Tales of a comedy survivor
By Greg Cahill
"In the Feldman pantheon, it's Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dennis Miller," says David Feldman, an award-winning stand-up comic and writer for HBO's Dennis Miller Live, one the brightest spots on the boob tube. "When he fires me, we'll realign that."
If that day ever comes, Miller will be rubbing elbows with Roseanne Barr, who in 1994 purged Feldman from her writing staff (Feldman was a protégé of ex-hubby Tom Arnold) after her highly publicized divorce--though Roseanne seems to hold a special place on Feldman's shit list.
"It was grossly unfair of her to can me," he quips, during a phone interview from his Los Angeles home. "I mean, here's a women who says she's this big feminist and she fires me just because I was friends with her husband."
These days, Feldman is putting in 10 hours a day behind the scenes at one of the most urbane shows on TV. Most of that time is spent huddled around a conference table with a half dozen other comedy writers, polishing topical humor for wise guy Dennis Miller, the former Saturday Night Live news anchor.
Comic Jeff Cesario brought Feldman on board two months after Roseanne issued his walking papers. "I had no idea at the time what the show was about, but in September we immediately won an Emmy for best writing and we just won an cable Ace Award," he beams. "Now we're up for a Writers' Guild Award."
For Feldman, the show is a chance to return to political satire, his main forte.
A self-effacing guy given to almost excruciating candor when it comes to talking about his own past obsession with success, Feldman has reached a comfortable plateau. But it's been a long climb. Until recently, he had put incredible pressure on himself to excel, a particularly painful situation since critics often pegged Feldman as a natural for film roles and perhaps even a sitcom of his own.
"I always felt that I should be farther along in my career," says Feldman. "It eats away at you. I used to feel like everybody passed me by. Now I know that you have to enjoy the work, just sitting in front of the computer and mapping out your set. Even the bombs. You have to learn to enjoy them.
"That's the secret of enjoying all the aspects of this business."
And it's a hard lesson. Born in Brooklyn and raised in a suburban neighborhood in New Jersey, Feldman was raised with "a lot of good left-wing intellectuals and artistic people." He attended Columbia University and pursued a major in English.
Then his conscience kicked in.
"You're in the middle of Harlem and you're being forced to study poetry," he recalls of his college days. "It's obscene. I mean, I was stepping over shopping-bag ladies and holding Keats.
"It makes you develop a lot of contempt for Shakespeare and Western civilization. In fact, it makes you feel very schizophrenic."
One night, he dropped into Dangerfield's comedy club and took a stab at stand-up. He was hooked. He quit school and moved to San Francisco, where he gained a reputation as a cerebral wit aimed at the groin.
He began blasting the Reagan Revolution. Liberals loved him. But his sharp political humor didn't sit well with rowdy comedy fans who gathered at suburban pizza houses and rock clubs for their weekly fix of draft beer and blue humor.
His response? In desperation, he donned a clown suit and created a cigar-chomping, wise-cracking character called Feldo the Clown. San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Snyder likened him to "a mutant offspring of Mort Sahl and Bozo the Clown . . . a political satirist with leftist leanings in an era of Rambo-style flag waving."
"Originally, I blamed my audience for not getting the political stuff," he explains. "I figured that it just had to be packaged a different way to make it more palatable and that it would disarm the material if I were wearing a clown suit. Now I look back at that and the bottom line is that it was my problem. I think the audiences are inherently smart but that I was not that good back then.
"When I put the clown suit on it was pretty much over for me. But I needed to go through that humiliation--the hero's journey." The clown suit had at least one plus: Feldman met his wife while performing in it at a Berkeley nightclub. "She fell in love with a guy who had floppy feet, a big red nose, and a bald fright wig," he laments. "Now I've got to wear that outfit every night if I want to get laid."
No longer the angry young man who used to insult his audiences, Feldman has turned that energy into a complexly constructed act that puts a new spin on such old themes as drugs, families, and the battle of the sexes.
"I think that you've got to get all the cockiness knocked out of you in order to be a great comic," he muses. "You have to be beaten down, totally humiliated, and degraded and still get back up on stage.
"That's when you reach a new level where nothing can faze you."
David Feldman performs Saturday, March 30, at 8 p.m. at Friedman Center, 4676 Mayette Ave., Santa Rosa. Andrea Leigh and Barry Weintraub also will appear. The show is a benefit for Congregation Beth Ami. Tickets are $15 general, $12.50 students; $12.50 and $10 advance. 545-4334.
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From the Mar. 14-20, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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