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Jeff Maurer's Blog About Comedy
Thursday, 20 January 2011
Alternative Comedy Cliches
Topic: The craft of comedy

"Alternative comedy" is one of those phrases like "urban" or "developing world": it's a fuzzy label with no clear parameters. But at the very least, it implies something that is different: it's the alternative to something, presumably "mainstream" comedy. And alt-comics and alt-comedy fans certainly don't think of themselves as behind the curve; they think of themselves as fresh, edgy, innovative and experimental...pushing the boundaries of comedy forward. That's the idea, at least.

Lately I've been wondering: is there anything at all fresh or innovative about alternative comedy (please note: I am often considered an alt-comic. Especially when I'm wearing my glasses)? Is it really edgy or experimental in any way? Or is it just a style of comedy, i.e. comedy performed by a person with at least one of the following: a beard, glasses, or an ironic sweater/t-shirt?  

Alt-comedy stock material is starting to emerge. There are several themes and gimmicks that reoccur way, way too often for my taste. Every style of comedy has its clichés. Def jam comics (not a euphemism for black comics - def jam is its own style) always talk about credit, ugly women, and getting hit by their parents. Redneck comics always talk about how stupid they are, immigrants, and getting hit by their parents. And now, there's a catalogue of boilerplate alt-comic material that we should recognize as hack. Here are some of the alt-comedy clichés that I've noticed:

Stories about trivial stuff that will never happen to anyone else. This one bugs me more than everything else on this list combined. Look, not every joke needs to be social commentary, and if something trivial but funny happens to me, I'll talk about it on stage. But I sometimes wonder if alternative comics just wander around the city all day just waiting for an animal or homeless person to do something weird. To be clear: these stories are about NOTHING. They're not indicative of societal trends, they in no way represent relatable life experiences. They're just quirky, random stuff that has never happened to anyone else and never will. They go something like this:

"I was walking down the street and I saw a rat wearing a tophat with a baby's rattle in its mouth!"

First of all: no you weren't. That didn't happen. I know that comedy stories are massaged and embellished, and I'm sure that quirky, wacky stuff happens to comedians from time to time, but there is statistically no way that this many quirky things are happening to this many alternative comics. And, again, I'm fine with embellishment: Louis CK said in an interview that his bit about people whining because the high-speed internet on an airplane didn't work didn't happen exactly the way he tells it. Which is fine with me; the anecdote is a totally believable story meant to illustrate people's attitudes. The joke is about people's entitled attitudes; the story is just a way to introduce the topic. But if your whole joke is about the funny thing that happened in the story, you really shouldn't make that up.

Second: even if that did happen, who cares? That didn't happen to anyone in the room, and it never will. Alternative comics always shit on late-80s-style observational comedy in large part because it's so trivial. And it is trivial: who honestly cares about soup and shoelaces and M&Ms? But what could be more trivial than some random thing that happened one time to one person and will never happen to anyone ever again? Who gives a shit? I can't believe that this type of storytelling is so common in a genre that constantly pats itself on the back for being edgy and original.

Shock humor, especially racist humor. Sarah Silverman and Daniel Tosh have taught us that you can say the most horrible things imaginable as long as you smirk your way out of it afterwards. And you know what: I think that's funny sometimes. I get it: the joke isn't about what you said, the joke is about how horrible it would be for someone to actually say that. When done cleverly, that can be funny. But it's really getting over-used; I'm starting to think that some Daniel Tosh fans must enjoy his humor in a completely non-ironic way. And a really shitty shock-comic is maybe the most unbearable thing in comedy: after your first two jokes, I get it - the next joke will be about hitting a kid, or deporting an immigrant, or killing a puppy. You can play Guess the Punchline with near 100% accuracy. We shouldn't think of comics as "edgy" or "bold" just because they say offensive things. Shock humor has been around forever, and this particular style of shock humor has been around at least since South Park first aired in 1997. It's stale.

Redneck jokes. We get it: they're not very smart. Now, I'm definitely in favor of making fun of the stupid and irrational things that people do - that's basically what comedy is. But the joke needs to be more than just "look at these fucking hicks!". Actually tell a joke; don't just go "NASCAR, Cracker Barrel, Jesus!", even though that will work. Make an observation about something in particular. And try to avoid painting with a broad brush; it's disconcerting when you see that the snotty, elitist attitude that people like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh are always complaining about actually does exist. 

Reading stuff on stage. I'm guilty of this one (appetizer joke, bible joke), but I'm starting to notice: this is being done a lot. I mean A LOT. If you work for a cable or cell phone company, don't let a comic goad you into a lengthy e-mail exchange - they're preparing material for a bit. Although they'll probably just write your part for you even if you don't reply.

The thing that goes on too long. I can't fucking believe how often the writers of Family Guy go back to this well. For how long will people still find this joke funny? The first time I remember seeing it was when Sideshow Bob stepped on rake after rake after rake during a Simpsons episode that aired in 1993. Norm McDonald would do it on Weekend Update with his ridiculously long pauses after "...or so the Germans would have us believe." How can anyone still find this funny? It's the alt-equivalent of a list joke. 

"Why does he sound like...?" after doing a voice. If you mime something or do a voice and then legitimately react to something unusual that you did...fine. That's not pre-meditated. But don't intentionally do a voice that you've been doing every night for a year and then say "why does he sound like Scrooge McDuck? I don't know." It doesn't bother me because it's insincere - having to perform every night requires that comedy be somewhat insincere. It bothers me because it's predictable and easy.

The quirky song that intentionally isn't good. This one only applies to musical comedy, which is a sketchy neighborhood to begin with. But I can't believe that audiences still laugh at this: "ryhme, ryhme, ryhme, line that doesn't rhyme/probably ends with 'bitch'." Or "ryhme, ryhme, ryhme, non-sequitur that only exists to make the song rhyme." Congratulations: you are now ripping off Adam Sandler circa 1992. Real edgy. 

That's my list. And to be clear: there's no particular topic or joke structure - on this list or otherwise - that I view as inherently hack. It all depends on the joke. And I admit to having done some version of just about all of these at one point or another. It's also worth noting that the really GOOD alt-comics - the Patton Oswalts and Paul F. Tompkins of the world - don't really do any of these things. But I don't think that the alternative comedy label or the alternative comedy circuit will be going away any time soon, so we should try to insist that comedy that claims to be edgy, new, and different actually be exactly that. It needs to be about originality, not glasses. 


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 3:30 PM EST
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Saturday, 14 August 2010
Feelin' Kinda Patton Tonight
Topic: The craft of comedy

Seeing Patton Oswalt at the Warner Theatre tonight. It's awesome that he's playing the Warner now - he deserves it. Louis CK, Brian Regan, and Jim Gaffigan are also big enough now that they played the Warner last time through. So, the world's not completely unfair.

I saw Patton at the Lisner Auditorium in February 2009; it was the taping for My Weakness is Strong. He did a bit more than an hour. I'm sure he'll do about an hour tonight, most (if not all) of it new. And that, to me, is when you know that you're an elite comic: when you're writing a new (high-quality) hour ever year.

George Carlin did a new hour every year for the last thirty-something years of his life. That was also about Bill Cosby's pace in his prime. Right now, Patton, Louis CK, Regan and Gaffigan (hey, all the Warner Theatre guys) seem to be going at about that pace.

That is an absolute breakneck pace. You have to really be on top of your game to do that. Right now, I write about 20 minutes of A material a year (that is to say: I write 20 minutes that I end up keeping and using as A material. There's a whole lot of other shit that gets thrown away). If I had a following, less material would get thrown away. And if I was a full-time comic, I'd write more and have more stage time to test things out. But I still don't know if that would get me to an hour a year. It's something to aspire to, though.


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 4:29 PM EDT
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Monday, 2 August 2010
Comics are Writers, Actors are Performers
Topic: The craft of comedy

On last week’s episode of Last Comic Standing, Natasha Leggero (one of the judges) said to Myq Kaplan (one of the contestants): “If this show was called Last Comedy Writer Standing, I think you’d win.”  

That bugged me. It probably would have slipped right by me if that sentiment – the idea that comedy is equal parts writing and performing – wasn’t already bugging me. I don’t think that comedy is equal parts writing and performing…not in 2010. It’s more like 80-20 writing to performing. 

Back in the day (and, obviously, I’m speculating…I wasn’t there), performing seemed to be a bigger part of being a comedian. A lot of comics from the old days had over-the-top on-stage personas. Don Rickles, Jerry Lewis, Phyllis Diller, Rodney Dangerfield, Steve Martin, Rita Rudner…they were all different on stage than they were in real life (and a few of them were/are also outstanding writers). That makes sense if you think about it; the job of a standup had fuzzier parameters back then. “Comedian” was wrapped up in the broader field of “entertainer”. Comics were often expected to also sing and dance. Singers incorporated comedy into their act. Everybody was also an actor. Jokes – like songs – were often written by one person and performed by someone else. It was all one big, mashed-up, taped-together, one-size-fits-all field called “entertainment”. So a big part of being a standup was being a performer. 

Not anymore. Standups are, for the most part, standups. They work at colleges and in comedy clubs. They sometimes get writing gigs, which is essentially joke-telling in a different form. Honest-to-God acting gigs are rare…those usually go to actors. Most comics nowadays get on stage, talk, and then they’re pretty much the same person off stage as they were when they were on. Affected personalities are rare. When you do see a comic with a wacky, over-the-top persona, they usually don’t do well. Personally, I hate most character comedy – it strikes me as old-fashioned and lame.  

When comics talk about comedy with each other, we mostly talk about jokes. When our sets are over, we review the jokes. We look for topics people haven’t talked about. We try to find funny ways to boil down a complex idea. We work on cadence. We wordsmith. We don’t talk much about performance…we write. Because that’s pretty much what comedy is: writing jokes. 

But bookers…as well as TV producers, managers, agents, etc…hardly ever talk about jokes. They’re much more likely to talk about performance. They say things like “your smile lights up the room!”, “I just want to listen to you!”, or “your set didn’t pop.” Or – worst of all – “he/she’s got it.”  

Here’s the thing: “it” buys you about 10-15 minutes in a comedy club. Personality comics do very well in small doses. They kill at festivals. It’s good to have one at an open mic to break up the two dozen 20-something-guys-in-hoodies in a row. But a comic can only skate by on his or her personality – his or her performance – for so long. The audience will give a goofy or charismatic comic a 10-15 minute honeymoon. But then they want substance. They want jokes. Because that’s pretty much what comedy is: jokes. 

So why do bookers, TV producers, agents and the like constantly talk about performance? Maybe it’s because they have no idea what’s funny, so they don’t even bother trying to evaluate the quality of the jokes. But I think it’s mostly because those people are looking for actors. Acting is where the real money is. A moderately successful actor makes significantly more than a highly successful standup. If you’re an agent looking to rep a comic, you know that the big payday isn’t with writing gigs and shows at 300-seat comedy clubs. It’s with TV and movies. So they’re looking for actors…not comedians. And that’s why they overemphasize performance. 

One of the questions on the Last Comic Standing questionnaire – in fact, just about the only question, other than three varieties of “have you ever done porn?” – is: “What would a sitcom starring you be about?” What fucking year was the person who wrote that question living in? Did the author of that question slip into a coma in 1991 and wake up hoping to cast the next Roseanne or Seinfeld or Grace Under Fire? How many sitcoms are there on TV in 2010…six? Eight? The only ones on NBC – the Thursday night ones – follow pretty much the same formula: first-rate writing staff behind the camera, established comic actors on-camera. No current sitcom follows the standup-driven, let’s-bring-that-guy’s-act-to-TV formula. And no show I can think of has since Everybody Loves Raymond went off the air.  

Performing always has been and always will be part of standup. But let’s stop obsessing over it. Writing is the bigger part, writing is the more important part. The best comics nowadays – Patton Oswalt, Louis CK, Paul F. Tompkins, Bill Burr – are exceptional because their writing is exceptional. Performance is secondary.   

***Disclaimer: everything I just wrote should be taken with a grain of salt. I have a dog in this fight: I am all writing, no performance. So that’s shaping my opinion.***


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 5:18 PM EDT
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Monday, 21 June 2010
So my friends and family know I'm not a liar...
Topic: The craft of comedy

See, I was a semi-finalist on Last Comic Standing. How else would I have gotten the ticket?

Kinkos, you say? Go fuck yourself. 


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 11:10 PM EDT
Updated: Monday, 21 June 2010 11:12 PM EDT
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LA, New York, or DC?
Topic: The craft of comedy

How can you tell what town a comic is from? It’s easy, at least as long as they’re from New York, LA, or DC/Baltimore. I know each of these scenes pretty well. LA comics are outgoing and polished; New York comics are moody and dark. DC/Baltimore comics have our own brand of homemade charm. I’ve developed a quiz to clarify things – which type of comic are you?

 

The first thing I do when I get on stage is…

a)      Read an exhaustive list of my stage credits and commercial appearances

b)      Light a cigarette

c)      Take the mic out of the stand and place the stand to the side (that’s what the guy at Comedy College said to always do first)

 

On stage I stand…

a)      At the very front; better to work the room and engage the audience

b)      Slouched against the brick wall; I’m just relaxing and talkin’, man

c)      Wherever I took the mic out of the stand; I am too petrified to move

 

The hoodie I wear on stage is…

a)      A $400 Donna Karan pre-stressed hoodie

b)      Delightfully disheveled

c)      Drenched in flop sweat in under a minute

 

My first joke is…

a)      A story that highlights my unique ethnic background (take note, casting agents!)

b)      A joke about rednecks

c)      Taken word-for-word from Brian Regan’s 1997 Comedy Central Presents

 

On stage I read…

a)      My stage credits again…in case anyone missed them

b)      An e-mail exchange between myself and my cable company

c)      My set list, which I taped to the bottom of my beer glass

 

You may have seen me as…

a)      A dead body on CSI

b)      A dead body on Law & Order

c)      A dead body on the Wire

 

I take a notebook on stage in order to…

d)      Read the jokes my agent wrote for me

e)      Project my affected, pseudo-artist persona

f)        Remember my set…how to people remember five whole minutes?!?!?

 

My teeth are…

a)      An unnatural, blinding white

b)      Still clenched an anger at the Bush administration

c)      Chattering nervously

 

My dream is to…

a)      Be an actor

b)      Be Bill Hicks, including the dying young part (which would be badass)

c)      Feature at Del Rio Restaurant in Leesburg


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 9:21 PM EDT
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Thursday, 10 July 2008
It's Not Offensive if it's Funny
Topic: The craft of comedy

  There's a lot of debating among comedians about how offensive a person can/should be in an attempt to be funny. Comedy - or good comedy, anyway - has an inherently subversive nature, and you can usually get a laugh saying something that people think but are afraid to say, so there's a natural inclination for comedians to test the limits of good taste. Sometimes - and you'll see this at pretty much any open mic you go to - the comic crosses the line. But where is the line?

  Obviously, the answer to that question is different for everyone, though there's some general agreement on standards; I don't know anyone who argued that Michael Richard's flipout was not over the line. I think the thing that makes offense in comedy so difficult to pinpoint is this: the quality of the joke is one of the things that determines whether it's offensive or not.

  Take, for example, stuffwhitepeoplelike.com. It's exactly what it sounds like: a Web site (and now a book) chronicling all of the things that white people like. The first time I heard of this site, I was offended. I mean, the reason is pretty plain: it's nothing more than a list of racial stereotypes. Think of all the offensive things that would be included if stuffblackpeoplelike.com or stuffmexicanpeoplelike.com existed. If you're against stereotypes - and everyone claims to be - then you should probably be offended by this site.

  But I'm not. Because when I started reading it, well...it's really funny. I mean, really sharp, really funny. Not hacky - golf, for example, isn't listed as one of the things that white people like. Religions their parents don't belong to, however, is. The observations on this site are so unbelievably right on. Take, for example, this description of Sarah Silverman* (which is, itself, about saying offensive things in comedy...what a mindfuck):

 Her whole shtick is about saying really offensive things! But it’s ok because she’s pretty and has a small voice so it all sounds so cute! Get it? It’s not offensive, because when she says racist or sexist things she knows they are offensive. So it’s ok.

  Actually, that whole entry about comedians completely busts me, as do about 80 percent of the entries. 

  This site doesn't offend me because the jokes are so good. At the risk of overanalyzing things, I think this logic makes sense: the statements don't strike me as offensive because they are so clearly meant to be funny, not to be taken seriously. Take, for example, this paragraph, from thing #101- being offended:

  If you ever need to make a white person feel indebted to you, wait for them to mention a book, film, or television show that features a character who is the same race as you,  then say “the representation of <insert race> was offensive and if you can’t see that, well, you need to do some soul searching.”  After they return from their hastily booked trip to land of your ancestors, they will be desperate to make it up to you.  At this point, it is acceptable to ask them to help you paint your house.

  With that tone, the only people who could possibly take this site seriously are the same people who, when in a comedy audience, will boo at the mere mention of, say, the Vietnam War (regardless of what you actually end up saying about Vietnam War). 

  It's okay because it's funny. Or, at least, it's okay mostly because it's funny; it also helps that stereotypes about white people have not traditionally been a source of pain or subjegation in this country. And - and I'll keep this in mind next time the "when is it okay for comedians to use the n-word?" argument comes up - I found it interesting that I immediately wanted to know whether or not the author is white. It seems a lot more okay to me if the author is white - it would just affirm that this list is meant to be good-natured, not accusatory. But I'm not ready to say that obervations this sharp, comedy this good, should be ignored because of an over-developed sense of political correctness. What's offensive in regular life is not necessarily offensive in comedy.

*For the record - because I'm begging for an argument with my friends if I don't clarify this - I think Sarah Silverman is pretty funny, but also overrated.


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 3:11 PM EDT
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Monday, 23 June 2008
Comedy Lies, Part 1: Stage Credits
Topic: The craft of comedy

There is a lot of lying in comedy. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing. Really, instead of saying "I just flew in from Cleveland..." would you really prefer that a comedian set up a joke "I just flew in from Springfield - Oregon, not Illinois - which, of course meant that I actually flew out of the Portland airport, and I had to switch planes in Cincinnati, so I guess you could say that I just flew in from Cincinnati, though the Cincinnati airport is actually across the river in Covington, Kentucky..."?

 

Some of these lies are innocuous (see above). Some lies are a bit more devious. In the interest of pulling back the curtain and giving non-comedians a better idea of what to believe and what not to believe, I've decided to write a series of blogs covering some common comedy lies. First up: stage credits.

 

Stage credits are frequently wall-to-wall bullshit. Not always, but frequently. Even more frequently, they're not complete bullshit, but are willful exaggerations of the truth. For example, immediately after my second college show, I began having myself introduced (and this is an extremely common, completely overworked intro) as having played "clubs and colleges up and down the East Coast." I had played University of Maryland Baltimore Campus and Georgetown University. Two points make a line. Anything more than one is plural. Both universities are within 50 miles of an ocean, which is to the East of a prominent land mass. Bam. Intro.

 

Here are some other common intros and what they actually mean:

 

"This comic is a really funny guy" = "This comic showed up late and didn't write an intro, so I'm giving him an intro that cannot technically be disproved." 

"This comic is a good friend of mine" = "I am aware of this person's existence, or at the very least I have a notecard with their name on it."

"This comic can be seen at venues throughout the area" = "This comic has access to e-mail and a basic knowledge of the English language, and is therefore capable of signing up for open mics."

"You may have seen this next comic on Youtube" = "This comic has a joke that's received 12 hits on Youtube, which means that the monkey with his finger up his ass is more than 14,000 times more entertaining than this next comic."

"This next comic comes to us all the way from New York City" = "Ooooooooohhhhh, pay attention, hillbillies! A real live New Yorker done took his auto five hours down the turnpike to show us small-town Washington folk how proper joke-i-fyin' is done! And y'all know he's good, cus he's down here doin' 7 minutes for free on a Tuesday night...just like that Seinfeld jew!"

"You may recognize this next comic from his online TV show..." = "There is no possible way you will recognize this next comic."

"You may have seen this next comic on Law and Order (New York)/CSI (LA)/The Wire (DC/Baltimore)" = "This next comic has played a dead body on Law and Order/CSI/The Wire."

"This comic has performed at venues all over the world" = "This comic drove up to Toronto this one time." 

"You may have seen this next comic on Last Comic Standing" = "This comic tried out for Last Comic Standing. His elbow was in the shot when that blonde lady who sounds like the female David Brent was interviewing the guy in the diaper." 

"This comic has opened for (fill in impressive yet semi-believable name)" = "A club did some open mic thing and (impressive yet semi-believable name) showed up at the end and did a guest set. Bryson told me that he also ended up banging that waitress with the red hair."

 

Other phrases/things to watch out for:

"Shared the stage with..." - If you're bullshit detector doesn't go off when you hear language this ambiguous, you need to get it replaced. 

"BET's Comic View..." - Comic View will apparently let any black comic in New York do a 20 second set if they hang around long enough.

"Performed at (some notable club)" - "Performed at" does not mean "was paid to perform at." Most clubs do some sort of open mic.

"Graduated from ______ comedy class" - Contrary to popular belief, the matriculation rate from comedy and improv classes is surprisingly high. It's not West Point.

More than 3 stage credits - If a comic needs to try to convince you that badly, then they know that they won't be able to do it with their jokes.

Elaborate intros that require even good MCs to read from a notecard - if you can't write a short intro, then you can't write a good joke, either.

TV credits that are not comedy - Actors are not comedians...they're actors. The only good thing to come out of the whole Michael Richards thing was that this was proven definitively and very publicly. 

Anything that sounds way too good to be true - Wow, he just had a one hour special on HBO and now he's doing 5 minutes at 11:00 at Cafe Japone? Looks like we showed up on the right night!

 

Of course, everything I listed above are sometimes legitimate - everything except for the online TV show one. And then, of course, there's the fact that some MCs and sound guys just make up stage credits without even asking you - I've been introduced as having been on HBO and having had a half hour special on Comedy Central. So, given that you usually can't trust stage credits, why not just do this: decide for yourself whether the comic is funny or not.


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 5:40 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 20 May 2008
Comedy Contests
Topic: The craft of comedy

Tonight is the DC Comedy Showcase finals at the DC Improv. I'm not going, but I wish everyone luck (a stupid and disingenuous thing to do, because they can't all win, right?). I'm in the Drafthouse Comedy Challenge tomorrow. Also tomorrow, I'll post my most recent podcast, which is about comedy contests (featuring some of the guys in tonight's Comedy Showcase). It's comedy contest season in DC.

I don't want to rehash too much stuff that I covered in the podcast, but I do want to hurry up and get some of my opinions about contests on the record before tomorrow night, at which point whatever I say could be perceived as sour grapes or gloating. So here we go:

I think that comedy contests are good for comedy but bad for comics. Contests are good for one reason and one reason only: they create shows that would not otherwise exist. For example, if the Drafthouse cancelled their comedy challenge, they wouldn't replace it with a comedy showcase; they'd replace it with a showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing.

Contests bring crowds. Contests encourage comics bring their friends – some contests are almost entirely bringer shows. People are intrigued by contests and like the competitive aspect - witness that virtually every popular reality show includes the competitive element. Practically anything that brings audiences to see comedy is good for comedy.

Okay, enough being positive: contests are terrible. They’re discouraging. They’re unfair. They’re stupid – what’s more subjective than comedy? No matter how well run – and some contests actually are well run – they’re still unbalanced and arbitrary. And here’s something that came out in the podcast that I hadn’t thought about much before: contests stoke the competitiveness between comics.

There’s already plenty of competition in comedy. It’s just the nature of the business, and I don’t think it can be gotten rid of. My generation of DC comedians tried very hard to avoid competitiveness between comics, which was a well-intended effort but, in hindsight, probably also a bit naive. The people in the most recent podcast, who are a bit younger than me, were big enough to admit to competitiveness, which I think is a positive step. As Bryson said, admitting to competitiveness is a bit like admitting to racist tendencies: it’s healthier to acknowledge it and manage it than to try to deny it.

Personally, I think I’m making progress in the way I approach contests. I’ve seen such stupid things happen in contests that it’s getting easier to actually convince myself that they don’t mean anything. In the past, when I’ve lost to shitty comics it’s eaten at me for weeks; this time, I’m just going into the contest with the knowledge that it’s extremely likely that something I view as completely unfair will happen (for the record, I don’t know whom I’m competing against tomorrow). Of course, it’s hard not to not care when money, opportunities, or prestige are on the line, so I’m not going to pretend that I don’t want to win. But, if – wait, when I lose, I honestly think that I’ll be more pissed off about the money than the competitive aspect. It’s greed, not ego. I think that counts as progress.

So, I think that we’re stuck with contests, and we’re also stuck with the competitiveness that they inspire. Probably the best thing to do is realize: 1) Contests are extremely random, so it probably doesn’t make much sense to let results affect your mentality too much one way or the other, 2) We don’t need to go through the charade of pretending that we don’t care about the outcome; we just need to try to keep our competitiveness from turning into vitriol.


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 11:29 PM EDT
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Thursday, 8 May 2008
Ri Ra Ri-view
Topic: The craft of comedy

  Get it? "Ri" view! That's the best joke I've written in four months.

  Dr. Dremo's, the Arcade Fire of DC Comedy Venues (in that some people loved it and some people thought it was good, but overrated), died a few months ago. I was ambivalent about Dremo's, but I'll still miss it; half of the time, you got a good enough crowd that you could work out new material. That's a pretty high success rate for an open mic.

  Ri Ra is Dremo's descendant. It's on the same night (Wednesday), it's in the same part of town (Wilson Boulevard in Arlington), and it's a Shackelford show. I was at the first show last night. My impression: generally positive. 

 

  First the good:

- There were people there. Actually more people than the room could fit (by the middle of the show). The attendance pattern actually closely mirrored Dremo's - a few groups of people at tables to start, then no-necked dudes with beers filtering in near the middle of the show. Granted, first show attendance at an open mic can be misleading, but it was a good sign.

- The show has it's own room. The setup is a bit like Rendezvous - it's a room upstairs from the bar. In my opinion, this is a necessary condition for an open mic - I don't want bar wenches and frat guys talking over my set.

- The room isn't too big. I always hated the first three slots at Dremo's because the room hadn't filled up yet and was just too damn big. This room is a bit smaller than Topaz.

- The sound system was fine. No cracking, no buzzing, right volume. It's a Shackelford show - you know the drill: Johnny Bravo amp, small stage, fake brick backdrop, sandwich board out front. Curt has these shows down to a science, and they work.  

- Polite wait staff. The servers who were bringing up food were unobtrusive. Amazingly, not every server realizes that this is important at a comedy show.

- The crowd laughed. They were there for comedy.

 

  Now the bad:

- Some noise was drifting up from the bar below. If you were standing on the side of the room near the stairs, it was a bit tough to maintain focus. Once the room was completely full, they shut the door at the bottom of the stairs, which made a big difference.

-  The crowd was just a bit of a bar crowd. Not stupid, but very dependant on dirty words and punchlines. Very much like Dremo's used to be. If you had a subtle joke or something with a long setup, you were probably in the wrong place. 

-  Given the number of people who ultimately showed up, the room may have actually been a bit too small. Curt says he's hoping to move the show downstairs eventually; I don't really know about that. I'd rather have a small, quiet room than a big, noisy one. Anyone remember that one show at Tryst? I think that may be what we're looking at if the show moves downstairs.

 

  So, on the whole: good show. We'll see if it continues. I hope so, because with Dremo's dead and Rendezvous in a coma, Wiseacres is the only Wednesday show in DC. The Wednesday Wiseacres show has been overrun by about 25 comics the last few times that I've been there. We need another Wednesday show to releive the pressure. 


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 6:16 PM EDT
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Monday, 21 April 2008
The Tyrrany of the Majority
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.


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 12:01 AM EDT
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