By Betsy Rothstein - 07/20/05 12:00 AM EDT
Will Durst wanders into the darkened basement of the D.C. Improv comedy club last Wednesday afternoon, and with him comes an equally dark, dry wit.
In 1980, Durst, 49, left his hometown of Milwaukee for San Francisco, where he still lives.
He recalls trying to make the other members of his family laugh at the dinner table each night but laments, “Everyone was much funnier than I was. Still pisses me off.”
His father was a machinist, his mother a commercial artist. Most members of his family worked at a tractor factory. Before Durst graduated from high school, he attended 14 different schools. “I was always the new kid,” he says, explaining that he attended three different colleges.
Asked if all the moves affected his comedy routines, he replies, “I have no idea what makes me do what I do. Can’t change anything.”
Realizing he’s in for an interview in which his whole life may be scrutinized, he gets up after 10 minutes and walks to the back of the club to snag a pack of cigarettes. He returns and lights one.
Who are his favorite comedians?
“In terms of the dead ones, Lenny Bruce, Sam Kinison, people who tried to push the envelope,” Durst says. “Richard Pryor or Mort Sahl. I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to change something for the better.”
He looks directly at me with a face so serious that it’s hard not to laugh and wonder if he’s being serious or not when he asks, “How can I change your life for the better?”
Hey, I’m asking the questions.
Bizarre moment passes. I ask how Durst feels about being famous. “I am not famous,” he replies. “I clawed my way to the middle, which is different, but it’s kind of a nice lifestyle, just under the radar.”
Durst attended the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where he studied journalism, theater and film. In one class, he set up a stage, brought a case of beer and ashtrays and did his routine. He sold the beers for 15 cents each. He began doing open-mike work in the early ’70s in Milwaukee.
“Everything was political,” he says. “Nixon resigned from office. My first political joke: When the going gets tough, the tough get phlebitis.”
Durst says he didn’t date a lot so politics became a large part of his comedy routines, as opposed to relationship stories.
An interesting factoid about Milwaukee is that comedy was illegal in the ’70s, meaning that for a venue to have a stand-up comedy show it had to purchase a nude-dancing license. So he worked where he could, doing improv groups or theater. In 1978, he performed in a play called “Private Parts in Public Places.” Because it was comedy, he had to buy the nude-dancing license.
In San Francisco, he began performing on stage and says, “It was like heaven.”
Aside from the obvious high of making people laugh, Durst also enjoys the writing involved in his job: “Sometimes [the best part is] writing a joke that works and knowing that it works.”
Today, he is married and has been for 23 years. “I don’t regret one day,” he says, “and that one day that I don’t regret, August 1987, she slept all day.” (His wife, Debi Durst, is also a comedian, who does voiceovers. “She’s more famous than I am,” he says. “Pisses me off.”)
Marriage hasn’t curbed his political humor. He loves turning to it in his routines, President Bush in particular. “I use some of his verbatim quotes,” he explains, adding that Bush is what would result if Ronald Reagan and Dan Quayle had a child.
“He’s Quagan,” says Durst, who deadpans, “I just wish he’d learn to pronounce a couple things, [such as] terrorism and nuclear.”
The comedian reads five to six newspapers a day, smokes approximately 10 cigarettes a day and writes jokes any chance he can. He says the commute from California to Washington is rough. “This one is a bitch,” he says. “I’m tired.”
Durst won’t align himself with one political party. “I hit both sides of the aisle,” he says, “but it’s hard taking out the Democrats right now because there’s nothing there. It’s like trying to staple smoke.”