During the 80s comedy boom Ritch Shydner was the definition of a comic’s comic. He toured the country, racked up numerous late-night TV appearances, and had his own hour-long special on HBO. Comedy led to acting, placing Shydner in roles in shows and films like Married with Children, Roxanne, and Beverly Hills Cop II. After a 13-year break from standup, he returned to the stage, thanks in part to the award-winning documentary I Am Comic. Since then, Shydner has been staying active onstage and serving as a kind of comedy historian. His newest book, KICKING THROUGH THE ASHES: My Life As A Stand-Up In the 1980’s Comedy Boom, is a comprehensive look at his career and the careers of some of comedy’s biggest names, including Bill Hicks, Robin Williams, and Rodney Dangerfield. I talked to Shydner about the comedy booms of the past, his take on the current stand-up scene, and how being a cruise ship comedian isn’t so bad.
Isaac Kozell: When I Am Comic came out you had been off the stage for the better part of 13 years. Have you been going steady with stand-up since that documentary?
Ritch Shydner: It was fits and starts to build a new act. It took a little while to get the muscles going again, but I’m back doing it. I love doing it. I’m loose. I play. It’s as much fun as ever.
IK: Did you ever think you would end up performing on a cruise ship?
IK: “Cruise Ship Entertainer” has always had a stigma to it. How do you feel about that now?
RS: I’m older now. This isn’t the stand-up comedy I signed up for, but I’m not the guy that signed that contract anyway. I’m fine with it because these are people my age. I can do an Eddie Haskell reference and everybody in the audience gets it. I’m doing stuff about being older, marriage, relationships, whatever. It’s okay with me. I’m not working the edge anymore. I’m just trying to stay out of the ditch.
IK: But you’re working.
RS: That’s exactly right. That’s the key.
IK: I’m a comparatively younger comic. I first heard about you when I picked up a copy of your book I Killed. I was just getting into comedy, in fact, I was getting ready to interview Bob Saget. He has a story in the book, so I picked up a copy and ended up reading the whole thing. Reading those stories of what comedy used to be like was insane. Comedy isn’t rock and roll anymore.
RS: It’s more corporate. It’s more establishment. There are two big eras to me in stand-up comedy. The first was the late 50’s and early 60’s with Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart. They turned comedy into an art form. They turned it from shtick into comedy that matters. Then our era, in the 80’s, it became an acceptable profession. It went from being a showbiz side dish to being the main course. There was an explosion in the 80’s. There weren’t paying comedy clubs in the 70’s. Now every small town has a comedy club, or at least a bar who does comedy once a week or once a month. Every major city has a couple of comedy clubs.
IK: What do you think about the state of comedy right now?
RS: It’s bigger than ever. There’s no middle class now, though. There was a middle class in my era. There were guys like John Fox and Ollie Joe Prater, who had virtually no TV exposure whatsoever, who were still making six figures a year running around doing the road. Now you’ve got more comics doing more theaters than ever before. The comedy clubs are bigger. You got five, six, seven hundred seat comedy clubs. All the comedy clubs back when it started were all between 150…250 was a big-sized comedy club back then. If you can put butts in the seats you can make a serious twenty-five, thirty grand a weekend. But if you can’t, everybody is getting offered the same lowball $250 set to headline. There’s no middle class in comedy anymore, just like in America. The comics are better than ever because they come pre-loaded. Your generation has grown up watching a million YouTube videos, Comedy Central specials, HBO, Showtime. They’ve watched a million comics before they ever get on stage. They come pre-loaded knowing how to do it, with an idea of what it is. George Burns said that the comic’s soul is eternal. If you drop a comic from now back in Vaudeville, it’s the same guy. If you take a Vaudeville comic and put him in today, it’s the same personality.
IK: Do you think there’s an oversaturation in comedy right now?
RS: No, I don’t. What you do have is more hobbyists now than ever. There were no hobbyists then. People weren’t doing it part-time. There used to be that heckle, “Don’t quit your day job.” You’ve got comics now who never intend to quit their day job. They’re just doing it as a side thing, hanging around. My dad used to call these guys “shade-tree mechanics,” guys who just work on their cars on the weekend, goofing around with it, not really serious. You’ve got a lot of shade tree comics. They’re clogging up the stage for real comics, but the real comics cut through and move past them. It’s just that it was easier back in my day. Back in ’77, if you were at a party somewhere and someone said, “What do you do?” and you said, “I’m doing stand-up comedy,” the whole party would stop. “What? Hey, this guy’s a stand-up comic! This is the first time I’ve ever met one.” You say that now and the whole party is like, “Yeah, we all do it.”
IK: Your new book is called Kicking Through the Ashes. What’s the meaning behind the title?
RS: It’s the end of my career. I always loved that imagery when there’s a fire and the news crew comes out and they say, “The house burned to the ground,” and there’s always somebody in the background kicking through the debris, looking for something of value. I’m kicking through the ashes looking for something of value from my career.
IK: In all the years that you’ve been doing stand-up what would you say is the coolest thing that’s ever happened to you?
RS: Albert Brooks was the guy to me. He was The Guy. I loved his stand-up, I loved his movies, I loved his two albums that I had. But I’d never met him. Cut to about six years ago. My son, he’s going to the same elementary school as Albert Brooks’ daughter. I’d see Albert Brooks there from time to time at some parent functions, but I was too shy. I wasn’t doing stand up at the time. “I can’t go up to him.” One day I’m picking up my son from school and my son is talking to Albert Brooks’ daughter. There’s nobody else around. I’m standing a couple of feet away. Albert Brooks is standing a couple feet away. We’re waiting for our kids to stop talking to each other. I said, “Oh, the hell with it. I’m going to go up and introduce myself and tell this guy what he meant to me when I first started doing comedy.” I walked over to him and said, “Albert you don’t know me, but…” and he says, “I know you. You’re Ritch Shydner. You’re a funny guy.” I just stopped. It chokes me up right now. I was stunned. I couldn’t even talk. I wasn’t a kid. This was only six years ago. We got in the car and didn’t move for a long time. My son said, “Dad, what’s going on?” I was just like, “Albert Brooks knew who I was and thought I was funny.” That was it for me. That made the whole journey worthwhile.