“A rollercoaster ride to hell”: Stand-up comedian & writer Ritch Shydner on Night Flight in 1988

By on May 2, 2017

In the late 1980s, actor/comedian/writer Ritch Shydner dropped by Night Flight’s New York studios to share with us some funny excepts from his high-energy stand-up routine, including how he found out that cocaine mixes really well with alcohol, giving your heart “a rollercoaster ride to hell.” Check out the full “Take Off to Comedy IX” special — which originally aired on October 15, 1988 — over on Night Flight Plus.

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Growing up in the small town of Pennsville, New Jersey, Ritchie “Ritchie” Shydner — the spelling at birth was “Shidner” — probably didn’t know he was going to end up on television, probably not until college, anyway. (Yes, we misspelled the chyron again).

He studied business and sociology at Gettysburg College, a private, four-year liberal arts college located in the southern part of Pennsylvania, almost midway between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and directly north of Baltimore, Maryland, and the nation’s capitol, Washington D.C.

It was there where he began to write, produce and star in comic skits which he and his sidekick, Camillo “Mad-Dog” Melchiorre, would perform for fraternity events and parents’ weekends shows, where for years the big comedy number had been the old football-players-in-drag routine.

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Shydner and Mad-Dog decided to stage a coup, and make those shows memorable and truly funny, and so they wrote material that mocked popular TV commercials (pretty much standard 70s comedy schtick), and a very funny “Used Car Salesman” skit, which also featured two other frat boys, Carmen “Honest-Abe” Volpecelli and Pluto “Fenderhead” Dombrosky.

They also wrote bits that made fun of both the school and the visiting parents, which might have gotten him into some trouble with the school’s administrative people if it hadn’t been so funny.

His biggest influences, he says, were comedians and actors like Robert Klein, Groucho Marx, Phyllis Diller, George Carlin, Alan King, Kelley Monteith, Lenny Bruce, Peter Sellers, Richard Pryor, Albert Brooks, WC Fields, Art Carney, Red Skelton, and his dad.

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Shydner worked a lot of odd jobs while he was in college — recapping truck tires, constructing sewage lines, pumping gas, beer-and-shot bartending — but it seems in hindsight he was always meant to be a funnyman, not a handyman.

He stayed in Pennsylvania after graduating, and got a job as a substitute teacher in Pennsville, southwest of Pittsburgh, where he says he “mostly used the class time to recover from hangovers.”

He told one interviewer that, “Since a substitute teacher is tested every fifteen seconds, I guess my vicious counter punching for the sadistic laughter of a roomful of captive teens could be seen as decent training for future bouts with comedy club hecklers.”

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Shydner also ended up managing a local band, and working for a local congressman, and that got him interested in going to law school, so he enrolled in classes at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia, where he realized that he missed making people laugh after a classmate friend dragged him to an open-mike night at a nearby coffeehouse.

He says he got a single laugh from the restless audience, and would listen to a cassette tape of his performance, recorded for posterity, just to hear that singular “ha,” but that, in Shydner’s words, “brief strangled reaction from a stranger” was all that it took for him to consider giving comedy a try.

By the mid-70s, he was writing comic bits, which he sent to publications like MAD and National Lampoon, with little to no success, but he wanted to be onstage, doing the comedy himself, and since there were no D.C. area comedy clubs circa ’77/’78, he found himself performing during talent nights at local bars, which he has remembered were “loaded with genuine Seventies singer-songwriters.”

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Shydner says he “worked hard to become tolerated,” but caught a break when a local club promoter saw him as “ideal stage fodder for touring rock groups.”

It was during these opening slots — telling jokes to some five hundred clubgoers who were likely waiting for him to get off the stage so the band they’d come to see could start playing their set — that he figured out which jokes worked, and which didn’t.

Shydner finished law school but declined to take the bar examination because he already knew that he wanted to move to New York City and work on his comedy, and at the end of ’79, he did just that.

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Ritch Shydner, 1979

He ended up playing a lot of the comedy clubs in NYC, trying every possible style of joke-telling — Rodney Dangerfield-like one-liners, Steve Martin-esque prop routines and even rock-song parodies — to see what fit him best.

He was very funny, and an amiable, friendly guy, and developed a lot of friendships with fellow comedians, including many who would go on to have a lot of success: Jerry Seinfeld, Gilbert Gottfried, Bill Maher, Larry Miller, Rich Hall, Kevin Rooney, Glenn Hirsch, Kelley Rogers, Garry Shandling, and Rick Overton.

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Shydner also ended up meeting, falling in love and marrying comedian/comedy writer Carol Leifer in 1981.

Eventually, Shydner caught the eye of casting directors, who encouraged him to go to auditions, which led him out to Los Angeles. He realized that acting in movies and TV were, in his own words, “steps on the stairway to comic stardom, and TV shows and movie roles filled seats and boosted the pay.”

Shynder: “Roles on hit sitcoms sometimes transformed club comics into theater draws. At the very least, it was another credit to give the MC for your introduction.”

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Ritch onstage at the Atlanta Punchline, 1982

His first appearance on a TV show, however, was in 1983, on a nighttime soap, as “Deputy #3″ on “Knot’s Landing.”

The very next year, on August 30, 1984, he was making his first in a string of regular appearances on “The Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson,” which not only gave him some credibility with his parents, who probably were wondering when he was going to go back to D.C. and end up in some kind of boring job in Washington politics.

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Shydner in his dressing room backstage at “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, circa 1985

His brush with onscreen success led Shydner to him taking more acting classes (which certainly all aspiring actors are encouraged to do; Shydner studied with in New York with Ron Orbach, and then in Los Angeles with Michael Shurtleff, Jeff Corey and others over a four year period).

The acting lessons led to auditions which led to a number of guest appearances on TV shows and movies, where he usually played some kind of blue-collar, working man stiff, like his role as a “Guard” (in Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop II) or “Drunk #1″ (in Steve Martin’s 1987 comedy Roxanne) or “Video Clerk” in the 1987 TV movie re-make of The Man Who Fell to Earth.

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His most memorable TV role was five episodes during the first season of TV’s “Married with Children.” where he had a semi-regular gig playing “Luke Ventura,” Al Bundy’s co-worker, who was a single, womanizing shoe salesman who ends up having a threesome and chatting to Bundy quite a bit about his sexual conquests.

Read more here.

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Somewhere along the way Shydner says he realized that saying somebody else’s words, even if the script was loaded with funny dialogue, didn’t give him the same excitement and head rush that he got standing onstage, performing his own comedy bits that he’d written himself.

Shydner decided to focus on the writing and getting those in-demand stand-up slots at the local comedy clubs, a night life in which he was simply immersed in drinking and doing drugs (whiskey and cocaine were his preferences). He eventually became sober, though, a state of mind he has maintained for the last four decades.

Meanwhile his marriage to Leifer — whose own career during this same time simply overshadowed Shydner’s, but allowed him to focus on “relationship stuff” for his own stand-up comedy — came to and end in 1985 (they divorced in ’87).

As a sidenote: in the 1990s, Carol Leifer was considered one of the funniest women in the business, a late night talk show and comedy club hit, and she too was a very funny comedy writer, which eventually led to her joining the staff of TV’s colossal hit “Seinfeld,” in the show’s fifth season among her many career highlights.

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Shydner performing on stage in Montreal, Canada, in 1989

By 1988, when Shydner performed for “Night Flight” in the special episode we’re featuring here, he was already making the transition to comedy writing for others, landing his first job as a writer for TV’s short-lived “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”

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At this point, Shydner’s stand-up comedy — when he wasn’t joking about driving, flying and dining at fast-food outlets — revealed that his personal life was often difficult, and painful, particularly when it came to his romantic relationships, post-marriage.

A lot of his jokes were about the differences and diversities between the sexes, often comparing how men and women deal with certain issues, and how real life never seems to work out like it does in your dreams.

After appearing on our TV show in 1988, Shydner continued to make numerous appearances on TV, including a handful of episodes of Late Night with David Letterman” in the late ’80s-early ’90s, and even more on “The Tonight Show,” and in 1990, he had a half-hour HBO special all to himself, called “One Night Stand.”

Ritch Shyder onstage at the Old Vic in Chicago, Illinois, taped for HBO

Mostly, it seems, Ritch Shydner focused on the writing, particularly sitcoms, including an episode of “Roseanne” (1995), which came about because he’d called Roseanne Barr during the mid-season to ask about working on the show that fall — instead, Barr invited him to begin working the very next day as a sitcom staff writer.

Shydner is one of three writers credited with writing a funny Thanksgiving-themed episode (“The Last Thursday in November”), which aired on November 21, 1995.

Shydner got more writing jobs working for “The Jeff Foxworthy Show” (1997) and HBO’s somewhat forgotten but very funny sitcom, “The Mind of the Married Man.”

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The experience of working on sitcoms led to some difficulties in the writer’s room, working with fellow writers and producers, and Shydner has said that having somebody else, a peer or a colleague, telling him that something he’d written wasn’t funny (or funny enough), wasn’t too easy to deal with.

Shydner: “It can mess with your confidence and stand-ups need to have a certain sense of invincibility when taking the stage. But the trade-off was the money, and being home to see my kids grow-up.”

Nevertheless, Shydner continue to write funny stuff for other people, including material for two of Jeff Foxworthy’s Grammy-nominated comedy albums, Totally Committed and Big Fun, as well as material for two other funny “everyman” comedians, Ron White and Jay Leno.

(Leno became a close friend and Shydner would appear on the Leno version of “The Tonight Show” many times).

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More recently, in 2006, Shydner — along with Mark Schiff — co-authored a book on stand-up comedy, I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America’s Top Comics.

Four years later, Ritch Shydner was partly the focus of Jordan Brady’s award-winning documentary I Am Comic, in which he traveled around the country interviewing various comedians, a process that ultimately led to his return to stand-up by going on the stage again after thirteen years of self-imposed retirement.

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Shydner’s most recent book is Kicking Through the Ashes: My Life as a Stand-Up in the 1980s Comedy Boom, which was published in 2016. The book came about after the late Phyllis Diller suggested that he write a book about the history of stand-up comedy. Read an excerpt (“The Road Dog Shakes”) at Ritch’s website.

The title comes from Shydner’s idea that once he’d begun to sort through the burned-out detritus of his stand-up career — which he’d burned to the ground before launching a comeback more than a decade later — the same way that a person might if they were “kicking through the ashes” of their destroyed home, searching for something of value.

“My career was the house…” he says, “… my bitterness, the fire… and the book, my salvage.”

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Check out our “Take Off to Comedy IX” special — which also features Jackie Mason, Dan Aykroyd & John Belushi, Weird Al Yancovic and much more — over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.