Mo’s History of American Alternative Comedy, Part 4

Filed Under Stand-Up Comedy

Another installment in Mo Diggs series about the history of alternative comedy as a broader movement, always playing against the mainstream.

New Wave: ‘80s

During the comedy boom, not as many comedians railed against the comedy establishment. The focus was on maintaining a quirky, strange voice. Formal experimentation was at an ebb, but character comedy was on the rise.

The alternative stand-up of the ‘80s was like new wave music: it had it’s roots in the radical experimentation of the previous decade (Kaufman and Sex Pistols, respectively) but it was accessible. Milions of fans enjoyed it.

One-liners were nothing new. But Steven Wright’s flat, deadpan delivery made all the difference. It was as if someone shocked before he was onstage. Bobcat Goldthwait’s delivery was even more unusual. Each joke was delivered in a pitchy, high voice that was interrupted by seemingly unprovoked growls. To add to the overall effect, during Comic Relief III he stood on hot coals while telling jokes.

Other characters would emerge, including Emo Phillips and Judy Tenuta. But Pee Wee Herman was by far the biggest character comedian of the ‘80s.

In 1977 The Groundlings staged a performance in which its members created characters that one might see in a comedy club. Paul decided to play a guy that everyone immediately knew would never make it as a comic, partly because Reubens couldn’t remember jokes in real life - he had trouble remembering punch lines and couldn’t properly piece information in sequential order. Saying that Pee-wee Herman was born that night, his distinctive guttural “Ha Ha,” followed by a high-pitched “Heh Heh Heh Heh,” laugh became the character’s catch phrase, as has his insult comeback “I know you are, but what am I?” (Wikipedia)

If the boom is not associated with great alternative comedy, it’s because there was no alternative. Comedians with distinct voices like Judy Tenuta and Pee Wee Herman could—and did—make money in the comedy clubs that were suddenly popping up everywhere. But when the boom was over, unique voices would need to look outside of the clubs to be heard.

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