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Comics on what they do and why

May 16, 2010|Paul Provenza

Comics kill, or try to. But what's the motive and the M.O.? Paul Provenza has conducted dozens of interviews on such subjects for a just-published book, " Satiristas!: Comedians, Contrarians, Raconteurs & Vulgarians," created with photographer Dan Dion. What follows are edited excerpts from Provenza's Q&As, which reveal the method and the madness of men and women who inhabit the funny side of the commentariat.

Robin Williams
Most recent tour: "Weapons of Self-Destruction" in 2009.

You know, if you go back in history, the fool's purpose was to point out to the king himself all the king's foibles and weaknesses, and make the king go "Ha ha." His job was to remind the king, "You are not a god."

[ Comedy] takes bravery. And a lot of the brave people get whaled on, as we know. The other side will go after you and try to disembowel you. But as a comic, you have to keep talking about everything, keep doing what you do, wherever you can, in every way you know possible.

And then occasionally throw in a good [penis] joke.

Paul Mooney
Author of the memoir "Black Is the New White."

It's great to shock people. A lot of times people walk out on me. They'll pick up and leave while I'm performing. I think it's the best that people get so emotionally involved with me I can make them get up and walk out of a club. It's the best. What power.

People have been programmed that if you get out of line, you're the enemy. See, us comedians, we cross the line, which is good. We open people's eyes. Also, comedy is a time bomb. We give them time bombs. They might not get it that night; it could hit them six, seven weeks later.

Conan O'Brien
Currently on the Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour.

My comedy heroes were people I felt weren't trying to make a point at all, like the Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields. I have a lot of admiration for talented comedians that have a social cause or try to say something about society, but that's never how it worked for me. The instincts that I'm working off of in comedy now, at the age of 46, are exactly the same instincts I believe brought us all to comedy when we were 7 years old making people laugh on the playground — just the pure desire to make people laugh.

I remember reading an interview with Groucho Marx, and the interviewer said, "I loved 'Duck Soup' because you attack fascism and show how totalitarian societies are misguided and insane and that the democratic process is the way to go."

Groucho said: "What are you talking about? We were five Jews trying to get a laugh."

Roseanne Barr
"Roseanne" ran for nine seasons on ABC.

Comedy is a spiritual act, really. You give the audience something, they take it, and they leave something behind for you. It's a perfect exchange. And here's another thing I love about comedy: As a woman, I don't have any place to force my will on people, so I do it onstage. To be one lone being controlling that room with nothing but your own body, mind and a mic.... It feels so good."

Judd Apatow
Producer, writer and director whose films include "Knocked Up," "Superbad" and, coming soon, "Get Him to the Greek."

Even my wife says, "What's with you and the bro-mances? What's the deal on all the man-love?"

For me, the emotion is the reason to do the comedy; it's not tacked on to make the jokes hold together. It's the part I'm most interested in. If you care about something, if what you're saying is genuine to you, it's much easier to be funny with it.

When I wrote for "Larry Sanders," Garry Shandling always talked about "writing from your core." Whenever we got stuck, before we'd work on any jokes, he'd say, "What would really happen. What would the truth in this moment be?" He said, " 'The Larry Sanders Show' is about people who love each other but show business gets in the way. All stories are about something blocking love."

That idea changed the way I looked at all stories.

Mike Nichols
Academy Award-winning director and formerly half of the comedy team Nichols and May.

Kindness is one of the last things you'd look for in standup, capital-letter Comedy. Because comedy's sort of the opposite. It's a place to vent our rage by making as much fun as possible of those who've made you mad. If you go all the way back to Aristotle, comedy is like tragedy in its concern with the fall of someone in a higher station than us. In comedy, though, nobody gets hurt.

Joy Behar
Host of "The Joy Behar Show" on HLN and co-host of ABC's "The View."

One early piece of material for me was about these little WASP girls I was working with behind the scenes at "Good Morning America." One said to the other, "Are you going to Southampton for Thanksgiving?" "No, Mummy closed up the house."

I thought to myself, "The last time 'Mummy' closed up the house, they left Italy."

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