Not everyone likes their comedy intellectualized.
But, for those who do, I've suggested a column for SHECKY!
in which I will focus each month on a professional comic and
break down what it is they do that makes them stand out from
the rest of the pack of microphone addicts. I'll give my
ideas and if readers want to chime in, add in, call me on my
bullshit, that would be great.
What I won't do is take shots at anyone.
(That's for the back of the room while the comic is on stage.)
And comics are too good at counter-punching, so I'm not setting
myself up for that kind of punishment.
I figure I'll
get enough just from people saying, "Hey, Man, it's either
funny or it's not. You can't explain it." Maybe that's
right: You can't explain humor. But you can sure as hell
explain technique and character and material and most everything
else that makes stage humor work or not. And if we start a forum
for generating some ideas about what works on a standup stage and
why, that might be a way for everyone to learn a few things along
Anyway, that's what I think. Like I said, it may
not be for everyone. I intend to write this by picking a
comic each month and finding in his/her act some essential
stand-up element that would be cool to explore. I live in
L.A., but since every comic in the world seems to have moved
here I should be able to keep this pretty cross-regional.
So if you're ready, I thought I'd start with a funny dude
named Tom Kenny.
I saw Tom Kenny do a set at Largo in Hollywood
back in April, and it was the first time I had seen
him in probably ten years. He told the audience he
made most of his money now as a voice guy (he's Spongebob
Squarepants, among other things), but I was glad to see he
was still at the top of his stand-up game, because he tore
the place up.
A dervish on stage, Tom is thin with a hawkish face,
a "high energy" act in the best sense of the phrase, the
kind of guy who has performance power and sharp material.
Add to that the fact that he works the crowd and you know
it would just suck trying to follow him.
Tom has ditched the Buddy Holly glasses, but other than
that the only thing that has changed about him is that like
almost every comic who moves to LA, Hollywood has seeped into
One of the worst things I see about stand-up in LA is that it
is so focused on the media industry. Comic after comic goes
up and does jokes about producers and has-been actors, shows
they've been on, the lunacy of trying to "make it" out here.
It's like some virus works its way into their acts, and suddenly
guys from Michigan are doing stuff about Cha Chi and the chick on
Little House on the Prairie. Which I guess is natural. Comics
talk about what they experience. Unfortunately, out here they
all experience Hollywood, and none of the rest of the country
experiences that at all. But Tom Kenny is different. As a
good comic he's been able to filter out the raw experience of
Hollywood and work it into his show in a way that would be accessible
even for the road audiences that so many LA comics claim to despise
(they just don't get me, man).
He does this by finding what is universal in his Hollywood
experience. Everyone gets shit on in a job sooner or later.
Tom took this basic human phenomenon and applied it to working
on a commercial where he was playing the letter "Y" in a bowl
of cereal. The burned-out director asked him, "Y? What's your
name?" Tom said, "You know, just call me Y."
Perfect. You don't need to know anything about commercials
to know what it's like to be in the teeth of the dehumanization
machine. Every union worker and middle management drone in the
country can relate to that.
Which is one of the true genius aspects of stand-up.
Great stand-ups don't get up and talk about their own idiosyncratic
experience in New York or LA and just leave it idiosyncratic.
They find ways to bring everyone into their experience. Audiences
are cool with learning about your world if you can find ways to let
them learn it. If you don't then you're just an asshole who hasn't
worked to entertain the people who are paying your salary that night.
Tom has found a way to keep the audience connected even as his
show has taken on some Hollywood focus. And he's smart, funny, and
hip even in the moments where he's universalizing to the masses.
In that moment Tom manages to be both "alternative" and accessible,
and that's a great lesson for all the comics who don't get laughs
except from very specialized audiences, and hide their failure
behind statements like, I'm alternative, so not everybody is going
to get it.