Tuesday, September 7, 2010


I've been a fan of standup comedy since I was a kid. But I'm not insufferable about it. I can't quote lines from the masters like friends of mine can. And I still have trouble remembering Carlin's infamous "7 Words You Can't Say on Television."

But I am addicted to standup comedy as entertainment. I recently watched every episode (all six seasons) of the great animated series, "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist," which stars Jonathan Katz features guest spots from a who's-who of comics. With decidedly low-fi graphics and a wry sensibility, this show is a great setup for comedians to go on verbal riffs.

Of course, like any genre, standup comedy is full of crap. There are more bad comedians than good ones, but this is true of any group of people. This is also true of any category you can come up with, from comedians to coffee beans, from art to automobiles. This is the reason Theodore Sturgeon came up with his Revelation (also known as Sturgeon's Law) that "90% of everything is crud."

(The real Sturgeon's Law is "Nothing is always absolutely so," but that's a subject for another blog post.)

And, with comedy, the ratio of crud may be closer to 92 percent. (Rim shot!)

Be that as it may, my addiction to standup comedy stems from my attraction to a certain mindset: that life is essentially absurd, and that laughter is the proper response to the vicissitudes of existence. Setting aside the great philosophers who are the true progenitors of this viewpoint (from the ancient Greeks to Sartre), my own patron saint of absurdity is the novelist & humanist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who wrote in Palm Sunday that:
Jokes can be noble. Laughs are as honorable as tears. Laughter and tears both are responses to frustration and exhaustion, to the futility of thinking and striving anymore. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterwards.
And the source of laughter in all comedy is truth. Think about it. Every punchline works because of its relationship to a truth that is recognized by the audience.

Take, for instance, this line from the late, great Richard Jeni (taken from episode 1 of the third season of Dr. Katz):
"People say that marriage should be forever. But when they made up that rule, forever wasn't that long. There was just a guy going, 'Yeah, I should get married. I don't want to be 19 and alone!'"
Now, whether or not you agree with Jeni's viewpoint on marriage, you have to recognize the kernels of truth from which it blossomed: that marriage is a cultural construct that our contemporary society has re-defined as a relationship that can be voluntarily ended and that people live longer now than they ever have.

Of course, nothing kills a joke quicker than an explanation. And I don't want the ghost of Richard Jeni haunting me for dismantling his bit -- so let's move on.

My point is this: beyond the laughs, it is standup comedy's relationship to truth that endlessly fascinates me. More than religions or political ideologies, I think standup comedy illustrates truth in clear and unequivocal terms that, because of its insistence on laughter, does so in ways that encourage sympathy and mutual understanding.

A comedian walks onto a stage, tells some jokes, and the crowd laughs. After an hour or so of shared laughter, it's hard to imagine an entertainment that does more to build some community feeling. Sporting events, by their adversarial nature, can do this only to a certain point, because fans of the losing side won't have much fellow feeling for fans of the winning side. And movies are largely a solitary affair, no matter how crowded the theater can get.

Where do I get my standup comedy? Besides taking in live shows whenever I can, I also subscribe to Revision3's ROFL podcast via Itunes. Marc Maron's WTF podcast is especially interesting, as is Kevin Pollak's Chat Show. Louis CK's new show, "Louie," is a must-see. Kevin Allison's "Risk!" podcast, which is more of a storytelling venue, also features some long-form comedy, but it's almost all hilarious, if a bit scatological.

Plus, there are a plethora of comedy specials out there for purchase or rent. I recommend starting with the classics and working your way up to the contemporaries, from Carlin & Cosby to Doug Stanhope & Zach Galifianakis, from Redd Foxx to Margaret Cho to Wanda Sykes.

The laughs are out there. Go and find them. You'll be better for it.


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