The Not Ready For The Not Ready For Primetime Players: 24 lesser-known comedy incubators
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1. The Compass Players
In comedy lore, there are a handful of accepted institutions renowned for sowing the seeds of louder laughs to come: The Second City mainstages of Chicago and Toronto cultivated many of Saturday Night Live’s Not Ready For Primetime Players and the whole of SCTV; clubs like Catch A Rising Star and The Comedy Store gave the comics of the ’70s and ’80s stand-up boom a place to bomb before they could kill. But for every entity like The Simpsons writers’ room (partially responsible for Late Night With Conan O’Brien and the American Office), there are four like The Compass Players—itself an incubator of a comedy incubator. Originally operating out of the University Of Chicago in the late ’50s, the company put the improvisational-theater concepts of Viola Spolin (mother of founding director Paul Sills) onstage. The company ultimately took its best ad-hoc scenes and whipped them into reproducible shape, a method later perfected (to different ends) by alumni Del Close, Elaine May, and Mike Nichols. Nichols And May became the “It” comic duo of the early ’60s, while Close eventually joined Compass offshoot The Second City (and, after being hired and fired a handful of times, started the SNL feeder Improv Olympic). Meanwhile, their work with the Compass Players put them in league with Alan Alda, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Valerie Harper, Ed Asner, and others whose influence still trickles down across time and media.
2. The Frost Report
Monty Python members Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Eric Idle met through a well-known comedy incubator, the Cambridge University Footlights. (Cleese even met Terry Gilliam while on a Footlights tour.) But the real Python incubator was David Frost’s satirical news show The Frost Report, featuring Cleese as a performer and Pythons-to-be Idle, Chapman, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin as writers. In addition to bringing the key writing and performing Pythons together in one place and letting them hone their comedic chops and sense of absurdism, it also served as an early performance venue for Tom Lehrer, an early platform for Yes Minister co-creator and co-writer Antony Jay, and a meeting ground for Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, stars of the long-running, much-revisited classic British comedy The Two Ronnies. And naturally, it was a key vehicle forward for Frost himself, following the experiments of other faux-news programs like That Was The Week That Was and Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life. The show was a critical success, but it was more of a success as a launch pad for greater and more enduring (and in the case of the Pythons, much sillier) works.
3. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
Tom and Dick Smothers’ variety hour was famously canceled in 1969 amid concerns at CBS that the show was too “political.” So there’s considerable irony in the fact that the biggest star to come out of the show was Steve Martin, a writer and occasional on-air talent who would become the hottest thing in comedy a few years later by being so fervently apolitical that he struck many people as a breath of fresh air. His colleagues included a pre-All In The Family Rob Reiner, a pre-“Father Guido Sarducci” Don Novello, Albert Brooks, and, confusingly, head writer Jim Stafford, who later became famous for such novelty country songs as “Spiders And Snakes” and “Wildwood Weed.” Among the writer-performers who went over bigger with the Smothers’ audience than Martin was Brooks’ brother, Bob Einstein, who had a popular recurring character, Officer Judy, years before he reinvented himself as the faux daredevil Super Dave Osborne. (“Einstein” is the family name. Guess why Brooks thought he needed a stage name.)
4. The Credibility Gap
Like The Firesign Theatre, The Credibility Gap started out doing radio comedy, operating out of Los Angeles’ KRLA. When the older broadcast professionals who started the group began dropping out and were replaced by up-and-coming comedians Michael McKean, David L. Lander, and Harry Shearer, what began as a satirical fringe group within the news division morphed into a training ground for young comics with one foot in the rock culture. On such albums as A Great Gift Idea, the Gap courted the youth audience with pop-culture parodies such as “An Evening With Sly Stone” and the blaxploitation trailer “Kingpin” while flaunting its encyclopedic grasp of conventional showbiz shtick with such routines as “16 Golden Bits.” Not long after the group disbanded, McKean and Lander achieved fame as Lenny and Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley and even cut an album as their TV characters. (The Gap’s truest stroke of rock comedy, however, was achieved when McKean and Shearer hooked up with Christopher Guest and became Spinal Tap.) Meanwhile, Shearer continues to honor the group’s roots with his one-man radio show, Le Show.
5. The Great American Dream MachineOriginally running from 1971 to 1972, this one-of-a-kind TV magazine is a choice example of the kind of thing viewers used to get from PBS before political attacks frightened its broadcasters into taking on a protective blandness. The chief presenter was comedian and voice actor Marshall Efron, who, with his heavy build, thick mustache, motor mouth, and perpetually delighted manner, suggested Ignatius J. Reilly on happy pills. (Efron, who went on to have his own Sunday-morning kids’ show in which he performed one-man reenactments of Bible stories, is overdue to have his own cult.) The show featured a number of people doing things they’d later be famous for doing on other shows, including Albert Brooks (making short films, similar to the ones he did for the first season of Saturday Night Live) and Andy Rooney (grumpily holding forth). The show also brought together Chevy Chase, in his TV debut, and writer-director Ken Shapiro; they would later work together on the 1974 cult comedy The Groove Tube and, after their talents turned brown, 1981’s Modern Problems.
6-7. National Lampoon’s Lemmings/National Lampoon Radio Hour
In the early ’70s, the National Lampoon humor magazine was the hot center of hip comedy, and publisher Matty Simmons urged the staff to expand the brand into other avenues of show business—reportedly because the rivalries and animosities among star writers such as Michael O’Donoghue and Anne Beatts had gotten so bad that giving them side projects and dispatching them to recording studios and theaters seemed like a good way to keep them from killing each other. The hit off-Broadway show Lemmings included a full-length Woodstock parody, with John Belushi, 24 years old and fresh off the boat from The Second City, serving as master of ceremonies. (The cast also included Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest.) By the end of 1973, Belushi, Chase, and Guest transitioned to the Lampoon’s new radio show, created by O’Donoghue; they were joined by Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, and his brother Brian Doyle-Murray, as well as Richard Belzer, Joe Flaherty, and Harold Ramis. The show burned out quickly, but after O’Donoghue, Beatts, and several of the actors decamped for Saturday Night Live, it was soon clear that Lampoon had been molding the talent that would power the TV show that would displace the magazine as the center of the comedy zeitgeist.
8. The Toronto production of Godspell
Early-’70s audiences who went to see Godspell, Stephen Schwartz’s groovy take on the Gospel of Matthew, at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto undoubtedly had no idea they were watching a group of performers who would come to redefine sketch comedy over the course of the decade. Much of the core cast of legendary sketch-comedy classic SCTV graduated from the Toronto production—including Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Eugene Levy, and Martin Short—while Saturday Night Live would go on to snag battle-tested Godspell veterans Paul Shaffer and Gilda Radner, and eventually Short as well. The production’s incredible cast stands as a testament to the depth and talent of the Canadian theatrical community at the time, combined with a distinct absence of outlets for that creativity that didn’t involve kooky hippie Jesus musicals.
9. The Richard Pryor Show
Richard Pryor’s short-lived 1977 variety show is mostly remembered as a trainwreck—not because there weren’t moments of brilliance, but because the star and the network both seemed miserably bewildered to find themselves doing business with each other. After NBC stuck the acerbic star in a “family hour” slot at the start of the primetime evening—going head to head against Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, blockbuster hits premised on the notion that America was a better place when people like Pryor stayed under their rocks—he seemed happy to walk away from the whole mess after four episodes. But Pryor did use the time to get exposure and some of that sweet, sweet TV money for a raft of comedians, many of them black or female, who would soon drift into sitcoms (Tim Reid, Marsha Warfield) or become cult legends (Paul Mooney, Sandra Bernhard, John Witherspoon). The show also marked the TV debut of Robin Williams, a year before he first played Mork from Ork—and a month or so before he turned up on another short-lived NBC sketch show: a reboot of Laugh-In.
On the face of it, this variety series starring Mary Tyler Moore was just a blip on the 1978 fall TV season, and the first of a string of career disappointments for its star after her ’70s sitcom came to an end. But the credits suggest the casting director was buying inside information from God: The show’s repertory company included then-unknowns Michael Keaton, Swoosie Kurtz, and David Letterman, as well as the brilliant but mercurial Dick Shawn, a decade after he’d played L.S.D. in The Producers. The show, which lasted three episodes before it was yanked off the air and extensively “retooled,” also employed Merrill Markoe, who as head writer on Letterman’s NBC talk shows would be instrumental in shaping his humor and TV persona. (Mary was Letterman’s second regular gig on a network series that made it to air; the first was a 1977 summer series starring Starland Vocal Band.)
11. Not The Nine O’Clock News
This British sketch comedy series isn’t especially well-remembered among Americans, who might not know what to make of its 30-year-old topical humor, but it was a benchmark in the careers of a striking number of comedians who went on to star in comedies that found success at home and abroad, including Rowan Atkinson and future Alas Smith & Jones stars Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones. Chris Langham (The Thick Of It) and the gifted Pamela Stephenson also appeared, the latter prior to her role in Superman III and a stint on the 1984-85 season of Saturday Night Live. (She later married Billy Connolly and retired from show business to become a clinical psychologist.) The writing crew, meanwhile, included Richard Curtis, who co-created Blackadder and Mr. Bean with Atkinson before striking gold as the screenwriter of rom-coms like Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love Actually.
12. The Comic Strip Presents…
“The Comic Strip” began as a term for a loose federation of “alternative comedians” who were a presence at the Comedy Store, a London club that opened in 1979. Originally, the core group included Peter Richardson, Adrian Edmondson, Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Robbie Coltrane, and Alexei Sayle. In November 1982—the same month that Edmondson, Mayall, and Planer’s BBC sitcom The Young Ones premièred—the first film in the Comic Strip Presents… anthology series debuted. Five Go Mad In Dorset was shown on the first broadcast night of the new experimental “youth channel,” Channel 4, effectively announcing that there was a new sheriff in town. Though its collaborators now have their own shows and careers, they still sometimes reconvene for new installments in the “series,” most recently last November for Five Go To Rehab—the inevitable follow-up to the first film, about how they’re not as young as they used to be.
13. The New Show
Lorne Michaels is legendary for his almost Apatowian genius for spotting future stars. That gift found its truest expression in the original cast of Saturday Night Live, but it could also be found in the cast and crew of The New Show, Michaels’ ill-fated 1984 follow-up to Saturday Night Live. The show’s ridiculously over-qualified talent pool involved plenty of ringers from the writing staff of Saturday Night Live (Al Franken, Tom Davis, Alan Zweibel, Michaels himself), tried-and-true talent from SCTV (Dave Thomas, Valri Bromfield, John Candy), the legendary Buck Henry, as well as a writer who would prove key to Saturday Night Live’s artistic comeback in the mid-’80s (Jack Handey) and another who would become revered as one of the funniest men at The Simpsons (George Meyer). The New Show’s deep bench didn’t keep it from getting cancelled, but the talent it contained would soon find superior vehicles notable for reasons other than their squandered potential.
14. The Wilton North Report
The second of Fox’s multiple disastrous attempts to break into the late-night game, 1987’s The Wilton North Report was a proto-Daily Show that boasted one asset The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers and The Chevy Chase Show lacked: a staffer destined for talk-show stardom. Unfortunately, the producers of The Wilton North Report didn’t have the foresight to give Conan O’Brien a hosting gig, instead utilizing his talents as part of what fellow Wilton North writer (and credited author of The Simpsons’ “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”) Nell Scovell wrote of as “the greatest writers’ room you’ve never heard of” in a 2012 Splitsider piece. Though canceled after an undistinguished run of 21 episodes, Wilton North gave O’Brien and then-writing partner Greg Daniels (he of King Of The Hill, the American Office, and Parks And Recreation) an early opportunity to flex their absurdist muscles on broadcast TV—as when they enlisted “Keep America Beautiful” spokesman Iron Eyes Cody to be the show’s in-house movie critic. Toiling alongside O’Brien, Daniels, and Scovell were Alec Sokolow and Danny Zuker, who’ve separately shepherded projects that enjoyed the popularity that so eluded the ratings-plagued Wilton North Report: the former as one of the screenwriters of Toy Story, the latter as an executive producer on Modern Family and owner of a Twitter feed with a stronger following than his first TV job ever enjoyed.
15. The Ranch
The partnership between Judd Apatow and Paul Feig has paid substantial dividends in the years since the two met in a Los Angeles home shared by comics in the ’80s. In The A.V. Club’s Walkthrough with Feig about Freaks & Geeks—which was created by him and produced by Apatow—he describes “The Ranch,” as “kind of the Algonquin roundtable for slobby guys who stayed up all night playing poker and drinking coffee. We’d always try to crack each other up.” Had Apatow and Feig been the only two people to meet at The Ranch, it would have been a fruitful hotbed of comedy enough, but according to this blog post by writer and director Brian McDonald, the house also played host to numerous others, including stand-up Andy Kindler, a host of great TV sitcom writers, and Freaks & Geeks’ resident hippie guidance counselor, Dave “Gruber” Allen.
16. Army Man
The late-’80s periodical Army Man (which impishly dubbed itself “America’s only magazine”) only lasted three issues, but that was all it took for the irreverent, low-budget comedy zine to assemble a murderers’ row of contributors whose genius would not be recognized for years to come. The publication was edited and published by George Meyer, a seminal writer and producer on The Simpsons who was joined on the Army Man masthead with similarly influential Simpsons scribes like John Swartzwelder and Jon Vitti. Bob Odenkirk, Andy Borowitz, Merrill Markoe, and Roz Chast numbered among the magazine’s other contributors, while every issue featured Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey. Not bad for an erratically published, short-lived publication that graphically, at least, looked like it was assembled by glue-sniffing delinquents at a local high school.
17. Exit 57
Being the decade of The Kids In The Hall, Mr. Show, In Living Color, The State, and The Ben Stiller Show, the ’90s were a tremendous 10 years for sketch comedy on television. However, any discussion of ’90s sketch is incomplete without a mention of Exit 57, the short-lived Comedy Central series masterminded by Second City alumni Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello, and Mitch Rouse. With help from fellow Chicago expat Jodi Lennon, the quartet that would go on to create Strangers With Candy performed a 12-episode dry run for that later series, filling Exit 57’s fictional setting of the Quad Cities with characters whose proclivity for melodramatic delivery and making light of taboo subjects would do Jerri Blank proud. Every time one of Colbert’s square-jawed straight men deadpans directly to the camera, his words ring of future Colbert Report Words to come.
18. The Playground
Where there are established theaters with a national presence like iO (formerly Improv Olympic) and Second City, there are incubator theaters to induct new recruits into the improv and sketch world, and set them on the right path. But The Playground has become so much more than a starter space. The tiny Chicago black box was the first to recognize the power of solo sketch, and offered opportunities for comics to showcase their best on a weekly basis. Coupled with president Matt Barbera’s industry savvy, The Playground fostered the kind of environment that put people like Saturday Night Live’s Paul Brittain and Tim Robinson on the map, and offered opportunities to countless others. No longer content being thought of as the place where Second City Mainstage players can dust off the ol’ improv cobwebs, The Playground is in the process of launching a production company.
19. Georgetown University
Harvard has long held a monopoly in the realm of smarty-pants universities that moonlight as comedy farm systems, but it’s no longer the only game in town. While typically known for churning out government and legal types (and the occasional NBA star), Washington D.C.’s Georgetown University is the alma mater of several of the biggest names in contemporary comedy: Stand-up Jim Gaffigan, Saturday Night Live writer John Mulaney, The League’s Nick Kroll, and Sleepwalk With Me’s Mike Birbiglia are all former Hoyas who made careers in humor.
20. The New York City office shared by John Mulaney, Pete Holmes, Nick Kroll, and others
On the John Mulaney episode of Pete Holmes’ You Made It Weird podcast, the two discuss the office in Chelsea (above the RadioShack on 23rd and Seventh) that they used to share and that has hosted a number of big comedy names at one point or another—Anthony Jeselnik, Nick Kroll, Baron Vaughn, Conrad Mulcahy, Matt McCarthy, and Brian Sacca, with Mike Birbiglia working next door. Holmes says its chief advantage was the lack of distractions. “You’re just kind of sitting around doing nothing, but that’s when the subconscious is generating the material,” he reminisced on the podcast.
21. The Lyons Den
Comedians know this open mic, which ran on the North Side of Chicago in the early ’00s, as the best that probably ever was. There was an affable crowd packed into the bar’s back room every Monday night, and a stable of up to 100 comedians excited to show off material best suited for the insane asylum until the wee hours of the night. But no matter how weird things got, the audience supported these folks 100 percent, and the peer-induced work ethic was hard to escape; if a comic didn’t have new material, he or she might as well not perform. Thus we now have the undeniable magnetism and talent of Pete Holmes, T.J. Miller, Kumail Nanjiani, Hannibal Buress, Brooke Van Poppelen, Nick Vatterott, Matt Braunger, and Kyle Kinane (plus a ton more), and a robust Chicago stand-up scene that continues to churn out hotshots like Cameron Esposito and Sean Flannery. Second City might reign supreme in Chicago, but stand-up is taking over, and in every comic who did time in the Windy City, a little bit of Lyons Den DNA thrives.
22. Wet Hot American Summer
Michael Showalter and David Wain’s summer-camp spoof—which they’ll tell you is less a send-up of Meatballs and its ilk and more a comedic exaggeration of their own sleeping-bag-and-bug-juice experiences—gets less lesser-known with each passing year. Still, there will always be some Hangover-loving bro out there who has no idea one of that film’s stars, Bradley Cooper, got his start in big-screen comedy by making out with Michael Ian Black, right? The core of Wet Hot is Showalter, Wain, Black, and other members of the influential sketch troupe The State, but the movie eventually formed the nexus of film and television comedy for the decade that followed, gathering future Apatow players (Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks), the stars of NBC Thursday nights (Amy Poehler, Judah Friedlander), an eventual Late Night With Jimmy Fallon head writer (A.D. Miles), and the sound that unites all things funny in the 2010s: the voice of H. Jon Benjamin. Further evidence that all roads run through Camp Firewood: The rambling of camp DJ Arty “The Beekeeper” Solomon presages the podcast yammering of the character’s uncredited voice, Samm Levine.
23. Comedy Death-Ray
Before it morphed into a radio show/podcast, then a TV show on IFC, Comedy Bang! Bang! began in 2002 as Comedy Death-Ray, a weekly stand-up comedy showcase at the M Bar in Los Angeles created by Scott Aukerman and fellow Mr. Show alumnus B.J. Porter. At the time, the city mostly lacked a showcase for like-minded comedians, and Comedy Death-Ray quickly established a reliable weekly destination to see up-and-comers (Andy Daly, Natasha Leggero, Nick Swardson, Jen Kirkman) as well as established comedians (Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins, Zach Galifianakis, Doug Benson). For example, a typical show in November of 2003 featured Louis C.K., Bob Odenkirk, Jeff Garlin, Greg Proops, Greg Fitzsimmons, Jimmy Pardo, and Kirkman. The show moved to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in 2005, where it remained until Aukerman stopped doing it in December of 2012. He recently posted the lineups of nearly every weekly show, going back 10 years, and it’s a stunning collection of talent. Although the Comedy Bang! Bang! stand-up showcase has ended, the podcast has become its own incubator, helping establish performers like James Adomian, Seth Morris, Jon Daly, and others.
24. Invite Them Up
Like an East Coast companion to Comedy Death-Ray, Invite Them Up provided a weekly spotlight for rising stand-ups at New York City’s Rififi—many of whom eventually worked their way to Los Angeles to mingle and create with the Death-Ray crew. In an additional parallel, both showcases spun off into essential comedy records, with the Invite Them Up LP arriving in late 2005. In addition to boasting the first commercial recordings of stand-up from Aziz Ansari, Demetri Martin, and Chelsea Peretti, the album also serves as a lasting document of the stranger, character-based pieces that cropped up at the Eugene Mirman- and Bobby Tisdale-curated show. Key among them is Jon Glaser’s track, where the Delocated star tests out the routine that gave rise to his book My Dead Dad Was In ZZ Top, a fantastic piece of epistolary comedy that testifies to the open-endedness of Mirman and Tisdale’s brainchild—and also manages to find a non-beard-related reason to laugh at ZZ Top.