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:
Can lovers ever really be fools? Can fools really lose themselves in romantic love? The lover and the fool are comic literary archetypes, but they are funny in very different ways. Lovers in romantic comedies typically exhibit buffoonish humor; these movies are funny at the expense of their protagonists. We think their counter-times and missed messages are humorous for the clumsiness and coincidence they reveal, but the characters do not “know” that their experiences seem funny. Hugh Grant’s romantic anxieties must be genuine anxieties for his character in order to be funny to his audience. Even Shakespeare’s Kate from The Taming of the Shrew must be sincere in her impetuousness for her audience, guided by a humorous theatrical interpretation, to find them outrageous and funny. But she is never laughing—her position is quite the opposite of amused, in fact.
The fool seems different. Fools know they are speaking in wit and riddle, and they are disinterested players without a personal stake in the interpersonal dramas before them. Shakespearean fools are often androgynous; they do not meddle, at least with any personal agenda, in human passions. King Lear’s fool makes the crudest, even the most scathing jokes, yet he is “boy” to Lear, and sometimes he is even played by the same actress who portrays Lear’s daughter Cordelia.
Hamlet has a touch of the fool; in fact, the court jester Yoric is one of the only personalities he respects in the play. I have sometimes wondered if the impossibility of his relationship with Ophelia has to do with his changing role from lover to fool. It seems he cannot be both at the same time. If the courtiers think Hamlet’s out of his mind, then they cannot at the same time think he is fit to marry Cordelia. As a fool he is somehow ineligible for romantic courtship.
Can there ever be a fool-type presence in romantic comedies? For a moment I wondered if the protagonist’s best friend or neighbor might embody the fool. I had in mind Rhys Ifans’s in Notting Hill, but he too is a buffoon as opposed to a knowing riddler, and he too eventually finds love.
Actually, the traditional fool bears a closer resemblance to the stand-up comedian, who is part court jester, part truth speaker, and in those respects the stand-up comedian is a derivative of the Shakespearean fool archetype. Although the stand-up comic’s jokes extend to areas of sexual life that no one else will touch, the comic often also mocks or cynically rejects his or her own romantic prospects. Louis C.K.’s brash jokes about his wife are in some sense a testament to this. When the wife became ex-wife, the jokes seemed more shocking in retrospect. But is it too much to say that the unattached comedian was then freed to become an even more disinterested player? Maybe.
Some stand-up comedians (Steve Martin, Michael Keaton, and Bill Murray come to mind) explore the lover’s role with success, but this only works if they change hats. It seems the lover cannot know that he is the one telling jokes; he must become the joke. He must surrender to the humiliating experience of being in love. One exception might be Groundhog Day (1993), where only the protagonist and the audience understand why this courtship through repetition is funny; and Murray’s lover-protagonist is not sure, until late in the film, that he wants to cultivate any lasting personal ties.
Traditionally, the court jester is in but not of society. It is his detached stance in the drama of life that gives the fool license to say things no one else can say. He must genuinely appear to have nothing to gain and nothing to lose.
When the stand-up comedian stays court jester and also tries to be the lover, the results are confusing—but interesting. Consider Chris Rock’s Top Five, which contains some of Rock’s most experimental and wild tangents into the sexually outrageous (I was reminded of a Laurence Sterne novel) as well as some of the rom-com genre’s more stilted courtship moments. The film represents vibrant new terrain for Rock, but it does not leave one feeling confidant that the stand-up comedian can seamlessly hop from comedy stage to lover’s lair.
Yet Rock’s new genre within the romantic comedy genre could represent a broadening shift for the fool. Unlike Hamlet, Rock’s protagonist is presented with a love interest, Rosario Dawson, who prizes the fool over the lover. In turn, Rock’s languishing stand-up comedian character finds new inspiration through love. It is a transition in progress to be sure, but perhaps these once distinct archetypes are merging into a single character. Perhaps the lover is becoming a little savvier and the fool just a little more tender.
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.
Today, May 12th, would have been George Carlin’s birthday. Born in 1937, Carlin was one of the key figures of the stand-up renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s. Carlin is listed as #2 on the Comedy Central list of the 100 most influential comedians of all time and was awarded the Mark Twain Prize in American Humor.
“Seven Dirty Words” originated on Carlin’s 1972 album, Class Clown, and was revisited on 1973’s, Occupation: Foole. Carlin was arrested on July 21, 1972 for performing the routine in Milwaukie. The case was dismissed when Carlin’s routine was judged indecent, not obscene. Carlin’s explication of the words led to a court case that eventually ended at the Supreme Court in Federal Communications Commission vs. Pacifica Foundation—a decision that is a modern touchstone in the debate over obscenity (here is part of the FCC transcript of Carlin’s monologue).
Every once in a while, I try to think what those seven words are–can you think of them?
“It’s the idea of trying the other things that people wouldn’t do.”
This is Robin Williams eventual answer to the initial question posed by James Lipton on an episode of his famous Inside the Actors Studio. Eventual because it is given 7 minutes and 30 seconds after the “start” of the interview. What transpires before is one of Williams’s most memorable performances, posted here.
The question posed to Williams by Lipton seemed almost superfluous. “There is a phrase that you have used on various occasions to help us understand you and that phrase is legalized insanity…what is legalized insanity?” He already had his answer.
The clip is not technically stand-up comedy but Robin Williams is not technically a stand-up comedian. At least not in how stand-up comedians tend to be characterized. What fascinates me most about his appearance on Inside the Actors Studio is that he had effectively demonstrated his brilliance and skill as a comedic performer before the interview even began; with an improvised solo performance that would have been legendary in any stand-up comedy club, let alone an introduction to a basic cable interview show.
By now everyone should be familiar with the career of Robin Williams. One need not spend much time on IMDB to know he has provided some of the best performances, comedic and otherwise, in some of the greatest films and television shows of all time. Yet with all the Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe awards his work as a stand-up often takes a back seat. Many remain shocked to find out that he has turned in some of the most iconic stand-up comedy specials as well. It is no small feat to have created six highly regarded comedy specials over the span of 30 years, and yet be more well known for movie roles.
This clip encapsulates much of Williams’s trademark manic, improvisational style. Complete with material that strikes as relevant more than 25 years later.
To those who do not follow the contemporary world of stand-up comedy Tig Notaro is not exactly well known. To those who do she is one of the best working today. Tig’s style of comedy is that of a storyteller, a storyteller who’s low key style is punctuated by a series of understatements that combine both a keen sense of awareness and a subtle naiveté that the audience is invited to participate in. Much of Tig’s humor relies on this juxtaposition, creating laughs by intentionally not pointing out the obvious, letting the audience do it instead.
This is what I find the most entertaining about the story in this first clip.
This second one is shorter but offers a similar feel.
While much of Notaro’s career has been played under the radar that is likely to change with her recent revelation that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Like her stand up, what was noteworthy was in how Notaro chose to publicly announce her diagnosis; onstage during a set at Largo in Los Angeles in late August. Word of this announcement spread shortly after an audience member posted this reflection on the special moment created during the performance. America’s preeminent comic of the moment Louis C.K. was in attendance, noting on his Twitter account “In 27 years doing this I’ve seen a handful of truly great, masterful stand up sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.” C.K. recently released the audio recording of the entire set through his website, a gesture noted for its similarity with his own process of realeasing material to fans. While I cannot post the audio clip to this site I would suggest downloading it as it definitely captures a moment that defies the attempts to describe it cited here. A set that truly captures the essence of what makes live performance different from any other.
Dave Chappelle has been an enigma the last few years. After famously walking away from his wildly popular show on Comedy Central Chappelle has largely remained out of the public eye. More recently the comedian began playing a series of unannounced shows throughout the country that while sparking significant hype have been terribly disappointing.
That is a shame because I still find Chappelle to be one of the finest stand up comics. Ever. Recent public flops aside his two specials, Killing Them Softly and For What It’s Worth, remain two of my favorite specials of all time.
Though not necessarily a political comedian Chappelle does occasionally touch upon politicians, especially those who might be linked to the Black experience. Long before Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president comedians like Cedric the Entertainer opined about Bill Clinton being the de facto first one.
The clip here is from 2000 right near the end of the Clinton Administration. There are some timely references to then President Clinton’s candor and coolness that those who saw his recent rave review at this year’s Democratic National Convention will find timeless as well. And since Chappelle initially cut his comedy chops as a teenager at the Washington D.C. improv in the late 80’s there is always room for a well placed mayor joke as well.
See any similarities with the persona here with what we saw during the Democratic Convention?
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.
Discussing Dane Cook on a humor website is kind of like saying that Twinkies have a recipe; sure, he is technically a comedian by virtue of his standing on a stage and saying things into a microphone, but only in the same way that Twinkies are technically food because we can put them in our mouths and chew. (I’m aware that this is not the best Twinkie metaphor ever, but I really dislike Twinkies. And Dane Cook.)
And yet, disregarding what is apparently a pretty severe personal disinclination toward the comedian on my own part, we find ourselves forced to have to think about him as a result of a recent and gloriously insensitive joke about the July 20th shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colorado, on the opening night of The Dark Knight Rises. A shooting which left twelve dead and over 50 injured. About which, Cook joked:
“I know that if none of that would have happened, pretty sure that somebody in that theater, about 25 minutes in, realizing it [The Dark Knight Rises] was a piece of crap, was probably like ‘ugh fucking shoot me.’”
Playing at the Laugh Factory less than one week after the event, Cook’s joke suggests that the real victims in this tragedy are the people whose theaters were not gassed and gunned down – which is to say, anyone who has actually seen the film itself.
As I would also argue about the recent controversy surrounding Daniel Tosh and a similarly sketchy (and equally unfunny) “joke” about the rape of an audience member – which has been previously addressed by Humor in America – I believe that Cook has every right to say what he did, and I would never seek to put parameters around what is available to be addressed in and through humor. But as contributing editor Joe Faina asks of the appeals to artistic integrity and free expression among the license afforded our comedians and writers:
“Are these really the kinds of jokes that we want to defend in the name of those ideals? I’d just like us all to ponder for a moment what it means that those strange rhetorical bedfellows were made. If Tosh were to be immune from criticism on the grounds that he is an artist then wouldn’t that force us to reconsider the value of such art? If not, shouldn’t it?”
The same should be asked of Cook’s joke, which – unlike Tosh’s trademark, over-the-top compulsion to unsettle his audience – betrays something closer to boredom, as though senseless death and injury occurs frequently enough to be almost unremarkable, and as such – and here is one of the central tenets of comedy, plus a paradox in its own right – this banality of evil is therefore at the same time eminently remarkable as well: the comedian’s personal disaffectedness and distance authorizes the kind of casual observation that remains at the center of modern stand-up (i.e. “Have you ever noticed….?” and so on). What Cook seizes on – and what the audience laughs at, after an initial and probably more honest hesitancy – is the fact that, somewhat sadly, the film The Dark Knight Rises will likely have a more immediate, immanent relation to the majority of our lives, if only because only those three fictional hours are the only element of this tragedy to which we will have had access. Not real death, just that of actors who will be seen somewhere else soon enough. Not real blood on the steeped floor of a theater, just that which for most of us will only ever be soda, sticky on our soles.
The problem is that Dane Cook doesn’t seem to care.
This is not meant to excuse Cook for his cynical, privileged remarks, which are offensive at best and subhuman at worst. Cook has since apologized – via Twitter, of course, so you know it’s as sincere as 140 characters can be after suggesting that at least 12 murder victims are better off for not having to have sat through what he found to be a mediocre film. According to Cook’s Twitter feed, he “did not mean to make light of what happened,” which I’m going to go ahead and say simply cannot be the case, because what else is a joke? Or: why tell a joke at all, if not for the laughter that he, to a degree, would have to have predicted in order to warrant the inclusion of this joke, or any joke for that matter? In other words, he either had to know that it would be funny or he wanted it to be funny. He had to have been the first one to laugh at this joke, to be sure that that’s what it was. Cook’s admission that he “made a bad judgment call with my material last night,” as his tweet continues, is at least more accurate and honest. But it also invalidates the earlier point about meaning to “make light,” because he did judge, did choose this joke, which with any luck – for him, that is – would have transmuted darkness into levity, light. The saddest thing about Cook’s joke is how self-serving it ultimately seems; whatever laughter there is here is his, not ours, and certainly not that of the victims or their families.
The impulse to reverse and redress the worst of what we find in life is in many ways what humor is, or is at least what I think of when considering “the value of such art.” Humor is at its best and most valuable when it breaks down and brings close the distance by which we are removed from anything outside ourselves. In every good joke, there is a willingness to let light be made: yes, light as though a lantern that illuminates and exposes, but also light as in the lifting with someone else of what would have been too heavy otherwise. Instead of apologizing for this imperative – to “make light” – Cook would do better to think about why anyone bothers to be funny in the first place. His joke is indefensible because there is no suture there, no pulling together and repairing some part of ourselves. This is not to prescribe a compulsory program for what humor has to achieve or should always do, but merely to consider the condition of laughter as something that we have to share. It doesn’t always have to feel good to laugh. There is nothing unequivocally wrong with offense. Not all jokes are going to be funny. But lack of taste and tact notwithstanding, the thing that is ultimately really wrong with Dane Cook’s joke is that he doesn’t ask us to laugh with, only at.
By now readers of this blog, and followers of humor in general, are no doubt aware of the recent controversy surrounding comedian Daniel Tosh and the curious case of the misquoted rape joke. If not you can read about it here, or the original account here.
Long story short: Sometime last week, a woman attended a Daniel Tosh show at The Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. Tosh, known for humor that frequently toes the line on appropriateness, was making comments about the humor of rape jokes. The woman responded that she does not think such jokes are ever funny. Tosh responds to this “heckler” by announcing to the audience “wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?”
It is not my aim here to recount what did or did not happen, or whether such jokes are or are not appropriate. Both of those have been hashed out extensively. There was the Huffington Post‘s recap of the incident, complete with a collection of comedians defending Daniel Tosh. More importantly there was a slew of pleas to Please Stop Telling Rape Jokes, along with detailed instructions on How to Make a Rape Joke work and examples of 15 Rape Jokes That Work. Even The Onion got in on the action, giving what is probably the most pointed illustration.
It is important to note that comedians are not all in agreement over this. Here in my adopted comedy city of Austin there is a vibrant discussion of Tosh and more importantly over issues of who is “allowed” to say what to whom. Much of this happened in house on a private Facebook page for Austin comedians. With permission, I’ve included two of the more insightful takes from two comics whom I respect and admire.
From Kath Barbadoro:
I think it’s more about that a person probably shouldn’t be telling jokes where rape is the punchline, or that make rape seem like it’s less of a serious and horrible thing than it is, and expect people to not be pissed off or feel threatened.
Because “wouldn’t it be funny if this woman got gang raped right now” isn’t a funny joke, it isn’t even a joke. This doesn’t disprove the whole “anything can be funny in the right light” thing.
Basically I think it’s not about what is okay to be offended by and what is not okay to be offended by, because people can be mad about whatever they want just like people can say whatever they want. The point is that 1. all rape jokes are not created equal, some perpetuate a culture that is cool with rape and some don’t, and 2. what tosh did to that audience member is fucked up.
Sorry, but as a woman who is in comedy spaces a lot, I really need “jokes” about the audience gang raping a specific individual to not be okay. Is that seriously unreasonable? This isn’t a philosophical or semantic argument to me, this is a matter of self-advocacy.
From Brendan K. O’Grady:
I’m actually still less troubled by Daniel Tosh’s joking about a heckler getting raped than I am by segments from his TV show like “Lightly Touching Women’s Stomachs While They’re Sitting Down.”…As a performer and speech advocate, I’ll staunchly defend Tosh’s right to do what he did on stage at the Laugh Factory (and I’ll applaud the woman, who reportedly will still go see live comedy, if maybe after doing a little research into who’s on the bill beforehand next time), but I’ll condemn him as irresponsible at best and despicable at worst for the way he appears to look at women and other people in general, as evidenced by his other works.
It is a special time to do comedy in the age of the Internet. But it is also a double edged sword. The benefit of increased access to audiences carries with it the increased responsibility to be accountable for things said to those audiences. The last few years have given us numerous examples: Michael Richards, Carlos Mencia, Tracy Morgan, and now Daniel Tosh.
The “sides” that have emerged in this controversy are as intriguing as they are predictable. Supporters of Tosh often appeal to ideals of free speech as integral to an artist’s integrity. If Tosh, or any comedian for that matter, has to watch what they say for fear of offending then we are in effect silencing their right to free expression of ideas. Either everything is fair game or none of it is.
The other “side” appeals to notions of empathy on behalf of those to whom these jokes are “aimed” at. As Kath noted, “not all rape jokes are equal”–we should be mindful of the underlying premise of a joke to examine whether or not it hinges upon attacking those who are already in marginalized positions. Perpetuating harmful stereotypes or world views should not be the purpose of comedy, and comedians should adjust their material accordingly.
If these positions seem roughly sketched or resting upon a false dichotomy, that is because they are. What makes Kath and Brendan’s comment illustrative to me is in how they incorporate elements of both positions. Despite the reactions to several comedians in the aforementioned link, no one is actually saying Tosh isn’t allowed to say what he wants. His free speech rights have not been hampered. He did not go to jail, nor should he. Kath’s comments spoke to the idea that someone “probably shouldn’t be telling a joke where rape is the punchline” and that such requests are not “seriously unreasonable.” Brendan also makes a point to defend Tosh’s free speech rights, but that in doing so creates a space where he can “condemn him for being irresponsible at best and despicable at worst” for suggesting that comments about rape targeted at a specific person are part of his artistic merit as a comedian.
This last point is what sticks with me the most. I also do not find this to be an either/or scenario or that those who initially defended Tosh were doing so because they didn’t think rape is a serious topic. Correlation is not causality. However it does raise some points for reflection that jokes about the heinous act of rape were technically defended using the language of art, integrity, and free expression. Are these really the kinds of jokes that we want to defend in the name of those ideals? I’d just like us all to ponder for a moment what it means that those strange rhetorical bedfellows were made. If Tosh were to be immune from criticism on the grounds that he is an artist then wouldn’t that force us to reconsider the value of such art? If not, shouldn’t it?