I love stand-up comedy. There is just something about observational humor delivered by the cripplingly depressed that has entertained me my entire life. My favorite method of finals week procrastination has always been listening or watching some great stand-up comedy (anyone looking for someone funny these days should check out Hannibal Buress). So in the traditional fashion I was watching old Louis CK bits this weekend (inspired by Eric’s paper topic) when it occurred to me that stand-ups have actually had a fascinating relationship with TV in that it remains one of the last vestiges of a kind of more old-school TV programming that has generally disappeared. Simple filmed productions of stage shows have largely disappeared from TV, despite the one time dominance of comedy hours and variety shows. Even filmed theater pieces are completely absent these days. yet stand-up specials have managed to remain, almost entirely due to the strange success of Comedy Central. Comedy Central continues to air and sponsor stand-up specials as part of its brand, something it has done since its inception. Indeed stand-up and comedy news like the Daily Show and Colbert, which also feature low production values and the power of one or a few people simply making you laugh without the need for narrative, have managed to sustain this network even when its scripted comedy offerings have not. My question is simple: what is it about stand-up comedy that it is still a profitable and mainstream television phenomenon?
This might seem like a strange question at first, but the fact is that most stand-ups still make a living primarily by touring around and performing in comedy clubs. The comedy performance at a club that serves alcohol is I imagine still a staple of most towns in America, and is definitely something that benefits from a live viewing. If we drew an analogy to music for instance, concerts and tours have also remained profitable, to the point that MTV and VH1 have largely been forced to seek out other revenue streams instead of relying on just broadcasting taped performances, and music videos gain far more from the editing and pre-planning than most comedy specials do these days. If comedy is still alive and well out in the world why are people staying at home to watch it alone? All comedy specials are performed in front of live audiences because everyone knows comedy is more enjoyable with others, but you would think that a corresponding fact would be that going to a show would be even better, and it is certainly also true that the slow turn-out of specials on cable couldn’t possibly satisfy a true fans’ need. So it seems instead that there is a demographic that likes comedy but only so much as it is free on their T.V. and doesn’t require leaving the house.
Furthermore, it seems the comedy special has also resisted any trend towards embracing or requiring tele-visuality, instead continuing to often remain low-fi to the point that old George Carlin bits on youtube watch about as easily as modern comedy specials, a claim that cannot be made for comparing old and new televised dramas or even news broadcasts. This is certainly curious in the face of much of the reading we have done that attempts to locate and identify a certain progress in television that has certain expectations for novelty and visual growth. In accordance with this, one of the great stylistic details of Seinfeld was the fact that the show’s low-fi approach mirrored the shooting of the comedy scenes, which themselves were framed just like the contemporary stand-up specials, giving the show an earthier feel even as other shows around it were trying more aggressive and slick production styles.
There is a classic feeling to the comedy special, an amount of expectation as to how the genre will play out in its normal role in the medium, that implies that maybe this is one of those T.V. relics that survives precisely because it doesn’t attempt to change itself. Perhaps the illusion of being in the crowd is the key element that can keep an old form alive. Perhaps if MTV had shown more live concert DVD’s it would still have music? Liveness, not as simultaneity but as the successful doing of something in one take, still clearly has an appeal. Just look to the shocking survival of SNL, or the popularity of the 30 Rock live shows? If there is one thing these stand-up specials do provide, it is the (supposedly) authentic reproduction of the pacing and feel of the comedy specials delivery and reception, a kind of communal experience that is likely lost to many people in their modern lives, but retains an appeal. Maybe some T.V. produces should take a nod from this and produce some content that is real but not reality T.V., instead a celebration of the kinds of performative artistry that is still so fascinating to us, with or without some additional modern trappings.