On August 8th, Impressionist Rich Little will be one of the panelists featured at Comedy Talks, a series of conversations by comedians about comedy and their careers. We talked to Rich about his many years on the stage, some of the highlight and lowlights and asked him about his current project, a one-man show in which he plays Jimmy Stewart.
Q: What advice would you offer to young comedians or comic actors?
A: They’re different types of standup comedy. What I do is basically tell jokes. Many of the comics today tell anecdotes and real-life stories, and I always tell jokes with a very distinct set up followed by a punch line. It’s a different type of comedy. I put a lot of jokes in my act—not one-liners or stories. Everyone has a different approach of how they do comedy. Back in the early days, guys like Milton Berle, Henny Youngman and Bob Hope told jokes. And then you had people like Shelly Berman and Bob Newhart who told a lot of stories about things that had happened to them. I’m probably of the old-school, but what I’ve been doing for many years is taking an impression and then having a joke in there as well. That way, I’m getting a reaction for the impression, and then I get another reaction from the joke. The best thing I can tell a young comic is get on stage as much as you can, because there’s no substitute for getting up there and doing it. Try not to perform in front of your family too much, because they’re nothing like a live audience. They won’t heckle you and we won’t get an objection.
Q: Henny Youngman told me once that there’s a big difference between getting up on stage and saying random things or developing an act and working it—do you agree?
A: Yes, I am very constructive with my material. I have developed some bits around my voices and these have become some of my standards over the years. For instance, I do a series of jokes based on what stars would sound as an animal; or within a game show featuring many of my voices. I think of an idea on how can I present these characters in a different setting and that’s where I find my hook with some foundation. I do it in a new, refreshing way without just banging out just bit one after another. I’m very conscious of what I’m doing with these voices, instead of just knocking them out.
Q: When did you think wow, I can make a living in this business?
A: The first time I got paid. I was doing shows in my hometown in Canada, doing shows at Knights of Columbus and Shriner’s conventions. Back then I was just a kid who does a few voices and that’s what I liked to do. In the early days, it wasn’t much more than a hobby. I never thought it was going to be a full-time thing, but one day the phone rang and someone told me they’d pay me $50 to perform. Well, I was in shock. I almost told them I would settle for $15! I said to myself, I can actually get paid for this? Not much, but it was a start. I never thought of myself as a comedian during those early years. I thought of myself as a guy who did a few impressions.
Q: When did you first realize you could make “insane” money?
A: When I got on the Judy Garland Show. For a kid in his 20’s, that was huge. After I got that TV exposure, I started getting bigger gigs and that’s when things changed for me. I’m most proud of that period in my life. Some of the work I did with Judy Garland is considered my best.
Q: What were best and worst gigs?
A: I would say that some of my appearances on the Dean Martin Roasts were great fun. My performance at the Reagan Inauguration was also a high point. My worst experience was at the 2007 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Everyone talked during my entire performance and the reviewers weren’t kind.
Q: You have always worked clean?
A: Well, not 100%. It depends on what you call clean. A lot of times, you can leave it in your imagination without really saying the words, it’s debatable if that’s working blue or not. I may do some suggestive material, but I’ve never worked blue. I never swear. People like naughty material, but it has to be written cleverly. Nowadays, some these comics are more graphic than ever. Somewhere along the line, it became popular to be shocking.
Q: What are you working on currently?
A: I’ve developed a one-man show playing Jimmy Stewart. I’m touring the country with that and I want to take it to big theaters and then eventually on Broadway. It’s not just Jimmy Stewart, but 23 different characters as well. We think it appeals to anyone, even if they’re not familiar with Stewart. We’d love to bring the show to San Francisco at some point.
Comedy Talks: Conversations with the Legends of Comedy is a panel discussion that brings the classic late night talk show format to the live stage, presenting a panel of three comedy legends, with host Robert Strong. “These comedy icons will talk about their careers, personal lives, insider gossip, and tips of the comedy trade,” Strong said. “A Q&A period lets the audience in on the conversation. Come meet comedy luminaries so familiar that they feel like old friends, as well as the behind-the-scenes geniuses responsible for some of the biggest laughs of your life.”
Sunday, August 1st: George Segal, Paul Mazursky and Ronnie Schell
Sunday, August 8th: Rich Little, Carol Channing and Steve Rossi
Sunday, August 15th: Robert Morse, Shelley Berman and TBA
All shows at USF Presentation Theater (2350 Turk) at 4:00 pm.
For more information about all three shows, visit www.ComedyTalks.com.