Wednesday, March 28, 2018

More wave than particle: Deceased Artiste Chris Rush (part two of 2)

When we left our “cosmic comedian,” he was a steady draw at night clubs, had recorded two comedy LPs that sold well, and was opening for major music artists, from rock to jazz and soul. In this part of my tribute to Chris Rush, I’ll be discussing his comedic ventures in venues other than nightclubs.

But since it’s so hard to come by clips of Chris in his Eighties prime, here he is (from :55 to 1:20) on a local WNBC “Live at Five” news story about “young comedians." By this point Chris had been onstage for about a decade (and was 36). Other familiar faces in the piece include Bill Maher and Rita Rudner. (Plus vets Professor Irwin Corey and the late, great Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, and Robin Williams, who was already famous.)

Chris never stopped working as a comedian, but it was easy for fans to lose track of what he was doing in the pre-Internet era. I rediscovered him, after seeing him open at the Bottom Line for Flo and Eddie a few years in a row (in the late Eighties), on the now sadly forgotten but truly mighty medium of radio.

Chris was a regular guest on Joey Reynolds’ all-night (midnight to 5:00 a.m.!) talk show on WOR-AM in the late 2000s. He was, as ever, a killer — he brought a burst of energy to Joey’s show and demonstrated his sharp comic instincts every time he guested, riffing on timely topics and basically any other item that came up in conversation. He had clearly gotten better with age.

Chris’s appearances on the Reynolds show were so good because, by that time, he had become a radio veteran through his guesting on different radio shows (like John DeBella in Philly and Opie and Anthony – on the latter he seemed very out of place, and one asshole thought it was funny to play a cricket noise when Chris spoke) and his stint as a steady sidekick from 1997-’99 on the Wakin' Up with the Wolf morning zoo show on WPYX-FM in Albany.

There are a few good shards online of Chris on the Wolf Show.

This one is particularly frenzied — perhaps attributable to the fact that this was one of the few times that Chris was getting up extremely early in the morning for a comedy gig. It wound up on the radio station’s promo CD for the Wolf show called “Chris’s Head.” (Chris quickly became more popular than the actual host of the show….)

On Joey Reynolds’ show, though, Chris was in his element. Joey’s show could go in several different directions at once, and Chris was able to converse on several different levels, letting his imagination run wild at some points and seriously contributing to the discussion at others.

The other medium in which Chris excelled is one that he wasn’t very active in, namely humor writing. In part one of this piece, I mentioned his onstage debut in 1972 at the Gaslight Cafe (his first time ever as a standup comic, at which he got a standing ovation).

Two years before that, though, he began writing articles for National Lampoon. Starting with issue number 5 in Aug. 1970, there were seven articles by Chris that appeared in the mag. A later issue, number 40 in July 1973, contained a flexi-disc with bits from his first LP, First Rush.

Chris was brought to the Lampoon by Bill Skurski, the graphic designer (he and another designer are referenced in the recent abysmal Doug Kenney biopic as the guys “who know Robert Crumb”). From the Rush articles that NatLamp published, we can see that Chris’s cartoonlike sense of imagery was already in full flower.

First, a word about the un-p.c. side of Chris’s comedy. I’ve spoken about this many times on the Funhouse TV show, but one of the best products of the cultural rupture that was the Sixties was the appearance in the early Seventies of extremely funny un-p.c. humor (of course, no such phrase existed then) that manifested itself most vividly in the sitcoms of Norman Lear (from All in the Family to Fernwood 2-Night) and the brilliantly nasty, at times surreal, whimsy of NatLamp (as diehard fans refer to it).

Chris fit right in with this revolution in comedy because his strong suit was always cartoonlike images of an unfiltered, un-p.c. bent. He was part of a generation of comedians who were unafraid to do “ethnic humor” — wherein all races were open to be mocked, most especially one’s own. Much like his friend George Carlin, Chris also loved to speculate about bizarre modes of death.

A "photo novel" with Chris as Hercule Poirot.
Today’s audiences are freaked out by ethnic humor and dark jokes about dying — with the deaths of Don Rickles and Carlin, those topics now appear only in the comedy of “unfiltered” cult comics like Doug Stanhope, who have a solid following but decidedly do not get high-profile comedy specials on HBO or Showtime. (Sadly, two of the latter-day, truly puerile, legacies of ’70s unfiltered comedy are gross-out movie comedies and the “shock radio” of Stern and O&A, which punches down [mocking homeless people, for instance] and affects a cynical, you’re-all-scum perspective.)

So Chris was indeed a product of his times — the post-Lenny Bruce, post-’68 “opening up” of American comedy that found the best standups regularly going into dark and intentionally awkward places for laughs. (Check out Pryor telling an audience of white people how he doesn’t want to have his cock sucked by men anymore, because the guys who do it are such blabbermouths — incredible stuff….) The Lampoon was a bulwark of that nothing-is-sacred mindset and Chris’s articles for the magazine were both pure Rush and pure NatLamp.

The pieces were of two types: lists of sick, weird jokes and themed essays (the editors encouraged Chris to submit more “literary” humor, meaning comedy in a linear context). The former are totally straightforward and the latter show a path that Chris never took, but could’ve mastered: humor writing in the classic sense (albeit with a larger, more “streetwise” vocabulary).

The sick jokes have a number of dated references, but these six from one piece give an indication of the “no-limits” places that both NatLamp and Chris were going at the time:

Q: What's black and white and red all over? A: The graduating class of Kent State!

Q: What's the difference between mother's milk and Raid? A: There's no DDT in Raid!

Q: What do you call a twelve-year-old junkie in Harlem? A: "Old-timer!"

Q: What has three arms, six legs, and purple polka-dots? A: Any Vietnamese baby born where we used a defoliant!

Q: What do you call twenty-five Mixmasters and a jar of Novocain? A: An abortion clinic!

Q: Did you hear about the battered-child doll? A: Wind it up and it cringes!

[from “Sick Jokes of the Seventies,” National Lampoon, Vol. 1, No. 20, Nov. 1971, p. 53]

The essays cover a variety of topics. In one Chris remembers awkward moments of seduction from his teen years (the early Sixties). In another he discusses “the myth of the Mafia” (offering situation after situation that makes it clear the Mafia was no myth). He tackles the lifestyles of freaks — way-out hippies, not denizens of the sideshow — in another piece, and in the final essay he presents a mock-anthropological study of the extinct race of “the Dolts.”

Of the five pieces, the first is the most remarkable — first because it’s written as a bizarre, Terry Southern-like encounter with a con man; secondly because it is based on Chris’s real-life experience as an insurance salesman in Harlem.
I had grown tired of stealing Cracker Jacks from pigeons and was absolutely depressed at the thought of my coming Thanksgiving feast consisting of a bouillon cube with all the trimmings. It was at this desperate point that temptation crossed my path. I was loitering in my usual hang-out, Filthy Phil's Coffee House and Orthodox Pagoda. A group of fellow artists and myself were discussing the lighter side of malnutrition when we were interrupted by a conservatively dressed stranger, who asked to see the proprietor. It was quite obvious he was some sort of salesman, and we were amused at his misfortune in picking Filthy Phil as a prospect. In general, Polish Buddhists are a thrifty lot and Filthy Phil was no exception. In fact, Phil was legendary in his cheapness. It seemed that one day, Phil discovered that a saltshaker was missing and he locked the door and submitted 15 customers to a rectal search. So we held little hope for the salesman, no matter what he was pushing. What followed was astonishing.... [from “Confessions of an Insurance Man,” National Lampoon, Vol. 1, No. 5, Aug. 1970, p. 18]

Once Chris became a standup he left humor writing behind. His friend Bill Skurski brought him back to it twice, though, with two projects he (Bill) worked on that were clearly inspired by the Lampoon. The first was a short-lived humor mag called Harpoon.

I have been informed by one of the contributors to the mag that it was “sued out of existence by Matty Simmons,” but before that happened Chris contributed a suitably oddball piece in the first issue (September 1974) that found him making up fake beauty queen promotional copy for cheesecake photos that one presumes had fallen into public domain. (Fans of Hugo Haas’ films will recognize the mag’s cover girl as being Cleo Moore.)

Another publication Bill Skurski supervised to which Chris contributed was an underground comic called Drool that lasted all of one issue, in 1972. Chris produced another collection of sick jokes for Drool. Again, Chris’s cartoonlike imagery is the best part and well-suited to the comic medium, despite the lack of specific gag illustrations.

And yes, no matter which way I turned the comic while scanning, Chris's article was printed in a lopsided manner....

One of the first places I first encountered a routine written by Chris, years before seeing him open at the Bottom Line, was in the 1975 paperback Breaking it Up, a selection of standup routines printed as if they were blank-verse poetry. 

It was the perfect kind of book to appear in an era that produced several books in which rock lyrics were presented as poetry. Chris’s routine, “Cannabis Capers,” was unique to the book, as it didn’t appear on his first album.

While he concentrated entirely on standup in the Eighties and Nineties, there was one fascinating piece of writing he did that appeared in a best-selling book. In researching this piece I was reminded that Chris had spoken at different points about having contributed to a book by Tim Allen (at the point when Allen was a star on Home Improvement). Oddly enough, his contribution was a piece of private correspondence that Allen chose to include in his 1996 book I’m Not Really Here.

Before I discuss this rather odd “guest appearance” in a book, let me embark on a short tangent. In the first part of this piece, I mentioned Chris’s initial work as a molecular biologist. He always did material concerning weird nature facts, odd science-related phenomena (from strange experimentation to UFO sightings), and popular sci-fi concepts from TV shows and novels.

In the early Nineties he became fascinated by quantum physics and read book after book on the subject, becoming a self-taught expert on the topic. Among his favorite authors in the field, according to his longtime companion Megan, were Rupert Sheldrake, David Bohm, Michael Talbot, Gregg Braden, Dean Radin, Ken Wilbur, and Russell Targ.

Chris loved to share his knowledge, and so when he found out that Tim Allen was doing the same autodidact thing about “quantum” (as Chris referred to it), he sent a book, Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics by Gary Zukav, to Tim via his manager. Tim wrote a letter to Chris asking questions about various topics having to do with quantum physics.

Chris’s response beautifully summarizes some quantum principles and offers references for everything Chris was saying — plus added humor, of course. It’s quite strange, though, to read a book by a comedian that stops on a dime about two-thirds in and then includes a lengthy segment written in correspondence form by another comedian (with attribution to that second comedian; Allen bought the rights to the letter from Chris).

If one reads the rest of the book, one suspects that Chris wrote a few other parts of it, since there are other incredibly smart yet simplified encapsulations of complicated quantum phenomena, containing cartoonlike images Chris used in his later one-man show Bliss. Here are two versions of the eight “ways in which the world works” explained by Chris in the letter:

Quantum Reality #6: Neorealism. (The world is made of ordinary objects.) An ordinary object is an entity which possesses attributes of its own, whether observed or not. This is heresy in the eyes of establishment physics. The main neorealist rebel was Einstein, who said of Heisenberg and Bohr’s quantum theory: “[Their] tranquilizing philosophy — or religion — is so delicately contrived that, for the time being, it provides a gentle pillow for the true believer from which he cannot very easily be aroused.” That’s a classy put-down from the Big E. The weird thing is that the small group of neorealist rebels with their primitive notions include many of the founding fathers of quantum theory. Besides Einstein, there’s Max Planck, whose discovery of the constant of action sparked the quantum revolution; Erwin Schrodinger, who devised the famous “cat in the box” experiment to illustrate the uncertainty principle; Prince Louis de Broglie, who predicted the wave nature of matter; and more recently my main man, David Bohm. Even this quantum reality, closest to the old-fashioned idea of a “normal” world, contains the fantastic requirement that some objects move faster than light, which entails time travel and reverse causality. [Tim Allen, I’m Not Really Here, 1996, Hyperion mass market edition, pp. 255-56]
And, because there’s always a place for a joke in an explanation of quantum principles:

Quantum Reality #8: The Bisected World of Heisenberg (The world consists of potentials and actualities). The key here is the probability wave, which means a tendency for something. (You wondered in your letter to me why you only had a “tendency” to exist.) This notion introduces something between the idea of an event and the actual event, a bizarre kind of physical reality where possibility and reality meet. Everything that happens in our world comes out of probabilities set up in the world of quantum potential. The magic act of measurement creates an actuality. There is no deep reality as we know it, only tendencies and urges. This is also known as the Shrinks and Hookers Corollary. [ibid, p. 257]

The last piece of humor writing that Chris did was a small book of “dangerously funny lists” called, in true Rush style, Milking the Rhino (2007). The book is a virtual cascade of absurdist imagery, with Chris’s bizarro language overflowing in some of the lists.

At one point Rhino was offered for free as an e-Book by Amazon. This provoked some rave reviews from satisfied readers and a surprisingly big number of people didn’t like the book — they said they didn’t find it funny (fine, everyone has their own comic sensibility — thus the popularity of Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell movies, which I respond to like bamboo under a fingernail) but also seemed thoroughly *offended* by the book.

I kept reading the reviews until I found several individuals who expounded upon their “Not funny!!!” verdict. The people who were most bothered by Chris’s writing were disturbed by his dark humor (especially his oddball method-of-dying jokes) and were not fond of his being so un-p.c. Chris continued to do ethnic humor over as the years went on, but he used it in passing and the main “victims” of this kind of humor were his own tribe, the Italians.

I find Rhino very funny, but do wish there had been an audiobook, since no one did Chris’s material better than Chris himself.

Two lists, first of oddball accidents. [Milking the Rhino, Chris Rush, Andrews McMeel, 2007, pp. 21-26; pp. 41-45]

and "amusing suicides and freakish deaths":

Before Chris became obsessed with quantum physics, he had accumulated a lot of great material — the kind of context-less stuff he used to do as an opener for bands and as a “middle” on comedy bills (I still would pay a good price to see any part of Chris and Larry Storch supporting Dick Shawn at the Bottom Line.)

Thankfully, he recorded this material and it became his third album, There’s No Bones in Ice Cream (1997), released on the great retro/reissue label Sundazed. The CD is out of print but is currently up on YT in its entirety. These are a few exceptional tracks:

Chris’s great opener for uptight crowds (esp. in NYC). Includes talk of King Kong, traveling in the South, and newcomers to NYC:

Having grown up Italian, Chris knew the macho culture all too well. Here he talks about the notion of machismo, and the fact that men have a hard time getting over failed relationships:

A great bit, that moves from a fave Rush topic (aliens) to capital punishment and gays in the military:


In the early Nineties the bottom fell out of the comedy club market; this coincided with Chris’s growing discomfort with working the club circuit, where one encounters people who come seeking some amorphous thing called “comedy,” which they’re not looking to have to think about. (A few years back I sat through a night of five standups at one well-known NYC comedy club and saw five performers play directly to a Friday night audience by doing an incredibly repetitive amount of “battle between the sexes” material — it was mind-numbing.)

Chris in Westbury. Photo
John Blenn.
In 1994 Chris started in earnest to craft a one-man show that wove together his love for (and great knowledge of) quantum physics, his deep trove of oddball animal trivia, and a theme he was in the process of developing — namely how science interacts with the spiritual. He considered calling the show "The Tao of Laughter," but took George Carlin’s advice and retitled it after a line in the show, “Laughter Is the Sound of Bliss.”

He worked on Bliss (the show’s final title) for the next 15 years, initially developing it in comedy clubs (including the Gotham Comedy Club and the venues he dearly loved on Long Island). During this period, he had two celebrity friends fund the show: Tim Allen invested in it in 1997 and 2000, and Carlin backed it in 2001 (see info on the latter in the first part of this piece).

The show debuted in a “legit” off-Broadway theater, 45 Bleecker, in April of 2009; it ran until August of the same year. During this time I had the chance to interview Chris about the show (again, see part one of this piece for the whole interview, as aired on the Funhouse TV show). Chris maintained a cordial relationship with the theater until, sadly, it closed due to financial troubles.

He performed Bliss a few additional times in 2010. ( I was in the audience at his final performance, held at the KGB Bar in May 2016, as part of a show entitled “Spaghetti Eastern.”) Chris’s preferred version of Bliss exists in both audio and video formats — one hopes that either is released someday, so we have a record of the last stage in his work (and the long-awaited fourth Chris Rush comedy album).

Chris in Valley Stream, Long Island. Photo by John Blenn.
Chris was not the type to nostalgize — he liked to focus on the present and the future, not the past. The one time we talked where he did rhapsodize about the past found him talking about what I presume was his favorite-ever gig. I didn’t stop to ask him where and when this occurred, but given his rich record of opening for rock bands (documented in part one of this piece), it could’ve been anytime in the ’70s when open-air rock festivals flourished. His friend Bill Kates says the festival in question was the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen in 1973, which had a world-record attendance record of *600,000* (!).

He remembered winning over an incredibly large crowd, numbering in the tens of thousands, and proceeding to make them all laugh at once. It was, he said, the most beautiful sound he’d ever heard – echoes of Chris as a child making his family laugh all at once — and clearly his proudest moment as a performer.

Although Chris sometimes bristled at being labelled a “comedian’s comedian” (since that didn’t generate a steady standard of living), I think often about the effortless way he made me laugh, whether he was standing on a stage or simply offering random observations on the phone (often about what was going on on his TV).

The term “comedian’s comedian,” accurate as it was, was too small a description to fit what Chris did onstage and off. He made us all laugh, in a broad range of situations. I can think of no greater legacy than that. 

Chris was one of those rare standup comedians who had no desire to act. He did do so, however, in a George Carlin pilot (which he contributed to as a writer, and had a supporting role in) and a series of shorts shot in NYC for a Comedy Central series called Small Doses in 1996. The shorts were called “Food for Thought” and were about two goofy young men working at a supermarket. Blaine Capatch and (an amazingly young-looking) Patton Oswalt starred, and Chris played their agitated boss:

The videos on YT that best offer the flavor of seeing Chris live are a series of bits from Bliss. Shot by Bill Kates, this is my favorite:

Two of Chris’s friends, Chris Sippel and Sal Cataldi, shot some great footage of Chris just riffing, using some of his Bliss material, along with things he came upon in the moment. These clips were shot in 2010 for a proposed vlog project.

Chris on one of his favorite subjects, aliens:

And more of his great bits, including the personification of god, chemicals in our water, and weird animal trivia:

Thanks much to those who helped with this piece: Paul Gallagher, Bill Kates, and Chris’s longtime companion, Megan De Caro.