Taylor Williamson: Stand-up Comedy on America’s Got Talent

Stand-up comedy can be a tricky product for television, in part because it depends upon the relationship between the comedian and a live audience. It’s no coincidence that the most successful stand-up on television have been the HBO comedy specials that take a live performance and film it as a concert. A prime example from 1996 is Bring the Pain, which launched Chris Rock into stand-up stardom.

Chris Rock Bring the Pain DVD coverLate night talk show hosts present monologues in front of studio audiences that stand-in for the viewers at home, in a format that doesn’t allow for the type of freedom allowed in a comedy club.

Stand-up comedy was part of the reality genre from 2003-2010, on NBC’s competition show  Last Comic Standing, but since that got cancelled, unknown stand-ups who want to increase their exposure have to turn to America’s Got Talent, which pits comedians against singers, dancers, acrobats, magicians and more. AGT is selecting its semi-finalists at the moment, and one of last week’s winners has thus far managed to adapt his stand-up comedy to the requirements of a different genre.

Taylor Williamson is comfortable in his awkwardness, delivering his material in a relaxed manner, showing from his first audition in Los Angeles that he can draw on stand-up’s strength and adapt to the audience in the moment.

America’s Got Talent can be an uncomfortable medium for comedy, particularly during it’s so-called “Vegas Week.” The judges and Williamson himself commented on how poor a setting it is for comics, who are required to perform on a large stage for those judges, and for no one else.

The show portrays him as a struggling comedian who’s mostly played in places like bowling alleys, but the reality of a struggling comedian these days is that he or she can appear on television without being a household name. Williamson appeared on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson as far back as 2007.

I saw Taylor Williamson perform at Rooster T. Feathers comedy club in Sunnyvale, California, back in September of 2010. He was working as a feature, and stood out with his combination of tightly structured jokes with quick-and-loose crowd work. Some of the material he used then has made it to his AGT shows, from jokes about having his mother pay his rent, to his jokes about homeless people in this first appearance at Radio City Music Hall:

Williamson is a talented comedian. It didn’t surprise me to see him pop up on America’s Got Talent and it didn’t surprise me to see him get this far. It would, however, shock me somewhat to see him win the whole thing. He’s likable, inventive, quick, and funny — but probably too quirky to take a family show where at-home viewers cast the deciding votes. Still, I expect to see him continue to succeed in the world of show business, and his appearances on America’s Got Talent have served as an example of another path for stand-up comedians to make a living in an increasingly fragmented media landscape.

Matthew Daube has an M.F.A. in Playwriting from Smith College and a Ph.D. in Theater and Performance Studies from Stanford University. His dissertation, “Laughter in Revolt: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in the Construction of Stand-up Comedy” argued for the recognition of stand-up comedy as a distinct performance mode that emerged in the United States following World War II, linked to issues of race and focused on the performance of self. He is particularly interested in the intersections between humor and the performance of identity, and has published articles on the use of ethnic stereotype by the Marx Brothers and the role of the audience in stand-up comedy. Matthew has taught for multiple departments and programs at Stanford and is a founding member of the San Francisco producing company The Collected Works.


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