Another Old Friend Reunion

I got a phone call a little while ago from one of my comedian buddies, Don Reese. Don is a very funny stand up comic and he's coming to perform here in Michigan for the next couple weeks. Tomorrow night he's going to be about 40 minutes from where I live, so I'm gonna go see him, but he was calling to tell me that another old friend of ours, Ted Norkey, is going to be there as well. Now I doubt any of you have heard of Ted Norkey, but I assure you that Ted is the funniest comedian you've never heard of. A genius, and I don't throw that term around lightly when it comes to comedians. The bad news is that Ted came down with throat cancer a few years ago and had to quit the business. The good news, however, is that after some very rough times he is healthy and is going to live.

I haven't seen Ted in probably 7 or 8 years, but I got to see his wife a couple years ago at a benefit show put on for him in Lansing. Ted was unfortunately too sick to come to the show himself, but the night was a great time of catching up with old friends along with being hysterically funny. All the old Michigan-area comics that traveled together for years were there to raise money for his medical expenses and pay tribute to a man who was indisputably the king of inappropriate humor. Ted's sense of humor is so dry it's flammable, and more twisted than a David Lynch movie plot.

I have to tell a couple of stories about Ted. Back in the early 90s, he and I were doing a one-nighter together in a hellhole in upper Michigan. It was just a god-awful place in the dead of winter and we had to stay in one of those horrible little motels that looks straight out of a horror movie. No TV, no phones, not even a clock in the rooms, and the beds were like laying on plywood. And to make things worse, when we got there we found out we had to share a room. So we pull our bags out of the car and we're walking to the room, and this conversation happens:

Ted: You're not gay, are ya?

Me: Nope

Ted: Man, that's too bad.

So that night we go do the show, which was in some basement tavern full of rednecks and bikers. It didn't even have a stage, you just had to stand in a clear spot on the floor (because our agent was just that good). I went up first and in the middle of my set I was joking about how bad the motel was. So Ted goes up after me and says, "Ed was talking about how bad the motel was, and he wasn't kidding. I'll tell you how bad it was - the hotel stationary was all pre-addressed to Jody Foster." Naturally, I about fell off my chair while the crowd stared at him in confusion. Which pretty much sums up Ted's entire career.

Ted was the ultimate comic's comic. Every single comedian in the country thought Ted was the funniest man alive, but half the time audiences stared at him like he was a mannequin. And his material wasn't that obscure. Remember, this was at the height of the comedy boom, when every TV channel had a stand up show, all of it bland and sanitized for your protection. If you weren't doing "my dad wears black socks and sandals" or "what part of the chicken is the mcnugget" jokes, you might as well have been speaking swahili. And Ted definitely had his own comic voice. After a while, he had built his entire act around the fact that the audience didn't get it, and the lines he had to cover up the fact that the punchline flopped was often funnier than the punchline itself. It was almost meta-comedy after a while, as he turned the audience's confusion into a satire about the state of comedy itself by trying to turn every failed joke into a dick joke. To wit:

My yard is infested with ants. Army ants. Actually, I think they're army reserve ants, I only see them on the weekends. (pause) I think they're carpenter ants during the week, then army reserve ants on the weekend...see, they build stuff....then they blow it up....then the volunteer fire ants come out...(pained look)...Did I mention these ants have enormous dicks? Like 20 times their body weight? I'm not hurting you people, am I? Feel free to wait in the lobby till this blows over.

*Thud* There were times when I wanted to go out into the audience and slap people and say, "Are you listening to this? This is fucking hilarious." I remember after one show we did together, a woman in the audience came up to me afterwards and said, "I thought you were a lot funnier than the other guy." I said, "Then you weren't paying attention." He is famous among comedians for his Halloween routine. He'd say,

Did everyone have a safe halloween? I know you did, and it's because of me. I'll tell you why. Last halloween, I'm backing out of my driveway and I accidentally ran over Dracula with my car. I didn't see him in the mirror. So I get out and I'm looking at him...and I can't believe people are scared of him, he's just a little guy, maybe this now I've got a decision to I put a stake through his heart, like it says in the book, and end the reign of terror? Or do I let him off with a warning? Okay, so I'm putting a stake through his heart, and he's crying. Crying! He said, "Don't kill me, mister." Prince of darkness, my ass. I almost had the wolfman too, but he shot underneath a fence. Ripped his face off on a nail, though, that had to hurt.

Sometimes you could hear crickets. Just sad. Over the years, Ted became intensely bitter over his fate as a comic's comic. Every time a comic, club owner or agent would tell him that he was their favorite comic, he'd say, "Yeah? Then pay my fucking rent." The last time I saw Ted was at a show in Kalamazoo many years ago. The guy who was opening for him was just a really bad Dennis Miller wannabe, trying like hell to make as many obscure references as he could and falling on his face as each one landed with a resounding thud. After the show, I was standing there with Ted, his wife Lynn, who I was meeting for the first time, and Dennis Junior:

Lynn: Why did you quit doing comedy, Ed?

Me: Believe it or not, Ted drove me out of it.

Lynn: How did he do that?

Me: I saw myself becoming as bitter as he is in a few years and figured I better get out before I killed someone.

Lynn and Ted: *laughing*

Bad Comic Wannabe: I think Ted's the only thing keeping me in the business.

Me: Well Ted, you're 0 for 2.

And the three of us, sans Mr. Comic Wannabe, are on the floor. Perhaps reading a few of his jokes without hearing his delivery can't do it justice, but trust me when I tell you that Ted was one of the funniest men in the known universe. The fact that he struggled in obscurity while no-talent hacks like Pauly Shore and Carrot Top made millions can only be attributed to the fact that the universe is indifferent to the fate of human beings, if not downright hostile. In a just world, he would have been a star. And I can't wait to see him tomorrow night to get caught up.

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Ed: If you ever decide to come out of retirement to do something like an open mike night someplace for the fun of it, let me know. I'd drive for hours to see that.

You may be out of the stand-up business, Ed, but you still have the mind and heart of a performer: blaming failed performances on the audience.

By the way, the Halloween bit doesn't seem the least bit funny to me. Guess you had to be there. But "You're 0 for 2" is drop dead hilarious.

By flatlander100 (not verified) on 20 Oct 2004 #permalink

Flatlander, you forget he said that Ted has "dark humor".. and he loves that. The Dracula was a child he ran over, now that isn't supposed to be funny but he said he "looked in his rearview mirror and didn't see him" .. Dracula has no reflection. LOL
That joke really makes me laugh because I know Ed's humor and how he loves that type. LOL
And I tell Ed all the time that he should still do a few shows a year.
I know he will have a marvelous night with his friends. The city wont be safe with the 3 of them in town.

Any tips for those (probably just me) interested in stand-up? I have the whole eyebrow thing down...but I really don't know where to go from there.

By TheTachyix (not verified) on 20 Oct 2004 #permalink

I too love dark humor, and personally I thought the dracula bit was very funny. It cracked me up. The whole thing about Dracula, the prince of darkness going "Please don't kill me Mister..." and ending with the bit about the wolfman... He sounds like my kind of comedian.

By Chris Berez (not verified) on 21 Oct 2004 #permalink

I for one am no comic but I found all the Ted Norkey bits you posted side-splitting! People from work had to come over and read over my shoulder! Can you get recordings of his stuff?

By Joshua White (not verified) on 21 Oct 2004 #permalink

No, he never did any kind of recording. My friend Don has a videotape of Ted and I performing together at a corporate gig about 12 or 13 years ago, and one of these days I need to get a copy of that for myself. It's golden stuff. I'm sure for some people it just doesn't read nearly as funny as it is to hear it performed.

I personally think the (former) king of dark humor was Bill Hicks. He could take the most controversial situation (Abortion, war, riots etc.) and make you laugh about it! I have yet to hear/see anyone as good as Hicks... but I'm still looking. One memorable line (Which he did on the Letterman show resulting in the removal of his skit) talks about Jesus returning:

"A lot of Christians wear crosses around their necks. Do you think when Jesus comes back he ever wants to see a fuckin' cross? It's kind of like going up to Jackie Onassis with a rifle pendant on."

Check him out when you get a chance. Tons of video/audio stuff here: Bill Hicks.

Oh, you've named the man who is, in my opinion, the greatest comic in history. Hicks is unrivaled and, yes, unbelievably dark.

It's funny, I was actually listening to Hicks albums when I read your post yesterday. He was indeed,a genius (and even that feels like an understatement). He's still sorely missed.

By Chris Berez (not verified) on 22 Oct 2004 #permalink

The Dracula Joke cracked me up bigtime. I must admit that the Jodie Foster reference - zoom - right over my head.