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!

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.

How You Know You've Lived a Good Life

On Monday came the sad news that Harold Ramis died. He was 69 and had been sick for some time.

I was first introduced to him when I was 12 years old. My older brother, Bobby, first turned me on to the original cast of Saturday Night Live and then he really fucked me up by turning me on to show called SCTV. SCTV followed SNL at midnight in Chicago. It was this cheap-looking syndicated show from Canada and my brother kept saying it was funnier than SNL and his favorite character was Mo Green, who was played by Harold Ramis. By the time I started watching it, though, Mo Green was gone, making me feel, once again, like I had missed out on something.

I asked my brother about Mo Green he said, “He left to go write a movie with some friends.” That movie was Animal House. For Ramis, that was just the beginning.

Of course, he went on to make so many classics – Caddyshack, Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters and more.

If you lived in Chicago after 1996, when Ramis moved back from L.A., and you were around Second City, you were bound to have some sort of contact with him.

This was confirmed after reading all the posts from my Facebook friends over the last few days. Story after story were posted on people’s walls — about meeting him after a show and how encouraging he had been to them, or how he took the time to read a script of theirs and give extensive notes, or how he invited them on the set of one of his movies, or how patient he was as a director.

I didn’t realize how many people he gone out of his way to help. With the amount of success he had, he didn’t have to do that.

I was lucky to have interviewed Harold twice when I was on public radio. The second time, he came and sat down at the table in the hotel suite and he remember my full name. Both times, after our interviews, he stayed and spent some extra time talking about Second City or Bill Murray or Ernie Hudson, the fourth Ghostbuster.

Harold was kind and generous with his time. You never thought he was in rush to get anywhere, even when he was doing a movie junket and you only got 15 minutes with him. I am sure he had ego, you don’t go that far in the film business without one, but it was almost like he was humbled by his success and that helping people in the comedy was part of his job description.

Harold Ramis accomplished a lot, and you could not forget that when you met him, but what I’ve found remarkable over the last few days is that my friends haven’t been talking about how much they loved Groundhog Day or Stripes. Some posts did, but most people have been talking about Harold Ramis the person, his generosity, his kindness.

People in comedy are cynical by nature. It’s our defense mechanism, and it’s much easier for us to talk about someone’s accomplishments than it is to talk about the person. Unless the person eclipses those accomplishments.

With Harold, the fact that this guy’s life and how he lived it trumped what he created is a testament to the man. And to me, that is how you know you’ve lived a good life.


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