January 10, 2013

Stand-up Comedy - 2012 In Review

by James Folta and Mike Yarsky
In a discussion of stand-up comedy specials, Mike Yarsky and James Folta talk about what they liked and didn’t like in 2012 and beyond.

James Folta: Lots of good comedy in the past couple years. I’ve been excited to discover John Mulaney, Hannibal Buress, Anthony Jeselnik and others. Who has excited you?

Michael P. Yarsky: Those people are definitely all great. Last year - in part because of Louie but also because he released a record, I discovered Doug Stanhope. In 2011, Doug Stanhope went onto a makeshift stage in Oslo with quasi-rehearsed material and spoke to people for whom English was their second language. At the beginning of the special, Burning the Bridge to Nowhere, he talks about how terrible and overly polished Comedy Central specials can get, and that his didn’t go remotely like it was captured on air. He said that it’s simply not indicative of live comedy or what it’s really like on the road. Not twenty minutes later or thereabouts, he is onstage, in a blurry shot and unsteady cameras, holding a plastic cup of beer, and he says, "I think that's why I hate observational comedy so much. Because there's no passion. There's no rage."

JF: The exasperation of that Stanhope set is really striking. It’s just so dark. He addresses this in the brief intro to the show, saying he wants this to be an antidote to the slick and edited Comedy Central style of stand-up specials. For his own CC special, he talks about a joke he made at the top, lampooning the fact that none of the crowd knew him and had only been warmed up and primed to laugh at him. In comparison, the special in Oslo will be a look into the road as he experiences it. And the performer we see does seem to have been living in a van for a while. Stanhope seems really tired and burned out but yet he’s still up there, performing, making people laugh, making people applaud. And that’s what makes this a great performance, it’s about the work of it. Getting up and taking a swing. Every stage, every night.

MPY: Part of me is definitely with him about observational comics. I tried to watch The Epitome of Hyperbole on Netflix and I find myself overwhelmingly distracted by acts that are squeaky-squeaky-clean. After hearing as much of WTF with Marc Maron as I have, and considering that the conceit of raw, tell-it-as-it-is comedy began with Lenny Bruce in the sixties, I definitely got adjusted to more enraged, by-no-means clean comedy. It’s at a point now where clean means censored, and censored means dishonest. Obviously there are comics who have vulgar material that also have amazing clean bits, but sometimes being exclusively clean is not a genuine move, but rather a pragmatic move, and it’s almost like it’s possible to sense a little bit of the disingenuousness. I always feel there’s some restraint there. I don’t want restraint from my comedy; I don’t want people to exercise caution or tread carefully.

Comedy’s a mystery and it’s incredibly subjective, so it’s very difficult to disentangle what it is that makes it click for one person and not another. One of them is the idea of raw material. Raw doesn’t need to be edgy - I’d say Cosby’s family stories are raw and by no means vulgar - and doesn’t need to be unpolished. Is it that raw is real? Is raw the right word? And would I take raw at the expense of funny? Is Tig Notaro’s Live as great as it is because it’s so immediate? Or would it have been better had it been tried out and trimmed and polished into these crystalline bits? At the very least, it’s just a straight take of a live show, which is wonderful. It’s great to have all those little moments left in.

JF: Tig Notaro’s set was really brilliant. I think a lot of us discovered it through Louis CK’s promotion of it, which is for all intents and purposes a highest honor. But I think you nail it when you say “immediate.” Whether it’s a conceit or not, her opening makes it feel like she decided to do that set while standing in front of the crowd: “fuck it, I’m not doing my normal jokes.” The confessions and the measured reveals of all these sad events that came pouring into her life make this feel like a special moment. It’s what we love about a great improv set: this is a one-off, this is only for tonight.

The ending of this recording is what seals the deal. The joke about the bee that she alludes to all throughout, the one example of the jokes she can’t do in her state, is of course the one we want to hear. And when she takes a request from the crowd, the answer is a forgone conclusion. And hearing it hits you in the gut, the sinking feeling of hearing “comedy,” that polished, pre-written joke about a bee in a car, seems so frivolous, so hilarious on the tail end of what we all listened through. This juxtaposition crashes home the previous tour of her open heart. The little cream-puff we are treated to at the end makes everything that much rawer.

Is it Notaro’s breaking of the fourth wall that also makes this feel more immediate?

MPY: Louis CK in Hilarious talks to the camera and breaks the wall, but it’s way less shattering than a regular old cut to an audience member or the swell of laughter that goes up and down a little too neatly. There’s not a single audience member shown in his specials, and it’s made me notice it in other specials.

JF: One of my favorite specials this year seems to contradict the overall point we’re making here about raw comedy being superior to polished specials. Paul F. Tompkins’ Comedy Central special Laboring Under Delusions had the typically snappy visual setup of a special: well lit, packed house, cleanly shot and edited. Tompkins is in a dapper suit in front of a huge mural of himself and his name, rendered in a hip Soviet propaganda style.

His material is what sets it apart. The set is structured more like a one man show, all the bits and stories concerning jobs he once held. This is the same stylistic turn we saw from Mike Birbiglia between Two Drink Mike and My Secret Public Journal Live. The show is a guided, very personal tour of his life, focusing on small jobs and his journey towards being a full-time stand-up comedian. It’s pretty vanilla stuff, especially compared to what we’ve gotten into talking about thus far. But where the raw, seemingly unrehearsed, shot-from-the-hip nature of a Notaro or a Stanhope stands out as an antidote to overly polished mediocre jokes, Tompkins shines because he’s just plain good at what he does. He opens his special by saying he’s been a stand-up since he was 17 and it’s the longest he’s held any title. And it shows. Laboring Under Delusions is a well presented curriculum vitae.

MPY: Perhaps this is a good time as any to draw yet another - in all likelihood - broad and over-generalized distinction. I had recently re-watched Bill Cosby: Himself and listened to To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With, and they’re both masterpieces. Save for him asking “Well what if he’s an asshole?”, it’s clean, clean, clean. However, it feels raw. I have a very clear sense of, if not Bill Cosby’s person, then at least his persona, or rather that the truths he wishes to tell, whether or not they are run through an affected persona, simply ring true. The assumption with “raw” is that we’re dealing with something unsanitary, gristly, or non-sterile. It’s risky, unpleasant, and sort of foul. With “raw” I immediately get an image in my head of some form of raw meat, something corporeal and somewhat gory. But there’s also your array of raw seafoods, and raw sushi. Very elegantly orchestrated, fancy-pants, classy dining there. A stretch of a metaphor, to be sure, but rawness can manifest itself in various presentations, mostly meaning it is of its own essence. It’s not cooked or made to be something that it is not; it is fundamentally itself. The more processed the product becomes, the less recognizable it becomes. Like McNuggets, there are plenty of McComics out there too. I don’t mean to put people into a place where they are striving for rawness, but I think Laboring Under Delusions falls under the purview of rawness. It’s personal, autobiographical, and values the truth over the easy punchline. I don’t know if this is true-true, but Tompkins is professional enough to make me believe that.

JF: What did you think of Maria Bamford’s Special Special Special? This is an interesting one to consider in discussion of “rawness” in comedy, as she filmed the whole thing in her living room in front of an audience of just her parents.

MPY: I need to watch it again. I think it was a smart move to film it as such, because it’s damn cheap to do it all up like it’s very home-made, and you can market it as a surreal approach to making a special. So it’s simultaneously an artistic and economically practical move, and it’s possible that the incentive to keep costs low is what inspired her to go this particular comedic direction. I wonder how much the conceit of it is the way the special is filmed more than the material. I suppose this is the issue of a lot of the comedy we’ve talked about already, and this special’s the perfect example of seeing how something is filmed versus what is said can have an impact on what we see as raw or true or flat-out unfunny. If I talk about the special, do I start with a funny joke from it, or do I say, “Okay, so she decided to do it in her living room for her parents.” Is the overall gimmick more important or not?

JF: I think that’s true, they can overshadow the material, but I think these sorts of gimmicky framing device tell you a lot about the comic. It’s another chance to show us the world through their lens. I’m reminded of the “bros on tour” vibe of Dane Cook’s Tourgasm that was as much about the drama and prankster antics of the comics as it was about the stand up, and the fake twin interviews in Zach Galifianakis’ Live at the Purple Onion that gave him a chance to explore another character’s voice. These gimmicks bring us further into the comic’s world. Bamford’s comedy is much like how it was filmed: a little surreal, often odd, and somewhat uncomfortable. It’s a little too close; her confessions feel like something she’s revealing to her family, closer to rehearsing her jokes in a mirror than playing to a sold-out room.

I went to see Bamford live in San Francisco and walking out after the show, I got into a heated debate about how she treats her own mental health problems on stage. I maintain that it is brave and important to be frank and open about these things and that her treatment was fantastic. I believe comedy to be a powerful and healing medium. And her Special nicely reflects this visually. She’s often dealing with things that are so real, that we expect them to be relegated to an intimate setting. Her live show sometimes feels that way; we sometimes wonder if we should be here listening to these jokes or if we should just show ourselves out.

There is also something incredibly sweet about her just wanting to make her parents laugh.

MPY: I see what you mean. The stage as it is set up in her living room to just barely pass the illusion that there’s really a stage at all. Any time there is a straight shot of just her, the curtain, and the lights, there’s almost immediately a cut to a different angle that shows everything: the keyboardist, an amplifier sitting on a carpet, and even the ceiling fan. It’s symbolic of what the stage means for her, in a way. Like: the stage itself is a flimsy pretext for being intimate. It’s a paper-thin construction around what she hopes to portray as an intimate, real setting. And really, people perform on the flimsiest excuses of “stages”: maybe slight elevations in bar room corners, for example, to grant themselves that license.

So, with this conceit, I can feel the honesty behind it. One gimmick that drove me nuts this year was that, in Aziz Ansari’s new special, there were several occasions where he made the point - or made a punchline of - the fact that the story the audience just heard was totally made up. The crowd seemed to appreciate it, but I thought it was a huge negation. He’s an improv guy that should know to commit to even the most absurd of realities. But he enjoyed popping the illusion at the very end, and that made me sort of sad.

JF: Couldn’t agree more, unfortunately. I was disappointed with Dangerously Delicious. I mean, I wanted it to be good: Parks and Recreation is far and away one of the best shows on TV, I enjoyed Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening, and was a fan of Human Giant from back when it was a UCB NY show. But something about this latest special just felt too much. The jokes did feel like a put-on, and I think the undercutting of his own premises that you’re referring to was deflating. The whole thing was too big and it felt sloppy and flat.  His stand-up persona is getting a little too one-note, too close to the Jean-Ralphio end of the Tom Haverford spectrum.

MPY: I’m not as familiar with Aziz. I will say that it was quite a pleasure to dissect and parse apart the merits or weaknesses we find in the work of people way, way, way more considerably accomplished than myself. Not having seen everything out there this year - I still need to check out Kyle Kinane and James Adomian - I think one of the ones I’ve listened to, Tig Notaro’s is closest to my heart. I’m thrilled for seeing Louis CK in January and Marc Maron in February. That’s a way to get the raw experience, if anything. Instead of trying to seek out the perfectly filmed experience, just go see these people.

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