When comedian Bob Zany, dressed in a black suit and holding an unlit cigar, walked onto the Orpheum’s stage, the full house broke into applause and everyone sprang to their feet.
Zany smiled coyly at the audience and we were all in on the joke. Moments earlier, the entire audience had practiced their welcoming applause for Zany, which would be taped for a live television special.
That is not to say that Zany was not funny, because he absolutely was. However, the uproarious applause came before any jokes were told.
Most recognized Zany from his small parts in movies, roasts, and as the co-host of syndicated morning radio show, the “Bob and Tom Show.” He chose Galesburg to tape his special after having visited the venue last spring on the “Friends of Bob and Tom” tour.
The day before his show, a less-formal Zany took time to speak with students in English professor Cyn Kitchen’s humor writing workshops about life in comedy.
“I think the goal of the comedian is to have your peers like you, but also have the audience like you,” said Zany. “I don’t want to piss anyone off.”
He spoke about the importance of letting the audience into the joke and being able to make them laugh without alienating any of them.
“I have my political viewpoints, but I play both sides,” said Zany.
Having done standup since he was in high school, Zany has learned how to work a crowd. As a young comedian, he talked about traveling hours for the chance at performing for five minutes at a club. It was not until later that he developed his style.
Though he has been doing comedy for over 30 years, Zany said that he did not feel like he found his own voice until 10 years ago.
“It’s all about getting on stage,” said Zany. “You make a decision and you have to stick through it.”
Sometimes he was successful and sometimes he was not. However, he kept at it. Growing up, the comedians he looked up to include Johnny Carson, as he “was the king of both sides” of making political jokes, Don Rickles and David Letterman. From his impression of these comedians, he molded his own style, a mixture of sarcasm and quick wit.
“I come from a very sarcastic family, so it was more like love to me,” said Zany. “I’m kind of a retro act, I think.”
Much of Zany’s show Friday night was one-liners concocted on the spot as a response to something an audience member said or a story he told about past audiences and experiences.
After making several jokes about Galesburg itself, Zany looked into the audience and asked several people about their chosen careers. When they told him, he would retort with a comment or two about said position.
For example, one young gentleman in the front row said he was an undercover police officer.
“Not a very good one,” Zany said back.
He also placed two men in a balcony — the balcony that was not inhabited by a large, extended video camera — and played against their heckling, a nod to the old “Muppet Show” episodes.
While his jokes were funny, Zany added to their impact by leaning over to the front row after several obvious jokes and explaining why exactly they were funny. This sincere style brought a further dimension to his routine, as he took the character of somebody who felt his comedy was not being appreciated.
The audience, who gave him several genuine laughs and applause at the end of his set, appreciated his quick wit and over-arching humor.
In addition to the set, Zany brought two entertaining opening acts and fellow “Bob and Tom” member Chick McGee as MC of the show. When the show was finished, he filled an edition of “The Zany Report” and another extra sketch before the audience left the theater.
Zany’s father had been a painter and as a young man he had a decision to make.
“It was house painting or this,” said Zany, “and I chose this.”
It is a good thing he did, because Zany has a talent for making people laugh.