by Len Lear
Chestnut Hill area native Craig Shoemaker, 55, can truly say he has made it big in show business. For 35 years the Emmy winner who has been performing standup comedy, writing scripts and producing TV shows and movies, has put it all out there straight with no chaser. No one-trick pony, this actor/writer/producer/comic has material that’s stronger than bus station chili. He’s mixed the comedy cocktail just right, with just enough fizzy soda and whiskey. (His two Emmy awards came for writing and for acting from his work as a writer, actor and producer for the regional TV network PRISM.)
I like to think I actually discovered Craig because I wrote the first article he ever received; it was in 1980, and I wrote it for the now-defunct Philadelphia Journal after seeing Shoemaker perform at Rick’s Cabaret, a then-hot club on the 700 block of South Front Street, where he was also a bartender. (“I still have that article,” Craig said last week.)
I found Shoemaker to be very funny, creative and original, so I asked if I could interview him after the show. (Does a pig have knuckles?) During the interview, I discovered that the good-looking young Temple University student was majoring in radio, TV and film while moonlighting at Rick’s Cabaret. His first paying job as a comic was at Casa Conti in Glenside (also long-defunct), but when he was just 13 (in 1972), he worked at the Block & Cleaver in Flourtown, where Halligan’s Pub is today.
I proceeded to write a column in 1980 about the aspiring Chestnut Hill area comedian, predicting stardom for him. Several months later, I wrote about Craig again when he performed with three other comics at The Taproom in Ambler. Again, Craig “killed” the audience.
Last Tuesday night, July 22, Craig made a triumphant return, you might say, to Halligan’s Pub in the building where he learned to wash dishes and clean floors. But he was not there to clean up this time. Thanks to a Facebook and Twitter campaign that started three days earlier, about 125 old friends, people he hung out with at The Depot, former co-workers, even a former girlfriend, showed up to party with Craig.
But there was a more serious reason for the reunion. It was also a booksigning event for Craig’s recently published book, “Lovemaster’d: A Digital Journey to Love and Happiness.” All available copies of the book at Halligan’s were sold at the July 22 get-together, but some of the buyers had to be scratching their collective heads when they realized that the book is about as funny as open-heart surgery.
He reveals early on, for example, that “I become a rebellious student and juvenile delinquent, often waking up in a drug, sex or alcohol-induced fog, wondering where I was or if what was next to me was human.” The book proceeds essentially as a print-out of a two-year Facebook correspondence between Craig and a woman named Leah.
“At the time, she was married to a guy named Matt, whom I had met with her at a handful of my comedy shows when I traveled back to my hometown Philly area,” Craig writes. “Even though I am kind-of known in some circles as a ‘celebrity,’ Leah opened up a little bit to simply inform me that she and Matt were divorcing after almost 30 years of marriage.
“I was soon to find out that Leah wanted to share her story with me because she felt a kinship and connection through our prior Facebook posts…What unfolded was an unconventional, uncommon, unfiltered and undeniably powerful exchange between two adults on the mend. Our 200 plus- page heart-to-heart was an amazing healing for both of us.”
Several well-known public figures such as Dr. Drew, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeanie Buss and Mark Victor Hansen (“Chicken Soup for the Soul”) have endorsed “LoveMaster’d” as a must-read. (“Lovemaster’d” is available from Barnes & Noble, Amazon and most major online book retailers. The eBook is available for iTunes, Kindle, Nook, and GooglePlay.)
Many readers, however, will no doubt be surprised to read such thoughtful, insightful, dead-serious material from a professional comic. Like so many professional comedians, though, Shoemaker had turned to humor as a defense against the cruelty and insensitivity of other boys. In the 11th grade at Springfield High School, he was only 5-foot, one inch tall and weighed just 95 pounds.
Much of Craig ’s comedy down through the years was derived from incidents in his youth (again, a common thread in the comedy fabric). For example, he asked 13 girls to the high school prom before one said yes —and even that one wound up making out with another boy.
“The other kids pulled up my underwear so much,” he once recalled, “I feel like I invented the thong. . . I really didn’t have much choice but to turn to comedy. I had to make all the bigger kids laugh to keep them from picking on me. It worked, too. Comedy got me out of so much trouble, you wouldn’t believe it.”
Interestingly, Craig shot up seven inches in his senior year at Springfield and continued to inch up skyward through his years at Temple. Today he is 6-foot-2 and weighs about 200 pounds. In high school he wanted desperately to play varsity sports but was way too small for each one.
When asked last week why a comedian would write such a serious book as “Lovemaster’d,” Craig replied, “There can be a lot of pain behind being a comedian. What gets you up on stage for 35 years is a lot of darkness. The comedy can help you to heal. I know most fans would be surprised, but it’s true. Fans who peek through the material can see more substance.
“I’ve hit a great place as a standup comic, but that will not limit me. I’m not a 24/7 mirth monkey. I have many sides. I have organized a laughter foundation about the healing power of laughter. Levity is the whole reason for living, and laughter is absolutely essential, but I am not locked into only making people laugh.”
Craig has obviously achieved other satisfaction as a writer, actor and comic. In 1998 he was awarded the prestigious American Comedy Award for “Best Male Standup Comic.” The next “Best Comic Award” winners were Ellen DeGeneres, Jeff Foxworthy and Jerry Seinfeld, so Shoemaker once told me he may create a sit-com about “a gay redneck in a show about nothing.”
The Hill area native has performed in every major comedy venue in the country; he has appeared in more than 100 TV shows and was a regular on “Hollywood Squares.” He wrote “The Love Master,” co-starring Farrah Fawcett and Courtney Thorne-Smith, which won the Independent Film Festival in Los Angeles.
Craig has had his own nationally syndicated radio show, which after only 10 months on the air won the prestigious Communicator Award “Crystal” prize. He’s also had successful comedy CDs and has written several sit-com “pilots” that were not picked up by any of the networks. “I’ve done more pilots than any flight attendant,” he told me several years ago.
For more information, visit www.craigshoemaker.com.