The Dave Chappelle incident in Hartford has brought heckling and its place in stand up comedy into the spotlight again. Well to help improve, if not settle the debate, there is now a video on the Internet that promises to help people become better hecklers to improve the comedy club experience. Watch it and share:
Rest assured avid readers of this blog and listeners of the Righteous Prick podcast. This is not some screed against women in comedy. Well, sort of. It is not about performers of comedy. I just finished what can only be called a triumphant series of shows at Helium Comedy Club. I received a great response from the six crowds, sold more CDs (and Live Angry wristbands) than any single week of my career and not one person out of roughly 1500 audience members offered me a suggestion on how I could improve a joke (they must have read last week’s angry post). So what could I possibly have to complain about? Well a great week does not mean a perfect week and both at Helium and at a bar show I did Sunday night upon returning to the city there were a few blemishes. For the last couple of years that has been a debate drummed into the ground about whether women are funny (or in all honesty, and more specifically, if women are as funny as men). Rather than divide the comedy community on a gender-related issue that has been exhausted, perhaps it is time to acknowledge gender in a comedy issue that comedians of both genders should be able to agree on: women are talking way too much sh*t at comedy clubs.
I do not know enough about the history of comedy club etiquette to know if mouthy women were always the norm in comedy club audiences, but I feel like in my decade in comedy I have seen a big rise in women sharing their opinions, sound effects and “making it about them” recently. Now I am in a unique position as a physically imposing comedian in that like a nuclear missile, my size mostly acts as a deterrent. I am no fighter, but I could still throw a few punches and smother most people to the ground with Dunkin Donuts-fueled mass. Early in my career I only remember being heckled twice by men. One was at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, which was basically punk college kids having a goofy time at a lightly-attended free show. The other time was way back in 2004 at the DC Improv where some guy yelled as I got on stage, “That’s a big bitch!” (my hair almost grazes the ceiling above the stage at the DC Improv). But since those early (and not material-related) heckles I find women in comedy club audiences have become almost the sole source of heckling, talking and commentary. Much like an Al Qaeda argument, I am not saying all women heckle. In fact women made up a majority of all the shows at Helium this weekend and 99% of them were great audience members. But of the 8-10 moments of interruption during my 6 sets, 1 was a drunk man, 9 were women. And at the bar show I did in Brooklyn there was one heckler and she was a woman. Before I continue describing this new, or at least growing trend, allow Bill Burr to posit one theory why women have become so free with their voices and opinions at clubs (he is discussing society at large, but it applies):
I have determined that there are different categories of female audience members that are waging war on the comedy club experience. You never know which one will show up or if it will be several at once, creating a Game of Thrones-like chaotic war of loud-mouthed women. But thankfully, this weekend, I got to briefly experience a little bit of each group of The Five Female Hecklers.
THE FIVE FEMALE HECKLERS
1) The Bachelorette Party Member(s)
This is sort of a cliche in comedy clubs that these parties generally suck, but cliches ring true for a reason. This can actually be broadened to any large group of young women at a comedy club. There can be one member of the group who is loud and or drunk, or it can be the whole group, but sadly, no matter what the number, they always seem to rally around the people in the group being jerks. I witnessed this at Helium this weekend. I was sitting in the back watching Rachel Feinstein’s set (the headliner) and a table of 6 women under 27 years old were talking nonstop. An employee of the club went over and asked them to please stop talking, or if they needed to talk to please go out to the bar area. Well, emblematic of their “I walk and text without looking around on busy streets assuming people will get out my way” generation they began mock laughing saying “we are allowed to laugh, right?” They then left a few minutes later and drew a penis on the back of their receipt. These women will be mothers one day, God willing.
2) The Black/Latin Loudly Passive Aggressive Woman
I do not like to divide things on race, but this one is required. The black or latin female heckler has a different approach. For example when I shared with the crowd that my father is Haitian on Saturday’s early show, one black woman sitting close enough for me to see and hear gave me a “uhhh hmmmm… sure sure” indicating her non-belief. Other comments that I have heard in my history from black and latin female audience members have been things like “He ain’t right”, “he ain’t funny” and “he don’t know me!” In other words, when it occurs, the heckles are usually loud and almost always passive aggressive as they are not stated directly to the comedian.
3) The Table of Cougars
This is a more recent phenomenon given all the empowerment society has bestowed recently on neglected women in their late forties. I was not actually personally bashed by the cougar crowd this weekend (though I witness them exhibiting some general sh*t talking), but every comedy show seems to now have a group of women – a mix of divorced, married and whorish – who roll into the club and are going to recapture their youth, no matter who is saying what with a microphone. What happened to some dignity later in life?
4) The Disapproving Woman with the Weak Husband/Date
This is the defining group of the women heckler phenomenon. From being a prosecutor in the Bronx to dating women in adulthood I have noticed that bad people tend to gravitate towards someone who tolerates and/or is comfortable with their flaws. This does not mean happy with, but means comfortable with, because it satiates some primal instinct or conditioning. Abusive men I observed in the South Bronx did not seek out or find themselves attracted to doctors and lawyers, unless their encounter resembled the beginning of the plot of a snuff film they saw. They found women who came from places where abuse was tolerated or normal, thus creating a hellish symbiosis of abuse. Well, much like the Real Husbands of the South Bronx, the Real Housewives of American Comedy Clubs have apparently found boyfriends and husbands that like to be yelled into submission as if they’re dating Dirk Diggler’s mother.
I once went on a date with a woman to see Dane Cook (2004 – Caroline’s). She was late – strike one; she gave me a look of disapproval when I laughed at a Dane Cook joke about vaginas – strike two; and then she did not do anything after the date – strike three – game over. Fortunately, she did not vocalize her disapproval, but her look was enough to turn me off (that and her lack of consent after the show). But had she spoken out or yelled at Dane Cook I would have told her to be quiet, stop embarrassing us or leave. This may sound harsh, but it just means that I only want to date people who know how to conduct themselves in public and that I am not desperate enough to put up with inappropriate bullsh*t from a woman because she is the only one I can get. Now unfortunately, there is a class of men who date and marry loud, inappropriate and embarrassing women because they either can put up with it, or more likely, feel that they have to. And there is a couple like this at every show.
She is the woman yelling “That’s not funny!” or “Men do it too!!” or some other stupid and unnecessary opinion about a joke. And almost always you will see a guy just happy to have a spot on her life roster sitting right next to her. Just sitting there quietly knowing that he is powerless to stop this monster. In short, she is the worst person in the comedy club. Assuming Lena Dunham’s nutritionist is not in attendance.
Or as another example – at the bar show in Brooklyn last night – the loud woman was near the stage, intoxicated and with a large black boyfriend (second biggest dude in the bar after the miserable sloth on stage). She kept yapping and I just told her “I’ll be done in a few minutes.” Now, as tradition would have it, large black guys don’t usually have a reputation for putting up with mouthy women, unless they are the voices inside of Tyler Perry’s mind. But as I gave them a look of fatigued disappointment he said to me with a smile and what sounded like an African accent, “Hey man, you got to keep it real, right?” And then I realized this woman had found a third way to find a man who would allow her to be a moron in public: date a foreigner who does not yet know the custom. Downside – when her guy does learn the custom, he may circumcise her for being insolent.
5) The Woo-er and the “I Don’t Know How To Respond To a Funny Joke” Lady
This last one is almost not a heckler, but has found a way to become just enough of a distraction to be a loose cousin of the heckler. This is the chick that “woo”s way to much, because it is not about supporting the comedian, rather, it is about letting the comedian know that she is there. This is the same woman that when she thanks someone she goes “thank you soooooo much,” just to somehow make the thank you about her as much as it is about the person being thanked. This person is usually drunk, sometimes attractive and always useless. They can often be the same person, or at the same table as the person who looks at their table and either repeats every tag (in 2006 or 2007 at a show at Gotham Comedy Club I heard a woman repeat every Pablo Francisco punchline for 35 minutes) or just keeps saying “that is so funny” while barely laughing. Instead of teaching classes on stand up comedy, maybe clubs should start teaching audience how to react (3 appropriate responses to jokes – claps and laughter or silence – end of class).
But once again, women made up a majority of the people buying my merchandise and laughing at my jokes this week and I am very appreciative. But now it is time for that great majority to start cleaning house and letting these dummies know that they are doing wrong. Except for #4 – that one will probably never learn. I am just keeping it real, right?
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 – https://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 (https://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.