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Who Turned You on to Comedy?

I have interviewed a lot of comedians and improvisers over the years, and I always find it interesting who turned them on to their first comedy album, or movie or TV show.

For me, it was my older brother, Bobby. I was a grade behind him in school, so when I was in seventh grade, he was in eighth. It was 1977. My parents had gone on a trip to Florida for the weekend and had hired this older woman whom we had to call Aunt Fannie to babysit us.

Since our parents weren’t home, we lied to “Aunt Fannie” about what our bedtime was on Saturday night so we could stay up late to watch part of this show that came on after the news that my brother swore was the funniest thing he had ever seen. He seemed really excited as he explained the skits, including a hilarious one with bees. I didn’t understand, but since he was excited, I was excited. Older brothers have that power over their younger brothers. Of course, Aunt Fannie didn’t know what we were talking about.

After the sports was over on the local newscast, this show came on called Saturday Night Live. I remember two things from that show.

  1. There was a sketch called “Ask President Carter,” where Dan Ackroyd played then-president Jimmy Carter, and Bill Murray played Walter Cronkite, and they took phone calls, and one guy called who was tripping on acid and the president talked him down. I had not taken drugs at that point in my life, but on some level I understood the humor of that sketch.
  2. It was the first time something on TV made me laugh out loud, which is impressive because by the age of 13, with little parental supervision, I had watched literally thousands of hours of TV.

SNL had a profound effect on me. On Monday morning, I was that annoying fat kid, repeating all of the lines from the show like I had made them up.

In seventh grade we had to debate on a subject, and I imitated Dan Ackroyd and used his line, “Jane you ignorant slut,” replacing Jane with the girl I was debating. I don’t remember getting in trouble but I do remember that the girl was really mad at me. This is no excuse for the fact that I used that word, but I didn’t even know what “slut” meant at the time.

I learned all the words and all the moves from Steve Martin’s King Tut song, and students would ask me to perform it. I loved the attention.

Then Bobby came to me later and said, “You’ve got to watch this show that is even funnier then SNL. It’s called Second City Television.” In Chicago, it was on at midnight on Saturdays right after SNL. I didn’t agree that it was better, and it took me a while to like it.

But on Saturday nights I was watching two hours of the funniest TV I had ever seen.

When I was 13, my brother was not the funniest person I knew, but he had great taste in comedy. He thought I was funny, too, and as we got older, he tried to keep up doing bits with me, but that was not his strength. His appreciation of comedy made him both a great audience and a great sidekick. He was much more light-hearted then I was and he had a way of bringing people out of themselves. I was always funnier around him.

He helped me get through some pretty dismal times in my life and around my family.

My brother and I have not spoken since my father’s funeral over five years ago. I hope one day we will be back on speaking terms so I can thank him in person for turning me on to comedy, because my life is so much better because of it.

Who turned you on to comedy? Let us know in the comments below!

What’s Next?

Recently Saturday Night Live hired two very talented, hard-working and funny cast members from Chicago: Chris Redd and Luke Null.

When Chris Redd got hired, he had moved to LA and was getting parts in movies and TV shows and had even done his own stand-up special, so he was already getting noticed. But Luke had more of a Cinderella story: He got hired from a showcase at iO Chicago.

Although many people in the Chicago improv community are happy for both Chris and Luke, when something like this happens, it also tends to cause people to feel sad and depressed and wonder if they should just give up on improv altogether.

For those of you in the Chicago improv community who also auditioned for SNL in that same showcase, or those who simply knew Chris or Luke from around town, I want to let you know that just because you didn’t get the gig doesn’t mean you don’t have talent. It maybe be cliche, but everyone has a different path.

This is a concept that has taken me decades to understand. For 25 years I would be jealous whenever one of my friends got big-time success, or really any kind of success. It would make me question my own career path. I would ask myself: “What’s next for me? Where’s mine? What am I doing wrong?”

If you’ve been doing the same thing lately, I have something important to tell you: You have done nothing wrong. Just because someone else succeeded doesn’t mean you won’t.

You are wonderful, and special and unique. Honor that like you would your choices on stage and listen up: Your career path will not look like someone else’s. The hardest lesson to learn is to stay in your own lane in the pool. We think that we “should” want what other people in our improv community want, or we should get what other people get, and if we don’t there is something wrong with us.

There is nothing wrong with you.

Following other people dreams for me has always ended in a nightmare because I never got to find out what I really wanted. There was a long list of things I was “supposed” to want because that is what my friends wanted. Then when my friends got a writing gig on a network late night talk show or big role in a movie, I felt despair. “What am I doing with my life?” I’d moan.

This was crazy. I was crazy. The only thing that really worked for me was when I did the next right thing. The thing that was right in front of me. And those have been the times in my life where I have been the most creative and felt a sense of purpose. For me, it has been these times of despair and self-doubt that have lead me to write another one-man show, or write a book or create a podcast.

If you truly believe you are an artist like I do, these times of self-doubt are golden opportunities that can help your art and your vision for yourself evolve into something new.

These times of questioning are important times of growth. It’s like in adolescence when your voice changes. It sounds awkward at first, but eventually it gets richer and deeper. Asking yourself “What is next for me?” is both a scary and exciting place to be for an artist, but the change will be good.

And that is where I am today. I really don’t know what is next for me. I am afraid that being married with a baby at 53 is different than when I as 27 and living at home and selling office supplies. Back then, I turned my experience into a hit show, but now I wonder, what am I meant to do next?

At least today I know that all I need to do is stay in my own lane, because if I don’t I will drown to death. I just have to trust and do the next thing right in front of me. And I can truly be happy for other people’s success because I know I am on my own path.

Are you an experienced improviser looking for a new approach? Check out Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 3 class, starting Oct. 25, which ends with a performance for family and friends. Early bird special ends Oct. 14!

189: Kevin Nealon

Kevin Nealon was on Saturday Night Live for nine seasons, and was best known for his characters Mr. Subliminal, Hanz and Franz with Dana Carvey and being the host of Weekend Update. Jimmy talks with him about why he didn’t think he’d ever get hired by SNL, how having a full life is helpful in a career in comedy, and the importance of being original.

184: Tim Kazurinsky

Tim Kazurinsky is an actor who was on Saturday Night Live from 1980-84 and is best remembered as Carl Sweetchuck in the Police Academy films. He is also a screenwriter who co-wrote About Last Night. Jimmy sat down with Tim to talk about why he started taking improv classes at The Second City, how he got on SNL and making his Broadway debut last year in An Act of God with Jim Parsons.

182: Cecily Strong

Cecily Strong is a cast member on SNL and she’s in four new movies coming to theaters this spring and summer, including Ghostbusters, The Bronze, The Meddler and The Boss. Jimmy talks to her about being a ham when she was younger, why studying in Chicago was important to her career, and why she almost didn’t audition for SNL.

179: Natasha Rothwell

Natasha Rothwell is a former writer for Saturday Night Live who is now one of the stars of the new comedy sketch show “Characters,” which debuts on Netflix March 11. We talk to her about training at the People’s Improv Theater and UCB in New York, her work ethic, how she got hired by SNL and her new show.

177: Nora Dunn

Nora Dunn was a cast member on Saturday Night Live from 1985-1990. She has appeared in the movies Working Girl, Three Kings and Pineapple Express. Jimmy sat down with her to talk to her about her years on SNL, how she comes up with her characters and why she moved back to Chicago after living LA.

166: Mike O’Brien

Mike O’Brien has been a writer and featured player on Saturday Night Live. He is an alumni of The Second City Main Stage in Chicago and was a member of the legendary Harold team The Reckoning at iO Chicago. Jimmy sat down and talked to Mike about his love for uncomfortable comedy, his journey from writer to performer on SNL, and his new comedy album, Tasty Radio.

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