Last month I torched my way through the urban landscape of edgy city comedy, essentially championing its psychotic beauty while also bemoaning how rarely it delivers on its sultry promises of cool insight and meaningful rebellion. Itís masterful when itís done well; itís not done well that often. Such is comedy.
And while I continue to hear the edgy voice in my own head--that searing internal rant that canít believe how stupid the world is and wants to shake the idiots in the political pulpit and say, "Didnít you pay attention to how Clinton did it at all?"--I know in my true brain that Iíll probably never be able to get on stage and make edgy work. I just canít sustain it, either as a lifestyle or a worldview. Iím just not that pissed off.
Which means that Iím turning most of my energies to other options in my search for what comedy voice I want to speak in the city. Iím talking, of course, about voice of the hipster. For all those who either embrace or despise, or donít get, or want to rid the world of, the hip--alternative, experimental, talkative--branch of standup, this Budís for you.
Thereís been a rift a-brewing in standup for a while now, a rift signaled by a love or hate of Janeane Garofalo. If you love her, take a seat on the left and prepare the barest trace of a smile that betrays that you are as in the know as she. If you hate her, head for the back of the room to bitch about her notebook with the other pro comics who "canít listen to that shit."
Let me say for the record that I saw Janeane perform at Largo a few months back, and I was bored, I was interested, I thought a little, I thought she needed to think a little more, I liked it when she did think, I didnít laugh, and I did laugh. Hard.
I believe that that set of fragmented and contradictory reactions will have to summarize hip comedy. To be hip and comic is to brew a potent mixture of tasty brilliance and bitter boredom. Alternative comics are those who know and listen to and live pop culture, who nurture obscure and unusual perspectives, who subject us to both their best and their most punishingly ordinary thoughts, and who push, push, push at the edges of the envelope of what can and cannot be made funny. These are the cadre of comedians who are interested in interrogating what it means to be a comedian, what it means to be a performer, and what it means to be a living, breathing, thinking person in contemporary American culture. And whatís more, they like to bring the audience along for all of that interrogation. If youíre lucky, that particular ride is both smart and funny; if youíre not, itís a slow castanoga through a barren mental wilderness without even an occasional airplane joke to keep you alive.
Itís easy to recognize alternative comics. They often wear their street clothes on stage (even shorts, for Godís sake), they drip irony like rain off a London slicker, they crawl around inside their easily recognized youth or marginalized or retro personas, and they really irk mainstream comics who have committed to efficiently serving up a huge plateful of laughs to a paying audience.
I canít say I agree with the irk. I think I understand it--the irritation that comes when working craftspeople see artists and pseudo-artists feasting parasitically inside a barely surviving commercial enterprise like mainstream standup--but I canít say that I have the same urge to attack alterna-comedy as some of my friends. In fact, I think that while alternative comedy doesnít reach a premium level on a very regular basis, when it does it is a supernova (think Andy Kaufman at his best), and that only the alternative strain of standup has the potential to grow standup past the clunky '80s style that threatened to choke the form out of existence because it was so common and rapidly cloned (I mean, come on, whatís up with that?).
A rift between comedians isnít new. There are always transitions in comedy styles across time. Itís painful to watch many of the older near-vaudeville comedians because their style is so familiar that it has become unsurprising and caricatured. The rapid-fire canned jokes, the ubiquitous mug to the audience, the way they never reveal any truth and when they do itís just schmaltz, schmaltz, schmaltz. Bob Hope dominated the comedy world, but watching him now can make neck skin crawl like a wounded centipede.
But the thing is that the past generation of comics are powerfully funny people. If Bob Hope started now he would rule comedy just as he did back then. Utterly rule it. But heíd do it with a completely different style. And thatís the first secret to the whole issue between alternative and mainstream comedy: the rift is about a difference in style. Humor is humor is humor; but the style of the package it comes in is blazingly different.
When you analyze the differences in styles between contemporary hip and '80s-flavored mainstream, the first issue that crops up is that alternative comedy is not punch-rich. Make no mistake about it, hip comedians have punchlines. Listen to their shows and note where they get laughs. Those are punchlines, pure and unmistakable. They might not be delivered in the set-up/punch format, but theyíre sure as hell punchlines. Itís just that theyíre more spread out, or more piled up, or mumbled, or more buried than mainstreamer punchlines. A mainstream comic has to make sure punchlines are highlighted and crystal clear so audiences get them immediately. Alternative comics bury gems and wait for the audience to dig.
Hip comedy also brings something to stage that mainstream comedy throws out: the process of creating humor. Hip comedians will tell a joke, then go on and reveal the thoughts they were having while telling that joke. They will make their inner monologue exterior. They will do meta-talk--talk about talk itself--and comment on the audience, on the jokes, on the setting, on the sense of humor in the culture itself. They will do all of this while still offering punchlines so that the audience wonít get up and walk.
Hip comedians also have a different relationship to character than mainstream comedians. Mainstream comedians are part authentic, part simulation on stage.
But the part that is simulated screams out, "Hey, Iím a comedian." Hip comedians almost refuse to admit that they are comedians; instead theyíre working as comic-tinged "performers." Theyíre comedians--people who want to get laughs--but theyíre also interested in testing out the form of standup, the performance structures comedians use to get laughs. They do this either by being "who they really are"--thus, the deal where they donít change clothes to go on stage--or by inhabiting characters who are clearly and obviously not who they are. Iíve seen alternative comics go up as TV characters, as cops, as politicians, all dripped in enough irony so that the audience is clearly cued into the fact that the comic knows they are being cheesy, or goofy, or kitsch. Hipsters know character works, but they also know that if they act like they really care then theyíre going to be reviled because actually trying for laughs is selling out to a too-familiar style of performance. So instead of getting up and tap dancing, they mess with the idea that the audience wants to see them tap dance. They say, "I know Iím acting, people, but Iím also not." Our pleasure, or not, is in seeing them act the character while also seeing them not act the character. Itís that duality that makes it work. When it works.
I guess the reason I like hip comics is that, letís just say it, when theyíre good theyíre more intellectual than mainstream comedians. Not always smarter, but clearly more intellectual. Alternative comics are like Faulkner where mainstream comics are like Grisham. Hip comics employ devices mainstream comedians canít, like constant cultural and literary allusion, ambiguity, minimalism, contradiction, obscurity, denying something is a joke, not supplying punch cues. A mainstreamer doing that signs his own death warrant because most audiences arenít so sophisticated about performance that they can quickly clue in to whatís going on up there when a comedian is being "different."
Which brings up a very interesting point: hipsters eat it outside of hip rooms. Badly. For every great set a hip comic has in the city, he or she has just as many horror sets outside the city. This is due to the fact that alternative comedy simply doesnít work unless the audience supplies a tremendous amount of the equation. Hipster comics need audiences that are educated or at least pop culture literate and ready to do some mind work. Problems arise when audiences are looking for straight-on comedy that lets them relax and ease through an evening of power punchlines (which after all is the main commodity standup clubs have offered, that nonstop, killer, jaw-aching experience), and instead get someone more interested in tickling the form of public humor itself.
Luckily for the hipsters, L.A. is a town of clued-in audiences. Itís a town of actors, writers, directors, producers, crew, financers, agents, development people and lifelong theater-goers. The people out here know performance. Even if a lot of L.A. media products look like they were put together by fifth graders, youíd be amazed at how insightful many of the people out here actually are about performance itself. And because they know performance they really appreciate people who play with the form and who find different ways of doing things.
With a readymade audience set up to receive alternative comedy, L.A. has attracted and developed some masterful alternative comedians. I donít know whoís funnier right now than Zach Galifianakis and his piano. Watching Andy Kindler do live stage stuff for hipped audiences can almost make you forget how bad he comes across trying to act on whatever fool of a TV show hires him this week. The list of surprising, explorative, mischievous, intuitive alternas goes on and on in L.A., including Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins, Maria Bamford, Mitch Hedberg. Thereís a busload of them, their own little Partridge family in search of audiences willing and ready to play the same game that these artful comedian so love to play.
Which means anyone who wants to do hip out here better have their hip together if they really want to compete. Passť is always just around the corner, and if youíre staking your claim in the avante garde of comedy, then keep churning out smart new stuff because "already been done" is always tapping you on the shoulder.
Which brings me full circle to the issue that started this two-part column: if you want to star in the city scene, at least for the comics and the good audiences (leaving aside for the moment the industry audience seeking people it can use in the media), edgy and hip are your genre options. So again my own personal challenge: how do I get hip enough for L.A.?
If you are also asking yourself this question, let me at least offer some markers on the trail. To wit, to be hip:
Think always of the marriage of jokes and spilling consciousness. The best hipsters by far are the ones who give funny lines, then auger out the thoughts and feelings inside their own minds (which may or may not get laughs), and then give funny lines, and then mess with the way they deliver the material, and then give funny lines, etc. They are able to be "alternative" while also feeding the gorilla of laughter that is comedy. See Greg Fitzsimmons for a pure example of someone who tells comedy club-quality jokes and also does alternative quality commentary on what heís doing. He serves both masters. Very well. Or maybe even better, Dom Irrera. No one is more mainstream than Dom, but no one veers into alterna better, either. He poaches from both, and man, can he squeeze a room, no matter who is in the audience.
Second idea, think of yourself as almost a performance artist. Almost. Donít go all the way over into that ugly idea of "I can do whatever interests me and too bad if the audience doesnít get it." But grab some of the performance space up there on that stage and just indulge yourself. Give the audience laughs, then extract a price from them for that laughter. Expect more of your audience, and donít ever, ever pander, because they can smell it a mile away. In other words, donít give them your "good old stuff." Old stuff reeks here; you can literally see vapors coming off of it. Which is why itís sometimes hard to see a road guy go up at the Hollywood Improv. It just feels like heís giving out Play-Do that came through the plastic shapemaker and calling it art.
Finally, realize that if youíre hip and youíre in L.A. that you arenít really doing commercial comedy anymore. Yes, you can get paid out here if youíre good at alternative. But the truth is that even if youíre a great alternative comic, youíre going to have to be able to mainstream yourself if you want bigger, and easier, paychecks. By which I mean if you go on the road you have to have an altered version of your show that lets people laugh more easily. And if you get in the media you have to drop the irony and actually be full-out likeable, accessible, and willing to really "act." When I see guys like Patton Oswalt on King of Queens and Andy Kindler on Everybody Loves Raymond, I know theyíre on there because the star standups love these guys on stage. But neither Patton nor Andy can let go of the consciousness that it takes to do alternative comedy, and so when they "act" on television it is badly wooden and so much less powerful than what they do on a live stage. Itís strange, but a lot of bad standups make much better actors than good standups. Because good standups know theyíre good, they know their craft, and they canít give up the consciousness that is standup and totally lose themselves in acting. Bad standups never really got standup in the first place, so it isnít nearly as hard to drop it.
So let me conclude my ramble. Here I am, in L.A. nearly nine months, still not going on stage. I am waiting for my hipness to emerge. Iíve hung at the clubs, watched the acts, caught the hip vibe, think I understand it, and now Iím waiting for it all to gel and find its way into my mouth and out into my act.
While I wait I canít help but always come back to the essential question that haunts comics who realize they canít or wonít do the road anymore: Where do I really want to get to in this new world called L.A.?
If youíre wondering where being hip might get you, keep the following scenarios in full view:
If your goal is to star in the L.A. standup world as a standup, hip is a great way to go. Comics typically love it, and if you do it well theyíll talk to you, hang with you, maybe get you a discount on beer at the Improv.
If you want to kill in the mainstream American clubs and become a $10,000-a-week guy, I donít recommend hip. Some cool club owners might hire you, but theyíll be counting down the nights until you leave, even if they themselves are laughing harder than they do in ten months of easier acts. You can maybe get by as a mainstreamer who dishes her act up with niblets of hip. Just watch how Tim Wilson sucks buckets of money out of the South while still slipping in songs like "Acid Country," with such hip lines as "Daddy couldnít take it, he had to go/you canít play Hendrix on a banjo."
If you want to be a comedian to become an L.A. actor, going hip can limit what people see in you. Its probably better to go up and show energy and be really singular and clear about what kind of characters you might be able to play. They donít like to try to imagine how you would be if you werenít being hip; they want the photograph to be really, really clear.
If you want to be a comedian to become an L.A. writer, yeah, hip is great. Because itís smart and writers are supposed to be smart. So get as smart as you can and still stay funny and just start going up everywhere in town and wait for people to talk to you after the shows and ask to see your scripts. And then make sure you have scripts.
If you just want to do standup and forget all of this analysis I do every month about bouncing around inside the standup cube, then I guess my only advice is to stay the hell out of L.A.. Because once you get here thereís no way to not start taking yourself apart and figuring out what the hell there is in this pile of psyche and humor and body and self that you might be able to sell to people who control the sacred light we call television.