Last week I decided to expand my blogging horizons somewhat by adding a couple non-music events to my calendar, specifically stand-up comedy. After all, I take lots of photos of lone singers with their guitars standing at microphones in bad lighting, so taking photos of similar lone comics standing at microphones in bad lighting should not be too much of a stretch for me as a blogger. Of course my favorite joke is the classic “wayside chapel”, which I am pretty sure is still buried somewhere in the earliest posts on this blog, a joke about a woman who writes a letter asking about the availability of a “w.c.”(“water closets” small rooms with toilets, in British), which is misunderstood as “wayside chapel” by the gentleman responding to her inquiry. It really is hilarious, but it is also the sort of joke that could be told with children present without offending anyone or contributing to the delinquency of minors. I have been to one stand-up comedy show, ever, about a decade ago, and I do occasionally watch the comedy shows that netflix offers, especially the British ones. I kind of get British humor, and when their jokes don’t strike me as funny, they just come across as dumb, not outright offensive. But, just as many of my friends don’t ‘get’ British humor, I generally don’t ‘get’ American humor, and I have never yet gotten into live stand-up at all. But, seeing as one of my favorite people is a comic, and does stand-up comedy here in town, I figured I might give American humor another chance.
After seeing two different shows, one with just a handful of comics doing longer sets and one open-mic show with lots of different comics each doing a 5-minute set, I can safely say I still don’t get the majority of American humor. How can being a sexist, racist, narrow-minded, anal-sex addicted doped-up drunk be funny? Are these people really as twisted and horrid as their jokes make them seem? Is their audience really ok with that? After all, our city had a big public meeting to discuss the fact that a convicted sex-offender was moving into the neighborhood, and if all the jokes some of these comics tell were true we ought to not want to be in the same state with these men. (There were actually a couple female comics at the open mic show too, but they tended to joke about other things, not staying so long on the topics of anal, booze and drugs.) One of these men, of course, is a dear friend of mine, and I know quite well that he is not the man he seems during his routine, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet several others of the comics at these shows, and in every case, they are lovely people. So, again, I don’t get American comedy, I guess.
I had the good fortune, though, of being in the middle of reading a certain sci-fi book, Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein. In this book, Heinlein seems to have been struggling through some of the same puzzles as I was stuck with- What makes something funny? Why are offensive things and hurtful things funny? What is the point of having comedy and what is the good of laughter? The answer Heinlein found was that we laugh as an act of bravery against pain, sorrow and defeat, and against those things we fear. After pondering Heinlein’s answer for a few weeks, in light of my own observations at my friend’s comedy shows, I think Heinlein is right.
In our society, with its odd blend of Puritanism and hedonism, where women are at the same time pornographic sex objects and respected CEO’s, and where we try to erase discrimination from our society on paper, even as those of us from marginalized groups know full-well we are still subject to unjust treatment as a matter of course- in this sort of society sex, gender and race lie at the root of much of the frustration and defeat we experience, and laughing at these things is a way of shaking our fists at what we can’t change. We laugh because we can’t fix the pain, anger, fear or frustration. Of course, many comics go for the sorts of jokes that would simply be offensive in any context except comedy, and the ‘pained laugh’ is common enough in comics’ audiences. The stand-up comic is a performer, and in that social context the audience is expected to be polite and not deck the guy saying all that terrible crap, so faced with unresolvable discomfort, what do audience members do besides walk out, or laugh.
So, where does all this leave me with respect to my grand idea of expanding into blogging comedy? Well, first of all, recognizing what makes people laugh at offensive jokes, I can hardly blame any comic for ‘going there’ whenever other jokes aren’t getting enough laughs for comfort. Even with just 5 minutes, not always enough time to really win over an audience, you can make them laugh if you make them uneasy, and while a nervous laugh may not bring tears to anyone’s eyes, it still sounds better than silence for the nervous comic behind the mic. At the same time, relying on sex, drugs and drunkenness was most certainly a bit more of a cop-out for some of the comics I saw so far, allowing nervous offended laughs substitute entirely for the good solid laughs that leave us holding the table for support, tears streaming from our eyes and new spasms of laughter bubbling up whenever we are reminded of whatever set us off. These laughs are rare in our everyday lives, and we especially love those comics who can give us the triggers we need to laugh like that. There were a few comics among those I saw so far in Fort Collins who seem to be working towards jokes crafted for those good solid laughs, even if they still throw in a few cheap offensive jokes in between their good stuff.
Secondly, the good stuff is probably quite different for each person in the audience. Those of us who are not fixated on anal sex may simply not relate to those whole routines based entirely around this odd but otherwise generally uninspiring sex act. While the jokes comics tell are not necessarily an honest reflection of the people these comics are off-stage, their jokes reveal a side of men, or of other categories of people, that can be funny in itself. And for many people in the audience, especially those in romantic partnerships, comics do voice topics and conversations which are otherwise difficult to initiate. I still did not find the vast majority of the jokes told at either show funny, and I was too distracted with pondering Heinlein’s ideas on humor to do much nervous laughing either. Still, there are a lot of topics around which comics could build jokes, and there are a lot of would-be comics in this town, almost certainly. And, not all the comics I saw so far were awful. Even among the ones who seemed particularly sex-obsessed and misogynist there were occasionally glimmers of humor that went beyond just offending the audience into laughing.
Yes, I do in fact have another comedy show on my calendar. The ground-rules: I think I’ll leave off mentioning names until I’ve seen more than a single short set of the comics I encountered already, so reviews on comics and comedy shows will have to start with the next one. Similarly, since I hate writing negative reviews, I won’t be writing up reviews all about how terrible some poor comic is. If they are that awful, they probably already know. I might of course write about comics I particularly enjoyed, even after just a single 5-minute set, and while I don’t wish to write negative reviews on the venues and shows that comics participate in, a fair review of venues or shows would perhaps be quite beneficial for everyone involved. I’m not always thrilled to be hanging out in smelly bars with uncomfortable and inadequate seating, just wishing for a nice cold Coke, but at least at comedy shows these bars don’t leave me with the headache and ringing ears that their music shows do, and I know most of them do at least have Coke, even if they don’t ‘sell’ it. I can tolerate even the most offensive of comics if I have enough cold fizzy soda and maybe a nice distracting snack. And, since the comic who got me into all this is, while admittedly one of the sexier men I know, just a friend, there’s not much chance of a messy break-up putting an end to this experiment before I’ve become hooked on comedy properly.