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The Elephant In The Room at the Comedy Awards

This weekend, the 2nd Annual Comedy Awards took place. These are the awards where comedians do what every other industry does for itself, while maintaining enough of a distance so as to still plausibly mock the idea of awards shows.

As I followed some of the results via Twitter the name Louis CK kept coming up.  No big surprise there.  He has established himself as the man of the moment in comedy.  A sort of infallible figure of fallibility for comedy fans.  His show “Louie” won best show, in the alternative show category, helping it avoid a showdown with comedy series winner “Parks and Recreation.”

But as a stand up comic I was most interested in seeing who won best stand up special. The nominees were Louis CK, Daniel Tosh, Colin Quinn, Patton Oswalt and Norm MacDonald.  First I will offer my opinion that of the nominees (for their specials, not their bodies of work) I would have CK no higher than third. MacDonald’s special was better and Colin Quinn’s Broadway show was absolutely terrific.

But CK’s special represented a game changer, or so I was repeatedly told.  He bucked the industry by self-producing his own special.  Jim Gaffigan and Aziz Ansari copied his model.  Now, thanks to Louis’ example, at least a dozen comedians can do this. Maybe even two dozen. And after that, I don’t think it will have any effect on the careers of individual comedians. The widespread distribution and opportunities offered by television are still needed by almost all comedians to get to the next level.  Did CK change the game? Or did he just demonstrate that after decades of climbing within the ranks of the business he now has the clout to reject it?  And before continuing I must say, because, as I have learned, when people read my posts with their own pre-dispositions, they read what they want out of my words, that this is still a compliment to CK.  He made a brilliant decision for HIS career.  My only qualm is the extrapolation that fans have made from his career to the rest of the industry. If he has changed the game then he is bigger than just a comedian and therefore worthy of cultural icon status, which may have already occurred.  But if, as I would contend, he has not changed the game, but merely his own game, then some of the praise heaped on him is overblown and is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of greatness around all that he produces, regardless of whether it is actually always great or not.

Louis CK

The last time I remember a comedian becoming as big (and CK is now bigger) as this was Dane Cook.  Dane Cook had a methodical, social media-driven, hard work climb over 10+ years to become the biggest name in comedy.  But the backlash against Cook was swift and furious.  Probably because the comedy community and the public at large had no real qualms about bashing a young, fit, charismatic performer, regardless of how well he did for stand up comedy as a business. Louis seems to be bulletproof.  Some of his invincibility comes from his soft underbelly, literally:   his words are harsh and honest, but his delivery device is humble and not intimidating.  Almost all friends of mine who are CK devotees acknowledge to me that they did not think that the Beacon Theater special was his best work and that there were more worthy specials this year.  But because of the “game changing” aspect of the special it was worthy.  But as I already indicated, I don’t really think it changed the game.  The same way George Carlin claimed voting was just the illusion of power, at this point, only those entertainers who already have power, can wield enough power to buck the system.  So if it was not the best special of the year (or at least not definitively) and not truly game changing, what is the justification?

Dane Cook

My biggest disappointment in seeing the nominees and the eventual winner though, was the absence of the late, great Patrice O’Neal.  In a twist of sad irony to this post, Louis actually dedicated the Beacon Theater special to the memory of O’Neal.  O’Neal passed away late last year, but not before leaving the comedy community with Elephant In The Room, which is really just a notch below Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain for me on my all time favorite comedy specials, and Mr. P, his hilarious album, released posthumously.  I remember watching Elephant In The Room and thinking “this is going to get Patrice the next-level recognition he deserves.”  I thought it was hands down the best special of the year. No distribution gimmicks, no hype, just great stand up.  The silver lining to his tragic death should have been an increased visibility and respect for his work.  But then, late last year I noticed a poll on a comedy website that had eleven or so comedians up for “Favorite Comedian of the Year” and he was not even on the list.  And then the Comedy Awards did not even NOMINATE Elephant in The Room

Patrice O'Neal

Now people reading this who are already pre-disposed to embrace all that is Louis CK will probably just call me a hater.  I’ll admit there are a ton of comedians whose comedy I like more than Louis CK (if you want to know, Bill Burr and Chris Rock are my favorite living comedians).  But I also greatly respect CK’s dedication, his work ethic and and the prominence that he has brought to stand up.  If you are not quite at the “fu*k you J-L you hater” level, then maybe you would like to say “Hey J-L, I respect your opinion, but why is it so wrong for Louis to have won this? He is a great comic and it is all subjective anyway, right? How is your opinion ‘better’ than mine?”  Go watch Elephant in The Room and the Beacon Theater special and tell me there is not a difference.  And it is also just the notion that CK was crowned the way Adele was at the Grammies.  I don’t like a comedy world where we sort of have a coronation.  Even Carlin’s second to last special sucked and it was reviewed as such. But he came back and did a great one for what would be his last special.  That is how comedy should work.  You are only as good as your last show. Sure fans will give you a break because they are your fans, but should an entire industry be giving the same blind loyalty to a performer? That is largely what makes it difficult, especially when you reach that upper echelon.  You have to produce new material regularly and it has to meet the high standards you have established for yourself.  Dane Cook tapered off after his hard-earned climb to the top and he was crucified for it.  For Louis CK, however,  it seems that there is no objectivity even allowed because the comedy community is so enamored with him (“Did you think his last special was an A+ or an A++? A B+? Well fu*k you you jealous hater!”).  There is a lot to appreciate and respect about CK and I have laughed at plenty of his material.  But every so often, the avalanche of adoration impedes a deserved and justified opportunity for someone else.  I think the Comedy Awards, for whatever they are worth, did Patrice O’Neal and stand up comedy a great disservice by not awarding, let alone failing to nominate, Elephant In The Room.

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Patrice O’Neal – A Big Man. A Huge Loss.

The news started the way news seems to start these days – with a Tweet or two.  The initial hope was that it was a false rumor or something, because those things do happen in the era of Twitter and Facebook and the 24 Hour News Cycle.  But as the tweets started to roll in it seemed that they were true: Patrice O’Neal was dead.

Patrice suffered a stroke not too long ago, which sent justifiable shocks through the comedy world.  He had just had his best and most high profile year yet.  His Elephant In The Room special was an instant classic in February on Comedy Central and then his off the cuff performance on the Roast of Charlie Sheen, which was a welcome change from the neatly polished and predictably mean-spirited jokes that litter those roasts now, elevated him to another, more mainstream audience.  And then he had a stroke.

And now he has died.

Until a few years ago my favorite comedian in the world was Greg Giraldo.  A brilliant, but accessible comedian, Giraldo was exactly what I aspired to – a lawyer-turned-comedian who was in the top class of comedians – popular and respected.  But then he died too early, at 44 years old, in a hotel in New Jersey.  He, like Patrice, had finally achieved a step into the mainstream with his appearances on Last Comic Standing and his undisputed closing status on Comedy Central Roasts – he was like the Mariano Rivera of comedy.

And then he died.

As if filling a void for comedy hero in the wake of Giraldo’s parting, I was lucky enough to work with Patrice O’Neal at the DC Improv.  The first time I worked with him was a true gift.  It really felt like being a fan again.  All the cynicism and jealousy that goes with being a comedian went away because I was watching someone practice comedy at such a high level that all you could do was admire and clutch your stomach in pain from laughing too much.

But the single greatest honor I have received was when Patrice asked to have me emcee his shows in DC the next time he was in DC.  And I remember him telling me that the emcee is important and that I should not demean it.  See to a lot of comics they would consider emceeing beneath them at the 7-8 year mark of their career, but this was one of the titans of the art form telling me that what I did was important and important to his show.   This was because he was a true comedian.  It was not about status or fame – it was about the show.  And no one currently in my opinion, other than maybe Bill Burr, put on a show like Patrice O’Neal.

And the fact that my shows opening for Patrice earned me some of my most engaged Facebook fans tells me that not only did he enhance comedy as an art, but he attracted true fans of the art.

But the death of Patrice O’Neal reminds me of something quite ominous for comedy.  Comedy is not producing any new Patrice O’Neals.  Or at least is not promoting any.  What disgusts me about comedy is when I see greats like Greg Giraldo and Patrice O’Neal taking 20 years to become household names.  The advantage of that is that their skill set and world view are so damn developed that they are practically forces of nature by the time they break.  But does that mean it is right?  Didn’t Patrice deserve to be bigger (only 1 hour long special on comedy central?) than that?

But beyond the personal tragedy of Patrice O’Neal’s death is what it means for the art of comedy.  Greg Giraldo and Patrice O’Neal are not being replaced by similar younger talent.  For me there is a generation that includes Bill Burr and Jim Norton that still represent the truest form of stand up (their careers were not built through savvy social media campaigns and sitcom roles, but on stage night after night).  But like manufacturing jobs that disappeared in America or rock stars more concerned with pilates and yoga than with partying and making great rock songs, the “comedy soldiers,” as Patrice once referred to himself and Burr, seem to be a dying breed.  Telegenic and marketable seem to be more important than true comedy genius in today’s comedy market.  That is not to say there are not great young comedians with real points of views and insightful thinking in their material.  There are.  But at some point places like Comedy Central need to take some responsibility.  They have monopolized  the comedy business, in some schools of thought have ruined live comedy (imagine Broadway had a basic cable channel called “Broadway Central” where you could watch Broadway plays – it would diminish ticket sales as well as the allure of live performance), but do not necessarily keep the art in the highest esteem.

I do not know the solution, but it reminds me of cable news.  Instead of doing longer, in-depth stories, cable news tries to meet the consumer half way (more like 80% of the way) and give them what they want to hear.  But at some point the news station has to give us our vegetables.  Stop serving up what people want or the lowest common denominator (Lindsey Lohan’s name should never appear on CNN except on their entertainment show).  Same for comedy – all due respect to my young friends (and to my own sputtering career) but when I turn on comedy central I should be seeing Pryor, Carlin, Giraldo, Hicks, O’Neal, Burr, Wright, Rock, Seinfeld, etc. a lot more than I do.  These are among the Shakespeares of our art and people should be schooled and respect the classics.

When Patrice’s special aired I told everyone to watch it with the same vigor that I tell people to watch Breaking Bad – nonstop with a 100% guarantee of enjoyment.  Afterwards I had friends saying “I never heard of him, but man that was great!”  This is not a failing of Patrice O’Neal, this is the failing of the comedy business.  Comedians suffer and struggle and hustle to be worthy of the platform that late night television and Comedy Central provide, but once they have earned it, as Patrice did many times over they deserve at least as much air time as Dane Cook or Larry The Cable Guy.  Comedy programmers are not supposed to just be a reflection of people’s taste – they should be enriching it.

The loss of Patrice O’Neal is huge, but what makes it annoying to a super fan like myself is that it is not actually bigger.

There will be no more working with Patrice, watching Patrice or looking forward to new opportunities for Patrice.  And I am sad for the loss to comedy and his family and friends and angry at the injustice that that symbolizes.

So Patrice died one week before his birthday fits the comedy business perfectly – he almost got to be celebrated the way he deserved.  But it is nice to see all the comedians and hard core comedy fans celebrating him.  The best way to honor him going forward, at least in comedy I think, is to not settle for anything less than what he brought to the table.  And that was a whole lot.