For Fred Greenlee, the message--or at least the complexity of it--varies considerably with the medium.
His primary medium is stand-up comedy, which he will be presenting tonight through Sunday at the Laff Stop in Newport Beach. His act--a slice of which was seen last year on “The Tonight Show"--reflects a keen mind and a twinkling eye for the absurd.
He sidesteps standard stand-up topics, opting instead to explore a raft of subjects that includes capital punishment and suicide (occasionally he ties them together with such lines as, “Attempting suicide is against the law and is punishable by life in the electric chair.”).
Another medium in which he works regularly: journalism. Greenlee writes a biweekly column, called “Irregardless,” for the Santa Monica News. He was finishing one the other day at his manager’s West Los Angeles apartment. “Stand-up is such a shorthand medium,” he said. “Sometimes you just can’t take enough time to explain the subject matter.”
Because the attention span is too short?
“Yeah, the attention span, but there’s also the expectation of the audience: They’re sitting there on the edge of their chairs waiting to laugh. They are not sitting back (saying) ‘Here comes the explanation; OK, now here comes the humor part,’ which you can do in a 1,000-word column.”
The column “also allows me to get a lot of stuff off my chest that I can’t do in my act . . . it has liberated me because now I have a place to stick stuff that won’t work in stand-up.”
Occasionally, of course, something he writes for “Irregardless” may pull double duty in his act. In the column he was working on the other day, for example, Greenlee was examining recent books or films that have stirred controversy and noted how curious it is that Albert Goldman apparently needed “719 pages to write a biography on John Lennon when it only took 345 to do the New Testament.”
“I think that joke has the punch of stand-up,” Greenlee said, noting he could foresee using the line, or a variation of it, on stage.
A few months back, a variation of somebody else’s literary work elicited the most dramatic response to Greenlee’s journalistic efforts so far: An advertiser--already unhappy that the paper’s new ownership was embracing more politics and liberalism--pulled his ads in response to an “Irregardless” that incorporated a loose parody of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.”
Greenlee wrote it during the period of the Iran Contras-versy when President Reagan claimed that he couldn’t recall what happened that one day in August. The gist of the column, Greenlee explained, was that “Ronald Reagan woke up one morning to find that he had become a large cockroach. And that was the day, of course, that he forgot. That was the day he was told about the Iranian arms deal, but when it was mentioned to him, he was scurrying under a couch. . . .”
A 36-year-old Texas native, Greenlee has explored still other media in the past and plans to pursue some of those, and others, in the near future. He has appeared on television in stand-up settings including the recent George Schlatter comedy club special, and he may do a spot soon on “Letterman,” with which he is more in stylistic sync than he is with “The Tonight Show.”
He is being considered for an ongoing role in a TV series, which he wouldn’t identify because he is in the midst of negotiations--but it is not a sitcom. “No, this is a dramatic series,” he said. “I’d provide some comic relief, but I don’t want to be the buffoon in a sitcom. I don’t want to be labeled ‘the goofy next-door neighbor.’
“I would rather be an actor in a dramatic series so that I can be taken seriously. I think, in the long run, character work is something I can probably make a living at.”
There would be some precedent for it. In the past Greenlee has played in such dramatic TV movies as “Bill, On His Own,” “Adam” and its sequel, “Adam, His Song Continues.”
How did all this media-hopping start? Unintentionally, it turns out. And, appropriately enough, a bit comically.
In the latter part of the 70s, Greenlee was the singer for a country-rock group that was essentially his band. As the front man, it was up to him to entertain the audience when there was an equipment problem, or when the musicians had to tune their instruments.
“You’ve got to fill those gaps when people are staring at you,” he recalled. “So I started saying stuff, just telling jokes or singing stupid things. And it got to the point where people would come to see me say stupid stuff more than to see the band play.”
But exactly how did that launch a comedy career?
“My own band fired me. They threw me out!”