“JERRY MADE ME DO IT”
By JOHN DRAKE
He is the debonair debater in a talk show discussing the pros and cons of spaghetti. He is the pratfalling nerd, blithely drinking a concoction by the hunchbacked doorman Brad in the creeky old castle. He is also a stern husband, frantic guest, and tap-dancing villain. But above all else, he is Karl Tiedemann. And he is funny.
Tiedemann, a regular performer at Sunday Night Improv, is modest about his own skills but makes no (funny) bones about what he thinks makes for good comedy. “The most important thing is to be able to separate the funny ideas from the unfunny ones and show the audience just the funny ones. The gag writer Robert Orben said over 30 years ago that the most important quality a comedy writer can have is the ability to know what’s funny.
Trying to do comedy without that is akin to being a tone deaf opera singer striving for the Met.” Born and raised in New York City, Tiedemann has been creating comedy ever since college, where he co-wrote (and sometimes directed) award-winning films at the New York University Film School. One of them, Ready, Willing, Unable, is a farce about an inept young man that hearkens back to Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. Another, King of the Zs, is a parody documentary about a grade Z film studio which helped Tiedemann land his first TV job as one of the original writers on Late Night with David Letterman. (Tiedemann also introduced Letterman to Calvert DeForest, an actor in King of the Zs, who became better known as Larry “Bud” Melman.)
Along the way, he wrote a play, Alias the Fox, penned articles for National Lampoon, hosted cable television’s Videosyncracies, and crafted material for various TV shows featuring Robert Klein. And, oh yes, he also began improvising. “The person who got me to do improv was Jerry Seinfeld,” he says. “We were hanging out at The Comic Strip and he kept saying how good it was. So I tried it.” Tiedemann studied with Tamara Wilcox, who later founded the National Improvisation Theater, took workshops at Chicago City Limits, and then, for two years performed with Laughing Matters, an improvisational group known for its verbal wit and broad physical humor.
Improvisation helped Tiedemann isolate the creative from the constructive, a process which he had read about in a book called Writing with Power. “That book talks about how writing requires a critical facility and also a creative facility,” he notes. “If the critical comes in too soon, it stifles the creative, so the idea is to isolate them. One way to do that is free writing, where you write without a break for 10 minutes to get through writer’s block. The free association aspect is similar to improvisation.”
Although he is known by many as an improviser, Tiedemann considers himself primarily a writer. After leaving Late Night, he worked on the Mickey Mouse Club and spent four years as part of Breslau and Tiedemann, a comedy team that performed all over New York (among their best-known, Tiedemann-scripted bits were a Shakespearean version of the classic “Who’s On First?” routine, and a murder mystery in which the suspects acted like Jeopardy contestants). He also saw his farce, Running in the Red, appear to good reviews at the Flat Rock Playhouse State Theatre of North Carolina. And he has taught sketch-writing at the American Comedy Institute. Tiedemann sees improv as a wonderful creative hobby.
“I don’t get material directly from improv, but I do feel that going up hundreds of times and being thrown problems and challenges in improvised scenes and having to meet them quickly helps prepare you for when you’re writing something. “Writing is just a series of problems and challenges which you have to deal with effectively,” he adds. “Improvisation helps form a flexibility of mind. But beyond that, I tell people doing improv is my equivalent of bowling – and both bowling and improv are about equally financially renumerative.”