Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
For a brief time in the entertainment universe, comedy ruled.
Out for an evening during the ’80s, you could hardly take three steps without tripping over a microphone-wielding joke artist. Comedy clubs sprang up across the land, and stand-up became the route to stardom in prime time (Roseanne Barr, Ellen DeGeneres), in the movies (Tom Hanks, Robin Williams), and on the late-night circuit (Jay Leno, David Letterman, Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers). The parade was endless: single-star comedy specials, variety comedy showcases, comedy advertising, comedians turning into serious actors (Michael Keaton) or romantic leads (Bill Murray). Tim Allen stretched the curve the furthest, from a stint in jail for dealing drugs to a TV series (Home Improvement) to a hit movie (The Santa Clause.)
The phenomenon hardly occurred overnight. Comedians had been the mainstays of minstrel shows and vaudeville, and essential salty accompaniment to burlesque’s sugar babies, reciting routines that became standards of radio, film, and early television. The modern era brought everything from shock comedians (Sam Kinison, Andrew Dice Clay), to rock comedians (who can forget Spinal Tap, even if one of their drummers did drown in someone else’s vomit?).
In the go-go Reagan era, comedy became a commodity. And when the inevitable glut developed, the comedy market did what all markets do: It underwent a correction. Stand-up went stale, the club ranks shriveled, and the customers—especially home- bound boomers with small children—found they could sate their har-de-har hunger via the tube.
Bob Somerby is fighting back. After more than a decade on the boards as a stand-up guy, the Baltimore resident has assembled his personal vision of what some in his line of work see as the next big thing in live comedy: the one-person show.
Traditionally, the most satisfying comedy has been the result of a performer hoeing a particular row. From Bert Williams to Mort Sahl to Jeff Foxworthy, jokesters have become stars by carefully choosing and then relentlessly exploiting pet themes. The latest trend in live comedy, however, is to find a cultural groove and climb inside like an anthropologist, examining the topic in a stream of narration that aims to make people laugh by making points about how we live today.
In his show Defending the Caveman, for example, comedian Rob Becker focused on the eternal war between men and women. Becker, who drew SRO crowds during his 1992 D.C. engagements, did more than simply spritz on a take-my-significant-other-please variation of ancient riffs; he offered insights into gender behavior that provoked thought and talk as well as belly laughs. Caveman premieres on Broadway March 1.
For embattled comedy club operators, shows like Becker’s offer a potential resuscitator for establishments emptied by TV and shifts in audience taste. For comics, the solo extended performance provides an additional route out of the clubs, into theater and film, and—for Bob Somerby, anyway—a shot at shaking up the nation, one knowing chortle at a time.
Somerby’s Material World is a 90-minute excursion into personal history, American values, and the insidious influence thereupon of marketing and advertising. The show’s target is things—the things we buy and the things we are sold, the things we chase and the things we discard, the things we think will fill some void, then turn out to be only shoes or vehicles or broken toys. Somerby’s skill lies in his ability to elevate ordinary consumer carping to high comic art, and his willingness to extend his scrutiny beyond a casual humorous riff into the darker crevices of his own life.
When he began shaping the show, Somerby drew on routines long ensconced in his repertoire. But World became something entirely different after the November 1993 death of his mother, with whom he had a troubled relationship. The comedian inherited not only his share of the estate but a trove of family photographs that triggered a cascade of memories, both pleasant and harsh. It occurred to Somerby that the emotional notes he was feeling might resonate with audiences, so he experimented with them.
Projected onto a screen, Somerby’s snapshots became breathtaking documents: the mother who once disowned him, in the bloom of young womanhood; the father he barely remembered, standing tall as a man of power and substance; the sister who always seemed far ahead of him, revealed for the little girl she had been. It was as if he were seeing these people and his childhood for the first time. And as he thought about what these pictures said and what he remembered, he found his theme. Now, when the lights go down in a club and Somerby guides an audience through his story, the laughter is tinged with a shock of recognition arising as much from something sad and true as from something funny.
American hyperconsumption is a familiar comedic topic, and World does address cereal packaging, children’s clothing, and appliances in bits that, taken individually, would amount to standard comedy fare. However, Somerby has created a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts by virtue of staging, structure, and an intensely personal tone. Part of the effect stems from his stage presence. Many comedians, even the top dogs, work in a lather of anxiety. Somerby, in contrast, visibly relaxes, and his manner is easy and conversational. In high school, he was a basketball star, and when he stands before an audience in his baggy black trousers, button-down oxford shirt, and high-top white Converse All-Stars to build a riff around a familiar subject, he projects the lolling surety of a foul-shot artist who knows his next throw will be nothing but net.
Even so, Somerby’s professional confidence these days is challenged; it is one thing to slap at the tides of commerce, and quite another to try to ride the big wave. At 47, he has reached career-crunch time. After a shakedown run in Irvine, Calif., Material World opens at the Improv in D.C. next month. If the show is a hit on the order of Caveman, he can set aside his Frequent Flyer card for a while and settle into a long run, perhaps at a theater, where he can create a larger arena in which to express himself.
Ultimately, Somerby hopes to get people discussing the issues that he raises in the show, as they did each night after he field-tested Material World last autumn. “When I did the show in October, more people stood around afterward and talked to me in 10 nights than had done so in the preceding 10 years,” Somerby says.
If the show tanks—well, he doesn’t dwell much on that possibility.
Why does anyone go into stand-up comedy? Fortune. Fame. Access to legitimate stage and film work. At heart though, stand-ups are in it for the attention, for the forum, for the buzz of being heard. Whether a comedian is saying funny things or saying things funny, he’s mainly saying things he hopes fiercely that other people will hear—so fiercely that, at some point on the career continuum, stand-up becomes what a performer has to do.
Somerby is such a performer. That characteristic plainly shows on a Friday night at a hotel lounge nestled in a concrete armpit where the Beltway passes through Northern Virginia. As a break from rewriting Material World, Somerby is dipping into a little stage work, much as a boxer might swap the speed bag for a series of sparring partners. As the evening’s featured comic, he faces an audience of several dozen that has responded politely but nervously to the female opener’s aggressively sexual wrap-up and the MC’s desperate profanity.
Earlier, in the lobby, Somerby had sat hunched and grave, worrying that his first joke—based on the rash of White House attacks—would stiff. Now, under a weak spotlight, he beams like a man without a care in the world. The White House joke does stiff, as does another on Virginia gun control reforms. The first real laugh comes when the comedian imagines Bill Clinton actually taking a stand.
“I mean, what has Clinton got to lose?” Somerby asks. “What if, during a press conference, he were to look down from the podium and say, “Fuck you, Brit Hume!’?”
The vulgarity jumpstarts the crowd.
“I was interested to see that when the postal rates changed the Postal Service ran out of stamps,” he says. “I would have thought stamps would be one of their most popular products….Has anybody wondered if that 29-cent stamp was related to all those postal worker shootings? There were no shootings when a stamp cost a quarter.”
He riffs on the mail, noting that many bills direct customers not to pay with cash or stamps. “Isn’t it interesting that they tell us not to send stamps through the mail?” Then he steers the routine around to some Material World material that he wants to fine-tune.
“I want to talk about Christmas,” he says. “Some of you may be saying, “Bob, it’s the middle of January—a little early for Christmas joking.’ But really, isn’t that the point? It’s never too early for Christmas. Christmas has become a 24-hour-a-day, 12-month operation. How many of you here tonight—don’t be bashful, we admire your work—have already started shopping for Christmas?”
A few hands go up. “See? I know people who do their holiday shopping out of catalogs in July—by August, everything is wrapped! I admire the lifestyle, frankly,” he says. “The way I am, in the middle of July, I don’t know who I’m going to know in December….I’ve found that if you wait ’til the very last day, there’s so little stuff left in the store that it takes no time to make your decision….Last year, everyone in my family got a rake.”
The crowd is with him, hooting at the lines so many others have hooted at. He sticks to the script, and it pays off.
“I have some advice for young people in the audience: Do not let your brother or sister get married before you do, because you will get ripped off at Christmas every year. I’m not married, my sister has two kids,” Somerby says. “Every year I am buying them designer ballet clothes, complete basketball backboards….You know what I’m getting back? Painted rocks. Thank you, I can’t get enough of that Popsicle-stick sculpture, that is always gorgeous stuff.”
The momentum flags after an aside about Martin Luther King Day sales dies, but picks up when Somerby goes into a slight crouch, like a guard coiling for a set shot. In a more derisive tone, he pursues a favorite topic—breakfast product marketing—using cereal boxes that he pulls out of a large cardboard carton.
“I don’t know what it is with cereal these days. When I was a kid, there were six cereals—I’m not that old, there were six! There was Wheaties, there was Corn Flakes, there was no mutant anything,” he says, holding up a box of Batman cereal that features the ubiquitous black-and-yellow logo. “Movies become cereal. Of course, this is for the kids—I’m waiting for those Basic Instinct Flakes.”
Somerby points to the stylized bat form. “I finally figured out this logo. This is what the kids’ teeth will look like if they eat this for a month.”
Another box: “They keep cranking out this junk, they have to come up with slogans to get you to buy it. Post Raisin Bran—”NOW Better Tasting.’ Oh, this is so much better tasting now!” he says, torquing the irony in his tone and holding up a box without the slogan. “So if that’s true, apparently this one pretty much tasted like shit!”
Yet another: “Sometimes the cereal’s name is a big sales pitch, no information, just the name,” he says, displaying a box of Just Right and smiling smugly. “This is…just right. But did you ever notice they make two different kinds?” Somerby pulls out a second box of Just Right, in a different flavor. “Folks—one of these has to be partially wrong. If it was just right, why didn’t they stop? They should call this one “Just Right’ and this one “Even More Right Still.’ It has never been this right before.”
To roars from the audience, Somerby jettisons the Just Right and holds up a box of Mueslix.
“Has anyone in this country figured out what this stuff is?” he asks. “The official cereal of the American Scrabble Federation? Aren’t these the seven letters you always get stuck with? I never knew I had a word.”
Somerby’s route to the stage reeks of predestination. His grandfather was an itinerant speechifier, his father a lifelong employee and ultimately owner of Boston’s legendary Old Howard burlesque house. Thanks to belated fatherhood in both cases, their story stretches back nearly to the beginning of the 19th century.
Born in upper New York state in 1832, Rufus C. Somerby was a traveling showman who mounted extravaganzas of the antebellum era, climbing onstage himself as the master of ceremonies for a Civil War panorama in which veterans fresh from the battle displayed their wounds. When the horrors of war wore thin, he mounted new shows. In 1870, he took a troupe of trained monkeys to Nova Scotia, where they sold out the house. He brought the famous midget Tom Thumb to the U.S., only to have the tiny sensation hired away by Phineas T. Barnum.
“Uncle Rufe,” as he came to be called, looked every inch the man to provide moral guidance, which he did in his lectures of later years. A portrait from his 1903 funeral book shows a kind-eyed patriarch, firm of chin and stern of gaze, long white hair flowing from beneath a black trilby nearly to the collar of a double-breasted suitcoat.
The senior Somerby eventually had the assistance of the son and namesake he sired in 1883. Young Rufus, known as “Al” (his middle name was Alfred), quit school after the sixth grade to promote the old man, preceding him town by town to hang posters for the next show. In 1899, four years before his father’s death, 16-year-old Al Somerby hired on with the Howard Athenaeum on Boston’s Scollay Square. Better known as “The Old Howard,” the theater was the only place he ever worked, moving up from box-office clerk to booking agent to manager to owner.
Like old Rufus Somerby, the Old Howard was grounded in both the sacred and the profane. The building at 19 Howard St. was originally a tabernacle for a group of apocalyptic zealots, according to David Kruh’s Always Something Doing: A History of Boston’s Infamous Scollay Square. When the world failed to end, the building was leased to an acting company, which adopted the name “Howard Athenaeum” to defuse anti-theatrical bias. Six months after the theater opened in October 1845, a flaming prop started a fire that burned all but the granite front, which was incorporated into a new three-story building with a brewery at the ground level. The new theater hosted plays, ballets, and operas. Tragedian Junius Booth brought his legendary Hamlet; sons Edwin and John Wilkes declaimed in other roles. The Howard became a magnet for Boston’s upper crust.
Soon, however, the huddled masses started to show up. Irish and Italian immigrants jammed the theater, driving off the monied. The fare became acrobats, dancers, jugglers, minstrel shows, pantomime. Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show galloped through. The Human Fly walked on the ceiling. Bare-knuckles boxer John L. Sullivan presided over a ring onstage, taking on all comers and nearly killing one. A tradition began: Only baldheaded men were seated in the front row, the better to glom the chorus-linecuties.
As young Somerby was learning the art of booking, the Howard was hosting vaudeville, then a family-oriented variety show, and burlesque, which had more of a Nighttown tilt. By the ’20s, striptease had become ubiquitous on the burlesque circuit. Between babes, comics like Bud Abbott and Lou Costello or Phil Silvers would work the crowd for laughs.
Somerby and his boss, G.E. Lothrop, were quick to capitalize on any draw. When the first commercial two-reelers went into circulation, they added a movie screen to the Old Howard’s stage. The burlesque acts began at 1 p.m., breaking at 5 for dinner while vaudevillians and a film filled the gap. At 8, the burlesque started again, running until 11 and growing bawdier with each hour.
Somerby knew boffo when he saw it. As he moved up to manager and then owner, his diverse menu of flesh made the Old Howard a Boston institution—and Al a rich man—long before he sold the theater in 1950. The Old Howard closed in 1953, padlocked on a morals violation. In 1961, amid cries for its restoration, the theater burned a final time.
Appropriately for a man who owned a burlesque house, Al Somerby enjoyed the company of women. He married three times, fathering two children by each spouse; all but one of his offspring survive. His final wedding took place in 1942 to Edna Hanson, a working-class Catholic of Irish descent from Haverhill, Mass. He was 59; she was 38. They settled in Winchester, a town whose residents evinced little transience but great ambition. Their daughter Gail arrived in 1945; Bob, in 1947. At nearby Mystic Elementary, Bob and Gail made good grades, obeyed the rules, were not class clowns. There were no class clowns at Mystic, which was regarded as a public feeder school for Harvard, Wellesley, and other academies of the power elite.
Al Somerby figured in his children’s lives as a benevolent but remote presence. “My memories of him begin when he was getting kind of tired,” Bob Somerby says. “I recall playing golf with him, but mostly I remember him sleeping a lot, the Red Sox on TV with him asleep on the couch. He probably was already ill.”
However, when his final marriage was new and his children were small, Al Somerby did take an interest, and a lot of pictures: close-grained Kodacolors of Edna, whom the camera loved as much as he, and of the kids, who fared about as well beneath the lens as any of their generation. One of the last frames Al exposed was of Bob on the day his son started first grade. Soon after, illness and old age sent Al Somerby into a nursing home for a slow passing that ended five years later in 1958.
“It was awkward and uncomfortable to visit him,” Bob says. “He had lost some of his ability to communicate. He never seemed to be shaven. There would be these very unpleasant squabbles, with my mother wanting me to go and me not wanting to go and feeling very guilty.”
The death of the grandfatherly father did not impoverish his survivors. Al had sold the Howard at enough of a profit that the family could live on it, and Edna worked. Bob, 11, was moved mostly by how remarkably unmoved he was by his father’s death. The broken connection became more distant 18 months later, when the family moved to San Mateo, Calif., where one of Edna’s sisters had settled.
And there the story might have taken another direction, had the Somerbys truly unhitched themselves from the East. But Edna’s mother, a lace-curtain matriarch who worshiped the Kennedy clan, had decreed since boyhood that her grandson would attend Harvard. She propelled Gail to Wellesley, and began to work on Bob to get with the program. “The snob factor in our house was an ironic given,” Somerby says. “It resulted in my sister and I coming to look down on our mother.”
The distance was mutual; even before her husband’s death, Edna Somerby had begun to pull away from her children. She was not a hugger or a toucher, and as time passed she became more comfortable expressing her affection through gifts, through objects, through tuition payments. Gail and Bob lived in a shower of things that didn’t touch them. In autumn 1963, writing from Wellesley, Bob’s sister commiserated with him in freshman hyperbole about the “disgusting” chore of living with their mother. Edna found the letter, and in a burst of displaced anger told Bob he was no longer her son.
As in many a family, a silent callus formed over that acrid moment, and time flowed on. Bob’s frame lengthened and thickened. His sense of humor quickened. He made strong grades at Aragon High, despite playing basketball well enough to get an honorable mention on the Prep All-America team. In the 1965 yearbook his classmates voted him wittiest senior.
Fate and Grandmother Hanson prevailed. “I would have been better off at a small school,” Somerby says. “But Harvard is one of those places where, if you get in, you go.”
He got in, he went. Uncertain of what to study, he majored in philosophy. Scratching lecture notes in huge hall after huge hall, he counted the house and multiplied by the tuition to see how well Harvard was doing. Harvard was doing well. Bob Somerby wasn’t. He was in a bigger, fiercer pond where a letterman’s sweater and being wittiest senior in high school didn’t count for much.
He found a tonic in friendship. Herded into a freshman dormitory on the Yard, he met the guys in the next room: a Texan named Tommy Lee Jones, who played football and acted in school productions, and Al Gore, son of a Tennessee congressman. Sophomore year, the trio occupied a suite in Dunster House, the core of a contingent that would occupy those quarters until graduation.
While Somerby didn’t share his generation’s fiery politics, neither did he want to go to Vietnam. He protested the war in a desultory fashion, and upon graduating in June 1969 found a desultory way out of the draft. The Selective Service had nixed graduate-school deferments, but holders of bachelor’s degrees could beat the heat by teaching.
Somerby needed a classroom, and Baltimore needed teachers. He had read Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age, and was at least as eager to help bring racial justice into the classroom as to avoid getting his butt shot off. He arrived in August 1969, spent 10 weeks in the educational equivalent of basic training, and in November debuted in a fifth-grade classroom at a school in west central Baltimore.
He hated it. War might have been hell, but at least you could shoot back. “The happiest day of my life was the night before spring vacation that year,” Somerby says. “God, to have a whole week off—it was just thrilling.”
As the specter of the draft faded, however, teaching began to exert a pull. He logged two years, three, five. He saw flaws in the system and began to catalog them—inadequate textbooks, misdirected curricula, systemic finagling with standardized-test results. Determined to be the next Kozol, he turned to advocacy journalism. But the articles he’d so painstakingly researched and written appeared and faded without a ripple, leaving him frustrated and embarrassed.
He was 30, an age when he had expected to know what he was doing and to be doing what he wanted. He didn’t, and he wasn’t. He taught two more years, this time at a junior high. One afternoon in the faculty lounge, he scanned the room and saw colleague after colleague exhibiting the symptoms of clinical depression. He felt the same.
It was no time to be browsing the Harvard alumni magazine—former roomie Jones was a rising movie star; Gore was in the House of Representatives and angling for the Senate. Meanwhile, Somerby was living a picaresque existence in a Bolton Hill apartment, struggling to survive the school year, keeping busy with a part-time gig as a copy editor for a scientific publishing house. He needed a laugh. An article in the Baltimore Sun led him to El Brookman’s in Anacostia, one of the early outposts of the comedy club era.
The humor of the humor escaped him; jokes about wives, cars, highway signs—it all seemed so old world. Not that he was Mister Big-Time Comedy Expert. He’d kept his tongue sharpened in high school and college, but hadn’t paid much heed to the waves of new comedy that had washed ashore since his dad had given up the Old Howard.
However, the failed crusader was hungry for an unnamed thing—a place to talk about his ideas, recognition, a forum. El Brookman’s left him cold, but when City Lights opened at Harbor Place in Baltimore, he went. Listening to would-be comedian after would-be comedian, he decided that he could be a would-be comedian too. He’d heard that some of the performers made $400 a weekend—about what he made for a whole week of pedagogy. And telling jokes looked to be a lot more fun than driving a blackboard.
He began to frequent the open-microphone nights, usually lonesome Mondays, studying the would-bes strutting their pathetic stuff. Weekends, he came to watch the professionals: Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Roseanne Barr, Jeff Marder. He started to write jokes, trying to get up his nerve.
One night in late 1980, he steeled himself and joined the line for the City Lights microphone. His knees knocked furiously as he talked, and he drew not one chuckle. After Christmas he returned with better material and got some laughs, particularly with a bit about the Pep Boys auto parts chain. “As I recall, it was about how all the greatest Marylanders of history have been black—Thurgood Marshall, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman,” Somerby says. “Then I said something along the lines of, “And who do we memorialize? Manny, Moe, and Jack—the Pep Boys!’ I didn’t know the store was a national chain, but neither did the audience. They laughed.”
Deserved or not, the response felt good. The next night he went to a movie with some friends, and naively wondered if people would recognize him. They didn’t, but he had figured something out. What, exactly, he couldn’t—and still can’t—articulate. But he liked going onstage. All his life he’d thought he had something to say; he just hadn’t found the right place to say it.
On the forced daytime march through his last semester as a teacher, he began to live from performance to performance, honing his act, getting over his initial terror. June arrived, and with it manumission from teaching. He got the science publisher to let him edit at home, and got serious about being funny, mailing out head shots and bios, and roping paid work. In the meantime, a friend, Dan Rosen, a teen-age sensation on the Baltimore comedy circuit, had found a dinner theater in Towson willing to stage weekend shows. Rosen called his ad hoc establishment Charm City; to ease the burden of being both manager and performer, he recruited Somerby as his master of ceremonies. The job didn’t pay, but it did provide a laboratory in which to test material and delivery.
“We met when I was this “17-year-old star’ at City Lights and Bob was a newcomer at 33,” Rosen says. “He always made me laugh, although the audience didn’t necessarily laugh. In those days it cost zero to put together a club. People thought I had money, but I didn’t. I was too young to know that I couldn’t do it, so I did it.” Rosen, now 31, lives in Los Angeles, where he works as a screenwriter and playwright (his Dysfunctional Show, a stage satire of exposé-style TV starring Rosen as a Geraldo-like character, had a hit run at L.A.’s Hudson Theater and is about to become a TV series).
Charm City adhered to a popular model: an opening performer (Somerby) who doubled as MC, a middle act (Rosen), and a name headliner. Offstage, Rosen and Somerby handled the bookings—and found themselves being booked in other cities. “Being a club owner was a ticket into the industry,” Somerby says. “We ran a good club, we booked good talent. I enjoyed a fast gain in status—from total beginner hack to owner of a comedy club to working full-time as a comedian by 1984.”
Somerby had caught a wave. He worked two-thirds of the year’s weekends in Baltimore and Washington and the other third on the road, picking up an occasional television stint—Comedy Tonight, VH-1, Showtime, The Larry King Show—and invitations to appear on local radio stations WWDC-FM and WBAL-AM. The torpor that had befogged him in his first years of college and his last years of teaching evaporated. He was itching to work, on fire to develop material. He developed a modus operandi for writing: up early, fillet the papers, circle and then clip promising premises, sit down at the typewriter, premises in all capital letters, punchlines in upper-and-lower case.
It wasn’t that he was any funnier than he’d been before; he was thinking funnier. “It is an accumulation of experience,” he says. “I can think of things now that I couldn’t have 10 years ago. You accumulate a catalog of associations that people think are funny, and as you have more experience you have more connections.”
As an example, Somerby traces the developmental stages of a joke now on his worktable: “I saw on the news about the O.J. Simpson trial that there was a squabble between F. Lee Bailey and Robert Shapiro,” he explains. “Then, on Crossfire, Michael Kinsley was talking about how irresponsible Bailey was, that he should be disbarred, that all the people working for O.J. are egomaniacs. My joke is that O.J. is going to be the only defendant in history to spend $10 million on attorneys and have his conviction thrown out on incompetence of counsel. It appeals to my whole theme, which is that abundance and scarcity lead us to the same thing—incompetence. If I were not a comedy writer, I would say, “Those guys are jerks,’ and that would be the end of the observation. For professional reasons, what I do now is get to the end of the observation and turn the corner. You keep working the words, you say it aloud to hear how it sounds, like poetry. You tumble the words around until the meter is right: “Dadadadadada…incompetent counsel!’ ”
Between Charm City and the road, where he was often the middle act and sometimes a headliner, Somerby was making more than he had ever made as a teacher. He still didn’t think of himself as a comedian, but there was incontrovertible evidence to the contrary: gigs from Fairbanks to Miami, regular network and cable TV appearances, continuing roles on a public-television sketch series. The Baltimore City Paper named him the city’s best stand-up comic for 1985.
One night, as he was doing something managerial at Charm City, it dawned on him. He had never understood what it was the pleasant old fellow asleep in front of the Sox games had done for a living. But here he was, putting on shows, booking acts, standing backstage to make sure things were working smoothly.
“As someone who grew up without his father, it was a surprise to realize, “This is what Daddy did,’ ” Somerby says. “It makes you think about what it is that leads people genetically or in terms of desire to end up doing what your parent did.”
And in the mid-’80s it felt cool to be a comedian, cool enough to generate the heat of commerce. Once, a few score comics had prowled the land in search of audiences and the invisible rungs on the ladder leading to “Well, Johnny….” Now hundreds—no, thousands—marched. It was like rock ‘n’ roll, except you didn’t need to know how to play an instrument; all you had to do was get a laugh every 12 seconds for 30 minutes and you were riding high, have-pushed-up-sportcoat-sleeves-will-travel.
“I used to get into a cab at the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the driver would ask me what I did and then we would have a fascinating conversation about comedy for half an hour,” Rosen says. “After things got big, you would get into the cab in Charlotte and hear the cabdriver say, “Oh, a stand-up guy, huh? My cousin was on The Tonight Show last Tuesday.’ ”
Where 30 or 40 clubs had dotted the national nightscape, 300 blossomed. Chains sprouted, among them Punch Line, Zanies, Catch a Rising Star, Funny Bones, and the Improv, the last descended from the mesopotamic Times Square establishment founded by Budd Friedman in 1964 as the Improvisation.
The frenzy was fed by cable TV. Ravenous for camera fodder, cable had found comedy shows popular among viewers and ridiculously cheap to produce: How much can a brick wall and a microphone and a couple of baby spots cost? At one time, a third of the original programming on Home Box Office was stand-up.
Even at far lower levels, you could make a living. Nightly fees for middle acts could reach $600; headliners could get $2,000 to $10,000, more if they had made the pilgrimage to the holy cities of either coast and received the blessing of the prophets Johnny or Dave. A Tonight Show or Late Night credit could boost the juice significantly. According to Rolling Stone, in 1988 top clubs were grossing as much as $1.5 million yearly, and even suburban outposts could pull $600,000. Some specialized in showcases—a euphemism for free talent—and more than one showcase was cruel enough to do a lucky Pierre, charging performers for stage time while charging audiences to listen.
Comedy had established itself as a boom business, and like any business, it was in for a market correction. As the economic downturn of the late ’80s drove comedy fans out of the clubs, fees held static or dropped, separating the seriously comic from the dilettantes. Chains that had assumed an ever-expanding future lopped links or closed entirely. Since 1991, the club ranks have thinned to about 200 nationwide, according to Mark Anderson, who with Pam ela Felix has the Improv franchise in five cities. It was Anderson who suggested to Somerby one night after a particularly hot set at the D.C. Improv that he think about writing a one-man show.
The club manager’s logic was multifarious and alloyed. He needed to keep his store going. He also had a personal history that tracked with Somerby’s: son of a businessman, Ivy League refugee, comedian. Anderson had been all of those, and he hadn’t done half-bad.
A Princeton psychology major whose father was an Oklahoma oilman, Anderson, 42, had taken a doctorate in psychology. Besides working as a Jungian therapist, he’d tried wildcatting, proving that he could lose money as quickly as anyone. But he also had a theatrical bent, and saw stand-up as a way to edge onstage. “In ’80 and ’81, comedy was so new that anyone with five minutes could get over,” he says. “I had a really aggressive agent who got me work for which I was not qualified—I did the Improv in L.A. and The Merv Griffin Show—but I realized after a year that I did not want to do it badly enough.”
Neither did Anderson want to quit show business. In 1985, riding the second club boom, he convinced Budd Friedman to let him open an Improv in San Diego. The venture was a smash, and Improv followed Improv until there were eight: San Diego; two each in Orange County, Calif., and Dallas, Texas; Phoenix; San Francisco; and D.C. The idea was to emphasize the comedy rather than push the booze, which brings out too many patrons’ inner heckling jerk.
In the high times of 1985-91, most of the clubs’ headliners could claim a Carson or Letterman appearance. A comic on the Improv’s short list could work a year simply circling among the chain’s outlets. “It looked like there would be no end to this business,” Anderson says. “I figured people would always need to laugh. I didn’t see the impact of TV coming.”
But the boom soon turned bust. At the San Francisco Improv, which never did turn a profit, Anderson felt free to try unexplored approaches. Comic Rick Reynolds proposed a 90-minute one-man show called Only the Truth Is Funny, based on his Dickensian life (his mom witnessed his dad’s accidental drowning, his stepfather turned out to be a bank robber and embezzler, etc., etc.). Anderson gave it a go. Truth drew critical acclaim and ran for two years at the Improv, then moved to a 700-seat theater in San Francisco, before making the rounds of New York and L.A. and becoming a Showtime cable special. Now Reynolds has development deals percolating in Hollywood.
“Rick’s premise was, “I’m going to tell you the truth about my life,’ ” Anderson says. “There were serious moments and there were funny moments and the audience never knew which was coming when—the same as in Pulp Fiction, or in that old movie Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. It was both hysterically funny and hysterically scary.”
Whatever its still-unfound label, the new form obviously had potential. The San Francisco club’s next big hit came in 1992, with Defending the Caveman. Since then the one-person show has become such a staple of the circuit that Rosen, for one, feels it may have peaked. “One-man shows are almost over. Most of them are stand-up acts with 15 minutes added to them. A guy adds some pathos and he thinks he’s Eric Bogosian,” says Rosen, specifically exempting his former partner from that category. “I’ve read the Material World script, and I think it’s terrific,” Rosen adds.
Anderson, who saw in the triumph of Caveman evidence that the comedy of ideas could succeed, continues to scan the horizon for new shows. The first night he watched Somerby work, he saw possibilities.
“He was not talking about airline food or cheerleaders or whatever silly superficial stuff pops up each year that all the comics talk about,” Anderson says. “He was going after big, megacorporate targets like Mattel and Nike. You sat there and you thought, “Gosh, I really am being manipulated by the advertising industry!’ Bob’s show gave me the same feelings of freedom I had experienced watching Rick Reynolds and Rob Becker and some of the other people.”
Afterward, Anderson chatted with Somerby, and became intrigued by the comic’s take on his parents’ generation: They had endured suffering and poverty, yet their efforts to give him and his sister the things they never had were both noble and disabling. Anderson made a point of watching more Somerby performances. The effect, he says, was therapeutic. “It is hard for me not to at least refer to my background as a psychologist,” he says. “But it seemed to me that he had a healing impact, and that that impact could be fleshed out in a one-man show.”
Anderson’s suggestion interested Somerby. Despite his success—he was by then selling jokes to Jay Leno, and had been recruited by his old roomie’s staff to write gags for Al Gore’s debut on the Letterman show—he had begun to feel slightly embarrassed about doing comedy. For years he had been publishing serious Op-Ed pieces in Baltimore and Washington papers, but comedian remained his career category.
However, he didn’t want to brush off the club owner. How about a political show, he countered. Anderson demurred, insisting on something more personal, something people could see in their own lives.
Somerby began sieving his notebooks for pertinent jokes and reviewing outside material that could be of use. As he was developing his premise, he recalled a favorite passage from his days of teaching Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” book series. In that chapter, the Ingalls children celebrate Christmas in a manner barely recognizable today: Their crowning gift is a shiny penny.
“I thought of that scene and from that instant I knew that would be where the show would end,” Somerby says. “And it is. After 90 minutes of Nikes and Kellogg’s we come to a couple of kids getting a penny for Christmas and being delighted.”
To illustrate his routine, Somerby started writing and collecting slides of advertisements and tapes of commercials. He spent summer 1993 at the typewriter, finding his deftness at crafting a one-liner of scant utility. “If you are a stand-up headliner, you have to do 45 minutes at about six jokes a minute,” he says. “This was completely different.”
One breakthrough came that fall, when Slapstix, a Baltimore club, let him have its Sunday night to develop the show. He realized that the more he thought in theatrical terms, the more punch his material had. “I started playing Christmas music, which created an atmosphere that says something different is going on here,” he says. “People paid more attention. It was as if they wanted to hear something more than joke joke joke.”
But Somerby lacked a sense of where his meld of personal history and polemic was taking him—until his mother’s death in November that year. She was 80, stuck in a Boston nursing home after a series of strokes that reprised her late husband’s dying.
Edna Somerby and her son had reconciled, although they never completely closed the gulf that her bitter denunciation had opened. After her funeral, Bob discovered the photographs, and saw where the show might go. Somerby had his dad’s photos copied onto slide film and began reworking the script to accommodate the resulting images.
He also began reviewing his relationship with his mother, which came to dominate his thoughts as he revised the script. During field tests in Baltimore and D.C., he felt he was being too hard on her—some audience members complained that the story was too depressing—but as he retold his tale it acquired a distance that made it something broader and deeper than the story of one mother and one child.
That distance did not come easily or quickly. “It is embarrassing to have a 47-year-old man thinking out loud about something that happened when he was 17,” Somerby says. “I found myself not wanting to go to the Improv on Mondays. The story originally was on the theme that my mother had made mistakes as a parent and had produced a big cataclysm. The change in the show was my coming to terms with my mother, understanding that she was acting in good faith as part of a generation that had acted in good faith. That made it a generational statement. It was a very moving experience for me to realize that although there is a voice within me that claims I was done wrong, that is not what I really think or want to say.”
As a gut check, he ran his ideas past his sister, who at first was jarred. “The fact that our mother had died in the past year made aspects of the show very creepy,” says Gail Barrington, who lives with her husband and children in Portsmouth, N.H., where she works at an insurance company. “I find it a little difficult. If she were still alive or if she had been dead a long time, it would be different.”
Despite her misgivings, Barrington attended one of the October ’94 shows. She found herself looking around the room and seeing startlement writ large on many faces. “The reaction was not all positive,” she says. But she finally decided that she enjoyed the show, and worries now for her brother.
“I care so much that this works for him,” she says. “He is at the stage after years of being in a kind of work where he is focusing on something he cares about. The idea is exciting and yet there is a terror of investing yourself.”
In January 1994, Somerby took the semifinished version before an unsuspecting audience at the D.C. Improv. The response was encouraging; he felt the material take flight, and after each show audience members made a point of stopping to talk with him about it. He began to spend Monday evenings at the Connecticut Avenue club fine-tuning the show, and enduring moments of doubt and pain about whether he was trampling the privacy of the dead. Around Easter, the show’s personal aspect intensified and then eased.
“At the start it had been a sort of psychiatric examination,” Somerby says. “I had been saying, “If you are as dumb as my mom, you try to act out your love by giving your children things.’ Now I was seeing that this was not just a family story, but a generation’s story. These people did this because they loved their children. I wanted to present them as acting out of a desire for their children to have the things they had not had. These people acted in good faith—they just didn’t realize they would be ambushed by the product companies.”
That left the story without a villain, so Somerby volunteered himself and his sister. “The heavies had to be the kids,” he says. “The story became one of a couple of kids who were given too much and developed an attitude about the person who was giving them all this stuff. I realized that I had absolved my mother.”
With this internal resolution—and with a shift into the third person—the story gained more objectivity and smoothness. But Somerby wanted it to do more. So Anderson arranged for a February shakedown cruise at the Irvine, Calif., Improv, where he could continue to hone the script. The show opens in D.C. on March 28.
If Material World succeeds, Somerby hopes to take it even further from straight comedy. “I have some ideas, but they are too unfunny for a comedy show,” he says. “The show talks about how the marketing revolution affects the middle class, but I am very interested in how it affects children who are growing up poor. People my age and older who say, “We were poor but we didn’t know it,’ are really saying, “We were poor and we didn’t have television.’ Now kids grow up with TV no matter how poor they are. What can it be like to have this box in your house that shows you all this stuff you cannot afford?”
Should the show flop, Somerby is resigned to returning to his former line of patter. “I’ll work at stand-up, but it’ll seem trivial compared to doing a show where you actually are discussing something in detail and expressing your views instead of telling a bunch of jokes,” he says. “I doubt if I’ll end up starring in a situation comedy about a guy who works in a shopping mall but tries to convince everybody not to buy his products.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Steve Appleford.