Category Archives: Louis C.K.

Sick Jokes After Newtown: Internet Humor as Media Counter-narrative

A poignant "too soon" joke

A poignant “too soon” joke

Matthew Daube’s recent piece pointed out The Onion‘s unique role in responding to tragic events like those in Newtown a few weeks ago. As he notes, the satirical newspaper, while performing comic bravery, still tempers its rhetoric with regard to stories of this nature. But while The Onion has built a reputation as a comedic first responder to tragedies of this nature, it is neither alone nor does it come close to showing the limits of “too soon” humor. Internet forums dedicated to sick humor offer limit cases in both speed and offensiveness. In this way, they offer a discourse that rebels against the framing offered by news coverage.

When tragedy strikes, American popular media tend to follow a script of information gathering, round-the-clock coverage, memorializing, and a tentative return to normal. Visual and audio cues like minor-key music and still photographs offer an emotive frame that distinguishes such events as more tragic and unique than the conventionally bad news that springs from war zones and more economically depressed areas. Eventually, dramatic fare – from films like Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) or Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) as well as television shows like Third Watch and American Horror Story engage with these events in ways that, while perhaps taking unique angles, more or less reinforce the dominant framing of these events as sacred moments of collective trauma.

Comedic responses to such events tend to be more dynamic and varied. Because of its temporality, wider range of generic registers, and many other reasons, television comedies tend to engage with such events more than does cinema. And television varies widely in this regard. While sick jokes about the Challenger explosion in 1986 certainly existed, my research has yet to uncover any such humor on television. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, David Letterman’s famous return episode, while somber, offered moments of cautious, comforting humor. After some more time, South Park offered a mix of patriotic and critical humor, pointing the way towards more politically daring humor as well as those designed more purely to evoke laughing offense.

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Sunday Stand-Up: Temporary Retirement (+ Louis C.K.)

Tracy Wuster, Editor


For the time being, or maybe permanently (who knows?), we are retiring the “Stand-up Sunday” (or “Sunday Stand-Up”) feature.  All Sunday posts, actually.  We will be moving to a twice per week schedule, with posts on Monday and Thursday (with an occasional post at other times, if we feel like it, or have a lot of posts).  We will still have discussions of stand-up, I am sure, and we welcome you to contribute (yes, you, you-who-are-reading-this).

As we approach 100k views,  we are thankful for your visiting us, especially those of you who are regular readers (we hope you are out there).  But we don’t know much about our readers, so please take a minute to fill out these polls:

Thank you for answering.  We are very curious about you, our readers, and hope that we are presenting you with writing that you find worth reading and a site that is worth coming back to.  We appreciate feedback on the design, content, and direction of the site.

And since this is the final Sunday Stand-Up post for awhile, at least, I will end with some stand-up.

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Studying Stephen Colbert: Nation, who is the most important humorist of the day?

Tracy Wuster

According to the opinion piece–Truthinessology: The Stephen Colbert effect becomes an obsession in academia–in a recent Washington Post, academics love them some Stephen Colbert.  So much so, that we write about him.  Now, in the opinion of this author, writing in the voice of Colbert’s character, this is silly.  He writes:

Stephen Colbert report truthiness

…ever since Colbert’s show, “The Colbert Report,” began airing on Comedy Central in 2005, these ivory-tower eggheads have been devoting themselves to studying all things Colbertian. They’ve sliced and diced his comic stylings more ways than a Ginsu knife. Every academic discipline — well, among the liberal arts, at least — seems to want a piece of him.

And while the piece starts as a satire of the study of satire, it segues into a discussion of the reasons Colbert is a good person to study in our current political moment.  In a way, I wish the article had continued its conceit of being written in Colbert’s voice–exploring the liberal arts and questioning the serious study of the funny.  In other words, I would like to hear what Stephen Colbert thinks of the study of Stephen Colbert. [If you want to do an interview, Mr. Colbert, contact me.]Stephen Colbert report america

But the piece also got me thinking about which current comedians/humorists academics are interested in beyond their entertainment value for what they might say about our society and the role of humor in it.  Based on the relatively small sample of our posts on this page, the most significant–academically speaking–living humorists are listed in the poll below.  Please vote.  Your vote won’t mean anything.  Superpac money will allow you to vote multiple times.

If you chose “other” and wrote in a name, please consider writing a post for us on that person.

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Stand-Up Sunday: Doug Mellard and Chuck Watkins

Tracy Wuster

I don’t actually go see stand-up comedy very often.  I have never seen anyone fancy perform in person–no Louis CK, no Dave Chappelle, No Margaret Cho, no Blue Collar Tour, no Kings of Comedy.  Paul F. Tompkins…he’s the fanciest person I have seen in person.  He is a fancy dresser, to be sure.

But the fact remains that I rarely go to comedy clubs or to theaters for shows.  I don’t know why.  Maybe my hermit-ish tendencies.  Maybe that 500-page dissertation I am turning into a book.  Maybe I don’t like paying.  Graduate students don’t like paying.  Nor do unemployed academics.

Thus, my favorite comedian to see in person is Doug Mellard.  Doug is funny.  Doug was the funniest person in Austin.  But Doug has one other thing going for him: he puts me on the list.  Free comedy.  It’s my favorite.  Pay $5 to download a comedy special by Louis CK?  No thanks.  I’ll wait for the FX special.

Since my research is on Mark Twain, not stand-up, I can justify my cheapness.  But if show promoters want me, or one of our contributing editors in LA, Boston, or Ypsilanti, Michigan to review a show, please contact us about where to pick up our free tickets.  Seriously.

Back to the point.  Thanks to Doug, I went to Cap City Comedy for a show (for free) with Doug and Chuck Watkins.  Both Doug and Chuck moved from Austin to LA to pursue comedy dreams, which involved sharing a one-bedroom with a tent in the living room.  On an unrelated note, follow Doug on Twitter.

Doug Mellad Chuck Watkins Cap City Comedy Club austin

Funny guys.  But I also noticed, since I figured I would write something about the show, the difference between watching a stand-up special on TV and watching live comedy.  People.  An old man laughing at jokes despite only hearing half of them.  A woman with a blank face in the front row–only smiling occasionally.  And many people laughing, primed to laugh, wanting to laugh.

I have grown increasingly fascinated by watching the audience during comedy–mostly during free specials on the TV.  The reactions of audiences are, of course, central to all art, but especially for stand-up.  John Limon,  in Stand-up Comedy in Theory, Or, Abjection in America, posits three  theorems that define stand-up as an absolute genre:

1. If you [meaning “you” the audience] think something is funny, it is.

2. A joke is funny if and only if you laugh at it.

3. Your laughter is the single end of stand-up. (11-12)

I’m not so sure these work out all that well, but I do think they are a good starting point for a discussion.  But I don’t have much to say about the audience at Doug and Chuck’s show, as I was busy laughing.  I would like to hear from other contributors to this blog about their views on audience reception and laughter.

I wanted to present you some clips from Doug and Chuck’s respective comedy CDs, which I purchased (cheapness be damned!), but my disk drive is broken (cheapness be damned!).  Instead, here is a video of the title joke from Doug’s CD, “Wipe your Paws,” followed by a song from “The Sophistimicated Wit of Chuck Watkins, Esquire.”
And Doug, feel free to send me a track or video to post here.  If you send me a clip of you reading from the list, I will pay to go see you next time (cheapness be damned!).

See more here.

See more here.

See below for flyer for a Chuck Watkins show about ALF.

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Sunday Stand-Up: Louis C.K. on Fatherhood.

Well it’s Father’s Day and if you’re anything like me your plans involve something to the effect of a phone call and new profile pic on Facebook. It probably also involves humorous takes on fatherhood and if so you’ve come to the right place.

Today we have Louis C.K.  I recently wrote about his approach to comedy but today is for highlighting how much of his comedy is about being a parent.  Which is to say a lot.  In addition to being wildly successful with his stand up special and TV show, C. K. is also now considered one of the best TV dads with the ways in which he discusses his struggles in being a good single parent.

In this first clip C.K. talks explicitly about why he doesn’t judge other parents, especially in public.  Because those people clearly have never had to deal with an endless stream of annoying questions from a child they are required by law to take care of.

This second clip is an animation about an encounter that C.K. himself had with a stranger judging his parenting skills.  What follows is one of the more insightful and funny takes on what it means to be a father offered in quite a while.

Owning Your Jokes: Louis C.K. and Digital Distribution

Editor’s Note:  Please welcome Joe Faina, our new contributing editor.  See biography at the end of the piece.

The resurgence in interest in comedy of all varieties in recent years has created a special category of comedy fan.  Bolstered by the internet and the relative ease of creating and posting content the amount of options for new and innovative comedy is growing exponentially.

Interestingly enough this moment can also be characterized by a resurgence in the timeless form of stand up comedy.  No one has capitalized on the liberatory and democratic potential of the Internet and new media than Louis CK.  For years known very little outside of insular comedy circles, the consumate “Comic’s comic” has vaulted to a position of elder statesman with his critically acclaimed show “Louie” and a steady stream of stand-up specials noted not only for the quality of material and performance but for their distribution as well.  This clip in particular illustrates the comedian’s ability to tackle topics of social importance in both a delicate and irreverent manner.

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Absurdism and Authenticity at South by Southwest

A short while ago, I was fortunate to attend South by Southwest not solely as a graduate student, but also as a reporter for Laughspin, a website centering on the practice of comedy. My task was simple, albeit exhausting: report on and review as many of the festival’s comedy shows as possible.

One of the benefits of seeing so much comedy in such a short span of time – the festival invited over sixty comics to a variety of showcases and tapings throughout the week – is that you naturally come to know which styles of comedy resonate with you.

This year, South by Southwest’s comic offerings highlighted a variety of styles which were bookended with pure absurdism and unadulterated rawness. The full range of humor left audiences on their toes, but it’s the latter form that I am continually drawn to and that speaks to some broader compulsion to excavate authenticity wherever we can find it.

I think we’ve seen a rise in raw, authentic, deeply personal – and sometimes cringe-inducing – comedy in the past ten years. We’ve been blessed with shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Louie; comics like Marc Maron, Louis C.K., Mike Birbiglia, Doug Stanhope; movies like Borat.

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Stand-Up Sunday: Comedians on Gay Marriage

Tracy Wuster

The recent court decision on California’s Proposition 8, and the passage of gay marriage bills in Washington and Maryland, have once again brought the issue of gay marriage to the fore in our cultural conversation.  On personal, political, legal, and moral grounds, I am a strong supporter of gay marriage.  But, in my professional role in the field of humor studies, I must also say that gay marriage wins on humorous grounds–in that those  who are in favor of gay marriage (both comedians, pundits, and generally anyone who discusses the subject) are funnier than those who are opposed…in my professional opinion.  Below are some comedians discussing the subject.  Feel free to post other links in the comments.

Warning: there are dirty words in some of the videos.

Wanda Sykes

Louis C.K.

Ellen Degeneres

There is more!

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Louis C.K.: Live (Or Not)

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.

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