Our series, “A Comic’s Life” focuses on life on the road, performing stand-up. Dan Perlman is a young writer and comic, who has been performing comedy full time for two years. He performs nightly in New York City, and tours around the country at festivals, clubs and colleges. Dan is writing a series of articles for “A Comic’s Life”, which chronicles some of his thoughts and stories about being a young comedian just getting started in his career. This week, he writes about being in middle school, writing to his comedy heroes.
Every afternoon, I raced to the mailbox after-school. In 2001, I’d decided I wanted to be a comedian — I was eleven years old.
In grade school, I was fairly shy, yet I developed the reputation as the ‘funny kid.’ Quietly, I wanted to do stand-up. I didn’t really know what that meant, though. I’d never met any comedians; I hadn’t met many people outside of my homeroom.
When I turned 12, I started mailing letters to comedians – Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, George Carlin, among others. I made sure to ask each comic a different question, out of some insane fear they’d all talk to each other at the comedians’ meetings and dismiss me for my lack of originality in my fan letters.
All the letters began the same way. “My name is Daniel Perlman, I’m a 12-year-old from New York City, and I want to be a comedian…” I typed, signed, mailed each letter and anxiously awaited their responses.
“Bob Newhart,” the top of the return address read. I tore open the envelope right at the mailbox. It’d been a couple months since I mailed the letters and I hadn’t received any replies ’til this envelope.
The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart was one of the first comedy albums my parents gave to me as a kid. Like each of the few comedy CDs I owned, I listened to it on constant repeat. My favorite routine was, “Nobody Will Ever Play Baseball.” Subtle, smart, funny.
As I opened the envelope, I didn’t even remember what I’d asked Newhart in my letter to him. I just knew that if he compared notes with Robin Williams, or any other recipient, they’d each be happy to know that they received personalized questions. Apparently, I’d asked Newhart who his favorite stand-ups were.
All the best,
Months earlier, I’d searched on AOL and put together a Word doc of comedians’ mailing addresses where they could receive fan mail.
Though friends knew me as ‘the funny kid’, I kept my stand-up ambitions quiet. For years, I quietly wrote jokes and thoughts in journals, which I hid under my bed.
I kept my comedy dreams to myself, because I thought that telling people what you want to do simply gives those people the chance to tell you that you can’t do it.
“You’re gonna be too short,” my doctor told me. At 7-years-old, I’d just told the doc that I wanted to play in the NBA one day. He glanced at my chart, laughed, and told me that I wouldn’t be tall enough to play pro basketball.
Today, I’d make a quick comeback to the doc, one that’d make him regret challenging me and making a joke of my dreams. I’d lambast him until he was reduced to an emotional wreck, until he questioned what kind of person he was, until he decided that, after my scolding, he needed to take time off from seeing patients.
That day, told I couldn’t play for the Knicks, I just burst into tears.
Even after I received Newhart’s response, I didn’t tell friends for years that I wanted to do comedy. I didn’t want to give anyone the chance to crush that dream like my NBA plans.
Yet Newhart’s response meant the world to me. His reply introduced me to comedians I hadn’t heard before, including Steven Wright and Garry Shandling, but that wasn’t the point. My first contact with a comedian, it meant that these guys were real. If these guys were real, then so was stand-up, I thought. A few other comics sent back autographed photos — Rock and Cosby, most notably — but Newhart was the only one to personally reply.
Newhart has continued to serve as one of the guys who inspire me. I re-listen to his routines sometimes – hearing his patience, timing, and ability to construct bits that kill while playing one side of a phone conversation, and playing the straight-man at that. He’s someone who doesn’t get mentioned in the conversation with Richard Pryor, Carlin, Cosby, in part because he’s subtler. He listens funny. Personally, he helped facilitate my pull to stand-up with his letter, a small act of kindness to a random, young kid.
And it made a world where I’d be too short for the NBA slightly more bearable.
Dan Perlman is a stand-up comedian from New York. Follow him on Twitter @danjperlman.