I’m sure I’m beating a dead horse here about joke stealing, but I just thought this was a pretty amazing parallel with a current respected comic. And I haven’t written anything this comedy wonky in a while.
So here’s a video (but really only audio) putting together Jim Gaffigan and Larry Reeb, a Chicago comic who came out of the first comedy boom. Here it is:
I totally agree. Jim still rules. And this is not anything like joke stealing. Obviously, someone can say Jim saw the bit and then did it and claimed as his own. But I think it’s important to share how two people can come to what seems like the same end, without knowledge of one another. Particularly with something short like a joke.
As I’ve pointed out on previous bits, this jokes takes a very common experience that probably anyone who wears glasses can relate to. The more unique the setup, the more it’s protected from other comics taking as their own. I think it’s telling that almost every case here, non of these disputed bits are necessarily, the signature jokes of a comic. They’re not “Hot Pockets”, they’re just the experience that lie in the ether that all comics can draw upon.
But the question revolves, in all these cases, the punchline. Now let’s talk about riffing, and how a joke gets built. The exaggeration is found by reframing what glasses are - making a parallel between other objects and showing how we treat glasses applied to them. This is where comedians are a little bit like Platonic philosophers - asking, “What is the nature of glasses? What are they?”
Both Jim and Larry go looking for parallels to the situation. Jim actually latches on to one before he moves on to the one that’s in dispute. That is, glasses as a cosmetic enhancement, and then others of the same ilk. It’s not super fertile necessarily and doesn’t have the tensions that are involved in the later parallel, but he does use it.
Both Jim and Larry come to a second parallel: Wearing glasses to other items that help with more extreme physical handicaps. I think it’s telling how audiences sophisticated has grown enough that just 10 years later, Gaffigan doesn’t have to explicity make the parallel that Larry does. We get it from the beginning. it doesn’t even necessarily hurt that he’s reframing what glasses are - jumping from being something cosmetic to something necessary. We’re all faster now and these connections are made quicker than they were just a decade ago.
Jokes really are a little bit like magic. People don’t necessarily know that just like magic uses the logic of the mechanical world - physics - that jokes uses the logic of the mental world. But they both still work on logic - and that logic can’t be broken. There’s only so many parallels one can make to glasses that will logically make sense in a ways that will elicit laughter from an audience. You can’t make a parallel that isn’t true. (That’s some of the thrill in the great comedians, they make the parallel that you haven’t seen but has always been there - it’s like writing a new equation to describe the physical universe. It was always there but you didn’t realize that’s how it worked until someone wrote it down.)
An illusion made by one magician could actually be performed in multiple ways (and thus discovered multiple ways). But it looks the same to the audience. They don’t know a different technique is at play and it doesn’t really matter because they’re just experiencing the end results - either awe ( magic) or laughter (jokes).
It’s going to be interesting to see how audience’s growing awareness of the similarities in performers will change how comedians perform. In some ways, it makes sense that more alternative comedy will get popular. It’s a little but like Penn & Teller - showing the wires behind the act but still pulling off the illusion.
I’ve been more than a little curious to see what the results would be for “Funny People”, the Judd Apatow film which explores the life of a stand-up comedian (Adam Sandler) after he has a near death experience. Apatow’s been pretty straight forward that this is a “serious movie”, even though it’s exploring stand-up to some degree. The first trailer just went up today and it definitely tips to the serious side. Look:
That didn’t have a ton of laughs, huh? There’s some good stuff in there - the bit with his creepy doctor plays quite well. But the balance is in telling the dramatic story here (possibly pretty much all of it, as trailer are wont to do these days).
One of the things often said about comedians doing dramatic work is the danger that the audience will expect something with a larger laugh-per-minute scale than they’re going to get. If that’s what this trailer is trying to circumvent, it’s a success. The only question is Apatow’s desire to make it “twice as funny” as his previous works, which I imagine is something we’ll see as more of the stand-up shows up (particularly the contempt for Aziz Ansarai “Raaaandy”).
My favorite part about the trailer is that, at least for now, there’s no suggestion that there’s going to be any sort of easy lessons about life and stand-up (a la some folks much-hated film “Punchline”). There’s definitely a chance that sort of facile parallel will be there - almost dying in life and dying on stage. But my read suggests that this is a story that could happen to a lot of people, it just so happens since these people are actually professional funny, it allows jokes to fall in there naturally, cause that’s what these people do. It’s something that Robert Schimmel, who’s actually dodged the cancer bullet, does pretty well.
Hopefully we’ll see more of the funny side of things soon. “Funny People” opens July 31st.
Filed Under Stand-Up Comedy
George Carlin receives the 2008 Mark Twain Prize tonight. It was not supposed to be post-humorous tribute to George Carlin, but he goddamn died soon after hearing he would receive it. From the looks of some of the promo videos, it seems like the show will be in the right spirit despite George’s unfortunate absence.
Here’s a particularly insightful clip from Jon Stewart, who details exactly how Carlin would lure you in with a fun little verbal notion, and then when he had you, introduce a larger truth.
“George Carlin: The Mark Twain Prize” airs tonight on PBS at 9PM, and then has subsequent re-airing later this week. Check your local listings.
After the jump, here’s part of the “Place for Your Stuff” routine and then Margaret Cho going through some of George Carlin’s actual stuff that he saved all his life:
Filed Under Stand-Up Comedy
I suppose some might take the title of stand-up Jake Johannsen‘s next special a bit literally. But “Overnight Comeback” sort of points out the oddness of a comedian’s life - you may be selling out shows across the country, but if you’re not on TV, you’re perceived to be absent from the culture.
One of the interesting changes about how stand-up specials are produced is that they’re increasingly in the hands of the comedians themselves, rather than a cable network. This naturally brings more control and ownership of the final product (and of course the money on the DVD sales), but makes for unfirm dates of when the general public will see it. There’s a suggestion that “Overnight Comeback” will premiere on either Comedy Central or HBO, but we’ll just have to keep our eyes open for when and where Johannsen will make his debut. Showtime seems like a likely spot too, perhaps even more so than HBO, who I don’t believe has bought many pre-made stand-up specials.
The following promotional but assertively un-viral video was put up by comedian Emery Emery, who will direct the special. (Emery Emery was also the Editor and frequent cameraman for the documentary Aristocrats) Many references to Two Girls and a Cup here, but no video from it, so have no fear of pressing the play button. Well, have some fear… Johannsen does expose about as much as YouTube will allow.
Tonight on Letterman’s Late Show, the long censored permorfance by the late Bill Hicks finally was shown. Though David Letterman certainly may have failed in 1993, he demonstrated a level of class tonight. Simply admitting by his error, sincerely and completely, he’s shown himself to have grown into one of our most authentic and human comic voices. I imagine some will wonder if Letterman is taking the fall for a short-sighted CBS decision. I can’t see that. Letterman’s never been one for the company line, frequently teasing his home network. Perhaps CBS was bothered by the content, but Letterman likely didn’t disagree at the time.
Of course, Letterman didn’t dwell a lot on the whys of the decision to censor Hicks. I wasn’t disappointed by that. Any attempt to point out the sensitive part of the act (likely the “pro-life” material) could have come off as an excuse. Better to just own up completely, and let any rationale proven wrong become an internal guide for how to run your show.
It was wonderful to see Mary Hicks talk about her son. It reminded me a lot of when Johnny Carson would have regular folks on his show. The authenticity of how people respond to a conversation makes for something often memorable, rather than just a celebrity relating a packaged anecdote. Mary’s simple “OK, what else you want to know” was a simple human and very funny moment after a slight bit of tenseness where she let Letterman know simply, how difficult of a time that was. If Jimmy Fallon’s producers were watching, here’s a unique late night tradition that’s been lost in the past decade or so, and would be a welcome return for a new show.
As for the performance by Hicks himself, it’s aged pretty well. It the audience he performed for that hasn’t. Even in today’s world where gay marriage is the front lines of our culture wars, I have a hard time imagining any late night audience so vigorously whooping and applauding a facetious suggestion that a book about a gay couple is disgusting. (Although arguably, Hicks hit the idea awfully hard to set up his preference for the Two Mommies book.) Bill’s comedy may have been before his time, but at least a part of that audience is still there in 1993.
Update: Here’s the Late Show’s video, featuring highlights of Dave’s conversation with Mary Hicks and the full version of Bill Hicks’s act:
Filed Under Sketch Comedy
With his diverse interests and tendency to be a one-man band (including drawing the album cover and directing the music video), I’ve been curious to see what exactly a series from Demetri Martin would turn out to be. Here’s the first indicator, a teaser of “Important Things with Demetri Martin” from Comedy Central.
Well that doesn’t tell us too much, does it? The part the holds the most promise for me is the sketch between Martin and Jon Benjamin with the type overlaid describing the real feelings and experiences. Particularly if the scene plays straight without them, it seems that’s a fertile conceit to use again and again.
The other thing that I kind of adore already is the logo for “Important Things”, which is a very simplified version of da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”, which is a symbol of the Renaissance. With Martin’s play in multiple artistic fields, I’ve always kind of thought of Martin as a sort of comedy Renaissance Man, someone who’s simply programmed to extend his creative energy in multiple directions at once. It’s a nice little acknowledgment of that to watchers that some of them might get even subtlety. It also indicates a respect the audiences’ brains, which is a hallmark of Jon Stewart, who’s the co-producer of the show.
Of course, there’s always that danger of being All-Trades Jack rather that Vitruvian da Vinci. We’ll know more on Wednesday, Februrary 11 at 10:30 PM, when “Important Things with Demetri Martin” premieres on Comedy Central.
Update: I knew there was a reason why I liked this image. Demetri used something like it when we created a web feature on him at Comedy Central in 2002. See below:
Tonight in most areas, PBS will air Make ’Em Laugh, a history of American comedy that I’ve been looking forward to for a while. I’ve already picked up the companion book for the series and the amount of depth of material and history that they use to draw lines between past and (relatively) contemporary comedians is impressive. Plus, it’s damn gorgeous. If this is the resource material they used to build the documentary, your comedy nerd appetite will probably just be wetted. I don’t see how they’ll get it all in.
Tonight’s two episodes are “Would Ya Hit a Guy with Glasses?”, which focuses on the comedian as outsider, and “Honey, I’m Home!”, which focuses on sitcoms and the comedian as the center of a family. It’s an interesting, and somewhat diametrically opposed paring that keeps comedy from being in a simple box. Also a little interesting - they are Chapters Four and Five of the companion book. The first chapter in print focuses on physical comedy, and while it’ll probably be entertaining, it doesn’t necessarily seem like the best tone setter for a TV series about comedians. Physical comedy can be polarizing. Good choice there.
There’s six episodes in all that will air on PBS, but there’s also a seventh, which focuses on web comedy entitled “Teh Internets”, and appropriately has been released only there. You’re not necessarily going to learn a lot from the video - if you’ve visited this site, you know this shit. It’s more of a Best Week Ever look at the subject. But it’s fun to see that those talking heads are a lot of favorite web comedians (the ones who are intentionally funny) and also Amy Sedaris doing some single person sketches that have a bit of fun with some web memes. Here it is:
If Sedaris ever has a cocktail party with all those web-themed treats, let me know. Yum.
Since PBS is decentralized, the airtime (and date for that matter) might be different for Make ’Em Laugh. You should check the schedule at the Make ‘Em Laugh site to find out when it’s on in your area.