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Road Comedy Recap: Ann Arbor Day(s)

This weekend I was making my headlining debut at Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase, a terrific club in Columbus, Ohio (that’s some Big Ten football rivalry humor).  There were two shows Friday and two shows Saturday. The crowds were great, the headliner was greater and the travel atrocious.  If you are familiar with my travel stories over the last decade since I started doing road work regularly, you know that Amtrak and despair are my most frequent travel companions. This trip would be the apex of that travel history.  Before breaking down the weekend here’s the math: I spent 38 hours in Ann Arbor, Michigan and 43.5 hours in Amtrak facilities.  To paraphrase Jamie Lannister, “The things I do for self-destruction.”  OK – here goes the recap!

Thursday-Friday: Amtrak to Ann Arbor

Hello Darkness my old friend! – it was another trip on the infamous Lake Shore Limited – the Amtrak train that goes from NYC to Chicago by way of Australia.  The trip to Toledo (the stop where you get off to get the Amtrak bus to all parts Michigan) is supposed to last 15 hours, ending with a 6am “de-training.” Well, we got stuck in Albany, NY (2.5 hours into the trip on time) for 3 hours. So in the time I was stuck in Albany I could have gotten off the train, gone to Albany airport and flown to Detroit before the train left Albany. So we ended up getting to Toledo at 10am.  But, despite the fact that the Amtrak bus ORIGINATES in Toledo, apparently our 4 hour lateness was not quite enough time for the bus THAT ORIGINATES in Toledo to make it to the station on time.  It ended up getting there at 10:30 and I was in Ann Arbor at 12:20.  I ordered a Lyft and the driver told me that her cousin was Karlous Miller (a finalist on a season of Last Comic Standing). I did not think it was a good sign for the weekend that Lyft drivers in Ann Arbor were able to one-up my career, but so be it.

Since I had managed 3 hours of sleep on the train to Toledo I was full of energy to explore Ann Arbor once I had checked into my hotel. So I walked towards a movie theater to see John Wick 3 (worst of the three Wicks, sorry Keanu) hoping to see some stores or eateries to write in and assess the Tator Thots in the rust belt.  But all I walked by for 2 miles were car dealerships.  Seriously.  But then I found a nice little coffee shop near the movie theater and sat mapping out soon-to-be legendary sets.  After a late lunch of popcorn, M&Ms and Wick I headed back to the hotel to shower off the Amtrak Funk for the shows.

Being a comedian in America often means walking along the side of highways. This one made me more nervous than normal

The crowds on Friday were not too large, but they were outstanding. I then retired to my hotel to get a very important night of sleep (#Foreshadowing).

Saturday – Models, Abortion Stones and BBQ

I woke up Saturday to a solid complimentary hotel breakfast (Danish, Belgian Waffle, youth sports teams not saying thank you when you show them courtesy at the buffet) and then did my review of the sets from the night before, which conclusively showed that I am great, but could be greater (as Saturday’s game day adjustments would bear out).

Knowing I would be on a train all Sunday I went to Mass on Saturday evening (#PrayerWarrior). I got a Lyft and my driver was a former model (she moved to NYC as a teen and was a model for many years – I believe her is all I’ll say) who moved back to Michigan to have kids and start a life coaching business (that was my confirmation that she definitely had been a model). So I was 2 for 2 in Lyft drivers being able to one up me in success in the art/fame pursuits.  Mass was Mass, though from the below picture you can see that these Midwest Churches are not playing second fiddle to the South:

On the back side it says “Except Ohio State”

I then ate some delicious food at a local BBQ spot (warning – I am not a food d-bag so if you are some guy who bathes in his own dry rub and wins contests in Texas for best bbq while carrying an AR-15 then you may not judge the food as I did, but I loved it)

Delicious!

Saturday-Sunday-Monday: White Sharon, Black Sharon and the Tornado

The shows Saturday night were awesome. Bigger crowds and even some fans from my appearances on Sirius XM and The Black Guy Who Tips.  Sold a lot of albums and then went back to my hotel. My train back to NYC was to depart Toledo at 3:15am, but I decided to not risk a lack of availability of cars later in the night so I called (app’d? Summoned?) a Lyft to take me the 70 miles to the Toledo station. A White Lady named Sharon accepted and then abandoned me 7 minutes later (#AbandonmentAmy), which is when a Black Queen named Sharon (am I doing this right Black Twitter?) accepted. She got me to Toledo 7 minutes faster than the estimate and I gave her a strong gratuity (#ComedyMogul is back!).  So at 2am I stepped into the Toledo Amtrak Station.  Before continuing to the horror portion of the story here are two new bits/clips from Saturday’s shows:

The station was fairly crowded. As I would learn it was because every train out of Chicago was extremely late. So I sat next to a young woman with blue hair, two tongue studs and a batman t-shirt (ummm are we soul mates or are you just here to star in my Make-A-Wish porn film The Beige Knight?).  And that was when the alerts started coming. My train would not arrive until 4:30am (a 90 minute delay). Shit.  Then another alert. And another. And another.  My train eventually arrived at 7:30am. I got into my room (rooms were cheap from Toledo so I got a sleeper car using points, figuring I would be getting on the train before daylight), which was prepared very nicely for slumber  by yet another Black Queen (#TrustBlackWomen) who also got a nice gratuity from me (the world will be a better place if I ever become rich and famous). I managed to sleep for 3 hours and that is when the real adventure began.

We were 4.5 hours late in Toledo and kept losing time city after city. Then we arrived in Rochester. Delay because a man was threatening to jump on the train tracks. Then we got to Syracuse. Delayed due to freight train traffic (America – where freight always gets priority over people, which is the main cause of many delays on our country’s rails). Also delayed because of a tornado.  So I took photos and a video. From that video, three different weather services contacted me asking for permission to use the video with credit.  Never a good sign for your comedy career when you crush 4 shows as a headliner and your only glimpse of success is from a weather video you shoot on your phone in Syracuse.

The Syracuse Tornado!

We kept getting delayed and at 9pm I turned off my phone for the rest of the night to avoid any Game of Thrones chatter. We finally arrived in Penn Station at 12:15am, but like a horror villain popping up right before the credits to slaughter our hero, the train then had to reverse for over ten minutes to actually go to the right platform. I stepped on the platform in Penn Station at 12:30am. I took a cab home to get my dog Cookie, who peed in the kitchen, but she didn’t spoil GOT for me so I didn’t scold her.  I took her out for a walk and then watched the finale of GOT (I liked it – it wasn’t going to be another epic bloodbath folks). I then slept better than I have in a long time – 6 hours.  Thanks Ann Arbor!

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The Comdedy Bubble Has Already Burst

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.

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Netflix: Making Stand Up Comedy Great Again

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.

Netflix and America in 2025

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’s World

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.

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The 2018 Comedian Combine

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:

 

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The Punisher at Home is the Sequel to The…

A couple of months ago Netflix launched, The Punisher starring Jon Bernthal. It was the 744th Marvel property to make it to either the big or small screen in the last eight years  and was very popular.  Well, for fans of the show and its star Bernthal, there is a good news.  A new web series focused on The Punisher a/k/a Frank Castle when he is at home has launched and the 5 episode collection is worth fifteen minutes of your time. Enjoy!

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2015 Emmys: The Righteous Prick Reactions

Obviously you should have already listened to this week’s Righteous Prick Podcast thoroughly and hilariously making Emmy predictions, but if you have not now is the time to do it because the Emmy nominations are out and there are some successes (where they agreed with me) and some abject failures (where they disagreed).

The Good:

The usual suspects were nominated in drama, but good on AMC and the Emmys for getting Better Call Saul several significant nominations, including drama, actor and supporting actor.

In comedy, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt takes its rightful place among the nominees and Girls is nowhere to be found.

I am this excited about all the nominations for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

In best TV movie, I was beyond pleasantly surprised to see Hello Ladies: The Movie, get nominated, as it gave a beautiful and hilarious 90 minute finale to the most underrated and under-appreciated show of the previous nominating cycle.

Wil Forte for best actor in a comedy in The Last Man on Earth (see my blog praising Wil Forte HERE). The show was overlooked unjustly, but not its star

The Bad:

Netflix – shame on you. You almost certainly played politics (pun intended) and the Emmy voters fell for it. Both House of Cards and Orange is the New Black got best drama nominations after bad seasons.  Meanwhile, Daredevil, which ranks up there with Guardians of the Galaxy and The Dark Knight as the most inventive and surprisingly excellent comic book adaptations of my life is completely ignored (and I am not a comic book nerd type who thinks everything that is remotely enjoyable from a comic book deserves to be in the Library of Congress). Netflix clearly sold out Daredevil and is content to use it like a hot slutty escort that turns heads at a club, while taking House of Cards and OITNB to classy wife functions with dignitaries.

Possibly the best drama of the year gets zero major nominations.

Louie and Transparent – Granted I am biased because Louis CK killed a character that may have been more than loosely based on me, but neither of these shows has been particularly funny.  I think some Emmy voters just recycle their ballots from year to year.  I quit Louie a season ago, so I must admit ignorance, but it never struck me as very funny.  And Transparent is absolutely not funny (here is a post I wrote about “the rise of unfunny comedies” that got some traffic).  I cannot remember a show or movie winning such undeserved praise solely for the political and social climate but get ready for the least funny nominee by a wide margin to somehow walk away with best comedy, so Hollywood can pat itself on the back (I am left of center on most things, but with awards I am all about merit).

Key from Key & Peele for best supporting actor in a comedy?  How can your name be the show and then you sneak in with a “supporting” actor nod?  At least Peele didn’t get nominated (my east favorite of the two) – that should be awkward at the next writers’ meeting.

Based on nominees (and the seasons eligible) here is who I would pick:

Drama – Better Call Saul (Mad Men will win probably, for a subpar season)

Comedy – Kimmy Schmidt (Transparent will win, proving the best way to defeat a 5 time champ – Modern Family – is to have a comedy with no laughs – BOLD!)

For more opinions, comedy and bridge burning check out the Righteous Prick Podcast on iTunes and/or STITCHER. New Every Tuesday so subscribe for free!

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A New Comedy Joins the Perfect Season Club

This past Saturday I was bored and looking for a way to kill time in between a morning trip to the gym and 12 hours of college basketball.  Having just re-signed up for Netflix (the month subscription will end shortly after the release of Daredevil in April, but yes this is a dramatic turn, albeit not a complete 180, from my binge watching warning posted a few weeks ago), I decided to kill time by trying an episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the new comedy series from Tina Fey, rejected by NBC and picked up by Netflix.  By the end of the day, after skipping several games of March Madness (something I would have considered almost sacrilegious) and taking a few breaks I had finished the 13 episode run.  Unlike my House of Cards marathon, which was double the amount of time and done under a self-imposed podcast deadline, the binge of Kimmy happened completely organically.  The show was too damn enjoyable to stop.  And that is why it joins the rare company of my “Perfect Season of TV Club.”

Now I will only focus on the few comedy shows to post perfect seasons in my estimation, but obviously if drama were to be included, off the top of my head I would include season 3 and 4 of Breaking Bad, Seasons 3 and 4 of The Wire, Season 2 and possibly 5 of Six Feet Under, and I am sure The West Wing posted at least one perfect season, if not more.  But as far as comedies only a few shows have posted perfect J-L seasons.

To post a perfect season every episode must be hilarious.  No performances can be weak and it has to finish perfectly as well.  It also helps if the season builds upon itself with either lots of great callbacks and/or humor that improbably gets stronger from a strong start as the season progresses.  Admittedly most modern shows with shorter runs have better shots at pulling off a perfect season, but  so be it.  Despite my recent praise of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I did not think of one season in particular to put on the list.  As an all time great comedy it’s place is assured, but no one season felt “perfect,” though I would put my enjoyment of the over 100 episodes at over 80% hilarious, with only a handful being not worth watching.  But only the following shows have garnered perfect status in my mind:

  • Eastbound and Down – Season 1.
  • Hello Ladies – Season 1 + the 90 minute movie
  • Arrested Development Seasons 1 & 2
  • Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – Season 1

Now there is of course a chance that the limited run of these shows makes their perfection more memorable (only Eastbound made it to even 4 seasons, since the Netflix 4th season of Arrested Development was the worst add on to a classic since Indiana Jones 4 and Godfather 3 I do not count it), but if you have a good and varied sense of humor I don’t see how you could challenge them.  Yes Eastbound is a tad vulgar and Hello Ladies a tad depressing and awkward. But both on the list were tremendous and perfect.  If you don’t think Arrested Development was the best comedy of all time then you are wrong.  Arrested Development is like the deadbeat Dad of both Modern Family and It’s Always Sunny – it gave them the blue print of what made them great without giving a sh*t about anyone or anything AND it had the best cast of a comedy ever.  The cast was so good that almost no one from the cast was able to get cast as anything but a variation of their AD character for the last 12 years.

And that brings us to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  I referred to the show this weekend on Twitter and Facebook as “relentlessly funny.”  That is what it is.  There is so much strong, subtle and brilliant humor in every minute of every episode that I found myself laughing out loud more than I have in a very long time.  The premise of the show is basically 4 women are held by a religious fanatic in a bunker for over a decade (yes, basically they made a comedy that might have been subtly inspired by the Ariel Castro case in Cleveland) and then rescued.  Kimmy decides to stay in NYC after a Today Show appearance and make a new life for herself. She has a gay acting roommate and a job as a nanny for a billionaire’s wife.  For 13 episodes the show is a masterpiece.  From the opening scene where a Charles Ramsey-esque black man is immediately auto-tuned describing the rescue of the women and repeated every episode as the theme song, to the incredible funny courtroom cameo -as-religious fanatic defendant the show is a home run every episode.

The cast is incredible without a weak spot, or even less than a strong spot, but Ellie Kemper (Kimmy), Jane Krakowski (the billionaire’s wife) and Titus Burgess (Titus – the gay roommate) all deserve Emmy nominations.  They are all in full comedy beast mode.  Now, just to get a little indignant and righteous – go watch Transparent on Amazon, if you can muster the 5 hours this week to watch the “comedy” that won the Golden Globe this year.  Then watch Kimmy Schmidt.  My prediction is the laugh ratio will be at least 1:500 in favor of Kimmy.

And I know that I am sometimes harsh on women in comedy and proclaiming that men, thanks to societal expectations and culture and many other reasons, are on the whole, much funnier than women and obviously Tina Fey, whether an exception to that thought, or proof that that thought is nonsense deserves major respect (not that she doesn’t have it already).  Though I didn’t particularly care for her run as head writer on SNL, 30 Rock was brilliant and I think Kimmy may be her best work if it can maintain the brilliant pace it set with season 1.  And that raises a question: with Tina Fey’s legendarily muscular calves, her tiny thug facial scar and her amazing comedic skills… are we sure she isn’t really a man? Hash Browns Just kidding! Hash Browns LOL (inside joke for Kimmy fans).

For more opinions, comedy and bridge burning check out the Righteous Prick Podcast on iTunes and/or STITCHER. New Every Tuesday so subscribe for free!

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Binge Watching Shows Is Destroying America

This weekend the third season of House of Cards went up on Netflix (subscribe to my podcast here for tomorrow’s debate/discussion over the show) and like many Americans I went to extreme lengths to finish the series before work on Monday.  Positioned in my favorite chair (dubbed by former podcast guest Brian McGuinness as the “Throne of Hate”), wearing XXL Depends to limit bathroom breaks, armed with various snacks and with numbers for diners and my Seamless account logged in for quick orders of food I was prepared to marinate in Kevin Spacey’s atrocious accent, as well as my own filth.  But feasting on multiple rounds of diner food and burgers over two days could not match the emotional disgust I felt after watching 13 hours of one television show in two days.  By early afternoon on Sunday when I was done I felt like I needed to introduce myself to my neighbors like a convicted sex offender I felt so morally bankrupt.

Just like CNN reporting on Lindsey Lohan or Kim Kardashian, binge watching is another example of society and media giving us what we seemingly want, while having no regard for what is in our best interests.   And perhaps with no addiction to anything conventional like alcohol or drugs, services like Netflix and Amazon Prime have tapped into the most destructive of all addictions that plague many Americans: sitting on your ass doing nothing.  And just like the gun control debate, only more important, something needs to be done about the easy access to entire seasons of shows before we destroy our nation.

Now there are times when a Netflix or Prime binge can feel less dirty, even at times like a noble endeavor.  People catching up on Breaking Bad, which was exceptional and one of the driving forces in linking binge watching and popularizing shows, was like our generation’s Neil Armstrong on the Moon moment.  No longer did missing a show leave you out of the cool kids’ table.  Netflix allowed people to catch up on the show in anticipation of upcoming seasons and then, in many cases, provide the late comers with the confidence to act like they were the first to discover the show.  These Christopher Columbus-like frauds should have been the first warning sign that binge watching might have an ugly side.  But I, like many, ignored it.  I mean during two weeks off from work in February I managed to devour 9 seasons of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and then began proselytizing about it like a born again Christian.   Granted each season was only, on average 3.5 hours of actual viewing, but I managed to catch up to the current season and had a strange and pathetic sense of accomplishment.  But this is just another step on the slippery road of binge watching hell.

The binge watching phenomenon to catch up to shows would have been bad enough, but once Netflix, and shortly thereafter Amazon discovered that people liked binge watching old shows/seasons a new depth of depravity was formed.  Because what is better than binge watching old shows?  Introducing new shows that could be binged of course.  The feeding of America’s television gluttony became a step too far.  It was like a restaurant saying – hey all of our customers enjoy our chocolate frosting cake, so now, for dessert we will offer them a 4 pound bowl of frosting for them to eat with their hands.  Sure that sounds amazing as I sip a soy protein smoothie this morning trying to purge the House of Cards weekend of trans fat from my system, but it is too much.  In addition to augmenting the grossness of an already sedentary and obese nation, it is not even a good way to watch television.  I love the show Alpha House on Amazon Prime.  Ten 30 minute episodes per season it goes by in a breeze (and is a far superior show to House of Cards for any political junkies reading this).  It is a good comedy and I barely remember any of it.  That is because each time the seasons went up (there have been two) I have been able to crush them in a single weekend (and still make it outside to breathe fresh air and have unhealthy food picked up by me instead of delivered).  But that then leaves 50-60 weeks in between viewings during which time the show’s details both humorous and plot related are squeezed from memory.  Most likely to make room for 6-12 other shows that have been binge watched.

Frank Underwood is helping destroy fictional and real Americans.

House of Cards suffers the same sort of fate as do many of these shows.  Instead of racing to catch up and join a discussion – at least an idea tangentially related to joining a community, it becomes a race to finish the season as if it were a contest and not entertainment (I am fully hiding behind “I needed to be done for my podcast” as my excuse).  The irony of racing through streaming television diminishing our actual ability to run a race is not lost on me.  So in an effort to make myself a healthier individual and more appreciative of entertainment I have already cancelled my Netflix account (at least for a couple of months).  So I have it through March 5th. Which is just enough time to finish the remaining 8 episodes of the Starz’ violent video game/gay porn-posing-as-a-television series Spartacus.

For more opinions, comedy and bridge burning check out the Righteous Prick Podcast on iTunes and/or STITCHER. New Every Tuesday so subscribe for free!

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Righteous Prick 2014 Heroes Nominees (half way point)

With 2014 halfway over (apparently time flies whether you are having fun or merely trekking the wasteland of comedy drudgery) and a few weeks on the road about to offer me numerous opportunities to share comedy stories I thought today would be a good day to offer some early possibilities for 2014 Righteous Prick Heroes (like CNN Heroes except unlike doing good works of charity or humanitarianism, these people have just entertained me).  So here are your first batch, and it is a diverse batch with two Latinos, two Asians and someone who will give me diabetes:

1) Luis Suarez – the Uruguayan star player who sabotaged his own team’s chances (and his own legacy) at the World Cup by biting another player (his third career biting infraction I believe).  If there is one thing this blogger/podcaster/comedian believes in it is sabotaging one’s own talent through questionable decisions.

2) Mendez – Watching season 2 of Orange is the New Black on Netflix this weekend I was struck by how much more nudity, fingering and all around sexual horse play there was on this season.  It was giving me a True Blood-ish feeling, meaning I enjoyed the first season of True Blood. A lot.  Then I think marketing people got their hand on some stats and realized, hey – our fan base has a lot of women and gays so lets start upping the beefcake factor, the gratuitous sex and the campiness because we really want to solidify our base.  It is like the Tea Party – instead of sticking to your original principles you pander to a loud and critical base, which then makes the political process, or in this analogy, the show, suffer.  Well I was getting that feeling until Mendez showed back up.  The abusive, mustachioed prison guard only appeared in three episodes, but it was the highlight of the show for me and brought me back from the brink. Let’s hope (no spoilers) that he can make it back to play a big role in season three or else I may have to tap out.

3) Masuhiro Tanaka – In this season of Derek Jeter (the icy cool, bland, gives baseball memorabilia to hook ups, has his boys approach women for him at clubs, was obsessed with mariah Carey as a teen which would have made their dating really weird if he was not a famous baseball player Yankee – you know a real hero) I am glad that it is another Yankee that is stealing his spotlight.  Tanaka has been an absolute beast on the mound for the Yankees, even when he loses and I like that he arrived in NY on a 777, the rental of which cost $200,000 with his wife, dog and only a couple of advisers in a gesture whose hubris lands somewhere between the 2010 Miami Heat pep rally and Donald Trump architecture.  I love it.

Derek Who?

4) Godzilla – Giant monster that literally burns bridges and creates hostile division among movie fans.  How could I not have him as a hero nominee?

5) The guy who brought girl scout cookies to crumbs – My favorite cookie is probably the Samoa.  One of the foods most responsible for my weight gain over the last 5 years the Crumbs cupcake.  Well in a move that rivals the pairing up of DeNiro and Pacino in Heat, they are now selling Crumbs Girl Scout cookies.  They come in at a cool 950 calories each, so as expected I only eat two per sitting.

The death of me. Possibly literally.

6) George RR Martin – There were hard feelings after “The Mountain and the Viper” episode of Game of Thrones, as exhibited by this video I made, but after deeper reflection I have to offer the highest level of respect to a man willing to continuously anger and destroy fans on a season-by-season basis.  Not since Drago yelled to the Russian crowd “I DO THIS FOR ME. FOR ME!” has a hero turned on his own fans so harshly.

7) The Guy Who Does The Sound Effects for Tyrant on FX – I do not know if Tyrant is going to be the next great show on television, but it is clear that FX is preparing to challenge AMC for the #2 cable quality spot behind HBO.  They just had Fargo, which for my money was far superior to True Detective and possibly the best show this year, they have The Americans and they are also premiering a 10pm Sunday show in July called The Strain, from Guillermo del Toro, which signals to me that with Mad Men ending soon, The Walking Dead ending soon (I think they said 5 seasons, but maybe they dont want to end that cash cow) and Breaking Bad already done FX is ready to move into the Sunday prime time level.  With all that preamble, the pilot of Tryant was fantastic.  And the singular moment for me was when the lead character slaps the sh*t out of his son.  Whoever did the sound effects for the double slap deserves an Emmy because it sounded like a thunderclap in a storm. Ridiculous? Yes.  Excellent? Double yes.

8 ) The People Who Made Fargo on FX – As I already mentioned – the 10 episodes of this show can only be rivaled (within the qualifying Emmy period) by Season 4 of Game of Thrones.  Better than the final 8 of Breaking Bad. Better than True Detective.

9) Lebron James – Just like he is always a top MVP candidate, he is always a top nominee for an RPH of the year.  By opting out of his contract (and the rest of the Miami Heat following suit) he has opened the door for the Heat to add more firepower in needed areas (like point guard, interior defense and the assassination of Dwyane Wade).  What I hope more than anything, including success in my own career, is that if they sign someone of quality (sorry World Cup has me calling things quality), BESIDES Carmelo Anthony, that they all come out in another pep rally and it simply says “Fu*k Y’all” in big bright letters behind them. They are going to hate anyway – might

10) J-L Cauvin – duh.

For more opinions, comedy and bridge burning check out the Righteous Prick Podcast on iTunes and/or STITCHER. New Every Tuesday so subscribe for free!

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The Bluth Family and Lebron: The Monday Weekend Recap

Normally my Monday blog is a recap of the gigs/comedic adventures that took place over the weekend, but I had no bookings (if you look at my June calendar you will see this is the theme for the month) so instead I waited patiently for the arrival of Season 4 of Arrested Development on Netflix.  The waiting began watching another modern classic, Lebron James, on Friday night.  Sadly, I missed much of the second half because I was traveling to Brooklyn to watch a friend’s band.   When I arrived at the bar I saw that James had been great as usual, but then I saw his miserable two turnovers in the last minute of the game that sealed the win for the Pacers.  My disappointment in James, which is really just sadness at seeing people so eager for a chance to crap on the greatest basketball player of all time (yes I said it – his game passes both statistical analysis and the eye test) and not appreciate the genius that is Lebron James, was only a foreshadowing to the disappointment I would feel watching the newest installment of the greatest television comedy of all time (yes I said it).

Arrested Development was recommended to me several times over the last decade. I finally watched the three original seasons on DVD a couple of years ago and thought it was the funniest show I had ever seen.  It was like Modern Family’s older, more talented brother who had no time for compassion and life lessons because he was too busy being hilarious.  Not one minute of Arrested Development was wasted and it was such a perfect melding of writing and acting talent that everyone on the show has since been basically typecast as their AD character because they were all so perfect.  And then Season 4 arrived.

I have watched the first 5 (of 15 episodes) and have been very disappointed.  I would not say they are bad, but they pale in comparison to the previous seasons.  The episodes are longer, with more filler and a weird structural format.  Right now I would say that season 4 is a C+ (whereas the show was an overall A+ before these episodes).

But the weekend was not all lost.  Lebron James engineered a thorough destruction of the Indiana Pacers Sunday night.  My hope is that the final ten episodes of Arrested Development can pull a similar turnaround.  That way, if Arrested Development gets great and Lebron wins a second title, the only disappointment left in June will be the thing least important to me – my comedy gig calendar.

"Follow my lead Bluth Family" - Lebron James

For more opinions, comedy and bridge burning check out the Righteous Prick Podcast on Podomatic or iTunes. New Every Tuesday!