Humor and the Digital Archive

Two of the most exciting things to come out of the Internet this year were the personal archives of Jerry Seinfeld and the addition of the Comedy Genome Project to Pandora’s music collection. Seinfeld launched his archive to mark the 30th anniversary of his first national broadcast spot. Each day, the site features three different clips spanning the length of his career, ranging from desk pieces on various late night shows to short stand-up bits from various appearances and Seinfeld (watch as his accent disappears over time).

Right around the same time, Pandora responded to listener requests and created a station featuring 10,000 clips from over 700 comedians. The clips are organized into categories, allowing a listener to select one style and (presumably) avoid another. These categories, of course, are a little reductive and deserve to be complicated—titles like “Urban Comedy” are problematic, and the separation of, say,  “Comedy Icons” from “Working Class Comedy” gives pause.

I wonder how these classifications sit with the performers, and how many people who opt out of the “Raw Comedy” library will then miss out on a good Louis C.K. bit. Is it advantageous for performers to jockey for position within a more ‘mainstream’ category with wide appeal (surely, C.K. belongs in “Comedy Icons”) like films trying to avoid an NC-17 rating? Or is this small potatoes in terms of exposure? That all depends on who is listening, I suppose. Those who count themselves among the initiated might either press on despite warnings of foul language or walk away knowing what they are missing. But if people who listen to comedy somewhat less obsessively are getting a skewed perception of the field based on Pandora’s classificatory criteria, it seems a revision would eventually be in order.


4 responses

  1. Why in the hell do some many f—ing comed-ans hav- to sw-ar lik- c–ks-ckers, g-d d–n it?! (with thanks to Tracy Wuster for a version of that question).

    Thank you for the word about Pandora. I’ll DEFINITELY check it out! As producer of “The Comedy Hour” on WERU-FM, I have had to struggle to find new material that’s “radio friendly”.

    I understand why comedians swear. At least I THINK I do…
    It’s to keep their audiences awake, right?

    I play a lot of “old” humor (maybe cuz I’m a “geezer” over 60?) and I find the “radio friendly” material of the 20th Century just as funny as most of today’s “unfriendly material.

    1. Thanks for your note, John. I’m glad you found the post useful.

      “Clean” performances are, of course, great for the pure joke-telling process and for their distribution across media, but I think comics who work blue are really after the freedom of expression allowed through comic performance. I think its about the opportunity to address our most guarded thoughts and impressions, and about provocation and the ability to understand the power of language as both restriction and liberation. I’m thinking here of Carlin’s seven words, of Bruce’s obscenity battles, of Louis CK’s family material, and a host of others who challenge the accepted cultural standards of their day by questioning how language could be ‘dirty.’ And while there are plenty of comedians who swear JUST to keep their audiences awake, or to be provocative for the sake of being provocative, at its best I think this style of performance has a really special capacity to be an inquisitive voice of critique and opposition while also being entertaining.

    2. Comedians swear because comedians are people, and people swear.

  2. Excellent. Thank you so much for your thoughts! MuhFuh!

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