How Standup Comedy Has Changed During My Career

Just another dull day on the job.

I’m started to write this column because the last 2 pieces I have offered up had Super Bowl in the title and I got about 30% less hits on these. This did not surprise me. Let me explain why.

When I started in standup, most of the comics that I met from the generation before me were big sports fans.  Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Chris Rock, Letterman, and on down the line had teams or sports they were passionate about.  Over the past decade this has become less and less the case.  Most young comics have little or no interest. It also reflects itself on-stage, which I will get to later.

For guys who are non-sports fans—Do you know the feeling you get when guys who are really into sports find out that you are not?  Oh, you don’t like SPORTS. The word SPORTS is accented and then a silent word is missing though implied. You don’t like SPORTS…HOMO. Well, while it’s a different derision, I definitely feel it from many younger comics when they find out about my NFL writing gig.  Oh, you’re that guy that writes about SPORTS. The missing silent word though implied in this phrase? Oh you’re that guy that likes SPORTS.  DATE RAPIST. To most young comics I meet, saying you like sports is like saying to a Liberal, I work for FOX news.

Oh and by the way, when I mention that I write for FOX, some people automatically think I’m the devil for getting my checks signed from Rupert Murdoch. I have never voted for a Republican for President, though I would have voted for McCain over Gore.  (2000 McCain was a lot different guy than 2008 McCain.) No broadcast network has been more edgy and subversive than FOX.  The Simpsons and Family Guy alone challenge the status quo more than all the other shows on the Big 3 Networks, combined.  Just thought I should mention that, so I don’t have to feel so defensive. Oh and on the subject of my defense (Cue Glory Days).  I was the guy in high school who led my conference in sacks of the QB, played on the tennis team, and was editor of the school paper.  Yeah, a weird mix. I was friends with jocks, academic-types, and potheads.  Maybe I would have been an insufferable jerk if I would have been getting some steady sexy time in high school, but since I didn’t, I was able to relate on some levels to the guy working in the computer class pounding out his RAM and DOS. I guess what I’m saying is don’t be so quick to judge.

Back to the sea change in what type of people go into comedy now versus what it was like when I started.  The event which changed the type of comics in the biz happened when the alternative comedy scene began.  I believe David Cross was the initial face of this new comic.  From interviews it’s pretty easy to gather that Cross hates everyone who has put on a jock strap, probably because they used to mock him and abuse him when he was kid.  I’m guessing he would probably hate me for having a job writing for a FOX football show.  (Hey, no one offered me a job writing for a FOX sitcom, like Arrested Development, so I take what I can get.) I admire David Cross, all the same, as I love the anger and passion he brings to the stage, which I’m guessing was developed from doing shit one-nighters in Boston during the early 90’s.

This chip on the shoulder mentality that Cross (and Patton Oswalt and Marc Maron have) is what is the missing ingredient for me in regards to most open-mic comics who aspire to be part of the next Comedians of Comedy tour.  Instead, I hear a lot of whiny, self-absorbed, passive-aggressive material that while might be funny to their small group of hipster friends, doesn’t translate to the majority of audiences.  I’m not saying you have to write down to the audience, but you have to be cognizant of how they might have trouble connecting at all to your troubles working as a barista and the deep frustrations of your life putting stuff in your Netflix queue.  I know way too many young comics who think it isn’t their duty to ever consider how the audience perceives them and their material, but I’ve seen only a handful of people who have had real success while not at least acknowledging this self-absorption.

You gain my respect as a comedian when you can handle yourself in non-pristine comedy settings. If you fall-apart when the sound isn’t perfect or when the audience isn’t giving you a 100 percent, well, I think you should stick to comedy festivals where your 5 to 10 minutes of eclectic material will put you on the winners pedestal. Out here in the real comedy world you have to be able to bring a little swagger to the stage. You aren’t a shoegazer band who can hide behind the rhythm section, as the comedy stage is about singing acapella.  You don’t have to be an alpha-dog, but you have to be competitive enough to take on a bad audience. You don’t have to love sports to have this ability, but you better have some fire in your belly to not fall-apart when a audience is not on your side.

While Mike Birbiglia has the kind of career I would dream of having, I think he’s got most of that market covered.  His passive style and anti-joke sensibility works for him, but unless you can get a regular segment on This American Life, it is unlikely to me that you will ever rise above being a feature (middle) act.  You don’t have to stalk the stage like Dane Cook, but most audiences I run into expect you to constantly barrage them with laughs.  This is the case at the IMPROV’s as much as it is the case at one-nighters.  The clubs like Acme that cultivate comedians like this are few and far between because there are few cities like Minneapolis that have the type of audiences that enjoy this style. Most audience’s don’t come out to see a one-man stage show, they come out to feel the endorphins rush through their body which laughter provides. If you like it or not, standup is like the movie biz. What keeps the theatre open is not indie movies, but big blockbuster films that are escape hatches for people who are trying to forget their troubles for a couple of hours.

Now when I read this last sentence I wrote, I wish I didn’t think this was the case. When I started doing comedy, I wanted to be Carlin or Hicks, pushing the audience. I still think I have more social commentary than almost every comic I run into on the circuit, but I have a steady run of dirtier jokes in my non-corporate show to keep the audience engaged.  I am not going to argue that I haven’t taken the easy way out on some levels since I have a lot of stuff that is based on hitting people’s base desires like food and sex.  Remember that these are just my opinions and there is a chance that one person reading this will ignore everything I suggest here and end up being a much bigger success than me.  I just see a lot of talented open mike or opening act comics who wonder why they aren’t doing better and it almost always seem they are missing two things above all.  They just lack stage presence and their material is too self-absorbed.

Now I know that I will be hated by some for putting these thoughts out there.  Please don’t take this as me endorsing comics who are hacks, but I just thinks it’s important to keep in mind that the only way comedy exists is based on audience’s leaving happy.  Now if you have an amazingly unique voice like a Mitch Hedburg you can turn your back to the audience and still become a sensation, but otherwise, I think your odds are long in trying to make this a career.

9 thoughts on “How Standup Comedy Has Changed During My Career

  1. I understand where you are coming from. But honestly, there are all kinds of comics in the world and all kinds of audiences. And no one, including me or you can argue that when someone laughs out loud…that what they just witnessed in person was not funny to them!. I try so hard not to be judgmental…but sometimes it fails me!. I enjoy comics who are clever and unique and who don’t take the easy way out to get laughs. It doesn’t mean I don’t howl at the Three Stooges. I get a little bent out of shape when some “alternative” comics say there is better comedy in a coffee house than the stuff you see at comedy clubs. I have seen an awful lot of crap and self-congratulating at the so-called “alternative” rooms. Comedy is comedy. The mainstream is often not artistic…but the great ones who take the high road can be found in comedy clubs as well as coffee houses. And just like the mainstream clubs…the biggest percentage of comedy in an “alternative” room is complete and utter crap. The great comics of all time…the ones that are remembered…have a few things in common. Their material comes from a vulnerable place,, they love the craft and they make people laugh.

    1. Thanks for replying Eddie. You are probably the foremost expert on comics. I never see a comic who I don’t like on your show. I took Tommy Johnagin on his first road trip. Keith Alberstadt featured for me a few years back and i was knocked out by how good of a writer he was. When I recorded my last DVD, a young kid named Michael Palascek was the MC.

      My favorite comics are Bill Burr, Greg GIraldo, Greg Fitzsimmons. I appreciate that you have featured all type of comics.

      Here was where I wrote this. I’ve played all the IMPROV’s, but have stayed living in the Midwest. I’ve worked all types of gigs to pay the bills. I just think a lot of younger comics are missing some of the essence which keeps you working. Johnagin hits all audiences and is an amazingly hard worker. Same with Alberstadt. These are the kind of comics they should be following. But once again, this is just one guys opinion.

  2. Nice article Scott. I think that if you take it back even further, comedians like Cosby, Newhart, and Pryor were there to tell you a story.. more similar to today’s Birbiglia. I love Mike B. , but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy Dane Cooks’ first album. I think that comedian’s styles are a reflection of how todays’ society has become “I want it now” and by it, I mean a laugh. they aren’t willing to invest the time into the journey, and are more concerned with the destination. Not that either is bad, just different..
    Comedy has always been a reflection of society.. both in terms of material and tempo.

    1. Are you using some sort of Einstein WordPress? This article, like Mike Birbiglia, is in future too.

      Check timestamps.

      1. I’m like Split Enz. One step ahead…

        I get your comparison of Cosby and Newhart to Birbiglia, I guess I just don’t think he connects with anywhere close to as a wide of audience. His audience loves him though, so it obviously is working great for him. I just see too many comics who aren’t anywhere close to as good at it as he is and they are sputtering. Reminds me of at the turn of this century when so many were trying to be Hedburg.

  3. I am loving the diverse type of people who are responding. Not saying I’m right, just sharing my view from someone who has been in the biz for 2 decades playing every type of gig.

    1. I hope this creates some dialogue on the subject. Comics don’t do enough self-reflection into what works for them and what doesn’t. I guess this goes with the narcissistic nature of our personalities. I mean take it from a guy with a blog.

  4. Every time I read a post by a stand-up comedian somewhere a long the post (or in the comments) there is a reference to the success of Dane Cook. While I personally don’t like Dane’s routines and also think that Mike Birbiglia is way more funny, Comedy like Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Nice blog, I really enjoy it.

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