I was born again — in a comedic, not a religious sense — at age 11. I remember the exact moment it happened. It was 1978, and my parents had driven us a couple of hours to have Thanksgiving at my super-cool Aunt Karen’s house. She lived in a big old Victorian in Massachusetts with her husband, Rodney, and their wolf-husky hybrid, Keegan. Karen and Rodney were what people in those days still referred to as hippies, the kind of post-Woodstock free spirits who’d serve chunky homemade cranberry sauce and fresh-picked green beans (with slivered almonds) instead of the canned Ocean Spray and Del Monte stuff I was used to. Adding to their unrivaled coolness in my eyes was the fact that Rodney owned a record store.
As we kids played pool in the living room before dinner, Rodney positioned a speaker at the top of the stairs in the foyer and put on a record that was a big seller at his store — Steve Martin’s Let’s Get Small. And that was it. The clouds parted, and I saw the light.
My life would henceforth be divided between the pre-Steve years (those unenlightened days when I believed Bill Cosby was the funniest man alive) and, well, the rest of eternity. Like a comedy god on high, Martin echoed through the house, rewiring my adolescent synapses as he plucked his banjo, riffed nonsensically about his own act, and complained about being so mad at his 102-year-old mother. (“She called me up the other day. She wanted to borrow $10 for some food!”)
I didn’t get all the jokes (some involved sex and drugs), but it made no difference. I was right there, laughing along with the crowd at the fabulous Boarding House in San Francisco. I’d found my comedic congregation, and there was no going back. To this day, my siblings and I quote Steve Martin the way others quote the Bible — “A day without sunshine is like … night” — and I’m pretty sure that if any of them outlive me, there will be Steve Martin references in my eulogy.
Such is the power of a true comic genius. But what many people don’t realize is that such genius doesn’t just happen. Stars like Steve Martin — or Jerry Seinfeld or Dave Chappelle or Tig Notaro — don’t just spring forth fully formed and ready for their HBO specials. They’re forged in the furnace of small, local clubs and makeshift stages, those unforgiving testing grounds that weed out the weak and unworthy without mercy, leaving only the fittest and funniest to advance to national fame.
In other words, as Martin would put it on a later album, “Comedy is not pretty.”
And that brings me to this month’s cover package, written by frequent contributor Ryan Patrick Hooper and photographed at the Dakota Inn Rathskeller by the brilliant Roy Ritchie. Hooper profiles six Detroit comics who have honed their chops here in the Motor City, a place that may not rank up there with comedy hotbeds like Los Angeles and New York City but is producing some seriously funny people anyway — people like rising star Josh Adams, who knows well both the challenges and the rewards of being funny in Detroit.
“It’s just starting to get recognized as a place where funny comedians come from,” he told Hooper. “Comedy has a voice here, and we’re the pioneers of it. It’s a hard place to make people laugh. … What’s making us special is that there are a bunch of strong, unique voices coming out of this place.”
Strong, unique voices, for sure — some of whom are destined to blow people’s minds the way Steve Martin blew mine.
This story is featured in the September 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.