Friday, January 18, 2013

"Niche Comedy"

Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was famously known to have said,

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

Meaning that sometimes a thing is what it is, rather than a symbolic representation of the male organ of reproduction and the elimination of fluids.  I’m just guessing here, but since Freud believed that symbolic substitution was symptomatically important, there’s a likelihood that he said this, not as an admonition against going overboard in the “interpretation” department, but in response to the question, “Hey, Siggy, how come you’re always smoking a cigar?  Eh?

But this is simply conjecture.  I do know this for a certainty.

Anyway, this hopefully diverting introduction is offered as the setup for a confession based on an illumination that came to me concerning a recent blog post, wherein, I began to realize, a number of days after the fact, that I had, albeit unconsciously, used one specific arena as a substitute for another, in an effort to cover up an embarrassing personal deficiency (though not so embarrassing that I am not willing to expose it to public scrutiny today.) 

Okay, so here we go.

I spoke recently about how I was so far behind in my understanding of and aptitude for the continuing avalanche of technological gadgets and gizmos that it wasn’t even funny.  (Well, maybe a little funny.)  The question is, was I, in fact, talking about gadgets and gizmos, or were they, in reality, a symbolic placeholder for something considerably more serious?

I was talking about gadgets and gizmos.

And something considerably more serious.

(Bam!  I offer up an “either-or” and I hit you with both barrels.  Throw some water on me!  I am on fiah!)

And what was my falling behind in my understanding of and aptitude for the continuing avalanche of technological gadgets and gizmos actually a symbolic substitute for?

It was a substitute for my falling behind in comedy.

Oooh.  Yeah, I know.  We are in deep water today!

There’s a line from the movie Funny Bones (1995) where a comedian father, in a moment of lacerating honesty, informs his considerably less talented son, “Some people have ‘funny bones’ and some people don’t.  You don’t.”

I’m pretty sure I have ‘funny bones.’  This natural proclivity drew me to comedy at an early age, studying – well not literally “studying” but at least captivated by – the comedians I saw on TV, primarily on the Ed Sullivan Show:  Bill Cosby, Jackie Mason, Bob Newhart, Shelly Berman, Alan King, Jack E. Leonard, Myron Cohen, Stiller and Meara, Sam Levenson (“I dropped the Thanksgiving turkey on the floor.  Momma said, ‘Sammy, pick up the turkey and put it on the platter.  Then take it back to the kitchen, and bring out the ‘other’ turkey.”), Senor Wences, “Mr. Pastry”, and many, many others. 

Today, I know barely any current comedians at all.  Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld are the dominant ones who come to mind.  With Lewis Black, maybe a rung down the ladder.  You will notice that none of them is under forty.

I know that, like music, comedy is now highly fractionalized.  (For the record, I am also behind in music, and I have been for some time.  For twenty years or more, I had the same three cassettes-replaced-by-CD’s playing in my car – Carole King’s Tapestry, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James and Cat Stevens’ Tea For the Tillerman.  I can’t recall buying much popular music after that era.  (Though I did purchase a boxed set of calming Chinese music, a CD of which I am listening to at this very moment.  And it’s working!)

But that’s music.  And I don’t do music.  I do comedy.  And in that chosen area of interest (and previous employment), from where I’m standing (actually sitting), I can’t even see comedy anymore.  It has advanced so far ahead. 

Earlo:  “Wait up, comedy!  Wait up!”

(Excuse me for throwing a little melodrama in there.  Nearly thirteen hundred posts, I just thought it was time.)

In the Dec. 24-31 issue of the New Yorker, the magazine’s TV critic Emily Nussbaum discusses “niche comedy”, referencing comedy performers both on cable and on the Internet such as W. Kamau Bell, Hannibal Buress, Eric Andre and Maria Bamford.  Most Dominant Common Denominator:  I have never heard of any of them. 

In past times, I’d have known them all, and I did, from “Lord Buckley” to Soupy Sales.  And back again. 

I admit I don’t know where a lot of the smaller TV channels are – thus intersecting my technological deficiencies with my comedic retro-osity – but, setting that pathetic reality aside, it seems like, comedically, I have been falling down on the job.

One sour grapesish disclaimer about fragmented comedy, and it doesn’t come from me, it comes from Chris Rock.  In Vanity Fair’s recent, worth buying and keeping “Special All-Star Comedy Issue” guest edited by Judd Apatow, Chris Rock compares the current comics with the comedians of the past, finding the current crop of an inferior caliber because,

“What we have now is black comics that only work black crowds, gay comics that do only gay crowds and southern comics who only work down South, and so on with Asians, Latinos, midgets, etc.  The previous generation’s comics were better because they had to make everybody laugh.”

Though I have not sampled both groups anywhere close to equally, I would have to agree with Chris Rock.  And I believe it’s a loss for the country.  Aside from the professionalism displayed by a comedian who can make “everybody laugh”, I think there is something valuable about comedy we can all appreciate together. 

One can argue that, since both words start with “com”, that both “comedy” and “community” evolve from the same etymological root.  (Though that second “m” throws the issue into serious dispute.)  Where everything else in our culture is fractionalized – most seriously our politics – wouldn’t it be – is it too much to say – “healing” for us all to find funny – and as a result laugh at – the same jokes, at least sometimes?

Sorry, that was a “side track.”  I just wanted to demonstrate that I wasn’t entirely linear, and therefore open to the possibility that there is some current comedy out there I’d be able to follow and enjoy.  Which brings me to a personal request, not for money, though if you have any extra, I can always find it a home. 

Some of you have read this blog for a while.  You’re familiar with my comedic preferences and proclivities.  What I’d like from you are suggestions – and simple and clear directions – to places I can go – TV or the Internet – where I can sample your recommendations for the best of what’s going on comedically today. 

I promise – over time, if there are a lot of them, or relatively quickly if there aren’t – I will give your suggestions a look. 

If I can figure out how to get there.   
Today marks the fifth anniversary of this blog.  We appreciate your patronage.


angel said...

Happy Anniversary Earl.

Mark Clemens said...

Happy Anniversary, thanks for doing this blog, hope you've received all the money I've been donating via PayPalDream. As a regular reader for about 3 years, I am grateful for all the effort you put into this.
Dennis Wolfberg (passed away in '94at age 48; still the funniest comedian I've ever seen. Lots of examples on YouTube.)
Garry Shandling
Don Friesen
David Crowe
Kathleen Madigan
Wendy Liebman
Chris Rock
Bobby Slayton
John Pinette
Caroline Rhea
Bill Maher
Paula Poundstone
Robin Williams
Carol Leifer
Ron White
Jeff Foxworthy
Steve Hofstetter
Lily Tomlin
Tina Fey
Amy Poehler
Denis Leary
Sam Kinison
George Carlin

We are about the same age and I too appreciate the Kings and Bermans of yesteryear.

Have a good weekend.

Lord B. said...

Happy anniversary Earl and thanks for the mention!

Anonymous said...

Pardon the Taco Bell/Whatever commercial in front. This clip is from a show called "The Burn with Jeff Ross." It's a modern variation on the traditional roast show, but it's surprisingly sweet.

jbrown3079 said...

You need to get on Twitter. Comedians and writers are on there all the time talking about their latest gigs or just procrastinating because as you know writing is hard.
Some use the form to test jokes.
Elayne Boosler. Cathy Ladman. Laurie Kilmartin.

GRayR said...

Happy Anniversary Earl,
You have kept this fan happy for a couple of years now. Keep it up.

My favorite newish comedian is Dara Ó Briain. He is one of the only physicists to go into comedy. Try some of his stuff on YouTube.

allan rudnick said...


Congratulations on your fifth anniversary of the blog. I'm a big fan.
Just want you to know that when I see my wife on the treadmill, most of the time she is watchin a "Louis" show with Louis CK. So, if I actually get inspired to hop on the elliptical machine and watch the rest of the show, I'm always inpressed with his genius for hitting just the right note.

Please kkep these stories coming!

Allan R.

Brian said...

Happy 5th Anniversary, Earl. For me, it was The Smothers Brothers, Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, Burns and Schreiber, George Carlin, Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, early Abbott & Costello, and Buster Keaton. Most of those names probably don't mean a damn thing to the young audience that the networks now prize so highly... but they were all at the top of their game. I always liked something Billy Wilder supposedly said when some moron executive was belittling a writer or actor who had had a prolific career but had fallen on hard times as he got older. The exec pointed out that other than this one iconic thing the person had done, what else had he done lately? Wilder supposedly told the exec to shut the fuck up and then said that "You are as good as the best thing you have ever done." I always liked that. What a great way to look at someone's career... in any field. Again, Happy Anniversary, Earl. You write funny and you make me laugh... :) Brian Scully

Mac said...

Happy 5th Earl, thanks for all the fine posts and I hope there's many more to go.

There's a good website called "Splitsider" which is pretty reliable when it comes to reviewing comics. It has a healthy respect for the oldies (I don't trust any website that has no idea about, or regard for, heritage) and it's pretty good at flagging up new quality talent.

There's a Welsh comic called Rhod Gilbert you might enjoy;
As GRayR says - Irishman Dara O'Briain
Another Irishman - Dylan Moran;
Englishman Bill Bailey

Come to think of it I'd doubt any if them are under 40, but if you can understand what they're saying you might enjoy them.