Callbacks in stand up comedy are a common trick. The comedian will mention something in an early joke and then later, or at the end of the set, the comedian will re-introduce or allude to the earlier mentioned thing in a way that wraps up the set. It can often be funny, but sometimes it is simply a trick to make the audience feel smart. They get to say to themselves, or the person next to them, “I remember that from earlier!” And the joy that comes from that is not always because the callback is funny, but because it allows the audience member to pat themselves on the back.
Or as I once said to someone, “people are mostly stupid and callbacks give them the momentary feeling of being smart.”
Now, I have been a bitter curmudgeon for a majority of my career. As long time readers of this blog will know, up until 2020, I spent over a decade as a road comedian, performing as a middle act at comedy clubs around the country. Middle acts have not seen a raise in pay in at least 30 years and as you know, bus, train and plane fares are not operating at 1987 rates. In addition to that, some comedy clubs have stopped providing rooms for middle acts so a typical weekend may end up netting a middle act zero profit unless he has albums to sell (which I do) or t-shirts to sell (I would rather work in a Spencer’s Gifts than use my stand up career to hock t-shirts, though I sympathize with those that do it because of the awful economics of stand up comedy). I spent years writing about the shameful economics of stand up comedy and once I realized that middle acts were too scared to jeopardize their meager opportunities and headliners were too far removed from struggles to care or help that I came to the conclusion that I was simply a tree falling in an empty forest.
So realizing that trying to change the business of stand up comedy was futile I became sort of depressed with the life I had chosen – attempting a career in a profession with horrible business practices and a workforce with a factory-installed scab mindset is a tough place to try and change things. But as time has gone on, from things like Soundcloud rap to Twitter “front facing comedy” to Tik Tok dances I see that what once felt like an industry problem has become a much bigger societal and cultural problem: commerce and virality are not just driving business decisions, but are now the driving force of art itself.
The De-evolution of Dance
I am not a dancer. Even at my most athletic I was not much of a dancer, but certainly not now, as I am practically an inanimate object, but for my expanding waistline. But we all know great dancers – from Fred Astaire to Michael Jackson to Chris Brown, etc. we know a great dancer when we see one. Great dancing was once something we could gawk at or would make you really cool at a Bar Mitzvah, but as Tik Tok demonstrates, it seems that dancing is no longer about doing something that no one else can do – it is about doing something that everyone can do.
Years before I reluctantly joined Tik Tok I would see people posting “Tik Tok challenges” and wondered “what is the challenge?” They often appeared just to be 15 seconds of easily replicated choreography. But like the callback in stand up, the point was not to make a great dance move; the point was to get engagement. And by calling it a “challenge” instead of “anyone can do this you uncreative sack of shit” you incentivized engagement and might even go “viral,” the holy grail of 21st century creation. And as Tik Tok goes, not only to the original inventors go viral, but copycats can go viral as well!
Art nowadays feels like the meeting point of “inclusivity” and “the death of expertise.” Like if anti-maskers got together with the San Francisco school board and decided on the worst ways to ruin real creativity. But Tik Tok is the current king of social media, so it seems “imitate” is the new “create.” My only question would be did Tik Tok create this world or simply accelerate where we were headed? Seems safe to bet that it is the latter, since the genius of Tik Tok’s algorithm is delivering what we already want.
Making Art for the Algorithm
As I write this blog on Word Press, there is a running tracker on the side bar, indicating this blog’s “readability.” Through algorithms, the site is telling me how “readable” my sentence structure and paragraph breakdowns are. I started at “good,” but am now at “needs improvement” (the last time I got “needs improvement” on something was my 1st grade report card where my math and reading were 100, but my “listening skills” needed improvement. My answer to my parents at the time was “I must be listening if my other grades are 100” – that is how a condescending monster is born). In other words, Word Press is helping the writer curate their writing to an algorithm-based audience. I am ignoring the advice because this is not 2001: A Blog Odyssey, but it is instructive. More and more the goal is to modify one’s work to meet the audience, rather than produce work and hope that your truest, best effort gets an audience.
I referenced Soundcloud rap earlier because of this point. A few years ago I read about how Soundcloud rappers were making shorter songs, often with a hook that seemed indistinguishable from so many others and only one verse because that combination would often lead to maximizing the number of plays of a song. So as we all laughed at the record executive in Bohemian Rhapsody questioning Freddy Mercury on the lunacy of a 6 minute pop song, in real life “artists” (quotes because I cannot really consider someone an artist who doesn’t prioritize the art in the creation of said art) were basically trying to serve up songs under 3 minutes!
In stand up comedy I see the same thing happening. Because of horrible economics, Sirius XM is one of the greatest sources of income to (trying to be) working comedians. Because I never shared the rights to my work with any large labels for “exposure” (something I have told comedians for a decade to little avail) I have made almost $200K since 2014, largely through satellite radio royalties. But, like Soundcloud rap, shorter has become better and I have seen comedians making albums with 30 tracks, all under 2 minutes to help rotation. Once again, I understand due to the economics of stand up comedy why someone would do this, but would we have a comedian like Gary Gulman if when he started the economics of comedy were basically making him choose between a 10 minute bit on cookies and a 90 second bit on Hydrox? Is that in any way good for stand up comedy? To favor only quick hits and to have that favoritism shaping newer comedians? I would say no. Sure a Dave Attell would not have to change a thing with his great comedy, but not everyone is or should be a Dave Attell.
Something that seemed to begin with Jon Stewart but really accelerated under Trump has been people getting their news from comedians. John Oliver has rode this trend to multiple Emmys for what is a very good show, though not necessarily the funniest. While I don’t think Stewart or Oliver are particularly at fault here as they do provide a lot of laughs, it seems that the growing trend is that if comedy is “important,” whether it be Hannah Gadbsy’s Nanette, John Oliver’s shows or Dave Chappelle’s recent foray into spoken word then it is “good comedy” (when did comedians stop trying to make their points through comedy, at least while on a stage, and just decide “this will be the serious part of my comedy show”? I always thought the extra genius of Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central was that he made all his points sharply and brilliantly with, and through, comedy). When we reward “importance” over laughs in the comedy space it seems to incentivize comedy on both sides of the political aisle that is merely hammering one’s ideological opponents (there are plenty of funny people I know right of center who seem to have become redundant bashers of what they view as P.C. culture so it is not just the left that does this). It also has probably let many people off the hook in terms of being engaged and serious citizens. When The Daily Show was at its Jon Stewart-peak it was often said, perhaps apocryphally, that more young people were getting their news from Jon Stewart than mainstream media. As fun as that might sound, it is not actually a good thing. Reading the paper every morning is about 90 minutes of my day. I know not everyone has that much time or desire, but 22 minutes of comedy at 11pm is also not the answer (to say nothing of the garbage being called “news” on right wing stations).
Even in a year when I put out a disproportionate amount of political comedy relative to my normal amount, I am proud that at least 90% of my content whether stand up, impressions or comments, have been comedy. If I had remained one note for the whole year perhaps my following would have continued to grow but I am a comedian. Though I have lots to say about lots of things (as this “needs improvement” blog shows) I feel like if people follow me for comedy, then it is my job as a comedian to provide… comedy. However, social media seems to want people to be Mariano Rivera and not David Cone. Let me explain non sports folks. Rivera is the hall of fame pitcher who threw one devastating pitch for his entire career. David Cone was a master craftsman who could throw (if I remember correctly) 4 different pitches, threw them from different angles and was also a workhorse. I prefer to be a David Cone (if not an outright Bo Jackson hehe) of comedy, but it seems that Twitter often rewards people for staying in one, predictable lane. And the way it works on our brains is that once we are rewarded for certain content, the motivation becomes to provide that content or opinion all the time, like a Mariano Rivera cut fastball, except more annoying and less interesting.
So social media, at least on Twitter (I quit Facebook over 2 years ago because I felt like destroying democracy in this country was not worth getting birthday messages from people I did not know in real life), it has devolved into people hammering home the exact same points over and over again, including the rise of “front facing character comedy,” but which seems to exponentially grow, like a the mob of zombies in World War Z (see below). Along with this what has bothered me is a sort of rise in cowardice in comedy. I did a series of parodies as Dave Chappelle recently and was told by someone that I shouldn’t do it because Dave is doing some cool philosophical stuff. Huh? Almost 8 years ago I went viral for impersonating Louis CK. It was done with some venom, not because I had anything personal against the man (none of his scandals were public), but because I do comedy with some bite. I got a lot of hate and a lot of love for that video, but now there seems to be even more caution. Because the powerful in comedy seem to have so much power people seem to only want to mock those who do not threaten their fiefdom. If you are on the right you will dunk on The Nation and late night hosts because those avenues are not open to you, but you probably won’t do too much critiquing of Joe Rogan. On the left, you will continue to mock the GOP, but will tip toe carefully about “punching down” or making jokes about Joe Biden. I have said this for 8 years, but in comedy it used to be “nothing is sacred,” but not it appears to be “as long as I don’t align with it, it is not sacred.” This is in part because of algorithm-driven content but also in a selective form of bravery among today’s comedians.
Are Fans Getting Dumber and More Entitled or Did We Make Them that Way?
I have often written that many of the people who complain about “PC Culture” and “Cancel Culture” do not seem to recognize that their increase in wealth and exposure did not occur in a vacuum. It happened on the Internet. The cost of greater exposure is greater exposure. People watching comedy are no longer just stand up comedy or sketch fans – they are bored people who may have never entered a club or said a funny thing in their lives but want a diversion. If their eyeballs helped fuel your rise then their opinions are going to be part of tearing you down as well. I have not griped about being cancelled, but I do wonder if the business of comedy and the Internet, combined with what feels like an increasingly dumb population is what will really destroy art and comedy in particular.
I remember watching a season of a singing show (I think it was the X Factor, but it might have been American Idol) where Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls was challenged by an angry contestant to sing and sing she did. The songs of the Pussycat Dolls songs did not exactly require the range of Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria so I assumed Scherzinger would be mediocre. But she was not. Her voice was excellent and powerful. And I had a thought those many years ago that I am guessing very few people have had, other than the Pussycat Dolls – were the Pussycat Dolls dumbing down their talent to make it more accessible? And that seems to be the perfect storm we have arrived at of late. Business models that cater to short attention spans, art that inspires and encourages imitation rather than awe and fans that are conditioned to need art curated to their tastes, opinions and capacities as they are.
We elected George W. Bush because people wanted to have a beer with him. We have a Covid outbreak because your angry neighbor’s opinion on masks was as valid as Dr. Facui’s and we have an art landscape that seems to be increasingly driven by algorithms rather than artistry. If they redid The Matrix today, Neo would just be a Tik Tok star producing 15 second hooks because that is all that would be needed to thrive on the app (while his comatose body lay hooked up to machines in a comedy club). I see political pundits driving conversation about comedy, comedians being praised for offering self-serving, punchline-free “analysis” and fans treating comedy like it’s Uber Comedy Eats (do zero impressions and you’ll be treated like an unknowable genius; do 30 impressions and fans will treat you like a jukebox). And this does not even touch the loss of the concept of “selling out” (a friend once told me about a survey many years ago where the impact of Kim Kardashian (who might as well be Patient Zero of the plague known as “influencing” – I think of her as the George Washington of Only Fans), had basically eliminated the concept of “selling out” in young people’s minds. Being a brand or an influencer was as good or better than being an artist or creator and you can certainly do both now with almost no one questioning your integrity. We can save that for another “needs improvement” blog).
I will (finally) leave you with this. A few weeks ago I took a selfie of my hair and said “a week away from being able to do my Malcolm Gladwell impression.” The following exchange then took place (paraphrasing):
Fan: More like another year
Me: Oh you need to update your Gladwell afro reference point.
Fan: shares a picture of Gladwell with the date 2008 on the picture. In it, Gladwell has a very large afro
Me: sharing a 2020 picture of Gladwell with significantly shorter hair saying “yes your pic is from 12 years ago.”
Fan: Hey dude – it is your joke – if I have to know what Gladwell’s hair is like now it sort of ruins the joke. Sorry you can’t take some friendly Twitter sparring.
I then blocked him for being a nuisance, but I felt the exchange illustrated so much of what this blog encompasses. So I suppose, even though the Twitter algorithm has not been friendly to me over the last 4+ months (but still I am way ahead of the game compared to my social media worth a year ago) I am falling prey to the deal I warned others about: the Internet giveth happiness but it can taketh away. However, this has not changed my fundamental desire as a comedian: to headline comedy clubs. I still have faith in the people that spend their moneys to go to live comedy that they truly understand the art and what it is about (not 100% but a lot more than the social media world for sure). In a comedy club they are not there just to be distracted from their office job or Covid; they are there for stand up comedy. On-line content, and especially comedy, feels ever more disposable and as platforms cater to the whims of their shareholders, it becomes harder and harder to get a critical mass of fans to provide meaningful support. As business, social media & clout chasing mediocrities posing as creators combine forces they will strengthen their collective grip on determining what we want and like. And at some point, even a callback will not be enough to penetrate the stupidity we will have fostered.