One of the inevitabilities of living in New York City and being from New York is that someone you know will go into standup comedy. Or improv, which is arguably worse these days as ac cultural movement because it’s a mutation of that dreaded species, the “theater kid”. You’ll run into college kids working on the street to give away promotional tickets to comedy clubs as a job (a thankless-looking one that plagued the streets when I was in college wandering around…I almost maybe fought one once but that’s another story), you’ll be reminded of Jerry Seinfeld, of Saturday Night Live, of UCB, all that. Earnest-looking guys writing about or talking about their witty observations of life around them, about their overbearing or long-suffering girlfriends, about their exploits, all that.
And it’s a shame to be exposed to it, because most of it sucks.
I…do not like standup. Pretty much at all.
The last time I went to a standup comedy show was the only time, and it was to watch comedian and actor Rob Delaney perform (he was great). He was great in particular because he didn’t rely on what even back in like 2011 was getting to be hack material, sexism and tryhard-edginess, the sort of stuff that the late 90’s/early 2000’s had used as material for comedy (it seemed like to me thanks to cable TV finally) as some sort of evolution of standup after the counterculture approach to it of the 1980’s blew up in a big way.
But I don’t like standup. Going onto my Netflix account (because I no longer have cable TV), I’m inundated with it, specials and routines from people who more and more either aren’t funny or all look and sound the same.
It’s 100% a personal thing. I just can’t stand new guard, old guard, listening to someone feign modesty and plumb self-deprecation to create this facade of incompetence and immaturity, an approach to comedy and storytelling that a lot of male comedians seem to use, is pretty boring. Female comedians can be better, but there is still this huge divide, a chasm in my head between “people who think they’re funny but shy away from admitting it as an act to seem humble” and “this person is funny” in my mind.
The only exception I made to this rule for a long time was Nick Offerman and his “standup special” AMERICAN HAM, mostly because it wasn’t presented as one normally might do standup comedy, more a dry-wit experience (something that I think a lot of people try but can’t do right, instead falling into sarcasm, which isn’t the same thing). I’ve written about my love of Offerman before, but how he framed his show (and now knowing he didn’t come from a standup or improv background initially) made it feel not like someone was trying to make me laugh, which I appreciated.
Then also last year \ we watched BABY COBRA, a standup special by Ali Wong, who also had another show this year called HARD KNOCK WIFE, both of which were amazing. Wong presents herself not as a self-deprecating or emotionally-stunted person stumbling through life. She’s fucking ferocious, and openly unapologetic about that rage and wit and I fucking love it. Again, there was no attempt to mask or apologize for any sort of perceived or pre-sculpted artificial awkwardness, simply a desire to talk and express ugly emotions.
The idea of being emotional and of that emotion not being expressed in any sort of elegant or “beautiful” way is so weird and new and raw, when we experience it, it’s so off-putting. We expect to call emotional honesty “refreshing,” but in reality, actual emotional vulnerability is ugly-crying. It should make us feel a little uncomfortable in just how much a person is trusting us to see this very not-pretty and hypersensitive interior part of themselves. It’s a series of anxiety attacks that feel like micro-strokes in your brain that lead to a petty reason to self-sabotage.
It’s something that is thoroughly lacking in a South Park-inspired comedy field, where dumb nastiness passes as criticism and no one really thinks about just how bad that makes us look, how it makes us look at and think about other people as fodder. Because that’s what it does, it makes us look at other people as fodder, suckers, marks, material. We devalue our relationships in that way, the far other end of the relationship spectrum, opposite over-romanticizing.
The reason I’m trying to find a way to vocalize all of this is because we watched Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix standup special NANETTE, and it’s breathtakingly-amazing in showcasing her ability to tell stories and compose a long cohesive narrative that at first, really appears to just be random threads of thought. Those threads ended up becoming a serious look at telling jokes and using joke-telling to deal with personal issues and how that can actually be a deeply broken thing. I don’t want to “spoil” the whole thing for you per se, so I won’t go any further, but it’s a really unique take on and criticism of standup and the culture of standup and comedy overall. How Gadsby expresses all of this is so great, because she manages, through her own traumas and her real fears and rages, to convey it so eloquently that the way we treat trauma and cynicism as fuel for humor is not necessarily that good for us in the long run.
When I started college, Cartoon Network launched their [adult swim] block for the first time, and I loved it. At one point,t hey needed up getting the syndication rights to a Simpsons-esque “adult humor” cartoon called Family Guy, and boy did they run with it. The shift since then, which coincides with South Park and a dozen other shitty sarcastic empathy-killing pop culture bits, is a huge part of why I just don’t care, why I think people who latch onto these sorts of humor outlets are annoying, and why I’m OK saying that most comedy and standup is just bad. It’s not boundary-pushing or groundbreaking, it’s just mean and dumb and tells me more about how lazy you are as a storyteller and an emotionally-honest person.
I do like NANETTE though. I think public performance and storytelling could learn a lot from it, and hopefully it does. I’m sick of sarcasm having a higher social currency than empathy, and I’m glad I stopped giving a shit about how ugly and dumb I look and feel trying to express deep emotions and fears. I think we all should.