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Here's the opening paragraph of "10
Comics To Watch," an article that appeared in Variety the
week of July 16-22:
The tastemakers? The tastemakers?! I'll let that sink in.
Now I'm not going to argue the merits of these ten fine people and I'm not going to debate whether or not they're deserving of the "To Watch" label. (I've worked with only one of them, Greg Giraldo, and found him to be a solid standup comic, a likeable guy both on and off stage.) But the article gave me the willies. And I think I've finally been able to put my finger on why.
To help you get into the proper "willies" frame of
mind, I'll quote the rest of the "setup" to the story,
the boxed intro that appears on page one of the piece:
(We suspect that there is no such person as Mr. Chagollan. We submit that any sentence that uses the triple crown of fashionable entertainment writing cliches "current zeitgeist," "edgy humor" and "pushes the envelope" (in the same sentence!) had to have been written by a machine or some sort of publicity writing software that needs updating. For the purposes of this column, however, we'll assume he's a real person.)
First of all, let's dispense with the pretense that Steve Chagollan, Senior Editor, Special Reports, was forced to solve the "what's funny?" conundrum by consulting with agents and managers and TV weasels. I don't know who this was written for, but somebody should tell Steve that we (those of us who fell off the turnip truck some time ago) ain't buyin' it. Oh, Steve got some input from agents and managers and executives all right. In fact, I think we can all agree that each of the ten profiles was written by the publicists, the agents and the managers of each of the featured personalities.
Secondly, is this what the comedy business has come to? We're consulting agents, managers, talent bookers and "creative execs in network and cable TV" on who or what is funny? I think the comedy business, as we have known it, is officially dead, gone, buried. The game is over. The guy who writes for Variety can't even think up a good cover story. He's had ten people rammed down his throat, to be featured in the Variety that will coincide with the JFL Festival, and he as much as says, "Here's the people they told me to write about... They're really hot! Trust me, people, these kids are the bomb!"
Thirdly, let's examine the timing of the article's appearance. The article was conspicuously timed to coincide with the Just For Laughs Festival, (which, it goes without saying, is predominantly about standup). It was included in the special 12-page Spotlight section of Variety that was handed out at the Fest, so someone wants these 10 people to be thought of as standup comics. (None of the 10 appeared at this year's Fest, however.)
The appearance of the word "Comics" in the "10 Comics To Watch" headline is an interesting use of the word. If you're thinking standup, guess again. But someone (agents, managers, execs) wants these people to be thought of as comics, probably even standup comics.
But the curious thing is that, in all of the copy about these ten, the word "standup" is rarely used (three times I think). So while the folks who represent them want them to be associated with standup comedy, they go to great lengths to distance their clients from actual standup. The exceptions are Greg Giraldo, Tony Rock and Elizabeth Beckwith. But, in the course of their profiles even they pull away from standup at warp speed. The ten mini bios contain lots of mentions of development deals, NBC, CBS, ABC, HBO, "performance," "acting," "hosting," writing (lots of writing), film school, "producers" and nearly all have a story of some serendipitous "chance" meeting with a producer (no doubt arranged by management).
While standup comics may generally be regarded as the funniest people on the planet, it's not enough to just be a standup comic. In fact, it's somewhat of a detriment if a client is perceived as a standup comic. The folks at Variety, in concert with various "creative execs" have re-defined "funny!" Indeed, they've re-defined "comics!" This article could be viewed as an effort to pry comedy and comics away from standup.
And here's the other vibe I'm getting, although I might be edging into defensiveness or paranoia: One of my pet theories (admittedly not one that required a tremendous amount of shrewd observation) was that there was a significant change in the standup comedy business in 1989 or thereabouts. I theorized that standup would morph into something totally different when it finally was subsumed into the entertainment business at large. I noticed that there was a stampede of comics (myself included, in 1988) moving to Los Angeles. Comics had always gone there. It just seemed that the vast majority were now headed there (Instead of, say, to New York). And the same was true of agents and managers. The rush was on. And standup would never be the same. When standup was weighted toward New York and the east, the emphasis was on the craft, the art. When it shifted westward, and the stakes rose, the formula was turned on its head. The "10 Comics To Watch" article is the culmination, the ultimate manifestation of this reversal. Why aren't the 10 Comics To Watch primarily comics? Why aren't we familiar with them for their years on the road and their numerous sold-out shows in the highways and the byways of standup America? Why are these folks lauded primarily for their art institute degrees or their "attractive angularity" or their "jaw-dropping resumes?" The whole thing sounds way too much like... the entertainment business.
They remind me of the actors and the actresses who take tap classes, learn swordplay and study with a dialect coach on weekends just to separate themselves from the pack. Has standup comedy become just like the rest of the entertainment biz? Sure, it was never enough just to be funny, but shouldn't you at least have to prove it is so before you're accorded the status of someone who is a comic who merits watching? And isn't a comedy club in the middle of nowhere the ultimate proving ground?
When did comedy become separated so cleanly from standup comedy? Is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing? If it has been severed from standup, when did that happen and how? Seinfeld hasn't been off the air for much more than three years, yet we seem to have learned nothing from the experience. Wasn't Seinfeld good enough? Would he be one of the 10 to watch today? Indeed, Ray Romano and Kevin James are still chugging along, garnering tremendous ratings, yet the rush is on to find the next film school graduate or starlet with "attractive angularity." Romano and James would be ignored if they were bobbing around in the ocean of "unconventional talents" and "truth tellers" who, with the help of their high-powered representation, are muscling everyone else out of the way.
There I was, in Montreal, at the biggest standup festival in the world. I'm witnessing some of the funniest, sharpest and most clever people on the planet entertaining packed houses with their words, their inflections, their minds. And Variety is implying that most of these people should work on their resumes if they ever hope to make it in this business.
Last year, in my August 2000 column, I wrote the following:
"The point is that the Festival isn't about standup comedy any more. The larger point is that standup comedy isn't about standup comedy any more. It's about deals and hype and big money.
"How naive can you be? It's always been about big money! you might be thinking. Well, yes and no.
"The Festival's rise to prominence closely mirrors the rise of standup comedy as a cultural phenomenon. Standup comedy became big business somewhere along the line. Some folks peg it at about 1989 or 90. Roseanne's series debuted in 1988. There followed a parade of experienced standup comics at the head of series: Seinfeld, Brett Butler, Tim Allen, Lenny Clarke, Kevin Meaney, Ellen Degeneres and a few others I'm leaving out. SNL started hiring more from the ranks of standup comedy. Standup was seen, legitimately, as a path to entertainment success. But somewhere along the line the whole thing got all turned around.
"Now Hollywood execs fly to another country to sit in a smoky cafe to see standup done by people who haven't been performing more than 700 days. And the average age of said performers hovers around 26 or so. Does this make any sense, considering the average age of the Seinfelds, Barrs or Allens when they were signed to do a series?
"There was a time when standup was simply about being funny. It was about being funny and experienced and competent when whipping a room full of people into a frenzy. But that isn't the point any more.
"So what exactly is the point? And why do people get all fired up about New Faces? Is there a hunger in Hollywood for inexperienced 20-somethings who have the ability to mimic a standup comic for seven minutes?"
Back to 2001, I guess the point is that Hollywood's insatiable hunger for people who don't resemble veteran standup comics has grown even greater in the last twelve months. They're determined to re-define what is funny; and they'll shun traditional yardsticks and they'll shun the time-honored experts (the people) in the process.
And all the while, the people who make the biggest noise at this standup Festival are "unknowns" like Ron White and Bill Engvall and Mitch Hedberg. (Note: the word "Unknown" is in quotes!) But the urgent mission is to "determine who or what is funny."
It's foolish to try to re-define funny. Because, after all,
we all know that funny is funny. Right?
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