Stand-up comedians may be alone on a stage in a physical sense, but spiritually speaking, they are never by themselves.
They are constantly swarmed by the spirits of the comedians who inspired them. Sometimes it's an unknown name who convinced a club owner to give them five minutes in the spotlight. For most it's a famous great who broke new boundaries with his material or style and pushed them to elevate their material from simple jokes to a well-crafted set.
Comedian Clint Werth cites comedy legend Bill Hicks as one such name.
"He was the first stand-up comedian I really got into," Werth says. "I grew up not that far from where he did, in super-conservative College Station, where I was pretty sure I was crazy. But then a friend of the family who was going to Texas A&M gave me some Bill Hicks tapes and some Dungeons and Dragons books when I was 12 years old, I guess because he realized I was a weirdo. Anyway, it was the first time I ever heard someone say the things I had always been thinking. It was a bummer to find out that he had died less than a year before I discovered him."
The Kessler has a special show on Halloween night designed to let the spirits of these and other legendary comedians come back from the dead and play on a stage again through the living bodies of some of Dallas' best comedians. The Kessler's "Homage Nation" show at 8 p.m. Saturday will feature performances by Werth, Katy Evans, Saffron Herndon, Silas Coursón, Alex Axon, Billy McFarland and Dan Danzy paying homage to comedy greats such as Hicks, Minnie Pearl, Phyllis Diller George Carlin, Janeane Garofalo, Mitch Hedberg and Andy Kaufman, respectively. Comedian Josh Johnson will host the show as himself, presumably so there's no unnecessary confusion.
The comedians chose to tackle people whose contributions to comedy they respect and who served as their inspiration to pursue the art form. In some cases, another comedian had already claimed their first choice.
Evans said she picked the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw star Minnie Pearl because she's a "fun character" who also drew her stories from her real experiences and real people.
"My comedy is based on my own experiences and I don't really do any sort of characters," Evans says. "So I figured if I'm going to be someone, who better than Minnie Pearl? She's talented and a great comedian and she's a great character of Southern life who did comedy in the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s. She did comedy for a long time."
The 10-year-old Herndon chose Diller because of the breakthroughs she made for women in comedy. Diller has also got some damn good material.
"She was one of the first comedians my Dad [Steve Herndon] ever showed me," Saffron says. "I liked to watch her when I started doing stand-up. She was a big inspiration for me. She's the queen of stand-up. She didn't have to be like what she felt like she didn't want to be, which is cool."
Coursón, like so many comics who had a copy of Class Clown, FM & AM or Toledo Window Box, simply calls Carlin his "hero."
"Steve Martin made me want to perform and George Carlin talked about stuff that I wanted to talk about," Coursón says. "He's a model for comedy for me. Between him and Steve Martin, I always wanted to be a comic."
Axon says she picked Garofalo, the only living comic to be represented at the Kessler, because she identified with Garofalo's style and demeanor.
"She really paved the way for alternative comedy," Axon says. "When she got on a stage with her notebook, she had this crippling stage presence. She would note when jokes were going poorly, so she really broke the fourth wall. She's more observational with her humor and very dark. If the glass was half-full, she would joke that the glass was chipped and I cut my lip on it."
Danzy says he loves Kaufman's attitude and wanted to emulate "just the whole not caring about the audience's response and just being happy that there's a response to it."
"With some of my jokes, I can relate to that," Danzy says. "Some jokes get the laugh, some get the 'Ohs,' and I'm fine with either. I'm fine with silence really, but he is the act and the performer that made me appreciate any response in general."
By choosing Kaufman, Danzy also has the most interesting challenge of the night. He not only has to look like Kaufman with his messy, dark hair, unibrow and trademark ascot, but also channel Kaufman's style of comedy, which will be no easy feet. He has to think of some unique ways to surprise his audience.
“They wouldn’t let me wrestle a woman on stage, so what I have planned is a couple of surprises and a couple of things people won’t expect," Danzy says. "Andy Kaufman never did a true stand-up set so I had to dive into the archives and figure out which characters to do, and I think the audience will be entertained come Halloween.”
Last Saturday I answered the phone to hear a loud, rude voice on the other end claiming to be Tony Clifton, the legendary Las Vegas lounge lizard created by Andy Kaufman. Our conversation was as awkward and uncomfortable as Kaufman would have wanted it to be and it's worth sharing in its entirety for that reason.
Of course, Danzy says he never gave Clifton my number and doesn't know how he got it. Danzy also says The Kessler has not told him about any plans to bring Clifton on stage Saturday night.
"If Clifton really did call you, throw it in the article" Danzy says. "Andy would tell you not to do it."
The other comics won't have that hard of a time putting a costume together for their stage persona. Coursón says he'll be wearing the outfit Carlin wore in his early HBO specials and "putting a little bit more gray in my beard." Herndon will, of course, wear a large blond wig and a sparkly dress, although the only one she owns that somewhat matches Diller's stage outfit "has a Cheshire cat on it." Werth will have to do some trimming to get Hicks' style down right, which is shocking since most of his fans, myself included, have only seen him with his trademark beard.
"I've had the beard for awhile and I'm kind of attached to it since it's on my face," Werth says, "but I have the same dumb, chubby cheeks and weak chin he did, hence the beard ... I'm going to look like a putz at Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin the next week."
Evans will wear Minnie Pearl's trademark straw hat and square dancing dress, but she has the added challenge of sounding like the Southern belle of comedy.
"I've been doing a lot of driving around in my car talking like Minnie Pearl, in my shower, my apartment," Evans says. "She has a lot of idiosyncrasies and inflections on top of memorizing her material. It's more acting than anything else. There's improv, which is all improvised, and stand-up, which is your own material that you're writing and performing as yourself. This is a combination of the two, but it's more straight-up acting than being yourself."
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The greatest challenge isn't the costumes, it's the delivery. Being allowed to do another comedian's material is an honor in such a cutthroat community where doing another comic's joke on stage without giving appropriate credit is grounds for an Amish-style shunning. Everyone who goes up on stage on Saturday says they want to do their idols justice.
“I wanted to show how relevant she still is," Axon says, referring to Garofalo and the material she'll be doing from Garofalo's 1995 HBO special. "She's been kind of marginalized, especially during the Bush administration, because she got pretty vocal about her political views. Her jokes from the '90s, they really capture the essence of the Generation Xer who’s not cut to the mold of 'I’m gonna get married and have kids now.' I think a lot of people can identify with that from her special.”
"I'm going to represent the Carlin that means so much to me," Coursón says, referring to the goofier Carlin of the '70s and '80s. "There's been several different George Carlins in his career, like angry and silly. So I wanted to do when he was goofy and funny and was happy. That’s the Carlin that I loved. Of course, I loved them all.”
Special thanks to comedian Aaron Aryanpur for drawing the artwork for this story. You can see his collection of comedy caricatures on his website at www.aaronaryanpur.com.