In the late ‘70s, newly-created Boston comedy clubs were rocking with the sounds of routines from comedians at first little-known, but who soon would tear across Boston and the nation with their own unique, unforgettable brands. Steven Wright dabbled in philosophy mixed with wisdom and a strong splash of, “Oh hell, I really wish I’d thought of that.” Lenny Clarke was more blunt than a carving knife and his short-lived TV show on channel 38 in Boston included such skits as “The Negro News.” And Barry Crimmins, well, you just have to see him in action in “When Stand Up Stood Out”, chronicling a movement that would bring comedy to a level impossible by other standards. Fortunately, these men didn’t follow those kind of standards and it’s a riot.
At the beginning of When Stand Up Stood Out, filmmaker Fran Solomita supposes that those of you watching don’t have a clue who he is. I aim to remedy that.
So just who the heck are you and what’s your business in stand-up comedy?
One of ten kids, so I think that earned me the right to do stand-up comedy. Pretty much, kill or be killed in a family that big. Italian father, Russian mother, comedy was my only option.
What was your first time like at the Ding Ho?
Kind of intimidating, but also exhilarating at the same time. A very electric audience and you could tell it was vibrant, but also challenging. The crowd was really there, they were a foot from the stage and they were very rowdy, but if you could match their energy and show them that you’re there, usually they gave you a shot.
What material did you use that first time?
My brother and I used to do skits and sketches and they were pretty wild, but it took a little more work because we weren’t monologists; we were a comedy team. The material was about us, about our family, about our name, and it was silly, a lot of characters and they laughed at some of the stuff and they didn’t laugh at some of the other stuff.
What spurred you on to make “When Stand Up Stood Out”?
I think being in L.A. and doing comedy out here and all over the country, I realized after a while that all the interesting stuff happened at the very beginning. I wanted to make a movie about the scene, a narrative, not a documentary and my partners who made the film with me, Chad Sahley and Curt Apanovich, they sat down with me at lunch one day, listened to all my stories about the early days and basically talked me out of making a narrative and convinced me to make a documentary. They said, “You know all these guys, you have access to all these people, let’s just take a camera back, and let’s do it ourselves.” They convinced me to do it this way, and I’m glad they did.
Had the narrative idea been accepted, what would the film have been like?
It would have been “Punchline” meets “The Sopranos.”
So there’s Barry Crimmins, Steven Wright, Lenny Clarke, Denis Leary, Kevin Meaney and Bobcat Goldthwait. To go back to all these guys after some time, in the fall of 1999, what kind of drugs were needed to handle the energy?
You know, it’s funny, we were joking about that. If anyone was on anything that night, it was painkillers for toothaches and backaches. There was an occasional beer thrown in, but boy oh boy, it was nothing compared to the ‘80s.
So sex, drugs, and Ronald Reagan then. How did the best comedic minds handle it, beyond what you mention in the doc?
It was rampant and it wasn’t just that comedians were the only ones doing it; dentists were doing coke too. And businessmen and stock brokers. Taxi drivers. It was part of the time, it wasn’t just part of the world we were in. I think we were a lot more vulnerable because we had a lot more cash on us every weekend because the money we could make from these comedy clubs ranged between $200 and $3,000 a night in pocket. That’s a lot of cabbage and so when the dealers would just magically show up at the hour we got paid, we were at the mercy of our desire to keep that high going. I think some people handled it differently. The people who talked about it in the movie, I think were the ones who were really honest about themselves, whether it be Kenny Rogerson or myself or how Barry Crimmins talks about how people just came in and dumped it on the table. “Yeah, I’m going to do a felony with a complete stranger,” he says. We wanted to do it all the time when in all actuality, people just wanted to go home. But there was a lot of it.
Steven Wright had the thoughts that other people regretted not thinking, Lenny Clarke knew that to be funny, you have to be far different than what’s being offered, and Bobcat Goldthwait’s voice is certainly his own. But I have to ask. In all the years you’ve been on the stand-up circuit, and based on the clip you have of him, has there been anyone else that insane-looking like Denis Leary is? The cigarette, the sweat; he’s a frickin’ machine always ready to blow, it seems.
Yeah, there was some crazy people, like Bob Seibel in the end credits. First of all, in that clip, he’s finished talking about running a marathon, and dumped water on himself to look more raggy. Denis was and is a great performer and he had a lot of confidence on stage, even before he had a lot of material and I think he probably came out crazier than he really was.
With all the footage you’ve put in, all the interviews, and a compelling drama of sorts set in the universe of stand-up comedy, there’s got to be other ideas you want to turn into movies. Since I imagine all the folks who like good, bawdy comedy will buy this and laugh endlessly at it, what do you want to do next?
My partners, Chad and Curt, who I made the movie with, we’re trying to develop new ideas for movies and television and in addition, there’s “Beginnings”, a gritty teen drama I wrote that’s based on a youth center and it’s sort of in the spirit of “The Outsiders”, the S.E. Hinton book and that is something that I’m hoping to develop over the next 18 months along with a young director named Keith A. Cox. It’s a real personal project I want to see through.
With all that’s on TV, what makes you laugh like a raving idiot?
Without a doubt, “The Daily Show” and “The Office” with Steve Carell. Those are shows that I don’t want to miss. “The Sopranos” also makes me laugh. I’ve always thought “The Godfather” was one of the funniest comedies of all time. There was just something so absurd about the intensity and rage of that level on “The Sopranos” and in “The Godfather.”