Thursday, January 10, 2013

"The Truth About Being A Stand-Up Comedian (Which Has Only Recently Hit Home)"

I was fooled the whole time.  And by “the whole time”, I mean ever since I started watching comedians, discovering that the better the comedian, the more I am fooled.

Why is that?  Because

I see a comedian like Lewis Black at the concert I recently attended standing on stage, talking to the audience.  Yes, he’s animated.  Because he’s exasperated.  Louis Black is incredulous about what he sees happening in the world, and it inevitably makes him cranky.  The thing is, though he’s up there on stage, Black appears entirely natural in his presentation – a fellow-human at his wit’s end, venting his spleen. 

With his conversationally written material and his everyday speech patterns – in contrast to a less skillful comedian who has memorized his act and has practiced in front of a mirror – you can almost forget that Lewis Black is performing.  He just seems to be talking.  But not just talking.  He appears to be talking…

Directly to me. 

During the show, Black asserts that his generation’s greatest contribution is their ability to “hang out.”  That’s exactly what it feels like, Lewis Black, hanging out in his dorm room, the funniest guy in college, cracking up his fellow-students who have gathered to hear him sound off, riffing – hilariously and accurately – on cafeteria cuisine and the less than pure derivation of the institution of cheerleading. 

Comedians of Old told jokes, though they tried to keep them relatable, sticking to identifiable subject matter, like marriage.  Henny Youngman, the iconic joke spritzer, would abruptly interrupt his violin ramblings and say,

My wife demanded that I take her someplace that she‘s never been before.  So I took her to the kitchen.

The audiences roared.  Did Youngman’s delivery sound natural?  Not really.  The audience knew it was jokes.  They just wanted them to be funny.

Comedians, like Alan King, railed against the airlines, fuming – on the audience’s behalf – about lost luggage.  But even though the situation was conventional in its nature, there was a detectable joke rhythm underlying the material.  Still, you laughed, because it was funny.  And because the airlines lost your luggage too.

Funnymen that followed, like Bob Newhart and Shelly Berman, offered comedic psychodramas, frequently conducted over the telephone.  The situations and their reactions felt refreshingly (and laugh-inducingly) real.  But you still knew it was a “bit.”  The telephones weren’t even plugged in.

Less in the spotlight, starting with Lenny Bruce, a revolution was emerging, and I enthusiastically took notice.  The comedians were up there, appearing not to be performing at all, but just talking to the audience, sharing, in a original and humorous manner, what currently happened to be on their minds.  Candidly.  Naturalistically.  Often dangerously – sometimes law-breakingly – uncensored. 

Lenny’s stylistic offspring?  George Carlin, Robert Klein, Richard Pryor, and, more tamely, though more successfully than anyone else, Bill Cosby.  All were telling the truth in a conversational rhythm.  And it was explosively funny.  Funnier, to me at least, than anything I had ever heard.

It made me want to be a comedian.

I wanted to stand on stage – as myself – and talk directly to the audience.  Issues that interested me.  In an entertaining manner.  Basically, I wanted to do what I do every day on this blog.  But “Live And In Person”, in front of a paying, hopefully appreciative, audience.

Unfortunately, that is not what “being a comedian” is about.
That’s being something that does not exist.

A week or so before his appearance, Lewis Black did a promotional interview for our local newspaper.  It was generally standard stuff.  But then something Black said in that interview came at me like a neon thumb.   (Don’t ask me what that means.  It’s bright, and it’s penetrating.  That’s all I know.)

Discussing why Twitter was not for him, Black explained that he was unable to hold forth in a hundred and forty-four characters, because “the character I present on stage is me stumbling along to get to the point.”

Do you see what he said there?  First, of all, what he presents on stage is not himself, but a “character”, unquestionably “him” – which allows him to present it so comfortably – but not entirely “him.” 

I had never seen that spelled out before.  Black was saying in that interview that he’s fundamentally an actor.  Playing the part of “Lewis Black”, the character – “The Apoplectic Blusterer” – being his public persona. 

Black maintains that character, on stage, and – because that’s what his audience expects – on Twitter, which he consequently can’t do, because his “character” is not sufficiently short-winded.

The message is:  Performing anywhere in public, Lewis Black, the comedian, is never entirely himself.

Which, when you think about it, makes irrefutable sense.  Parts of Black, he has determined, perhaps through the punishing process of “trial and error”, are not entertaining. 

Sometimes, he is grumpy, but not funny.  Sometimes, he’s tired, lacking the necessary oomph to elevate his material.  Sometimes, maybe, he’s distracted, or depressed, or not feeling so hot.  Nobody wants to see any negative stuff onstage.  They came there to laugh. 

There are many personal elements in the bag of clowns that is Lewis Black – or any of us – that are either, not appealingly presentable, or, from his standpoint as a comedian, are inconsistent with what he has discovered is the most effective “character” for “carrying the mail.”

Lewis Black has found his.  I never found one, because I did not go onstage enough to figure out what it was, and, perhaps naively – or maybe not perhaps – I did not know that that’s what you were supposed to do.  I thought you went out there, fully and every bit yourself, you just said stuff, and people laughed. 


It is a masterful illusion.  It seems like them, but it isn’t.  It’s the “them” they deliberately carved out for the audience to see.  And by the way, they are not “just talking.”  They are re-presenting virtually the same tried-and-true material, show after show.  And making it sound like they’re “just talking.”

I wanted to be a comedian, but I had no idea what that` meant.  I thought it was something else.  Something I do all the time in my head.     


Doug said...

This same notion hit me a few years ago when I looked at the bios for the cast of "The Office." Creed Bratton really is Creed Bratton, but on the show he plays a character named Creed Bratton. If you've seen the show, you probably join me in the hope that the "Office" Creed is substantially more wigged-out than the real-life Creed. But since both claim to have been a member of the 60s pop-rock group "The Grass Roots" - a true fact - (as opposed to a false fact? but I digress) and that fact is indisputable, it is left to the viewer to discern just how much of the TV Creed is the real Creed and vice-versa. This is not as true about Bill Cosby. He's Bill Cosby, not Cliff Huxtable. Ray Romano is Ray Romano, not Ray Barone. And so on... It's all very meta and hard to follow, but it beats watching the Kardashians, who should only exist in drunken nightmares.


Mac said...

That very observation was used in an interesting article I read recently by Steve Heisler on his website, called "Why heckling is never right." Very well-written article if you want to check it out. His point is that a heckler has no more right to heckle a stand-up than a theatre-goer has to heckle an actor, because the stand-up is an actor. He or she is making their solo performance appear to be a conversation, and pretending things are just occurring to them - but they're not - and it's that illusion which gives the impression that, as it's a conversation, it's OK to contribute - which is wrong.

pumpkinhead said...

I would like to know more about the less than pure derivation of the institution of cheerleading

Mark said...

Earl -- It's been many years, but I remember you doing audience warm-ups and you were hilarious. Warm and natural, just talking to the audience like normal people. I don't remember any jokes, just a lot of laughs. You were a treat to watch. Anytime you wanna try a stand-up set, I'd come watch.