There’s an old Chinese curse that a lot of hacky writers use to set up the premises of their articles, and it is as follows: May you live in interesting times. And for stand-up comedy, these are very interesting times, indeed.
This is not to say that stand-up is cursed. At least, it isn’t any more or less than it was when you could only see it performed in the Catskills or on Ed Sullivan. But since the stand-up boom of the 1980s and ‘90s has waned completely, there is no longer an intense national focus on stand-up, which leaves the rest of us enthusiasts, those of us with a deep passion for this art form regardless of its popularity or lack thereof, in a unique position to analyze and dissect it, to find out how and why it works.
(Aside: There are people out there who will say, to paraphrase another hacky writing cliché, that writing about comedy is like dancing about architecture. Having staged several ballets based on the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, I can tell you this now, from a viewpoint of strict objectivity and utter precision: those people are goddamned morons who should be ignored to the point of starvation. I get it: people don’t want to know how the magician does his tricks, y’know, they feel like it will ruin the surprise. But the way I see it, if I know exactly how a magician is gonna pull a rabbit out of his hat beforehand and then I see him do it on stage and am still surprised, still left in wonder, then that is a magician I can truly appreciate. The rest of ‘em ain’t worth the trouble. End aside.)
A loose chronology: Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Steve Martin, the 1980s. Cable television and cheap strip mall storefronts combine to make stand-up comedy the growth industry of the Reagan era. By 1990, stand-up comedians have taken over the sit-com more handily than even Lucille Ball ever did. But by the time Seinfeld went off the air, reality television had begun its rise and Comedy Central decided it’d run Ghostbusters 2 twice a day instead of just once. And so it became official:
Stand-up is dead. Long live stand-up.
The first decade of the 21st century has given us more than one film that pulls back the curtain on the seamy world of stand-up comedy. 2002’s Comedian follows famous veteran Jerry Seinfeld and relative newcomer Orny Adams as they attempt, respectively, to revamp and initiate their careers. The film is engrossing, but much in the way that the aforementioned reality TV is—what really goes on when these guys are off the stage? Much the same can be said of 2005’s Comedians of Comedy, both the film and Comedy Central mini-series, which follows those darlings of alt-comedy, Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford, and Zach Galifianakis, on a North American tour. Again, this is endlessly entertaining fare and a delightful peek at what these guys get up to when not on stage.
But the actual science of comedy goes largely unaddressed until we get to The Aristocrats, Penn Gillette and Paul Provenza’s exploration of the true jokester’s joke (like how the Mercury Bobcat Villager is the true car aficionado’s car). Now we’re starting to pare it down a bit, away from the more voyeuristic side of things and more towards the real meat-and-potatoes of comedy jokes (incidentally, Provenza’s 2010 book of interviews, ¡Satiristas!, makes an excellent companion piece with this movie). But still, one of the more burning questions about comedy had yet to be answered, and that is namely:
Where the hell has Jordan Brady been for the past fifteen years?
See, we all pretty much know who survived the stand-up boom intact: Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen, Chris Rock, so on, so on. And their stories are not to be discounted when talking stand-up—far from it, in fact, since it is this group of people who managed to elevate the art form to the high visibility it still maintains, even in these post-boom years. But what of those still in the trenches? What about all those comedians I saw, back when I was a lad, on Comic Strip Live and An Evening at the Improv who did not get a sit-com?
Jordan Brady was one of those guys, and remains a favorite of mine to this day. His most well-known bit—about the “bow-chicka-wow-wow” porn music—is still quoted freely, and I often delight in pinpointing for the person quoting said bit just who originated it (yes, I am one of those guys). More than once since the mid-1990s, I’ve asked myself, “Whatever happened to that guy?” And then in 2010, I Am Comic answered that for me.
Turns out the guy pretty much quit stand-up altogether in 1994 and turned his considerable talents to filmmaking. But as he says early on in I Am Comic, he still gets onstage every now and again and still loves it. So he decided to make a documentary on “the occupation of being a working comedian,” and as such interviewed comedians from across the spectrum: from the veritable unknowns to the household names, hitting every point in between of “Oh yeah, that guy/gal!” notoriety.
So the film begins with a very broad range, a wide sample set, and begins simply with the anatomy of the joke (as hilariously explained by Craig Anton). Then we learn more about the basics of performing—where it’s done, how many shows a night does a working comic do, how and if they are paid. So instead of just having the camera follow a comedian or comedians around while touring, we get much more of a ground-level view of a lonesome yet enviable career and lifestyle. The progression is all very natural, helped along by some obligatory animation here and there, but over all, the “story” of stand-up comedy today unfolds just through the stories and anecdotes of such expert names as Kathy Griffin, Larry Miller, Jim Gaffigan, Margaret Cho and Jeff Foxworthy. And then there’s the added bonus of seeing and hearing such adored faces from deeper in the trenches: Judy Gold, Rick Overton, Bobby Slayton, Felicia Michaels, Paul Rodriguez, and many, many, many more.
Brady’s source for many of these contacts is another former stand-up comedian, Ritch Shydner, whom I also clearly remember from twenty years ago, not just for his numerous television appearances as a stand-up, but also from the earliest episodes of Married…with Children, as Luke, Al’s co-worker down at Gary’s Shoes. Shydner was all over the place back then, but as time marched on and massive, national fame continued to elude him, he pretty much packed it in. But over the course of assisting Brady with the film, the viewer can see Shydner quite literally develop the itch again. And, as so often happens in good documentaries (e.g., Kurt and Courtney), the film begins to create its own story: the comeback of Ritch Shydner.
So now we are treading in some of the same territory as Comedian—what a person puts him/herself through to get/get back on stage—but we have much more of a foundation upon which to build. As we watch Shydner (sometimes painfully) work his way through brand-new material, not to mention a new stage persona as the grizzled vet back for another go, we have a much deeper understanding of what he is going through. This is no longer a voyeuristic exercise; we, the audience, can much more closely approximate what it must be like. And so therefore, we, the audience, can better share in the joy that Shydner amply displays being back in his own element. Even when the shows don’t exactly break his way, I mean, hell. It still beats working for a living.
Near the movie’s end, Shydner is in a deli in Los Angeles, having something of a crisis of faith. Over the course of the film, we’ve heard several comedians refer to their calling as a disease, or something they simply must do, whether they still want to or not. Shydner himself here refers to it as a “waste of time, if I look at all the other things I should be doing.” And by any normal, accepted form of reckoning, what we all know as American citizens about what we “should be doing,” he would be right. The man worked and worked at his craft for nearly twenty years and still had relatively little to show for it: no major television shows, no movie roles, no name in lights. It made sense for him to stop in the late ‘90s, but it doesn’t make much sense to begin again now, after all these years.
And then Brady commits a very great, very subtle piece of filmmaking. We then cut over to an interview segment with the very recently late Robert Schimmel. Schimmel, before his untimely death in September of this past year, had lived through some extraordinarily hard times, not the least of which was the loss of his young son to cancer. The notion that comics work from a painful place and the whole tears-of-a-clown thing is common enough to almost be cliché at this point, but Schimmel is a fine example of why it is not cliché, but simply the way of things. The only rational reaction to a world so full of angst, of wrath, of greed and spite and those mustaches policemen so often wear, is to laugh at it.
Schimmel tells a story that I’d heard a couple times before, but which never fails to kill me: as his son was in his final days, the Make-A-Wish Foundation came to the house and offered to make Bob’s son’s wish come true. Schimmel told them his son’s wish was to have Dolly Parton blow his father. Of course, the charity folks were shocked into silence, but Schimmel’s kid was in absolute stitches. Almost literally at death’s door was his boy, but Schimmel made him laugh, and as Schimmel says, “That was all that mattered.”
Cut back to Shydner. Comedy is a waste of time, he says, but then we watch him turn almost on a dime; yes, it’s a waste of time, but it’s “a glorious waste of time.” So many of the “normal” trappings of a “normal” life go unattained, what these comedians “should” be doing is brushed aside—and not always without a care—for what they are doing.
The only bigger waste of time than comedy, I would say, is life itself. Laughter is this visceral, gut reaction that has deeply physical effects, uncontrollable. The most common instance of human animals roaring—since we crawled out of the jungle and began walking upright—is with laughter. It is a primal reaction to the uncontrollable world raging around us. It’s not just therapeutic; it’s a survival mechanism.
This is why comedy is important to analyze, to try and grab it and hold it down and figure out how it works. Because if we figure out how it works, then we can make more of it. And then if we have more of it, all the other horror in the world—from traffic jams to mass murders—will be that much lessened, that much more pushed back. We need comedy in order to press on, to keep going.
Anything else we do, anything else we should be doing, is just a fucking waste of time.