Bob Zany’s Rise to the Middle

A chance to headline Drew Carey’s celebrity roast was undercut by a guest’s heart attack on the dais (which went unnoticed by Zany as he did his act). But, the road to celebrity is hardly straight or easy to navigate.

 
 
 
Documentary filmmaker Jay Kanzler has turned his lens on comedian Bob Zany and his 30-plus years in the comedy business. The resulting documentary, Close But No Cigar: Bob Zany, is at the St. Louis International Film Festival on Thursday, November 18. The film chronicles both Zany’s career as a comedian and the more general quest for success.
 
“I was a funny kid in high school and went on The Gong Show, and then it took me 10 years of work to get an act and pull it off,” says Zany. “You can’t teach funny. You can learn the mechanics, but that is about it. You can go up there with a surefire joke and then bomb. Look at Johnny Carson; he was at his funniest getting out of a joke that didn’t work. The scariest thing for me is getting up there with a set piece, that’s a lot scarier.”
 
Despite national appearances, a regular gig on a nationally syndicated radio show (The Bob & Tom Show), and a full tour schedule, Bob is not sure he’s quite “made it.” And that’s what appealed to Kanzler: “Bob represents what we all struggle with: are we successful, did we make it? And does that answer change over time and with circumstance?”
 
Zany has certainly had some opportunities; from The Gong Show to Star Search (where he bested Carrot Top) to The Tonight Show with hundreds of national television and a few movie appearances as well. He was among the first comedians to serve as his own producer, booking a room and reaping the profits. However, his brushes with “making it big” have never quite panned out. A chance to headline Drew Carey’s celebrity roast was undercut by a guest’s heart attack on the dais (which went unnoticed by Zany as he did his act). But, the road to the height of celebrity is hardly straight or easy to navigate.
 
“When we went to edit, we had 70 hours of footage. Cutting it down to 85 minutes was very difficult, particularly in this case. We really have material for two documentaries: one on Bob and one about comedy in general,” says Kanzler.
 
Zany talks about the state of comedy: “When I got started in this business, they told me if you can’t make people in the Midwest laugh, you can’t make it in this business. Now, almost the opposite is true. Every market and demographic is so broken down. You can’t market an act to everybody anymore—you need a niche.”
 
So, with that landscape in mind, what is success for Bob Zany?
 
“Early on, I think I was looking for fame to make up for being picked on as a kid,” he says. “Now, I’m just looking for a good show. My father was a housepainter; he wanted people to be happy with his work and then to find the next job. I want the same thing; have the audience enjoy the show and move on to the next gig. What’s missing? I think I’d do well with a talk show, a late night type thing where I can work the audience. With the Zany Report [on Bob & Tom], I’m already doing a weekly monologue. I can be Letterman for the AARP crowd”
 
And success for Close But No Cigar: Bob Zany? “I’ve chosen my other topics because they appealed to me,” says Kanzler, whose list of documentary topics include riverboat gambling in Missouri and the Benedictine monks of Conception Abbey in northwest Missouri. “I try to have an open process when I approach a subject, and let the project develop.” In this case, his open process led to a comedy special produced by Kanzler, headlined by Zany and chronicled by the documentary. Such an hour-long special is one of the comedy world’s benchmarks for success, and one that has eluded Zany so far.
 
Close But No Cigar: Bob Zany is at the St. Louis International Film Festival on Thursday, November 18, at 7 p.m. at the Landmark Cinema in Plaza Frontenac. Both the filmmaker and the comedian will be in attendance. | Joe Hodes

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