The greatest show you’ll never see

Name a standup comedian that hasn’t been on a sitcom, The Daily Show, or Saturday Night Live. Name one who has appeared on, say, Letterman, Late Night, etc., whom you hadn’t heard of before but made you laugh. Tough, isn’t it?

There are lots of men and women out there who will make you hurt yourself laughing, but not unless you go out and see them — how many great shows are you missing?

What I’m talking about here is standup comedy. In a review of a Hannibal Burress show (ever heard of him?) published in the New York Times on Nov.3, the critic, Jason Zinoman, says, “Despite the rumbling buzz surrounding this comic who has refined his skills for nine years, first in Chicago and in New York, obscure dance companies have been reviewed more often in the mainstream press.”

Neither he nor I is the first to notice this peculiarity about what would seem to be one of the most accessible forms of entertainment. And yet, for the most part, so much standup comedy seems to be ignored. Not long ago, on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart (himself a former standup comic) offered a brief tribute to Patrice O’Neal, who died recently of complications of a stroke that likely resulted from his diabetes. Twitter lit up with tributes from, mostly, fellow comics.

I’m going to guess that most people–and I include myself in that number–tend to hear of standup comics only after they’re either a) no longer stand up comics but TV stars, or b) known for something else entirely, or c) dead. Did you ever have any idea who Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Roseanne Barr, Whitney Cummings, Sarah Silverman or Chelsea Handler was before they were on TV? How about Bill Hicks? He’s been dead for a shockingly long time and yet his comedy is still amazingly current and monstrously influential —but mostly among comics.

Comedy Central does a great service in bringing comics to the attention of willing, mainstream viewers, but at the same time, I guess that the number of people actually watching are fairly few, comparatively. But  their shows are way tamer than what you’re likely to see in the wild, largely because of the setting. In reality, standup comedy can be brutal. You never see anyone actually dying on stage in a Comedy Central appearance, nor do you see (or hear) hecklers. But I’d argue that those two things, dying and hecklers, are a significant part of how standups get good—or get into another profession.

Watch the films Tourgasm or Comedians of Comedy (HBO and Comedy Central, respectively) and you get some idea of the weird alchemy of standup. A joke told one night just dies as soon as it hits the air, but the next night, told with the slightest difference in timing or inflection or something, gets good laughs. (Patton Oswalt blows me away.) What’s interesting, too, is the unplanned, between-the-jokes stuff on stage, which is where you see what a good comic does well.

One of the things I find fascinating about standup comedy is that it is the rawest kind of storytelling, perhaps the most direct narrative art. I thin it was Jerry Seinfeld that said that standup comedy is akin to leading an audience up to the edge of a cliff and then walking them over it. The obverse of that, of course, which it seems to me doesn’t exist in many other forms of narrative art, is the comedian walking over the edge of that cliff by him/herself. Dying, as it’s known, strikes me as being as informative and useful as it is painful. Watch Jon Stewart any night, and the stuff he does between the jokes strikes me as being a direct result of his having died who knows how many times. He understands fundamentally that his job is to entertain, even when he senses himself not being entertaining. (I don’t want to discredit his writers, who are some of the best on earth, but the comedy is not the joke; it’s the comic.)

So why does standup comedy get ignored in the press? I’m not sure that I have any good rationale for why it’s generally ignored when music that’s equally “obscure” gets covered regularly, but there may be a blue factor. Wholesome family newspapers, can feel comfortable about posting bits of “obscure” music on their websites, whereas a lot of comedy veers into the profane, which may make it more difficult to review. Although I remember reading a review of one of Robin Williams’s HBO standup gigs in The New Yorker several years ago that made me laugh, and places, almost as much as the actual show. There could be also a political aspect, some comics being extraordinarily scathing in that regard. Katie Halper is all about politics.

But it’s also true that there’s a certain amount of shock that goes into comedy, much of it often blue, which results from the necessity to grab a potentially hostile audience by the short and curlies and keep hold of them until the comic makes it clear that s/he owns the room. And a lot of that shock just isn’t what you can print in a family newspaper.

(Try an open mike night. Get up and tell some jokes. Or go to a bar where people tell Moth-like stories. Tell one. See how quickly you find your slow parts.)

But there’s other sort of intangible stuff that makes it hard to cover as well. Watching Maria Bamford, a freakishly good mimic, is not the same as listening to her. The contrast between the slight, slightly kooky looking blonde and the voices she does is part of what makes her so fascinating — except you don’t see that when you don’t see her.

And then there’s repetition. Generally, a lot of comedy is the same show over and over, which is pretty much how the comic hones the material. This is also where music can win out over comedy in terms of getting covered. With some exceptions, most of us hear a comedy routine once, and then we’re done, while concomitantly, we can listen to songs over and over again (sometimes compulsively).

But all of that aside, now and again everyone needs a good laugh. But how are you going to find out who’s worth seeing and if they’re appearing near you? Start with Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. (Maron is a standup comic, but better known — it always happens this way — for the podcast. Or just type your Zip code into the search engine of your choice along with “standup comedy” and you’ll find something. Likely in your area.

In my area, DC, there’s a lot of places to go see good standup. For starters, check out

Get out there and find yourself some comedy. Standup comics you’ve never heard of are like wines you’ll love but have never tried. And you can get yourself an evening of really fine entertainment for about the price of a decent bottle of wine.

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About Steve, i.e., him

Stephen Stark is an award-winning novelist and bestselling ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, Poets & Writers and in many other journals. He has been a fellow and taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and won an NEA Literature Fellowship in fiction. His novel, Second Son, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1992, and a New and Noteworthy Paperback of 1994.

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