Before the 1980s, stand-up comedy wasn't speckled all over the airwaves. Apart from outlets like Carson, stand-up was mostly a sport that could only be seen live. When people talked about going to the Catskills to see comedy, it was kinda literal.
Then in the 80s we got HBO and all kinds of stand-up shows. Suddenly it was everywhere. You didn't have to go to a club to see a wacky take on marriage. You didn't really even need a cablebox. It was everywhere.
Cut to today. Now not only do you have specific comedy channels and tons of talk shows featuring comedians, you have YouTube*, which gives you access to more stand-up than you can shake Charlie Chaplin's stick at.
All the things that usually mesmerize people; comedy impressionists, for example, you can now see instantly and without payment. I just typed "Sarah Palin impression" into YouTube. 498 hits. In the old days, if you wanted to see your favorite impression, you had to go to a comedy club. Now every conceivable Sarah Palin impression is just a few clicks away.
If anything, this should devalue Sarah Palin impressions. You don't need to stay up late to watch The Tonight Show or drive to a comedy club to see someone do Sarah Palin.
So does that mean there is more funny out there? I just think there is more volume. Everywhere you go, you get the same three opinions, only now they are truly everywhere. Those same three opinions barrage you each day on Twitter, Facebook, your smartphone, your tablet, your television. Everywhere. The brain can only handle so much, so literal cognitive overload is bound to kick in. Eventually you're just worn down into accepting those same three opinions as fact. Perhaps without even knowing it, you come to expect them to be the template for all the comedy you watch.
If I want to escape the tidal wave of sameness, if I want to hear angles outside of those three acceptable opinions, there are probably around twenty people I can listen to. There are obvious names like Louis CK, and lesser known names like my friends Andy Kline and Dan Goodman.
With technology being where it is, there really is no reason to go to a comedy club unless one of the twenty or so distinct thinkers is on the bill. Otherwise, I'm bound to sit there frustrated while someone regurgitates the same point-of-view I could read in the New York Times seven days a week. Why should I shave, apply cologne, safety-pin a smile on my face, and pay a two drink minimum to sit through 60 minutes of the same three opinions that have been buzzing on my smartphone all day?
In order to get a break from the tidal wave of consensus thinking, I really have to sift through the noise to find my way to the comics who aren't regurgitators, which in a way, kind of makes the search for comedy feel exclusive again; maybe a little like it felt going to a comedy club in 1975.
It is as though this small league of comics with distinct angles is an accidental aristocracy. Maybe that should make me optimistic; aristocracies have a tendency to produce great art.
*Speaking of YouTube, you can use it to hear hours of unacceptable opinions from the late, great philosopher Patrice Oneal.