The 1980s are often cited as the golden age of comedy. People all over fell in love with the medium as clubs opened up across the country. Stages seemed to develop overnight as coffee shops, pizzerias, and bars began holding regular comedy nights in an effort to capitalize on the laugh wave. But with the abundance of stagetime came a saturated market. As the calendar rolled into 1990, stages began to roll up. The medium went through a major drought as people became disinterested, distracted, whatever, and attentions went elsewhere.
Then in 2000, interest was renewed again as comedians like Lewis Black, Dave Attell, and Mitch Hedberg breathed new life into the funny business. This is universally accepted as truth by anyone who loves stand-up comedy. The ’90s are viewed as the happiness wasteland evidenced by the success of grunge, goth, and Sarah McLachlan; it’s hard to argue otherwise.
However, a new generation of comedian was being born in the ’90s, even as the industry studiously ignored a group of diverse, talented acts that had developed their own unique voices. Comics like Tom Simmons.
Simmons first hit the stage in Atlanta, Ga., around 1994. Armed with a tireless work ethic, Tom has always been driven to perfect his craft. A microphone in one hand, a notebook in the other, he has hustled up the comic food chain with the singular goal of being the best comedian he can be despite the obstacles many in his generation have faced.
In the time it takes most comedians write 45 minutes of material, Tom has released 5 albums, which all receive regular play on satellite comedy channels. The diverse topics he tackles range from philosophy and the ills of the Federal Reserve to TV consumer culture and starting a family.
After 15 years of writing and performing he won the prestigious San Francisco Comedy Competition in 1999, joining past winners such as Robin Williams and Ellen DeGeneres.
Gandhi and MLK are often quoted in your act, how have they shaped you as a comedian?
I read a lot of what they wrote and they both just had truth flowing out of them. How can anyone who reads them not be influenced? I believe they had it right — and knowing that leads to confidence in my own beliefs.
If Gandhi was doing comedy, what kind of material do you think he’d be doing?
Ha! Gandhi would probably do jokes about non-violence or some boring shit like, “How many days of fasting does it take to stop a civil war?”
You don’t think he’d just do dick jokes?
He would if he wanted to be successful.
How did you get your start?
At a black comedy club in Atlanta — Uptown Comedy Corner. I got booed time after time, then Earthquake `the comedian, not the natural disaster` gave me the best advice ever. He said, “Open with your closer ... and do a couple cracker jokes.” That really helped.
Why do so many comedians who started in the ’90s have it harder in today’s market?
I feel like there was a boom that was ending right as most of us began. Comedy was constricting, and for 10-plus years the industry seemed to hang on to the same group of ’80s comics — the Dom Irrera types. Many of that group just never got a real shot at being developed by the industry. By the time television came back to get a new crop of guys, they just moved past them. That and the fact that most of my friends were influenced by Bill Hicks and saw his way as the real way to do comedy, which television and audiences don’t seem to agree with.
Why do you think that?
Television doesn’t want great comics who are questioning society and the problems with it. That group `in the ’90s` has some of the best comics, period. Look them up and see if I am not right: Danny Bevins, Darryl Lenox, Auggie Smith, Earthquake, Costaki Economopoulos, the list goes on.
Some of your material challenges authority and the status quo, but at no point do you ever come off snobby or demeaning to those who may disagree. How do you balance this?
I don’t know. I have an endearing smile, I guess. Mostly I’m on stage trying to make people laugh. I am interested in the subversive and challenging the things we all mindlessly and unquestioningly participate in — ’cause that is stupid and stupid is funny. I tend to write tons of jokes and then surround the idea with them. The goal is to make them laugh going into the premise and somehow trick them into listening to the things they may disagree with. •
Tom Simmons’ five-night run at Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club is Wednesday thru Sunday March 9-13. Visit lolsanantonio.com or call (210) 541-8805 for tickets and show information.
Read more of Swiss Army Robot at blogs.sacurrent.com.