February 26, 2004

World's A Stage

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When Comedy Central announced last year that it would air a new twist on reality television in the form of its Last Comic Standing show, I got rather excited at the thought of seeing into the world of one of the most overlooked performance arts. But, instead of being enlightened by the intricate craft of some young budding stars, I was left marveled at how dry the barrel had been scraped to piece this show together.

Maybe I should have calculated the show’s potential by recognizing that, after all, Jay Mohr was the host. But due to my lack of foresight I endured the weeks of Dat Phan’s fake Chinese accent “jokes” and Ralphie May’s self-depreciation — all without a giggle. In a nutshell, I was left wondering if this was the future of stand-up comedy.

The truth is, however, that the desperation caused by Last Comic Standing soon translated into motivation to seek out what the world really has to offer. Luckily, I discovered that the only way any of the aforementioned comics would be a part of America’s stand-up future would be through Comedy Central’s regrettable investment to periodically disseminate these dry-sponges into the occasional unwatchable show.

Although Last Comic Standing failed at conjuring laughs, it did succeed at showing just how hard it is to get up on stage and make people laugh from scratch. You see, when we make our friends laugh it is done in an entirely different ballpark. On stage, you are rudimentarily denied a familiarity with your audience, which would otherwise empower you with the knowledge of how to push their buttons. Nine times out of ten we understand what will work with our peers, what will insult them, or simply what will bore them when we attempt to entertain. A stand-up never has this luxury.

So when I watch stand-up comedy it is equally fascinating to admire not just to what extent the comic makes me laugh, but furthermore, how he is doing it.

I recently bought Robin Williams’s most newly released stand-up show, Live on Broadway, and I couldn’t help but think that his routine was dated. It was not that his content has gotten less funny over the years, but his hyper-active, sweat-inducing performance just seemed like it had been given a permission slip from the eighties to use its style.

In the same week I watched Dane Cook’s Harmful if Swallowed, and it clarified why Williams’ act didn’t work for me. Whereas Cook’s young meathead attitude and stature allowed him to take the physical aspect of his show to the fullest extreme, Williams’ aging body couldn’t keep up to pace with his similar physical intent.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the monotone, expressionless comics who seem to have no awareness of their humor. Jim Gaffigan, of Comedy Central Presents fame and America’s answer to Jack Dee, epitomizes this style; a style that’s success relies entirely on convincing the audience that your laugh-worthy misfortune only amuses them.

Black comedy has also paved its own path through the world of humor. Despite the omnipresent use of “White folks are crazy, man,” it must be acknowledged that this genre has an irrefutable ability to appeal to both races, in the sense that ultimately both cultures are scrutinized and made fun of for their often alarmingly funny and contrasting idiosyncrasies. Although BET’s Comic View is the backbone of black comedy, it was the performances (particularly) of Bernie Mac and Cedric the Entertainer in The Original Kings of Comedy that put this genre on the map.

Still, despite these being some of my favorite routines, the one that tops the list for me (and I say this with no homeland bias) is Eddie Izzard’s Dress to Kill. I don’t care if you download, rent, or buy this, it is absolutely imperative that anyone who likes stand-up experiences this unique show. Izzard’s two hour epic is a scenic route through the history of the world, making fun of everything from the Anglican Church to Adolf Hitler to the discovery of America. What is most impressive about the self-proclaimed “executive transvestite” is that he has been enjoyed in both England and America (a rare for feet for a number of reasons). On top of this, he once performed an entire show in French to a Parisian audience in a country where stand-up comedy barely exists.

In the past year my search through the maze of stand-up comedy has been one with a hunk of cheese at the end. Along my tour-de-laughs, other comedians such as Brian Regan, Kevin James, Dave Chappelle, Pablo Francisco, Jim Breuer, and even the faulty magic show of The Amazing Johnathan have made the days of Eddie Murphy’s Delirious and Steve Martin’s filling of rock arenas for performances not so far in the past. Whether you see all of these or not, our next comedy stop should be next month’s arrival of Stephen Lynch on the East Hill. The question of whether he can be added to this list remains to be seen; but that’s a column for another day.

Archived article by Tom Britton