This past weekend I was performing at the Albany Funny Bone. It was poor timing because I had to leave home after only seeing the 1st two parts of the six part series Surviving R Kelly. I asked the crowds not to spoil the last four parts for me, but my suspicions were confirmed Monday afternoon when I watched them – R Kelly is a terrible person. But this is not about the Pied Piper of R&B – this is about the (what is the opposite of Pied Piper – Repellant, Career Suicide Maker?) Career Incinerator of Comedy. So let’s Laugh in the Name of Hate with this recap – in which I survived 3+ days on one pair of socks, sold a lot of albums and took a request from a fan to disastrous results.
I brought 43 albums with me (20 Thots & Prayers, 23 Trump albums – Fireside Craps) on the Amtrak north to Albany. I also packed clothes and a book I was finishing on humanity’s effect on Earth (2014’s The Sixth Extinction – basically we are a plague upon the Earth and that was before the modern GOP created a bottle neck in international politics related to climate change). What I did not pack were any pairs of socks. I would realize this on Saturday.
I got to the new hotel that the club uses. The used to use the Hampton Inn about a mile down the road from the shopping mall where the club is housed, but Hilton built a new hotel on the mall premises and that is where I got to stay. The Hampton Inn on Western Road I still highly recommend – the staff was superb there, but nothing beats being able to walk to the club in 5 minutes when you are a carless comedian getting coffee. The weird thing about the hotel is that it is two Hilton properties in one building. On the left is Tru (where I stayed) and on the right side it was a Homewood Suites. It sort of reminded me of that movie I did not see, but saw several previews for, Trouble at the El Ray.
The crowds Friday were awesome (and right now there are at least 300 people in Albany trying to take credit for my usage of Tater Thots to describe chubby, tattooed white women of America). A buddy from college showed up with some family members (I gave them a free Trump CD) and I managed to sell a couple of albums. But it seemed like a lot of recent trips I had overpacked the merch. The headliner was selling t-shirts, which audiences love, the way social media loves memes. But I did receive several handshakes and compliments, BUT I CAN’T FEED MY DOG WITH THOSE! Also a guy came up to me with his wife after the second show and said “That Air Bud-Weinstein joke is the funniest bit I’ve ever heard. And I come here a lot.” And then he walked away. I CAN’T PAY BILLS WITH THAT (and it happens to be on Thots & Prayers)!
I went back to the hotel after, reviewed the tapes of both shows confirming my status as a comedy genius and then fell asleep.
Saturday I used a free ticket to see J-Lo’s new movie. If all these women can see corny Jason Momoa as Aquathot with no shame then I can see J-Lo do her thing! The movie had just enough positives to make me not feel like a total tool. And my theater of middle aged upstate NY women seemed to enjoy it as well. But seriously J-Lo is an all timer. There are women you want to marry. Then there are women you might consider leaving your spouse for. J-Lo is in a category above that called “Where should we bury my wife’s body?” Inspired by J-Lo, J-Lou got ready for Saturday’s shows. But post shower, pre-sneakers I realized I had not packed any socks. My normal 36 hour pattern on the road is:
- Shower before show (in this case I showered before my 315 train to Albany on Friday)
- Put on fresh underwear and socks
- Be one of the 50 funnies people in America
- Wake up
- Consider the gym
- Reject that and eat snacks while wearing the previous night’s clothes
Unfortunately I discovered Saturday afternoon that the critical 2nd step was disturbed. I made a mental note to buy socks at the mall and change before the show.
I did not remember until around 10pm when all stores were closed. But, fueled by a dinner at Pizzeria Uno, I crushed both shows. I even had 4 Albany fans/quasi employers show up (readers of this blog should remember that for a couple of summers I did a show at a mansion in Albany for a man named Dave – he threw very cool end of Summer parties for his friends). They remain the only private shows I have ever done that were fun.
I ended up selling a lot of albums after the two shows, but the second show is the real story here. In addition to actual fans showing up to the first show, a woman came up to me before the 2nd show (she was there for the 2nd show) and said “I saw you last time you were here and that Spirit-Southwest joke you did I have been telling to my sister for like a year. Will you do it?” I told her that I hadn’t planned on it (the industry may be stupid enough to keep me down on the depth chart, but I keep a headliner’s production pace in case they ever wake the F up), but I would do it for her. SHE THEN CALLED OVER HER SISTER AND A FRIEND/BOYFRIEND/CUCK TO WATCH ME DO IT AT THE MERCH TABLE. I then explained that I would do it on stage during the show.
The bit is about 6 minutes so it ate up a good, unplanned chunk of my 25 minute set but it killed. The rest of the set went well. As I mentioned I sold well after, but guess who I didn’t sell to? The “Dance monkey dance!” woman! She walked by, gave me a finger gun and said “thanks for the joke!” Fortunately I was in too good a mood to dwell (I attribute it to my recent purchase of The Greatest Showman soundtrack which is offensively catchy – I was surprised by how much I liked the movie and the album was only $6.99 on iTunes, and studies show that musical taste is not binary) but I would have been less offended if she had pegged me at Tru by Hilton and left without leaving a tip.
I woke up at 530am, most likely because I had a cup of coffee in between the two Saturday night shows. Coffee seems to incubate in me and kick into gear 8-11 hours later. Well, knowing there was an 8am Mass 2 miles down the road I got dressed and power walked my way to Christ The King. As I have noted in previous road posts, I always like going to Mass outside of NYC because 1) they are more full and 2) people shake hands and aren’t a bunch of Purell losers who wave at you, even if they are sitting next to you (as I said on Israeli Tortoise – “Jesus could wash the feet of lepers but you can’t shake my fu*king hand? Real fu*king Christ-like!” And speaking of Christ after Mass and breakfast I saw buff Jesus/Homeless Fabio Jason Momoa in Aquaman. It was surprisingly adequate. And I think it was the best Post-Nolan (also my rap name) DC film for sure (spare me your Wonder Woman nonsense).
After the movie I remembered to buy socks… and decided not to. I figured I would be home in less than a day where I have many pairs of clean socks so I could make it one more day.
Sunday’s show was my favorite show of the week. It was a packed house and most importantly they bought more albums than any single show that weekend. I arrived with 43, sold 40 and gave 1 away. #GOATFeature (though it helped that the headliner had run out of t-shirts mid Saturday) Additionally, I had crushed an R Kelly bit on Sunday and wanted to post it to YouTube. However when I reviewed the tape, a black woman located near my camera was ordering her “well done, but not burnt!” steak too loudly and it is really distracting from the bit. Obviously R Kelly still has some allies among black women. SMH in the name of love.
At the end of 2018 (way back then) I decided to ditch Facebook and Instagram. Aside from the negative psychological impacts of Facebook, their actions related to the 2016 Election, privacy and just their overall deplorable corporate conduct made me realize that I had to delete my accounts (Facebook owns Instagram for those that don’t know). And full disclosure, Facebook’s 5+ year saga to crush content that was either hosted on other sites (blogs, YouTube, etc.) through their constantly evolving greed algorithm made it easier to depart as my content was not even benefiting the way it did years before. So, as I told fans/friends/followers in a few posts in December that they could still follow my site, YouTube and Twitter for my content, a few of my 4000+ “friends” followed me, a majority didn’t see it (a vast majority thanks to Facebook’s work) and the rest offered something akin to obituary comments. Some explained that they hated Twitter (but were apparently OK with Facebook, a far more morally and psychologically corrupt company) and others just had no compelling interest to continue to consume my content (the overwhelming majority of which is free – only my 6 stand up albums cost money – my weekly podcast, blogs, videos and tweets are all free and occur with far more regularity than the roughly 2.5 years in between stand up album releases) despite near daily amusement (which I assume from the many likes compiled every day). It dawned on me that most of these people liked my comedy, but liked Convenience a lot more.
I live in NYC, a fairly liberal city at least in how it votes. But every time I see people from my midtown Manhattan building ordering Uber (a company I ditched much faster than Facebook for many of the same reasons), or see Starbucks recycling cans stuffed with non-recyclables (or recyclables in the garbage can right next to the recyclables can), or witness thousands of people shuffling along zombie like on crowded rush hour streets and subway stairwells or a thousand other things I realize, even in some of our most ostensibly progressive/liberal places, we are now in the era of Convenience. And I capitalize it, at the risk of appearing Tom Friedman-ish, because I think it is a social movement that trumps almost everything else (somewhere Progress was replaced by Convenience, but we never stopped calling it Progress). If a city with extensive public transportation and a fleet of yellow cabs cannot separate themselves from the convenience and control of hailing a cab to their door, even if they must wait longer and contribute to an epidemic of traffic and pollution in NYC, then what chance is there (let alone ethical right to moralize to) to get more conservative (individual liberty leaning) people in redder parts of the country to agree to give up their way of life, especially when the sacrifices they are asked to make often are part of a much more substantive change to their lives?
I am only examining the small microcosm of comedy in this obviously very large problem of Convenience. Our addiction to Convenience has already decimated lower-middle class and middle-class jobs (Amazon is at least 5 years past the point where they should have been broken up on Antitrust grounds… yes I quit Amazon/Amazon Prime/Whole Foods as well) and is still at least an equal force as the GOP in stopping our needed commitment to fight climate change – the metaphorical asteroid headed for Earth. However, I do think examining stand up comedy is instructive. Comedy is something most people enjoy on some level, but have come to expect it to be curated and delivered to them with the least amount of physical or intellectual effort (if clubs could book memes at this point I am sure they would). So as Comedy Central and HBO have abdicated their previously vital role of stand-up comedy cultivation, Netflix has entered to dominate the realm with a gluttonous oversaturation. They are in the business of eyeballs and will deliver more comedy than is necessary, good or wanted just to achieve more eyeballs. They are literally devaluing the concept of a special before our very eyes. Meanwhile, social media, especially Facebook, has given people loads of free content, while also cultivating an environment that makes the average person appear on par with comedians as algorithms cultivate feeds and motivate people to get thumbs, hearts and smiles. I learned this the hard way when I saw how many people were unwilling to either ditch Facebook (not really my point, but it would be nice to see) or add a less putrid social media site to their rotation to follow a comedian for whom they expressed enjoyment . In other words, the platform now trumps the content and eve more so, the content creator. And I think this is a clear sign that the Comedy Bubble is set to burst, if it hasn’t already.
Of course, I have other anecdotal evidence that suggests to me that the Comedy Bubble that has built up will burst and burst big. The Funny Bones – one of the big chains of comedy clubs has joined the Helium chain (a smaller, but prestigious collection of clubs) in only offering 5 show weeks (eliminating Thursday shows). Now if you are to ask and listen to comedians already in the money, they will tell you stand up comedy is fine and the only threat is “PC culture” or some other boogeyman. I will address that later, but when the biggest chain of clubs decides that a 17% reduction in shows is better for the bottom line it should be making more headlines for comedians than what a comic said at Columbia University. Mind you – middle acts are not getting an increase in pay (making it 30+ years at the $100 a show rate, but now with fewer shows and higher transportation costs than in 1988) but this also has not really registered for the “comedy community” either. Money in stand up is like the stock market at this point – those with the leverage, power, management and means to be at the Netflix special level or a similar perch see money and pilots being thrown around and think it’s a Bull Market for comedy. But to borrow an analogy from politics – Main Street comedians are making less than their counterparts in 1988 from club work. Not to mention the fact that many more headliners (both elites who sell out rooms and guys lucky enough to just have the spots) are bringing their own features which in many cases is elevating mediocre comics ahead of the once normal selection process because of… Convenience (multiple A Comedy Club bookers have told me this, though all you need is eyes and ears to know this). Some do it because they want a friend. Some do it because they want a shitty opener. Some may have another reason. But for a profession that often likes to proclaim itself as a meritocracy this is about as Un-Darwinian as it gets.
So why isn’t there an uprising among comedians? Some form of concerted action? A guild? People simply giving a shit? One easy reason is that like country bumpkin Republicans who vote against most of their own interests, rank and file comedians often think they are going to be the next elite comedian and want all the riches and privileges that come with it, so why change it? But a more widespread reason, in my opinion is that Facebook is now the nation’s comedy club and the majority of comedians (the comedy proletariat) who make nowhere close to a living are content to thrive on social media and people are content to absorb tons of humor (and try their hand at it) from Facebook. My new album was the worst selling of my career, despite me having my largest social media reach to date and it being my best album. I think it is because the idea of paying for comedy (especially from a *gulp* “nobody”) has never been a tougher sell. If you don’t have a streaming subscription already to a Spotify or Apple you just are no longer programmed to pay for content that way.
Sidebar – I wrote many years ago that Louis CK selling his special for $5 set a bad marker. He had the power to cut out the middle man and as someone who has self-produced every one of my stand-up albums, I respect it. But by creating a new expectation that the best in the business only asks for $5 I thought it might have had an Amazon-like psychological effect on the comedy market. If a comedy star places that price on their work, why would the standard $10 from me or someone in my position be enticing? As it turns out sites like Apple and Spotify one upped him with a “How about all the comedy AND music for $10 a month?” But I digress.
If I cannot get fans to sign up to Twitter to follow me, what the hell chance is there of them opening a wallet? And this is all fine, except how can the stand-up comedy art expect to grow in a substantive way when it is borderline impossible to make a living at it (as in survive without a day job – I am not expecting to be rich, or even thrive at the middle level), except at the highest level?
I know this is just my own experience, but I am smart enough and more than experienced enough in this business to see that these are not isolated experiences that I am having. A population programmed to value the convenience of content over the provider of the content thanks mainly to Facebook, a workforce that largely doesn’t actually work at any level where labor issues might concern them (sort of the Uberfication of stand-up comedians – treat an art like a side hustle and you’ll never be motivated to join forces or value the art) and a streaming platform that cheapens the special-ness of live stand-up comedy is a toxic combination that has brought stand-up comedy to a brink. Combine that with a powerful class of comedians blinded by riches at the top and a mentality that is unfiltered Paul Ryan – an almost absurd, self-serving belief that those at the top are simply more meritorious than some of those stalled on the way up and you have a recipe for a massive decline in stand-up comedy.
So while Facebook, whose likes, if not the new opiate of the masses, certainly are the opiate of the comedians, joins forces with Netflix (both metaphorically and in stolen data) to drive comedy this way we also have a cultural civil war going on in stand up comedy. We are starting to see the results of when stand up comedy, overexposed and overinflated through the Internet smashes up against the scrutiny of the Internet, the very means of much of its exponential, short cut growth. It is very much the chickens coming home to roost. And I for one welcome it. I am not saying I agree with all the arguments on either the left or the right (though the Kumia Kompound Krowd tends to scream bloody murder whenever one of their favorites is called out for offensive content or slurs, but responds with a chorus of “shut the fu*k ups” to those who voice disagreement, unable to see the irony through their MAGA hoods apparently). But as the traditional path to stand up quality and success (writing and performing and travelling – the path I have taken that has made me an excellent comedian and an economic failure) has faltered and been replaced with an Internet and social media warp speed path, weaker comedy and bigger opinions have filled the void. This has led to failure. Certainly not economic failure (I’m sure the mean income of comedians is fine, but the median income is undoubtedly dogshit), but a larger failure for the quality and stature of stand up. Just because it suddenly got easier to be booked as a headliner for a select few, did not suddenly make the process of creating good stand up any easier. And the cultural battle within stand up that has spilled into the public square has problems on both sides. I see the right-wing folks demanding that their preferred voices not be diminished at all, as if benefitting from the greater and accelerated exposure should not or cannot come with anyone validly objecting. And on the other side I see left wing voices willing to throw away context and respect for an art embraced for pushing envelopes to satisfy their day job. human resources department concept of right and wrong. And often both sides are expressed with an aim of accumulating responses on social media.
I will tell you my two favorite specials this year were from a woman who hadn’t done stand up in 15 years (If I need to tell you who then why are you even reading a long essay on stand-up comedy?) and a Showtime special (Erik Griffin) that most of my contemporaries (let alone non-comedian friends) hadn’t watched. I saw HBO hit new lows, numerically and qualitatively. with stand up and I watched Netflix present a veritable parade of mediocrity (I cannot and did not watch everything, but I found myself largely unimpressed). There is no incentive or for the public to buy/support unknown comedians thanks to social media. There is no incentive for the business to develop or rigorously scrutinize specials and acts because Netflix is basically a blank check. And there is no incentive for comedians to stand up for what’s right because a majority don’t make enough, don’t expect to make enough, or just don’t plain care to treat it like a real job (you know, when they aren’t “Roast Battling”). So instead overly sensitive stand-up comedy neophytes, who have been convinced that their social media reach has magically enhanced the quality and importance of their opinions (and in some cases their stand-up), do battle with crude morons cloaking themselves in “free speech” while the foundations of the art and business crumble beneath them.
So in 2019 I think the Comedy Bubble will burst more. I say more because every time I see a club advertising a YouTuber, a WWE wrestler or a washed-up actor I realize it already has burst. It’s just time for it to continue leaking until enough people notice. “The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan and I think it applies perfectly to comedy in 2019. Facebook and social media ARE the comedy. Comedians are the only ones who still seem to think they are important to the process.
(Disclaimer – I know Stugotz will not read this due to length, someone please give him a cheat sheet… I get the show)
By way of introduction I have been performing stand up comedy for a few months over 15 years when I started midway through law school in Washington, D.C. as a much needed stress release. I have been making sketch videos on YouTube since 2009 and have been podcasting for just under 7 years. I have been doing impressions since 6th grade when my Jean-Claude Van Damme impression became a favorite among my friends. My stand up career was largely started on impressions, both hacky (Schwarzenegger, DeNiro) and not so hacky (Owen Wilson, Jack Bauer, to name a couple), but as life experiences, good, bad and ugly accumulated, my stand up became a place for me to explore my thoughts about my life and the world. As a reuslt I began to steer my impressions to my YouTube channel. It was from that YouTube channel that I would find a way into The Dan Lebatard Show, ESPN’s most downloaded radio show/podcast, first in 2014 and then in a much more substantial way starting in 2016.
The Dan Lebatard Show is my favorite podcast. It prides itself on its anti-sports show sports show, much to the humorous chagrin of co-host Stugotz. They speak intelligently and nuanced on sports and culture, they get great guests and have a great roster of regulars (the great Bomani Jones, Greg Cote and Stan Van Gundy to name a few that are not Pablo Torre or Marty Smith – I may “get the show” but I still don’t get the appeal of “Marty Party”). And then there is the crew inside the show, the “Shipping Container of Frightened Refugees.” Chris Cote (the most underrated member of the whole show IMO), Billy Gil (if sports radio were Moneyball ESPN might view him as a better value Stugotz), Roy Bellamy (the quietest member of the crew, which makes his contributions, even “Roy’s Realm” which grew on me quickly, admittedly because of Chris Cote’s background, pleasant surprises) and of course, Mike Ryan, the undisputed leader of the SCoFR and almost their representative in the triumvirate of Dan, Stugotz and Mike – sort of the Westbrook of the Shipping Container and the Bosh of the Big Three. The most appealing thing of all about the show when it came to me, a comedian who loves sports, was the fact that humor is almost on equal footing, if not above sports, in terms of the qualities the show most valued. They also incorporate fan content to a very large degree, creating loyalty and interaction, if not attribution, integral in building a great brand in 2018. I was one of those fans who contributed and was given attribution, likely because I do this for a living (or did) and because it was wildly popular with the show and its audience. But it was shut down (twice) without warning, explanation or merit and that is what this will be about.
My name is J-L Cauvin and if you have not heard of me that is understandable and one more reason why I have to write this. It is my relative anonymity that made my dismissal so easy, even though my work was much more well known than me.
I became aware of The Dan Lebatard Show, much like many non-Floridians, when Lebron James signed with the Miami Heat in 2010. A few days after Lebron’s Decision, a friend sent me a photo montage on YouTube set to the Lebatard rant. I must have watched it 20 times at least. It was hilarious. Shortly thereafter I began listening to the show and by 2011 I was a regular listener. 5 days a week downloading the podcast.
In 2014 I created a web series called Louis CK’s Comedy Academy, where I impersonated various comedians teaching assorted comedy disciplines at a fictional school. If you count the 30K views the preview video got, the series generated around 70K total views – certainly not viral, but also not nothing. One of the videos in the series was George Lopez teaching Latino Comedy. When Dan went off on how he didn’t like George Lopez’ comedy later that year I figured this was my opening to contribute to the show and get a little bit of shine myself. And Dan did play it on the air and for my work I received a Dan Lebatard Show t-shirt. Other than my Late Late Show t-shirt, which I foolishly gave to a woman I was dating, incorrectly assuming I would get many more late night TV spots and the associated swag that accompanies said spots, the Lebatard shirt was the only shirt I had received marking a comedy accomplishment (distinguishing it from the Salvation Army store room worth of comedy festival t-shirts I have accumulated in my apartment throughout my years performing).
I continued devouring the show through 2015 when a certain orange man announced his candidacy for the presidency by calling Mexicans rapists. I had already been working hard on my impression of Donald Trump, and getting some work with it, when in 2016 Stugotz said something that made me think “who does that remind me of?”
The Birth and (First) Death of Trumpgotz
Trumpgotz was born on September 23, 2016. I sent it to the show after hearing Stugotz go off on Chris Bosh’s health issues with the Miami Heat. The certainty and inconsistency of Stugotz talking about medicine and pro sports felt so Trump-ish that I decided to record the quotes, word-for-word, as Trump. The result was a lot of Twitter praise and followers and a video that now sits at just under 15K views. I made several more for the show that Fall to the same effect.
But as the Podcast Lord giveth, He taketh away. Around February 2017 Stugotz began ignoring my tweets and the show stopped playing the sound on air, despite the consistent hits and praise for the subsequent submissions that did make it to the air. I just assumed the show no longer wanted them and was moving on. I was disappointed, but after over a decade in stand up I was used to things going up and down and usually ending down. I kept listening to the show and just hoped I could find another angle or break to keep my career mildly relevant.
Dan Resurrects Trumpgotz
To my surprise in June 2017, after many months of not being on the show, Dan asked on air (slight paraphrase), “Whatever happened to Trumpgotz? Those were funny, right? Put it on the poll, ‘Was Trumpgotz one of the funniest things on the show?'” Over 11k responded to the Twitter poll (not an exact science I know) and almost 9K said yes. On air Stugotz offered a reluctant finger point at Mike Ryan, who it seemed clear had unilaterally decided Trumpgotz was no longer funny.
Mike Ryan is the glue guy of The Dan Lebatard Show – he can have moments of virtuosity (if his Mel Kiper as Beyoncé scouting reporter was truly off the cuff it was genius) and he is generally well versed in pop culture, sports and (sigh) music that he can have starring moments on the show, as well as all the excellent production off air he does. But, as a stand up comedian who has worked with many funny people who are comedians as well as not, there is always a slightly thirsty aspect to his humor. His impressions, praised by Dan, tend to either be remixes of Frank Caliendo (the Mel Kiper technically just sounds like someone who studied Caliendo as a cheat sheet) and his others tend to be some version of Vincent D’Onofrio in Men In Black (which did get Mike a little hot under the collar on an episode) – Andrew Luck-D’Onofrio, Demon of D’Onofrio Debate – gee I wonder if Mike has an impression yet of Wilson Fisk on Daredevil! He enjoys a sort of fiefdom on the show as the resident comic genius, that is not really a threat from celebrities, whose level he does not compete at, nor is he threatened by the hundreds of one-off contributions from fans. But a regular contribution from someone at least in the talent and stature zip code (though not number of Twitter followers) might pose more of a threat to his ego. And when it comes to comedy bona fides it isn’t a contest.
But with the rest of the show and the audience providing overwhelming contrary opinion Trumpgotz was back! I began cranking out almost weekly videos and was getting direct messages from Stugotz when he thought a particular rant during the day (knowing I was an out of town podcast listener) might be a good one for Trumpgotz. Hank Azaria, voice over artist extraordinaire called my Trump impression “astounding. Ten out of ten.” on the show. That probably represented the high water mark for Trumpgotz. Hank Azaria – Queens born, went to Tufts University, worth $75 million was someone I could identify with. I am Bronx born (both outer borough), went to Williams College (fellow member of the NESCAC) and I have $750 dollars in the bank. For him to give me that type of praise only solidified, even if only for one impression in my comedic arsenal, my hope that there was still hope for me in comedy. By mid 2018 I thought, with my new stand up album, Thots & Prayers, recording later that year I might have a chance to make a move with the show. What if, based on two years of popular and unpaid contributions, the show would grant me one hour, in studio, in character as Trumpgotz to offer hot takes, etc. in exchange for a couple of plugs for the new album. Sort of a junior version of Azaria’s 3 hours to promote Brockmire? Sure it was a long shot, but it also was not absurd to think it a possibility. With the loyalty and size of the show’s audience and their enjoyment of Trumpgotz I really thought 1000 sales might not be outrageous, which could yield me $15K. Not Taylor Swift numbers, but when you have atrophied your Georgetown Law degree and poured everything you have into a career, that kind of money can give you a respite from living month to month. Already an unlikelihood though, July 4, 2018 made it an impossibility.
Dead on the 4th of July
In June 2018 (I think) Donald Trump was ridiculed for mumbling/not knowing the words to America The Beautiful or the National Anthem. I was contacted by a fan of The Lebatard Show who got my information from Mike Ryan (sidenote – as of this typing the only two people affiliated with the show that do not follow me on Twitter are Mike Ryan and the show account, which I believe Ryan has access to or control over). The fan wanted to know if I would record a Trump-inspired version of America The Beautiful for his podcast. Disclaimer – the song referred to Hillary Clinton as a c*nt and to President Obama as a monkey. As someone who believes Trump is a clear cut racist I viewed these as words simply in keeping with a character. Dan always says he wants to have Quentin Tarantino on the show and presumably he has heard the language that Tarantino has written and does not ascribe it to Tarantino the person. Similarly, Alec Baldwin (and his vastly inferior Trump impression) had become chummy with the show as of my last listening and yet he has a history (and present) of real life action that is less than positive. But at the time I thought nothing of it – sure the language is offensive and wrong, but it is in keeping with the racist person I am portraying. I sang the song and was actually quite proud, considering I am not a singer, of being able to sing and maintain the impression. The podcaster/fan was very pleased and thankful (I did it for free) and he posted it to YouTube on July 4th.
Within 3 hours (and less than 200 views) of it going live I got a direct message from the podcaster. He told me that Mike Ryan had said the following (these are second hand quotes from the podcaster that I am copying from my DMs):
- Mike Ryan isn’t happy about the sketch.
- He asked me to take it down.
- Said it’s going to be a major headache for him. That he can’t be associated with it.
- He seems like he is at a point where if we don’t take it down he wont work with you anymore
These were all messages sent to me within one minute of each other. I then told the podcaster to please take it down and he did. Less than 200 views and I am guessing Disney and ESPN brass were not among those viewers to rush to a video making fun of Trump by relatively unknown Miami-based podcasters with no affiliation to ESPN or Disney. But Mike Ryan certainly was one of those less than 200 people to rush to the video. The man whose impressions were Diddy remixes compared to my Trump had placed me in contact with the very podcaster whose offensive song would supply a (questionably) valid reason for him to ban me from the show (versus his arbitrary and solitary decision to stop playing my audio in 2017 – now he had cause, either coincidental or manufactured). I am not a conspiracy hack and don’t even actually think Ryan could be this cunning, but it is worth at least pondering.
I submitted 2 other videos in the next two weeks, believing that my quick action at the behest of Mike Ryan was enough to maintain my relationship with the show. They were ignored by every member of the show I tweeted them to and were never played, despite actual requests every week since July for Trumpgotz on the show. And Trumpgotz was not among the 30+ impressions nominated for best impression during the show’s annual awards in August. But in case you think my content is too toxic for the show, the day Greg Cote leaked Dan’s engagement I tweeted the show, leaving out one person intentionally but sending it to Billy, Roy, Chris, Stugotz and the show. It read “Stat of the Day: Dan’s fiancée was not born when Die Hard came out.”
Without attribution Mike Ryan made the joke a few minutes later on air.
So I sit here in a midtown Manhattan Starbucks (I guess transitioning from my career as failed stand up comedian to future failed screenwriter?) finishing this. My (double) album, Thots & Prayers is better than I had ever hoped and even has a 5 minute bit about the OJ Simpson documentary, partially inspired by Dan Lebatard’s commentary on it (if you were a fan of Trumpgotz you can go get it on iTunes or other platforms if you want to show some support, but I don’t expect many of you to and that is not the purpose of this writing). But it has also sold poorly in relation to my previous releases. I can’t help but be slightly bitter than the 1% chance I had to have it blow up through an ESPN platform was snuffed out, by what must be pettiness. Could I be wrong? Could Mike Ryan’s second snuffing out of Trumpgotz simply be because he was playing it safe and did not want a 150 view video of someone in character to bring down the most popular podcast at ESPN? Sure. But it’s unlikely.
I have dealt with a lot of indiginities and disappointments in my comedy career, but this may have been the most disappointing. I have no management, no agent so almost everything I have accomplished in my comedy career has been talent, work, and a touch of luck in times that tweets have been read. And the idea that someone who doesn’t even have skin in my game could see fit to shut you down simply because he can is gross. And the fact that Dan, Stugotz and the rest of the shipping container has yet to 1) bring up Trumpgotz and 2) respond to a single tweet in 4+ months referencing or requesting Trumpgotz makes me think Mike Ryan has already poisoned the well with regards to me. When he arbitrarily shut me down in 2017 he left it open to Dan remembering on air how good it was. But if he had just cause (I was a toxic comedian using foul language and slurs) then everyone would be on notice to ignore Trumpgotz. Once again – maybe I am wrong, but then what the hell is the alternate explanation for shutting down a popular segment that cost the show exactly nothing?
This may sound like ravings of a crazy fan or a bitter comedian, but my writings have covered injustices and bad practices across entertainment and media for years, obviously with a focus on stand up comedy. But the Lebatard Show meant a lot to me as a listener and as a contributor. The show seemed to have a lot of respect for comedy. In fact, whenever Dan interviewed a comedian in the last few years he always seemed to be concerned that PC culture, etc. might be making it more difficult for comedians to practice their craft. Well Dan, if you read this… the difficulty is coming from inside the house.
This weekend I performed in St Paul, MN at the Joke Joint Comedy Club, which recently had to relocate to a new space in downtown St Paul inside of Camp Bar. It was part of the 1 city, 3 show tour I managed to put together to promote next week’s release of my new double stand-up album Thots & Prayers. Although I will obviously get into the humorous and sad details of the trip, the most notable thing about it was the fact that I travelled a total of 62 hours for two nights of shows in Minnesota. That is because I decided to take Amtrak both ways. As I explained to the crowds in St Paul, to be still doing comedy after 15 years despite it being detrimental to my physical, emotional and spiritual health when it clearly is not going to lead to any financial stability, let alone something approaching success, requires a core of delusional optimism that only historical figures and the mentally ill possess. And because I believe with Dr. Ford certainty and Brett Kavanaugh intensity that the album is a masterpiece I felt a heightened fear of flying this week. I already hate flying and like the train, but about 10% of my brain was saying “If you comedy career has been consistent it is in the tragic irony department – whether it is Patrice O’Neal demonstrating some affinity for working with me only a few months before his eventually fatal stroke or developing the best Trump impression in comedy while seeing everyone but me get paid for it, it is clear that comedy has turned me from Mozart to Salieri. And the icing on the cake would be dying right before the album comes out. Yes, I am aware that this sounds Trump-Kanye levels of insane, but if you have wasted 15 years of your life pursuing a career that God and country seemed destined to impede then how nuts is it to take it one more level to comedy martyrdom? Well, as I write this recap I am halfway through Pennsylvania in a rush to make it home, shower, walk my dog who will no doubt greet me with the apathy that makes me think I should have named her Industry instead of Cookie and rush to Newark, New Jersey to see Bruno Mars. So here is the recap:
Long Train Runnin’ – NYC to St Paul
I got on the Lake Shore Limited from NYC to Chicago on Wednesday afternoon. I had a roomette, which after finishing Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, felt like a moderately spacious space pod – two chairs that come together to form a 6’3″ bed (I am 6’7″), a panel of light and climate controls and a toilet right next to your chair/bed (like be careful to not splatter close or else you might be a turn on for Trump). As cramped as it may appear, a space like this goes for $1350/month in Manhattan.
The train was 2.5 hours late getting into Chicago, which I did not mind because it allowed me to read half of Bob Woodward’s Trump book (I would finish it two days later and found it fairly underwhelming in its prose – fuller review on my podcast tomorrow). I also watched quite a bit of Senate hearings about Brett Kavanaugh thanks to surprisingly improved Amtrak WiFi service. I then had a 2 hour wait before getting on the Empire Builder train, which is the Amtrak from Chicago to Seattle. I arrived at 10pm Thursday night in St Paul (my portion of the Empire Builder was a manageable 8 hours) and headed to the downtown Doubletree where I got my cookie and took 4 showers to get the smell of cross country obese feet out of my skin (like a coal mine or a Subway restaurant, long distance Amtrak’s signature scent seeps into your skin).
The club manager picked me up at 1pm Friday to take me to the club hotel (I used my free night via hotels.com for the early arrival hotel – always helps when you have subsidies for your paranoia about flying). Now the Doubletree was downtown – a 10 minute walk from the train station and about an equal distance from the club. Well, the Best Western Plus (which was the old hotel the club used when it was located in the burbs) was now about 30 miles from the club and train station. Fortunately my schedule of reading in the corner of a Starbucks can be done from any location, which is all I did until showtime.
The emcee, Andy, picked me up and we got to the club about 10 minutes before showtime. The audience was fairly light, but I assured the manager that my fan would arrive on Saturday (if you think I am joking – my one fan in St Paul did show up, but with his wife so I will count that as two fans – like the French language I consider the man determinative). I sold one album Friday after what I thought was a pretty good set (and thanks to my Milli Vanilli bit, the floor manager closed the show with Baby Don’t Forget My Number), which I promptly spent on Wendy’s after the show.
As a bonus the feature, David, brought gigantic cookies from a local bakery to the show:
When I woke up Saturday it was under 40 degrees so rather than exercise I went and read at Starbucks. Also, had it been 80 and sunny I would have just read at Starbucks. There were two shows Saturday night. The first had a nice crowd and I sold one album. So basically 38 CDs of mine simply went on a vacation from my apartment and will be back home in a few hours. Below is one of the non-album, timely bits I did for the early crowd about the upcoming film A Star is Born:
The late show had about 16 people. And I thought to myself, “This deserves to be my final show.” They were nice people and decent laughers for such a small crowd, but when the goal is a career and you are 15 years operating at hobby level of success it is important not to forget that if divided into 2 teams, your audience would not have sufficient numbers to play a baseball game.
Long Train Runnin’ pt 2 – St Paul to NYC
After a refreshing 4 hours of sleep Saturday night I got a Lyft to the train station (the aforementioned Andy (emcee) was nice enough to set his alarm and see if I was able to get a cab) and got on the Empire Builder back to Chicago. I had some pancakes in the dining car and did some lounging in the lounge car (as you can see there was a very Earthy looking guy in the car (turns out he was a poet – how has that profession survived?).
We got to Chicago 20 minutes early so I had 2 hours to kill so I walked around downtown Chicago looking for something to eat, but all I was able to get was Subway (most things were closed) and the apathetic young sandwich artist didn’t even heat the chicken enough. Clearly a Modern Sandwich Artist.
I then got on the Capitol Limited, which goes from Chicago to DC. That train was 5 minutes early and was a great ride (I got another sleeper roomette where I began ripping through The Dirt, the biography by Motely Crue – unquestionably a brilliant (since it works) structure for a biography (each band member writing different chapters as their story progresses through an unthinkable amount of drugs, sex and violence). However, quite uncomfortable when the band’s bass player basically admits to rape (letting other people have sex in a dark closet with a woman who believes she is having sex with him). I feel like the entire music industry could be shut down by #MeToo, except we seem to have grandfathered rock music to be exempt from it. Now hip hop, which has never been as bad as Motley Crue somehow seemed more problematic to America (thinking emoji). Anyway more on that on tomorrow’s podcast as well. If the train is good for anything it is great reading time.
I got off the Capitol Limited in Pittsburgh at 5am to transfer to the Pennsylvanian which runs from Pittsburgh to NYC. I tried to get on an express greyhound at 630 am (the Pennsylvanian did not leave til 7:30 and takes longer), but the Greyhound was sold out – which is richly symbolic: the only thing that sold out for me this weekend was a Greyhound bus – if my career were to continue it is good that I can set a new goal of trying to be as successful at comedy as Greyhound is at bus operation.
So now I’m 2.5 hours from NYC and then I will have to hurry up and get ready for the Bruno Mars concert. Amtrak Funk gonna give it to ya!
This past week I was in Philadelphia for a very big week in comedy. I was performing at one of my two favorite clubs in the country, Helium Comedy Club and also recording my new stand up album, Thots & Prayers. The album recording was Wednesday and then I would be featuring for Josh Blue Thursday-Saturday, The week would involve a handicapped room at the Sheraton, fans from Oregon accidentally seeing me perform, South Jersey MAGAts ruining my good vibes, and the best set of my life leading to a double album. So with that teaser, let’s get into the details.
Wednesday – “We Overbooked King Rooms”
I arrived in Philadelphia around 4pm on Wednesday, nervous AF (I had only slept about 4 hours). To put this in perspective – most big comedians who record albums have various factors on their side – they are headlining consistently so they get to work out 45-60 minutes per show, multiple times per week. They also have the clout to record several shows so they can pick the better show or edit together the best parts of multiple shows. When you are a comic like me (prodigious talent, prolific capacity, no clout, no representation) you have to go through a riskier process. Working on (what turned out to be 100 minutes of material) your set piecemeal – 20 minutes here, 8 minutes there, 25 minutes over there, 7 minutes in your bathroom mirror, etc, you have to trust yourself to a greater degree. Furthermore, you are lucky if you can book an A club for an off night for one show. 4 of my previous 5 albums were basically one take (Keep My Enemies Closer was 95% one show, which I opted to do when only 27 people showed up to a 130 seat venue for my first recording of it). Israeli Tortoise was the only album I had two full shows (albeit a 40 seat venue) to record. Thots & Prayers, my new one, was going to have to be one take. So in addition to having to prep for the album in the most difficult way, the one take recording raises the pressure of tech difficulties, audience difficulties and comedic screw ups all derailing my one shot to record a great album. Hence – very little sleep.
When I got to my hotel, the Sheraton on 17th and Race I was told that the hotel had overbooked King bedrooms, so I had two options (I told them there was a third – kick someone else out of a King bedroom): take a room with two full size beds and a normal bathroom or a Queen bedroom with handicapped facilities. I took the Queen bed. As a comedian wrote on Facebook, my room made me look like Gandalf visiting Bilbo in The Lord of The Rings:
Then it was time for the show. My longtime buddy Chris Lamberth was featuring and my buddy of more recent vintage, Steve Rinaldi, Philly native, was emceeing. I mic tested and then made sure to be in the green room before anyone entered the showroom because if the turnout sucked I did not want to know before hand. I had a chocolate shake from the nearby Shake Shack as my dinner because I was afraid of having an 8 Mile moment before the show. As Steve got going I heard the crowd and assumed it was around 100 people. I was correct and they were a good crowd. Chris then went up and the crowd kept sounding great, which gave me a boost of confidence. And then it was time for me to perform. I ended up doing 104 minutes that night. When doing a one take album there is a temptation to throw the kitchen sink at the audience and then edit out what didn’t work. I don’t try to do that because a crowd will fatigue and then, you might have a closer or a late show bit that seems to bomb or do poorly, but more a result of the crowd being exhausted because you have thrown too much at them. I knew my set was long (I had anticipated about 80 minutes), but every bit was one that I believed was strong so if everything worked, everything would stay. As it turns out, from my first listening back to the raw audio, the only bit that did weaker than expected, was my bit about the ESPN OJ documentary around minute 75. I still can’t tell if it was crowd fatigue or if I have overestimated how good the bit is because of my own personal pride in the bit. But that was the ONLY lull in the crowd for the 100 minutes. They were on top of every joke, their energy and laughter was big the whole time. If I delivered an A performance, the crowd unquestionably delivered an A+ performance. I posted two different bits to YouTube from the show (the second – I am tempted to use a later version of the Trump joke as a bonus track on the album, but for continuity’s sake I will probably just use the one from the recording- the one posted below is not the album recording version), so hopefully you enjoy them. The album will be a double album, which I would not do if I wasn’t happy with and confident in the product. And the crowd was about 30 friends and fans and the remaining majority just random people from Philadelphia who came out on a Wednesday for a comedy show. So the fact that they were great laughers, patient with a no name comic and big enough fans of stand up to support live comedy in the middle of the week was a real blessing (of course none of them friended me on Facebook or followed me on Twitter, but I will let it slide because they made a much more meaningful contribution to my career – though 20K Twitter followers would probably get me more shows and specials than a great comedy album).
Thursday – “You were funny. I don’t know what was up with those people.”
As the glow of Wednesday still lingered I headed to the club for the Thursday show. About halfway through my set on Thursday I just had this overwhelming sense of gratitude: “Thank God you guys weren’t at the Wednesday show.” It was the same size crowd as Wednesday, but I seemed to have divided the crowd with my comedy. So after the show I had several people walk up to me and say some version of “Well I thought you were hilarious. That crowd was weird.” Then I had a long conversation with two women in town for a work conference with their arbitration company (how many comedians can say “Oh JAMS – when I was an associate at a law firm, our employment agreement said we agreed to JAMS arbitration in the event of an employment dispute.” One of the women bought my albums and since she was from Chicago proceeded to rip improv, as well as a small club in Chicago (that has not booked me in a while). And just when I was about to propose she mentioned her husband and I saw my chance for Who’s Line Is It Anyway-hating children vanish. The other woman was from Minneapolis and asked me if I had shows coming up there. In what felt like the scene from In The Line of Fire when John Malkovich’s character has his backstory busted by a bank teller, I assumed I was being set up since the ONLY gig I have on my calendar for the rest of the year is in St Paul, MN. By coincidence I then walked the two women to CVS on the way back to my hotel – when you hate improv and buy my albums you get a VIP experience.
Friday – “You’re Trumpgotz!”
On Friday the girlfriend came down from NYC. We had dinner with one of her best friends and her friend’s husband. They came to the early show, which, of course, was the worst crowd of the whole week. That audience was not the 2016 Democratic National Convention Philly crowd. That crowd was the 2018 MAGA South Jersey crowd. Dumb, super white and generally felt unhappy to be at the show (and it was not just me – all the comics on the lineup thought Friday early was the worst crowd. But of course I felt like that dancing frog from Looney Tunes with my girlfriend’s friends there. Yes… J-L kills… when you are not there… you just need to believe me.
My girlfriend then announced that the were heading to the Devil’s Alley after the show, which I thought was evangelical speak for anal, but turns out was just a bar near the club.
The second show Friday was the best audience of the week, other than the album recording. After the show a father-son duo from Oregon came up to me and said “You’re Trumpgotz!” I said I was and they were generally stoked to meet me. By way of background I created and have done a segment for ESPN radio’s The Dan Lebatard Show since 2016 where I read the words of the show’s co-host, Stugotz, verbatim as Donald Trump, due to some of their eerie similarities in tone and sentence structure. So when they realized it was me they treated me like a rock star, which was cool. However, it continues the tradition of people who are big fans of my work seeing me by coincidence only. Unfortunately, my “I have lots of fans and occasionally they come out to see me accidentally” is not a winning formula to get booked. But it really was cool to meet fans of my work from across the country (they were visiting the east coast celebrating the son’s graduation from college). Now the big question is whether or not I will be able to get the Lebatard Show to have me as an in studio, in character guest when time to promote the release of Thots & Prayers…
Saturday – Cheesecake & Church
When the girlfriend and I woke up Saturday she had to go home to make it to work by 1pm. We had to wait a long time for the elevator because… 5 of the 6 elevators were broken (sort of an inconvenience in a hotel with 20+ floors) but when she left it was time for me to properly celebrate so I made my way to the Cheesecake Factory to officially commemorate the successful album recording. I had my usual healthy meal at TCF of salmon and broccoli… followed by a piece of Godiva Cheesecake. I then waddled to a coffee shop to kill time before 5:15 Mass at the Church near the club. Obviously it was a weird time to attend Mass in the state of Pennsylvania after their Spotlight on steroids just exploded a few days earlier (on a related note – the most awkward moment of the recording Wednesday was me doing my joke about the song Janie’s Got a Gun being a great example of child abuse making for kick ass rock, 24 hours after the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sex abuse in the PA Church came out), but I did feel like offering up a prayer of gratitude for the recording going well. 52 Sundays a year and a few holy days of obligation I just spend time relaxing and praying for stuff, but something good had definitely happened and a lot fell in line that good have gone awry so I felt like saying thanks.
After Mass a homeless man (or at least very down on his luck) was holding the door with a cup out. I only had a $20 and some loose change so I gave him the change, but I am amazed at how many people don’t give. In Philly, and especially DC, the homeless have sharp strategies – they know the mass times and congregate outside asking for change. Now this may be manipulative or calculating, but my answer is so what? These guys are homeless and what better place to try and get charity than with a crowd who just listened to the words and teaching of Jesus? Had I known I would have saved a buck from the collection plate and given it to the guy. But it seems lots of people in this country practice their religion in Church and on a ballot, but not anywhere in between. Oh well.
Shows went well Saturday and Rob Schneider did a guest set after me and before Josh on the late show. He was solid, if not particularly original or hilarious, but as I watched a lot of those dumb, attractive South Jersey faces dying with laughter at Deuce Bigalow’s set I realized that I am never going to make it in comedy (not that that I hadn’t realized that already, but my God did it smack me in the face that night). I dreamed that I would be the next Greg Giraldo (and if I can plug the album one more time I really think T&P really showcases my 3 biggest artistic influences: Giraldo, Patrice O’Neal and Gary Gulman), not only because of my educational background (he was a Harvard educated attorney), but also because of my sensibility and writing style. But as I have gotten better as a comedian I see that the average comedy club audience (in other words when you are not opening for a Dave Attel-type, i.e., a comic that can and does bring with him a highly attuned and experienced comedy crowd) seems to be getting dumber. More interested in the celebrity of the people they are seeing than the comedy. I really believe a society that has replaced tweets for reading newspapers, replaced reading a book with candy crush and replaced introspection with social media is cultivating a dumb and self-centered population that is bad for a lot of things, including stand up comedy. So as the weekend ended I was even more grateful for the amazing crowd that I had Wednesday because it felt like it might have been a stroke of luck than a testament to anything I did to get them there.
I then hopped on the 12:10 am train back to NYC, was greeted apathetically by my dog Cookie at 2am and then fell asleep after a job well done. Look for the album in late September (I hope).
If you read any publication in the last 2-3 years that covers stand up comedy you will inevitably come across terms like “golden age,” thirsty for content,” and “game changer” and often those terms will be proceeded for followed by a reference to Netflix. Netflix, of course, is the video streaming giant that has somehow escaped much of the criticism directed towards other entertainment and Internet behemoths like Facebook and Amazon. So allow me to offer one: Netflix is on the path to ruining stand up comedy. But first let’s look at Netflix and the other factors that have allowed this to happen.
Netflix: Oxycontin for your Eyeballs
In the movie Wall-E, one of the indelible images from that modern day classic is of all the obese people floating on lounges ordering all the entertainment and food they desire without ever moving. The people become lazy, fat and atrophied. I thought the same thing within the last year or two when “binge-watching” a show on Netflix and I noticed the next episode box, the screen pop up that tells you when the next episode will play, had changed from a 30 second window to a 5 second window. It was as if Netflix had realized the greatest danger to their business model could be giving its consumers any time to consider doing anything else. If I were to make any predictions about Netflix in the next 5 years it would be that they will purchase or create a food delivery service that works within your Netflix that allows you to order food in the middle of programming so that something like dinner, that might cause you to leave Netflix for an hour, will be a quaint relic of the past.
Much is made of sites like Facebook that are in the business of maintaining eyeballs. The longer people engage in and look at their Facebook timeline, the more opportunities for advertisers to be viewed. Netflix has a similar business model – keep people watching. In a sense Netflix represents the two most damaging trends in the modern business world: stock price being the sole driver of business decisions and doing whatever it takes to maintain the attention of consumers, regardless of what the costs are.
Before delving into stand up specifically it is worth noting that Netflix is producing a lot of mediocre content. They certainly have some excellent shows (Narcos is my favorite on the service), but multiple times a week it seems like there are half a dozen new shows and movies going up on the service that I will never see, never hear about and never remember. So there is a glut of content. It’s almost a venture capitalist approach to content creation: give 20 people their own show every month and hope that 1-2 stick. Then there is the addictive quality (partially demonstrated by the “next video plays in 5 seconds” pop up) that many Internet companies have exploited, most notably Facebook, to keep people coming back for more. Admittedly I am not a psychologist or a social scientist, but even looking back on my own experience with years of Netflix, there can be no doubt, starting with the “My queue” to today’s “My List” there is a sort of “to do list” quality to Netflix, that I can’t believe is an accident. For Facebook, it is the feeling of getting “likes,” while Netflix provides you with a truly meaningless sense of accomplishment. Given what we have learned about other tech giants, I don’t think it is farfetched to assume a multi billion dollar company like Netflix has studied psychology and manipulation to advance their goal: eyeballs and increased stock value. Basically entertainment Oxycontin.
Stand Up Opens the Door
Stand up comedy has opened the door wide for a company like Netflix, with little artistic integrity and incredibly deep pockets, to begin forming a monopoly of stand up comedy content. First off, it is a third rate art form (I say this as a 15 year stand up comic not disparage the talent in stand up, but its place in our culture). It will never rival movies, TV or music in America, but it is a valuable and important part of our social fabric for sure. But whereas Movies (which have been particularly resistant to recognizing the work of Netflix) and Television have huge infrastructures and many options with which to compete and defeat Netflix, stand up comedy only had a few champions and they have mostly lost their way or abdicated their responsibility.
Comedy Central, built on stand up, is quickly become for stand up comedy, what MTV became for music. There are a few specials each year (thus maintaining their “special”ness) and to CC’s credit, many of them have been very strong (Big Jay Oakerson, Mark Normand and especially Roy Wood Jr), but their Half Hour series, which used to be their signature comedy series, now feels more like an audition process for whatever scripted shows they want to produce. And there are no more Premium Blends or Live at Gothams which represented showcases for new comedians. So the biggest stand up comedy creator and validator seems to have left the building.
HBO has been fairly disappointing, though I did think Michelle Wolf’s last special for them was particularly strong. But this is a network that has the most history and had the most stand up prestige. George Carlin did his specials for HBO. Chris Rock’s first 4 specials (including the GOAT in my opinion Bring the Pain) were on HBO. They had Rodney Dangerfield’s showcases. They had the half hour specials (which came back in the early 2000s with a strong lineup of elite talent), but they too seem to have decided it is not worth their time or money to maintain that elite stamp of stand up.
Showtime, for me, though the bar is lower for them, has been the best at producing stand up specials. Sebastian Maniscalco, Gary Owen and most recently Erik Griffin, have put out the kind of “Oh you don’t know this guy, but you should” level specials. Now don’t get me wrong – any network that puts Nick Cannon’s special on television can never get a perfect score, but their overall level of specials has been fairly strong of late. But they have neither the tradition, nor the infrastructure to compete with what Netflix is trying to do – and that is create a monopoly.
Patners in Crime
I remember several years ago, at least 6, I was contacted by a management company that had briefly represented me in 2007-08. They were creating a side venture from their management business that would focus on albums, producing and stockpiling a library of content. Now the company had had no contact with me for at least 2 years and I had two albums out at the time, neither of which had sold well, so I found it curious that a company that did not want to manage me still wanted to make a deal for the rights to my albums. I thought it over and said no. Fortunately for me, maintaining the rights to all of my albums has been a financial windfall since the explosion of satellite radio in comedy. The company, which was an offshoot of New Wave Entertainment was called New Wave Dynamics when I was contacted. They have since developed, if I am not mistaken, into Comedy Dynamics, whose logo you will see after many, many specials (I think 3 Arts is the only company I see with close to equal frequency). And my hesitancy early on was justified – I believed they wanted my content, not for its individual value, but because in the aggregate they would be able to bill themselves as industry leaders and also reap the coming whirlwind of streaming royalties. I may not have the career I want, but I still have some decent royalty checks.
Netflix would not be able to do what they are doing without willing partners and these few companies that have built up enormous rosters of clients see that their is an ocean of money to be made when a whale like Netflix is in the room. So that incentivizes overproducing. Businesses never leave money on the table if they can help it, so with Netflix (and other places offering quixotic competition) needing to constantly feed its content machine stand up specials will be made at a rate that will diminish the meaning of the word special. Of course there are many talented comedians getting produced by these companies as well, but there are way more specials than great comedians and I do not remember that being the case when I was a kid or a teenager. A “special” connoted something, oh what’s the word… special? But now you have Netflix and production companies working hand in hand to diminish and devalue the art of stand up comedy. And who is going to say something? Netflix? The production companies? The comics getting paid exorbitant amounts? And that is why Netflix has a perfect business model and an atrocious artistic one. Stand up is not big enough for people to care about “the art” or the awful economic conditions for the rank and file within the business (a middle act at an A club is getting the same pay as a middle act at an A club 30 years ago) and stand up comedians are getting too rich at the top to stop it from within.
Netflix recently announced that they would be launching 47 comedy specials on the same day in 2019. Presumably this would be on top of their 1-2 specials they launch every week (not sarcasm – this is their model). They have also launched their own half hour series and just released a batch of 15 minute specials. In other words, if overproducing comedy and diminishing the word special were not enough; if replicating the mind fu*k tactics of Facebook were not enough, let’s just embrace YouTube and Twitter’s diminishment of people’s attention span and start producing lots of short “specials” as well. And it is not just the volume – it’s unwritten rules that are violated too. It used to be when you performed a joke on television, that joke was now retired, at least for future television appearances. I have seen comedians do the same joke on multiple platforms. Stand up comedy is easier when you don’t need new jokes for every appearance. Then you and your manager can reap the benefits of getting double or tripled paid for the same work. The expansion of stand up comedy to include one person shows has also been a hallmark of Netflix’s explosion. Stand up comedy is harder than spoken word because in stand up you are expected to make people laugh with a fair amount of frequency. In spoken word and one person shows humor is a pleasant surprise, not a feature.
From a business stand point, the real genius of Netflix has been in overpaying dozens of stars. The people with the most clout, the most fans and the most power are the first ones you need to buy up because then you will have both artistic cover (hey how can we be bad for stand up we have Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Amy Schumer and Bill Burr?!) and have secured the cooperation of the loudest voices in the art form. But if you diminish what a comedy special is, both in quality and quantity, there will be a trickle down effect – less incentive to go see comedy, less refinement in what the general audience perceives as good comedy, etc. This, of course is in the aggregate and impossible to prove now, but I have seen smaller and dumber audiences as my career has gone on (and since I am not the headliner it cannot be blamed on my anonymity).
Artistically, Netflix seems to be content being the McDonalds of comedy, which would be ok if they weren’t also putting the steak houses and seafood restaurants out of business. And there is really no critical check on stand up comedy. Some websites put out reviews, but is there a Rotten Tomatoes for stand up or a Roger Ebert for stand up? No – and the reasons are fairly simple. Stand up comics are more sensitive to criticism and the people that do cover comedy tend to be people who want access to comedy. And in a smaller world than Film or TV, trashing specials is a surefire way to see yourself on the outs. Most lists of best specials feel more like PR lists that were fed to websites than any real critical evaluation of the art. And Netflix, which used to have a 5 star rating system for viewers just switched to a thumbs up/thumbs down system. This was partly in response to a troll campaign to hammer Amy Schumer’s last special (though compared to her earlier work I did think it was weaker), but also what incentive does Netflix have to showcase lots of specials with bad ratings? None. So it makes sense to eliminate one of the few internal ways people might decide to skip your specials.
The Netflix business model will not fare as well in other mediums. Many of their movies suck and the movie business seems ready and able to resist a Netflix takeover. Television as well has a lot of talent and infrastructure to fight. When Netflix signed Ryan Murphy to a $300 million dollar deal and Shonda Rhimes to a $100 million dollar deal I laughed because both of those legendary creators have probably put out their best work already. No matter how big a genius, I doubt either of them has 4 or 5 great shows left in the tank, considering their strong bodies of work that have exhibited downward trends. But Netflix’s approach is to collect talent, no matter the cost, in the hopes of having a monopoly. The one area where that will work is stand up comedy. No one can really compete with the money they throw around and stand ups represent a completely disunified labor force. So Netflix definitely has the power to control all of stand up comedy in the next 5 years, but as they are slowly proving they also have the power to ruin it. And I don’t think there is a will or awareness to stop it.
There is a comedy boom going on. That is a great thing for some comedians, but with the numbers of comedians in American swelling to astronomical numbers, some comedians are going to extreme lengths to get a leg up in the business. And the clubs, Netflix and writers’ rooms are taking notice. Here is my special report from the 2018 Comedian Combine:
Sunday night I went to see U2 in concert at Madison Square Garden. The tickets were a birthday gift from my girlfriend. I pulled a podcast Trojan Horse (mentioned U2 as a bucket list band I would really like to see on a podcast episode, which she listened to and then purchased tickets for me – not quite a Patreon account, but basically the same result). In a stroke of cosmic bad luck turned good luck, my phone was broken (I have a special endorsement deal with Sprint where they don’t charge me a lot and in exchange for that I get terrible service and hardware #ComedyMogul) so I was forced to enjoy the concert with nothing but my eyes and ears (at events like this I am not a “take video and selfies all concert long” person, but I do like to keep a comedic commentary for my 17 fans nationwide. Instead I just told my girlfriend to take a photo any time something humorous occurred to me. Not having a cell phone at an event is a rather liberating thing and really draws attention to how much people use them at events.
First thing worth noting is that Anthony Bourdain is not dead and is playing bass for U2:
By way of introduction I am a big U2 fan. I own more U2 albums than any other band or artist (my own 6 albums are a distant second) and am a big fan of their recent work (the centerpieces of the tour “Innocence and Experience” are their 2013 album (the free one that everyone complained about. A great sign that Trump was heading our way was the outrage people felt from one of the great bands of all time giving away a good album for free on their iPhones and iPods) and their 2017 album, which is outstanding. The set piece for the show was a weird one which guaranteed great seats and awful seats for everyone in attendance at some point during the show. As far as the music, they played about 6 songs off of the new album, one off of the free album and at least a dozen hits from between 1982 and 2006 (nothing off of The Joshua Tree (probably because they did a 30th anniversary tour for that album last year) or No Line on the Horizon, the only blemish in the last 18 years of U2’s output in my opinion.
The surprise of the night for me was “The Blackout” (off of the new album). It was the 2nd song of the night and possibly the best performance of the whole show. I liked the song on the album, but it really rocked (thanks largely to Anthony Bourdain’s jacked up bass). On top of that they were performing it within the screen shown above, which created some cool visuals.
Another highlight, and the one time Bono’s political talk coincided with great art was when he played “Staring at the Sun” off of Pop (one of two albums between their greatest work, Achtung Baby, and their return to form in 2000 with All That You Can’t Leave Behind that I didn’t buy), set to a backdrop of alt right videos, which then transitioned into “Pride” and videos of MLK Jr and modern protests.
The band was outstanding and the encore was phenomenal (“One” off of Achtung and “Song for Someone” off of the new album). The Edge, Larry and Bourdain (Adam Clayton) were all outstanding, but Bono, who is always going to be the face of U2, has reached Mick Jagger levels. And by that I mean he can’t dance to his own music, but the music is so great that you don’t really care. Bono moves like the uncle who tries to tear up his niece’s wedding dance floor, but just looks goofy.
But if you are thinking, “But J-L, where are the complaints?” Well, just one, the annoying millennials in front of us, kept standing and blocking the view. No one said anything when one woman was dancing (I keep landing behind that one woman at concerts who dances, but not really for the music, but just so people can see her dance), but then they would just stand absent-mindedly, blocking our view. But otherwise – a phenomenal show.
It is Sunday morning in the Beaver Creek, Ohio Panera Bread as I write this. Because I will be on a 16 hour Greyhound bus ride tomorrow I will not have access to Internet (or personal space and drinkable water) all day tomorrow so the road recap goes up this morning. Besides, with most of Ohio presumably staying home tonight to watch the GOAT Lebron James, I assume tonight’s show will not warrant much consideration anyway. This was my first time to Dayton giving me all the Ohio comedy merit badges (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, Columbus were already completed) so this will be chock full as I recall the loss of my Dayton virginity. And like so many of these recaps it begins with a travel story full of pain.
Greyhound to Dayton
I do not like flying. I don’t have a crippling fear, but I do not like it. And I have not been on a small plane (smaller than a MD-88 and usually not smaller than a 737) since 2009 when I did a gig in Destin, Florida. We transferred in Atlanta for a 50 seater to go to Fort Walton Beach, FL. It was a beautiful, sunny day and it was one of the bumpiest flights of my life (raising the question – WHAT THE FU*K ARE THESE PLANES LIKE IN BAD WEATHER?). Additionally, the size of seats on those planes are slightly less roomy than overhead baggage space. So I just decided that when I can’t travel on a normal sized plane (737 or bigger) I would go via other means, which means my beloved Amtrak (I am known as “The Joe Biden of Amtrak riders you don’t give a shit about” in rail transit circles) or Greyhound. Well, at $120 round trip and 16 hours Greyhound beat Amtrak in both price and time so that is how I travelled.
My bus left Port Authority bus terminal at 9:15pm on Wednesday night. I was loaded up with healthy snacks, podcasts and a hazmat suit for the 15.5 hour journey. I probably slept a total of 90 minutes during the journey, but I had my own seat for most of the trip, which was the best case scenario. And I smelled only 2 farts throughout the journey. Neither were mine.
When I arrived at Dayton I ordered a Lyft. This is what transpired next:
My Lyft driver was a 67 year old black man that gave me his Motown cover band’s card when I told him I was a comedian. Turns out his group, Touch, finished 3rd on an NBC show hosted by Nick Lachey, so you know a trip is off to a bad start when your Lyft driver in Dayton, Ohio has more entertainment juice than you do. I arrived at the club around 1:45 and got walked over to the comedy condo.
In stand up comedy there is only one C word that offends comedians and that is “Condo.” If you, as the middle act, get a hotel you have won. There is usually a minimum standard of care delivered by even the crappiest of hotels, but a comedy condo can range from “Hey this is solid!” to “Hey, this comforter is solid frozen with other comedians’ semen!” Well, the new standard for comedy condo excellence has been set by the Dayton Funny Bone (suck on it Rivercenter Comedy Club in San Antonio – the awful condo since abandoned that resembled the bug room in Temple of Doom – and the subject of a blog that got me banned from there). The apartment, which is located in a new building in the mall where the club is (literally a stone’s throw from the club) is basically a slick 1 bedroom loft type apartment with a full cable package (all the HBOs, etc). It is pretty much a better set up than 95% of hotels, so good job Dayton FB! It allows me to creepily spy on patrons of the club:
For dinner I went to The Cheesecake Factory, located a dangerous 400 feet from the condo (it is the preferred restaurant for NBA players and NBA-sized middle acts) and then I went to the club. Thursday’s show went well, sold a few albums, watched the first half of Game 1 of the NBA FInals (I could not stay up for the JR Smith debacle because even my love for Lebron must succumb to 90 minutes of Greyhound sleep.
Friday: One Good Crowd
Friday I went to LA Fitness and got swole AF. I also went to the Cheesecake Factory again (I went with a sensible dessert of Vanilla Bean Cheesecake, which is one of the lower calorie cheesecakes they offer at only 13,880 calories per slice). I watched the outstanding season finale of The Americans (thanks for not spoiling (*watching) it Black Twitter!) in Panera Bread and then, just like that, it was time for two shows at the Funny Bone.
The first audience was so so. I know that because when I was selling albums after the first show (right outside the bathrooms like some African bathroom attendant offering you CDs instead of cologne and breath mints) two young guys came up to me, bought the albums and said “We want to be comedians and I don’t know what was wrong with that crowd. You were awesome.” This proves that I perform to the back of the room, even if they are just in comedian fetus form. The second audience was awesome – they were a smaller crowd, but they bought a lot of my albums, which after 15 years (June 2nd was 15 years since I picked up a mic at the Takoma Station Tavern in D.C.) is the cynical way I judged the quality of a crowd – you can boo me, but if you buy my albums you are a good crowd.
The only blemish after the first audience was a black who came up to me and said “That ain’t your race. (proceeded to touch my hair) Nah – show me your stomach hair. Niggas got nappy stomach hair.” Now, as I have said, if I wanted to use the N word (which I don’t – there goes my shot at a Trump cabinet position) I could make a legal case in N Word Court (my new show I am pitching) presenting DNA evidence, a picture of my father and my Sprint Mobile bill as compelling proof of my half-blackness. However, I have lived my life as an HGH infused Adam Sandler with a tan so even if the N Word Constitution accords me a right to say it, in the real world I do not have license to use it. My point is writing this is that I tell my story not to take liberties with language or to “get away with” saying things. I tell my story because it is my story. But increasingly (and I have noticed a lot more skepticism in the age of Trump from black people, just like many more white people commented and asked about my race after shows during Obama’s presidency) I am having these uncomfortable interactions. My theory is that under Obama, white people were wondering if I was cashing in on the cache of being bi-racial (if they can’t be cool then why should this Italian looking guy get to be), whereas black people have been saying a lot more things to me since Trump’s election – perhaps wary of whether I am a racial and political ally or just someone trafficking in race. But whatever the case, don’t touch my hair! #BlackGirlMagic
Missed References, Guns, Thots and Prayers: Saturday
Saturday I went to LA Fitness again and got even more swole AF. I emailed the cast and crew of Comedian Combine the final script (filming June 16th – this will be one of my best sketches) and then walked 2.5 miles to the closest Catholic Church for vigil Mass. Now the weather was beautiful, but it was also 80+ degrees and after a while 2.5 miles starts to get super hot. I arrived at Church looking, as I often do in summer months, like an ISIS operative having a panic attack. Another weird thing about the Church, was the demographics of the attendees. Not an exaggeration – there was one beige dude (me), 4 Asians and about 800 extremely white people. I have noticed this more and more on the road and after reading Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law (which made my last blog – my recommended U.S. History reading list) I can’t help but think of the historical shame of how segregated our cities are (and how the book thoroughly explains was done by design at the highest levels of federal and state government, in addition to local and personal prejudices that created, and sustain, a world of white middle class wealth). I wanted to ask the people around me “Don’t YOU think it is weird that EVERYONE looks the same in here?”
As I walked back from Mass I stopped in a Wendy’s for a chicken sandwich. It was just me and these two people:
Coupled with my Mass experience I almost want to ask “If you moved to a town without scary minorities to feel safe, why the need for the gun you paranoid, fat Nick Offerman-looking cuck!? Al Qaeda is not coming for you, no matter what your Greyhound Bus Depot security thinks (see video above). And you probably have zoning laws that would bar people that have the same skin color as people in MS13 or the Crips from moving here. Besides I could take that from you if I wanted to – I AM THE CAPTAIN NOW!” During my meal two girls came in and ordered food and then one proceeded to sit with her bare feet on the seat and I thought, “Excuse me Donald Glover, but THIS IS AMERICA – an old, scared white dude with a glock on his side and a millennial putting her bare feet up in a restaurant.”
The first show went OK that night, but in the same set I made an Alex Jones reference (and then polled the crowd and only 1/3 had even heard of him) and a Nino Brown reference (and only about 7 people knew what I was talking about) in the same set and thought America’s ability to get references has to be somewhere between those two, but alas it was an epic fail. I also made a Rocky IV reference on the late show and almost no one had seen it. And they call themselves patriots?
I went back to the condo after the first show to upload the video to my computer and by the time I got back to the club everyone had left (the headliner did a shorter set than he had been doing) so I sold nothing after the first show. Fortunately the late show would be the best crowd (only heckling I got was on the late crowd, so they sucked under normal definitions of crowd quality, but as I wrote earlier, albums sales are the sole factor determining a crowd’s quality form here on out). I did get a good new bit, as well as a pop culture phrase I have invented. Enjoy “”Tater Thots”:
As my set was winding down I started going into my bit about how it is tough to ask a guy to settle down in 2018. A bit that has been doing well for me and was 4/4 in Dayton, but then some dumb, attractive woman and her tatted up, sleeveless shirt, dip swallowing boyfriend/man/friend decided to chime in (I think she was also a Trump supporter, so let’s just use another one of my linguistic inventions – she was a Trunt). I do not hate stupid people. They were stupid based on their support of Trump and their inability to understand the premise of a joke. But they were confident stupid people and I hate those mfers. So I aborted the joke, but I think it helped propel album sales because when I made my self-deprecating album pitch a black man yelled out “We Got You!” and I thought “I don’t believe in Wakanda Forever, but perhaps today we are all Wakandans!” I sold well after the show and even gave two black men (I believe one of them was the man who shouted his support) and their dates a breakdown of their relationships as Trump (I gave my endorsement to the black man dating a black woman, but told the black man dating a white woman that I did not approve, which had them all laughing). I then went back to the condo to find The Dark Knight was on. I stayed up til 2am watching it because it was only Wakanda for a day – it is The Dark Knight forever. And here is a beautiful shot of Beaver Creek I took on my way to Church:
As promised on my podcast this week this blog is my recommended reading list for the third era of United States History. I think U.S. History (so far) has had three great and co-equal eras. The first is the American Revolution, when the United States became a nation. The second is the Civil War, when America freed its people. And the third, a longer era, is the struggle for Civil Rights that fought and continues to fight for the equality promised, but not delivered, by the Declarations and Amendments of the first two eras. I have been wanting to write this for a while, but wanted to finish the books related to the topic before compiling this list. I was also recently inspired to do this by something I heard on the Adam Carolla Show. I am a big fan of Carolla and have been a guest numerous times on his show. I agree with many of his views on day-to-day life and find him to be an incredibly quick and sharp wit, but politically, and on racism’s role in America, I am often nearly a polar opposite to him. Breaking this down will require another blog post (or appearance on his show), but on a recent show he played a Morgan Freeman interview clip where Freeman said he did not think Black History Month should be a thing because Black History is American History. Of course this quote was used by Carolla as a way of saying “See, dividing by race only perpetuates problems,” but I believe part of Freeman’s point is that the story, struggles and contributions of black people are central to American History and should not be treated as some niche branch of American History and perhaps Black History Month is a copout that allows people to deny the centrality of Black History to American History. At least that is the way I took it. And as I have said on my podcast, I feel that the civil rights struggle and Black History should be considered a co-equal of the first two major events/eras, but often feels like more of an elective course than a core requirement.
The list I am going to post also feels necessary in an era of Trump. He is a man with poor reading skills and an apparent aversion to reading itself (he needs “killer graphics” for even important national security briefings), a disdain for facts, an ignorant and bigoted view of minorities and history and a willingness to use racial animosity to exploit, manipulate and exacerbate anxieties and hostilities among poor and middle class white people. So although I know most people who would be willing to read these books might be people seeking confirmation of things they already believe and/or know, the folks who should really read this are those who believe the myths on race that we learn in schools and are told from mostly “conservative” politicians and thinkers. If you read at a moderate pace like myself this list could take you a year to complete but I think it is worth it. So, without further adieu here is the list in recommended order:
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
The National Book Award winner for History provides an epic scope of how racism developed and evolved in America. In early cases racism was a justification for policies (like cheaper labor) rather than the starting point of people’s beliefs and then of course, evolved into culturally held beliefs that had to continue to evolve to both maintain white supremacy and justify poor treatment across the spectrum of American life of black people. The book also examines how some heroic figures in American history, both black and white, held compromised views that were moderately racist (one broad example of this – believing slavery was wrong, but that black people were not endowed by their creator with the same abilities as Caucasians) and how this two steps forward, 1.5 steps back dance with America and race persists to this day, perpetuated at times by black leaders’ desire for accommodation and compromise and not just white supremacy and hate.
Grant by Ron Chernow
A phenomenal biography about the hero of the Civil War and the only President in the 80+ years until Lyndon Johnson occupied the White House to use the power of the federal government to affirmatively push for full equality of black people. The bittersweet tragedy of this great book is that Grant showed what was possible if the North and Republicans had stayed vigilant to protect the rights of blacks and how Grant saw the terrible future that awaited black citizens once he left the White House due to Republican and northern fatigue over the “Race issue.” Obviously a lesson not learned well by America if you look all the way back to the 2016 election.
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon
This Pulitzer Prize winner explores how during and especially after Reconstruction the South and major industries used the criminal justice system as a way of using thousands of Black Americans to work as free labor (at times even worse than slavery because prisoners working for free did not give employers the same incentive to preserve the health of the labor as they would have had they been owned by the employer). There were heroic efforts by some US Attorneys (Warren Reese Jr. is the particular hero of a good portion of the book – the son of a Confederate who becomes a passionate fighter for stopping the new slavery in Alabama) at times to investigate and stop this, but companies like U.S. Steel still reaped enormous profits knowingly from slave labor. Reading this book made it laughable that someone could think there is NOT a case for reparations, at least for those able to prove definitive links to these laborers.
Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King
This Pulitzer Prize winner follows a pre-Brown case of Thurgood Marshall in Florida (and after reading this book you will not have to ask me why I did not want to see the hip hop swagger-inspired (from the preview at least) Chadwick Bozeman interpretation of Marshall). In an era full of depressing and heartbreaking stories and histories, this book was especially gut-wrenching. The story is a familiar one of black WWII veterans returning to the South and earning the resentment and hostility of poor whites. A false rape allegation and an impossible fight for justice are the main points of the story, but when you hear about a father forced at gun point to watch his son jump to his death or an NAACP worker named Harry Moore, a Florida Civil Rights worker assassinated in 1951, you realize you have not learned nearly enough about this era. This is not a book with a happy ending, quite the contrary. It is impressive for the depths of despair it will make you feel.
American in the King Years (trilogy) by Taylor Branch
This 2000+ page trilogy has won most book awards between the three volumes (Parting The Waters won the Pulitzer, Pillar of Fire & At Canaan’s Edge). These books cover the Civil Rights struggle from 1954-1968 and the big takeaway from them for me, other than the great and important history, is the number of American heroes that I had not heard of. As I have said on my podcast, the fact that many school kids could probably name as many Confederate generals as Civil Rights heroes speaks to a horrible deficiency in our collective education. Of all the names I learned about in these books, the one that stuck out to me was Bob Moses. The man was basically a one man voter registration drive in early 1960s Mississippi. That would be like being a one man gay marriage advocacy group in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I don’t make that comparison to be funny – reading these books you realize that the 1960s South (and plenty of the North – as MLK Jr said “Chicago could teach Mississippi something about hate” when he worked to eliminate housing discrimination in Chicago) was nothing short of White Christian terrorism. This is a decade where both of my parents were adults, not some far off time with horses and carriages.
The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein
This book from 2017, that I just finished, breaks down how throughout the 20th century the federal and state governments were instrumental in developing and augmenting black poverty and black ghettos. It is too often viewed as an issue of individual racism and black failure for housing blight and poverty, but Rothstein breaks down everything from the New Deal to present day to show that discrimination against black people created and exacerbated poverty and housing issues in the black community, allowed for white middle class people to build intergenerational wealth while also preventing black families from doing the same. While many of the other books on this list give historical perspective that is valuable, this was the first one on the list to show how today’s problems have historical roots that persist (for anyone who wants to act like the 1940s, 60s, 80s and 2000s exist in some vacuum). Individual racism has a mighty role to play, but based on the substantial role that government has played (and now continues to play) in creating a segregated society both in geography and wealth, the government has a Constitutional obligation to put forth remedies.
Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr
The most recent National Book Award winner examines (as sort of a companion to The New Jim Crow) the role that the black community and leaders had in stablishing the world Michelle Alexander discusses in her book. What is interesting in this book is that poverty, drugs and guns represented epidemics in the black community, and contrary to the “What About Chicago?” fake concern of Trumpists, the reason for some of the worst punishments affecting black people in the criminal justice system are because black leaders and communities felt desperate enough and fearful enough to co-sign draconian measures. However, what the book also points out is that leaders of both parties, though significantly more Republicans, would listen to black leaders ask for an all of the above approach (tough on crime, more education and job opportunities, etc.) and only latch on to the first, while cutting benefits thus exponentially increasing the problem – more black people in jails couple with less opportunity than before.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
A great book that examines the use of the criminal justice system to continue the subjugation and lower class status of black people in America. If you have made it this far in the blog than I am guessing you have heard me or dozens of other people discuss this book.
American Tapestry by Rachel L Swarns
Disclaimer – this book is written by my sister-in-law.
This book traces the roots of Michelle Obama all the way back to slavery. What it shows in (if my recollection serves me – 5 generations?) is that in America anything is possible (“Yay” – conservatives), but also shows how it took not one extraordinary ancestor, but many extraordinary leaps to go from slavery to the White House. Steps that would not be needed or required for white Americans. Of course, anyone getting to the White House is extraordinary, but I remember thinking while reading the book (admittedly several years ago) “If any one of these people slips up, or gets killed, or any number of things that would have been far more commonplace for black people than white people, then Michelle Obama may not be here at all, but certainly not in the White House.” And I guess that is why I included it on the list, because it has an enjoyable narrative and an even more important narrative lesson – Anything is possible in this country, but you must acknowledge that it was and still is harder for a black person to achieve that opportunity. And once that is acknowledged then maybe real change can be had for all and not just the exceptional.