The Clogged Drain of Comedy
Here's a question perhaps in need of pondering, a fly to be
lured into the ointment, a piece of what has come into my mind
that I wish would stir things up a bit.
Who belongs on a comedy club stage?
Out of all the people who parade onto the still-barely-gasping-
for-air standup stages in our little country, who actually has
full rights to be up there?
Should it be whoever the audience likes? Or maybe whoever bookers
like? Or whoever can draw a crowd? Whoever has the desire to
get up there? Whoever can talk enough to cover the time?
Whoever other comics like? Whoever will work cheap? Whoever
can mimic the form? Whoever is improving? Whoever is unique?
Whoever can get a basic amount of laughter?
I ask because I've seen a lot of standup, as much as probably
anybody in the world. I watch it night after night, set after
set, amateur and pro, in LA and out of LA. I've been doing this
since 1987, a couple of times a week or more. And truth be told,
most of the time watching the shows is just painful. Most of the
people I have seen on stage don't belong up there.
Take LA, for example. Comedy stages here are a clogged drain.
There's plenty of stage time, but you can't get to it because
standup in LA is choked with people who shouldn't be up there.
Look into the sink and you'll see the celebrity mummies who lost
their talent years ago but still do set after set after set of
the same mind numbing shit week after week. You'll see thousands
of "alternative" open mikers airing their mundane angst while
protecting their paltry psyches against the lack of laughter
with the insultingly insipid mantra that they are doing art.
You'll see road guys who should have quit when the boom went
bust, should have gone back into insurance or working the Home
Depot, but instead come here believing they have a shot even
without writing ability, acting ability, originality, youth,
or drive on their side. You'll see actors who are taking standup
classes and who have never said an authentic thing in their
entire lives. You'll see a whole host of freaks who don't have
good material, aren't in the process of getting good material,
but who believe they are on the road to godhood and they deserve
to be in the sacred light. They believe they will be transformed
by that light, that some night it will all fission and become
brilliant, and that if the audience has to sit and wait and
stare at clay waiting to be made resplendent, too bad.
And then floating amongst all of this you'll see perfect orchids.
Amazing talent. Someone with an exhilarating soul, a way with
words and jokes and ideas and voice and body. Maybe it will be
Bob O'Shak. You'll hear him rain truth and jokes, and you'll
laugh. Hard. A deep, soul laugh.
And then you will hear that he hasn't been on the Improv
stage for four months. Because the stage is clogged with
hack, celebrity mummy, hack, pseudo-intellectual, hack,
pretender, hack, actor, hack, hack, orchid, hack, idealess
It is an important question, this idea of who should be up
there. Because it is at the heart of why our art form has
nearly gone condor. Imagine going to a museum of fine art,
and out of one thousand paintings, only two were done by
people with talent. The others were done by anyone who could
find a canvas. But to get to the two you had to go through
every single one of the others. You had to stand and look at
it for at least seven minutes, maybe as long as thirty. Maybe
even an hour.
There has been talk that standup died out because of
overexposure, or competition, or bad business practices
and scummy bookers/owners. What I think is that pseudo-
comedians killed comedy. It's like going to see the NBA
and seeing bad playground ball instead. It's going to
see a Stones concert and getting Japanese karaoke.
Who belongs on a comedy club stage? People who can give
the audience such a powerful experience that they are drawn
back time and time again to be awed. Comics who can blow the
room open with unique stuff that hits a wide audience and
wrenches them with laughter. Performers who burn themselves
into your memory and make you think I can't believe I saw that
person up close.
In other words, Comic Artists belong on a standup stage.
You know a comic artist as soon as they open their mouths.
Every phrase is crafted, every word well chosen, every bit
smooth and surprising. Every thing they do is right. They
know the form, they extend the form, they live and breathe
comedy. It spills out of them whether they want it to or not.
Extraordinarily funny people belong on stage. It amazes me
how many comedians I know who are about as funny as the average
person on the street. Stages are supposed to be for those who
are extra-ordinary. If you're just ordinarily funny, this isn't
the profession for you. Yes, you can make it in here and hang
out and even make a little money; but you shouldn't.
Visionaries belong on the stage. These are the comics who see
things we don't, and they bring those things to us in ways we
can never predict. They don't recycle things that have been
done before, they don't just tell the "stupid" audience things
that are obvious to smart people. They gather up what has not
been said or thought, and they bring that harvest to stage night
after night after night.
Craftsmen belong on stage. These are comics who may not
bring blazingly new stuff, but they know every single comic
technique, they can do them with precision and care, and they
have enough clever ideas that you're never insulted by how
mundanely they view the world. They are the adepts who can
use the tools that geniuses developed.
Synthesizers belong on stage. These are the comic professionals
who can't do anything well alone, but they can do it all star
quality when it is generated by great support staff. It doesn't
truly matter whether you do standup completely alone. What
matters is that you can recognize what is great, gather it
together, and make it work on stage. The product needs to be
great; how it becomes great does not matter.
Finally, Full Boats belong on stage. These are the comics who
have the whole repertoire. Not somebody who has two killer
minutes and twenty-eight mediocre minutes, but someone who is
killer all the way through. Someone who has the entire package:
performance talent, prime material, a character that takes the
room hostage, emotion, power, energy, drive, professionalism.
That's my list. My list of who doesn't belong on stage is a lot
longer (see the dictionary that follows).
In the end I'm not trying to be cruel or elitist. I realize
that everyone who gets on stage is trying,
or thinks they have something to offer, or thinks they are
getting closer and closer to having something to offer. The
problem is that it's killing our form. The shows suck. There,
I said it. Most standup comedy shows suck. At least partly
suck. And partly suck is not good enough when your form is
struggling to survive.
Make the shows great and the audience will come back. For all
those who still access that junkie rush of a big comedy Saturday
night, we know the audience still wants this. We know they still
have the hunger. We know there is still magic in this hat.
Just unclog the drain.
* * * * * * * *
(The following is my lexicon of those who don't belong on stage.
Please feel free to add any terms or see yourself in here. And
if you want to add Dan French, well, fuck you.)
Zombies. The comedy walking dead. Guys who are just up there,
dead but not admitting it. Lost their spark or their respect
for the form along the way.
Celebrity Mummies. They got famous, then they dropped off the
face of the earth, now the only place that will let them in is
a comedy club desperate for any name that might draw three people
off the street.
Standups who became actors. But still get up there and regale us
with their old stuff, their barely worked out bits, their
meanderings. See Eddie Griffin. It's like knives in your brain.
Ingratiators. People who are great at the politics of comedy,
but aren't funny. They get on stage by kissing up to whoever
controls the stage. But they aren't funny.
Businessmen. People who can do the marketing, the money, the
contacts, but once up there aren't comics. They're doing
comedy by the corporate numbers.
Newbies. Too new to know the craft, but getting up on
professional stages and doing professional amounts of time.
Performance Artists. We don't go to their SoHo cellars and
tell jokes to people wearing black.
Dregs. The homeless, the nuts, the strange and lost souls who
somehow learned that comedy stages are the easiest to get to in
all of entertainment.
Actors. All of them. Faked doesn't work on this stage, dude.
Bellybutton Gazers. People who believe that they themselves,
their ordinary lives, their mundane thoughts, are worth talking
about on stage. Not even their mothers want to hear that shit
Exhibitionists. Have a need to show themselves in public, but
have nothing to show.
Zeals. They want to be famous no matter what. And the fact that
they are not comics is no deterrent whatsoever to them getting on
a comedy stage.
Social commentators with nothing new to say. Hey, racism is
Ordinary People. It amazes me how many people on comedy stages
are about as funny as everyone you meet on the street. It's
like someone with an ordinary voice performing at the Met.
Who told them they deserved to be up there?
Group Leaders. They aren't funny, but they have the same
politics/life situation as a segment of the audience, and so
they aren't subjected to any criteria (see lesbians, angsts,
comics doing shows for comics, etc.).
Factory workers. No imagination, but they can stamp out a
"Spank your kids" bit just like all those other
comics on the production line.
Shockers. It's fun to get up and say dirty things in public.
Isn't that comedy?
Delusionists of Grandeur. How many people believe they are
geniuses because they can voice a retread counterculture doctrine?
Tiny Deconstructors. They break down the form for us as they
do it. Unfortunately, we already know everything they notice.
Media Creatures. They have been on TV or film, so we kind of
know who they are, and now they haunt standup like banshees
that won't die. See Walt Willy.
Crowd Favorites. I don't care if they do like Craig Shoemaker.
They also like Britney Spears.
Preachers. Yeah, you know how people should live. Because
you're doing so well.
Replicants. The biggest clog in all the drain. Hollow versions
of real comics. Mimic the voice, the style, the material, and
the audience can't tell the difference between you and Sam