On Standup Comedy

The American definition of a comedian is someone on television who interviews people. People who perform ‘standup’ cannot rightly be referred to as comedians. If this was for the fact that they aren’t funny, the matter would be simple enough. The truth, however, is that they are, on occasion, funny, for all intensive purposes. But unfortunately, their ‘funniness’ is part of what makes them ‘entertaining.’ They differ from musicians and actors in that the latter don’t rely on an emotional reaction from their audience in order to fulfill their art’s purpose. Emotional reactions are, to them, simply bi-products. For the comedian, however, their art form, along with every piece of phrasing and every fraction of timing, is arranged in order to incite laughter in the audience.

Because the experience one gains by going to a rock concert is not the same as going to a comedy show, there is a different expectation from the audience. Someone might go to see a rock show expecting to hear their favorite songs. If one hopes to go to a comedy show to hear his favorite joke, he will not take pleasure in it for the same reasons he did when he first heard it. Before the digital age, a comedian could get by well enough when guest-appearing on a late-night talk show or on a panel show by recycling some of his act as he saw it fit when it applied to the questions the interviewers were asking. Before the digital age, the worst that one could fault him for was hamfisting unnatural conversations or for forsaking the cult of spontaneity. In the digital age, however, in which comedians and artists of all sorts have chosen to rely on social media and ‘networking’ to accomplish their career goals and make a name for themselves, to repeat jokes word for word, with seemingly forced rehearsal of spontaneous gestures throughout, is an act of indelicacy.

When wit is supplied as a commodity, and when those commodities are paired to the needs of byte-sized frames of context in which to communicate them, there is less of a chance that anything remotely resembling art will come out of it. Where do they go for subject matter? Politics. Current events.

In politics, every act of complacent pandering to every party most highly funded by media vehicles translates into value-weighted calls to arms against scapegoats to match the age and armies of enemies which are always deemed ‘ignorant’ and only dangerous on account of this ignorance.

Bill Hicks revived a political style of comedy first pioneered by Lenny Bruce, and which others have successfully put new spins on, such as David Cross and Doug Stanhope. However, the nature of such political comedy can only go so far when the issues addressed stem from the same tired old list: gay marriage, pornography, religion, racism, police brutality, (etc) … Lenny Bruce covered each one of these in 1966. Comedians who are still rehashing variations of this material would do us all better by getting into politics themselves.

The all-too often forgotten truth which I much hesitate to admit, since I love the pioneers of that genre, is that few people are going to the comedy show of a talent who boasts ‘radical’ political views with the intentions of having their minds blown or changed. Let us see it for what it is: People go to standup shows in order to have their prejudices confirmed, nothing more, nothing less. I’ll go a step further and say that most of the very standup comedians today who boast ‘radical’ views are, in fact, espousing views which pander directly to the liberal media machine, and thus, those which fund them. There may not be any direct payoff, but that is hardly the point. There’s a sense of professional safety in passing off the safest, most socially acceptable views as ‘radical,’ and turning the societal aberrations among those who oppose those ideas—the enemies which most resemble villains, in other words—into the ‘mob’ whom they are pressing up against so bravely. One may approve of political standup comedy and find pleasure in laughing at it if one does it with full consciousness of its aims—It’s purpose is not to challenge, but to comfort and that is all.