On Wed, July 11, I stopped into The Martini Lounge on Melrose to check out the comedy show booked by a friendly enough guy named Josh, a dude whoís moving and grooving toward being an up-and-comer comedy manager. I liked the venue, just a gaping maw of a black room, a stage built for bands, and a dance floor cut in half by an emaciated string of chairs. It was like a one-nighter I used to do at a country bar in Asheville, NC, except here the aura was hipified by multi-colored designer lanterns dangling from the ceiling that made the whole thing feel like a cookout on a very funky outdoor porch.
I got there about 7:45 and found an open-mike going on before the booked show. After I said hello, Josh hit me with a lightning bolt and offered to let me do five or six minutes, since he had never seen me go up. I say hit me because in the past eighteen months Iíve gone on stage exactly three times. Iíve been to maybe fifty shows since Iíve been in LA, Iím always hanging at the Improv bar or some open mike, but I never go up. And that is for one particular reason:
Iím not a city comic.
I learned my comedy in the American Centerland: A few years in the Midwest, a few more in the deep South, and a little Texas thrown in for good measure. In the Centerland itís all about being happy or silly. Itís a misnomer to call Centerland audiences stupid. They have refined tastes, but for only certain comedy forms. They like clever happy and intelligent silly and broadly drawn topics. They know what they like because it generally fits the types of lives they lead. Those who live in the Centerland who arenít broad or happy or silly usually pick up and move to--ah, yes--big cities.
Big city comedy is a different animal. If Centerland comedy is a friendly dog that loves you when you pet it in just the right spot, city comedy is a pit bull you must learn to respect, or a sleek purebred you must learn to interpret. If Centerland comedy is an aimless conversation at the local K-Mart, city comedy is a raging argument shouted from a tenement window to an aggressive passerby, or a sly insider filleting everyone within eyesight with Dorothy Parker jibes and Truman Capote-level allusions.
Centerland loves the Silly and Happy and Broad. The Big City demands that you be either Edgy or Hip. Or both.
Iím fascinated by city comedy right now both because itís the first time Iíve been up close and personal with it; and also because Iím trying to absorb it enough to do it on stage myself. So Iím going to write about it here in a two-parter. This month Iíll try to explain Edgy, next month Hip. Just for the record, I love them both. When theyíre done well, Man, they rock. But then so does super-happy Brian Regan, and the funniest dude on earth, the brilliantly silly Brett Leake. So there you go.
What does "edgy" mean, in comedy terms?
Edgy means you take on some specific vision of the world and try to shred it with a counter-vision. You attack certain groups you despise. You offer opposing ideas and visions to the morality that normally dominates public talk. You celebrate the deviant and you exalt the amoral in a power-packed performance razz. Great edgy comedy makes an audience uncomfortable and makes them think a little and makes them laugh even if theyíre uncomfortable and thinking. Quite an accomplishment.
Comic edginess is a recently developed cultural phenomenon. Richard Pryor was not edgy. Pryor brought a nicely packaged urban perspective to white America. While it was genius, it was not dangerous to, or deeply critical of, the mainstream. We love Pryor because he was the first guy to get the black perspective to white America, but he also kept blackness palatable to a white audience. He didnít make us uncomfortable. He couldnít because, if he had, he would have never been allowed to speak.
Lenny Bruce was also not edgy. He was rebellious. To be edgy means you live within the mainstream even as you criticize it; you just hide well. The mainstream pushed Bruce totally out of society, and it shoved so hard that he never recovered from the ferocity of the violence pinned against him. He was a prophet shouting from the desert; edgy comics live in suburban homes and drive out at night and make their edgy witness in safe little clubs.
In its pure, authentic form, edgy comedy seems very close to political activity, to true social critique, to intellectual thrust. Edgy comics seem to have some power to actually affect the system they criticize. They seem like preachers or madmen or zealots. They're huge fun to watch when theyíre really on fire.
In reality, edgy comedians donít have much effect at all. Edgy in any media form right now doesnít have much effect at all. The genius of capitalism is that it can make its critics its employees, buy them out and sell what they say back to the huge core audience that bolsters capitalism itself. The mainstream media has carved out plenty of space for performers who are critical of the mainstream culture. Look at rap music.
There is a massive market for edgy in our current culture, but because it is profitable edgy will always be made impotent before it goes too far or burrows to near the conservative center of the culture. If edgy grasps for any real power or offers any truly radical politics it is quickly silenced by the conservative forces that truly dominate America (see the reaction to Ice T singing about "cop killing").
Still, edgy is enjoying its day in the sun right now. Especially in the big cities. Edgy comedians are popular because they offer a therapeutic moment to city audiences living under the daily pressures of being with millions of other people. Big cities crush everyone and everything together, and they create a psychology in their inhabitants that needs to be cut open, depressurized, unpacked. Edgy standups crack open packets of everyday city life, and in that act they offer the audience moments of respite and a catharsis of city-bred emotions. In big cities the audience wants, even needs, to hear comedians tap on the pressure cooker in ingenious ways.
Edgy comedy is popular and powerful in LA, and comics have flocked to fill that space. I hear them at all the clubs around here. Theyíre at the Improv and theyíre at the Store and theyíre definitely at The Martini Lounge.
The only problem is the edgers are a little like Pokemon. A couple of the creatures are cool, unique, and powerful, and the others are derivative and mostly there for filler.
I donít say this to demean edginess or the comics trying to do it. Itís a ferocious challenge to do edgy comedy well. And the fact that most of them donít do it well doesnít mean that even some of the mediocre players canít be successful here. There is enough of an audience for edgy in LA so that even marginal edgers can ride pretty far and fast on the edgy highway.
But watch how badly edgers eat it if they take a weak rap to the Centerland. Great edgers can still do well in the center--see Dave Attell, who I saw make Southern grandmothers in Raleigh howl at a joke about punching out a woman. Or Bobby Slayton, who chased a woman from the same room at Charlie Goodnights and still had the audience cheering for him as she walked out crying. The edgy masters win audiences over by sheer luminance; the edgy mediocres eat it heartily when they get away from the cities.
There are two major dimensions to edgy that determines whether youíre good at it or not, and Iíll just run them down before I split.
First up, in order to be edgy you have to have edgy content. Edgy comics must stay on certain topics: drugs, sex, violence, social criticism, human pain, taboo-breaking, wildness. They must confess to living certain types of lives: deviant, meteoric, bohemian, criminal. They must express a certain flavor of opinions: wild is good, independence is good, safe is bad. They must explore and explode taboos: society says I canít do this, but thatís what I do, Man. And to be really good they must also have some original ideas: surprising thoughts, new takes on old issues, suggestions for how we should do things in an edgier world.
The problem here is that itís really hard to be genius in edgy content. Most of the ideas have been stated before. Watch Bill Hicks tapes and youíll never want to do edgy again. You canít beat what he carved out. Not that you have to, but before you think youíre great you should at least be aware of why youíre probably not, at least in content (although I do believe current LA comic Sara Silverman has the best joke about waxing your anal hair that Iíve ever heard).
Second, edgy comedians need edgy personas. Itís not hard to find a good strong edgy persona in America. Weíve spun out tons of recognized persona categories for the edge to inhabit. You see them in the media all the time. Youíll recognize the following:
Youth is edgy, with the way it parties and takes chances and makes up new words and makes the old feel really old. Drug use is edgy because you do funny stuff when youíre on drugs, Man. Intense sexuality is edgy, because sex, Man, itís sex. The nearly insane are edgy, with the way they explode easily and do crazy shit and are unpredictable. People who love the bizarre are edgy. Criminals are edgy. Any antiís are edgy, including being anti-conservative, anti-people, anti-female, anti-work, anti-politics, anti-middle class, anti-whatever you got.
The truth is that I like edgy personas. We all do. Itís fun to watch Jack Nicholson, even when heís just sitting there at a Laker game being cool. And if there is a genius to LA it is its ability to generate personae. Sometimes these are just stylized shams (the right hair gel, the right blue jean jacket, the right bad-fitting clothes or the right retro decade, the right sneer and isnít-everyone-stupid tone to your voice), but sometimes theyíre really unique and full of potential.
Check out David Feldman and his deep, slow voice and stare that puts him on an unbalanced landscape and makes him edgy even though he looks like a banker. Or any one of a number of LA unknowns who look really comfortable in that intense self theyíve drummed up visiting the thrift stores and actually living the life they claim to live.
I find myself constantly looking at LA people and admiring how well they develop appearance quirks, how artful they truly are about the surface and the self that it creates on first glance. These arenít just amateurs when it comes to display; theyíre artists with imagination and some real pop to what they create. Even if they donít have much to say they look truly aggressive when they say it.
Which finally brings me all the way back around to my set at The Martini.
I have almost no edginess to my persona. I have a little earring and a little stang and Iím almost bald but I donít shave my head so I look like what I am: a middle aged white guy. No one is intrigued by the look Iíve developed.
And I have almost no edginess to the material Iím comfortable doing from my road years. My professional experience is as a happy, silly, clever comic. I kill in Centerland. Which means I do not kill in LA. I did not kill at The Martini Lounge. I did not kill at all, Sam I Am.
But...maybe I will. The longer Iím here and the more I hang out the more Iím starting to feel the edgy seep into my subconscious. I gave myself a year to absorb this vibe. In the coming months I might find an edgy monster growing out of my smiling head. And maybe Iíll let it out on stage and see how it feels to me, and how it feels to them.
And if itís not any fun then Iíll go with the other head thatís growing out of my head--my Hipitude head.
Which is what Iíll talk about next month.
Unless Iím too edgy by then.