime time variety stint, for which Woody became a teenage writer. "The first week I had written [an episode of The Herb Shriner Show] ... I went ... and I got in the back of the line of the studio audience to go in. And I was waiting—you know, there were three hundred people ahead of me—and Herb's manager came walking by and said, 'Why are you waiting in line?' And I said, 'Well, you know, I want to see the show. I wrote, you know, the jokes.' And he said, 'You don't have to wait in line,' and he took me through the stage entrance. It was the first time that ever happened to me. And I was backstage watching it and of course, this whole world was amazing to me ... I was seventeen years old and I was earning more money than my parents put together had ever earned in their life." Despite pockets full of jokes, when Woody decided to take to the stage and do a short stand-up set at the Young Israel Social Club in 1953, he did so with material written by his friend Mike Merrick. Allen did not have confidence as a performer and this one-off stand-up gig did not make him fall in love with the idea. He continued to construct jokes behind the scenes. Of his Herb Shriner experience he gloats, "The kids in my neighborhood were earning I don't know what—the minimum wage was like fifty-five cents an hour or something and I was earning like sixteen hundred dollars a week."
Virginia Heffernan • The New Yorker • November 2003
A pre-30 Rock profile of Tina Fey:
Although Fey is credited with bringing moral authority to the set—the black-rimmed glasses she wears on "Update" add to this impression—she has also made the show more lewd. Raw humor has long been a part of Fey's repertoire. (She once wrote a piece for a workshop in Chicago that featured Catherine the Great complaining about life's inequity: "You can be a murderous tyrant and the world will remember you fondly. But fuck one horse and you're a horse-fucker for all eternity.") And since she became a head writer the words "whore" and "bitch" have flourished on the show. (After the invasion of Afghanistan, she announced on "Weekend Update," "For the first time in more than two years, women took off their veils and walked freely in the streets. Those whores.") Jokes have also become more graphic. "My mom had me when she was forty," Fey said in a personal aside one night on "Update." "This was back in the seventies, when the only 'fertility aid' was Harveys Bristol Cream. So waiting is just a risk that I'm gonna have to take. And I don't think I could do fertility drugs, because, to me, six half-pound translucent babies is not a miracle—it's gross." On another show, she told the audience, "Female inmates in the United States have been victims of sexual misconduct by corrections employees in every state except Minnesota. So, ladies, if you wanna rob a bank but you don't want your cooter poked, head to beautiful Minnesota, land of ten thousand lakes."
Kevin Powell • Esquire • April 2006
A profile of Chappelle published during a brief return to the public spotlight:
Excited because tonight, for the first time since his well-documented exit from his hit Comedy Central variety program in May 2005, the critically acclaimed Chappelle's Show, he will be in the midst of a constellation of entertainment heavies. In fact, Chappelle will introduce the musical tribute to Sly Stone, the reclusive soul and funk visionary who has not performed in public since Ronald Reagan was president. Stone, as hearsay has it, had grown to despise the limelight and opted out for a less demanding life. The irony is not lost on Chappelle, who too made himself scarce when he became unhappy with the executives overseeing his wildly popular franchise and bolted, last May, midway through the shooting schedule, to Africa. So wildly popular and cultish is Chappelle's Show that it has broken a number of DVD sales records, in spite of being on the air for only two full seasons to date. And Chappelle's Show has been called a singular juggernaut in the annals of American television comedy, a cable show up there alongside Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, The Carol Burnett Show, Saturday Night Live, and In Living Color. But Dave Chappelle has been paying the price of the fame ticket for walking away from a deal worth upwards of $50 million. His every public move—on Oprah, on Inside the Actors Studio, as he bikes down Xenia Avenue in his hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio—has been dissected, applauded, and, yeah, ridiculed; his paper-thin sanity has been questioned and shredded; his virtual body bandied about by a mosh pit of hands and handlers who've come and gone; and his rubbery soul, the one that believes very quietly yet very deeply in Allah, in the religion of Islam, has been deformed by media, fans, and the player haters. There are Web sites set up by Chappelle worshipers and fanatics on which Chappelle can do no wrong; and, likewise, there are sites proposing bizarre and warped conspiracy theories on why Chappelle pulled the plug on himself. It seems, these days, if Dave Chappelle merely catches a cold, it winds up in the media or on the Internet.
So it is understandable that tonight Dave Chappelle is nervous. He does not know how his peers will receive him, if at all, for he has done something that is unthinkable for the rich and recognizable: He has openly rejected the glamour, the mystique, the fast money, and the fast life. Chappelle, as he will say again and again over the nine days I spend with him, simply wants freedom—the freedom to make art the way he feels it should be made; the freedom to live wherever he pleases; the freedom to control his own destiny, his own identity. So even something as minor as the script he has been handed to study for the Sly Stone monologue becomes a raging internal battle for him. These are not my words. I would never say something like this. Is it weird that I am the one introducing the Sly tribute? No, Chappelle is not going to do it. There is more pacing, another drag on another cigarette, sidewalk consultation with his publicist. Okay, I will do it, but I will change it, improvise, make it feel natural, proudly identifying with Stone's legacy of doing things his way.
The Rumpled Anarchy of Bill Murray
Timothy White • New York Times Magazine • November 1988
A 1988 profile of Bill Murray, then at the peak of his box office power and living in a secluded farmhouse in the Hudson River Valley.
A picture of genial abandon in rumpled khakis, football jersey and sneakers, Murray was urging Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman and Chevy Chase to drop their ''reserves of cool'' on the dance floor and ''get down!'' Murray's warmth is disarming. Chase, for instance, once considered Murray a rival, and the feeling was mutual. Murray was hired at ''Saturday Night Live'' in January 1977, just five weeks after Chase left for a movie career. The pressure Murray felt in trying to supplant his predecessor flared into backstage fisticuffs when Chase returned as a guest host for the third season of ''Saturday Night Live.'' Now, the two are thoroughly at ease with each other. Even Eddie Murphy, a ''Saturday Night Live'' latecomer whose box-office magnetism eclipses that of most of his associates, is meek in Murray's presence.
Bill Murray is considered by his colleagues to be a man who has made peace with any private demons he might have had, someone who has brought his personal life and his career into enviable concord. Slightly disheveled and projecting what Richard Donner, the director of ''Scrooged,'' calls ''a woolly Zen wisdom,'' Murray acts as a kind of father figure to the ''Saturday Night Live'' alumni.
Todd Levin • GQ • August 2010
A writer for Conan O'Brien on how The Tonight Show really ended and on how his boss got screwed:
If you've ever seen a criminal standing before a firing squad and felt jealous of all the attention he was receiving, then you would have loved writing for Conan O'Brien. There was a ritual at rehearsals for Late Night:Every afternoon, the writers responsible for that day's comedy would enter the studio, file past Conan's desk, and position themselves behind the guest couch, standing shoulder to shoulder or seated on apple boxes. (Later, at The Tonight Show, these were upgraded to four director's chairs.) The arrangement was awkward but practical-it gave writers a good view of the rehearsal and kept them close to Conan and Mike Sweeney, the show's head writer, for notes and on-the-fly changes. It may have appeared as if the writers were enjoying a seat of entitlement up there, and when rehearsals went well, it was an incredibly entertaining privilege. But if a piece of comedy flatlined, there was nowhere to hide from the hot sting of shame.
They didn't even have the decency to hand out blindfolds.
Sam Anderson • New York • May 2008
A look back at the life and career of Chris Farley:
Farley grew up in a wealthy suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, where he was a local legend from childhood. In church once, on the way to communion, he filled his mouth with white Tic Tacs, fell face-first into a pew, and pretended to spit out all his teeth. In math class he crawled on his belly to the front of the lecture hall, hid behind a curtain, and—just as his teacher, a retired Air Force colonel, was delivering his customary terrible joke to end the session-mooned the class. (Farley's parents were called in, but he wasn't punished because the authorities laughed too hard every time they tried to talk about it.) In college he was famous for his naked beer slides down the bar and for his filthy room, which other students would visit just to marvel at the squalor. But even early on he exhibited the fatal Farley flaw: a tendency to seek approval at all costs. "He was immensely talented," one of his former directors says, "but that talent was at the whim of whoever needed the next laugh." Farley regularly belly flopped over the line between funny and wrong. He was expelled from high school after he exposed his penis, on a dare, to a girl in typing class; in college, he lit a house on fire with a smoke bomb. "He was our windup toy," his older brother says. "You said it. He did it."
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