Interview with Ritch Shydner and Mark Schiff
So you go to a comedy club, and you see a comedian that makes you laugh so hard that you can’t make a sound…or they suck so badly that you actually feel sorry for them. But have you ever wondered what things looked like from their perspective, from the hostile crowds and cheap club owners to unstable fans and angry hookers? Well, wonder no more, because “I Killed: True Stories from the Road from America’s Top Comics,” the new book from Ritch Shydner and Mark Schiff, compiles anecdotes from literally hundreds of comedians, and everybody is bringing the funny. Bullz-Eye had a chat with Shydner and Schiff, in the hopes that they could help track down a lost comic treasure…
Bullz-Eye: I love the book.
Mark Schiff: Great.
BE: So how did the idea to compile an oral history of standup comedy come about?
Ritch Shydner: I was working on “Blue Collar TV,” and there are a lot of comics writing on the show. And of course, the stars are Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy, Ron White was guest starring. We’re all just sitting around in the writers’ room, and we started telling road stories, comic road stories. And the next thing I know, I looked up, and not only was the room packed with everybody from our show, but then the “Mad TV” offices were down the hall, and those people would come down the hall, and were in our room. And everybody was laughing so much that one of the writers, Hilary Winston, turned to me and said, “You gotta make this into a book.” And I just thought that there were so many stories about the road that Mark and I talk about with each other and other comics, and we didn’t want them to go into vapor. I didn’t want them to disappear, so I thought we should chronicle them somehow.
BE: How many hours of interviews did you conduct in total?
RS: We probably interviewed about six or seven hundred comics…
RS: …and we have a few thousand stories from those comics.
BE: How long did that take to do?
RS: Well, we started work on it over three years ago. Mark has…how many tapes do you have at home, Mark?
MS: I got a couple hundred tapes.
BE: Were most of these over the phone? Some of them read like you’re talking in person.
MS: Yeah, a lot of them were by phone, but there were a bunch of comedians that wrote it, and emailed it in to us. But I think most of it was over the phone.
BE: How many of these stories had you heard, either from the comics directly or through the grapevine, prior to conducting the interviews?
MS: I’d say you could count them on one hand.
RS: Exactly. Very few.
BE: Did you know the one about the Amazing Jonathan and the vibrator? (We wouldn’t dare spoil this one for you.)
RS: Yes, I had heard that.
MS: It was really Rich (that it happened to)!
BE: Did you hear the version with the tuning fork?
RS: Yes. Um, no, I didn’t hear the tuning fork, I just heard the story that it happened, and Roseanne had to take him to the hospital. Of course, when you hear it, it’s different than when he told it to me, and that somehow Roseanne was involved with the whole thing, not just coming in afterwards to provide a ride.
BE: Were there any stories that were left out that you wish had made the final cut?
RS: Oh yeah, right off the top of my head, Dave Attell. Dave Attell gave us a story about right after 9/11, he was hung over and flying on a plane. And he’s just trying to find a row of seats that he can lie down and sleep in. So he’s moving around the plane a little bit in the back, and Dave Attell will tell you, he looks Middle Eastern. So the flight attendants just went crazy, and they got scared of him, and they refused to fly the plane with him on it. And they had federal marshals coming. He hadn’t done anything, he was just lying down, trying to sleep. And while the federal marshals were there and started interviewing him, one of the airplane workers, a service guy or something, a mechanic or whatever, walks up to him and says, “Hey, Dave Attell, you’re very funny, man! I love your show.” Nobody had recognized him up to that point. There were a lot of stories like that that didn’t make (the cut) that we loved.
BE: Mark, do you have one?
MS: Um…there was one by Elon Gold.
RS: Ah, this is a great story.
MS: Elon Gold, he was just on the Pamela Anderson show that went off the air (“Stacked”). And it was a story about a Jewish guy going through the South, and…they didn’t mean anything by it, right?
RS: Yeah, this guy was, like, “I want you to come to my house, because my kids have never seen a Jew before.”
BE: (Laughs uncontrollably)
RS: So it was like Show and Tell for the family. And whether it was an accident or not, Elon gets there, and on the TV is the History Channel showing, like, Hitler Week or whatever. So he walks in and there’s images of goose-stepping troops on the TV…very funny. “We just don’t have a lot of Jews down here, and I want my kids to see one.”
MS: I thought that was a great story. But we had to be careful not to put in too many similarities.
RS: We had a lot of other stories, whether it’s racism, or anti-Semitism, we had some other stories (we wanted to include).
BE: It seems every other comic in this book has a story about Ollie Joe Prater. I gotta tell you, until I read this book, I had never heard of the guy.
MS: Right. Well, he’s gone now, but he was a larger than life type of character. Hard drinking, hard smoking guy.
RS: We had so many more stories (about Ollie Joe) that didn’t get into the book. You’re right, there are a ton of stories about Ollie Joe Prater.
BE: I tried to look him up on Wikipedia to see if they have an entry on him, and there’s nothing.
RS: He was a true road dog. I mean, Ollie Joe never did TV or “The Tonight Show,” or “Letterman,” he never did movies. He was at the Comedy Store and in the first wave of comics in the mid ‘70s, and when the clubs started to open, Ollie Joe was ready to go. He had an act, but he was quite liberal in taking material from you. Somebody once said that if Ollie Joe said “Hello” to you, that meant he’d done a couple of your jokes. If Ollie Joe bought you a drink, that means that he did ten minutes of your jokes. If Ollie Joe sat down and ate dinner with you, that means you just played Pittsburgh. He was a character. He had a big beard, he was a huge guy but, like, 5’5”, short guy but very wide. He had the cowboy hat, boots, beard, before any of that stuff was hip.
BE: Which one of you conducted the interview with Vic Henley, and how hard were you laughing when he got to the punch line? (Four words: best, midget story, ever.)
RS: I did, and I didn’t see it coming at all. I laughed a lot.
BE: I nearly fell off my couch.
RS: Yeah, that’s a great story, and Vic has a bunch of them. There were certain people, I didn’t know how good of a storyteller they were. I knew Vic was a funny comic, but the difference between being a funny standup and funny storyteller is big, and he’s a great storyteller.
BE: I like that the book doesn’t just deal with living comics. This goes back 40 years.
MS: Yeah. Well, it actually went back to…(onetime Stooge) Moe Howard’s daughter got into the book, so it went back to the late ‘30s, so it covers 60, 70 years.
RS: I wish we could have gotten more of those guys.
MS: We tried to get everybody, as far back as we could go, up to very, very current (comics), like Carlos Mencia, on TV right now.
RS: Mark interviewed a couple of guys that, after he interviewed them, who was it…
MS: Jan Murray, Louis Nye, they both died.
RS: Before you could get the consent form.
MS: Yeah. Louis gave us some great stories, and then he died. Part of the pleasure of making this book was spending time with some of these fantastic old comics. I mean, spending an hour on the phone with Dick Cavett, who didn’t get into the book, but it was such a pleasure to talk to him.
BE: Was there anyone you were trying to find a good story about but couldn’t?
MS: We tried to get Rodney Dangerfield, but he sort of got sick, and we couldn’t get him.
BE: Well, I meant a story about someone who isn’t alive today. Bill Hicks is in here, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and I love the Rodney story.
RS: There are a couple of Rodney stories.
BE: Well, the one with the comedian’s mother.
MS: Yeah, Robert Schimmel. Schimmel’s a funny guy.
RS: Oh, he’s a great storyteller, yeah.
MS: You know, we weren’t specifically going after anything. We would just go to the comics and say, “Whaddaya got?” It’s like calling your dealer. Whaddaya got? We explained what we were looking for, and they were very gracious in giving us a bunch of stuff.
BE: You gave me each a favorite story that didn’t make the book. How about one that did?
RS: I love the Bob Hope story. Jason Dixon gave us a story of Dan Bradley, Dan’s not with us anymore. But I just love that story, that Bob Hope, when he tips him…did you read the story?
BE: With the five dollar bill.
RS: Yeah, and you can see Dan, he’s this young guy and he’s thinking all day, “I’m working for Bob Hope, I’m going to get a couple hundred bucks here for the tip.” And at the end of the day, he pockets the money, and he’s driving home and he peeks in his jeans, and he just sees a five dollar bill rolled up. And he’s like, “That cheap bastard!” And then goes to buy a six-pack to get drunk and try to forget about Bob Hope, and he goes to a convenience store, goes to pay with the five dollars, and as he unfolds it, there’s three $100 bills in there. And the next day, Bob Hope is down in the lobby, putting, waiting for this kid to come in. And as soon as he sees (Bradley), he goes, “I got you, I got you!” So the guy, even at his advanced age, was still not finished having fun, and pranking, and joking. And then, Bradley asks him for advice, and it’s classic advice!
BE: That was the best part. (The advice, for those who are curious: don’t fuck the waitresses.)
RS: I just told a young comic yesterday – some guy I’m writing a script with, one of the guys that’s in the book, Steve Wilson – I told him to read that story. Read that advice.
MS: I like Chris Rock’s story.
BE: The Chicago one?
MS: Yeah, if I had to pick a favorite, that’s it.
BE: Nasty. (Note: If they shot this story on film, it’d get a XXX rating.)
MS: Don’t forget, he wasn’t married (back then)!
BE: Well, I’m sure these questions are going to be really routine…
MS: Not at all. We’re really pleased you read the book.
BE: That seems to be a very large, and growing club.
RS: Yeah, yeah."Somebody once said that if Ollie Joe (Prater) said 'Hello' to you, that meant he'd done a couple of your jokes. If Ollie Joe bought you a drink, that means that he did ten minutes of your jokes. If Ollie Joe sat down and ate dinner with you, that means you just played Pittsburgh."
BE: Okay, tell me your favorite (comedians), one living and one dead, from each of you.
MS: Living, Bill Cosby. Dead, Rodney Dangerfield.
RS: Those are good ones, but I’ll try to be different. Dead, Bill Hicks. I was friends with him. He called when he was getting the tests done at the hospital, and we did jokes about it. That was the way we handle things, I guess. So Bill, dead, and living, Chris Rock.
BE: You guys hit three out of the five of our inaugural class of standup comedians.
RS: (Impressed) Really.
BE: We did Cosby, Dangerfield, Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, and…oh, hell, I can’t think of the fifth.
RS: You see, I would go with Lenny Bruce, but to me it’s such an obvious (choice). But those are great choices.
BE: We were trying to spread the wealth, we wanted to get some more current guys. Oh, I think Jerry Seinfeld was the last one. (Actually, it was Richard Pryor.)
MS: Jerry’s great.
RS: We sometimes forget about him because both of us know him so well, we both started at the same time.
MS: I’ve been on the road with him the last three and a half years. We’re going to be playing El Paso in November. El Paso and Austin.
BE: I was wondering if you knew the whereabouts of a guy who did a really funny HBO special in 1991: Jeff Marder.
RS: Yeah, yeah.
BE: What happened to him?
RS: He’s not working in the business right now. We had a hard time getting a hold of him. We were literally spinning plates. A hundred comedians were calling in, we’re getting more and more numbers all the time. And some people, you just kind of forget about or say “I’ll get back to you.” And they didn’t get back to us, or we didn’t get back to them, you know what I mean? But you’re right, he was a very funny guy. He was out of Baltimore, I knew Jeff when he started.
BE: What is he up to now?
RS: I don’t know. He was doing something with an internet business…
MS: What did he look like, blonde hair?
RS: Blonde hair.
MS: Yeah, I spoke with him a while ago. He has a couple of kids, he lives down in Orange County or something.
RS: He used to do a very funny bit where he’d talk from both sides of his brain.
BE: I have that routine memorized to this day. And that’s why I was so disappointed; he was doing some late night date show or something, and then he’s gone.
RS: He’s one of those guys started when he was 17, or something.
MS: Didn’t he marry a supermarket heiress at one time?
RS: Wow, we know more about him than we know about ourselves, I don’t know. But yeah, funny guy.
MS: I know where I bumped into him. I saw him at a Lakers game, like last year.
BE: If you could change one aspect of being a road dog, what would it be?
RS: I’d say that, when the show’s over, I get to be transported back to my bed at home. Just transport out, do the show that night, when the show’s over, transport back to my bed. Next night, transport out to another place. I’d cut the travel down to just transport. “Star Trek” transporting, that’d be perfect for me.
MS: Right. If I ran hotels, I’d change two things: ice machines where you don’t hear the ice dropping, and bigger bars of soap.
BE: You just reminded me of the story about the comedy condo (the apartment the comics stay in when performing at a club) being used as a brothel.
MS: Yeah. Joe Bolster.
RS: That’s a great story. I just love that (laughs). And I’m surprised that that didn’t happen more often. We had another story that we didn’t get in (the book) from a comedian named Dante. Not Dante Carter, just Dante. He did a tour with BET, Black Entertainment Television. And the promoter of the tour, they just hired these guys from BET. They weren’t really affiliated at all. But they booked it as this BET Comedy Tour. And they would pay (the comedians) in ones and fives. And they found out they were using the comedy tour to front a roving drug sale. When these guys were onstage doing comedy, the promoters were just selling drugs like crazy. Then they’d pack up and move to the next town.
BE: Mark, you said you were touring with Jerry. Ritch, what are you doing right now?
RS: I’m not doing any touring. I just finished doing some work with Ron White, writing. But I’m writing a script with one of the guys in the book, Steve Wilson. His story was about falling in love with a girl on the road, bringing her home, and finding out she was a prostitute. I thought, that’s a good screenplay there, and Steven agreed.
BE: He met the girl in Columbus, Ohio, right?
BE: That’s where I am right now.
RS: Oh, really?
RS: You know what I’m trying to do right now? I’m trying to find you Jeff Marder’s email address.
BE: I would love that, actually.
RS: Yeah, I thought you might.
MS: Does your (article) come out in the stands?
BE: No, this is online. But we get about four and a half million (unique visitors) a month, so…
MS: Geez. What do you attribute that to?
BE: The cute girls.
MS: (Laughs) And they are!
BE: I know what butters our bread, trust me.
RS: You know what, I have an address (for Jeff Marder), and it’s marked ‘no longer good.’
BE: Ah, rats.