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The State of Comedy in 2014: A Roundtable Discussion

on July 15, 2014, 2:00pm
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LP: Mike, I definitely don’t think that all men are schmucks; hey, I like you guys! But what immediately came to mind in broaching this topic was Jerry Seinfeld’s new-ish web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which I think acts as a sort of microcosm for this conversation. The first season, filmed in 2012, featured 12 guests, all of them male. Seasons 2-4, which range from 2013 to present, each had one female guest — Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, and Sarah Jessica Parker (not a comic), respectively — and four to five male guests.

Now, this doesn’t prove anything besides the fact that Seinfeld, being a guy, probably has more male comedian friends than female; and not that there’s anything wrong with that (heh), but I do find it interesting that many of his guests are from the “old guard” of majority male comedy, whereas the new crop of comedians in our discussion seem much more welcoming to women in general, whether that be on stage, at the podcast mic, or on a comedy channel lineup like IFC’s.

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I do agree that the scene is changing, and changing fast, due in large part to a millennial push that’s allowing more women to share the spotlight with their equally funny (and sometimes less funny, but more heralded) male peers. In the past five years alone, I’ve already seen a monumental shift. I just wanted make sure that other funny ladies besides Schumer and Silverman made it into the conversation.

And in terms of what female comedians can improve upon, my advice would be: don’t hold back. Seriously. Handler, Schumer, and Silverman’s bawdy, foul-mouthed brand of comedy may not be for everyone; but just as some people are turned off by a raunchy guy like Bob Saget (no, Danny Tanner, no!) and others embrace him, they’re never going to please everybody. To tell women they should clean up their act so they’ll be more likable is not only sexist — would anyone give Louis CK that criticism, or any other guy with sex jokes in his act, for that matter? — but also 100 percent the wrong way to go about it.

Personally, I don’t think that women are “trolling” when they joke about the grotesque, particularly when it comes to sex and bodily functions, 1) because that’s what we do with our girlfriends and boyfriends, anyway, and 2) why should those topics be off-limits? But what does bum me out is watching female comedians purposefully hold back from a joke that might be too provocative, rely on one thing that they know is safe (an obvious example of this would be Kathy Griffin and “celebrities are stupid” jokes), or constantly set up the joke so that the guy they’re with, whether its their sketch partner or their podcast co-host, gets the laugh instead.

As a woman, I know that women feel a certain, specific pressure to be liked and valued by society in a way that men do not; the overwhelming message is to be pretty, be nice, be polite. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why I love seeing a female comic be aggressively inappropriate and not afraid to make herself look ugly or awkward. I also think it’s refreshing for guys and girls to see a woman vocalizing outrageous inner monologues that they’ve probably considered themselves but didn’t have the guts to say out loud.

Adam also brings up an interesting point on diversity, which obviously reaches far beyond male and female. As comedy has historically been dominated by not only male voices, but, with a handful of exceptions, predominantly white voices as well (this is especially true in podcasting, although The Goosedown is a great example of why this should not be the case), how do you guys think we’re doing now in terms of inclusivity?

sasheer The State of Comedy in 2014: A Roundtable DiscussionPL: White males definitely seem to have as much of a grip on the comedy world as they ever have, but the cracks in the facade that say that comedy is and will continue to be a white man’s game are clearly growing. Saturday Night Live‘s original cast of seven people was four men and three women, one of the men black and the rest of the cast white. That’s a decently diverse lineup, but it’s not something that lasted for the show or for sketch and televised comedy for years to come.

Just last year there was controversy over SNL‘s lack of diversity. The lack of female cast members of color took precedence as a glaring error in casting, and after a few weeks of auditions and pressure from the fans and the press, Sasheer Zamata joined the cast. She brought with her an impressive pedigree, having worked in the Upright Citizens Brigade theater system for several years and appeared on shows like Inside Amy Schumer and Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, but her track record also speaks to the diversity issue in comedy. Her two biggest credits were on shows hosted by people who are minorities in the comedy field, but well received critically, going to show that comics that aren’t white men often have to come together to operate just slightly outside of the system to prove their worth. And despite not always finding an audience or being validated by huge ratings, they showcase sensibilities and experiences that are just as ripe for humor and just as important in the grand scheme.

Hari Kondabolu stands out to me as an example of someone subverting what we’ve come to expect from stand-up comedy, mixing in his politics with his humor with little regard for those who might find it off-kilter with what they stand for. His particular brand of stand up is very pointed, not afraid to risk inciting riots with his sharp racial commentary and more than capable of breaking it down for those willing to listen and learn. His first stand-up album, Waiting for 2042, was released earlier this year to much critical acclaim, and his work as a writer and correspondent on the aforementioned Totally Biased earned him a spot at the top of many lists of comedians with as sharp a political mind as a comedic one. Michael Che also finds himself on many of those lists, a workhorse of a stand-up who found himself with a writing gig on SNL after just three years in the comedy scene. Now the newest correspondent on The Daily Show, Che came out of nowhere and worked his ass off to prove himself as a comic based purely on his quickfire wit and the honesty that exudes from his comic voice.

I think that right now is the best time to not be a white guy in comedy, because the avenues are opening up for everyone who deserves a shot to get one. While Zamata was the only new addition to the cast of SNL, Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes were both added to the writing staff, adding some needed experience and valuable voices to a group of creatives dominated by “caucasity.”

Jenny Slate was little more than a bit player for years, and despite stealing every scene she’s been in, wasn’t given a chance at a leading role until this year’s Obvious Child, a comedy about living in the fallout of an abortion as a young female comic. She absolutely nailed her performance, and it was the type of star-making role that only comes around every so often in independent comedy. Meanwhile, Hannibal Buress continues to skyrocket into the ranks of today’s best comedic minds, taking every opportunity he gets and turning it into something memorable, be it his co-hosting gig on The Eric Andre Show, his few scenes in last year’s The Kings of Summer, or even just shooting NBA Finals-related Vines for ESPN.

As we’re all aware and has already been said, in comedy the cream rises to the top. This seems more true than ever before now, because people finally get that the “women can’t be funny” argument is bullshit, and there are as many high-profile comedians of color as there are white comics. There just isn’t room to be ignorant; you’ve got to enjoy this windfall of material we’re in the midst of or be left out in the cold.

AK: Let’s switch gears for a moment. While we’ve talked about comedians doing podcasts and getting their own TV shows, it’s great to see Comedy Central take renewed steps towards putting actual stand-up on television, and also the opportunity that Netflix Instant offers. CC has seen its share of flopped stand-up offerings. Sure, Tig Notaro still talks about her Premium Blend appearance all the time, and John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show introduced me to the likes of the brilliant Deon Cole and the aforementioned (and sharp-as-a-tack) Hari Kondabolu, but you’d have to think these shows would unfortunately just get pushed further into the back corners in favor of more Tosh.0 re-airings. But the new lineup for The Half Hour is strong (Ron Funches’ is my favorite of the aired episodes thus far; the only thing that matches the excellence of his giggle is his material), Ari Shaffir’s comedic storytelling show, This Is Not Happening, features a bunch of great comics, and, as if Kumail needed more to do, the weekly LA stand-up show he hosts with Nerdist’s Jonah Ray in the back of a comic book store hits CC’s schedule shortly as well.

bamford special The State of Comedy in 2014: A Roundtable DiscussionNetflix adds an extra layer to the stand-up special that used to be the exclusive realm of Comedy Central’s weekend overnight time slots and (for the big guns) HBO. Just off the top of my head, I’ve watched great specials from Nick Thune, Moshe Kasher, the Sklar brothers, Todd Glass, Myq Kaplan, Morgan Murphy, John Hodgman, Reggie Watts, and Bill Burr all on Netflix. (I only neglect to mention Maria Bamford’s Special Special Special, which she recorded in her home with only her parents as an audience, as that’s on the docket for the rest of the evening once I finish typing this.) Maybe these could all have figured as hour-long specials on Comedy Central, but then they’d be relegated after a couple of airings to DVD purchase or the network’s strange, special-purchasing outlet (in which you buy access to it on the cloud). However, of the ones listed, Kasher’s Live in Oakland and Hodgman’s Ragnarok were both exclusive Netflix originals, a strong sign that the company is interested in exploring the market.

Though it’ll cause some of the same long-term discussions as music streaming services, the potential exposure that Netflix offers has to be leading to at least a small uptick in attention to stand-up and in audience size, right?

DP: It is strange that Netflix has become such a rich well of comedy. Just think, the company started as DVDs in the mail and then sort of morphed into a go-to spot for streaming new live acts and even plenty of hilarious shows. I never had the Starz Channel, but thank god for Netflix, or I’d have missed out on Adam Scott in Party Down. I mean, come on! Are we having fun yet?! [met with awkward silence].

MR: I’ll be honest. I wouldn’t be here talking about comedy if it wasn’t for the wealth of specials on Netflix or the gluttony of podcasts waiting patiently in my iTunes queue. Back in high school, in the days before YouTube and the early years of Napster (Christ, if that doesn’t age me), I was solely dependent on Comedy Central to discover up-and-coming comedians. Well, that and Late Night with Conan O’Brien or The Late Show with David Letterman. I’d be sure to catch the occasional HBO special, naturally, but those have always been reserved for the already-established veterans or the run-of-the-mill flukes like Dane Cook. So, I didn’t really uncover new talent that wasn’t already being quoted to death in the lunch room or at swim practice.

I’m usually hesitant on too much pop culture all at once, but I don’t particularly feel that way about comedy. My mind works via mini obsessions that come and go with each passing day, so I love spending a week with one particular comedian and moving on to the next. This week, I can’t stop searching for videos by Nathan Fielder, and I’m sure come Thursday, when Heidecker unveils his new Decker series, I’ll be revisiting all of his online vaults. I haven’t run into any walls so far, and that’s incredibly reassuring. People love to binge through television series — and I do, too — but those all have endings and there are only so many must-see series to experience. Comedy, at least today’s comedy, isn’t like that.

Pretty soon we’ll start seeing younger comics influenced by what we consider young and hip today. That’s just how the cycle works, and because we have so many outlets now, it’s working faster and faster. Until it combusts, and I’m doubtful it will (after all, comedy is best in dire times and these are some lousy fucking times, people), I’ll keep waking up and spending wasted minutes deciding who’s voice I’m willing to seek solace from. The names will stack up, the specials will blur into one, but hey, I’ll keep laughing and learning. And let’s be real, it’s not like I won’t forget their face, their name, or their material at the next brilliantly stacked festival lineup.

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Viva la comedia! No exclamation necessary. Just play it cool.

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