The differences between the sexes and how those differences contribute to the trials and tribulations of romantic relationships have long provided grist for the comedy mill. But there's probably no one in contemporary stand-up who explores that territory more thoroughly--or expertly--than Ritch Shydner.
A comic who is constantly writing new jokes, Shydner estimates that relationship ruminations constitute about three-fourths of his act and figures that he could do two 1-hour TV specials without dipping below his A material.
That's a lot of humor about romance and sex disparity, and it has served him well: Shydner--who appears this week at the Irvine Improvisation--has made several appearances on "The Tonight Show," (including one 2 weeks ago), a couple on "Late Night With David Letterman," was a regular for a while on the snitcom "Married . . . With Children" and has popped up on the big screen as well in "Beverly Hills Cop II" and "Roxanne."
But he didn't start racking up those credits until he was excelling at stand-up addressing the battle of the sexes (his own tour of duty has included some relationships and a short-lived marriage to comedian Carol Leifer). And he didn't zero in on romance and relationships until a while after he found his comic voice.
That was no small task, since the 36-year-old Shydner was slow to act on his comedy urges. "I started in 1978 in Washington, D.C.--I was going to law school at the time," he recalled. "I always loved comedy but it had never occurred to me that I could do it.
Eventually, though, he started frequenting a local club's open-mike night, trying on comic styles like ill-fitting suits off the rack at a swap meet.
In an interview recently at his manager's West Los Angeles office, Shydner said: "I tried every style," including Rodney Dangerfield-like one-liners, Steve Martin-esque prop routines and even rock-song parodies.
"That (stuff) didn't work. . . . So then it's like: 'Well, I guess I could try to be myself. But what is that ?' "
Despite--or, perhaps, because of--his scattershot approach to stand-up, he knew he was on to something. He finished law school but felt that it was pointless to take the bar examination: He already knew that he wanted to move to New York and work on his comedy, and at the end of '79, he did just that.
Two years later, he married Leifer, which, he said, "really helped me focus on the relationship stuff." Actually, one could surmise that a key area of focus might have developed as their marriage was unraveling. (It ended in 1985.) But regardless of the source, Shydner is particularly adept at dissecting the cause and effects of romantic strife.
A frequent tangent from there is how mercurial emotions can be between a couple, how quickly an argument can flare up: "One minute I'm looking at my girlfriend thinking, 'I want to spend the rest of my life with you.' The next minute I'm thinking, ' How can I fake my death .' "
Despite some of these themes and the gruff, macho voice he often uses to deliver them, he isn't just talking to men. There's no undercurrent of misogyny here--he likes women. He doesn't claim to always understand women, but then he doesn't claim to always understand men--including himself--either.
Therein lies the breadth of his appeal, from the standpoint of his manager Herb Nanas, a longtime show-biz heavyweight whose clients have included Sylvester Stallone. "Ritch has a blue-collar appeal, but male-female--not isolated, not Sam Kinison, not just a comic," Nanas said.
As Shydner's manager, Nanas isn't the most objective observer; on the other hand, when it comes to comics, he's very selective. "He's only the third comedian in a 25-year career that I've worked with," Nanas said of Shydner, noting that the other two are Albert Brooks and Roseanne Barr.
Shydner is currently writing a screenplay (for a romantic comedy, of course) that he designed as a simple solution to a not-so-simple problem: "People have a hard time figuring out how to cast me, so I'm gonna make it real easy. I'm gonna write the role."
Once he figured out the structure, Shydner found that writing the script moved along nicely and rapidly--which shouldn't come as a huge surprise to those familiar with his stand-up work: He's one of the better, most prolific writers around, though he occasionally buys jokes from funny folks (including up-and-coming local comic Jerry Miner. See story on this page.)
He uses various approaches to create material. For instance, performing a one-nighter at the Irvine Improv a few months ago, he started riffing off the crowd (common practice for Shydner), which spawned several strong new jokes ( uncommon for any comic).
Sometimes he will take pen to paper and come up with the seedling of a joke, but it still might not bloom until he's on stage that night. "You can be playing around with a new joke (during the day), but maybe you don't have a focus for it, and you don't really come up with anything. But on stage that night, after thinking about it that day, the mind goes right to (the joke). The mind doesn't want to be embarrassed, so if you start in on that new idea, it's gonna try and find a punch line for you. I find that happens a lot."
Failing those methods, there's always the possibility of a squabble with his girlfriend. And for Shydner, sometimes it's not whether you win or lose the argument but how you find the joke.
Ritch Shydner performs tonight through Sunday at the Irvine Improvisation, 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine. Show times: 8 p.m. today through Thursday and Sunday, 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday, 7:30 and 10 p.m. Saturday (New Year's Eve). Tickets: $6-$50. Information: (714) 854-5455.