After briefly escaping his home town for a six-month tour of Denver and Boulder, Roy returned to Maine, where he met his future wife at a party thrown by some mutual friends. "He was really funny back then, but he drank a lot," Allen recalls. "He was really drunk at that party, and he just ended up yelling at me. I was like, 'Oh, you're in a band, that's cool. I'd love to come see you some time.' And he said, 'You're never going to fucking come see! Just forget it!' And then he ran off."

A few weeks later, though, Roy ended up at Allen's apartment early one morning at the invitation of her roommate. Dressed in pajamas and a bandana, Allen talked with him through the day and late into the night, the two of them developing an instant chemistry. "I stayed around Maine for an extra six months, because I really, really liked her," Roy recalls.

Ultimately, both decided that central Maine was not the place for them. So in August 2002, now engaged, Roy and Allen moved to Denver, where he landed a job at Dish Network as a retail analyst while he continued playing in bands. The following June, Allen was hired as a waitress at a downtown club called Comedy Works. And that changed everything.

Chuck Coffey (left) and Ben Roy perform as Spells.
anthony camera
Chuck Coffey (left) and Ben Roy perform as Spells.

Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot. — Charlie Chaplin

Like any other artistic genre, standup comedy has gone through different waves of style and popularity, from boom to bust to boom, from wholesome innocence to dark provocation.

Before the '60s counterculture forever changed show business, comedy was dominated by family-friendly TV personalities like Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller, who contributed significantly to the medium but were ultimately bound to a self-imposed censorship, never daring to risk their careers with subversive material or even colorful language.

The variety shows of New York's bohemian Greenwich Village were a conscious departure from this sanitized material, incorporating not only new methods of storytelling, but recklessly controversial topics, including politics, drugs and menstruation. As demand swelled for comics like Joan Rivers, Richard Pryor and the Smothers Brothers, what was once a quietly contentious group of "dirty" performers penetrated the public consciousness, landing gigs on television, in large theaters and, in the case of First Amendment hero Lenny Bruce, in jail.

Many of their jokes were autobiographical and drifted into a more literary style of humor, which ultimately created a new kind of celebrity, one based as much on the intimate details of the artists' lives as it was on their live performances. While Phyllis Diller had made a career out of mocking husband Fang (a man who didn't actually exist), Richard Pryor would confess real-life tales of being raised in a brothel and setting his body on fire after smoking too much crack. "Today's comedian has a cross to bear that he built himself," Bruce said. "A comedian of the older generation did an act, and he told the audience, 'This is my act.' Today's comic is not doing an act. The audience assumes he's telling the truth. What is truth today may be a damn lie next week."

The notion of altering perceptions of truth and beauty was embraced wholeheartedly by the new generation of comics, and the road toward this kind of enlightenment typically began with altering the brain's chemistry. Drugs and alcohol became an essential component in a standup's persona, and enjoyment of the show by the long-haired, glassy-eyed audience was suddenly dependent on believing the person on stage was just as bombed out of his head as they were.

As the divide between the old guard of comedy and the new wave of subversives widened — while Bob Hope delivered a Christmas in Vietnam special, the Smothers Brothers wrote songs satirizing the draft — musicians and comedians bonded over their love of intoxicants and their hatred of mainstream America. The Troubadour, the Los Angeles club that was instrumental in the careers of Steve Martin and Cheech & Chong as well as James Taylor and the Eagles, was rife with heroin and alcohol abuse, while New York's Saturday Night Live studio became party central for celebrities who consumed endless amounts of cocaine and marijuana, with John Belushi and writer Hunter Thompson ingesting enough speedballs to kill a herd of woolly mammoths (or at least Belushi, who died in 1982).

The 1980s comedy boom — also known as standup's "disco era" — catapulted performers to previously unimaginable heights. From 1978 to 1988, more than 300 comedy clubs opened in the United States, and with their steep cover charges and two-drink minimums, these operations were suddenly able to pay comics decent money, inspiring an influx of young entertainers. Eddie Murphy's standup film, Raw, debuted at number one at the box office; celebrated meathead Andrew "Dice" Clay opened for Guns 'N Roses at the Rose Bowl, performing for 62,000 fans.

As paychecks and fame grew, so did the use of ego-boosting drugs. Former Pentecostal minister turned hedonistic party boy Sam Kinison (to whom Ben Roy is at times compared) was earning $50,000 per show, yet would often be so zonked on a combination of cocaine, Valium, marijuana, Xanax, heroin and entire tumblers of vodka that his handlers reportedly kept oxygen tanks just behind the stage curtain so that he could blast his brain back to life before stepping out in front of a packed auditorium.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help