Monday, February 12, 2018

The mad scientist as 'black belt comedian': Deceased Artiste Chris Rush (part 1 of two)

Photo by John Blenn
Chris Rush was the neighborhood wiseacre gone absurdist science professor. An engaging conversationalist who would listen and then respond with the funniest insights and deft turns of phrase. He was a “comedian's comedian” who, according to his friend George Carlin, was prone to “ad-lib five careers worth of material backstage.” He died at the age of 71 on January 28, 2018, in Forest Hills, Queens (although he lived in Manhattan at one point for several years, he remained a boroughs guy, having grown up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn), after a number of ailments took their toll on his system.

Chris certainly had the ability to make anyone he met laugh — he was one of the only people I've met who could “tune in” to your personal sense of humor and begin to make you laugh out of the blue, even while discussing the grimmest topics.

Chris's first LP, First Rush.
Art direction: Thomas Hachtman
Chris put in several decades on the standup circuit. His beginning was auspicious — after only a year as a standup, he scored a record contract with Atlantic Records.

The resulting album, First Rush, moves through the subjects that had made up his life to that point (in his mid-20s): a strict Catholic upbringing and, stricter yet, a Catholic education; a fascination with science (he had been a molecular biologist prior to becoming a comedian); fantasies, delusions, and mindfucks sparked by the use of drugs, from pot to hallucinogenics; and a love of television. The last-mentioned remained a lifelong fascination — Chris was an inveterate nature-channel viewer and a collector of details about the strange behavior of animals and insects.

Back cover of First Rush. Photo by Michael Sullivan.

The album is not the best introduction to Chris’s comedy, since his later material was far funnier and didn’t rely as much on drug humor. Some of the shorter bits are still wonderful, though, particularly the ones about religion:



As I’ve been preparing this piece I’ve been speaking to Chris’s partner Megan, who has been receiving very nice messages from his friends that have been supplying pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that was his life. When I asked Chris about past events, he often dodged the subject or said he didn’t remember — he clearly was a man of the present and future, who didn’t want to dwell in the past. He told Megan about his childhood and his strict Italian father (he was born Christopher Mistretta).

He remembered the first time he made the family laugh, as a tiny kid aged one and a half, by standing on a chair and impersonating opera. The kid liked the reaction he got, so he continued to be the family clown as he got older (what better way to stave off a strict parent?).

A bearded Chris (left, with hair!) in the early Seventies.
Photo by Michael Sullivan.
A posting on Facebook by Chris’s ex-wife Michele adds a bit more to his biography: She noted that the two were married for a decade (1968 to ’78) and were “hippies” who wore the fashions of the time. Both were Brooklynites (she an 18-year-old from Bensonhurst, he a 21-year-old from Williamsburg).

Michele and an early science teacher encouraged Chris to be a professional comedian. The most interesting detail in Michele's touching reminiscence was this nugget: “The first time he dared to perform was at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village. He got a standing ovation, and knew he wanted to be a comedian.” She paid tribute to his ability to make people laugh until they hurt, and added, “He was the kind of husband that would help me find important things when I lost them. My smile, my hope, my courage.”

An ad for Chris's debut album,
which ran in National Lampoon.
A humor break from the biographical info — Rush on food. As quoted in Allentown's Morning Call newspaper, “Nightclubbing” column: “In almost no other place in the world besides America, Rush noted, do the words 'unfavorite food' have any meaning. His 'unfavorites' include liver, tongue sandwich ('How can you enjoy something that tastes you back?') and sushi ('My family calls it bait').”

Back to the bio: Chris’s fascination with science manifested itself early on. Megan recounts his wild and reckless (well yeah, crazy) early years as an amateur “scientist”: “As a youth, probably a teen, Chris got his hands on a CIA manual and/or an army manual and regularly used the 'recipes' in it around the neighborhood. He stopped traffic on his street with smoke camouflage. He severed a toilet from a park bathroom wall with one explosion. He threw a jar of nitroglycerin gel down the sewer near his home. A minute later all the doors along his street swung open. Sewage had shot into the homes. Sewage splattered one guy while he was shaving.

“In high school Chris read a recipe in a newspaper article for a laxative weapon the military was using. He formulated it in class. It went airborne and the entire class, including the teacher, shit their pants. Chris was like a mad scientist and he frequently created drama around the neighborhood with his antics.”

Chris's love of science was more serious by the time he reached college. He never did complete his undergraduate degree, but he became the head of surgical research at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital supervising staff with doctoral degrees. His study of molecular biology — his favorite scientific topic at that moment – soured when he became deeply disturbed by what they were doing to animals in the course of the surgical research.

Michele encouraged him to go onstage. As he put it to Heavy Metal magazine in an interview in the January 2012 issue [p. 14.]: 

“I went to Catholic school, see? There was a lot of stress and tension. We had SS nuns and the humor would come as a source of tension relief. I was always the funny guy in grammar school and later in high school…. I used to be a chemist, a research biologist, actually, so I started, instead of working with chemicals, I started eating some of these chemicals, and I would just start to rap comedy for hours on end. I didn’t know where it came from. I still don’t. The news, universal consciousness, whatever the hell it is that takes you over, and I would just hook with another human being and laughs would be produced. It was my greatest high and my greatest love. Now, I lucked out. I was doing it in a loft building for free, I never thought of becoming a professional comedian…”

A great bit from his second album, encompassing evolution, animals, deaths, sex, and flirting at a bar:

On First Rush he sounds a lot like Lenny Bruce — the nasal intonation, the NYC accent, the use of street slang and hipster argot – but he noted to me in the interview for the Funhouse TV show that his appreciation of Lenny came as the Seventies wore on (in the form of “books and movies” as he put it). He grew up idolizing free-wheeling comedians, the people he referred to as “black belt comedians,” like Jonathan Winters, and more sedate standups like Bob Newhart and Funhouse interview subject Shelley Berman.

Due to his hip credentials, Chris worked a lot as an opening act for rock bands from the Seventies through the Nineties. I first encountered his work in print, in the book Breaking It Up, edited by Ross Firestone, but it took another decade before I saw him live, opening several times for Flo and Eddie at the much-missed Bottom Line nightclub. (To illustrate what company Chris was in, other opening acts for Mark Volman [Flo] and Funhouse interview subject Howard Kaylan [Eddie] included Bill Hicks and a very young Chris Rock.)

At the Bottom Line you often didn’t know who the opening act was until you arrived at the club. Having done countless gigs before rock audiences waiting (im)patiently for their favorite band, he was used to having to win over the crowd — so his first topic was, thus, impatience, especially at his NYC gigs, where he could go straight into a dissection of the New York personality and the *complete* lack of patience contained therein. 

Megan informs me that, when he saw a big line waiting to get into the club, he would sometimes go over and start chatting up and performing for the folks on the line, seeing that they were bored and unhappy (a brilliant strategy to make sure they enjoyed his opening set, it also reflected Chris's love of shooting the shit).

One of my fave Rush lines about NYC living – the real reaction to King Kong. “Lookit that big gorilla – hope he don't shit or fuck up traffic. [honks car horn]”


By discussing Chris’s interactions with other comedians and the bands he opened for, we get a clearer picture of his energy and invention (through his riffing with and relating to other comics), and also his dogged determination and innate understanding of how to handle disparate audiences (through the sets he did to open for various musical acts).

Chris maintained long-lasting friendships with comedians on every level of the business, with the most notable friend and cheerleader being George Carlin. Chris admitted in the Funhouse interview that he got his contract with Atlantic because they viewed him as another Carlin. Chris and George maintained a connection for a few decades, mostly through phone calls and correspondence.

In 1985, George included Chris as a cast member in a pilot that never went to series called “Apt 2C” (the cast also included co-writer Pat McCormick, Blake Clark, and Bobcat Goldthwait!). He also recommended Chris for various things he didn’t want to take on himself, like hosting a Sirius talk show (this was after Chris had been a regular on two different “morning zoo” AM radio shows).

The executives at Sirius didn’t opt for him, but that didn’t stop George from helping out his old friend a second time — Chris’s first investor in his dream project, a one-man show to tour theaters and not nightclubs, was Tim Allen (for whom he ghostwrote a best-selling book; more on that in part two of this piece). When Allen was no longer onboard, Carlin stepped in to finance and produce the show.

The title of the show at that time was a line of Chris’s that George thought served as the best introduction to the material: “Laughter is the sound of bliss.” When 9/11 came along and the project floundered, George stepped away from Bliss (as it was later known) because he felt that he should be actively ready as a sounding board for Chris, and he (George) was having heart trouble and other issues that didn’t permit him that investment of time.

Chris had the utmost admiration for George — whom he called a “bloody genius” in the Funhouse interview” and a “black belt comedian” in our talks on the phone — and he was particularly touched, according to Megan, by the fact that George used to send him newspaper reviews of his (Chris’s) shows he found in local publications as he traveled around the U.S, in case Chris hadn’t seen them.

Upon hearing that story, I was reminded of my own mother and the many older ladies who are prone to saving up articles, reviews, and coupons to give to their loved ones. (Carlin was raised by a single mom, so one wonders if he picked up that habit from her.)

Another humor break from the biographical info — Rush on cockroaches. “In New York, the adult cockroaches are into method acting. And they train their young. I won't use Raid on them. It's a nerve-blocking agent and it takes three minutes for them to die. I can't take the guilt when the cockroach tells me: 'I've got three kids and a wife under the fridge.'”

Other comedians whose work Chris loved, loved him back. He spoke often about what a privilege it was to meet Sid Caesar, who presented him with the Best Male Comic award by the Association of Comedy Artists. Dick Shawn enjoyed Chris's work as well and the two worked together on at least one occasion at the Bottom Line. On Aug 2-3, 1985, the club presented “Together again for the first time: An evening of standup comedy” with Shawn, Chris, and Larry Storch (!). The amount of energy on that stage must've been overwhelming.

Chris with Dick Shawn and Stiller & Meara.
Photo by BL Howard of the Brooklyn Roads site.
One of the many other comedians who enjoyed Chris's company was a young Robin Williams. Chris recalled an evening in L.A. when the two matched wits for a while, trying their best to crack each other up. He and Robin were riffing on each other's style of comedy; they went at it for at least an hour, to the point where the deli owner locked the door and let them keep going while the place was closed. Robin tried to persuade him to stay in LA, suggesting that he could get a sitcom. Chris said the only way he would do that would be if he got to play an alien. Two weeks later, Robin started Mork and Mindy, Chris said.

Chris didn't like to nostalgize when I spoke to him — again, he was an “onwards and upwards” kind of guy. He did recount, however, how he enjoyed talking with Andy Kaufman after their sets at comedy clubs in the Seventies, with Andy staying in character as “Foreign Man” all the while. A few years later, when Andy was a TV star, he spotted Chris in the street and ran to talk to him, nearly getting hit by a car in the process. The two old acquaintances were happy to catch up – and Andy never once spoke in his normal voice. (Foreign Man Kaufman referred strictly to Rush as “Mr. Chris” every time the two met each other.)

At the Bottom Line. Photo by BL Howard
of the Brooklyn Roads site.
Chris played every known venue that presented comedy performers. When he was beginning his standup career while in college, he performed in loft spaces. As he became established, he played nightclubs and eventually the comedy clubs that began to dot the American landscape (he was the debut act in several clubs that opened down in the South during the “comedy boom” of the Eighties).

Chris at an in-store appearance for Beaming In.
Photo by BL Howard
The biggest challenge, however, was one that he tackled with ease for more than a decade and a half — opening for rock bands in concert halls, college auditoriums, and even arenas. The line-up of acts Chris opened for reads like a short list of “thinking man’s rockers”: Tom Waits, Steely Dan, Electric Light Orchestra, Talking Heads, etc.

He certainly had a home at the Bottom Line. The BL“timeline” website has many entries for Chris. The acts he opened for at the club included Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show (with special guest Shel Silverstein!), Ray Barretto, George Duke, John Mayall, Taj Mahal, Larry Coryell, Warren Zevon, Ginger Baker, Tower of Power, Al Stewart, Fairport Convention, David Bromberg, and Buddy Rich (!).

Outside of the Bottom Line, he opened for several other jazz and blues acts – Wes Montgomery, Sarah Vaughan, B.B. King — and even world music legends (Hugh Masekela). Chris’s friend Bill Kates notes that he first saw Chris live as the MC and opening act for the Alice Cooper group on their “Billion Dollar Babies” tour at Madison Square Garden.

Chris didn't discuss these gigs at any length in later years, but he did volunteer when questioned that he loved winning over the musicians' audiences and got along famously with the musicians themselves, from the jazz gods to the “art rockers” (Talking Heads).

He had specific memories about specific acts — like the time that he was picked up in the air by the mighty Meat Loaf, and his ride in a car driven by none other than Tom Waits. (His verdict: never ride in a car driven by Tom Waits, but that might have changed since the two played together at Stonybrook university on Nov. 6, 1976.)

Chris's second LP, Beaming In.
Design by Michael Sullivan.
During this period Chris honed a set of material that was released as Beaming In, his second LP. A friend remembers Chris playing an NYC Star Trek convention, which follows, given the sci-fi bent of his material at this point and the fact that he was a diehard Trekker himself.

The best thing on the album: Chris talks about cohabiting with one's beloved, then admits being tired and decides to keep going with his set, and accepts topics from the audience to keep moving. He goes all over the map, and the result is exactly like it was talking to him one on one — delightful and lightning-fast thinking:


Jumping ahead in time (we’ll jump back in the second part), I wanted to close out this part of my tribute to Chris with the episode of the Funhouse TV show that I made from my interview with him in 2009. He was doing his one-man show Bliss down at the 45 Bleecker theater and was in rare form.

I am extremely proud of having played straight man to him, and count this among the most delightfully “fast” interviews I’ve ever done. When we spoke on the phone, Chris would make a point of saying he liked my fast way of talking (he called me “caffeine in human form”), but I gotta say Chris was a veteran fast-talking New Yorker, whose mind functioned very quickly, retained an endless amount of knowledge and trivia, and instantly clicked in to what the listener found funny (in my case, you can make me laugh endlessly by mocking the Catholic church) and exploring that topic.

In part two of the episode we discuss Lenny Bruce, Carlin, and quantum physics, which Chris taught in a simplified and highly understandable manner:

In the third and last part, we talk more about quantum physics (he in a very funny way), compulsive TV watching, and his development of Bliss.

Coming soon to a blog near you! Part two of this piece, which will explore Chris's writing, his time on the radio at various stations as a guest and sidekick, and his latter days as a performer, including his one-man show Bliss. 

Thanks much to Megan De Caro, Chris's longtime partner and “angel,” and the various photographers who allowed me to use their work in this piece.