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DAN FRENCH has an M.A. in Rhetoric, and a Ph.D. in Media Studies, but don't let that fool you. And he still hasn't mailed us an 8 X 10.

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Dan French

The original "What Works"
"Tom Kenney"

"Inside the Box, Pt. II"
TV Development

"Whose Line is it Anyway?"
French's gag in a Quote-A-Crostic!

"Inside the Box, Pt. I"
TV Programming

"Your Showcase Set"
How to craft an L.A.-ready set

"The Clogged Drain of Comedy"
Who belongs on the stage? Comedy in L.A.

Why move to L.A.?

"Good Side/Bad Side"
What does comedy mean to a culture, post-911?

What should a manager do?

"Standup on TV"
What does TV want?

"Cash for Words"
Writing for dollars

"Stoking the Joke Machine"
Writing for a living

"Screenwriting for Standup Comics"
Just what it says

"Random Realizations"
Wisdom born of experience

Casting Season in L.A.

"Ladies & Gentlemen: A Job"
Working at Best Damn Sports Show Period

"LA Freefall for All"
It happens to everyone: Freefall!

"Hollywood or Bust"
How to change to succeed in L.A.

"How Edgy"
Column #2

"How Hip"
Column #3

"Who Writes Your Stuff?"
Why don't comics ask for help?

"The Art of Standup"
What would we gain by "turning up the art"

"Christmas Wish List"
Holiday column

"Getting Exercised"
A writing exercise

"High Octane"
Road vs. L.A., Monologist vs. Performer

"Inside the Box, Pt. I"
Television Programmers

"Inside the Box, Pt. II"
Television Production and Development

"Castle Breached"
Working at Late Late Show, Network television gig!

"I Like LA"
The third of five columns on writing comedy for money

"Hollywod Carousel"
Between BDSSP and Late Late Show, what I learned


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 commentator, hack.

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 anymore.

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 bad. Right?

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 Kinnison. Right? HOME Back to the Top