"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 6 June 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Last Man Standing


You can see and hear a lot of funny stuff in a comedy club, it's just that almost none of it is up on stage. Those laugh factories that still exist do so as dimly-lit testaments to sweet human despair of the most naked and delectable kind. Most have filled this role for so long that some of their best material is taken for granted. Take the "Wall of Fame" that greets incoming patrons: row upon row of black-and-white photographs, the comediennes sporting big smiles and bigger hair, the males boasting inexplicably busy shirt designs peeking up from the bottom of the frame. The overall effect is that of visiting an aging lothario who insists on decorating his home with pictures of old girlfriends. No one bothers to explain why it's remarkable a comedian should have once appeared in a comedy club, and no one questions the wisdom of crowing about one's status as somebody's minor career stepping-stone.

In the hope that future historians will be far too busy to care, we'll date the death of stand-up comedy with the debut of the UPN and WB Television networks in early 1995. More specifically, stand-up died six minutes into the January 23 premiere of Platypus Man. The fact that comedian Richard Jeni — who had built a sizable career onstage from a variation of the basic Jerry Seinfeld/Tim Allen exaggerated everyguy persona — could do no better than a mid-season dishes-and-laughs show on a fledgling network starkly demonstrated the state of diminishing returns in big-name stand-up. While film and television stars continue to be drawn from the clubs, debuts lack the mix of anticipation and familiarity granted comedians for almost two decades. America just doesn't follow players in the minor leagues.

Some 1990s comics used their television gigs to enhance their status in stand-up, like eventual hosts Kathy Griffin and Tommy Davidson. But earlier, less sitcom-friendly comics like the late Bill Hicks hit a ceiling on the traditional outlet of late-night television, a ceiling lowered by those shows' attempts to sweettalk the largest share of Carson's heartland fans under their Nielsens umbrella. And the effort to survive on television in the nineties threw off more stand-up comedians than any boozed-up heckler. By sheer economic necessity, people who could supposedly do very little except stand at a microphone and tell jokes were by decade's end doing everything but. Today, when one hears about a performer moving into stand-up, it's treated as a celebrity's therapeutic attempt to reconnect with fans (Ellen Degeneres), a multi-millionaire's American Beauty-style downsizing (Jerry Seinfeld) or evidence a really smarmy guy is pathetic, shallow and behind-the-times (Rick Rockwell).



Stepping into a comedy club in the year 2000 is like walking into a university's corporate recruitment reception circa 1991. Some people can work the room, some people can't; but it doesn't matter because there are no jobs. This can make for deliriously entertaining art, although more along the lines of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? than A Night at the Opera. At one recent performance of a long-established gay and lesbian comedy night in Seattle, it was possible to sit in the audience and hear the comedians talk about each other — the gay comedians dissecting the straight comedians' material in terms of its closeted content, the straight comedians berating the gay performers' rambling sets. Turning on your fellow dreamers as your own dreams fade in front of your eyes is an American tradition that goes all the way back to Aaron Burr, and hearing someone else do it is definitely worth $6.50 and a two-drink minimum. We suggest you sit near the back.

So as Britcoms and specialty game shows continue to push the few remaining TV outlets for stand-up off the air, and improvisational comedy builds on its own television exposure to pack in live, all-ages audiences twice and thrice weekly, is the future of stand-up in doubt? Of course not. But changes in its cultural role and entertainment business cachet are bound to continue, and only by reaching back into history and across sub-cultures can we figure out where stand-up's freefall will end and its potential recovery begin.

Certainly the easiest future to forecast is Stand-Up as Content Provider, an ongoing process likely to continue. Just as comedians in generations past benefited from a desperate need for material on broadcast radio and early television, stand-up comics enjoyed their most recent heyday thanks to cable television networks' eagerness to fill airtime cheaply. There's nothing cheaper and easier than turning a camera on one or more persons against a reasonably flat backdrop and listening to them talk — several independent filmmakers have built entire careers that way. In addition, all of the component portions of a stand-up routine, from scripted jokes to on-site diaries, are potential supplementary fodder. There are benefits to the comic as well: storing retired jokes in an on-line archive is the first practical application ever conceived for outdated stand-up.



A realistic possible future is Stand-Up as Marginalized Freak Show. While some people will continue to find success as stand-up comedians, they will do so in a way divorced from wide, mainstream recognition. What boxers and their direct, limited brutality are to American sport, stand-ups and their basic, naked application of comedic skills would be to American comedy. Some comics will make money, but very few will cross over into the land of endorsements and appearances or show up running the obstacle course on ABC's Superstars. Hints of this trend show up in media coverage of the current, mega-successful Kings of Comedy tour, which feature the same obsessive attention on performers as money-making machines that colors any recent piece on Mike Tyson. And, as the rise of heavyweight boxing in the 1970s engraved Don King on the American subconscious, Kings of Comedy is making a star of its out-of-nowhere promoter, Walther Latham.

The bleakest future of them all — and therefore the scenario we prefer — is Stand-Up as Forgotten Art Form. In this future, the number of comedy clubs dwindles even further, and the remaining, little-paid stand-ups write increasingly elusive and nuanced material completely inscrutable to all but a highly-knowledgeable and devoted fan subculture. Stand-up's golden era is remembered more for its cultural implications than for its contribution to the comical form. Already, some coverage portrays 1980s stand-up as a scene akin to hippie-era rock and roll, complete with casualties and survivors. In a recent San Francisco Chronicle article that might have been touching minus its creepy acting-out-in-public subtext, reporter Kevin Fagan reunited Market Street denizen, all-around lost soul and former headliner Doug "Dougzilla" Ferrari with more stable alumni of the hard, fast times of day gone by. A similar portrayal of stand-up's heyday gave comic Kris Strobeck something to escape from when taking over the family farm; her description of life defined by going blonde and buying a car reminds one of talk show host Jenny Jones' public eulogies for her own wild Star Search years.



This trend could yield a time thirty years in the future when movie stars speak of their participation in stand-up of the 1980s and early '90s the same way Groucho Marx and George Burns eulogized Vaudeville. And someday further perhaps stand-up comedy will become such a debased form, like Victorian melodrama, that it has no basis in an audience's collective mind other than in parodies. One can imagine television shows doing fantasy episodes where the cast is at open mic night at Dangerfield's in 1989, or Carol Burnett-style, over-the-top parodies of stand-up comedians and their approach to text. In other words, a view of stand-up that depends more on the luridness of the context than the material performed — almost exactly what you get today.

Thank you very much! My name is 40th Street Black!

courtesy of 40th Street Black
picturesTerry Colon

40th Street Black