When Did Comedy Stop Being About Laughter?
On Calling Things That Aren’t Comedy Comedy
When was the last time you laughed at a comedy show? I mean really laughed? Have you ever laughed so hard that you spit up a drink on yourself? I know I have. Schaumburg Improv - 2008 watching Tracy Morgan. When was the last time a comedian made your sides hurt? If you’re struggling to remember perhaps it’s because that’s no longer the objective.
In late December 2006, I was working at a startup with my colleague Mike. We were building a retail company from the ground up, but we often worked special events throughout the country: marathons, volleyball tournaments, golf tournaments, etc. After a long couple of days in South Florida running a booth for a marathon, we decided to reward ourselves with an expensive dinner at Legal Sea Foods in West Palm Beach. We noticed that Dave Attell was playing across from the restaurant at the Improv, and decided to end our week with some laughs.
I had long been in love with stand up, but I had never been that close to it. Throughout that late Saturday show, we watched Attell and openers Sean Rouse and Al Jackson work an intimate room with jazz crooner pacing. It was like watching a vulgar Rat Pack. Al was pretty mild, but once Sean hit the stage, the room was flooded with dark and personal material. There were jokes about pedophilia, death, and suicidal fantasies. As tragedy forged into comedy, pin-drop-silence was repeatedly wrecked with uproarious laughter. Dave Attell closed the night out with a tremendous long set; trademark Attell where every joke feels like spontaneous crowd work only for you later to realize that it was all so meticulously crafted.
These dudes were fearless. At one point, Dave started talking shit to a 6’5, 300 pound real-life version of Scarface as if there were bars between them; a guy that would easily kill you on the street for looking at him the wrong way was completely disarmed and laughing at himself with 100 other people as Dave went in.
Watching from the front row, as my co-worker Mike became increasingly drunk and belligerent, my love for the medium started to transform. I related to their thoughts and their perspectives to the point where I felt like they were speaking from inside my mind. I had played in metal bands, made music, but this was the first time in my life I felt truly compelled by someone else’s art.
After the show, Dave (coming off of his popular Comedy Central Show Insomniac) was immediately tied up with fans clamoring for autographs and pictures. I noticed Sean Rouse sitting by himself at the bar, and couldn’t resist. I pulled up next to him and described my love for his act; his delivery; his very existence. I’m sure I spouted all of the dumb stuff comedians hate to hear, “How do you get up there and do that? Say those things? It’s so brave! What if people don’t like it?” The things that today would make my skin crawl and often do.
Sean was very gracious, and we spent ten minutes or so shitting on the characters around the bar. At one point he said “that’s pretty funny” to which I said “funny enough?”
I asked him, “If I want to do what you do, what’s your advice?”
“Just don’t steal anybody’s material and you should be okay,” he said.
At this point, Mike had climbed behind the bar and was buying rounds on our company card for the stragglers, and claiming to be Dave Attell’s cousin from New York. When Attell came over and asked me to “get my boy,” I pulled his ear about comedy.
“If you really want to do it, just start. Start tomorrow, and know that it might be 20 years before anyone cares about what you have to say. If you’re OK with that, then you might be a comedian.”
Two weeks later in January 2007, I did my first open mic at Goonies Comedy Club in Rochester, Minnesota, and have never looked back.
The comedy industry came at me like a whirlwind; I made friends immediately and started caravanning to mics. My early standup was shock-value based sketch comedy narrated to an audience; I really had no sense of timing or the formula for joke-writing. Maybe I still don’t.
From Goonies, Joe Cocozzello, Ryan Solojovs, and Nicholas Anthony directed me to Grumpy’s — a bar in Coon Rapids Minnesota that hosted a weekly Sunday mic that eventually became my comedy home for the next three years. This is where I first met Daryl Horner.
Daryl had a real rock-star energy about him. He floated through that room omnipresent and powerful. He was 6’4 about 275 at the time (which he may dispute), wearing sunglasses (indoors at night) with a beanie. He was headlining the show that night, and when I was introduced to him it was comedy love at first site. He brought a power to the stage that resonated with me — a mixture of the stoner-coolness of Mitch Hedberg with the vitriol of Doug Stanhope: aggressive; fearless; and in your face. We clicked instantly.
I was all the way in now. If this was comedy Fight Club, Daryl was my Tyler Durden. That night, my second as a stand-up comedian, Verbally Vicious was born.
At that point, Minneapolis was already long known for it’s “alt” comedy scene—essentially comedy that focused on the bizarre personalities of the comedians instead of jokes—with popular local comedy heroes like Maria Bamford and the then deceased Mitch Hedberg being the staple exports. I didn’t like this kind of comedy at first, so I rebelled. Where a lot of our local scene focused on this bizarreness, Verbally Vicious (comprised of myself, Daryl Horner, and Kevin Craft) aimed to rebel against that trend. We weren’t oddball characters. We were unapologetically ourselves, and fearlessly willing to risk anything for deep laughter. We took all chances and explored all taboos. We performed everywhere: red neck bars, all black nightclubs, comedy clubs that went out of business since I started writing this — We became the alt to alt comedy.
We wanted to be like our heroes and idols that came before us: Carlin. Pryor. Bruce. Kinison. Hicks. Dice. We refused to beg for time at our local A club, Acme. We booked our own bar tours. We sold t-shirts at open mics. We produced our own horribly recorded albums. As the late Bill Young once said about Verbally Vicious: “we brought punk rock into Minneapolis comedy.” We just wanted to be comedians, or least what we thought comedians were.
This isn’t to say so-called alt comedians aren’t funny — the great ones most definitely are. This I learned the hard way. When I saw Maria Bamford live — I realized that alt comedy can be just as brilliant and clever as anything else. David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Zach Galifianakis are hilarious. Mainstream comedy, alt comedy, alt alt comedy: it really doesn’t matter who’s on trend and who’s reacting to the trend. There is only one way to be a great comedian. You have to make people laugh.
It’s 2018 now. Verbally Vicious is long dead, along with my friend Sean Rouse (who just passed last month) and so many other brilliant idols of mine like Greg Giraldo, Don Rickles, Robin Williams, Garry Shandling, and Joan Rivers. Part of me wonders if a little bit of comedy dies with along with each one of them. To me, these were the true pioneers of comedy. They risked being controversial when it put them in jeopardy; because they were compelled to make people laugh. They weren’t trying to do anything besides that.
But today, there is something strange going on. Comedy is being forced into unfunny. Politicized rants have replaced punchlines. This is not to say that taking political stances doesn’t make you funny—Dave Chappelle is one of the greatest of all time. But, he makes people laugh while making his points, and this is what makes him a comedian.
Many new comedians refuse to take risks for laughs, choosing instead to pander to their audience’s perceived political leanings in an attempt to string together enough applause breaks to feel their opinions validated; to score points in an economy where any applause is now greater than laughter. When did that end, by the way? When did laughter stop being the metric by which comedy is judged? People applaud for Chappelle, sure, but mostly they laugh.
Comedians now expose their vulnerability not to relate to the audience and release tension, but to create it; to guilt the audience into submitting to the performer’s ideals. It’s self-indulgent and self-aggrandizing; serving only to build the legacy of the performer with no attempt to make the audience laugh. This couldn’t be better evidenced than by Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette, described as “compelling, moving, inspiring;” and yet, not a single comedian I respect has been able to call it the one thing that matters most: funny.
I’ll die for jokes. I’ll die for anyone’s right to make jokes. I created my LA show “The Darkest Hour” to prove to audiences that anything can be made into jokes, but you need jokes. You need laughter, or else it just isn’t comedy. I don’t doubt that it’s art of some sort; you could simply create a new category of spoken word, or “slam-discussion,” or whatever you want to call it. I don’t have a problem with someone creating a new art-form. I just don’t think you need to replace ours in the process.
I care because I’ve bled for comedy. In 2013, I lost a high paying corporate job for comedy. Recently in 2018, the angry cyber-mob used my comedy to label me a racist, a bigot, a homophobe, merely because I voiced a politically-charged “hot take” in the same way I explore ideas that lead to comedy—by exploring the edge of comfortability. I was dropped by one of the three largest agencies in comedy because they couldn’t rep me if “that’s what I want to do,” despite telling me how in love with it they were 18 months ago (when I was the host of a highly rated reality TV show airing in 14 countries).
The fearless pursuit of creating laughter is frowned upon, because what is called comedy today is about being on the right side of history; not about being funny. The industry casts tomorrow’s stars by checking off an affirmative action equal opportunity checklist. Stand up has become the section of Hollywood where everyone gets a trophy as long as they represent some marginalized group whose voices need to be heard. Maybe they do need to be heard; I don’t discount that at all. All I’m saying is that if they’re going to be heard as comedy, they better be funny.
I’ve always described comedy as “entertainment’s mixed martial art” —the ultimate meritocracy. Once the cage door closes, it’s one on one, and there’s usually a clear winner. No matter what your discipline in comedy, be it alt, urban, roast, or dark arts, laughter is our blood and there’s no disputing your ability once it’s been drawn from that audience.
But today, comedians who still dare to go for laughs above all else are labeled “thought criminals,” or “hacks,” or “dinosaurs.” We’re not comedians fighting for comedy, we’re angry cis-gendered straight white men that feel power being ripped from our clutches and we just can’t take it. Look, I don’t care who has the power. I really don’t. I don’t do comedy to be rich, famous, or powerful. I do it because I was compelled to do it 11 years ago, and I’m addicted to the opiate of creating laughter. No well-made point has ever gotten my proverbial dick hard (and yes, my dick is purely proverbial) like a roomful of people laughing so hard they can’t breathe, and I’ve loved that throughout my career no matter the messenger.
Unfunny comedy doesn’t represent some new “alt” comedy scene that I find myself, yet again, rebelling against. Comedy is only comedy insofar as it’s about laughter. Once it stops being about that, it becomes something else. So call it performance art, call it politics, but stop calling it comedy.