By Rachel E. Blackburn
One of my all-time favorite Seinfeld episodes featured the dentist character Tim Watley, played by Bryan Cranston. Watley begins making Jewish jokes after a recent conversion to Judaism. Seinfeld discovers this, is clearly bothered by it, and in response, visits one of Watley’s fellow patients, Father Curtis (sitting in a confessional booth to do so). After Seinfeld shares with Father Curtis the humorous antics of Watley, Father Curtis asks Seinfeld, “And this offends you as a Jew?” And Seinfeld responds, “No, it offends me as a comedian.” As one who was raised Jewish myself, complete with Bat Mitzvah, years of Hebrew school and the requisite trip to Israel, I always secretly revered that statement, however silly it may be. I might go so far as to say I found it admirable and noble; all hail in the name of laughter! I readily identified with the notion that Seinfeld ultimately held his identity as a comedian closer to his heart than that of his ethnic and cultural heritage.
The opportunity came to test my commitment to comedy above all, however, when I recently co-directed (with Ms. Gina Sandi-Diaz) a play titled The Last Cyclist. The Last Cyclist, written by Karel Svenk, is a comedy borne out of the Holocaust; specifically, written and rehearsed inside Theresienstadt, one of many concentration camps in operation roughly from 1940 – 1945 during WWII. What sort of authorial voice do we have in Karel Svenk, who in the midst of starvation, degradation, torture and dehumanization, found the energy and inspiration to write a comedy? What might he have to laugh about in his given circumstances? And, beyond all this – how did I approach directing such a piece nearly seventy years later after its initial conception?
Karel Svenk, the man who found the motivation and enthusiasm for laughter despite everything, was a Czech prisoner. What little we know of Svenk – a comedian, actor, and playwright – was that he was charismatic, funny, goofy in the best of ways, and inspiring to his fellow prisoners. Naomi Patz, who has reconstructed and reimagined his work (the script adaptation of The Last Cyclist which I directed in the theatre), has often stated in her discussions of Svenk that he was something akin to a European Charlie Chaplin, in terms of his physical comedy. Were he to be alive today, she says, we might read him as analogous to a Robin Williams: someone whose manic energy was infectious, and could somehow shine light in even the darkest of corners. Svenk was someone who could readily demonstrate for us the value of comedy as a tool for overcoming the worst cruelties of life, in the skillful manner of a true artist and comedian.
Clowns are terrifying.
I am convinced that the very concept induces anxiety. While on the surface, the “clown” seems to be an innocuous effort to play on simple comedic principles of exaggeration–big facial expressions; big hair; big noses; big shoes, all capped by physical buffoonery–it really taps into our most perverse fears. This is not a new idea, of course. Having a character in a comedy who is deathly afraid of clowns is a staple of American humor. The best example that comes to mind is Kramer from Seinfeld. Using Kramer’s always over the top responses to otherwise normal social contexts is comedic gold (“Gold, Jerry, Gold.”), but his rather restrained response to coming face to face with a dangerous clown is instructive. We should keep in mind that Kramer’s fear was a point of rational thought within the context of the plot-line of the episode that featured Crazy Joe Devola–off his medication–dressed up as a clown while on the hunt for the whole gang. He was dangerous.
In most cases, the character who fears clowns is simply part of the humor and seems ridiculous him or herself. But we recognize the underlying fear and share Kramer’s apprehension. We recoil from the hidden or altered face–even if that face is all smiles. Can you really trust anyone with a grotesque painted face? Do you trust Joan Rivers? I saw her in an antique shop in Florida years ago–horrifying. But I digress.
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.
Like all red-blooded Americans, I loves me some Olympics. I will have a hard time getting work done over the next couple weeks with six stations of Olympics (+ streaming). And the fact that my TV information calls it the “XXX Summer Olympics” makes it even better (in a 14-year old funny sort of way). Speaking of TV, NBC quickly admits it is horrible and offers a solution.
General Olympic Humor
Some Olympic stand-up
The Space Olympics–Totally Cancelled
Sochi 2014 (the Problem-Free Russian Winter Olympics):
*the Olympics have become the focal point of anti-Putin satire.
*Saturday Night Live on figure skating.
*Buddy Cole on Russia (from Colbert Report)
*political cartoons (do you see any themes?)
See below for London!
Happy 57th Birthday to Jerry Seinfeld. Enjoy this clip from his debut on HBO in 1981, introduced by the Smothers Brothers.
Do you have a favorite Seinfeld clip? Please post a link in the comments below.
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.