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The State of Comedy in 2014: A Roundtable Discussion

on July 15, 2014, 2:00pm
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Consequence of Sound has always had an affinity for the art of comedy. Whether it’s a great record or a rare festival appearance, we’ve tried to keep tabs on the scene’s pulse. Last year, we named Marc Maron our Comedian of the Year as part of our Annual Report. This year, however, that choice appears rather difficult with the competition growing by the week — no lie.

To put things in perspective, we appointed a committee led by Michael Roffman, including Managing Editor Adam Kivel and senior staff writers Leah Pickett, Pat Levy, and Dan Pfleegor. We tried to keep our scope as wide as possible, but if we missed anything, join in on the discussion in the comments section below.

Michael Roffman (MR): Right now, as I type this, I’m listening to the last episode of Adam Scott Aukerman’s U Talkin’ U2 To Me?, and shortly after, I’ll spend the next few hours cleaning up my podcast cache with either Earwolf’s Comedy Bang Bang, WTF with Marc Maron, Norm Macdonald Live, Doug Loves Movies, Who Charted?, You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes, yada, yada, yada. It’s almost the same thing with my nearby DVR, where I’m behind on IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang!, Inside Amy Schumer, Late Night with Seth Meyers, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Real Time with Bill Maher, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and Nathan for You, which then competes with my Netflix queue of Jim Jefferies’ Legit, Ricky Gervais’s An Idiot Abroad, and a number of comedy specials from either Sarah Silverman, Moshe Kasher, and that Earthquake Presents ensemble. So, I’m either a hoarder of comedy, or maybe, just maybe, this is a new golden era of comedy. Please tell me it’s the latter, folks. Please.

dan harmon The State of Comedy in 2014: A Roundtable DiscussionAdam Kivel (AK): I think the diversity of the forms and outlets is the key. In the latest episode of Community creator Dan Harmon’s Harmontown podcast, the discussion got around (amidst topics on necrophilia, fear of flying, and a Dungeons and Dragons session) to comparing podcasting to the early days of talk shows, before they became pre-packaged, prepared anecdotes, and promotional wastelands. I believe Harmon’s example was John Lennon drinking with Truman Capote, which makes sense, considering he’s been throwing back vodka while onstage with everyone from Brody “Enjoy It!” Stevens to a net neutrality organizer. Oh, and yeah, he plays Dungeons and Dragons. In front of an audience. And people go wild for his character, Sharpie Buttsalot, casting Ray of Frost. But he’s also simultaneously the guy behind one of the most beloved cult TV shows of the past 10 years AND a cartoon that leapt near the top of the TV cult lineup in a single season. People with enough energy, ideas, and conviction can get their comedy (no matter how eccentric) to people in a variety of ways, from the loose podcast to the structured TV sitcom, and the audience can have access to something that hits them in whatever method they prefer.

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 12.17.30 PMDan Pfleegor (DP): It’s been an exciting few months for comedy. The AV Club’s 1st Annual 26th Annual Comedy Festival was a big success. Plus Nathan for You is back, and Tim Heidecker has also returned with season 5 of On Cinema. But I think, looking at the state of comedy as a whole, we’re starting to reach critical mass in terms of comedy podcasts or acts branching out into other mediums. Every stand-up now seems to have one, but only a few, such as Louie, Maron, and Comedy Bang! Bang!, mainlined well and carved out long-term, legitimate followings on the boob tube. This bottleneck reminds me of the early 1990’s, when comedians were flocking to the west coast and turning stage bits into 22-minute sitcoms, most of which were doomed to fail. Similarly, The Pete Holmes Show was just taken off the air. It spiraled out of control for a number of reasons, but I think more importantly, it stands as a high-water mark where the comedic tide of the triple threat of stand-up/podcast/TV show host receded. Are there any other acts that come to mind who are heading for a similar humbling fate?

Pat Levy (PL): No one really comes to mind when I search for the next victim of the conundrum Dan just alluded to, but I think that’s because Pete Holmes was kind of set up to fail, unlike Aukerman and Maron. IFC is a safe haven of sorts for comedy, a place that allows for the creators to work with little interference from network execs, and Comedy Bang! Bang! and Maron needed an environment like that to properly transition an audio format into a visual one. Being on a premium cable network gave them the space to create their visions uninhibited, and as much as TBS might like to think it’s “very funny,” it’s still a basic cable channel that has to adhere to stricter content guidelines. You Made It Weird is a special kind of podcast, one that shines a light on comics’ stranger sides and allows them a platform to actually converse about things you wouldn’t on a talk show, and The Pete Holmes Show was maybe 50% of that and 50% cookie-cutter talk show. Had it been on IFC, a network still without a talk show, I imagine we’d still be watching today.

kumail 2013 The State of Comedy in 2014: A Roundtable DiscussionWhile I agree that there is a critical mass of podcasts attempting to branch out, I see that more as a good thing than a bad. Yes, everyone and their mother has a podcast now, but that doesn’t mean they’re all good (they’re definitely not), and only the cream rises to the top. Recently, Kumail Nanjiani, another of the stand-up/TV/podcast triple threats Dan mentioned, started a new podcast called The X-Files-Files, where he and guests dissect episodes of the groundbreaking ’90s sci-fi procedural. He also co-hosts The Indoor Kids, a video-gaming podcast that his wife Emily Gordon also hosts. The first episode of his upcoming television show, The Meltdown, with Kumail and Jonah just premiered online, and he also plays a supporting role on my favorite show of 2014, Silicon Valley, as well as popping up in Portlandia bits to steal every scene he’s in. His most recent stand-up album, Beta Male, came out last year and received largely positive reviews. This is who I think is the greatest triple threat of them all, because none of these things have anything to do with the others. No two mediums are connected by the same concept, proving his versatility and ingenuity.

In 2014, comedy is not just whether or not you’re funny. It’s whether or not your humor is able to span a number of different forms and maintain not only comedic results but also your individual voice.

MR: Jeez, Pat. Did you just get your check from Nanjiani’s PR or what? [Laughs.] Just kidding. I think it’s obvious why there’s such a boom, and while Harmon makes a brilliant point in referring back to the original talk shows of yesteryear, perhaps he’s underestimating the degree of intensity at hand here. Never in the history of entertainment have there been so many platforms to speak from, and for an entertainer, it’s a startling sandbox. For a comedian, however, it’s a wet dream. And what happens when there are so many voices out there? Only the most vital and clever turn our heads, which explains why so many of the acts we’ve discussed here are geniuses at subversion. Aukerman, Heidecker, Fielder, and Harmon have stretched and pulled the meta tag so many times that it’s wholly undefinable. Post-ironic? Pseudo-intellectual intellectualism? Nothing comes to mind.

On the other end of the meta spectrum, we’re also seeing comics shatter the fourth wall and bring in their audiences. Amy Schumer never hesitates to tell us every squirming detail, Maron lets us in on his personal life two times a week, and Holmes has found a niche for himself in making people realize being secretive is actually weirder than keepin’ it real. Blame social networking or reality television, but a comedian’s way of not holding back today is by letting us into every personal detail of his life. Of course, not everyone’s doing this. Louis CK, for instance, has opted instead to meld life with art. And four seasons later, Louis CK has crafted a surreal world that blurs the line between fiction, reality, and the pitfalls of our own subconscious.

BroadCityPortrait-AmandaKoellner-bonnaroo2014

Photo by Amanda Koellner

Leah Pickett (LP): Okay, here comes the lady chiming in for the ladies. Mike mentions Inside Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman up top, but what about Broad City, a hilarious webseries-turned-Comedy Central show created by Upright Citizen Brigade alums Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer? And what about other certified funny ladies like Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Kristin Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, Issa Rae, Jessica Williams, Carrie Brownstein, Kristen Schaal, Jenny Slate, Megan Amram, Kulap Vilaysack (who, besides being Scott Aukerman’s wife, is a wickedly funny comedian in her own right) and comedic lady-led podcasts like Vilaysack’s Who Charted?, Cameron Esposito’s Put Your Hands Together, and Julie Klausner’s How Was Your Week?

The podcast omissions are especially relevant. Last year, Third Coast Artistic Director Julie Klausner reported that men host 71 percent of the most popular podcasts. Obviously, the “women aren’t funny” argument doesn’t hold water; watching a female-led film like Bridesmaids or listening to a podcast like I Seem Fun: The Diary of Jen Kirkman clearly nullifies the point. But comedy is still very much a man’s world, particularly in the chest-puffing arenas of stand-up, sketch, and even podcasts. You have to have balls — the gender-nonexclusive, proverbial kind — to make it big. Unfortunately, women are often underestimated, or worse, totally invalidated, before they even take the stage.

Sure, I like Louie, Maron, and Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show as much as the next guy or gal. But I felt compelled to bring up the oversight, and the fact that funny women are usually a) left out of these conversations altogether, whether it’s intentional or not, or b) tacked on as an afterthought.

P.S. I know you guys are an open-minded bunch and totally think women are funny. What I’m wondering is this: why do you think male comedians, and male-led podcasts especially, continue to dominate the playing field?

gobayside The State of Comedy in 2014: A Roundtable DiscussionAK: A good specific comparison of that would be X-Files Files and April Richardson’s Go Bayside! The latter follows a nearly identical premise to Nanjiani’s show; in each episode of Go Bayside!, Richardson and a guest watch an episode of Saved by the Bell and then tear it to shreds in a loving way. The podcast similarly runs on nostalgia, its host is consistently hilarious, and the TV show it follows has its own cult following. Yet, it didn’t receive the kind of insane attention that X-Files Files did immediately upon its launch.

Could that be tied to the fact that Kumail is more famous from his TV appearances? Quite likely. And, yeah, I’d wager a good majority of those most popular podcasts hosted by males are hosted by males who were famous before they had a podcast. Podcasting is a growing industry in which the early favorites are holdovers from the non-podcasting world; by which I mean, maybe the lack of diversity is a holdover from a lack of diversity (either institutional or enforced) from the entertainment world of past generations, and hopefully as podcasting grows into its own in the mainstream, a means towards its own end, that will change.

There are some examples of that already. When looking at major podcasting networks, Feral Audio runs six podcasts with at least one female host, Earwolf runs five, Maximum Fun runs seven, and Nerdist runs nine. Chelsea Peretti’s Call Chelsea Peretti has been a part of her continuing rise in prominence (along with a spotlight-stealing turn on Brooklyn 99 and an excellent stand-up career). You mentioned Who Charted (and I’m a serious Chartist), and though Howard Kremer had his own show on MTV long before the podcast, Kulap is just as essential to the show’s formula and beloved by fans.

On the Nerdist-run JV Club, Janet Varney sits down with another female guest every week. Max Fun features a show about motherhood (One Bad Mother) and another show hosted by women with almost exclusively female guests (Lady to Lady). It also, for that matter, hosts Throwing Shade (which aims to “look at all the issues important to ladies and gays”) and The Goosedown, hosted by two African American comedians, Jasper Redd and Kimberly Clark. And these are just from those specific networks, and they’re all funny, excellent podcasts.

We as a community just need to shed more light on examples like these and continue to push for this sort of diversity, because these shows deserve just as much attention as your set of classic, pre-podcast-famous, old white dudes like Joe Rogan and Adam Carolla.

garfunkel oates The State of Comedy in 2014: A Roundtable DiscussionMR: Yeah, I don’t think female comedy is out of the spotlight. Look at IFC, where you can’t turn on the TV without hearing about Garfunkel & Oates, or Comedy Central, where Inside Amy Schumer episodes play again and again, or how about regular network programming such as Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl, Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, and Amy Poehler’s exceptional run for Parks and Recreation. Look at Saturday Night Live, too, where Kate McKinnon is the show’s best star now? The stand-up scene is just as prolific. Look at Funny or Die’s upcoming Oddball Comedy and Curiosity tour, which features headliners Silverman and Schumer in addition to Whitney Cummings. Granted, they could have added far more female talent to its undercard, but I think it says something when the festival bill can have two female headliners in what used to be a male-dominated field.

But it’s changing fast. Adam outlined a number of podcasts, a medium that tends to populate the scene, and lately a number of female comedians have been rising to the top. Maria Bamford, Cameron Esposito, the great Tig Notaro, and more recently Lauren Lapkus, Nikki Glaser, and Natasha Leggero all come to mind as must-hear guests on every podcast, which has since cultivated a community that appears to be growing by the week. Still, I understand your point, Leah, and for every female guest, there are always two or three male comedians to join them, which isn’t exactly unfortunate (they’re mostly all talented), but rather telling of the male-centric scene. But like I said, I think it’s changing, especially as more female comedians are offering truths typically unheard.

Like … We know guys are dickheads and schmucks and conniving pieces of shit … both male and female comedians prove that each and every stand-up. What’s intriguing is that more and more female comics are offering the same angle on their own gender, which has blurred the gender lines somewhat in a fascinating way. It doesn’t have to be gross-out humor either, like Silverman, Handler, and Schumer trademark, but also unique observations on society that have been typically male-led in the past by the likes of Carlin, Hicks, or C.K..

I’m curious, though. Leah, what are some areas that female comedians could improve upon? Or what are some facets to their comedy that might be problematic? For example, I know some women take offense with how grotesque Schumer, Silverman, and Handler get in their bits, considering it “trolling” on some levels. What do you think?

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.

comsincars fey The State of Comedy in 2014: A Roundtable Discussion

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.

decker The State of Comedy in 2014: A Roundtable Discussion

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

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