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.
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.
Humor doesn’t always travel well, in part because humor tends to be topical and rely on local language. What was humorous to a previous century or to a foreign population is not necessarily an easy sell for contemporary Americans. When it comes to William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, you have both hurdles to leap, although at least the play is written in the same language that we currently speak. Kind of.
Few people were surprised when Joss Whedon decided to film a version of Much Ado at his Santa Monica estate, back in 2011, due to his penchant for romantic banter, from the television show Buffy to the megafilm The Avengers. He chose to make the low-budget film in twelve days as a way to relax creatively while producing The Avengers. If that decision isn’t a clear sign that Mr. Whedon is capable of different lifestyle choices than most other Bardolators, then the use of his house as the set hammers home the point. The place is a mansion, of course, but it’s also a sprawling estate capable of staging incredible intimacy, full of nooks and crannies, not to mention an infinite amount of bookcases and wine glasses.
For the most part, the quick pace of the production leads to a light and fast-paced film, although there are a few scenes that would have benefited from a couple extra takes. For example, Benedick eavesdrops on some men who know he is there and are painting falsehoods in the hope to have Benedick (Alexis Denisof) fall in love with Beatrice (Amy Acker). Denisof’s physical humor induces chuckles, but the audience is left wondering how he can hear through the glass doors, which was a missed opportunity to have the conspirators purposefully open each door and window, one at a time, making sure that they capture Benedick and his imagination. Similarly, Benedick’s monologues could have been more light-hearted and heartfelt if delivered to the camera, as with Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.
The cast itself is very white, which would be less remarkable if not for the African American woman in the background, who only comes to the fore to serve as the foil for Claudio’s assertion that he will marry as he’s told, even if the bride is an Ethiope (that is, black). And yet Whedon had no trouble in cutting a different bigoted line — Benedick’s oath about Beatrice that “If I do not love her, I am a Jew.” Shakespeare’s particular racism was not of the same degree as Nazi Germany or antebellum America but it was a progenitor, and worth either contextualizing or excising, rather than selectively excusing it through laughter.
May may just be the month of Marc Maron. The stand-up comedian is not new to the scene, having begun his forays into show business alongside the likes of David Cross, Sarah Silverman, and Louis C.K. in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but it is only in the last few years that he has garnered considerable attention due to the success of his podcast interview show WTF. In early 2011, the New York Times featured Maron’s podcast as a “must-hear” for comedians, and of course he has come up on Humor in America, most recently as “a revelation.”
This May, Maron is popping up in the mainstream as never before, issuing a new book entitled Attempting Normal, getting interviewed by Terry Gross, Howard Stern, and Jay Leno — and debuting his own television show on IFC, simply titled Maron.
One of the main reasons that stand-up comedians continue to have television shows built around their personalities is that the stand-up trade requires the creation of a detailed-yet-instantly-recognizable persona. It’s easily transposed to television, but Maron frequently refers to himself as an acquired taste, not for everyone. Indeed, the plot of the premiere episode makes much of that, as Maron cajoles a woeful Dave Foley into accompanying him on a hunt for someone who’s been pseudonymously insulting the podcaster via Twitter.
(By the way, I highly recommend Dave Foley’s real-life appearance on WTF for a discussion of the Kids in the Hall star’s ups and downs in Hollywood, including patented WTF-glimpses into Foley’s tangled personal life.)
For example, Dragonmaster tweets Marc Maron: “I would say don’t quit your day job, but you don’t have one, and it’s too late to get one.” Maron fans will recognize that as an external manifestation of Maron’s internal self-judgment. The dude is a volcano of self-judgment.
Episode One does a decent job setting up some of the Maron essentials. This includes his Twitter addiction, of course. His first ex-wife. His cats. The tension between his exhausting self-involvement and his deep self-awareness. The podcast set-up in his garage.
Alfred Hitchcock may still reign as the master of suspense some thirty-three years after his death, but many of his most ominous moments and movies were punctuated and accentuated by a nearly irrepressible sense of humor. Hitchcock’s wry wit comes across clearly in the personal introductions he made for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series (1955-65) as well as the famous cameo appearances he made in his own films. If you’ve got ten minutes to spare, the magic of YouTube allows you to watch every one of these cameos, starting with 1927’s The Lodger: A Story of London Fog.
The Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto runs a Hitchcock festival every year or two, and this past weekend they did showings of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of his earlier 1934 film. The 1956 version stars Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, and is an excellent example of Hitchcock’s fondness for sprinkling humor on even the most macabre of situations — in this case, the possible death of a child. (I allude to events in this movie but don’t spell out the plot, even though it has been over half a century since its release!)
The film set-up is light-hearted, as Hitchcock offers up a variation of the All-American family that could work within the wholesome confines of a family sitcom of that era. To put this in context, Leave It To Beaver started its run the following year, in 1957. Ben McKenna (Stewart) and his wife Jo (Day) are similar to Beaver’s June and Ward Cleaver, both of them kind and upstanding, raising a boy who makes innocent remarks designed to elicit chuckles in his elders.
HANK: If you ever get hungry, our garden back home is full of snails….We tried everything to get rid of them. We never thought of a Frenchman.
The film commences with several ethnic stereotypes designed to coax chuckles from the audience as Hitchcock sets the scene. There’s the Muslim couple upset when Hank inadvertently rips off the woman’s veil. There’s simultaneous laughter at local customs and the clumsiness of the American tourist as Stewart struggles to eat using only three fingers of his right hand.
Representative of the role of humor in general, rather than falling short of the required seriousness, Doris Day’s penchant for comedy and music make her character Jo all the more compelling. Just before the situation darkens, Ben and Jo stroll through the Marrakech marketplace, making jokes about how their trip has been paid for by Ben’s medical practice.
JO: You know what I was just thinking? You know what’s paying for these three days in Marrakech?
BEN: Yeah, me.
JO: Mrs. Campbell’s gall stones.
Many people assess humor and the funny using the same litmus test employed by Justice Potter Stewart in the 1964 obscenity case “Jacobellis v. Ohio.” In regards to hard-core pornography, Stewart famously stated “I know it when I see it.” While I have no knowledge of Justice Stewart’s expertise in this particular subject, I do tend to think that the ability to make snap judgments stems from experience. That is one reason why so many of us feel capable of instantly ascertaining what is funny and what is not. We’ve spent our whole lives laughing, so we believe that we know it when we see it.
Technically speaking, of course, comedy is also a performance structure. (And if you don’t know an academic when you see one, it’s possible to spot a scholar through the use of such phrases as “technically speaking” and “performance structure.”)
I’ve been intimately involved with one particular Absurdist comedy of late, and it’s reminded me of how some of the best comedies question what and how comedy works, and whether we should know comedy when we see it. Last year I joined with some former colleagues from the Stanford and Berkeley doctoral programs in performance to found The Collected Works and our inaugural project is Princess Ivona, a 1935 play by Polish literary legend Witold Gombrowicz. (While the text is European, I trust that staging this in San Francisco qualifies it as “Humor in America.”)
I’ve noticed throughout the production process that Princess Ivona brings to the fore our uneasiness surrounding comedy and our desire to be on the winning side when it comes to mockery and the mocked. On the lower end of the social hierarchy, there are aunts in the first act, concerned that they are being teased…
2nd AUNT: Your Highness is laughing at us of course. You are welcome to, I am sure.
…and courtiers in the second act, determined to tease the court newcomer, only to find that the tables have been turned on them.
2nd LADY: I understand now. You have arranged it all to show us up. What a joke!
The most famous edition of the satirical newspaper The Onion has to be its 9/11 edition. That issue was also the first that they published after relocating from Madison, Wisconsin, to New York City. The headlines were shocking to a nation that had not yet returned to its usual fare of late night shtick or our then-new love of “reality” television. (Survivor premiered the year before and American Idol began the year after.)
The Onion writers, however, did not leap into addressing the attack with abandon. According to Onion John Krewson, the humorists were stymied until one of them suggested the headline “America Turns into a Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Film,” after which the dam burst and they felt capable of turning a comic eye on a national tragedy.
Knowing this, should we be surprised that The Onion has already covered the horror of the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre? Here is a snippet from an article they published on Friday, the very day of the shootings.
As with 9/11, The Onion attempts to signal their understanding of the seriousness of the situation by employing epithets. Still, there are multiple ways in which The Onion’s response to Newtown differs from their earlier response to 9/11. For one, the fact that the Newtown victims were predominantly children makes for a greater risk of looking like one is taking a light-hearted perspective on the heavy-hearted matter. In addition, The Onion’s response to 9/11 came from New York City itself. And finally, there is the fact of timing. Remember, The Onion actually cancelled the print edition originally scheduled for 9/11, and they issued the above headlines in late September. In today’s online news world, The Onion could respond within hours.
Stand-up comedy derives much of its power from the use of the performer’s personal life. Sure, comedians stretch, embellish and outright invent some of the stories they tell on the stage, but most audience members conflate the act they see on stage with the person they imagine the comedian to be off-stage. I believe that this is actually part of the continuing fascination of Andy Kaufman, who derived much of his power from shielding his personal interior life from view of the audience.
Such was the case with Kaufman’s “Foreign Man/Latka” persona, his Elvis impersonation, and definitely his portrayal of the rude and offensive lounge act Tony Clifton.
The Wikipedia entry on Clifton claims that the inspiration sprang from a real Tony Clifton, “a real lounge singer whom Kaufman encountered in the International Hotel in Las Vegas.”The article cites Bill Zehme’s biography of Kaufman, Lost in the Funhouse. Lost in the citation is that Zehme himself notes how Kaufman told so many versions of this trip to Vegas “that no one, not anyone, would ever know exactly for sure what happened” (108).
There are stories — many of them told by Kaufman’s creative partner Bob Zmuda — of other people playing Clifton in performances. When negotiating his contract to play Latka on Taxi, Kaufman reportedly insisted that they hire Tony Clifton as a guest star. When Kaufman-as-Clifton arrived on set, he came with a pair of hookers from the Moonlite BunnyRanch and behaved so badly that Kaufman-as-Clifton was thrown off set. (See Zmuda’s Andy Kaufman Revealed! for a lengthy account.)
For the contemporary stand-up comedian, the digital age presents both benefits and drawbacks. On the plus side, comedians receive great publicity and access to new fans via platforms such as Twitter (which is a custom-made forum for joke tellers) or on podcasts such as Marc Maron’s WTF.
On the minus side, the ease with which audience members can record the audio or visual of an act means that material can be taken out of the comedian’s control and circulated in the digital realm before the wait staff even drop the checks. If there’s an altercation or a line that is crossed in an inexpert manner, the mater can spiral into something viral — and that’s not always good for a comic’s reputation. Just ask Michael Richards, who just this week found himself on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” web series, apologizing again for his racist tirade at the Laugh Factory six years ago. Well, he doesn’t apologize so much as he shows how it still weighs heavy on his soul.
“Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” constitutes Seinfeld’s foray into new media, taking the breezy style he developed in stand-up and sitcom, and playing it out on the web with decent production values. Seinfeld gets to indulge his passion for cars — he picks up Richards in a “1962 VW split-window double-cab bus in dove blue, primer grey, and rust.”
“Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” also allows Seinfeld to chat with comedian friends, including Larry David, Alec Baldwin, and the comedy duo of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. (I think Reiner and Brooks just might have a future in the industry!)
The episode with Richards involves several doses of nostalgia.
Michael Richards: Those were good days.
Jerry Seinfeld: Those were good days.
Michael Richards: You gave me the role of a lifetime.
Jerry Seinfeld: You gave me the experience of my lifetime, getting to play with you.
The comic space is crucial. Stand-up comedy grew up in establishments of almost uncomfortable intimacy, and on a recent trip to Los Angeles, I was reminded of just how close together the Hollywood comedy establishments are.
A. Largo has been at its current La Cienega Boulevard location since 2008 and hosts both musicians and comedians in an intimate 280-seat theater. It’s an insider establishment – the kind of venue where Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez will go for a date night. I was there to see Sarah Silverman & Friends perform on a Thursday night, and after a full ninety minutes, Silverman introduced her “surprise guest from across the Atlantic” – Russell Brand. It’s all very Hollywood.