Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Truth about Truthful Comedy

In stand-up, only "socio-political" comedians are deemed truth tellers. You might say the Mount Rushmore of comedy truth consists of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Hicks.

Plenty of comics claim those icons inspired them towards truth. Nine million stand-ups have this story: "I was doing bits about weed giving you the munchies and then I saw ___ telling the truth and I thought 'I can't keep doing the easy stuff. I need more than just laughs.'"

Nothing wrong with attempting profundity in your jokes, so long as there are jokes. When a comic decides to become "socially relevant," it usually doesn't take long for the jokes to vanish.

The Mount Rushmore comedians weren't immune from this.

From at least 1999's You Are All Diseased On, George Carlin's comedy was scant on comedy. Lots of predictable left-wing declarations regurgitated through clinched teeth, but few jokes. His early whimsical material was far more perceptive about humanity than his late, misanthropic stuff.

Bill Hicks. Arizona Bay and Relentless have huge laughs on them, including laughs from bits that "make a point." Rant in E-Minor and Bill Hicks: Revelations (especially); heavy on the didacticism, relatively light on the humor (to be fair, some of Rant was recorded after Hicks knew he had cancer, which invites bombast). I have heard stories of Bill Hicks telling crowds he was a poet. The only thing worse than a poet is a comedian who thinks he's a poet. In my mind, Rant and Revelations were steps that direction.

The hardest thing in comedy is to consistently write funny, concise material. As a "politically aware" comic, crowds expect you (and you expect you) to discuss whatever the day's news is. Most people can't create new material that fast, and because they can't always write enough jokes to catch up with the news, their act simply becomes preaching about the day's news. Once you get into "truth telling" mode, it is almost inevitable that the joke writing won't continue because it is too tempting to say, "I'm here to make a point, and if I can't make 'em laugh, I'll make 'em think."

No thanks.

A right-wing version of this is Dennis Miller. Once highly respected (late 80s, early 90s he was among the absolute best), after 9/11 he began doing right-leaning political material, usually heavier on cheap applause lines than punchlines. The difference for Dennis is that reciting hackneyed conservative talking points gets you criticized by other comedians. It doesn't get you added to the list of truth tellers, even though the formula is the same.

"Truth" comes in many forms. Jerry Seinfeld tells truths. Brian Reagan tells truths. Norm Macdonald especially tells truths (Norm illustrates the problems with "serious" comedians here). Seinfeld and Reagan might focus more on micro truths* rather than macro ones, but their acts far better illuminate homo sapien absurdity than almost any of the comics who aspire to be "social critics." Yet they don't come up in conversations about comics who "tell the truth."

You wouldn't settle for a songwriter who just punched his guitar and said, "Lotta people be homeless." Would anyone care about Bob Dylan's social commentary if his songs didn't have melodies, if his words didn't at least aspire towards lyricism? There were thousands of other folk singers. Most of them thought it was enough to say "Big Steel Steals," which might explain why no one cared about them then, let alone now.

Simply bringing up an issue isn't automatically satire. Stating facts is for news anchors, not comedians. The point of comedy is to make something funny. If highlighting Darfur is your thing, fine, but going onstage and saying, "Darfur is a mess, am I right?" isn't truthful comedy. It is a verbal awareness ribbon. The fact that you're saying it in a comedy club doesn't make it comedy. Wiping off a table in a comedy club doesn't become slapstick gold simply because it happens under a comedy roof.

A comedian has to make crowds see "issues" in a new way. You need analogies, you need to put us in someone else's shoes. Otherwise, you're a less funny Sunday School teacher. Most "political" comics hammer priests and pastors (but never imams, I'm sure it's just an oversight), while being as moralistic and humorless as a cable access televangelist. There is a reason it isn't called stand-up sermonizing.

* Chris Rock's Bring the Pain is an all time great special that combines macro and micro truths, and anchors all of them with killer punchlines.

1 comment:

Andy Campbell said...

Tell da truth, Payne! (...seriously, it's all true. Great piece.)