10 Observations from 10 Years In Comedy
In my decade of performing, observing, enjoying and being despondent over stand up comedy it has been a very interesting and unique time to be a comedian. When I began I still sent physical VHS tapes for auditions (quickly moving on to DVDs, both of which sit in warehouses like the one where the Arc of the Covenant is stored in Raiders of the Lost Arc). The biggest comedian in the world was Dane Cook. Beards were worn primarily by drifters and the homeless and women were just not considered very funny. And in a decade my how some of those things have changed! Now I send video clips and avails by email, which no longer have to be discarded into basements or (physical) trash bins; Louis CK is the biggest comedian, who unlike Dane Cook never uses non-sequiturs or voice inflection as the driving force of a joke; beards are an industry gold standard, like a foot long dong in porn; and now women are the funniest gender on the planet if you are reading the Huffington Post. So to give you some perspective on the last tumultuous and game-changing decade in comedy here is my list:
1) Chris Rock may be the last stand up legend to be judged critically. Bring the Pain is the greatest hour of comedy I have ever seen. I do not think it will ever be surpassed. Every bit on that is a greatest hit. It was strong, relevant, thoughtful and most importantly hilarious. Chris Rock’s next special was an A, but not the A+ that BTP was. But then Rock did Never Scared and I remember critics and comedians were not that warm to it. I was at a taping of it in DC and enjoyed it, but knew that it was not to the level of the first two. But I did not try to choke slam the first person to say they did not like the special. Because in comedy you should be judged by the product and not merely reputation (that might actually benefit me). Sure, fans can get caught up in the hype, but at least comedians should be able to give honest assessments. However, guys like Dave Chappelle (who’s show was tremendous and whose stand up career has someone how been inflated to the level of Chris Rock (or beyond by some) as he gained unwarranted mythical status) and Louis CK have been unassailable and infallible in their stand up.
I saw Chappelle in 2003 I believe, headline the DC Improv and watched someone deliver a lackluster hour for $45 a ticket. The material and the effort were not worthy of the ticket price. Also, Louis CK’s last two specials were fine. Some highlights, but the almost instant reaction from comedians to them was “brilliant” and “amazing” across social media platforms, and could not be justified. So apparently it is now a great time to be a legend in comedy. Our colective need for man made deities in an increasingly secular age with more and more Internet interaction has made hero worship more necessary and more personal to people. Myths can be worshipped, but a real comedy legend should still be scrutinized and judged on the work. So for my money (which is not much) I think Chris Rock may be the last comedy legend we see for a while and definitely over the past decade.
2) Dane Cook used voice inflection as a punchline, which is now panned… by people who love comics who use voice inflection. Starting my decade of comedy, Dane Cook was the biggest thing in comedy (more Kevin Hart than CK, but still a huge deal). Ten years later, Cook can do nothing right in the eyes of some. His formula, though not for everyone, was unique and he had honed it – it relied a lot on personality, charisma and story telling, but his signatures were voice inflection and accompanying gesticulations. I do not describe it this way to denigrate it, but only because that is how someone studying his success might portray it. He worked hard, worked through the clubs, made it to late night television and when his moment came he became a monster success.
Now Dane Cook is a guy with “no jokes” and “stupid fans” to a lot of the in-the-know comedy crowd who gravitate towards a new scene of comics who use plenty of voice inflection and gesticulation to either punctuate a joke – or to replace conventional punchlines entirely. But some of this new inflection class are more humble and pulling less pussy than Cook so they are viewed as vanguards of authenticity. So in a way nothing has changed on this front in ten years, except for a lot of blind hypocrisy.
3) Chappelle’s Show Was the Last Great Sketch Show. I still watch and enjoy SNL, but since Chappelle’s Show, sketch comedy took a nosedive the last ten years. It seems that Chappelle’s Show was the last sketch (and possible comedy overall) to be hugely entertaining with meaningful social commentary and risk-taking that was not meant to shock, simply for the sake of shock. If I showed you season 2 of Chappelle Show 10 years ago (approximately) and then showed you a futuristic glimpse of Key and Peele ten years later, you might assume an apocalyptic event had taken place.
4) It is better to be lucky or local as a middle comic. Road work, once the lifeblood of the up and coming comedian has basically dried up. Even if you are successful and connected enough to secure a lot of weeks of work as a middle, the nickel and diming barely allows you to make ends meet. But if you are a local comedian across the country with any chops you can probably secure more work at your local clubs than someone with television credits can across the country (I am thinking of no one in particular). Of course, if you are lucky enough to connect with an established headliner than you may secure as many feature weeks as they have headlining weeks, but generally being local or being lucky beat being good if you are trying to get middle work. I felt like I saw a lot more people slightly ahead of me in the early part of my decade in comedy securing solid amounts of feature work. Maybe that was an illusion, but when in 2013 a booker refers to it as a “buyer’s market” to you and another booker apologizes that they cannot pay you more (not because they are strapped for cash, but because local features have set the rate lower for that market) it probably is not.
5) The comedy community has reached a critical mass of self-absorption. Comedy controversies have become as important to the comedy community as telling good jokes. Mind you a comedy controversy is as valuable to the world as what you ate for breakfast is. A funny joke on social media is almost as important as who told it with regard to re-tweeting and liking something. No I am not suggesting that ass kissing somehow emerged in the last decade, just that it is now more in your face and having exponential growth BECAUSE it is in everyone’s face. Ten years ago, the road and television appearances were badges of honor and benchmarks in a career. Now every comedian who cannot or will not make effort to get booked outside of their three favorite venues is proclaiming “the old order is dead – we don’t need the clubs!” Right, and now instead of some people having viable careers we have almost everyone scraping by at the same level. I am mad at the clubs because they are cheap and hurting the chances of genuine talent sustaining their careers in comedy, but I still want the clubs because they have the built in audiences who like comedy and purchase CDs.
My favorie little anecdote showing people’s lack of gloabal awareness may have been a few years ago when a new-sish comic spoke of another new-ish comedian (both less than 4 years performing) and said “he is really influencing a lot of people right now.”
6) The best comics I have seen throughout the decade were the 10-12 year guys. I mean this to say the “unknown” comedians that I have liked the best have always been the guys with enough experience to be great at what they do, but enough humility and time to have shifted their focus from bullsh*t. Two of my favorite comics right now are Yannis Pappas and John Moses (who may not want to be affiliated with me or this post). They are both sharp, unique comedians with distinct points of view and are starting to get success. This is who should be getting the showcase opportunities from the industry, not having to be do-it-yourself cottage industries. Of course this is a Catch 22 – perhaps if they had been coddled and embraced sooner they would not have become as good as they are. But now that comics like Yannis and John and many others have molded their acts under increasingly brutal (do it all yourself and if we like you we will take 10% to help you cross the finish line) industry conditions I want to see them doing half hour specials. Not as speculative chances, but as proven commodities.
I laughed when someone recently told me that they thought Joe DeRosa’s new comedy central half hour was “great.” I laughed because I am sure it was. Joe is a comedian who is well known in comedy circles, has been doing it for over a decade and has worked very hard. Comedy specials on television should be the reward of people who have earned a certain status, not a polling station for what tests well with millennials. Half hours on Comedy Central over the past few years in some cases (but certainly not all) have felt like testing ground for potential new stars, instead of a selection of proven comedians. So when someone tells me that Joe DeRosa “was great” I laugh because I wonder why every year does not have 12-14 Joe DeRosa’s selected. And if they cannot find that many, why do they have that many episodes? Video killed the radio star and one day someone will write that Millennial polling drowned the stand up comedian.
7) Still waiting for a Latin comic who can make the Latin experience have cross over appeal. Just a thought. Ten years and although there are comics of Latin descent (Giraldo being one of my all time favorites) who are excellent I find it weird that in a country where Latinos are now (I believe) or soon to be the largest minority in the country there is no breakout/crossover star of Latin comedy. George Lopez is the most successful, but where is the Latin Chris Rock or Richard Pryor or Dave Chappelle – someone lending an insider’s perspective and experience from a large community to the mainstream? Oh wait, I forgot about Carlos Mencia. It just makes me wonder if Latin comedians are too insular with their material (try enjoying a George Lopez special without Rosetta Stone) or if the industry is ignoring some up and coming talent(s) who might add a needed new perspective. Either possibility would not surprise me.
8 ) Men dominate comedy but the only thing that has changed is that it is now inappropriate to ascribe any qualitative value to the fact that dominate. Most people still think men are funnier than women. All that has happened is vocal members of the comedy comunity have rendered this notion the equivalent of hate speech so most people will no longer express that opinion explicitly. #progress
9) There is no middle class left in comedy. You are either a star, a star in the making, or a hobbyist. – Close to #4 so just read this.
10) I went from too new to too old without ever hitting the “just right” phase. As I was moving up the ranks from “open mic-er” to “respected open mic-er” to “why is he still doing this open mic” to “hey I got a guest spot at a good club” to “emcee” to “feature” I was always impatient. Club owners assured me that I was new and I was young and my time and voice would come. Now I am 34, 10 years in the game and working my ass off and I see a lot of late twenty-somethings making it big (at least relatively speaking). But maybe I just missed that specific day when I was 31 years old, but looked 29 and had just had a good workout and wrote a really solid new joke and had a little bit of 5 o’clock shadow – that was the moment when I was just right for comedy success.
So if this is the last ten years of comedy I hope for my sake AND for the sake of stand up that this circles back around a little bit. Because if this was the ten years leading up to now, the next time you see Key and Peele on your television set there very well may have been a stand up comedy apocalypse.
Have a great weekend!