Dave and CK

Okay, so it’s weird to post 3 times and then wait 3 years, so what?

It seems like a significant time in stand up, at least for Netflix subscribers.  Just this past week (or two?) Dave Chappelle released two (count ’em) fantastic stand up routines.  It probably helped sway me that he peppered in semi-esoteric boxing jokes.  Anyway, they’re phenomenal and you should watch them if you haven’t.

First thing I noticed is that Chappelle’s style is noticeably different.  He doesn’t have the same high-pitched, high-energy output he used to, but it might be better.  He’s adjusted his material accordingly.  Adorning himself in an almost military-style jacket and pants in one of the specials, he spends a good part of the hour affectedly smoothing the jacket.  It has the effect of making you feel like you’re at a lecture of some kind.  In a sense, the viewer is witnessing a declaration.  What of?  I don’t know, a new identity?  A new perspective?  Something.

Chappelle covers much more controversial territory than I’ve seen in the past.  Not that white supremacists and babies selling weed on the street aren’t rife with shock value, but somehow this new material pushes past that, touching on Bill Cosby and OJ Simpson.  He even playfully acknowledges some resentment that he had to watch Key and Peele do his show on Comedy Central.  His delivery, if anything, is better than ever.  And his content, for me, was at its best.  I’m so glad to see such a triumphant return to the scene by the comedy magnate.

Just tonight, as far as I can tell, Louis CK released a new Netflix special, which is similarly progressive compared to his previous work.  At the beginning, I wasn’t sure it wasn’t a bit of a low point for him.  His introduction is abrupt and pitch-black but without any of the irony and absurdity that gave his past routines levity alongside the biting edginess.  Also, his transitions lacked the indicators that normally tell his viewers that it’s all for fun (“I don’t know how to start shows, it’s just a problem that I have,” or “now that I know you’re cool”).  He slowly and methodically discusses the issues of abortion and suicide with only the subtlest hints that he’s kidding around.  The Atlantic (in a much better analysis than this) wrote: “The audience might be laughing, but I watched the first 10 minutes without even a nervous chuckle, amazed at the sheer discomfort C.K. was obviously trying to provoke right at the top.”

As Louis moves on in the routine, he discusses life as a parent and what it’s like to have kids.  Thought he was done with suicide, death and abortion?  Nope.  Pulls it all back together.  So was he joking?  I don’t know, but this part’s much funnier.  He starts adding in hilarious hand gestures and impressions.  The high points that come to mind being the Victorian middle school dating practice of inquiring whether he might finger a girl he’d like to ask out on a date, and being seduced by Matthew McConaughey in leather pants.

In the end, the routine falls in line with his earlier work in terms of quality, if possibly coming in a little behind Chewed Up, Hilarious, or Word.  By far, I’d have to say it’s his darkest yet—the bitterness in the material about romantic love is palpable, but it’s also some of his best work on addressing serious, hard realities.

Side note: Saw Tom Segura give a great show at the DC Improv not long ago.  Great time, great venue, great performer.

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‘Family Guy’ Injects Cruelty Into ‘The Simpsons’ in Awful Crossover Episode

What do you think?

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A crossover episode between Family Guy and The Simpsons has been inevitable since the former premiered. The only surprising thing is that it took this long for it to finally happen. It’s a smart gimmick, regardless of your personal opinion on Family Guy, because regular viewers of The Simpsons will check in just to see how big of a wreck it could be. And last night’s convergence really was a wreck that showcased the general awfulness of Family Guy by introducing its offensive brand of cruelty to the town of Springfield. 

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Zany Mulaney

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Last night, stand-up comedian John Mulaney ascended to a new level in the industry when his sitcom premiered on Fox.  For a comedian, that’s the equivalent of winning the Superbowl, from what I can tell.  Think about it, Kevin James and King of Queens, Ray Romano and Everybody Loves Raymond, Jerry Seinfeld and Seinfeld.  While Mulaney had previously  worked as a writer for Saturday Night Live, he was never granted the status of cast member, thereby remaining below-radar for anyone who doesn’t follow stand-up comedy, until now.  The similar titles aren’t the only structural elements Seinfeld and Mulaney share.  The most fundamental difference between this show and the newer style of semi-autobiographical stand-up drama, like Louie and Maron, is presentation (Mulaney is filmed in front of a studio audience).  Mulaney also uses stand-up material as bookends for the plot, much as Seinfeld did.  The two-guys-and-a-girl buddy trio is intact, too, with fellow SNL veteran Nasim Pedrad playing Mulaneys Elaine Benes.  Even the eccentric neighbor-across-the-hall relationship is part of the formula.  You couldn’t do a better job of ensuring a new sitcom would reach audiences the way Seinfeld did.

In the same sense, however, the show is not analytical or philosophical; it doesn’t challenge social norms or ask its viewers to question their perspectives on deeper issues.  This is appropriate for John Mulaney, in a way, because his humor appeals to families where other comics are too vulgar.  While he did have to clean up his jokes a little, the show manages to maintain a sort of late-night primetime quality with jokes like the “Problem Bitch” t-shirt.  Some of the reboots of classic Mulaney bits fall flat because they’re delivered stiffly or they feel very forced and contrived, such as his first conversation with big shot Lou Cannon, amusingly portrayed by Martin Short, in which he abruptly launches into his routine about seeing an empty wheelchair in the street.  That’s a great joke on stage for a lot of reasons that just don’t exist in sitcom dialogue.  The lead-in for that joke is something along the lines of  “you see a lot of disturbing things in New York…” which sets up the expectation of an edge in the punchline, elevating the effect to more than a goofy observation.  This loss of this kind of nuance in translation to sitcom dialogue is to be expected, but hopefully in the future, the writers will be able to fill in a little more exposition and core material to make John Mulaney’s humor better translate into authentic television.  I think that kind of development can be seen in many shows after their first seasons, though, including some I mentioned earlier, like Seinfeld, so we shouldn’t be too impatient waiting for the formula to yield something remarkable.

Mulaney, Sundays on Fox, comes off as ingratiating in its goofiness, but so far distinguishes itself from other, less substantive sitcoms in its reliance on solid stand-up material and avoidance of those convoluted, consecutive mishap sequences common to lesser productions.  Overall, I found it a very well done show, and I enjoyed seeing how the writers worked the eponymous comedian’s popular bits into the plot.  I look forward to seeing the show reach its potential and I’m excited to see where it takes John Mulaney’s stand-up career.

Discovery

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About three years ago I discovered that Pandora’s streaming internet radio service was now offering stand-up comedy and the genre was broken down by category just like music.  I think that’s when I started seeing the act of telling jokes to big crowds as the art of comedy.  I was introduced to some classic comedy when I was very young, but mostly my familiarity came later on, watching a lot of comedy central and the occasional HBO special.  Being able to listen to a continuous stream of comedy routines on Pandora while I drove to work allowed me to consume even more.  Over time I’ve formed strong opinions about the kind of qualities a comedy routine can have, and which ones it should have in order to be enjoyable and worth paying attention to for an extended period of time.  I figure there are a lot of other comedy fans out there with their own opinions, with the popularity of active stand-up comedians like Bill Burr, Louis CK, Marc Maron, Amy Schumer and others in television and film, so now seems as good as time as any to try to start a discussion.

The plan is to invite discussion on comedy in general, and maybe get a better perspective on the industry in the process, discovering more about what this art means to us.  I’ve seen only three live shows in my life, and already I feel like I understand the difference between being a part of the audience and just listening at home.  Especially in more intimate venues, naturally, you get a sense for the interaction between the entertainer and the crowd.  I find it fascinating to learn the past histories of comedians and how they came to make money telling jokes, in whatever form that takes.  That’s a big reason I recently came to follow Marc Maron’s television show and podcast.  He delves into the process of comedy, even if it is from an extreme perspective with what is sometimes a warped relationship to the profession and those around him.  He also explores comedians’ pasts and how they developed their careers in a sincere and innocently curious exchange.  There’s a lot to appreciate about the material that has resulted from those conversations.  That’s another reason I’ve started to think a lot more about what makes comedy funny in the first place, why what’s funny to me isn’t always funny to someone else, and the reverse.

One thing I’ve begun to learn more about recently is the phenomenon of developing jokes cooperatively with two or more contributors.  This alone brings up a lot of questions about accusations of stolen material.  For example, the idea that Denis Leary’s “No Cure for Cancer” was a blatant rip off of, primarily, Bill Hicks, as well as Louis CK and perhaps others is, to me, very debatable.  This idea struck me as absurd from the moment I read about it, but I realized that it was mostly because I was feeling defensive about the sanctity of one of my most cherished performances.  It turns out, though, that there’s really more to it than that.  Bill Hicks at one time apparently used the phrase “there’s no cure for that cancer” as a punch line in one of his routines, and also throughout his career established a persona by emphatically advocating smoking and describing how much he enjoyed it.  To be fair, Leary did make his smoking a focus of the No Cure for Cancer set, and the name is a somewhat conspicuous coincidence, but I don’t really think the styles of delivery of the two entertainers match up at all.  While No Cure for Cancer was a high-energy, jaded, resentful diatribe, and Bill Hicks style was often belligerent and sardonic, the question is how much those terms match each other, and the answer is: only in certain ways.  Only in the ways that any two comedians might coincide in their material by chance of similarity of disposition.  By those standards, the script writing for Leary’s part in “Demolition Man” was also a blatant rip-off of Bill Hicks’ entirely unique material.

Another purportedly stolen concept was Leary’s conclusion to the performance, in which he had a heart attack and died on stage.  This apparently resembles the finale Hicks used at one time in which he would fake an assassination.  By the scope of that comparison you would have to say that Louis CK’s material about the word “fag” is a direct plagiarism of George Carlin’s material on the same topic.  They at least actually share structure and general delivery.  I’ve heard no one crying foul over that.  I’m less familiar with Hicks’ material, admittedly, but I think his painfully bemused delivery was a far cry from the tornado of judgmental narcissism Leary exposed audiences to in No Cure for Cancer.  Don’t get me wrong, Louis CK is one of my favorite comedians of all time, and I fully recognize the strength of his presence in the industry as well as the admirable creativity he’s shown in marketing himself and producing material.  That’s why I think a lot of these accusations must be pure nonsense.  In other settings, jokes are like pieces of music that can be performed by anyone who wants to without any feeling of resentment, unless the performer also claims to be the author.  Why would it be considered taboo to use your own personal take on a subject so broad in scope that the majority of career-comedians have touched on it once or twice? In this case, I give my vote for creative rights to Leary and I fully enjoy and respect all three entertainers’ work.

I guess I’d also like to touch on the passing of comedy cornerstone Robin Williams.  It’s been hard for me to believe that someone who made so many people laugh could be so sad himself, but apparently even guys like him are fragile in the way that so many of us are.  His departure from this particular field of art only strengthens my resolve that it’s worthwhile and sometimes necessary to consider the contribution to our culture that these entertainers provide.  Sometimes thought-provoking, usually entertaining, these guys remind us that having a healthy sense of humor makes life happy.

Check out my favorite comedians page where anyone can comment or discuss.