Andy Kindler: The Curmudgeonly Comic


220px-Andy_Kindler_in_2009Every year at The Montreal Just for Laughs festival, comedian Andy Kindler unleashes a hysterical and scathing report on the world of comedy, its faults and success peppered with personal peccadilloes guaranteed to rankle the established icons of comedy. Kindler’s early work along such people as Judd Apatow and David Cross broke down the wall of dick jokes that comedy clubs had become entrenched in and established a new, progressive form of comedy. A multi-platform comic, Kindler is a regular on David Letterman and has appeared on such shows as Everybody Loves Raymond, Dr. Katz and The Wizards of Waverly Place.

DNA: Andy!

Andy Kindler: I thought you were supposed to call me, now I see that I was supposed to call you.

No problem. Thanks for giving me some time.

What is this for again? I’m very disorganized. I had a long weekend.

We have a website called Stand Up Santa Cruz that lets people on the Central Coast know about comedy shows locally and in the Bay Area and South Bay.

OK, well great, my pleasure.  I just forget what I’m doing sometimes (laughter).

I was hoping we could talk about some of the early comedy boom days?

OK, that’s good.

Did you start doing stand-up out of High School or college?

I started doing stand-up way after college because my plan was to be a musician. I played classical violin—I grew up in the 1960s so I loved the Beatles and was very drawn to being a musician.  While in High School I did some talent contest stuff and in college I did a lot of theatre—so I had background in the arts but I never thought of doing stand-up. I moved to LA after college—because a director friend from college was from there and was moving back there. I didn’t do comedy until I was 28 which was in 1984. I’m old, let’s not dwell on that.

You started off as a comedy duo?

It was with my friend Bill who worked in a stereo store and he was the guy who made me do it. One thing that is great about that is that stand-up comedy is the scariest thing in the world to do—so when you do it with somebody else it’s a little less scary. Some people weren’t scared when they started, but I was scared to death about it.

Did you find a background in music and theatre helped when you started doing stand-up comedy?

It all helps. One thing that I thought was an advantage when I started was that I wasn’t familiar enough with stand-up to see it as an isolated art form. I didn’t see stand-up as separate from all the other things I was influenced by. I loved Richard Pryor, I loved David Letterman, I loved Woody Allen but I wasn’t necessarily a fan of stand-up. My friend at my day job convinced me to do it. I think when you first start off your first instinct is to copy or to be heavily influenced by the people you see and like. But, I didn’t have a lot of that, which was good.

I’m familiar with the comedy boom during the 80s in New York City and Boston—but, who were your contemporaries in LA?

First of all it’s very funny you ask. Some guy who is a graduate student from somewhere is writing a book and contacted Marc Maron asking questions. He contacted me and said, “I know you don’t consider yourself an alternative comic,” that’s what he lead off with. He didn’t seem to have any self-awareness of what he was asking me.

You are a pioneer of the alternative comedy movement of the 1980s.

I don’t want to call myself the grandfather of alternative comedy, or the grandfather of anything. I’m an elder, and I’m one of a group of people who started in LA. I started at the Variety Arts Center which is in downtown LA. And there was the Ed Wynn Lounge which was in the basement, named after the actor Ed Wynn—and I met a lot of people there. Don’t Quit Your Day Job with the Higgins Boys and Gruber. That was Dave Higgins, Steve Higgins and Dave Gruber who went on to fame with the Naked Trucker. Steve Higgins is now Jimmy Fallon’s sidekick.

When did you first go on the road?

When I first went on the road it was in 1987 and right in the middle of the comedy boom. The boom started in the early 80’s, peaked in the late 80’s and then imploded in the early 90s. When I first went on the road I didn’t do any alternative stuff. But as I started getting more into comedy I began becoming more comfortable. I was very excited when I first got into comedy. But after the first three or four years on the road I was like, “Oh my god, stand-up comedy has become the cheesiest thing in the world.” I hate to say it, but back then many friends I knew would always say the last place in the world you would find something funny is in a comedy club.

Nowadays comics will identify themselves as “alternative” comics.

This is one of the misconceptions that I cannot stand when people talk about alternative comedy. Alternative comedy is a categorization, like any other art form such as music. It’s not a defining thing. So when people label certain comedy as alternative, that is not accurate. We were not trying to found an alternative movement. It just so happened that Janeane Garofalo and Julia Sweeney and David Cross and I were doing the same clubs. At the same time, Kathy Griffin was doing work with the Groundlings. And of course the first room that was really amazing was called Luna Park and was run by Beth Lapides who started the show UnCabaret. I had to have rooms like that because I couldn’t work anywhere else. I would go to regular comedy clubs and I would die because it was all dick jokes and hack jokes or jugglers—and not to put down jugglers or music acts—it wasn’t Flight of the Conchord’s, it was people doing bad song parodies. If we didn’t form a movement we wouldn’t have had anywhere to play. And then it has gotten misconstrued over the years to say “alternative” is a specific style. One thing that defines how I approach “alternative” comedy is that when we would go to rooms built for “alternative” comedy we would be able to work on our material. When I started in 1984 clubs like The Improv were at the tail end of a very creative period left over from the 70s. The Comedy Store was the greatest place in the world, but that was before my time. Those venues were places where you took chances and then, by the time I got there, they became places where comics performed to get sitcom deals. There became less places to try out new material and more places to audition and do jokes.

How was the Bay Area scene when you were starting out?

In the early 90s and mid-90s there were many creative rooms in San Francisco.  There was an Improv on Mason and Geary and it was one of the best clubs in the country. In the late 80s early 90s the original Other Café was a great place and obviously the Holy City Zoo. It was a much more fertile scene. Currently, Molly at The Punchline is very familiar with the alternative movement. I’m sure there are decent one-nighters and stuff but there’s not as much venues as there used to be.

Isn’t it true that once you identify as an alternative movement, other people will come along and identify as the alternative to the alternative?

What you’re saying is true about any movement. I’ve been saying for the last few years that comedy has never been in a better place.  Take somebody like James Adomian—there’s nobody more brilliant than him. It would have been so hard for him to have made it ten years ago—although I think it’s ridiculous to try and suppose if somebody could have made it had they grown up in a different era. Adomian is amazing for a combination of reasons. One, is that now people are actually coming to clubs to see comedians where it used to be people would show up regardless of who was there. I think there has never been a richer time for comedy at the higher end of the scale. John Mulaney is genius. Mulaney is doing stuff, and there is no reason to categorize this, but Mulaney is doing stuff everybody can love. Brian Regan, who I also love, is able to appeal to all people.

You started out being a tongue-in-cheek watchdog of the comedy scene with your work for National Lampoon.

In 1991 I wrote a piece for National Lampoon called The Hack Handbook. Friends of mine helped me work on it and it defines all the hack stuff of the day. The alternative comedy scene changed all that. If you notice, you don’t really see comics saying “have you noticed” anymore. The rhythm of the hack comic in the late 80s was a bastardization of Seinfeld and it doesn’t exist anymore. But there are new hack things and there will always be new hack things with any movement because comedy has a lot of hacks. It depends on where you are working geographically. Around the country there are cities like Austin which has a great comedy scene but I don’t know on a daily basis if it is as driving as it was in the 90s. All of those guys like Howard Kremer and all those guys came from Austin to LA.  But there will always be comics doing hacky things. The topic of rape has become an easy way to shock the audience or maybe more disgusting dick jokes. So if comics are doing mostly dick jokes where do they advance from there?  Hack comedy goes through cycles all the time. Are there are a lot of hack comics in the Bay Area right now?

I don’t want to be crucified for any additional comments I might make.

Well you got to remember the one great thing—I’m not writing the article (laughter). I already know what it’s like to go after people. Look at everyone I have burned bridges with. Whatever you tell me will be in confidence I have no desire to go tell your friends what you said.

Moving on. Do you think stand-up comedy will ever get its due as an art form?

I think we are finally over the hump of comedy being perceived as the worst art form in the world and I think that’s a celebration. I used to do a whole bit about how it used to be, where clubs would do contests where they would be, “Congratulations, you’ve won our answer the phone contest. Would you be willing to bring 50 of your friends to the club?” It was like the Urban Cowboy era where people would ride mechanical bulls.

Do you think comedy bookers have become more discerning?

There’s the Acme Comedy Club  in Minneapolis that everyone points to.  The owner Louis Lee is somebody who always books acts that are good. There are clubs around the country that book great acts and know what they are doing. In the old days people would just get into the business because they heard comedy was profitable.

Do you think with bookers providing a higher quality of talent, that comedy can one day be seen as having a higher aesthetic value on it?

Nobody is ever going to look at comedy like the ballet or a painting. There always going to be people who do not perceive comedy as a fine art and I think that is bullshit. Whether it’s comedy or music you are able to reach incredible levels.

But, for most people, comedy is still a pedestrian sport.

Whenever anyone gets SIRI, the first thing they ask it is, “SIRI tell me a joke.” Probably the easiest thing SIRI can do. There are always people at work who tell jokes. And just because comedy isn’t snooty, and it should never be perceived as an elitist art form. And not to get too spiritual and I’m already in trouble for that—seems that you bring up the word spiritual and people get all crazy.

Why is that?

Well, there’s the resurgence of the angry atheist, but I was brought up in a time period where I was influenced by the 1960s. I never practiced New Age-y things. The more money people make from a movement the more suspicious I am, but I was really influenced by Ram Das, Richard Alpert.

Be Here Now.

Exactly, that book is how I would define art. He talks about Zen Buddhism and all these great Eastern philosophies like Taoism where they teach about the natural flow of water and calligraphy or even surfing—all talk about being in the moment. I know when I am on stage, I am in the zone and there is no higher art form then that. The problem with saying that you have a higher art form is that you can take it too seriously. You can always make the argument that comedy is like doing dinner theatre. And once you start talking about higher art forms you must discuss what makes a lower art form and that’s another discussion. Weirdly enough, I go after all these people in my act, but I would never walk into a community theatre and tell them they’re not great. Everyone is fine with whatever they can do within whatever context.

Can you extend that “being in the zone” to other areas of your life?

One thing that hurt me with music is I love the way Bob Dylan sings, a lot of people don’t, but I love Dylan’s bravery singing the way he wants to sing. I’m not like that with music, I’m more influenced by other people and how they look at me—and I was unable to write songs for a while, I was too hard on myself. But when I started painting water colors, I always thought “I’m going to paint a masterpiece.” And being able to let go of that scrutiny makes it more vital and in the moment. On the other side of that when somebody like Ricky Gervais all of the sudden thinks he’s an established stand-up, because he’s done it 100 times. Or when Adam Corolla acts like he’s the Jesus of stand-up, it drives me nuts. They have no respect for the art form. Just because you are funny in one art form doesn’t all of a sudden make you a great stand-up. You can do whatever you want to but you shouldn’t live in a narcissistic ego-maniac life where you think everything you do is great.

You are openly critical of many people in comedy. It seems to me when you see somebody like Jimmy Fallon doing his opening monologue; you are not really criticizing the material which is done by comedy writers, but personally going after Fallon.

Fallon hasn’t done stand-up in forever. I remember his act was a lot of impressions—he would never argue that he does stand-up—he doesn’t have time for it. Obviously the monologues are not to be criticized on how good each joke is—I would never do this as all the late night hosts have great writers. But I would blame somebody like Leno for picking the lowest common denominator jokes amongst all the jokes that are given to him. I wouldn’t say that is true with Fallon. A.D. Miles is his head producer and a lot of his staff are very very talented. My criticisms are about him, not the writing. I might not like Fallon, but I like his writers, and writers always need work, but that doesn’t make the show good.

When you are in Montreal giving the State of the Industry speech do you still get nervous?

Oh yeah. I do this thing my wife makes fun of where I cough like I’m going to throw up—so yeah, I get very nervous. But with comedy in general it’s never as bad as when you first start off. The first time I did Letterman I didn’t think I was ready, even though I knew I was supposed to be ready. It wasn’t like Roseanne doing the Tonight Show the first time and killing. For the speech I cram, and I never know how it’s going to come off. So there are different levels to being nervous.

Going from clubs to your first time on Letterman must be terrifying. I imagine being in front of the cameras and the lights and hitting your mark isn’t a natural thing for a stand-up comic.

It’s very hard. If you are Steven Wright—well, certain acts are better built for shorter TV sets, but for most people it’s a hard thing to do and I have to say it’s taken me a while to get comfortable with that. I’m not surprised that any comic, when you first see them on TV and not in a club setting and they have to do a “3,2,1. . .you’re on”, do well. Letterman went to having the comics not holding the mic and I was very nervous about it. Letterman did it because that’s the way Johnny Carson did it—and it makes sense because you are not in a night club. For me that freed me up a bit because it made me feel like I’m in a different environment.

Some it must be nerves, some of it is luck and some of it is talent.

It really is and that’s true with everything. Comedy is a field where you are going to look embarrassed sometimes and there is no way to avoid it. One of the things that is a myth is that you are locked into something based on what you have done in the past. Nobody remembers my first time on Letterman. Now there are so many different shows. In the old days one bad performance could make you, although it didn’t have to break you—unless something really crazy happens.

Are you excited about coming up North?

I’m a little nervous about Roosters. I know they book comics I like, but is the crowd rowdy?

No. Heather runs a great room and really keeps an eye out for drunk idiots who can ruin a show and keeps the audience in line. 

Good news. I’ll see you there.




2 responses to “Andy Kindler: The Curmudgeonly Comic”

  1. Great interview! Thanks for posting! I think Andy makes a great point…comedy bookers need to be more discerning or they won’t be profitable. I think Heather at Rooster T. Feathers is doing a fantastic job of bringing in hilarious comedians that appeal to Comedy Nerds as well as Mainstream audiences. There’s something for everyone! Thanks again,

  2. Tyler Smith says:

    Did you hear Kindler on the Todd Glass Show a few weeks back? I loved it, I hadn’t heard him in years and he killed. So I was very excited when i saw you posted this article and truly appreciate the heads up that he’s coming to the area soon.

    Website looks great and thank you for the interviews, calenders and comedian bios.

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