With his two-part show, A History of Stand-up Comedy, Ritch Shydner has discovered a magic formula.
“I get to go onstage, without being accused of thievery, and do jokes and stories about the greats,” he says. “I’m up there getting laughs, essentially with the greats’ material. It’s just a kick to perform.”
The Asheville-based comedian closes out his run of local performances with part one on Friday, Aug. 27, and part two on Saturday, Aug. 28, at Attic Salt Theatre Co.
Part one: America’s Reflection in the Funhouse Mirror, begins with tales of Artemus Ward, considered the country’s first stand-up comedian, whose career began amid the Civil War, and goes through the emergence of female comics during World War II. Part two: PC, Cancel Culture and the Line Dancers, picks up with what Shydner calls “the revolution” that Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl started in the late 1950s and continues to the present day.
“It’s an original American art form,” he says. “And it’s a funny show.”
In Phyllis we trust
Shydner began performing stand-up in Washington, D.C., in the late ’70s; went on to earn spots on “Late Night with David Letterman” and “The Tonight Show”; played Luke Ventura, co-worker of Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill) on “Married … With Children”; and wrote for “Roseanne.”
“I didn’t expect to be a professional comedian when I was growing up. And I certainly didn’t think I’d be writing on a big television show,” Shydner says. “I didn’t really have a plan. And, as John Lennon said, I became part of somebody else’s plan.”
During that time, he befriended Phyllis Diller, who’d regale him of stories about industry greats, including lesser-known talents. Shydner says Diller wanted him to write a book on the subject, leading him to research and organize his findings into eight chapters. But after writing the first section, he felt that he’d turned this exciting, vibrant history into a dull textbook.
At his wife’s suggestion, Shydner began developing the material for the stage to unearth its funniest parts, then put those elements back in the book. After taking the stories — including significant events and advances in technology that changed the industry — to a live setting, he realized that doing a stand-up show about the history of stand-up was the way to go.
“It came to me that this is the most reflective art form. It’s the quickest way to gauge the American zeitgeist,” Shydner says. “But it’s also obviously the most ephemeral. It’s just gone. So it also has the shortest life span of any art form. [Mark] Twain said that, too.”
Following his Asheville performances, Shydner will film A History of Stand-up Comedy at the Laughing Skull Lounge in Atlanta in hopes of having it picked up by Netflix, Hulu or another major streaming service. Along with the rise in broadcast opportunities for comics, Shydner notes that the industry’s other major change during his career is that the modern comedy scene is peppered with hobbyists.
“People used to heckle you and say, ‘Don’t quit your day job!’” Shydner says. “But you say that to a comic onstage today, and they say, ‘Oh, I don’t intend to. I have a good 401(k) and dental and full medical. Why would I do that? This is just for fun.’”
Shydner’s connection to Western North Carolina started with his mother, who’s from the town of Newland in Avery County, and he grew up taking trips to the area. By 2019, with his career in television behind him, he and his wife relocated from LA to Fairview.
Though he’s only lived in the area for two years, he feels that Asheville has “a good scene” with “some really funny comedians” and thinks fellow Asheville comedian Jess Cooley “could really go all the way if he wanted to.” However, the main impediment Shydner sees to local comics breaking through is getting enough stage time to grow one’s skills. Whereas Asheville comics might perform once a night, when Shydner moved to New York City in 1979, he told jokes at three or four clubs per evening.
“It’s all a matter of how much you want it,” Shydner says. “You have to burn for it like it’s the only thing that matters.”
WHAT: A History of Stand-up Comedy
WHERE: Attic Salt Theatre Co., 2002 Riverside Drive, Studio 42-O. avl.mx/a8s
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 27, and Saturday, Aug. 28, at 8 p.m. $15 general admission/$25 weekend package