Maybe I’ve been watching too many political debates or reading too many articles that pop up as newsworthy on my social media newsfeed (i.e. Starbucks’ Cupgate) – either way, I’ve been craving some authenticity lately and jumped at the chance to see comedian Bill Burr and his borderline-obnoxious-yet-refreshingly-honest standup last week.
My affinity for Bill Burr started years ago when I stumbled upon Bill Burr’s Monday Morning Podcast. Since 2007, Burr has relied heavily on material about sports, food, stereotypes, and even consumer complaints to air out his grievances in his weekly podcast, a part of the All Things Comedy network. During a recent episode on a Thursday night, Burr discussed his upcoming trip to Philadelphia, home of the world’s best cheesesteaks, where I saw him at the Wells Fargo Center, his largest live crowd ever, the following evening. If you’re not familiar with Bill Burr, his role during the second season of Chappelle’s Show might be worth a watch. Or you can catch the Massachusetts native on one of his specials – 2014’s I’m Sorry You Feel That Way being the most recent. Burr’s newest project, F is For Family, airs on Netflix next month.
As I was leaving the show, a group of 3 or 4 women in front of me lamented about giving up a Friday night to attend a show highlighting “another sexist comedian.” They cited his shtick about women’s takeover of the NFL as proof of their supposition. Below, a sample:
Last Saturday the Washington glitterati gathered at the Washington Hilton for what has become a major political event; the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. The draw has over the years become the president doing a stand-up bit followed by a professional comedian roasting more or less everybody in the room. This year’s invited host was Cecily Strong, a Saturday Night Live cast member known for playing The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With. Strong, only the second female to host in the last 20 years, did not go soft on those attending, pun intended. In twenty minutes she made sure to joke both left and right. My personal favorite was when she went after Obama: commenting on criticism that Senator Elizabeth Warren is “too idealistic and her proposed policies are too liberal,” she told people to look at President Obama “people thought the same about him and he didn’t end up doing any of that stuff.” Obama’s jokes also hit home, especially his jab at Hillary Clinton: “I have one friend, just a few weeks ago she was making millions of dollars a year and she’s now living out of a van in Iowa”. Indeed, the White House Correspondent’s Dinner has become something of a comedic highlight of the year for those interested in politics, giving it the nickname “Nerd Prom”.
The modern classic of the annual dinners is from 2006 when Stephen Colbert appeared as his signature parody of a conservative media pundit and brutally criticized George W. Bush and the media’s failure to confront his administration. Among the zingers was when he tried to reassure Bush not to pay attention to approval ratings; “we know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality. And reality has a well-known liberal bias”. Reports after the dinner claimed that Bush was furious over Colbert’s jokes and especially conservative media pundits agreed that Colbert had gone too far. However, seeing the comedian take on the president as close to mano a mano as you can get is something the audience longs for. In medieval times it was said that the only one who could speak the truth without fear of repercussions was the court jester. Today the court jester is often invisible, even if Jon Stewart is still on the air a couple of months, Larry Wilmore has done an excellent job with the former Colbert Report, and cartoonists like Ann Telnaes of the Washington Post is fighting the good fight. At the White House Correspondent’s Dinner the court jester speaking truth to power should be the main attraction.
I have been excited for Rebecca Krefting’s All Joking Aside (out now through Johns Hopkins University Press) to come out since hearing her present at the 2010 AHSA/MTC conference in San Diego (this year in New Orleans). Krefting’s approach to stand-up comedy is thoughtful, nuanced, and entertaining. In the book, Krefting uses the concept of “charged humor” to describe a particular type of stand-up performer, providing both a useful rubric for understanding certain types of stand-up and solid case studies of performers. You can read a section on the concept of charged humor here. From All Joking Aside: American Humor and Its Discontents, by Rebecca Krefting. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
I recently interviewed the Krefting about the book and her experiences as a humor scholar:
Tracy Wuster) Tell me about your start in humor studies. How and when did you begin pursuing it as a subject? who has influenced you as a scholar of humor?
Rebecca Krefting: I think I began studying comedy the moment I began writing my first set. I contemplated questions like: what words would create the greatest comedic effect and in what order? How do you take everyday occurrences or a terrible situation and make it funny? Why is something funnier coming out of his mouth than out of mine? I started performing stand-up comedy and improv in August of 2001, a mere six weeks before 9/11. I was fresh out of college and while considering graduate school, had not made any commitments either way. I worked several jobs: bartender/server, legal secretary, and domestic worker and had just enough time and chutzpah to try my hand at comic performance. I strove to be a comic and attacked it with the fervor of a beaver building a dam—like my life depended on it (if you know anything about beavers, you know that’s true). The improv acting I fell into by auditioning on a lark for a professional troupe called The Skeleton Crew performing out of Nashville, TN. Looking back, I know now just how lucky I was to train in this comedic cultural form, which informed my stand-up and later my teaching. In both stand-up and improv, I was acutely aware of my identity as a woman while performing (this more so than my being a lesbian because although I was out, I opted not to call attention to this during my stand-up) and so I became a critical observer of how identities played out on stage. Thus began my fascination with the practice, history, and analysis of comedy. When I started applying for grad schools, I knew that an MA in Women’s Studies would expose me to the scholarship that would help me make sense of the gender gap in comedy and other cultural phenomena I had been observing in the comedy world. Having been schooled in one identity-based discipline, it seemed a natural shift to obtain a doctorate in American Studies, the first identity-based discipline in academia. It didn’t hurt that the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park also housed (at that time) the Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies, where I was offered employment.
My influences as comic and scholar are manifold. They are comics like Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, Roseanne Barr, Maria Bamford, Kate Clinton, and Patton Oswalt; they are comic performers like Sissieretta Jones, Trixie Friganza, Judy Gold, Meryn Cadell, Nellie McKay, Greg Walloch, and the Five Lesbian Brothers; they are scholar-mentors like Linda Mizejewski, Brenda Brueggemann, Mary Sies, Ronit Eisenbach, Sharon Harley, and Larry Mintz; they are scholars like Karl Marx, Patricia Hill Collins, Philip Auslander, Eddie Tafoya, bell hooks, Judith Butler, Coco Fusco, Rosemarie Garland Thompson, Jill Dolan, and Shane Phelan.
by Susan Seizer, Indiana University
This post is about the interplay between Craft and Magic on the U.S. comedy club circuit. My interest in this topic grows out of a larger ethnographic study of the lives of Road Comics, those professional standup comedians who earn their living playing the comedy club circuit across the central states. These are not the comics you see on stages in New York or Los Angeles, or on cable shows broadcast from these two coastal media hubs. The comics I am interested in are working the road, generally playing to working class audiences and are themselves working class.
In 2012 I produced a documentary, Road Comics: Big Work on Small Stages, that follows the creativity and passion of road comics working clubs and bars in the “flyover zones” of middle America. Two of the comics featured in the film, Kristin Key and Stewart Huff, are also featured in this post. I encourage you to watch the film to see more of their performances, as well as those of another talented comedian, Tim Northern, and to experience their stories from the road as they tell them. After a lively year of festival screenings, including at the Friars Club Comedy Film Festival in New York City, the full film is now available free for streaming and downloading at www.roadcomicsmovie.com.
Caption: Road Comics: Big Work on Small Stages is available for streaming at www.roadcomicsmovie.com
By Craft here I mean all that such comics do to keep themselves in work: a well-crafted show not only has audiences laughing but also demonstrates to club owners and bookers that a comic can regularly make this happen. Repeat bookings depend on a comic knowing how to work a room. Craft involves all the calculations that make Magic possible; the purpose of honing one’s Craft is to have the opportunity to continue making Magic.
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.
In 1960, Time magazine placed Mort Sahl on its cover, declaring him, “the patriarch of a new school of comedians” that included Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Lenny Bruce, and Jonathan Winters.
His brand of erudite political humor had made him the comic of the moment – and this was a fertile moment for American comedy. While careful to maintain his image as an iconoclast, Sahl nevertheless went to work writing jokes for the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign. However, his comedy remained critical of Kennedy both during and after the election, at least until late 1963.
There were signs that Sahl’s popularity began to wane due to broad trends resulting from decreased demand for political humor and sharp satire after Kennedy’s death. However, most narratives of Sahl’s career, including his own autobiography, point to a more important factor in his retreat from the spotlight: his becoming a Kennedy conspiracy theorist. As part of his work on a syndicated television program, Sahl traveled to meet Jim Garrison (the subject of Oliver Stone’s JFK) who by 1967 claimed to have solved the mystery of Kennedy’s shooting. The CIA, by Garrison’s account, killed the president because of his efforts at ending the Cold War and weakening the CIA. Garrison deputized Sahl who, funded from his own pocket, delved into the investigation. These years proved particularly difficult for Sahl. Not only was he spending time and money investigating instead of performing, his reputation and performances as a paranoiac prevented bookings and disappointed audiences. Of course, by Sahl’s probably not entirely false account, his career was torpedoed by those who disagreed with or wanted to silence his opinions on this matter, including the powerful in the entertainment and political world.
When Sahl performed, his routines increasingly focused on the assassination. Audiences grew tired of his repeated performances reading word-for-word from The Warren Commission Report and staging sketches using directly-quoted government testimony. Holding the comic up as a prototypical post-Kennedy conspiracy theorist while explaining his downfall, John Leonard in 1978 wrote in The New York Times,
He went strange after the assassination of John Kennedy. And in that sense, too, he was a stand-in for the children of the 1950’s. It suddenly seemed that we were no longer the pampered children of the Enlightenment, getting better every day. Until that particular assassination, there was a European way of thinking about conspiracies (there has to be a conspiracy, because it would absolve the rest of us of guilt) and an American way (there can’t be a conspiracy, because then there’s no one to take the rap). Mort Sahl went European all the way into the swamp wevers of the mind of New Orleans Attorney Jim Garrison.
And the talk shows stopped wanting to hear him go on about the grassy knoll, the two autopsies, the washed-out limousine, Lee Harvey Oswald’s marksmanship, Jack Ruby’s friends. He wasn’t funny. He was also, eventually, unemployed, and bitter, as he made clear in his memoir, “Heartland” [sic].
Although vindicated to some extent by the eventual public mistrust of The Warren Commission Report and more provable conspiracies like Watergate, Mort Sahl’s career never recovered.
Sahl is not the only humorist invested in conspiracy theories. Dick Gregory’s commitment to civil rights and other social justice movements led him down similar paths questioning historical orthodoxy. In more recent years, comics like Dave Chappelle have played around with similar notions while shows including The Boondocks, King of the Hill,and South Park have all taken a turn at conspiracy theory-themed narratives. While different comics and shows are differently invested in these themes, it suggests a commonality regarding the political humorists’ mindset. If comedy’s cultural value arises in part from questioning and straining conventional logic, it only makes sense that it would question and strain conventional history as well.
(c) 2013, Phil Scepanski
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.
I have a friend who takes Saint Patrick’s Day very seriously. His extended family gathers on the weekend nearest March 17 to trade sarcasms and drink alcohol. They boil meat on the Massachusetts shoreline, and balance small talk with cruel reminders of past grievances until whiskey favors one end of the scales. Still, the older members of the clan can cover up scandal, debating sports while training the next generation in table games using root beer instead of the hopped variety for everyone under age. But what is under age? It’s up to them. Pretty standard for Jews.
Not really. They’re Irish. Of course they’re Irish. I’m Irish too, but not that Irish. None of us are Jewish, but the contradiction in ethnic stereotypes makes it funny, and necessary to present my title here instead of above: The Jewish Comic and the Irish Muse. Anything sooner would’ve altered the chemistry of the anecdote, and like a good bartender, a storyteller must know the order of ingredients to deliver their greatest effect, and repeat when necessary. Make it a double.