What is a comedian? Granted comics have probably been around forever. It has long been rumored that the first comic gag involved a burning leather sack of dinosaur dung placed outside an unsuspecting Neanderthal’s cave door. However overtime a debate has raged over comics and comedians; are they the same or is there a difference between the two? Henny Youngman and Richard Pryor both made people laugh, but is there some special spark that made one a comic and the other a comedian? Larry the Cable Guy and Bob Engvall are two of today’s most popular entertainers. While their presentations could be considered “down home country” their styles are very different. It is the style that is the difference. A comic throws out shorts bursts or lines, while a comedian is almost a modern day philosopher.
A comic can be found in his early stages in the back of a classroom, often in science class, answering that his favorite planet is Uranus. Get it? Your anus. The young comic often is the one to give clever nicknames to classmates; the red headed kid is, of course, “red.” The kid with glasses is “four-eyes” and Jane is “Plain Jane.” He can most often be seen reading Mad-Libs, completing silly one line sentences that make a haphazard story. At this stage he is relatively harmless, often annoying, better to have as a friend than enemy.
A comedian at this young stage can be found entertaining a small group during lunch or at the bus stop. In the formative stage he will tell exaggerated tales that involve multiple layers of adventure, mystery and humor in his or a friends life. Often to gain a wider audience he will tell tales that involve two or more friends. The stories rarely degrade the principles and mostly focus on the farce of the situation they were in. A typical story may describe a camping adventure where the boys start to discuss farting and decide to have a contest. After two hours of farting the tent smells so bad they have to sleep outside, and it begins to rain. Of course they can’t go into the house or they would get in trouble for “horsing around instead of sleeping.” Besides are the others going to call home and ask their parents come pick them up because the tent smells. These shared experiences become the foundation of the young comedian’s growth.
Once out of school, it is at this point that the comedian separates himself from the comic. If both go to college, chances are, the comic has consumed almost all the beer in Milwaukee, whereas, the comedian has been observing what has been going on around him, and possibly attending class. The comic while at college continues to spit out pithy one-liners. However his audience has grown matured and is not now as easily entertained. The comedian has adapted his monologues for the group he is hanging out with, or quite possibly, hanging out with him. Here, by watching and listening, he begins to develop expand his world view, thought process and opinions of people.
Not all comedians learn their skills in college. Many have started from nothing, in deplorable conditions and have become successful comedians. Richard Pryor’s mother was a prostitute and he lived in the whorehouse run by his grandmother. Yet Pryor became one of the biggest, best known comedians of all-time. Many of today’s comedians list Richard Pryor as one of their greatest influences. Pryor cut through racial and societal boundaries due to his ability to draw his audiences into his stories. He covered controversial topics, including his own life, and made them thought provoking as well as enjoyable.
There are many who found Pryor obscene and disgusting. Some said he was just continuing what Lenny Bruce had started in the early Sixties. Bruce may have set the stage for comedians like Pryor, but his stories were shocking social commentary that often gained only uncomfortable laughter. Bruce was considered vulgar as he often swore and blasted religion, both controversial at the time. A contrast between Bruce and Pryor would be he might call you a stupid motherfucker, but he would do it with a smile on his face and only after he had spent about an hour calling himself the same thing. Bruce however, would swear at you and expect you to have no reaction as they were words you had heard all your life. Bruce, unlike Pryor, enjoyed sharing his experiences good or bad. It was almost a relief to free his pain and help audiences expand or consider their belief systems.
Perhaps the polar opposite of Pryor is Bill Crosby. Crosby is a graduate of Temple University and has been awarded many honorary degrees. He became a successful comedian by sharing stories of his life as a child and, over time, his life as a father. Crosby’s appeal was almost universal. The stories of his youth included tales of his brother and Fat Albert. These were stories that many adults could relate too. Crosby also told of the humorous trials and tribulations of parenthood. Once again, these were real stories that both parents and kids could relate. His performances lead to a top rated, long running television show, The Crosby Show. Only a comedian could hold the attention of the television viewer with a story that entertained and often had a powerful message.
Bill Engvall is a popular comedian who is similar to Crosby. Engvall learned his trade the old fashion way, he worked at it. Unlike Crosby, he did not attend college. Engvall started at the Dallas Comedy Club telling stories about his friends and family. Now his act contains stories and observations of everyday people he meets around the country. He can spin a story on life for half an hour and the audience is transported into the scene. By the end of the show crowd has been thoroughly entertained have learned some valuable lessons on the human condition.
Obviously there will always be some crossover in regard to comedians and comics. However, on the whole, there are real differences. As Jack Benny once said, “A comic says funny things. A comedian says things funny.” A comic as we have seen is good at one liners, nicknames and short quips. A comedian, on the other hand, entertains. It may be a turn of phrase, making a similar experience seem new and funny, or taking a difficult subject and cause the audience to think about it in a different light. Henny Youngman was known for his one liners, he was a comic. Richard Pryor and those like him are comedians as they show us slices of life, both humorous and troubling, while making us laugh and think. They are today’s philosophers.