Dallas — If you were into comedy in the ‘80s, you were into Elayne Boosler. She was everywhere. Touring, television, talk shows — omnipresent on the Late Show with David Letterman. She churned out a special every couple of years and did it on her own terms. When cable networks declined to do a special in spite of her popularity, saying a woman comedian couldn’t hold down an hour on television, she obtained loans and funded it. Party of One was a big hit and opened the way for females on television who were not just funny, but politically pointed and excruciatingly and honest. Comedians such as Ilza Schlesinger stand in her shoes.
There is a sharpness to Boosler’s material, a point of view honed with knowledge. She dissected the elder President Bush at the 1993 White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner for President Clinton. She brought comedic bite to her long stint on Stephanie Miller’s syndicated radio show and more recently on Current TV’s Viewpoint with John Fugelsang. There is always a feeling of danger that Boosler might let loose a comment that peels away all our fraud. But she does it so deftly that the point made is enmeshed with laughter.
Since the mid ‘90s, Boosler has thrown her energies into animal rescue. She now fronts a non-profit group, Tails of Joy, that presents fundraising concerts for animal rescue groups. The beneficiary in Dallas is Paws in the City. Before her concert this Thursday at The Kessler (with Linda Stogner opening), Boosler looked back at her long career in a lengthy interview.
TheaterJones: As a young adult in New York City, you had a brief foray as a song and dance performer. Is it crazy to think that some of that is reflected in your act? Or at least in your work ethic of always giving a good “dancing monkey” show?
Elayne Boosler: All I was trying to do at the beginning of my independent life was to earn a living in any way possible. I had no special skills. I got fired from the As and the Bs. I got to the Cs. I got to comedy and didn’t get fired, so that was it. If people take the time to get dressed, get in the car, pay some money and come in with high hopes for a good show, they deserve a good dancing monkey show.
The ‘70s was a legendary time in New York City music, theater and street scene. What stuck with you the most from that time?
When you’re waitressing and hostessing and doing office work, and trying to find your way, you have no idea what is going on around you. At least I didn’t. I did know New York was riddled with crime in those days, so I always tried not to get killed walking to and from work, which was my preferred financial method of transportation.
Your influences — Andy Kaufman, Larry David, Richard Lewis, Richard Belzer, Jimmie Walker, and Ed Bluestone — are not just deeply urban, but Jewish. What are the three characteristics from this group that shape your philosophical worldview?
My other main influences were Buster Keaton, Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, Margaret Dumont, Freddie Prinze, and I’m pretty sure Jimmie Walker isn’t Jewish either, so it had nothing to do with being or not being Jewish. Three things I learned from this group were hard work, make the hard work look easy, and just keep going. That applies to anything anyone is trying to do well, I think.
Do you feel part of a lineage of Jewish comedians, from Catskills and before?
I identify with what I call the “Second Golden Age of Comedy,” the comedy boom that began in New York and Los Angeles clubs around the early to mid ‘70s. Before then, comedy had been an older person’s game; the hangdog husband/wife on the Ed Sullivan Show, or the Tonight Show. It wasn’t a young, current events based, single person’s game until Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Robert Klein and George Carlin made it so. Comics became the town crier, and I came from that lineage.
Since your ‘80s heyday, you’ve been a working comedian, churning out video specials, hosting shows, writing scripts, acting. Evidently you’ve found the balance of career and a personal life that works for you. How’d you get to that point?
Show business, like any business, requires that you go to work in some form every day. If you can’t get work in one area, you lean towards another. The secret of anything is to just keep going. If you happen to find someone going in the same direction, so much the better, even if it’s for just a little while.
Animal rescue and advocacy grabbed hold of you in the mid ‘90s and your non-profit group Tails of Joy was formed in 2001. In addition to scores of animal rescue benefits each year, you do an incredible amount of research into animal issues and even hands-on rescue work. How does comedy help you and your volunteers cope with the inhumane situations these defenseless animals are in?
I founded Tails of Joy to help fund the smallest, neediest rescue groups all across the country. Two old women in Texas will save more dogs and cats in a year than the entire bloated, wasteful Humane Society of the United States. Yet the small groups don’t have the fundraising infrastructure to help them. I saw this during my years of touring, and we try to donate every single day to the next emergency that comes across the website. Most rescue stories are sad. By focusing on the happy endings, the happy stories that getting involved accomplishes, we make it easier for people to help us help animals. Comedy makes people happy to help. We sell our after show merchandise to benefit a rescue organization or two in each city, and leave all the money behind for that group. After the show this time we’ll be fundraising for Dallas’ own Paws in the City.
You’ve appeared on every talk show ever broadcast, but aced Letterman during the ‘80s. How has your relationship with talk shows changed over the years?
Leno was famous among comics for never breaking a new comedian in his 22 years as host. He put very few comedians on The Tonight Show, which had been a mainstay for introducing new, and showcasing established, comedy talent. The fact that Jimmy Fallon has opened the show back up to great stand-up, and welcomed me, and many great and deserving comics, both new and classic, makes me want to build a statue to him.
You say there are only seven subjects in the world and a comic does their individual take on them. What are those seven things?
Well, around seven, I guess. Love, sex, food, not eating the food, relationships, getting through the day, pets, politics, sports, coping (which can include all the aforementioned plus technology, money, and not eating the food). I’ve also added war. How comedy missed that bright topic I’ll never know.
You own your recorded specials, unlike most comedians, and plan to re-release them. What is the status of the project?
The four specials in the box set will be Party of One, Broadway Baby, Top Tomata, and Live Nude Girls. It features newly shot wraparound interviews to give the shows context and tell some great stories about that time. It will also include an all new CD, recorded live in concert during the past year of touring. The release will be announced on The Tonight Show as soon as I finish editing the CD.
You’re a very busy gal. Any potential of finishing the book on your good friend Andy Kaufman? Is the planned animal rescue book related to the Rescue – A True Story symphonic comedy piece you developed? How about the book with Muriel, the dog-loving elderly woman you befriended and brought alive through @QuiltingMuriel, now that she’s gone?
I’ve been writing Big Fun, the great book of fun stories about the early days of all of us starting out, for fifteen years. I’ll finish it or die, whichever comes first. The book of uplifting rescue stories, Tails of Joy, isn’t exactly related to the symphony piece, though both will (and the symphony piece does already) benefit animal rescue. The Muriel book is quiet now that she has passed on. It’s been a sad week.
What is the biggest challenge to getting people to think or pay attention?
You have to be funny and interesting. You have to have a distinct point of view that piques their interest. You have to be original and you have to care about them.
What insights has comedy given you into human nature?
Everyone is funny, purposely or unconsciously. The more serious the person, the funnier he or she is. That’s just the way it is. Nothing surprises me. That’s the insight comedy has given me into human nature.
Does comedy give you more hope for humanity or less?
Humanity needs a lot more than comedy right now.
» Video: “It’s very hard to go to sleep in your eyeliner and not wake up looking like Petey from the Little Rascals the next day.” Classic Boosler from her 1985 debut special Party of One.