The art of stand-up comedy
December 29, 2011
Stand-up comedy is a sometimes-misunderstood profession. Most people think all it entails is getting up on stage and telling a bunch of jokes.
That’s only a small part of the process.
For Richard Weiss and Steve Mittleman, who will perform two nights at the Egyptian Theatre on Jan. 6 and 7, stand-up comedy is an art, much like theatre, that needs to be practiced, revised and refined.
Weiss and Mittleman spoke with The Park Record during separate interviews to explain their art and, in some cases, themselves.
Weiss, who will be the opening act during the Park City shows, was drawn to the creative aspect of comedy.
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"I had a regular job for a while and I worked for the music business and then the telephone company," Weiss said during a phone call from Yardley, Penn., where he was visiting his father and sister for the holidays. "Then I went out to California and had some free time on my hands and took a comedy writing course in Hollywood.
The writing was originally going to be a hobby.
"I was just going to try it once and be done with it, but it picked up momentum and I started meeting new people in the art and, five-and-a-half years later, I’ve continued at it," he said. "I’ve taken it really serious the past two years."
As he delved into the craft, he found his holy comedy trinity Steve Martin and the late Rodney Dangerfield and Richard Pryor.
"Richard was the best guy I had ever seen live," Weiss said. "I saw his live concert and it was an art. I’ve never seen anyone take comedy to that level meaning he was brutally honest. And he had this ability to use words and physicality and make a performance."
Pryor inspired Weiss to develop as a performer.
"Making people laugh when you’re not on stage is easy, but when you’re in front of people with a spotlight on you, it’s a whole new ballgame," he said. "A joke is as good as it is, but found out some jokes do better when you put theatrics in it. There’s the pausing, the response and facial expressions.
"Basically, when I’m stage, I try to feel funny," Weiss said. "I try to feel the joke and enjoy it as much as the crowd."
Every comedian has to win the crowd over in order to get laughs.
"Some crowds are intuitive and supportive and they help me become more funny," he said.
Other audiences, however, take a while to warm up to the comedian.
"I did a show at a rehab center and they didn’t want comedy," Weiss said. "They were watching a football game and had to turn it off. So they sat there with their arms crossed watching me. With only half the room was laughing and I knew something wasn’t right, but at the end everyone started laughing."
Weiss, who has struggled with his own addictions, performs in all types of venues.
"I have done ‘recovery shows’ for six-and-a-half years," he said. "I started performing at rehabilitation centers, prisons and treatment centers.
"I also do the corporate shows and I do the improves," he said. "Although I do a little bit of it all, I have to be true to myself and tell and write jokes from my perspective."
"It can be a little painful to touch on certain issues, especially if the joke doesn’t work," he said with a laugh.
Mittleman, who has appeared on "The Tonight Show" and "The Late Show," as well as "Comic Relief" and "The Rosie O’Donnell Show," said he’s hooked on the creative aspect of his career.
"I like being imaginative," Mittleman said during a phone interview from Las Vegas, Nev. "I’m an idea guy and jokes are ideas. Being witty is an idea and it’s exciting watching something I have created out of nothing come into fruition."
Mittleman’s jokes are derived from a "rainbow of things."
"Talking to the audience brings out some ideas," he said. "The other night I found one of the women in the audience here in Vegas was from Possum Neck, Mississippi, and I got five laughs out of just mentioning the town."
The comic also lifts ideas from his family.
"My parents were crazy, but also funny, and everybody had a good sense of humor," he said. "We were all kind of dry and sarcastic and I was blessed with that gene."
Still having a perceived "comedy gene" doesn’t mean Mittleman can laze around doing one-liners all the time.
"I have to work the muscle," he said.
Most of the time, the process becomes a never-ending theatrical workout.
"You learn your rhythm and what works for you and how people perceive you," he said. "You also learn how to make all that translate for your audience.
"I’m still trying to do that," he said. "It’s a giant process of trial and error. Even the greatest comedians find which roads work and don’t work. It’s a metaphor for life. You eliminate what’s not working and do what works."
These days Mittleman’s biggest challenge is to make his older material sound fresh.
"Timing is a big part of doing that," he said. "Then you slide into the punchline."
Growing up in New York, Mittleman was fascinated by comedy.
"When I was a kid, I loved comedians," he said. "If I stood in my bedroom the way our apartment was set up, I could see six inches of the Zenith TV screen while my mom would watch (Johnny) Carson, and I’d watch the monologues."
Originally, Mittleman wanted to go into broadcast, which was his major in school.
"I did stand-up for the first time during a speech class and the response I got from my classmates made me switch," he said. "My classmates really liked me, so it was easy to make them laugh and I wanted to keep doing it."
The Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., will present "Stand-Up Like an Egyptian" featuring Richard Weiss and Steve Mittleman, on Friday, Jan. 6, and Saturday, Jan. 7, at 8 p.m. The show, emceed by Kathleen McCann, is appropriate for all ages. Tickets are $18 to $30 and available at http://www.parkcityshows.com