Seriously Funny 

Brainy comedian Tim Northern doesn't want to be famous.

Maybe you've heard of comedian Tim Northern. Then again, maybe you haven't. He doesn't have a sitcom like many comedians do. He doesn't host a late-night talk show or a program in heavy rotation on Comedy Central. He doesn't have an outrageous gimmick or hang with the Def Comedy crowd. Northern is a hard-touring funnyman who works the club circuit where he's known for witty wordplay and smart, language-based comedy.

After Northern's winning turn on American Idol's more diverse precursor Star Search, deadpan actor and former Nixon speech writer Ben Stein said with atypical enthusiasm, "I love the fact that he assumes his audience has a brain!" The obvious question: Is that a good thing?

Flyer: You're from Nashville. I bet you must have some good lines about the difference between Nashville and Memphis.

Tim Northern: I plead the Fifth. I'm totally neutral.

But the cities are such rivals, surely you've got some comparisons.

Hey, I have to perform out there. I need to be at least a little hospitable to the audience.

Every time I turn around somebody's writing something about the death of comedy. Clubs open and close and reopen again so fast it's hard to keep up. So what's the real story?

When I got into the business in the '90s, comedy was on the wane, and I had to ride out the hard times. But whenever there's a lot of political turmoil and everything gets bad, that's when comedy gets better. Whenever we're faced with challenges, that's when comedy rises. The '90s were great. We had fat bellies and were happy. Nobody needed to be entertained. When things get weird, comedy is the perfect outlet and laughter is the great escape.

Some people think these last elections will make things better. Does that mean it's bad for you if they're right?

It doesn't matter because I don't do political humor. I mean, I don't hope things are going to be bad. I want to be fat and happy too. But I don't want it to be at another person's expense.

You don't do politics?

No, and I stay away from race and sex. I don't do observational humor either. I don't say, "Have you ever noticed when you're walking down the street ... "

Wait. No politics, no race, no sex -- what's left?

I just want to be funny. I don't have any big messages because nobody's going to walk away from my show a better person. You see all these people trying to be inspiring. They say, "I'm doing this for the kids." But you're not going to change somebody's life doing this. I just want to be funny.

But without sex, politics, race, observational ...

I don't know where it comes from, it just comes. I do what I think is funny, and if you don't think it's funny, I'm sorry. Some people won't get it. Look, if you try to reach everybody, you lose everybody. That's why I love Dennis Miller. I don't even get a lot of Dennis Miller, and I'm sure even Dennis Miller doesn't get a lot of Dennis Miller because it's obscure stuff.

Does an inability to put you into a category make getting work more difficult?

When comedy blew up in the mid-'80s there were only 200 to 300 comedians working. Now there are maybe 15,000. Some types of comics -- very good comics -- can't get a foot in the door, because they can't be easily categorized. That's how it is with me. They can't categorize me. But as far as I'm concerned, funny is funny.

Define funny.

There is a fine line between terror and comedy. By that I mean "funny" is something that hits me out of left field that's totally unexpected -- a word out of context, a malapropism, a mistake. Sometimes it's something weird or something serious. Sometimes things are so serious they're seriously funny.

How do you think other people see your act?

Some people would look at my act and say, "He's so clean." But I'm not clean. I mean, I don't spew profanity so I might come off as clean, but I didn't grow up with Bill Cosby.

Who did you grow up with?

I love Richard Pryor. And it's always seemed to me like so many comedians since have been doing bad Richard Pryor imitations. Like Eddie Murphy. He was essentially doing an imitation of Richard Pryor ... Not to wax philosophic, but when Steve Martin got out of stand-up he said, "Once you get famous, people laugh whether you're funny or not. I didn't have to work for it anymore, so I got out of the business." If you ask me, that's noble.

Well, it's a lot easier to be noble when you're as famous as Steve Martin.

I don't do this because I want to be famous. I don't want to be famous. I do this because I love it.

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