Published 2:15 AM PST Sunday, Jan. 23, 2005
Comic Dennis Blair: The opening act opens up
By Mel Shields -- Bee Correspondent
Dennis Blair will headline this week at Catch a Rising Star comedy club. His latest album is "Words, Music, and Drunks."
People in show business share many nightmares: forgetting to dress before going on stage, suddenly forgetting what play is being performed. Few of the bad
dreams come true, but one regularly does - the nightmare of being the opening act.
Thousands begin to scream when the lights go down. The main act is announced. "But first ...." There is an audible letdown in the enthusiasm level. It's hard
to imagine a tougher crowd to win over, but comedians have been doing it for years - preceding Elvis or the Beatles, even.
It's difficult to imagine the task being more of a challenge, but it can be. Some comedians have to open for other comedians. Imagine preceding Robin
Dennis Blair, who arrives this week at Catch a Rising Star, has been opening for George Carlin for 18 years. Before that, he was a regular starter for Rodney
"It's intimidating. There's no doubt about that whatsoever," Blair says in a phone interview just before setting out on his current tour. "I have no standard set
to live up to. I have to start it all.
"A typical response from the audience is, 'Oh (darn), there's an opening act.' I can never be at ease.
"The bottom line is that I can never go out there and say this audience is mine. It's always somebody else's."
Blair, however, is known in the business as a strong comedian, one of those who could be headlining the club if the breaks had gone the other way. Still, he's
doing all right. There are many comedians who would kill to have his gig. He works so steadily that this Catch a Rising Star appearance is rare. He hasn't done
clubs "in a long time."
Blair is known for his spot-on impressions of pop culture icons, usually couching them in some extended bit, like rock stars doing commercials for condoms.
When he first began, he scored impersonating such personalities as Trini Lopez and John Denver. His Denver was so well-known that audiences would
scream for it.
"Some still do yell for it, but I do it very rarely anymore," Blair said. "When John Denver died, I got condolence calls. We weren't even close, but I guess some
people decided my career would die along with him. I don't get requests for Trini."
The absence of Denver did not spell the absence of Blair. At the time, he was with Rodney Dangerfield. He was dropped, but not because of John Denver.
"He thought I let my dog swim in his pool. His Jacuzzi, actually, in Connecticut. My dog fell into his Jacuzzi. He thought I tossed it in. That was the end of my
relationship with Rodney.
"It wasn't a friendly parting, but years later at the Improv, he spotted me and warmed up to me and suggested I open for him a couple of months later.
"After Rodney dropped me, I did a year with Tom Jones and then my agent got me a gig with Carlin for three months. Carlin came up at the end of it and said,
'So you want to keep doing this or what?' Yes. He has worked so much that since then I haven't done much else."
Blair is self-deprecating. His Web site opening suggests three reasons why people would search the site: They've seen him and want to know more about
him; they've seen him and want to buy his merchandise; or they meant to type "Dennis Miller" and had a fleeting thought about Linda Blair.
He has several albums. "Words, Music, and Drunks" is his latest, and the title pretty much sums up much of the atmosphere in which he's worked; there's
also "Live Performance Anxiety," the title of which is also clearly personal.
"I've changed a lot from the early days, though," Blair said. "I'm more stand-up oriented now. The condom commercials are still there with Avril Lavigne and
U2, the Who, Bruce Spring steen. I hate to sound like my parents, but when it comes to doing hip-hop and the latest rhythm and blues, everything sounds the
"There's the ubiquitous 'American Idol' singer who does a never-ending, oversung 'Star-Spangled Banner.' I can't do my 'Battle Hymn of Bill Clinton' anymore. I
Blair describes himself as a songwriter "in the proud tradition of Billy Joel, James Taylor and several members of the Brady Bunch." He is also in demand for
writing gigs for other venues.
"Last year, I was involved in the ill-fated Jackie Mason Broadway musical 'Laughing Room Only.' They called me in a panic. 'Do you write sketches?' they
asked. We worked hard, but the result was inevitable. Mason would do some bits, and there would be songs. The critics savaged it and it turned out, bottom
line, nobody wanted to see Jackie Mason in a musical. I don't think Jackie Mason wanted to be in a musical. He just wanted to do his stand-up."
Now Blair is working for the Writers Guild Awards, hired because "they're trying to make it more audience-friendly, more accessible, heading toward getting it
broadcast, they hope."
In his own career, though, Blair promises to continue to "doggedly and relentlessly save the music industry," until one day he may be famous enough to do a
parody of his own songs "so disrespectful and tasteless I wind up suing myself
Second banana star in own right
Comic and musician Dennis Blair will be George Carlin's special guest at the JLC tonight.
NOEL GALLAGHER, Free Press Arts & Entertainment Reporter 2004-04-21 03:03:21
Anyone who attended George Carlin's Dec. 11 performance at a sold-out Centennial Hall is already aware of that show's very impressive opening act. For
everybody else: meet Dennis Blair, a gifted guitarist/impressionist/comic who'll again be the "special guest" for Carlin's return visit to London at the John
Labatt Centre tonight.
"My career's lasted about half my life now so I must be doing something right," says the self-effacing Queens, N.Y., native who's been a fixture on Carlin's
tours since 1988.
"I remember my manager calling to ask if I'd like to work with George Carlin," recalls Blair in a phone interview from St. John's, Nfld. "It took me
one-thousandth of a second to say yes. Every comic respects George so much and he's been one of the top guys in this business for such a long, long time.
Our comedy styles are really different but I'm weird like him so we got along right from the start."
Ironically, Blair launched his performing career with the aim of becoming a successful pop singer-songwriter.
"The comedy bug sorta bit me accidentally because I really wanted to be the next James Taylor -- minus the heroin, of course," he quips.
Bored being the human jukebox for nightclub, party, wedding and convention gigs, Blair began doing parodies of popular songs and impressions of music
stars such as Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Cyndi Lauper and John Denver and members of the Bee Gees, Beatles and Rolling Stones.
"The Denver bit became such a big part of my act that when he died, I got condolence cards from a lot of other comics because they figured my career was
over," notes the performer, whose 30-minute set is equal parts music and comically caustic commentary about the modern world.
"Doing the musical impressions was easier in the old days because everybody had their own distinctive style. The rappers are the big stars now and -- I feel
like my father saying this -- they all sound the same to me. Besides, there's no one to make fun of in the music business anymore because they're all pretty
well parodying themselves."
After winning the Charlie Award, given annually to the best standup comedian in New York, Blair became a protege of Rodney "I get no respect" Dangerfield
and, for several years, he was the opener for the veteran comic's tours of Canada and the U.S.
"Rodney was always a big supporter of young comics," says Blair who, with Dangerfield, co-wrote the script for the 1983 movie Easy Money and toured with
other big-name comedians such as Garry Shandling and Joan Rivers.
Rivers has praised Blair's sense of humour and paved the way for the young comedian's appearances on The Tonight Show.
Blair won an Emmy for writing and providing voices for Confessions of a Standup, an animated film chronicling his career; is currently marketing Me First, a
book about his show business experiences; has released two comedy CDs, Live Performance Anxiety and I Sleep Naked in The Rain; and recently finished
the script for a one-man musical comedy titled "Also Appearing . . ."
Blair admits he sometimes considers giving up his "second banana" status and becoming the headliner of his own show.
"Yeah, I often wonder what it takes to get to that next level. It's a mystery to me how some other guys, who really aren't that funny, have become big stars.
Maybe I'm not aggressive enough to push down those doors.
"At the same time, I'm pretty content with the way things are going. Performing still gives me a rush. There's nothing like being in front of a live audience and
making them laugh."
His approach to comedy, Blair adds, has been heavily influenced by his wily mentors Carlin, Dangerfield and Rivers.
"Onstage, my basic motto is 'Just put it out there and hope they don't hurt you!'."
The Holy Ghost Receptive Committee #9
Interviewer's note: Having both their albums recently released on CD, the Holy Ghost Receptive Committee #9 has had a recent resurgence in popularity . . .
at least to '60s music collectors. According to member Dennis Blair, "I find this recent interest in my old band amazing and hilarious," and his responses to
our questions definitely bear this out. Currently a very successful stand-up comic, Blair provided The Lance Monthly with one of the most entertaining
interviews we've ever had the pleasure of conducting.]
Up Close with Dennis Blair
From Christian ‘60s Rock to Touring with George Carlin
[Lance Monthly] How did you first get interested in music?
When I was about ten years old, I decided I wanted to be transformed from the nerd I was to the cool rock and roll musician I fantasized about being, and
asked my mom to get me saxophone lessons. So naturally, she found a school that specialized in the accordion. How incredibly cool was that? I wound up
playing accordion for two years, until the Beatles came along and changed my life forever. I self-taught myself the guitar and never looked back.
[Lance Monthly] Was the Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9 your first band?
I joined my first band in eighth grade. We had no name, [it] only lasted for a few months, [we] played at an assembly or two, and promptly broke up. But I
was bitten by the band bug and formed several after that.
[Lance Monthly] Where was the Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9 formed, what year, and by whom?
HGRC#9, as I call it, was actually the brainchild of a very progressive, very left-leaning Jesuit at Regis High School named Anthony Myers. "Mel" Myers (I
never figured out how he got that nickname, and was always afraid to ask) taught an energetic, entertaining theology course at Regis. One of his projects
was putting together musicians who could write songs to be used at Mass, that would appeal to teenagers who were bored by the typical hymns we were
all used to singing. The project was so successful that Mel formed us into a recording band and got us a deal with Paulist Press to record an album. I think
it was a student named Joe Piecora who came up with the name "Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9."
[Lance Monthly] What was the significance of the name?
I don't really know the significance of the name. I happen to know we had no receptionist on staff, and we never welcomed anybody that I can remember, so
you've got me over a barrel there.
[Lance Monthly] Who else comprised the band?
The group was Mark Puleo on guitar, Rich Esposito on guitar, Bob Kearney on guitar, Larry Johnson on bass, and me on guitar. My only regret is we didn't
have enough guitarists.
[Lance Monthly] Since you were primarily Christian influenced, did you face any resistance from anybody in putting together a rock band?
I never encountered any resistance. The band was just a recording band and we never toured, so we never had the opportunity to confront angry,
protesting Buddhists or Jehovah Witnesses at our concerts.
[Lance Monthly] How supportive was the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle for the group?
I have no idea. I was just a hired hand and never got involved in anything other than the recording of the albums. We never had a representative of the
Society of St. Paul at the sessions, as far as I know. Although, now that you mention it, I do remember a guy in a missionary robe hanging out in the control
booth eating jellybeans from time to time.
[Lance Monthly] Where did the band typically practice?
We would practice at band members' houses, or in the AV room at school.
[Lance Monthly] So you didn't play any live gigs at all?
As I mentioned, we were just a recording band. Kind of like the Beatles after 1966, but with a smaller fan base.
[Lance Monthly] How would you describe the band's sound? What bands influenced you?
I wish I could compare us to the Yardbirds or the Animals (which Mel Myers compared us to), but I honestly couldn't. The best I could say is we were
definitely influenced by the music around at the time, for example: Jefferson Airplane, Cream, [and] the Byrds. Listening to the albums now, the songs had
some very interesting melodies and chord progressions, and that was definitely influenced by the experimentation that was going on in those days.
[Lance Monthly] Did the Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9 ever have a manager?
[Lance Monthly] How popular locally did you become? Were you able to cross over into the non-religious sector?
After the albums were recorded, we were over as a group. There were some very talented musicians in that band, and I think Bob Kearney went on to
become a studio musician. Rich Esposito and I did some music producing in the early eighties. I sort of lost touch with the other guys. But as a band, we
were basically a high school project that made something of a little mark for itself, but had no future as a touring entity after that.
[Lance Monthly] Do you recall other local groups of the era? Did you perform with any?
I went on to be in a whole slew of local bands in and around Queens, New York, where I grew up. I can't speak for what the other guys did.
[Lance Monthly] Were there other Christian rock bands in New York (or elsewhere) during that era of which you're aware?
None that I knew of.
[Lance Monthly] Where were your albums recorded? Do you recall anything in particular about the sessions?
We recorded two albums altogether. For me, getting to record an actual album at the tender age of fifteen was a great thrill. To hear your own songs
recorded by a band, and then to have those songs released on a record was a great feeling. I still love going into a recording studio to this day; it's one of my
favorite things to do in the world. To get the sounds you hear in your head out on tape, and for it to come out well there's nothing better, except maybe a
slice of pizza with black olives.
[Lance Monthly] Were any of the songs played on the radio?
I don't recall any radio airplay of any of the songs anywhere. I don't even know to whom these albums were marketed. I can imagine nuns and priests
getting their copies and boogying to the music 'til all hours, but airplay? No.
[Lance Monthly] From where did you get your material? Did Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9 write any or all of your original songs?
All the songs were either submitted by band members or Regis students.
[Lance Monthly] Do any (other) Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9 recordings exist? Are there any vintage live recordings, or unreleased songs?
Nope. I sincerely doubt you will ever hear about an album called Holy Ghost Reception Committee...The Lost Tapes!
[Lance Monthly] Battle of the Bands was big at the time the Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9 was playing. Did you participate in any?
No Battle of the Bands for us. We were Christians, we didn't believe in that sort of thing. If a band challenged us, we just turned the other cheek.
[Lance Monthly] Being a Christian rock band . . . did it lead to any local TV appearances?
No TV . . . just the photos from the album covers. Maybe we should have had a manager.
[Lance Monthly] [Interviewer's note: Dennis had already previously answered this question, but we got a good laugh out of it so we decided to leave it in the
interview.] How far was the band's "touring" territory?
The AV room at Regis and the recording studios in Manhattan.
[Lance Monthly] Why did the band break up in the '60s?
Drugs, booze and women, plus the Lord told us to. He didn't like our sound anymore. Seriously though, after the second album, I guess demand for the
Committee just dried up.
[Lance Monthly] You've alluded to the fact that you played in many bands after Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9. What were the names of some these?
My real garage band career came after that period. HGRC really did help to ignite my interest in performing with bands and writing songs. I was in several
bands throughout the '60s and '70s, including bands named Pegasus, Justice, and Cottonmouth. Cottonmouth was a great band. We did bluegrass music
and originals, and one of our members was a guy named Larry Campbell who has now gone on to be one of Bob Dylan's lead guitarists in his current
[Lance Monthly] What can you tell me about your stand-up comedy career. How often, and where, do you perform?
In the late Seventies, I started performing at coffeehouses, clubs, [and] wine and cheese places, etc. A lot of these places were, to put it kindly, dumps. I'd
be singing my little heart out and no one would be listening, so I started making up song parodies to get their attention. I not only started getting attention, I
was getting laughs. So I started doing more of that, and it developed into a comedy act. I auditioned at Dangerfield's in New York, hooked up with Rodney as
his opening act, and began my comedy career, which is going on twenty-two years now. Besides doing clubs and gigs on my own, for the last fifteen years
I've been on tour with George Carlin, doing theaters and casinos all across the U.S. and Canada. Our tour dates (and my CDs) are listed on my web site
[Lance Monthly] I understand that you perform some music during your routine. Do you ever have the urge to incorporate any Holy Ghost Reception
Committee #9 songs into the act?
No. Although if I ever perform for a group of priests and nuns, who knows?
[Lance Monthly] Looking back, how do you best summarize your experiences with the Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9?
For a fifteen-year-old kid who aspired to be a singer-songwriter, it was a great thing to have happened. It was fun and exciting and all that, and it helped give
me some of the confidence and desire to pursue a career in music.
"Copyrighted and originally printed on The Lance Monthly by Mike Dugo".
"Listen live, online to their music at Beyond The Beat Generation, 60's garage and psychedelia".
By Monica Ortwein, Associate Editor
Carlin’s Companion Tells All
Dennis Blair told us what it takes to open for George Carlin for longer than your 16-year-old brother’s been alive.
You may not have heard the name Dennis Blair before, but you’ve definitely seen or heard some of the stuff he’s been involved in (we’ll elaborate on that
soon enough). Blair has opened for the likes of Garry Shandling and Joan Rivers, but the songwriting stand-up has yet to headline his own tour, despite
being in the business for more than 20 years.
But that doesn’t mean Blair doesn’t have chops. After all, the musically inclined comic learned his craft from some of the best laugh-getters around. An
early protégé of Rodney Dangerfield, Blair came up with the idea for Dangerfield’s 1983 film Easy Money. Unfortunately, Blair lost his spot opening for the
legendary comedian’s live stand-up gigs after a misunderstanding involving a pool and a dog that liked to swim (we couldn’t drag any more details out of
him). That’s all in the past though, since Dennis Blair has been opening for George Carlin since 1988. And even though it’s been well over a decade, Blair
doesn’t anticipate his current running gig with Carlin ending anytime soon.
But if the master of vulgarity ever does decide to retire, maybe Blair’s name will pop up on movie screens and marquees nationwide. The stand-up
comedian has written a book on his experiences that he hopes to publish by the end of this year, and he’s also performed a one-man show in Las Vegas
that he hopes to resuscitate for the big screen someday.
Here’s our conversation with Dennis Blair in which he revealed the secrets to keeping his “night job” working with some of the funniest people in showbiz.
PULSE WEEKLY: I read that you and Rodney Dangerfield were always together on tour, even when you weren’t performing. What one thing did you take
away from your comedic experience with him?
DENNIS BLAIR: He showed me that the best thing to do is to get to the joke quickly. He was always saying, ‘Cut away the fat. Get to the meat of it.’
PW: How did you meet your current partner in comedy, George Carlin?
DB: Through my agent. I’d had a lot of deals opening for people at different hotels in Atlantic City, and he asked me if I wanted to open for George Carlin for
three months. I thought about it for a billionth of a second and said yes. I met George in 1988, and it was like we’d known each other for 15 years. After
three months, they decided I was weird enough to stay.
PW: Do you and George hang out after the shows?
DB: No, George is a pretty private person. Rodney and I used to hang out constantly. But George is not the kind of guy who really hangs out a lot. He’s always
writing or busy doing tons of things. Occasionally we call and give each other a sports score, but that’s it.
PW: What have you learned from George’s show that’s really stuck with you?
DB: He’s certainly improved my work ethic! I never used to sit down and write; I used to just come up with everything onstage. I still do most of it onstage,
but I try to sit down and become organized. I think I’ve become a little more satirical and edgy than I used to be, just because some of him has rubbed off on
PW: I read that sometimes people show up at Carlin gigs, cross their arms and refuse to clap for certain things.
DB: For some reason, there are always some people at his shows who get offended. If you go to a George Carlin show, you really should expect anything
and everything. I go up to the line, but I never cross it – George is the one who crosses it. It’s not The Bill Cosby Show.
PW: What’s the difference between coming up to the line and actually crossing it?
DB: I’ll do something about how Osama Bin Laden is a 6-foot-5-inch guy in a land full of pygmies, so why is it so hard for us to find him, whereas George will
go right at it and say, ‘George Bush is stupid.’ But as the opening act, my job is to warm up the audience, not turn them off. In the back of my mind I’m
always thinking, Don’t piss the audience off, because then they’re going to be in a bad mood for George.
PW: I’ve heard you also do impressions during your act. Has anyone ever been upset at your imitation of him or her?
DB: Years ago, when I was opening for Rodney, I’d do a Paul Anka parody. I came offstage and they said, ‘Paul Anka was in the audience. Here’s his room
number. He wants you to call him.’ I thought, Oh great. I’m going to be sued. So I called up with a lump in my throat, and he goes, ‘Dennis! I want you to open
for me!’ I wound up doing a weekend with him. But for an hour [before that], in my head I was going through all the lawyers that I knew.
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