Monday, July 03, 2006

Lester Bangs of Comedy

Renowned rock journalist and Esquire columnist Chuck Klosterman recently lamented the fact that there was no great video game critic along the lines of Lester Bangs.

At least video games have critics. There are no critics that specialize in stand-up comedy. This makes sense if we assume that the reason anyone would read a critic in the first place is for a recommendation. But in this post-user generated review universe, with blogs, fan sites and Amazon.com users acting as unpaid publicists for their favorite bands and movies, do we need critics to tell us what's good?

The reason we need critics is the same reason we need Chuck Klosterman: analysis. When I walk out of a theater, I ask my friend what she thought of the movie. I want her opinion, not a recommendation. Best case scenario, we analyze the movie for two hours at the roadside diner.

I've seen "Saved by the Bell" more than Mario Lopez has, but I still feel like I have to read Chuck Klosterman's essay on it over and over again.

But stand-up is different from TV, right? "Saved" had a laugh track; a comic usually knows when he's done well or not. Plus, what's there to analyze? Funny is funny. Am I right, people?

Simply stating how funny an album is may work with good comedy. But it is as useless as a hot pillow in July when it comes to great comedy. Richard Pryor wasn't only funny; he helped forge black identity in America. Andy Kaufman was more brilliant than funny.

Here's another reason we need critics: they help the industry. "Pearl Harbor" was a box-office smash, but critics lambasted it so much that it was lampooned in "Team America" as a terrible film. For every DVD of "Pearl Harbor" that sells, there's a negative review that Michael Bay is afraid to read.

Comics don't have this balance: if they kill, they kill. If the audience laughs at their hackneyed imitations of relatives and their dull observations of domestic life, that's fine; what comic would change the formula then? Moreover, peers won't say anything. The more daring comic who gets a lackluster response has no high ground from which he can tell the hack how to develop his craft.

This is not only the case with club comedy. Even alternative comedy showcases are getting alterna-hacks that reference '80's pop culture and shove their half-baked improv ideas onstage. But they've already won by appearing at Giant Tuesday. Getting mentioned in The Apiary is good enough.

What's wrong with just ignoring bad comics? Shouldn't the lack of recognition be enough? No; critical recognition is exactly what comics need. Both good and bad recognition. When good comics deteriorate and bad ones improve, who notices? If an alterna-hack gets a mention in Spin Magazine and sells out every night he plays at the UCB theater, why should he ever improve: he's clearly arrived. So when the next comedy album flops and Spin Magazine recommends the new imrov genius from New Zealand who has a hit one-man play about biotech and doo-wop music, what is the poor alterna-hack to do? What if he makes a wonderful album? Who will recommend him then? The fans have forgotten him; the cabarets have shut him out. How does he reclaim the fickle audience?

That's the critic's job. Without critics, Buster Keaton's legacy would have been diminished. "The General" would have been remembered as an expensive box office flop. Without Lester Bangs, garage rock albums would have never been hot collectors' items. What's also important to remember is that film and rock critics have preserved Keaton's legacy and garage rock's integrity respectively. Comedy album reviews exist of course. Pitchfork gave David Cross's two Sub Pop albums harsh reviews.Yet he's the only comic who is worthy of a Pitchfork critic's attention.

Of course Pitchfork is not responsible for covering alternative comedy. We read Pitchfork to see if the number of words in the latest buzz band's name is higher than the rating it gets. And Pitchfork, more than mp3 blogs, MySpace pages, Amazon reviews or fan forums, are the tastemakers in indie rock. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah got where they are with Pitchfork's help. Who's the Alec Ounsworth of alternative comedy?

So we don't only look to user generated reviews, then. We need comedy critics for the industry and the fans. Hell, we just need more good critics.

UPDATE: Punchline Magazine and Cringe Humor have reviews of comedy albums. The most negative review I found was on Cringe Humor. It was a review for Mitch Fatel's Miniskirts and Muffins, which got a cringe-inducing 4 out of 5.

Hopefully, no one considers this serious criticism.

7 comments:

Ben said...

Hell yeah and well said.

I remember having a conversation with a friend upon exiting "Kings of Comedy."

"Which was your favorite?"

Bernie Mac, he was doing some crazy stuff. She thought Cedric was funnier. I had to admit I laughed more at Cedric, but I wasn't completely wrapped-up in his bizarre bullshitting like I was with Bernie Mac.

Perhaps you, Mo! should be the first comic critic. I'd take your recommendations.

Mo! said...

Why thank you, but some people do not like my criticisms

http://mocomedy.blogspot.com/2006/07/open-letter-to-guy-ernest.html

Ben said...

Dude, that guy is unstable, I wouldn't have ANY interaction with him at all. Not like he's going to do anything other than constantly deface your comments with inane B.S.... But that in itself is pretty bad.

Anthony said...

Agreed with what you've written up there. The point worth making is that critical writing about comedy makes pushing back the boundaries and exploring the artform a more valid option - one that audiences who may not have considered it before might attend.
It can help to create audience demand. A lot of people I know won't go to see comedy because they assume that it's all the same, hackneyed attitudes and mainstream material.
Here in the UK there is a tradition of revewing comedy, but it's not up there with music, film, books etc. At least not yet. But on several occasions when I've seen reviews that allow comments online, comedians themselves get uppity because they believe 'making the audience laugh' should be the ONLY criteria for judging a comic, when this is clearly not the case. These comedians say that mention should always be made of 'audience reaction' - but they don't expect that of a music review, or film review. It's the difference between being successful and being good.
Anyway, yes - apologies for the rant. I'm in agreement.

John Eje Thelin said...

I tmight have been a point if Lester Bangs wasn't hidesouly biased in favor of savantry and faux honesty over skill, intelligence and craft.

tony z said...
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Mo Diggs said...
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