How to Raise a Comedian Without Really Trying
I can’t say my mother—a single parent who gave her all to raise three renegade kids on her own—was overjoyed about her eldest child’s decision to forgo law school and venture west to Los Angeles to become a stand-up comedian, but true to her nature she never said a word to me—or anyone else—that wasn’t encouraging.
And this from a woman who rarely had things go her way. Her mother died days after she was born. She suffered through a ghastly San Francisco childhood during the Great Depression; her father was an Irish dandy barfly who spent quality time in neighborhood taverns rather than face the responsibility of child rearing. Her cold, distant brother—eight years her senior—was consumed with his own survival. From the get-go, Lisabeth Lynn Riddle was on her own.
Yet relying on her own wits and gumption, she somehow made it through childhood without losing the habit of looking for the good in people—who almost universally let her down. The woman she became turned out to be hilariously funny and highly intelligent, except when it came to men, but the blood males in her life hadn’t exactly been role models.
After moving to Southern California as a young adult, she worked in the business office of a department store in San Bernardino through her twenties. A photo of her during this time shows an attractive, vibrant young woman—pleasantly plump, one might say—with coifed auburn hair, lively brown eyes and a mischievous smile. Though she didn’t lack suitors, she fell for a tall, handsome, dark-eyed Okie who drank to excess. A quick courtship resulted in a civil wedding. Three kids followed shortly thereafter, born into a marriage fraught with his liquor-induced chaos.
The pressures of heading a household proved insurmountable to my father, leading to drunken rages. His rowdiness and unreliability made him increasingly unemployable in carpentry, a trade in which he was quite gifted. My mother had quit working to raise us, so our family cash flow was meager. We became homeless, living in campgrounds in the San Bernardino Mountains. Sometimes we shifted to cheap motels on the fringes of seedy little towns that had sprung up when Bible Belters left the misery of arid, Midwestern farmland to seek fortune in the Golden State.
Finally, my mother had enough. On a sunny June morning just before my fifth birthday, we packed our gray Plymouth station wagon as my father slept off another bender, and took off for good, migrating toward the land so many had fled since the Dust Bowl. With her oldest child riding shotgun, little Georgiana and Patrick in the backseat, we headed east to Oklahoma to be taken in for a short spell by our in-laws. It would prove to be the first of countless moves.
With mouths to feed, she desperately tried to make it in the man’s world of the 1960s, yet no matter how diligently she endeavored, my mother never caught a break financially. She mostly secured temporary part-time jobs, rarely paying enough to keep us afloat. Calamity loomed daily with bill collectors hounding us, eviction notices tacked on front doors and hurried midnight moves to yet another new town with the hope of starting again.
We became experts on packing quickly, hastily gathering our belongings into our jalopy before escaping onto another trek into the unknown. She’d always calm us with promises that whatever dot on the map we headed to—usually my job as the eldest to select—would be the answer to our prayers. It never was, but we three young’uns possessed absolute faith. In her own way, she never let us down.
Holidays were joyous times, especially Christmas. One time an Arkansas do-gooder taking pity on us in a little town called Siloam Springs came round offering to take us to the “poor kids’ Christmas” at a local church, figuring that way we’d at least get one present each from Santa. The Good Samaritan was shocked to find our entire living room floor covered with a boatload of wrapped gifts that our mother had somehow bought for us.
Lord only knows how she paid for these presents. Probably a series of bad checks she promised herself she’d pay back once they were returned from the bank, but in truth she’d never be able to. We usually moved to a new town right after the Christmas holidays, leaving bill collectors, landlords and local law enforcement scratching their heads.
After dozens of moves, zigzagging back and forth between Oklahoma and Arkansas, we again found ourselves evicted from our latest abode—a mangy public housing complex in Russellville, Arkansas—and were back to campground, living in a nearby state park called Lake Dardanelle. The South had failed us, and so we went north. Penniless, we borrowed $300 from the local Salvation Army once we arrived in Rochester, Minnesota. Then things got better.
After a series of secretarial jobs, my mother lucked into selling real estate. It suited her gift of gab, outgoing nature and love of people. We set down roots, only changing rentals five or six times locally before settling in what became known as “the house.” A staunch Roosevelt Democrat, my mother wrote a plea to Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey after failing to qualify for a government mortgage, stating, “It’s time for you to help us.” He did. We got the four-bedroom house with its $117 monthly mortgage and finally had a real home.
For me, things started to click as well. Drilled and trained athletically since the age of six in the sports-crazy atmosphere of the South—where football success trumps book learning by a country mile—I was a prized commodity: a quarterback who could also punt and kick, as well as a heady point guard on the basketball team. I was able to go to the local Catholic high school on scholarship, as the $400 yearly tuition was well beyond our means. I then attended Creighton University in Omaha, funded by every college loan and grant available. But it wasn’t academic life that I fell in love with—it was stand-up comedy.
I’d actually been falling in love with it for some time. My mother was never a strict enforcer of bedtimes, and I’d been watching The Tonight Show nearly every night since second grade. I savored Johnny Carson’s nightly monologues and the portions where comedians did stand-up—it was as if they were directly talking to me.
I had memorized Bill Cosby and George Carlin routines from albums. Though innately shy, I nonetheless knew how to impress people quickly, as every move to a new town had brought a new crowd at a new school to win over with my impressions of Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw and Louis Armstrong. These were augmented by elaborate, bogus tales of how we’d suddenly appeared in their town midway through the semester.
Now enjoying the freedom of college life, but unsure of future plans, I saw a notice for a student talent show in the lobby of my dorm, entered the contest, and penned a fifteen-minute comedy routine in one night—a fact that still amazes me now that I realize how difficult comedy is to write on a continual basis. I made my stand-up debut in front of eight hundred fellow Creightonians, garnering enough favorable responses to be immediately stricken with the disease of show business. Given my background, a normal career just wasn’t in the cards.
With my bachelor’s degree in hand, I packed up my car—this time on my own—and headed to Los Angeles. After a few years of struggle funded by delivering groceries during the day for a mom-and-pop store on the outskirts of Beverly Hills, I slowly started to eke out a living performing in dive bars and comedy clubs for twenty-five dollars here, fifty there. With fellow comics in tow, we’d drive for hours in beat-up cars to gigs all around Southern California, often making barely enough to cover the gas.
One night after a two-hour drive, two of my comrades and I performed at one of the many awful venues we usually found ourselves in: a Palm Springs disco with a weekly comedy night on Wednesdays. “Clear the dance floor, we have three comics from L.A.,” the DJ announced to a loud chorus of groans. The patrons wanted to dance rather than hear our lame acts. But hey, it was show biz.
After my twenty-minute set, I checked in with my answering machine back at my Santa Monica apartment. A message from my sobbing sister was waiting, telling me our mom had just died from congestive heart failure. Grief crushed me instantly. The funeral back in Rochester was a blur. The worst thing that could possibly happen in my twenty-seven years had occurred, and she never got to see my stand-up comedy gamble pay off.
I cried so much in Minnesota, there weren’t any tears left when I got back to California. My sadness turned heavy, weighing me down as if I had been forced to wear a lead suit. Each day a painful new truth added to the heft: realizations that I’d never again savor her girlish giggle after a successful attempt to make her laugh, or hear her say “I love you, Dolly” at the end of our weekly telephone chats. She called those she loved “Dolly.” I’d cut off a limb to hear it one more time.
A few days following my return, I was standing in a checkout line at a supermarket when I glimpsed the back of a lady that looked exactly like my mother walking out of the store and heading to the parking lot. Though it’s crazy, I immediately thought, “She’s alive!” and bolted out of the line to go find her. Of course, it wasn’t her, yet the punch in the gut of seeing a reasonable facsimile felt like I’d just lost her all over again.
Needing money, I jumped back into performing, but off-stage I became noticeably quiet and withdrawn, shying away from small talk as condolences, though heartfelt, had the opposite effect on me. One night at the Improv in West Hollywood—one of the two Los Angeles stand-up meccas, the other being The Comedy Store—a well-known comedian named Tom Dreesen suggested I read a book on meditation to help me with my bereavement.
Grasping for any straw to alleviate my sorrow, I bought it, followed the steps it laid out and began meditating daily. I’d never tried it before, but with my psyche so damaged and raw and ready for any type of relief from the harsh reality of the physical world, the power of going inward came to me quickly and surprisingly easily, helping me cope.
Peacefully sitting in my tiny rent-controlled apartment, I’d contort myself as best I could into the lotus position, eyes closed and intently focused on my breath. With just a few days of practice, the ritual began to free me from my earthbound misery; my consciousness became as light as a feather, even vaporous, as if my physical body could be shucked as easily as an ear of corn.
In my mind’s eye, I’d float through the heavens, distant galaxies lighting my path as I searched for my mother far and wide. The inner quest allowed me to focus intently on her unconditional love, as it seemed alive and discoverable.
Also, oddly, I simultaneously became more successful as a comedian. Made fearless by loss, my self-doubt evaporated, and I became braver on stage. I was more willing to take risks, not caring what the audience thought, but learning that they came along anyway—a pivotal lesson. I was finally a confident performer.
I was accepted as a regular at the Improv, and one night found myself performing in front of the producers of Late Night With David Letterman. My ten minutes in front of the famous brick wall went well, and the following week a booking agent called to schedule my network television debut in New York City. A date thirty days hence was put on the books.
My life became spartan and focused as I readied for the appearance. In the mornings, I’d stride down the hill a few blocks from where I lived to the beach, take off my shoes and run four miles along the edge of the surf to the end of Venice and back. After a quick swim in the ocean, it was back to my apartment for my daily mediation—it had become the highlight of my day, often lasting as long as an hour and leaving me spiritually refueled. Each night, I would go to several comedy clubs to hone the five minutes of material I’d selected.
The month went by quickly. I was ready. I’d done the set dozens of times and could probably do it in my sleep if I had to. My daily running had me as physically fit as I’d ever been. My depression ebbed as my trip to New York drew near. As the plane flew over the patchwork grid of Midwest farmland, I laughed to myself—my first chuckle in many weeks—as I looked out the window thinking of all the places below we’d lived.
I’d always had jitters before performing, but just minutes before the biggest event of my young show business life, I calmly meditated in my darkened dressing room next to Studio 6A in Rockefeller Center, bathing myself with thoughts of my mother’s love while zooming around the universe. A knock on the door from the stage manager brought me back to Earth. Dave introduced me. Paul and the band played me on. I strode out and started my routine.
The laughs came quick and big right from the start. I immediately knew the studio audience wanted me to succeed, so I took my time and let the momentum build. My material—on how pot pies just out of the oven are the world’s hottest food, exploding like Mount St. Helens when punctured with a fork; the absurdity of professional tennis players depositing those giant checks they receive for winning; James Bond getting pulled over by the cops for shooting someone and presenting his “license to kill;” how Batman isn’t really a superhero, just a rich guy with a big ego, like Ted Turner with a cape—all killed. There were even applause breaks in-between jokes. It couldn’t have gone better.
Then, right before my closing bit, I floated up out of body just like I’d done ten minutes earlier in my dressing room. But this time I joined my mother’s spirit, hovering just in front of the bank of overhead stage lights. I hadn’t found her, she’d found me. We joyously floated side-by-side, watching me finish up the set. Just as I was about to say “goodnight” to the crowd, she left, and I drifted back into my mortal coil. Paul and the band played me over to sit in the chair next to Dave.
After that night, no matter how hard I meditated in hopes of recreating her visit, we never connected again.
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David Wood is a New York City-based writer and speaker. He is the author of “Around the World in 80 Rounds” and is currently working on a novel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Noah Van Sciver is the creator of the comic book series "Blammo."His debut graphic novel "The Hypo," follows Lincoln's early struggle with depression and was published by Fantagraphics books in 2012.