Oh, I’ve been under the influence a long time, Officer.
It might not be cool to confess the obsessions that have influenced my own creative endeavors, but I feel I owe my own microscopic successes as a writer and comedy performer to those true artists whose accomplishments demonstrated what was possible in the first place.
Possibilities have always interested me more than fame and fortune. If I’m ever rich and recognized from TV appearances, maybe then I’ll prance around pretending all my brilliant ideas were mine and mine alone.
If I’m even physically capable of prancing. I’m guessing I’m not.
My first short stories were so overwhelmed by my fanboy enthusiasm for Barry Hannah that I’ve salvaged a storytelling performance and two magazine articles out of the humiliation I felt when I was finally called on it the summer after finishing my MFA. My other literary faves comprise a motley hodgepodge indeed: Donald Barthelme, Flannery O’Connor, Lydia Davis, Terry Southern, Richard Brautigan, Ted Berrigan, Ishmael Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, Sam Shepard and J.P. Donleavy.
Long before I became serious about writing and performing comedy, I was a much-too-serious saxophone student (and a self-taught guitar and banjo player), so many musicians keep me listening to and looking at my approach to creative challenges: John Fahey, Captain Beefheart, Pere Ubu, Ornette Coleman, Skip James, Dink Roberts, Michael Hurley, Thelonious Monk and Sonic Youth.
In college I befriended more than my share of art majors, so I know just enough about art to realize what I appreciate: mostly primitive outsider junk, plus the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jasper Johns, the early video work of William Wegman and the performance pieces of Laurie Anderson and Chris Burden.
Comedy was my earliest artistic crush. When I was only six or seven, I started laughing at my grandparents’ Bill Cosby records. And I started watching Richard Pryor and George Carlin on HBO when I was still too young to really “get” their funniest jokes. (Thank you, Uncle Bob.) My tastes in contemporary American comics run toward the predictably and deservedly respected: Louis CK, Zach Galifianakis, Mike Birbiglia and Bobcat Goldthwait lately. The majority of my comedic influences these days are all from over in the UK: Peter Cook, Billy Connolly, Stewart Lee, Johnny Vegas, Dylan Moran and Daniel Kitson.
What I believe these disparate artists all have in common, across generations and genres, is their honesty. Their incredibly personal points of view, too.
And that’s what I like to believe I’m learning from them: To recognize and trust the sound of my own voice when I hear it.
They’re certainly not teaching me to prance.