The Death of Stand Up Comedy
I have not been blogging with nearly the same regularity as I have in the past. There are several reasons for this (fewer funny road stories, over-saturation in the marketplace with blogs about everything, lack of motivation, etc.). Now I have recommitted to writing a little more frequently, but one of the things I probably won’t be writing about nearly as much is the thing that has gotten me the most readers: the stand up comedy business. It is because I believe that stand up comedy, as we knew it or like to think of it, is dying. There is such an overwhelming perfect storm of factors that are contributing to destroying the prominence and art of stand up comedy that I no longer view it as a viable career option for myself, nor a community or industry for which I have much remaining passion. Naturally I still get great pleasure from writing, working out material and then seeing it work in front of “regular people,” but that feeling is the lone positive swimming against a tsunami of negatives. So let’s go through all the reasons why stand up is on life support:
1. Crushing The Middle Class of Comedy. As I have written before (please read this one as well – http://jlcauvin.com/?p=2304), just as the middle class of America is being left behind in an increasingly unequal society, feature work – the best way to become a competent and skilled comedian, is no longer a viable way of making a living. For those of you that do not understand the industry lingo – the feature act is the comedian that goes between the emcee and the person you are there to see. They receive about a half hour to get the audience drunk and really ready for a long set of comedy. The fact is that feature work used to be a way to make a modest living if you were good enough (features in the 1980s were being paid as much or more in actual dollars, not adjusted, than features in 2012). I had an old school booker tell me a couple of years ago that it would take ten years to become an excellent feature. His timetable feels about right. Of course for most people in the YouTube/Twitter/Tumblr world this is far too long a time table. So now, more than ever it is difficult to make your focus and goal to be a great comedian, unless you are doing things other than comedy. Then, if you are doing enough you will leapfrog the process and become a headliner, but not necessarily because your stand up chops are undeniable or even ready. So instead of nurturing good comedians, good comedians must develop in spite of the lack of incentives and opportunities.
2. Everyone Wants To Be Heard. The last year of stand up “scandals” have proven how self-absorbed the comedy community has become with its own news. The competition to be the first to weigh in on any little blip on the comedy scene is pretty fierce. Every comedian with six month’s or more of experience has begun to weigh in on every issue that arises. I have certainly done my share, but usually in the context of not liking the general trajectory of the comedy business, not for just a gut reaction response to an isolated incident. Every one of these incidents gets play in the national media as the chatter builds up (the New York Times covered the Daniel Tosh incident close to a week after it had achieved viral status). For me the Tosh incident should have been a non-issue. Instead we collectively raised it to the level of a national conversation. The short summary of this is that comedy is becoming a bunch of people cyber shouting and offering their input (regardless of writing talent or experience in comedy) and not spending time trying to be funny. Not the best way for talent to develop, but of course the name of the game is to get noticed and worry about being funny later. As an example – watch the inevitable next time some man makes a comment about gender and humor. The uproar will be fast and furious from many people you have never heard of, while those who have made it or are on their way will be too busy writing new material and working to weigh in.
3. The Anti-Bullying Culture Joins Forces With Political Correctness. Our society has become semi-obsessed with eradicating bullying. I suppose in a post 9/11 world we need to get terror, wherever it lies, including 5th grade classrooms. I would not want my kids to be bullied, but if a few taunts got my 12 year old to jump off a bridge I would also have to examine my own parenting and whether I had missed signs of severe depression, not just if kids teased him. Perhaps if we gave 8 year olds fewer participation trophies and stopped making sure every kid at a birthday party, not just the birthday boy or girl, got a present, then maybe kids wouldn’t be so frail by the time they hit 15. I am not saying there are not cases of individual torment that go into the Stephen King level of bullying, but why have we reached this alleged epidemic/crisis of bullying today?
Along those lines, comedy, once the bastion of free speech like no other art form, is now under attack. Daniel Tosh makes a rape joke. Tracy Morgan makes a homophobic joke in reference to his son. Dane Cook talks about fu*king a woman with a chain saw. I did not even bother to look at what George Lopez said on his special because I no longer cared what the protesters had to say. I am a big believer that discrimination is still rampant in this country. As a half-black man who looks Egyptian or Italian, depending on the season, I hear far too many comments that make me sad and frustrated (because the Italian looking dude is probably down with racist stuff too, right?). But have things gotten so good in America that now stand up comedy has to be sanitized? People have lost sight of what kind of art form comedy was and now think they can place their agenda on it because they were offended. It is an art form built, in part, on pushing boundaries and language. More so, I was particularly disappointed with comedian/actor TJ Miller’s response to Dane Cook’s joke because it meant that not only were ignorant comedy fans treating stand up comedy like school plays, but comics themselves were adding their inside-the-business opinions, thus giving credence to the idea that comedy and speech on stage should be curtailed, or at least making a big show of their disapproval when it did not meet their ethical standards. In no way does this mean that I approve or like any of the material in question. But I do believe that outside of incidents like Michael Richards’ Kramer’s infamous N-bomb parade, which was not comedy in any way, anything said on stage is fair game.
So I will ignore these stories from now on. They simply reflect a society that is growing out of touch with comedy (and thanks to social media – every perceived transgression can now have the effect of an atom bomb on-line) and a growing cadre of comedians who want aggression they disagree with taken out of comedy (e.g. there will be no uproar from the comedy community about jokes insulting faith and religion, but God forbid a joke on gender or race gets too edgy).
4. Not Everything is Stand Up Comedy, Nor Should It Be. Bill Burr stirred another “comedy controversy” with his comments about alternative comedy earlier this year. Here is what I think alternative comedy has done. On the plus side it has allowed everyone with any voice to be considered comedy. Some are very funny. Most are not. If I had my druthers I would take everyone with an instrument or a puppet operating as comedians and ban them from anything where stand up is performed (of course this is an aside, as no one considers these performers “alt.”). But stand up has become very inclusive. Too inclusive if you ask me, which you didn’t. I would compare alternative comedy to Amazon’s publishing business. They are making it easier for authors to self-publish, cut out the middle man and reach audiences they otherwise wouldn’t have. However, the vetting process and the machinery of publishing still give a book a certain seal of approval, as if an official vetting has occurred and it is worth considering. Now, as I already said, the clubs and the club system have failed as well, but that does not mean that every non sequitur spewing, act out champion needs to be considered the torch bearer for Pryor, Rock, Carlin, Giraldo just because there is a niche following for it in dank basements. One of the things that made stand up comedy hard, even before the current difficulties, is that it was hard to do. But it now feels like there is a moral relativism in comedy where nothing can be judged, everything can be funny and just as valid a form of stand up. So what if you cannot write jokes as well or deliver as compelling a performance – just do something weird with a weird look or fashion sense and there is a place for you! There have always been character based comedians or off-beat comedians, but with one Late Night Show basically dedicated to alternative comedy and a powerful presence on both coasts, they now have a platform bigger than their quantity of quality can bear. Sure, you can say that people “don’t get it,” but maybe some of the comedians performing this stuff don’t get it either.
5. Comedy Central. Imagine if there was a channel called Broadway Live. And on it you could watch every play on Broadway on basic cable. More people would get exposed to the theater and this would be great until the theater began to lose its cache. Then it would be a disaster. There would be a demand for content that Broadway Live would have to churn out which would dilute the quality of content as well as people’s perception of theater as something t partake in live as a cultural experience. Watching Comedy Central these days feels the same way. They had to change the name of “Comedy Central Presents” to “The Half Hour” a not-so subtle suggestion that the signature stand up show on the network had lost its cache and power. Just as The Tonight Show is no longer a kingmaker for a comedian (the loss of Johnny Carson and the advent of Comedy Central probably played a role in that), Comedy Central Presents does not seem to have the power it once did. Unlike the first several seasons where every comedian performing on them was either a phenom or a veteran with chops, now it feels very hit and miss. The benefits of Comedy Central to comedians cannot be understated, but the pendulum feels like it may have swung into over-saturation and under-delivering in quality. It is the same reason why CNN has to show Lindsay Lohan stories – because they have too much time and not enough news for the time. This may sound like I have an ax to grind, but I don’t. This perspective was really informed by all the older comics I worked with on the road who noticed a real difference pre and post-Comedy Central. Once again, as I stated in item #1, Comedy Central is a great platform for the rich to get richer, but the business for many comedians has also probably been hurt long term by Comedy Central’s existence.
6. Social Media. I am including YouTube, Twitter and Facebook in this. Now do not get confused. Social media is a great way for people to see your material and learn about you, if you are both lucky and savvy with the tools it provides. But it has also cheapened comedy to be some sort of instantaneous short attention span exercise on par with a page a day calendar (remember those things?). Now every comedian has to have some kind of Internet presence and there is both an embarrassment of riches and a rich number of embarrassments on social media pushing comedy content. The market is so flooded that at the end of a work day people have probably gotten their fill of comedy. And then people not only devalue the work of stand up comedians, but because of their proximity to them on social media can see themselves on the same level as some comedians. When comedians lose both their cache and their perception of humor superiority over regular folk, it is not a good recipe for stand up.
7. Youth Over Talent. In breaking news a sperm was picked for the Just For Laughs Festival because they wanted someone young and fresh with 5 minutes of material. I remember being told early in the last decade, along with other friends who have achieved small amounts of success, that the key to making it in comedy was to write, perform, gain experience, find your voice and have something to say to people. Now that some of my friends and I have wrapped up a decade in comedy and have developed voices and material, the comedy business has made a marked shift to youth being the paramount factor. It seems comedians are being vetted like old Hollywood starlets – give me a face I can market (slightly different criteria for comedians than starlets), hopefully they have a little bit of something to work with and then we will get them on television, then they can headline clubs and hopefully along the way they develop an act. And maybe this is a good business model (and of course I am not saying that there are not very talented young comics out there), but when the top criterion on many comedy booker/manager/festival producers list is “young,” can that really be in the best long term interests of stand up comedy? Perhaps we have already reached the point of no return where stand up is now closer to def poetry slamming,
8. Celebrity Culture. Comedy, like a lot of our culture, is now, more than ever, driven by fame. Here is a piece I wrote last year about Charlie Sheen’s comedy tour and I think it holds up today (http://jlcauvin.com/?p=2254). I have placed a lot of blame on the inner workings and failures of people within comedy, but we are now living in a Real Housewives/Kardashian world of entertainment. Celebrity is enough to warrant entertainment empires. So although #1-#7 are hurtful, they probably are less damaging to stand up combined than the culture shift in general. Everyone thinks they can be a celebrity because they can be. So why would they even care about people with talent? Stand Up comedy is becoming to entertainment was print is to journalism and what manufacturing is to the United States, a relic growing more irrelevant or at least less powerful every year. Sure there are examples like Louis CK, but the New York Times is doing well, does that not mean that journalism is still in trouble?
As is clear from what I wrote, many of these factors are affecting other walks of life, but comedy is getting hit with most of our culture’s bad trends all at once in heavy doses. So hopefully some of these things are cyclical, but sadly I think many of them are here to stay and will only get worse.
I’m off to watch Batman die now (allegedly?). Maybe that will cheer me up.