Topic: The craft of comedy
**This blog was written as a guest blog for DC Comedy 4 Now**
Andy Kline recently wrote an excellent blog about “genre shows” – shows that play to a specific comedy niche. I recommend that you read the whole blog, but, basically, his point is this: genre shows hurt comedy because they allow comedians to hide from challenges.
Andy’s complains about genre shows are dead on. Most genre shows are obnoxious. They’re first and foremost about reinforcing the audience’s identity. Moving merchandise is the second priority, and launching terrible movies is the third; providing good comedy is maybe seventh or eighth on the priorities list. And genre shows are only part of the problem – more and more these days, comedians are selling themselves as genre comedians. Think of some of the comedians who have gotten really big in recent years: one is the redneck guy, one is the frat guy, and one is the Mexican guy. The fact that you don’t need their names to know who I’m talking about just goes to show how much their identities overshadow their comedy.
But the self-segregation of comedy is only part of the story. Andy calls out genre shows, then discusses how comedians used to challenge themselves by “crossing over” – playing rooms that draw different types of audiences. He’d like to see more of that nowadays. That’s where he and I differ. I don’t like genre shows, but I’m also not eager to return to an era in which comedians are obsessed with crossing over.
Here’s what I think of when I think of crossing over. A few years ago, I was emceeing in a Def Jam-type room. Please note: “Def Jam” is not a euphemism for “black.” “Def Jam” is a euphemism for “combative.” To explain this to non-comedians: black crowds are like white crowds; they come to a show to see comedy, and they give bonus points for comedy they find relatable. Def-Jam crowds, however, aren’t there for comedy at all: they’re there to judge the comedians. They use the first 30 seconds of your set to decide whether they love you or hate you, and they use the remainder of your set to either cheer you like a war hero or boo you mercilessly. I got booed all week. After one particularly rough set, I brought up a guest act. I had met the guest act briefly before the show; he was a non-descript white guy from California wearing a baseball hat. But that wasn’t the comedian who came to the stage; the comedian I brought on stage was a strutting, swaggering jack-ass wearing a backwards baseball hat and speaking with what I call the “MTV accent.” His first joke was about how bad I was. His second and third jokes were about whitey. From there, he did some of the hackiest, dirtiest crowd-work I’ve ever seen, culminating with this line: “I’ll be black women’s pussy taste like fried chicken!” He was a god – the crowd absolutely loved him. He had successfully crossed over.
In comedy, this man will judge you.
Now, I’m positive that Andy isn’t advocating this type of comedy when he encourages comedians to cross over. That story is an extreme example. And Andy isn’t encouraging comics to play different rooms so that they can pander to the audience; he’s encouraging comedians to challenge the audience. But I think an implicit part of Andy’s argument is that crossing over makes you a better comic because you’re forced to learn the tastes and preferences of different audiences – you learn to adjust. And that’s all fine, but I think that this also needs to be said: there have to be limits on how much a comedian changes him or herself to please the audience.
As many comedians have noted, comedy mixes styles and genres more than any other form of entertainment. Most comedy shows are advertised only as “comedy” – no other form of entertainment does this. You’ll never see a Cineplex marquee that just says “Movie!” No concert has ever featured four unnamed musical acts that turn out to be a metal band, a rap group, an opera singer, and a country jamboree. But this type of thing happens all the time in comedy. The range of tastes that comedians are expected to satisfy is already ridiculously broad.
It isn’t good for comedy when incredible breadth is a prerequisite for success. We had that atmosphere once, back in the 1980’s. Back then (and, obviously, I’m relying on the recollections of people who were actually there), there was only one way to make it: you got on The Tonight Show, and if Johnny waved you over to the couch after your set, you were in. Of course, The Tonight Show – even then – featured very broad humor; remember, it was the only game in town for the entire country at 11:30. So, basically, you either wrote jokes that appealed to everyone in the country – including 14-year-old boys, 60-year-old widows, soccer moms, drug addicts, and everyone in between – or you didn’t make it. Period. That’s unbelievably constrictive.
To be fair, that era produced some truly great comics. But it also produced a remarkable number of hacks. Remember all the guys in sweaters doing observational humor on Evening at the Improv – the comics Jerry Seinfeld made fun of on SNL’s Stand Up and Win sketch? Those were all guys who were trying to get on The Tonight Show. When comics try too hard to be all things to all people, comedy gets limited to the five topics to which everyone can relate: TV, work, dogs, relationships, and air travel. It’s pretty bleak.
What's the deal with this thing? Do we really need this much Mountain Dew?
But the hacks don’t bother me as much as the true tragedy of the 1980’s system: all the great comics who didn’t make it. The system back then put so much emphasis on breadth that there wasn’t much room left for comics with a great deal of appeal to a narrow segment of the audience. When I ask myself whether a lot of my favorite comedians – such as Paul F. Tompkins, Eddie Izzard, and Todd Barry – would have made it during the 1980s, the answer is probably “no.” They just aren’t broad enough. If the Balkanization of comedy is bad because it rewards jokes that aren’t funny, then the homogenization of comedy is bad because it punishes jokes that are funny.
That’s not only unfair to the comedians – it’s also unfair to the audience. Putting aside your opinion of Kat Williams for a minute, ask yourself: who was the Kat Williams of the 1980’s? I don’t think there was one. Or, more accurately, there probably was one, but we never heard of him because he wasn’t broad enough to make it on The Tonight Show. There is obviously a market for Kat Williams’ humor; it just happens to be a deep, narrow market instead of a broad, shallow one.
The Maria Bamford of the 1980s.
Of course, Andy and I aren’t actually very far apart on this issue. I don’t think that Andy is arguing for homogenization; I think that he wants comics to challenge themselves, and he’s also reacting to the arrogant “I’m above the audience” attitude that some comics adopt. And I agree with both points. Comedians should challenge themselves - anyone can make their friends laugh, but comedians are supposed to be able to make strangers laugh. And a comedian should always go onstage with the goal of making the audience laugh; if you want to create high art, go write a symphony. Comedy is entertainment.
What I’m advocating is essentially a balance. Comedians should challenge themselves by trying to make different types of crowds laugh, but they should stay within the parameters of their actual personality and taste. And I’m okay with genre shows, but only if the comics use the opportunities those shows provide to produce quality comedy instead of pandering crap.
Andy ends his blog with a music analogy: Nirvana, he says, made great music because they weren’t afraid to challenge their audience. He’s right, but there’s more to the story. Nirvana became Nirvana because they didn’t care about cultivating broad appeal. Seattle in the late ‘80s was a second city without a lot of “industry” floating around (sound familiar?). There was no hope of making it, so there was also no point in making the type of music that was likely to get you a record deal. So they made the type of music that they liked, and it’s a good thing, too: Kurt Cobain probably wouldn’t have been any good at teasing his hair and playing virtuoso guitar solos. There was a segment of the population that was never going to like them, and they were fine with that. Which is something that comedians should always keep in mind: after all, during the best set of your life, 20 percent of the audience hated you. In comedy, you can’t please all the people all the time. So, fuck it: don’t try.