One-liners and nonsequiturs will fly at the June 13-17 Viareo Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb., where the late comic great Johnny Carson grew up.
This annual celebration of the funny side is equal parts competition, workshop and roast.
Its home base is the Johnny Carson Theatre at Norfolk Senior High, where the legendary Tonight Show host graduated. The event welcomes professional stand-ups from around the nation vying for cash prizes. Paula Poundstone is the headliner. Jimmie “JJ” Walker is the “legend” recipient. Past legend honoree Dick Cavett hosts a comedy magic show.
New this year is a June 14-15 Omaha showcase at the Holland Performing Arts Center featuring the fest’s standup contestants in 7:30 p.m. shows.
Poundstone and Cavett long ago paid their comedy dues. They represent different generations in the craft but well identify with the vagaries of starting out.
She broke in during “the comedy renaissance” that saw clubs sprout in her native Boston and everywhere in the late 1970s-early 1980s. Open mic nights became her proving ground.
“They were just coming into being. I just lucked out in terms of time and place,” she says. “They had shows with guys who had no experience and they were awful but because there was no one else around nobody knew they were awful, and I got in on the awful train – when you could suck and it didn’t really matter. Now I think it’s a lot harder to get stage time.”
She was only 19 when she took the first of two cross-country Greyhound bus trips on an Ameripass, stopping to perform at open mics in places like Denver, living out of a backpack and catching zs on the road between gigs.
“Odd but genius. It was pretty bold. I mean, I look back on it now and think, Whoa, boy, that could have gone bad. It was my nineteeness that saved me. You think you’re invincible…That helped a lot.”
She knew she belonged as a stand-up when she got to the west coast.
“I kept getting day jobs of necessity for a while. At one point on my second Greyhound bus trip I ended up in San Francisco. It was such a great place to be. It was perfect for my age and my personality and for the type of stand-up comic I am. The audiences were willing to allow the comic to experiment in a way I found nowhere else in the country.
“It was there I gave up my day job.”
The Other Comedy Club near the Haight Ashbury District became her favorite venue.
“A bizarrely unassuming place. I found the best audiences there. Also, the people that ran the place liked me and gave me opportunities. One of the best things I ever did was host the weekly open mic night. Your job is to introduce people but also to kind of keep the crowd, so you’ve got to do a little bit in between. I would run out of material and I got to think on my feet and interact with the crowd and do all the stuff that’s really the good stuff.
“I had some raggedy nights where it just didn’t work or the crowd was horrible. I have better odds now.”
She describes the high that is stand-up as “addictive,” adding, “otherwise why would you?” (subject yourself to it).
Meeting fans after shows holds its own high, especially when this adoptive mother of three finds she’s struck a chord with parents over one of her favorite topics – the impossibility of child-rearing. “When those moments occur it really makes me feel worthwhile,” says Poundstone, whose concerts, HBO specials, books and recurring panelist role on public radio’s Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me keep her busy.
Not surprisingly, Cavett admires Poundstone, who guested on one of his shows. “She may be one of four-five guests in all the years I did those shows who sent a thank-you note. It was a lovely, nice, handwritten note and it gave me a softer spot for her even than I already had. I was on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me a couple weeks ago but I was sorry she wasn’t there that day so I could thank her again.”
Now he gets the chance to tell her in person. She may share her admiration for an impromptu bit he once did with Benny Goodman. Noticing the jazz great’s fly was down and sensing a rare chance to both prevent embarrassment and score laughs, Cavett instructed Goodman “to do exactly as I do.” As Cavett stood up with his back to the audience, Goodman did the same. The gestures that followed were unmistakable and funny, yet gracefully didn’t reveal whose fly was undone.
“I can’t imagine thinking of that,” says Poundstone. “It’s brilliant, just brilliant.”
Unlike Poundstone, Cavett made his bones in the business writing for others. After graduating Yale he worked as a New York Times copy boy when he audaciously wrote a monologue on spec for Jack Paar and personally delivered it to the Tonight Show host at the RCA building. He lived the dream of seeing some of his jokes used that very night on air. He soon became a staff writer for Jack, then Johnny. On the side he did stand-up in clubs. He doesn’t exactly miss it.
“Thank God I’m not doing that anymore. Some nights were awful, some were exhilarating and made you think this is what I’ve always wanted. When you would top a heckler you’d get a big thrill out of that.”
Once he got his own ABC talk show he delivered a monologue every night.
“It’s a horrible burden for anybody doing a talk show.”
The closest he’s come to stand-up in recent years is narrating the Broadway production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“I treated it as a stand-up appearance, so I did stuff I had thought up that day or had worked the night before. I ad-libbed with the audience. I had a great time doing it. But those years at the Bitter End and the Village Gate and The Gaslight and Mr Kelly’s and The Hungry Eye all helped bring that about.”
His advice to aspiring comics is “get the best material you can, work as often as you can.”
Having Carson in his corner helped him survive the stand-up gauntlet.
“I would go back to work the next day for Johnny and he would ask me how it went the night before and we would laugh particularly hard when it went badly. He would be very helpful with joke wording. He’d say, ‘You’ve got a good premise there but you don’t go far enough with it.’ A lot of good advice.”
Cavett’s still touched by the affection Carson showed him and that he reciprocated. They’re forever linked by their small town Nebraska roots (Cavett was born in Gibbon and raised in Grand Island and Lincoln) and similar career trajectories. They both performed magic as youths.
“We met over magic in the Westminster Church in Lincoln. As kids in junior high three of us went to see the magician and radio personality Johnny Carson from Omaha.”
That each went on to host his own network talk show still amazes Cavett. “Isn’t that funny – two magicians from Nebraska?” He promises to perform “my genius” rope trick at the comedy fest. Cavett, who pens a Times column and occasional books, regularly gets back here. He hopes to get in some time in his beloved Sand Hills.
Keenly aware he’ll be on Carson’s home turf at an event paying homage to its most famous native son, his rope trick will be one more link in their shared legacy.
For schedule and ticket info call 402-370-8004 or visit www2.greatamericancomedyfestival.com. Omaha Showcase details are at www.omahaperformingarts.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.