Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Nothing Funny about Comedy: When Rock Became Disco - A Look Back at the '80s Comedy Boom

This section is where I give serious essays on comedy.

Until two years ago, I assumed that most of today's biggest comedy clubs have been around since the '50s. I had no idea there was an '80s comedy boom. After writing this blog post on the current tech-fueled comedy boom, I realized how little I knew about the first comedy boom. Most accounts about the '80s comedy explosion rely on the same cliches (cable killing live performances, too many comics). Using some freelance writer research magic, I dug up two articles written in the '80s and one from the '90s about the glory days of comedy clubs and decided to post them online so those who were too young for the comedy craze can see what was remarkable about it as well as what was tragic.

Article 1 (the beginning of the boom, with a profile of Dennis Blair)

#2 (the middle, when comedy clubs were in danger)
#3 (the beginning of the end)

Pee Wee Herman: A New Wave Comic

The Audiences

One striking difference between the new audiences and the old ones is the age. The current boom is driven by tech-savvy teens

"In fact, many teens lately are more apt to know the names of such hot comedians as Brian Regan, Dane Cook and Frank Caliendo than what new music tops the charts."

or by young indie kids in the alt-comedy scene. Twenty years ago, comedy clubs attracted aging baby boomers.

[Caroline's] PR woman, Peggy Reed - who, like the owner, is in her 30s - sees the clubs as a gathering place for the Baby Boomers.

"I think we're getting a little older and we don't necessarily want to go out and hear rock and roll music or go to Woodstock or do all that kind of stuff," she says. "We're more sophisticated and we like live entertainment, but we want to be entertained and not blasted out of our seats or dance the night away."

If comedians are, as they like to put it, the ''rock stars of the 80's,'' then comedy's Woodstock is happening nightly in people's homes on television.

A majority also came in from the suburbs.

Mr. McLaren attributes the rise of stars like Mr. Seinfeld, Richard Lewis, Paul Reiser and Carol Liefer to what he called the suburbanization of comedy. For around the country, as in Manhattan, the predominant audience for urban comedy clubs comes from outside the city.

The Comedians

TJ Miller brilliantly dispels the stereotype of the standard '80s comic:

At that point people saw stand-up as this kind of hacky thing where everybody wore jeans and blazers and talked about airline food. That simply wasn't the case -- even in the midst of that so-called bust, there were so many comics that were doing new and original stuff.

The sidebar (at the bottom of the linked article, called Comic Pedigrees) gives a more in-depth look.
Stephen Holden gives interesting musical classifications of the different stars (Eddie Murphy is pop-funk, Pee Wee Herman is new wave). Indeed, the boom had different phases within it.

In the early 1980's, the hottest young performers in clubs were so-called weird or conceptual performers like Pee-wee Herman, Steven Wright and Emo Philips. Then in a rush of rock-star energy came performers like Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinison who brought a macho, heavy-metal energy to the field.

Heavy Metal Thunder

But just as fans came in from the suburbs, so did the comics.

The Sids, Murrays, Jackies and Sheckys are being replaced by suburban kids named Skip, Chip and Brian.

We all know hack topics like airline food brought the breathless momentum to a halt, but joke thieves made the comedy even more bland and homogenous.

''Audiences don't care if they're hearing material everyone else is doing,'' [Paul Provenza] says. '' 'Which part of the chicken does the McNugget come from?' There must be a dozen comics doing that same joke.''

''The McNugget joke belongs to Letterman,'' says Ellis Levinson, a New York comic now living in Los Angeles. ''It belongs to Letterman no matter how many people rip it off.''

The Decline

No one denies that stand-up comedy's ubiquity on cable television meant more people staying at home to watch comedy and less people going out to the clubs.

Many in the club business attribute the sagging box office to cable television, where uncensored comedy has become a thriving staple.

Television also ignited the comedy explosion.

Seinfeld: King of the Suburbs

Conversely, the brisk business being done by the ever-growing number of comedy clubs may be due in part to the very industry that is snapping comics up; television and comedy clubs are feeding each other as they make the standup comedian a familiar image in pop culture. ''Once people see what these clubs are like on HBO or some other show,'' says Chris Albrecht, ''they want to go in person.''

But the main killer of '80s comedy was the influx of comedians who saw stand-up as a means to an end as opposed to an end in itself.

"I'm working to make sure that comedy doesn't become the disco of the 90's, which it has a fair chance of doing," [TV producer Campbell McClaren] said. "There are similarities. A lot of comedy has become more generic. Just as Ethel Merman and everybody else did a disco record in the late 1970's, now everybody wants to be a comedian. The garage band has been replaced by the garage comic."

The rock stars of the '80s became the disco has-beens of the '90s.

The Lessons

1) Be wary of comedians who want rock-star status

Though there has been no conclusive evidence of comedians who want to be darlings of the indie scene, it couldn't hurt to be wary of newcomers who hope to eventually open for The Shins (like Eugene Mirman did), appear in New Pornographers videos (like David Cross has) or play rock festivals (like Aziz Ansari has). Cross, Mirman and Ansari did not get into comedy for these perks. But just like the '80s hacks eventually wanted to be big-name stars, there is great danger that the downtown scene will be flooded by hipsters whose goal is to play Pitchfork's Intonation Festival, not to develop an act. Hopefully these fauxhemians won't namedrop indie bands and literary works to please the Buddy Holly glasses set - much like the Chips and Skips of the '80s dressed sharp and did celebrity impressions to remind talent scouts that they were Hollywood material.

The mainstream comedy world could get overrun by frat boys who want more MySpace friends than Dane Cook. Aggressively marketing themselves online, they might have millions of friend requests, videos on the YouTube front page, spots at Madison Square Garden - everything but a fully developed voice and perspective.

2) All That Tech Fuel Might Backfire

Television sparked the boom and killed it. More and more people went to clubs to see their favorite TV comedians, more and more new comedians got on TV, more and more people went home to watch the hottest club comedians.

The primary reason is simple: Comedy isn't pretty. Even the most pedestrian video-sharing sites like YouTube can be the perfect platform for isolated bits.

``It just works very well on different types of screens,'' said Mitchel Fried, senior vp promotion and marketing at Comedy Central. ``Whether you see Artie Lange on a 20-foot screen or your phone or your iPod, it doesn't matter, he's funny. And stand-up in particular, it's just one body there. You don't need a landscape.''

The ability to see comedy on cell phones, iPods, computers and televisions can lead to even more saturation than there was before. This will probably hurt the club scene more than the alternative comedy scene (which tends to have free shows anyway).

The Internet also makes it easier for wannabes to flood the marketplace and gain exposure, putting up their comedy videos online. This could mean more Ethel Mermans putting out more garage disco.

One Major Difference That Might Prevent Another Bust

Back then the easiest way for a hack to start the trajectory to getting a movie deal was to start at an open mike with a list of shitty Chicken McNugget jokes. Now, those who want their own TV show will start off on YouTube. Those who want to be movie stars will try to pimp themselves on iFilm. This means, even though we should still be wary of the posers who want to use comedy as a backdoor to MySpace fame or a Sub Pop deal that will give them instant indie cred, we can at least be sure that, unlike many of the boom comics, comedians new and old, funny as well as insipid, mainstream (Larry the Cable Guy) and indie (David Cross), see telling jokes as an end in itself.

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