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Tim Northern: funny, and smart

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Comedian Tim Northern appears on the bill at Friday's What's So Funny? stand-up performance at the Wheeler Opera House. (Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen Times)
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ASPEN ” Tim Northern says he gets his sense of humor, and his silly attitude, from his mother. But his father has also played a vital role in Northern’s becoming a comedian.

Northern has used his father, a Tennessee postal clerk with a do-it-yourself attitude, as a model to set the bar uncommonly high for himself. A natural-born rightie, Northern uses his left hand for most everything. His car has a standard transmission; automatic is too easy. On the golf course, he uses old-fashioned blades-style clubs rather than cavity-backs ” the golfing equivalent of opting for long, straight skis over shaped ones.

And on the comedy stage, Northern has chosen the challenging route. Much of the comedy he has seen on TV, he says, is puerile and shocking ” which he translates to easy laughs. He does not emulate the approach.



“I saw enough bad comedy on TV that I figured I’d try my hand at it. No one was doing the kind of comedy I liked,” said the 42-year-old native of Nashville, who now lives in Louisville, Ky. “I liked smarter comedy ” turns of phrase, just smart stuff. The way I see it, a lot of the stuff I see on TV, I was doing that in eighth grade ” easy humor, misogynistic stuff.” (On Northern’s website, singer Naomi Judd speculates that the comedian could be a member of Mensa; there is also a quote from noted Nixon speechwriter/lawyer/game show host Ben Stein: “I love that fact that he assumes his audience has a brain!”)

It wasn’t only his inner drive demanding that he aim high. Northern and his brother Michael, the two oldest of five kids, bonded over comedy, especially sneaking listens to their dad’s comedy albums: Richard Pryor, and the late Jerry Clower, whose country-fried schtick was huge in the South. Among the Northern sibling, bad or stale jokes were forbidden.




“We were comedy connoisseurs,” said Northern, from Denver International Airport, where he was awaiting a flight to Aspen. “You could say something funny once, just once, then you had to move on to new material. Because it was only funny once. We were all each other’s toughest crowds. Still are.”

While working a series of jobs ” truck-driver, waiter, golf course something or other ” that he assures were not funny, not even fodder for his stand-up act, Northern kept his eye on comedy. Fifteen years ago, he began performing as a hobby; five years ago, it became a career.

Northern’s material comes from an unusual place. He says he doesn’t do observational humor, but comedy that derives from language. “There’s always some phrase, some word in a conversation, that stands out,” he said, adding that, in this style, George Carlin has long been a hero of his.

Northern appears Friday in the fourth and final episode of the Wheeler Opera House’s What’s So Funny? series. (Also on the bill are North Carolina’s Tom Simmons; part-Filipino Californian Dan Gabriel; and headliner David Brenner, who co-produced the series.) Theoretically, the theme of the event is “Made for TV,” suggesting that all three of the younger comedians are destined for small-screen greatness. Northern, however, has no such ambitions. To him, TV is the easy way out.

“A lot of comedians use comedy as a stepping stone to TV. They’re not taking seriously what I want to do, which is stand-up comedy, writing jokes,” said Northern, who is also a musician, playing bass, drums, and, he swears, a mean tuba. “I know I’ll have to do it if I want to further my career. A lot of clubs won’t book you if you don’t have TV credits. I’m not opposed to TV. But that’s not what I’m setting out to do.”

stewart@aspentimes.com

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