There has been a lot of discussion recently about people who wrongly believe women aren’t funny, but I’d like to take a moment to discuss people who seemingly rightly believe that guitar-playing comedians aren’t funny. I’ve met comedy club bookers, late night show bookers and reviewers whose disdain for any comedian wielding a guitar is openly admitted–which leads me to believe they find nothing wrong with dismissing an entire category of comedians. Below are a few experiences I’ve had, along with a few thoughts on the subject.
Years ago, when I showcased for the booker of a late night talk show, I did a 7-minute set of straight standup–no music, no songs, no guitar. Now why would I do that when playing guitar in my act is what I’m known for, what I’ve been doing for years and what has helped me garner over 10 million hits on one of my YouTube videos? It’s because this particular late night show has a policy of not hiring any guitar playing comedians. I don’t believe this to be an injustice, mind you; after all it’s their show and they can book it however they please. I do, however, think it’s kind of short-sighted that in the realm of comedy–an art form in which the performer is trying to present different ways of looking at the world–one could think it o.k. to cast out an entire style of performing. And the fact that this anti-guitar belief keeps me from doing what I do best kind of pisses me off.
If anti-guitarism just limited t.v. appearances–which in turn limits a comic’s resume, prestige and marketability–it might be tolerable. But this prejudice can directly affect a comedian’s bottom line. There is a chain of comedy clubs in the Midwest, booked out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that also has a standing policy of not booking guitar playing comedians. Going on the road is the working comic’s bread and butter and routing is very important. Imagine trying to put a tour together with gigs in Ohio and Illinois on one side and the Dakotas on the other without being able to book anything in Wisconsin or Minnesota. It leads to sleeping in your car between cities or worse, crashing on an ex’s couch in Dubuque.
When speaking with the booker of this chain a few years ago she asked me if I could do a 30 minute set without the guitar. I replied that I in fact could but wondered why she would want me to. When people come to see me they come to see my act. Would she really want me publicizing a show on my mailing list by saying something like “hey fans in Milwaukee, come out to the show tonight to see me do something other than what I’ve made my name doing! Remember when you went to see Semisonic in concert and instead of playing “Closing Time” they acted out A Long Day’s Journey Into Night? It’ll be like that, but there’ll be a 2-drink minimum.”
Disdain for the musically comedic isn’t limited to those who hire comedians, it can be prevalent among those who review comedians as well. I’ve been lucky enough to get some good press over the years, but sometimes even a good review can reveal the anti-guitar streak so many people have. Take for example this review from when I opened for the late, great George Carlin in New Hampshire: “Carlin’s opener, Rob Paravonian, was excellent. Ordinarily the only thing worse than a prop comic is a comic with a guitar. He is a fine musician and singer and his material is clever and presented with good animation and control.”
I very much appreciate this reviewer’s kind words and that he was open enough to my guitaredness to enjoy it, even though he thinks people who do what I do are “worse than prop comics” (we’ll leave the prop comic discussion for another day). But I really wish I didn’t have to win people over just to get back to neutral ground. It sometimes feels like I’ve started a race a few laps behind.
This is what I, and people who do what I do, have to deal with. Many times we are marginalized and not taken seriously in the industry. To be a great comedian you have to write what you know, and as a life-long musician what I know is music. Should I talk about something else because it’s more marketable?
Recently, when various blowhards have spouted off and said women can’t be funny, they were faced with a poop-storm of retribution and long essays about how wrong their beliefs are. But when people say that guitar acts are all hacks, or that comedy performed by someone with a guitar in his or her hands is somehow a level below standing on stage and talking, the most outrage I’ve heard people express is “I guess, but I know one or two that don’t suck.” The point of this essay, my friends, is to say that I know of at least five that don’t suck.
As artists we can only continue to create art we believe in, so, while I will continue to create in other realms (I also write one-act plays and contribute to a sketch group) I’m not going to stop bringing my guitar on stage with me. I believe one day we will be more accepted. Recently Jessica Delfino and others organized the first annual New York Funny Songs festival and it was a big success. Flight of the Conchords introduced comedy music to a new generation of comedy nerds and humor hipsters. And I recently heard that Garfunkel and Oates, a female comedy music duo from L.A., are developing a show for HBO… but that might not help us much because, you know, they’re chicks.