Reprinted from the Washington Post
[NOTE: I’m re-posting this piece I wrote for the Washington Post in the early ’90s after reading funny and poignant excerpts from Ritch Shydner‘s forthcoming book, Kicking Through The Ashes: My Life as a Stand-up in the 1980s Comedy Explosion. I wrote about Ritch’s last book — and its local controversy — here..]
NO ONE CAN PINPOINT THE EXACT MOMENT, but at some time between 1989 and ’91 the inevitable happened: there were more stand-up comedians in the world than there were jokes. Today, even as the humor supply continues to dwindle (despite valiant efforts from the Bobbitt, Jackson and Harding camps), it seems as if every time you turn on the television there’s yet another anxious, annoyed young guy standing in front of a brick wall venting spleen, eking out subsistence laughter from an increasingly shell-shocked audience.
This is not your imagination. The current count of stand-up shows has reached double digits–twenty-two different offerings, from established mainstream fare like A&E’s Evening at the Improv, to obscure, low-budget efforts like Grins on Montgomery County cable access. With options as diverse and ubiquitous as HBO’s raunchy and influential Def Comedy Jam to Comedy Central’s politically correct, homocentric Out There, remote control jockeys risk carpel tunnel syndrome if they try to avoid all contact with the genre.
But if one is “lucky” enough to be a cable TV subscriber and amenable to this abundance of amusement opportunities, one may spend up to 72 hours each week on the couch watching nothing but stand-up. And these figures do not include the eight million sitcoms currently airing, 7.9 million of which star former stand-up comedians.
This comedy glut would seem to lend credence to social critic Neil Postman‘s suggestion that we are “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” To test his theory, I decided to Amuse Myself to Sleep by spending an entire evening glued to the tube, willingly–perhaps dangerously?–exposing myself to nothing but jokes.
Though the quips are flying 24-7-365, Saturday is the laffo di tutti laffo. Date Night Number Two offers a continuous gagfest from 9:30 p.m. to 4 in the morning. Bravely foreswearing the chance for romance, I opened a bag of chips, flexed my channel-switching muscles and settled in for my affair d’comedie. In a distressing early warning of what was in store, as soon as I turned on the set, at 9:24, the jests were already underway: Comedian Jeff Foxworthy was telling redneck jokes on a country music special.
I have put myself to this kind of pointless exercise before. In 1978, at the onset of the comedy boom, I found myself in Los Angeles and stopped by the Comedy Store for the spectacle of Open Mike Night. This democratic tradition allows anyone with the nerve or lack of shame to hop onstage for a guaranteed five minutes under the spotlight. I arrived at 8 p.m. I left at 2 a.m. when the club closed–5 into 60 times 6 equals a lot of comics. I left laughing. Maybe “giddy” is a better description.
THERE IS AN ENERGY TO A LIVE PERFORMANCE, even–or perhaps especially–a bad one, that keeps one from nodding off. Six and a half hours of relentless televised attempts at merry-making do take a toll. There is no single narrative or character to focus one’s attention. Indeed, on Comedy Central there is a show called Short Attention Span Theater. The clever irony of the title is quickly becoming moot.
The evening’s low point came early at 11 p.m. with the syndicated Comedy On the Road. Hosted by the justifiably sad-faced John Byner, this program is so generic that two of the comics this night are named Scott. They were both forgettable except for the unpleasantness of their material.
I did manage to stay clear-headed enough through the jokeathon to glean this bit of comic insight: Fat is funny. On every show, the subject of obesity was raised, the number of fat jokes far outweighing (ahem) gags about airlines, television, people from other lands and the supposedly interesting differences between New York and Los Angeles, the next most-employed topics.
But I survived. Though the marathon was punctuated by genuine, if intermittent, laughter, more often there were only silent smiles and much sneaking a peek to check the time on the VCR clock. After a while, the steady parade of comedians blend into one blurred image: a rumpled, late-20s/early-30s male with an indelible smirk on his face, gesturing accusingly at the viewer. If all the comics seem the same, it’s because in many ways they are. The depressing fact is that Richard Pryor is sick at home, Steve Martin only appears on movie screens and all the fresh new comics have been sucked into the lucrative (for them) but largely insulting (for us) world of situation comedies.
What is left is mostly pointed exaggeration without a point; smug attitude with little comment, insight or significance.
How did the honorable and profound institution that is American television become captive to so much silliness?
“Naked greed,” exclaims William Morris agent Mike August with a hearty agent’s chuckle. August represents a variety of comedians and, as he views it, the swift rise of Robin Williams in the late ’70s gave many the impression that if he “can be funny and make a million so can I.” In the early ’70s, the number of stand-ups working in Los Angeles was estimated at no more than 15. Then came a white-suited man named Martin. Then came Mork. Then came the deluge….Stand-up comedy became a hot–and accepted–career path.
Tim Rankin, who joined that humor horde and now leads a triple life as stand-up, actor, and a manager at the D.C. Improv club, remembers the time when “if you could get ten or fifteen minutes worth of material you could work nationwide.” So, many wild-and-crazy-wannabes became “Road Warriors,” driving 42 weeks a year, from Improv to Laugh Factory to Funny Bone to Earl’s Strip-O-Rama.
The smell of loot was so pervasive that, says August, “every bar in every podunk town stopped having dwarf-tossing and strippers and tried comedy.” All a bar owner had to do was set up a mike in a corner and “hire any bozo who could survive.” A particularly American endeavor, requiring little effort and less money. By the early ’80s operating a comedy club, says the agent, “was a license to print money.”
And that same economy of less-than-scale could be translated easily to the world of TV production: Bring a camera to the comedy club and hit “record.” No elaborate staging necessary, no whining writers, co-producers, costumers, etc. Just a long line of overly-eager jokers. Tape three comics and you have a show. Repeat the process a few times and you’ve got a series to syndicate for years.
So, notes Rankin, where once the television options for a stand-up were encapsulated in the single word, “Carson,” suddenly, “there was Comedy USA, then Carolines, then A&E’s Evening at the Improv, then came Sunday Night Comics…” At first these shows featured the top-draw, recognizable talents. As the name acts either burned out or moved into sitcomland and movies, they were replaced by, as Rankin puts it, “everybody who ever told a joke.”
THE SITUATION DEGENERATED to the point where clever actors in need of sample videotape for their resumes were jumping onstage, “acting” like comedians. The sad result, says Rankin, was that “you started seeing people bombing on TV. Omigod! It was scary.”
And while it may still be scary, this thematic excess is hardly new. During the 1958-59 television season, seven of the top ten shows were Westerns. (And there was no cable or PBS alternative.)
The shoot-em-up has just been succeeded by the laugh-it-up.
Two trends are evolving that may affect the stand-up surplus. The One Man Show and the “Def Comedy Jam” type of comedy.
HBO’s Def Comedy Jam was created by rap music guru Russell Simmons and, like rap, it is marked by exceedingly frank language and topics and has become a lightning rod for outraged sensibilities. It is also, like rap, largely the province of young African-American males. Still, the TV shows and concerts are wildly successful and more and more black faces are being seen. Black Entertainment Television produces a “cleaned up” version, Comicview.
The other comedy trend is the one-man show, comedians wishing to separate themselves from the pack by eliminating the pack. Alone on the stage, they riff on a single theme which, they hope, has more resonance than “Take my wife, please.” The format may have begun with Jackie Mason‘s career-reviving Broadway show, but it was the runaway success of Rob Becker‘s gender examination, “In Search of the Caveman,” that has sparked the flood of “me-too” acts: Rick Reynold‘s “Only the Truth is Funny,” Ritch Shydner‘s “The Romantic Adventures of Canyon Man,” and so on. No less a figure than David Mamet is currently involved in the production of the New York one-man show, Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants.
Agent August, who happens to represent Becker, dismisses the pretenders as “What’s My Dysfunction” acts. But these are dysfunctional times and, to take ex-stand-up Roseanne Arnold’s career as but one example, dysfunction sells.
Early in my Night of a Million Comics, Bob Zmuda, president of the Comic Relief organization said, in a different context: “Where there’s comedy, there’s hope.” Let it be noted for those hoping for a reprieve from stand-up saturation that the nature of Def Jam comedy limits it’s broadcast to adult-oriented pay channels. And, except for a pre-Caveman appearance in 1988, Rob Becker has done absolutely no television.