The performers had a lot working against them: humor scholars doing stand-up, with 50 or so of their academic peers for an audience, English a second language to some, and all of them prepared to classify punchlines by channeling the French philosopher Henri Bergson’s comic theories: “I get it: She succumbed to her own mechanical inelasticity.”
Jim Lyttle, of Upper Iowa University and Canadian by birth, opened by talking about how Canadians are always apologizing. “You ask ‘em what time it is and they say, ‘I’m sorry, it’s about 2:30.’ They feel like they should have had that information available,” he said.
Then he moved on to how everything’s huge in America. “I went into Costco for the first time. It’s a great place to shop… if you’re having the Russian Army over for fish sticks.”
The crowd laughed politely at both jokes.
After a long day of presentations at the 2011 International Society For Humor Studies conference, a handful of comedy scholars went from consumers—if deft, analytical ones—to producers: An open mic competition.
The performance space, a back room in the Boston University student union, was like one of those higher-end McDonald’s, with jazzed-up earth tones and bright lights that aren’t conducive for comedy. Live standup, since it’s a gratuitous hijacking of people’s attention, always thrives in the dark, like all tyranny.
Conference chair Patrice Oppliger cheerily introduced the handful of scholars brave enough to perform: Christie Davies, from the University of Reading, UK (author on “Jokes About Jewish Sex Roles And Gentile Jokes About Stupid Blondes And Stupid Athletes”); Jim Lyttle, Upper Iowa University (“Funny Teachers: Favorite and Not-So-Much”); Reuben Morales, a Venezuelan humorist; Eddie Naessens, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland (“The Death and Resurrection of Louis CK: Report on a Bombing in Dublin”); Tadashi Kumagai, Fukui Prefectural University, Japan (“A Third Level (Or, A Fourth Level, Maybe”)); Joyce Saltman, Southern Connecticut State University (chair on the panel Political Correctness and Offensive Jewish Jokes About the Sexes); Bill Vogler, Indiana University of Pennsylvania (“Toward A Contextual Theory Of Organizational Humor”); and Larry Ventis, College of William and Mary (“Psychotherapists’ Experience of Humor in Their own Psychotherapy”)
The term “comic” is subjective and nebulous, and even geographically variable.
Dan Crohn, teacher by day, New England standup by night, had gone first. Crohn normally works as a feature act, the comic who does a set between the opener and the headliner, the guy who has to work harder because the audience has never heard of him and he’s never been on TV. Crohn has previously opened for Doug Stanhope, whose fans barely even like Doug Stanhope, never mind his opener. He’s seen his share of tough crowds.
“Wow, I love the level of excitement in this room,” Crohn said. “It feels like I’ve been cc’ed in an email.” A few chuckles, though the excitement level remained the same.
Crohn joked about being an inner city teacher: “At Christmas we make gingerbread apartments. They ask if they can hang stuff on the walls. I say ‘No, because you don’t own it.’”
A forced laugh welled up and faded.
“Hey, these are the jokes, people,” he said, and I laughed in the back, a sucks-to-be-you laugh of commiseration. As a comic with no show that night, I was there, ostensibly, to see my colleagues perform. But mostly, like a shark drawn to blood, to see if there was any stage time available.
The other local act, Belinda Borrelli, a newer comic than Crohn who also works in academia, took the stage. “It’s great to be here,” she said. “I know you guys are analyzing my every word, my movement and clothing, analyzing my semiotic language, my flouting of gender stereotypes…This is really relaxing.”
The crowd gave a solid but early-in-the-show laugh, that hard pop of breath followed by a quick, self-conscious recoil. The conclusion being, in the study of standup comedy: Talk to the crowd, not at them. Or, Don’t go first.
Two years ago, Eric Shouse (co-author on the paper “A Comic Rejoinder to American Culture’s Hegemony of Sensitivity: White, Hyper-Masculinity in HBO’s Comedy Series Eastbound and Down”), won the same competition at the 2009 conference in Long Beach. This year, Shouse opted not to perform. It was a tough crowd, he told me. I asked him how much it would it take to get him to perform in front of that crowd again. “$500” he said, looking around. “It’d be work.” This year, before the show began, he drifted to the back of the room, putting as much possible space between himself and the stage. It was a tic that told me he was a real comic.
“Comic” is a tricky term to use, to casually bestow upon someone. At a minimum, I use it to suggest, as with any professional label, such as carpenter or lawyer, a level of proficiency and experience. In the standup community, to be considered a “comic” rather than someone who simply has done standup, or does it sometimes, is based less on income and 1099s, less on whether or not one does it full-time without a day job (though this is a big milestone), less on accolades (called “credits,” though they do matter, especially to bookers) and more, ultimately, on the frequency of performances.
Everyone the comic graduated college with gets married, takes vacations and posts happy photos, lives a real life and occasionally wonders if the comic is still “doing the comedy thing.”
Most comics, at all levels, perform at least three or four times a week—more if they’re serious—at shows of varying levels of glamour. I once finished a 600-person show and packed up to go do a crappy open-mic, and the comic Greg Fitzsimmons said to me, “You just had lobster, now you’re gonna eat a hot dog. But yeah—no, I know—I understand.” It’s not that someone who gets lazy and only does two shows on a particular week will lose all claim to being a comic, but someone who performs, say, once every six weeks will generally fail to garner the ontological street cred of the label: a real comic is someone who doesn’t want to take those nights off, or simply can’t allow themselves to.
Someone who has performed twice to thunderous laughter isn’t a comic any more than someone who throws a few good punches is a boxer. But somebody who has performed three nights a week for the last six years but fails to get laughs regularly, or even at all, is considered a bad comic, rather than not a comic at all. So, “comic” is a term I use loosely, but not lightly.
The crowd got a little better with each performer, as most crowds do, and the laughs lasted an extra second or two. Tadashi Kumagai got on stage and opened with a fascinating meta-rumination on how he’d decided exactly which joke to tell:
“I could not resist the temptation to tell the audience my favorite joke. In fact, you have three choices, but I can never tell you the second, because if I do, you will all be my enemies. About the third, well, maybe. Of course, I have a reason why I like this particular joke, but I don’t want go into that right now, and I know that this will not be your favorite”—he assumed an angry voice—“but I want to tell this joke to you because this is my stage!”
The crowd chuckled.
Interestingly, Kumagai’s preface raised an important issue that every comic eventually learns—what Rick Jenkins, owner of the Comedy Studio in Harvard Square, once told me: that you need the crowd to know that you’re in charge. (Jerry Seinfeld, on his “On Comedy” album, attributes the same idea to Bill Cosby.) That you’re the pilot and not just another passenger. You know what you’re doing and you’re going to take them somewhere, so they can sit back and relax. Most comics just don’t tell the audience they’re in charge. Or follow it, as Kumagai did, with this joke:
“The teacher called for sentences using the word ‘beans.’ The first pupil said, ‘My father grows beans.’ The second pupil said, ‘My mother cooks beans.’ Then a third answered, “We are all human beans.”
The crowd laughed at this sweet, older Japanese man telling us this sort of adorable joke.
Crohn and Borrellli, sitting at a table off to the side and offering encouraging words and occasional playful jabs when the performers finished, gave Kumagai good feedback on the short set, even if the joke was a little corny. Another lesson: likeability goes a long way.
Venezuelan Reuben Morales, a humorist more than an academic, took the stage and did well with, “Being governed by Chavez is tough, because he’s all day speaking on the TV, speaking on the TV. It’s like being governed by Jay Leno.”
Eddie Naessens, of Trinity College, Dublin, had a smooth, well-received set late in the show. “Growing up in a large family never leaves you. I still catch myself looking at other people’s clothes, thinking: One day that shirt will be mine.”
Another participant talked about his water bottle. How it came apart. How it went back together. That was it. When the time came, one of the judges joked, “I just would have liked to hear more about your water bottle.”
One performer kept the audience’s attention for minutes with a huge buildup about two elderly people, both hard of hearing, on a canoe trip. They come to a fork in a river, and instead of hearing “Up or down?” the woman hears “Fuck or drown?” Sex ensues. The joke killed.
But then again, it was a street joke—not the performer’s own material but a prewritten, guy-walks-into-a-bar type of joke that your uncle tells at parties, which are largely frowned upon in standup. And where Kumagai’s posture suggested shyness, here was a sort of broad-shouldered boldness that accompanied the telling. That’s maybe why Crohn did not respond well: When it came time to judge he said, “Nice joke. I’d love for you to tell it in front of that painting.” There was a pause as the crowd turned to a nearby wall to see a painting with a pattern strikingly similar to the performer’s shirt. They laughed hard at Crohn’s dig. There are rules in standup, and the industry is self-policing—if somewhat arbitrarily enforced.
Comedy is also an industry of paying dues: Many long-time performers regard their first ten years as a kind of clueless wandering, and veteran comics tend to treat newbies like replacement troops: They are young, dumb, and could be gone soon, so it’s best to wait till they survive a while before learning their names. This is all to say that the term “comic” is subjective and nebulous, and even geographically variable: larger cities, with their heightened competition for stage time, are famous for relegating working comics from smaller markets like the Midwest or Florida back to open-mic status, causing many visitors to experience a kind of outraged existential crisis. When two comics meet for the first time, they act like dogs sniffing each other’s butts, asking loaded questions like, “You been doing it long?” or “You been busy?”
There is no bar exam, in other words, no test to pass. Instead, the comic is tested every night, graded by strangers who may not be laughing because they’re full or tired, or because the comic had to go on first to a cold crowd (going on first is called “taking the bullet”), or because the comic had to take the dreaded spot when the checks come out (the “check spot”). Or because the crowd fundamentally disagreed with the comic’s worldview, or because the stupid lighting wasn’t quite right. And those grades are handed to no one but the comic themselves—to be considered on long rides home from Elks lodges in the western part of Massachusetts or hermetic colleges in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire or on late-night trains back to Brooklyn, where the comic crashes on a couch that is really more of a chair while everyone the comic graduated college with gets married, takes vacations and posts happy photos, lives a real life and occasionally wonders if the comic is still “doing the comedy thing.”
Eddie Naessens, of Trinity College, Dublin, had a smooth, well-received set late in the show. “Growing up in a large family never leaves you,” he said. “I still catch myself looking at other people’s clothes, thinking: One day that shirt will be mine.” The crowd finally congealed, laughing as one at regular intervals.
The whole set went well. But Crohn, not upset, sensed a ringer: “You got up and put the mic stand right behind you, so you’ve done this before?” Crohn asked.
Naessens had, in fact, quite a bit. (He’s performed at major venues around the UK and appeared on Irish TV.) Crohn could tell this in the first two seconds, before Naessens even opened his mouth. The crowd didn’t seem to know, or care.
The audience voted by ballot for the best performance. While the votes were counted, I took the stage for a guest spot—that coy convention in standup where you hang out at shows, politely ask if there’s any space until, almost through osmosis, you are shoehorned onto the lineup. The possibility of a guest spot was, of course, the reason I was there. I talked slowly, sold the physical bits with the confidence that comes from knowing an audience is already warmed up, and played to the catering staff off to the side when I was worried a bit wouldn’t work. People laughed. And because they laughed I went longer than my allotted time, which most comics will do when given the chance. Instead of seven-10 minutes, which every comic takes to mean 10 minutes, I did 12, got all the laughs that Crohn would have received if he’d taken the sweet spot rather than the opening slot. I knew this. Crohn knew this. Belinda, Shouse, Naessens and anybody in the room who had ever done standup comedy knew this. But I wondered, while I was up there, if any of the professors did. Wondered, as I told my jokes, if the comedy experts knew that my spot wasn’t work at all, that what I was doing and what Crohn had done at the start of the show could barely be considered the same activity. And that they were not even the same crowd.
In the end, the academics picked Naessens, proving that comedy may come from life experience, but it also comes from experience performing comedy.
“Any last comments from the judges?” Oppliger asked after crowning Naessens and congratulating everyone on the night, one of laughs and silence and insights.
“Comedy,” said Crohn, “is hard.” A lesson everyone seemed to have learned.
There is that famous metaphor, E.B. White’s: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” The profession of standup, the idea of “the comic” in the minds of the average person, exists in a similar state of delicate homeostasis. To be a comic at a party, at a bar on a night you aren’t working, is to make small talk under a giant hovering footnote, a looming scalpel. Friendly, inquisitive people invariably inquire, always revealing some benign or cancerous misconception. “So you, like, think of all that stuff on the spot?” “Do you like when hecklers make the show better?” “Do you write all your own stuff?” “Is [insert well-known but hacky standup comedian] the funniest comic right now?” The comic can be academic, explaining the profession to death, qualifying terms and remedying misconceptions, or she can joke around and be funny. But for reasons that are both revealing and mysterious, she can rarely do both. She is forced to decide. The comic is the frog. And presented with the option of slicing herself open, or hopping around, she sulks into a quiet, unjustified indignation. (“Nobody gets what I do…” ) No one really wants to see what goes on behind the curtain, even if everyone asks to peek.
Stand-ups tend to hate industry people, the gatekeepers who decide who gets on TV, for at least logical reasons: They’re often clueless, a generation out of touch or easily distracted by hacky material and young, trendy faces (black hipster glasses helping run-of-the-mill material pass for “alternative,” anyone?). And stand-ups tend to have a similar hatred for “comedy experts,” those who review and study comedy. But this one is more illogical, irrational, and childish. We hate that they’re in bed finishing the Mark Twain autobiography, content with their opinions, while we’re heading out to a show, or working stuff out at the Grandma’s Basement open mic in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood at midnight on a Thursday. Standups hate that people who study comedy get the luxury of feeling like they know anything about comedy when we are told every night that we do not.
But most of all, we hate that they still love comedy in a way that those who do it regularly never will again.