Most of us are only funny when we don’t mean to be, and most of our friends aren’t as funny as we’d like them to be. We find laughs from entertainment in all kinds of ways; a friend told me a good story of convincing his buds, somehow, to rent Friends With Benefits one night, and by the time the movie was over they’d torn him a new one, they were so pissed at how lame it was. But he rightly argued that even Hollywood boilerplate has good hardworking writers putting their all into, it at least some of the time, and you’re sure to see one or two gags that impress and surprise.
If you can stomach the window dressing, then, sure.
Standup is always reminding us how hard it is to be funny. Some people hate it and just don’t watch any of it, and I think that’s cause it’s too intimate for them. But the reason everyone should watch it is that it’s so extremely hard, no one can be good all the time, and that’s a good thing to see. You have to take in a person’s complete humanity, lame jokes and all, and with the good ones the payoff is always worth the trouble. It’s someone being creative at their most naked an un-abstracted, there is no mediating medium, no instrument, no production values. Most people don’t listen to the Rolling Stones and catch a crummy bridge; most people who turn Mozart on hear perfection, nothing less. But try watching any comedian for three minutes and not finding one of the jokes to be unavoidably bad.
There’s no school where they can adequately teach comedy. It’s the only creative performance activity (“art” seems a little rich here, although when it’s good, it is superior to all art). It’s a great way to answer the question of what style really is, at a time when ideas like post-modernity and irony still get respect, and style is hard to pin down.
Style is the only way you can define a comedian.
Here are some good styles going on.
I like Mitch Hedberg the most because he is the comedian of our generation who best embraces the on-the-spot connecting with the audience that it requires. Every joke feels a bit like it’s his first time telling a joke. The naivety is reflected in the one-liner nature of the jokes, and the delivery simple and subtle, which is rare.
Not a stand-up comedian, but my favorite humorist, hands down.
People say that Ali G and his other personas show us the extent of the sheepishness in the people he talks to, and their efforts to accomodate him are what’s funny. I don’t buy it. Ali G reminds us that while stupidity and ignorance are the most irritating part of our daily lives, they’re often the most endearing, too. There’s nothing more humbling and charming than someone showing real, earnest intrest in something, and complete ignorance of it at the same time.
The opening ten minutes of a lot of Ricky Gervais’ shows feels like a bit of a victory lap. As much as he works the British taste for being self-deprecating to good effect, he’s also a bit betrayed by how many of his jokes revolve around his fame, media coverage of him, celebrities he knows, and how it’s shocking when someone who’s famous makes fun of fat people or the disabled. Skip part one of the show, though, and he has real surprises.
If you met this guy in a bar, the transistion from thinking ‘get me out of here’, to praying he comes to the thing you just invited him to, would be entertaining and therapeutic.
Louis C.K. is one of the bigger comedians these days but I find I can’t really enjoy his routines because there’s a weird defensive mean-spiritedness that’s couched in hyperbolic offense, which unsurprisingly doesn’t make it any less distressing. I know that’s his thing, but I find it tiring. I don’t just want to be shocked, I want to be surprised. He has a couple of routines that are intellectualy tickling, but I don’t feel warm and I need at least a bit of warmth to laugh.
The best Louis C.K. joke I’ve ever seen is actually told by Jerry Seinfeld in Talking Funny. This special is pretty amazing on a lot of levels, and I definitely like C.K. in it. They talk about the mechanics of doing comedy, and break it down in different ways; but you also get to see some more intimate sides captured without them talking about it.
Just watch how in the first three minutes. They’re caught off-guard, in the moment, realizing they’re not in private company, they’re being filmed, performing, but they’re not doing an act, and they haven’t quite worked out if it’s appropriate or not. Great stuff.
Dave Chappelle is sweet and gentle with his humor, and he’s the one comedian whose routine feels like it could be happening while you’re hanging out on someone’s back porch and it wouldn’t be weird. The performative aspects of his style are so totally low-key, it’s intimate and friendly and good. He doesn’t really manufacture a lot of hare-brained situations for laughs, he talks about his life. Explorations of race are fair game for comedy, but that’s also territory where you’re bound to lose some people. His treatment of it is the best I’ve seen.
I don’t enjoy Seinfeld much because he relies too heavily on bits about being baffled by the wrongness of society’s common sense assumptions, the schtick collected in thoughtful, essay form in Slate Magazine’s “Hey, Wait A Minute” column. He’s so perplexed all the time. What I like about him is he never resorts to being abrasive or racist, and doesn’t lean on slang. It’s easy to be funny by just being mean.
Seinfeld works harder than that.
Caliendo’s not very versatile, not a truly good long-form stand-up comedian, but this routine is an absolute tour de force, raise the roof barn-burner of a performance, and I’m sure a lot of better comedians would die happy having done it.
Moran is the crown jewel of purple prose, wacko abstract metaphor and imagery, if you’re into something more colorful this is the guy to check out. His TV show Black Books was good but his standup, when he’s really nailing it, is better.
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