Thursday, August 11, 2005

You Are Better Than That. (Click PODCAST)

I don't watch to many comedians on TV anymore. It's funny (if I can even use that term) because it was TV that introduced me to stand up comedy in the first place. I was inspired by Robin Williams on Mork & Mindy, Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live and every comedian who ever appeared on the Mike Douglas or Dinah Shore Show (Johnny Carson was past my bedtime). Today I see way to many comedians go for cheap laughs or punch lines that I can see coming from a mile away. I hear the set-up and I either blurt the punch line out loud (with 90% accuracy) or I'll visualize a landing crew guiding the joke into the terminal of comedic brilliance only to see it crash and burn on the tarmac of the lowest common denominator. When I started doing stand-up and went for a cheap or easy laugh, there was always one of the old timers who would pull me aside and say, "What the hell were you doing on stage? That's beneath you. You are better than that".

My favorite comedians to watch are the ones who do topical or political humor. Some of my favorite political comedians on TV currently include Bill Maher, John Stewart and Lewis Black. I was listening recently to a 1968 interview with Johnny Carson on comedy. Johnny Carson On Comedy CD - AUDIO ONLY He spoke of comedians who did political humor and warned that there is a fine line between doing topical comedy and a being a social commentator. That’s when you stop being funny. At the time Mr. Carson was referring to Mort Sahl who's comedy shifted after the assassination of J.F.K. I brought the subject up to a group of friends and other names came up in the conversation like Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Tommy Smothers and Janeane Garofalo. The most talked about comedian was one of my favorite comedians for years, Dennis Miller. Whether it was his "Weekend Update" on SNL, His short lived "The Dennis Miller Show", and especially "Dennis Miller Live" on HBO. He took ranting to an art form, and his Emmys were well deserved. In my humble opinion the secret to his success was his pragmatism. He told everybody they were full of crap. With Dennis no one was safe not even the people he liked. To me proof that he was on the right track was when I would hear conservatives say that he was too liberal and liberals say that he was too conservative. Another thing I liked about Dennis is that he valued free speech and enjoyed engaging in a dialogue even with people who disagreed with him. All successful comedians have a point of view and most comedy is based in truth (or what is believed to be true). Now I don't mean to get off on a Rant here, but what happened to you Dennis? When he started his short lived CNBC show he decided not to do any jokes at the expense of the president and chose to present a Republican point of view. He like the comedians of the 1960s were changed by the events of their times. Some comedians loose their comedic edge while others like George Carlin achieve brilliance.

I’ve said it before. On 9/11, and I hate to bring up that date, but on 9/11 we were grieving, we were scared and we were angry. I've dealt with grief in the past but there was always someone there to help keep my emotions in check and made sure I never lost my sense of humor. But on 9/11 not only were 3000 people killed, but those responsible tried to demoralize us, kill our spirit and our sense of humor (they have no sense of humor themselves). Comedians did face an incredible challenge trying to find what could be joked about while knowing that America needed to laugh again. But if comedians say anything that is mocking or criticizing the current administration they could be considered treasonous or just down right Un-American. Lets not forget that our country was founded by longhaired, hemp smoking revolutionaries who were sick and tired of the status quo. Our sense of humor is not dead, it’s just in a chokehold, and its time to break out of it. The great comedians know that with comedy comes risk and danger. The comedians from the 1960s knew this, and some paid a great price thus paving the way for today’s comedians explore new forms of comedy. I encourage today’s comedians not to go for a cheap or easy laugh. Take a risk... but remember to be funny because, you are better than that.

To quote Dennis Miller, "Of course that's just my opinion, I could be wrong".

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa


Peter Miller said...

"Are you calling George Washington a wild-eyed radical?"

-Stan Freberg presents the United States of America


Ivan G. said...

Part of the problem with Miller is that the more success he enjoyed, the more conservative his comedy became. In other words, he sold out. One of Miller's former joke scribes, Barry Crimmins, is an example of a person staying true to his roots: he may contribute material to Air America radio but he's still as edgy as ever--you should check out his book, Never Shake Hands With a War Criminal.

It's funny you should mention Lewis Black, since he's pretty much picked up the mantle that used to belong to Dennis Miller and has run with it. His recent HBO special had me in complete hysterics. I'm like you, Tony--I'm a big fan of Jon Stewart's...but I can only take Bill Maher in small does. Stewart's schtick works because he has this endearing mock indignation/naivete while Maher grates on me because he believes himself to be the smartest person in the room.

Sam said...

YOU are right on this, Tony. There really isn't a comic out there willing to take a chance out there these days withthe humor. Sure, you've got guys like Dane Cook, who now charts on the Billboard top ten, but where are the others? It's sad that television doen't really seek them out like they did in the 80's and early nineties. it would be nice to se a new Mitch Hedgeberg or Dennis Wolfberg.

As for political humor, The Daily Show should be the end-all-be all of it. I don't think anyone else, standup or otherwise should even attempt it at this point. Bill Maher just seems to smug for me to listen to, while Miller's shift into more conservitive comedy is just lost to me now. It feels like with him, after 9/11 he thought that folks wouldn't laugh again. Well, I know I stopped laughing at his jokes.

While we're on this, I'm contemplaing a return to stand up. I don't have any idea of what I'd do or how I'll present it, but I do know that I want to take a chance on making it as funny as I can. I don't known as just a "Black Comic", but a funny as hell comic. The last thing i would want to be known as is a Def Jam comic, as I don't want to limit myself to one crowd. What are your feeling on that, I wonder?