Lisa Lutz: 5 Favorite Comics
Being loosely categorized as a crime novelist, I am inevitably asked on many occasions to cite my literary inspirations or list my five or ten favorite novelists or novels. I cannot deny that there are writers and novels that I adore, but I don’t feel confident tagging them as influences. I think of the Spellman series (The Last Word: Document #6 in stores July 9th) as comedic novels first and when I’m writing them I am a slave to the joke, because unlike plot, character, or pacing, a joke is utterly intangible.
When I was child I was always drawn to comedy and comedians, and I continue to obsess over whatever impossible formula it is that ends with a laugh. So here’s a list of my primary literary influences—comedians. I was watching most of them long before I ever wrote my first joke—which I think involved putting someone’s cremated ashes in a pepper shaker.
I was raised on Mel Brooks’s films. My parents were at their best when quoting from Young Frankenstein, although I cringe at the memory of any reenactment of the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” song and dance number. It’s often said that comedy comes from a dark place and I generally agree with that, but Mel Brooks suggests otherwise. Brooks’s comedy comes from a smart place. His jokes are broad, but educated. If you’re going to lampoon The Third Reich, you should have a pretty solid historical grasp on what went down.
I was going to quote from the 2000 Year Old Man, but it’s better to hear it yourself.
What stuck with me most about Mel Brooks is this: be smart, but don’t be afraid to be ridiculous. The goal of comedy is to make people laugh, and sometimes you have to slum.
Conan O’Brien described comedians in Newhart’s day as a “sweat act . . . running around and begging for the audience to laugh.” But Newhart had a spectacular stillness, like a person who speaks so softly, they make you lean in to listen harder. From Newhart I learned how funny restraint can be. Hold back. Sometimes filling in the blanks is the funniest part. For instance, Newhart’s classic Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue where you’re hearing only half of a phone conversation between “Abe” and his press secretary.
When I tell someone that I like Don Rickles I usually have to follow up immediately with some kind of defense or apology. “I know, I know, he’s sort of offensive and racist.” But here’s the thing: there’s nothing subtle about Rickles. He’s all about being obnoxious and pushing people’s buttons, but there’s something in his furious delivery that suggests a harmless heart beneath. This is a man who asked Frank Sinatra to come to his table to help impress his date and when Sinatra dropped by, Don said, “Frank, not now. Can’t you see I’m with somebody?” What I learned from Rickles I use more in my life than in my career: you can say almost anything to anyone, if it’s clear your intent isn’t cruelty.
I watched Tommy and Dick’s TV show religiously when it re-aired in my high school days. I loved their timing and Tommy’s brilliant on-stage dimness. But what’s so intriguing about their show and specifically Tommy Smothers is how different the comic persona can be from the real man. Later, I would read about and watch documentaries on what happened behind the scenes, involving Tommy’s knuckle-bruising fights with the censors, and it reminded me how seriously you have to take humor. Sometimes you can pander and you just have to trust in what you believe.
Very recently when Jerry Lewis (not on my list and a perfect example of a sweat comedian) was asked who his favorite female comedians were, he replied. “I don’t have any . . . I can’t watch a woman diminish her qualities to the lowest common denominator.” When I heard this quote, I had a lovely fantasy of tying Jerry Lewis to a chair (a la The King of Comedy) and clipping his eyes open (a la Clockwork Orange) and making him watch Sarah Silverman’s comedy film Jesus is Magic. Jerry Lewis is, of course, a tool, but I mention him because that attitude prevails more than you’d think even today, which one might argue is a golden age for female comics. But the slow rise of female comedians is why my list has only one woman. Sarah Silverman is my age and she wasn’t on my radar until my mid-twenties, when her career began to take off. I think the first Sarah Silverman joke I ever heard was, “I was raped by a doctor, which is bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” This is one of her tamer jokes. It’s the innocent delivery that lands the joke, but it’s fearlessness I admire the most.
Any top anything list makes me feel guilty about all of the people I’ve left out. Surely readers might wonder why Richard Pryor, Elaine May, Chris Rock, Margaret Cho, Eddie Izzard (Dressed to Kill remains my favorite comedy show of all time) and [insert the name of whoever you think I’m overlooking] failed to make the list. If I wrote this list a year from now, the list might change a bit, but the gist would be the same.
Not too long ago, I met this buttoned-up man at a party and I briefly mentioned the books I wrote, and then we got to the subject of Mel Brooks. He did not like Mel Brooks; I’ve never encountered such a person. The man then said to me, “Don’t you ever aspire to write something with depth?” I didn’t tell him I thought comedy was deep; there was no way to reach this man. I said, “No. My greatest literary aspiration is the spit-take.” And then I walked away.