The funny people were out in full force at the taping of the American Comedy Awards in New York, and we asked them if there was one memory they had of what inspired them to get into comedy. This is what they said.
It doesn't happen, the one moment. I had no intention, no dream to be a stand-up comedian playing nightclubs, nothing. My goal was to become a schoolteacher. It was in the year 1960 that for the first time in my life, I completed writing a piece that was an assignment. I was in remedial English, a freshman. The paper came back, but he [the teacher] read it, and it was a piece about just something that I wanted to connect with the reader — to understand, to feel — and I wrote about the first time I had my tooth pulled. I got an A/C-. The second piece I wrote, I felt much better about myself, so I've always been first and foremost the person who writes what he sees, but not for it to be funny. I want people to feel and see what I saw. And then comes tagging on the humor.
My friend asked me to do her friend's comedy show. I had never done it before, and I didn't think I could do it because I thought my sense of humor was too weird or annoying, and I saw two things that week: I saw a special on Andy Kaufman that NBC aired, and I saw Bob Odenkirk and David Cross do a show in order to get Mr. Show — and I saw both of those things and thought, Oh, that's the kind of stuff that I do. Oh, I guess you can be a comedian. And that gave me the confidence to go ahead and try it on that show.
There were definitely a couple of moments. I don't know if this fits that, but when I was asked to do Dr. Katz, that was a big thing for me. And then when Dave Attell told me he thought I was funny, I was like, OK, I'm NOT crazy! And the first time I did Letterman, I thought, All right, I'm not a total sociopath.
When I was 16, I was living in Livingston, N.J., with my parents, and they took me to see a show at the Upright Citizens Brigade and I knew then that that's what I wanted to do. And then when I was 19, I started taking classes there, and then eventually teaching there.
Bee: I tried to get hired for serious things, and no one ever would. So I didn't really have a choice.Jones: We are both terrible dramatic actors, it was comedy by default.
Well, I never intended to get into comedy. I thought I was going to write serious short stories about people with feelings. But that wasn't going so well. Someone encouraged me — my editor Marc Adams, at Men's Journal then, encouraged me to be funny because it's something that came naturally to me more or less. And so I did, and suddenly it was like, I had my hands untied. And quite honestly, every comedian I think wants to be in comedy to recapture that last big laugh that they got — but for me, just that beginning moment where I allowed myself to be funny, and this whole unexpected world opened for me, that was a moment that I loved.
I went and saw a show at Second City L.A. — my friend Eric Filipkowski did a show, and I went to his show and I thought, Wow, there are people my age performing comedy. This was like, in 2002, and I went, My god, I didn't know that people were performing comedy, I've gotta go do it.
Key: For me, it was seeing my father laugh out loud. My father was this big, stern guy, so to see him get disarmed by something, was like, alchemy. That's freaking magic right there. And also, it was like the world's greatest defense mechanism. Like, you are on the playground, in middle school, you're going, Oh, they stopped beating me up because I made them laugh. Oh, I'm going to keep doing this!Peele: Yeah, there's something about seeing your parents guffaw and not knowing what's going on. And In Living Color — the first episode of In Living Color blew my little mind, and I've been trying to catch up with those guys ever since.
I think it was making my older brothers laugh so they wouldn't beat me up. When I realized I could distract their anger with putting underwear on my head or falling down, I knew that there were dividends to be paid by making people laugh.
You know, I was in college, and I actually started out as a pretty traditional actor doing musicals. I think I was in classical musicals that were already written, but I would ad lib, which you're not supposed to do — but I would, and the audience would really like it, and they were all things I came up with myself. And I was like, Oh, maybe this is a good lane for me to go in, and that was the first time I realized that.
The American Comedy Awards will air on May 8 at 9 p.m. ET.