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Wendy Liebman, Comedian [43010]

By Interviews

Wendy Liebman began her comedy career in 1984 when she took a class at Cambridge Center for Adult Education on “How to Be a Stand-up Comedian.”  She learned her lessons well, because since then she’s starred in specials on HBO, Comedy Central, and Showtime.  She’s also appeared on late night shows with David Letterman, Jay Leno, Craig Ferguson, and others. In the 1996 at the Comedy Awards Show, Wendy was named the Female Stand-up Comedian of the Year.

            ROUND TABLE first crossed paths with Wendy in1992 when she was featured on Bob Hope Presents the Ladies of Laughter.  Gene Perret was a writer on that show and became an instant fan.   

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ROUND TABLE:  You’ve been doing stand-up for over 30 years now.  Have you seen any changes in comedy styles? 

WENDY:  I’m not joking when I say my comedy hair and fashion styles have changed.  (I used to have hair like Peter Pan and I wore bright teal silk jackets with huge shoulder pads and big earrings.)

But to answer your question, I’ve seen fewer prop comics since the 80s.  And more alternative comedians (like Garfunkel and Oates, Tig Notaro, Zach Galifianakis, Demetri Martin).

I’m aware of two new comedy trends:  THE SET LIST SHOW, where comics improvise a set based on a made up list of joke headings, and ROAST BATTLE a new generation of insult artists inspired by Jeffrey Ross.

ROUND TABLE:  In what ways has the business of stand-up changed?

WENDY:  When I was little it was rare for me to hear stand-up comedy.  And right before I started doing stand-up in the 80s, people were throwing money at comedians (unfortunately I missed that wave) because seeing them live was one of the only ways to see them.

Now comedy is accessible 24/7, online, on TV, on cable, on the radio. . . Podcasts. . . YouTube.  We’re always a click away from a laugh.    

Stand-up is seen as a viable career (which sometimes grows into acting, writing, producing and directing) so there are more comedians.  That has changed the business.  

But there are also more venues and avenues towards exposure, especially since you can make your own.  That’s how the business has changed too:  You can take it into your own hands.

ROUND TABLE:  You’ve probably seen people come and go in the business, what do you credit for your being able to stay in comedy?

WENDY:  Tenacity.  Inanity.  Hope.

Drive.  OCD.  Humor.

Grace, karma, timing.

Thinking, writing, performing.

Therapy.  The Alexander Technique.

Having a dog.

And my husband’s patient understanding and delicious cooking.

ROUND TABLE:  When you began, did you have a mentor or someone that you emulated?

WENDY:  I loved to laugh.  I loved Barbra Streisand, Flip Wilson, Sonny and Cher, Woody Allen, Laugh-In, Steve Martin, Johnny Carson, Match Game, Carol Burnett, Hollywood Squares, and Lucille Ball.  

I used to make my father laugh by imitating Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann and Ernestine.  (Lily was one of the presenters when I won The American Comedy Award for best female club comic, and I’ve met her a few more times.)

Stand-ups who influenced me:  Steven Wright, Ellen DeGeneres, Rita Rudner, David Letterman, Garry Shandling, Joan Rivers, and Phyllis Diller.  Stand-ups I love who I got to work with when I first started:  Kevin Meany, Don Gavin, Jake Johannsen, Laura Kightlinger, Louie CK, Jonathan Katz, Emo Philips, and Brian Kiley.

I started doing stand-up after taking a class on “How to Be A Stand-up Comedian” at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the teacher, Ron Lynch, took me under his wing and was the best comedy mentor a person could ever have.  We’re still great friends.  He’s still doing stand-up.  He’s been on The Sarah Silverman Program and Bob’s Burgers.   He’s still a total riot.

ROUND TABLE:  In looking back, how long would you guess it took you to really find your voice as a stand-up comedian?

WENDY:  I think life is about finding your voice — both what you want to say and how you want to say it.  Everybody grows at their own pace.

Okay, so it took me about 20 years to get comfortable on stage!  I’ve figured out HOW to say things.  Now I’m figuring out WHAT I want to say.  Basically I’m a work in progress.

But early on I developed a style, where I kept adding tag lines to a punchline to keep building on the laughter, mainly because I didn’t like being on stage when it was quiet.

ROUND TABLE:  Do you have a writing routine to create new comedy material for your act?

I don’t.  I should write jokes about needing to take myself more seriously in this department.

ROUND TABLE:  What procedures do you use to introduce new material to your act?

WENDY:  See the answer above.

ROUND TABLE:  Once at the mike, do you sometimes adjust your material or delivery based on the audience’s reactions?

WENDY:  I try to read the audience based on their response to the comics on before me. 

I’m not political and I don’t talk about religion so I don’t usually have to adjust my material.

If the crowd is older or more conservative or if there are small children in the audience I try not to swear.  

When I work in Florida I find I speak slower because the audience can’t hear as well.  

In the 90s I got to open for Julio Iglesias at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.  A lot of his fans did not speak English, so I chalked my weary set up to that, and bought The Rosetta Stone tapes.

ROUND TABLE:  In general, what do you consider a stand-up comedian’s responsibility to the audience if any?

WENDY:  As an audience member, you had to pay to get in, and now I’m asking you to pay attention to me.  My responsibility is to try to make you belly laugh, and experience joy when remembering the show.  I want you to feel it was worth your time and money.  I hope you feel lighter than you did before.

ROUND TABLE:  Now we’ll test your humility.  Have you ever tried anything new that turned out to be disastrous?

WENDY:  Many of my jokes have fallen flat over the years.  But my jokes are quick so I breeze over them.  Early on the silence would have slipped me up a little bit but now it just befuddles and amuses me.  When a joke doesn’t work I try to make a joke about it not working at my expense, like “That sounded funnier in my head.”  You really can’t always tell what’s going to work.  

Also, I’ve changed a joke that I’ve done the same way for years.  One night I happened to say it differently and it got a bigger laugh.   My subconscious knows best.

ROUND TABLE:  On the flip side, have you ever been pleasantly surprised by the audience reaction to an adlib or set material?  

WENDY:  There are moments in stand-up that are just magical, and you couldn’t plan them, and if you did no one would believe you.  I’ll start writing them down!

[Note:  After completing the interview, we received an email from Wendy titled “Magical Moment.”  It read: “Last night I was on stage in Reno, at The Silver Legacy Casino. I said “It’s so noisy out there–bells and buzzers. Today I heard an ambulance go by and I thought I won something!”  And right then an ambulance went by.”]

ROUND TABLE:  You see a lot of “young” comedians.  What mistakes do you see beginners making?

WENDY:  Wasting time.

ROUND TABLE:  What advice would you give to people who are just starting out on their stand-up career?  

WENDY:  Perform as much as humanly possible, even if it means starting your own comedy room in a bar or coffee shop, and constantly try new material.

ROUND TABLE:  What is the best way to get stage time…for beginners and even not so beginners?

WENDY:  Google comedy shows/open mike shows and approach the people in charge.  Be persistent but not annoying.  Ask other comics for tips and share yours.  Be professional — show up on time and don’t go over your time.  And again, start your own show somewhere.  

ROUND TABLE:  You produce a show here in Southern California called “Locally Grown Comedy.”  What do you look for in performers for your shows?

WENDY:  I want them to make me laugh and I want them to be professional.

I imagine if they’d be the right kind of gift for my audience.

ROUND TABLE:  What’s next for Wendy?

I’ve been eating so much lately, what’s next for me is a fitness program.  (My little black dress with spaghetti straps is now big, and has lasagna straps.)

But also, I’m writing a lot!  Plays, books, checks.

ROUND TABLE:  Is there anything that we left out or that you might want to add?

I met you, Linda, and your father because you came to one of my comedy shows!  Then we became friends, I’ve gotten to know the legend that is Gene Perret, and you’ve written jokes for me 🙂 Stand-up comedy really does bring people together.  Sense of humor connects us.