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Louis C.K.: Live (Or Not)

January 16, 2012

As a graduate student, I’ve found that free time can be scarce. It can be difficult to justify the toll (both on your wallet and on your schedule) of a night seeing live comedy. But when you study stand-up comedy, you’ve got a built in excuse you make the time in the name of research. And if you’re doing your graduate work in New York, as I am, you have your pick of a number of scenes, venues, price ranges and styles of comedy from which to choose. With this in mind, I have decided to put together something of a living map of New York comedy. My plan is to make my way through the five boroughs to visit as many venues as possible, and to consider the relationship between New York and the ever-changing comic space.

On November 11th, I saw Louis C.K. live in concert at the St. George Theatre in Staten Island.

C.K. is on a short list of comics I feel I need to see live. Seinfeld: check. Gervais: check. Chappelle: check. Rock: check. (Well, I saw him in this, so we were in the same room. That has to count for something, right?)* The point is, I’ve got a list, and I was happy to finally get tickets to one of his shows. (The last time I tried to buy tickets to see C.K., the venue’s site opened, crashed and sold out within minutes) The concert, the penultimate stop on C.K.’s tour, was part of the New York Comedy Festival and it furnished the material for his latest special, Louis C.K.: Live at the Beacon Theater. (Outtakes 1 and 2)

Going to see a very famous comic is a weird thing. Even when you don’t already know the material being performed (C.K. scraps his material and starts fresh with each new tour), there is a distinct familiarity that’s part of the atmosphere of the room. Everyone in the room had certain expectations of this performance. I assume we all expected C.K. to come out in blue jeans and a black t-shirt (he did). I bet we all expected a certain rhythm, a particular style that is unique to C.K. If you listen/watch long enough, you can identify any comic’s timing, cadence, tone and mannerisms. The thing is, I’m not sure this is a good thing.

This happens with all comics who reach a particular level of celebrity, and particularly with comics who perform material already broadcast across various media. Patton Oswalt talked about the phenomenon of the transcendent comedian in a conversation with Bill Simmons on The B.S. Report that aired in 2009. Comics are transformed into jukeboxes, and audiences want to hear the hits. I believe this to be true, and while C.K. didn’t recycle jokes the audience was primed and ready to laugh.

Well, everyone but me, it seemed. I realized something about my experience of live stand-up during this show. I like a small venue. I’m used to the intimacy of, say, The Comedy Cellar, where even the farthest seat from the stage is not that far. Small venues—it seems to me—can makes things a bit easier on a performer, allowing the bodies in the room to really fill the space. Taking in a show at the Cellar, you’re likely to see a handful of comics with a few different kinds of sets. Some will kill, others will not. Laughter feels complicated in a small room. If a joke bombs, the silence of a packed room seems crushing—particularly when you’re close enough to the performer to see them register the crowd’s reaction. It’s at once an intimate and high stakes situation. You don’t get this kind of experience in a large room, particularly in a headlining feature with such a seasoned and well-known performer.

The St. George, a gorgeous 2,800 seat vaudeville theatre in the North Shore community, opened its doors in 1929. Solomon Brill’s vision for the theatre was to bring top shelf vaudeville to the borough that would withstand the shadow cast by grand cinema spaces in Manhattan. Notable for its unobstructed views, a gilded, cantilevered balcony (one of the largest ever built, it seems) and grand staircases, the St. George gives the distinct impression of a luxurious and storied performance hall. And this is exactly what made it hard for me to enjoy the performance.

I found myself leaning forward during the entire show—I was, in fact, on the edge of my seat. I had trouble hearing CK clearly. To be fair, I was in that gilded balcony of theirs, which made me feel miles away from the stage. But still! I can appreciate CK wanting to perform in a storied theatre, and I can only imagine how great his view from the stage must have been. But still! There’s something about watching stand-up in such a grand space—it seems to contradict the basic tenets of constructing a comic space. But CK is such a big draw, he has to perform somewhere. It’s quite the dilemma (for me).

I’ve seen comics perform in large rooms before. I saw Seinfeld in a big theater in Denver a few years back. I recently saw John Mulaney at NYU’s Skirball Center. Both times I laughed. Hard. But nothing beats seeing a great comic work a small room. It’s roughly the same feeling you get seeing a great band in a dive bar. It’s cramped. And personal. You can see and hear every misstep as the performer works through a set, sometimes well before it’s ready to be recorded for posterity. It’s this auratic quality that (for me) is at the heart of watching stand-up. And now I’m so accustomed to the tight quarters of a New York comedy club that the idea of sitting more than 15 feet away from a performer seems, well, wrong.

When you get right down to it, expressing a preference for an intimate venue over a large theatre is much like thinking about the difference between watching live and recorded performances. What are the defining qualities of the live and recorded performance? What is present in one and missing from the other? Which is the most pure iteration of a performance—the live concert or the edited production? I would prefer the live, intimate experience (who wouldn’t?), but given the choice between the back of a large theatre and re-watching “Chewed Up” on Netflix I might just choose the latter—aura be damned. The value of liveness only goes so far, even when you’re seeing one of your favorites.

I can’t be sure that anyone else shared my misgivings about seeing stand-up in a large theatre. Or that many others were watching as closely. I do know that my expectations of a stand-up show are particular. And while I’m always vaguely concerned about taxing my interest in stand-up by reading it too closely, I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. Maybe I’ll head to the Cellar for a fix.

*This short list includes a handful of other comics not mentioned-some I’ve seen, others I have yet to see.

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