Archive for February 2008

In re: Hicks

February 27, 2008

Bill Hicks still has a lot of fans, if the number of views that my memorial piece received is any indication. And as I noted in the post, many of them are fellow comics.

I received an email from Kevin Kataoka, a genuine, creative stand-up with a long and colorful career. He knew and respected Hicks and wanted to share his thoughts on the man and his legacy. With Kevin’s permission, I’m sharing a bit of his email here (in italics).

He was a complex character from what I could gather. He left right after his sets. His act always landed at 1:17-1:19 every show. He praised my bad ventriloqust joke that I treasure for that reason. He made me realize that he didn’t want my act to mimic his (something comics don’t get), but to be honest to what makes you truly unique and funny.

Kevin would certainly know far better than I, but there is ample evidence that Hicks had no tolerance for hack comics, or for gutless performers of any kind. His routines bashing New Kids on the Block and similar bubble-gum pop stars are unrelenting, and for those of us who grew up in those mind-numbingly dull cultural valleys, they continue to ring true.

He had the thickest skin of any comic I’ve ever worked with in my life. To be able to deal with people – small or large – hating you night after night is not a way I would want to live. But he didn’t care about it. And the sad thing is how on a good weekend night, there were plenty of seats available.

Here, Kevin makes another point I’ve heard from other comics who knew Hicks: He didn’t much seem to care about “pleasing” the audience. He wanted to get through his material. He didn’t like the idea of being a comedy jukebox, spitting out the favorites for nickels. And– this didn’t do a whole lot to help his career or ingratiate him to club owners– he was likely to turn on the audience when they deserved it (or sometimes not).

He’s a little overpraised, because he’s dead. Where was everyone when he needed them? Well, you could say in these days of comedian mailing lists, Hicks could have had the audience he needed. Back then, comedy was truly underground, because aside from the rare TV appearance, you really had to see someone in person to like them. No Youtube, Myspace, etc. Back then, he couldn’t find the huge following in the US.

You couldn’t get any local weekly in San Francisco to watch his show. I remember Tom Sawyer, owner of Cobb’s in SF, begging the local weekly (The Guardian – which despised standup) to see Hicks, review his show, and see what great standup is all about. They didn’t. And then years later they would write about how influential he was.

That’s a sad irony recognized well by his fans and his contemporaries. At the time, he was just another comic trying to get a gig. Now that he’s gone, he’s a demigod.

It’s a story that repeats itself. Mitch Hedberg comes to mind. My dearly missed friend Warren Thomas does, as well. Comic and writer Randy Kagan spoke about that lamentable phenomenon at Warren’s memorial service at the West Hollywood Improv, angrily and tearfully challenging the comics gathered there to mourn, to do better for one another. Because it was such a shame that a performer of Warren’s talent and artistry should pass with so little attention from the comedy-going public, despite the respect and admiration he so clearly held in the comedy community.

I confess, I have been guilty of failing to appreciate real comedic talent. I was working in TV news the day Phil Hartman was murdered, and only while writing a story about his death did I realize just how important he was to 1990s comedy. Start with his time on “Saturday Night Live,” where he was a one-man gang of characters, and the many voices he provided to “The Simpsons,” including the iconic Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz, Esq., and add to that Bill McNeal, his character from the insanely clever and original “Newsradio,” and you have a comedic powerhouse.

I and many others recognized too late what we lost in Phil Hartman. And Mitch Hedberg. And Warren Thomas. And Bill Hicks.

Unfortunately, I expect it’s a story that will continue to repeat.

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What if they had an awards show and only 32 million people showed up?

February 26, 2008

Sunday night’s three-plus hour Academy Awards show is widely considered a flop because it captured an unusually small audience, a paltry 32 million, the smallest since the Nielsen folks started tracking such things. I battle mightily to keep 15 students awake for 90 minutes, but I suspect Hollywood has higher standards.

Jon Stewart’s performance as Oscars host has been mildly praised, which is just about right. He wasn’t as sharp as his fans (and I am certainly one of them) would hope, but this isn’t really that kind of a gig. I don’t know precisely what the movement was expecting Stewart to do, but the Academy isn’t paying for top-shelf, incisive satire and hard-edged comedy. It’s more “Tonight Show” than “Def Comedy Jam.”

Which doesn’t mean it was without some controversy. Stewart’s joke on Barack Obama, pointing out that his middle name is Hussein and his last name rhymes with Osama, is a tired, hacky bit by now, but it was enough to raise Keith Olbermann’s eyebrow. Or at least his producer’s. Check out this exchange with Patton Oswalt from last night’s “Countdown” on MSNBC (caveat: it’s a little long, but worth it):

Olbermann makes a good point. If Ann Coulter’s gotten around to making a “joke” like this, the shark was jumped long, long ago. Watching that gag, and I use that term advisedly, I muttered aloud, “The writers came back for that? Really?” The joke about John McCain’s “100 years in Iraq” pledge was not much better.

At the end of the day, the tepid response is appropriate to a tepid performance. But that’s the gig. You don’t throw fastballs to a slow-pitch crowd.

___________

The latter part of the Olbermann/Oswalt tete-a-tete, addressing the new “Saturday Night Live” episode that aired this weekend, was also interesting. The opening sketch, based on the presumption that the news media are all in the bag for Obama, set the tone for the evening. It seemed to be about a half-step behind the times, and not especially insightful.

Perhaps it’s that the weekly program can’t keep up with “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” doing four shows a week, and any half-bright teenager with a webcam and a modem able to put out a parody piece on YouTube and go global in 10 minutes. MSNBC’s Victor Balta makes a rather deft analogy, comparing TV satire’s old guard and vanguard to the the Clinton and Obama campaigns.

I was looking forward to the show, if for no other reason than the return of former SNL head writer Tina Fey, whom I love (LOVE!), as guest host. But even her presence was something of a bummer. Besides her brief return to the anchor desk on “Weekend Update,” where — all due respect– Seth Myers is not quite as sharp, her appearances in sketches were negligible. The line that “Bitches get stuff done” was a nice, edgy dig at the misogyny that seems to live, at least on the fringe, in many criticisms of Hillary Clinton. Other than that, she was not showcased well.

Unlike Oswalt, I wasn’t particularly impressed by Fred Armisen’s Obama impersonation. I don’t buy into the notion that you need a person of color to play a person of color (Darrell Hammond does a rock-solid Jesse Jackson, e.g.), though it’s probably a good idea. But Armisen’s caricature was more of a cigar-store Indian than Obama’s preacher-like cadence, too wooden to capture the rhythm that defines Obama’s speeches.

Still, Dana Carvey’s George Bush the Elder was a gross cartoon to begin with, but developed into the yardstick by which presidential parodies are now measured. So if all goes well in the Obama camp, Armisen might have time to nail the mannerisms and really own the character.

Bill Hicks, 1961-1994

February 24, 2008

Today, I mourn someone very dear. Someone I found inspirational, enlightening, and by any measure, hilarious. Someone, actually, whom I never met. This week marks the fourteenth anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks.

Books have been written about Hicks, deep and insightful looks at the person he was, some by people who knew him well. So I can’t speak of that with any aplomb. I’ll leave those testimonials to those who earned the right to share them.

I want to talk about Hicks the artist.

There are quite a few comics who tackle important issues, but few can lay waste to the absurdity and degradation of politics and society as Hicks did. Fortunately, his comedic legacy has found its way onto video and CD, allowing me to see much of his act, recorded in many venues in the US and the UK. Listening to the recordings chronologically, you can hear the bits develop and grow, the edge getting sharper and the punchline hitting harder.

What’s so impressive is that though his routines were timely and topical, they are also timeless. A few tweaks here and there, and they are as fresh today as when he first unleashed them onstage in the early ‘90s. Replace Debbie Gibson with Jessica Simpson; substitute Nick Lachey for Rick Astley; Iraq, religious fundamentalism and “American Gladiators”… well, some things just endure.

Try this bit on for size:

“Hey buddy, my daddy died for that flag.”
Really? I bought mine. Yeah, they sell them at K-Mart and shit.
“He died in the Korean War.”
Wow, what a coincidence. Mine was made in Korea.
No one – and I repeat, no one – has ever died for a flag. See, a flag … is just a piece of cloth. They may have died for freedom, which is also the freedom to burn the fucking flag. That’s freedom.

In post-9/11 America, where not having a little yellow ribbon magnet on your car is enough to rouse your neighbors’ suspicion, that’s a conversation worth having.

“Revelations,” his 1993 HBO special, had this line about the first war with Iraq, which would be repeated by many people, in many variations, ten years later:

You know we armed Iraq. During the Persian Gulf war, those intelligence reports would come out: “Iraq: incredible weapons – incredible weapons.”
“How do you know that?”
“Uh, well … we looked at the receipts.”

And in today’s presidential race, where a major party candidate can publicly deny the existence of evolution and gain votes, consider this bit:

Fundamentalist Christianity. These people actually believe the world is 12,000 years old. Swear to God! Based on what? I asked them.
“Well, we looked at all the people in the Bible, and we added them up all the way back to Adam and Eve, their ages – 12,000 years.”
Well, how fucking scientific! I didn’t know that you’d gone to so much trouble there…. You believe the world’s 12,000 years old?
“That’s right.”
Okay, I got one word to ask you. A one-word question. Ready?
“Uh-huh.”
Dinosaurs.

One of my favorite Hicks CDs is “Flying Saucer Tour, Vol. 1,” recorded in Pittsburgh in 1991. In it, Hicks vents his frustration with the moribund audience, who seemingly only want dick jokes. Hicks shows no patience for that. By turns, he tries to pry laughs out of them and berates them for not wanting smarter material. It’s painful, and funny, and in its rawness shows Hicks was not merely a funnyman, but a man with a driving compulsion to say something.

Nobody who has heard Hicks can doubt his brilliance. Many comics have been compared to Lenny Bruce, but with Hicks, the comparison stands. Like Bruce, Hicks is respected, long after death, by respected comics. Like Bruce, his material holds up, as true today as it was when he wrote it. Like Bruce, Hicks has inspired legions of imitators. Like Bruce’s imitators, none of them come close.

It’s a shame that Hicks never got his due in America when he was alive. He was a superstar in the UK, but the US never quite caught on. His many appearances on Letterman built a loyal following—including me—but the fanbase that the quality of his material should have brought somehow eluded him.

Now, more than a decade after his death from pancreatic cancer, Bill Hicks is something of a cottage industry. Books, CDs, DVDs, websites, t-shirts, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets… and good for all of that, I suppose. So long as people hear and see and learn about what a brilliant comic and social satirist Hicks was, I won’t begrudge the moneychangers their profit.

Whether Hicks would be so charitable, I don’t know. He doesn’t strike me as the type to let himself be commodified; his thoughts on commerce were not kind.

But, he does strike me as the sort who loves people and hates society—a compassionate misanthrope.

I wonder what Hicks would have made of Dubya’s America. I wonder how he’d have blasted Cheney’s hunting skills, Alberto’s “quaint” opinion on torture, and “Heckuva job, Brownie.” There’s been plenty for him to burn with his acid wit. The only question is what he would have burned first.

What I do know, as a Hicks fan and a student of comedy, is that he was hopeful. His cynicism was borne of idealism, his anger borne of the desire to share. Mostly, it seems that he wanted us to be better people.

The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.

On “The History of the Joke”

February 22, 2008

I was really looking forward to the History Channel’s “The History of the Joke.” Set up the TiVo for it and everything. Watched it with the remote in hand so I could back it up and watch its key points over and over.

Frankly, I was a little disappointed. But maybe that’s just me. I go a little wonky for humor.

It didn’t suffer from lack of star power. Beside the host, Lewis Black, the panoply of comic stars who contributed is nothing to sneeze at: Dave Attell, Shelley Berman, George Carlin, Kathy Griffin, Robert Klein, George Lopez, Kathleen Madigan, Patton Oswalt, Penn & Teller, Bobby Slayton, Suzanne Westenhoefer, George Wallace, and Robin Williams. And those are just the A-listers. The History Channel website boasts “over 50 stand-up comedians working today,” and I can’t argue with that.

The arc of the program, dotted throughout with one-liners and quips from the comics illustrating the narrative points, pretty simply broke down the joke and the art of telling it into their component elements, and a few questions for the ages: improvisation; are joke-tellers born or made?; can women be funny?; working “blue”; untouchable topics; bombing; hecklers; pain; truth; and finally, what is laughter?

Add to that Black’s interstitial exchanges with Prof. Richard Wiseman of University of Hertfordshire, who claims to have isolated the world’s funniest joke from a library of more that 40,000, as well as a historical timeline tracing comedy writing from Sparta circa 7th Century BC ‘til now, and you’ve got a packed show.

Part of the difficulty I had with the show was that it relied on comics to tell jokes. But does anyone really do that anymore? The era of “gags” as a form of stand-up comedy is quaint in its nostalgia, but seems like a waste of all that assembled talent. Having George Carlin and Robin Williams tell one-liners is like taking Tiger Woods mini-golfing. Sure, he can do it, but is that really what you want to see him do with a golfball?

Which is not to say that the show was pointless. A lot of clearly well-informed and deeply considered ideas were shared. Jimmy Carr, erstwhile host of Comedy Central’s game show “Distraction,” gave about as succinct and erudite a definition of comedy as I’ve ever heard: “All jokes are the sudden revelation of a previously concealed fact.”

Okay. That sounds about right. Every twist, misdirection and pun is based on getting the audience moving in one direction and then jerking them another. That element of surprise is the pay off. As Carlin noted, “The more it’s a complete 90-degree turn from where we were going, the happier I am.”

Carlin also spoke of what drove him to pursue comedy, an internalized need to prove himself. As a high school drop-out, he wanted to recapture the praise of an aunt who told him as a child, “Oh, you’re so clever.”

“That’s all I really want people to say. ‘Isn’t he cute, isn’t he clever, isn’t he funny, isn’t he smart,’” he said.

George Lopez spoke of his childhood of poverty as the impetus for his humor, joking to deflect the taunts of other kids. Others, including Robert Kelly, echoed the sentiment, with which I suspect many more can empathize.

The part that most interested me is the issue of truth in comedy. Much of my research is based on the notion that the joke exposes the truth in ways that merely “telling” the truth cannot. Sometimes the truth is too painful, too distasteful, or too dangerous, and only by making it funny can you make it palatable.

Some comics are driven to tell their own sort of truth, and take pains to add something to the public conversation. Some comics, however, say the job is to get laughs and nothing more. How would the show deal with that complex and philosophically volatile discussion?

“The heart of any great joke is truth,” Black said. Finding that truth within yourself and being honest to it, Greg Fitzsimmons said, is the key. Failing to do so, said Mitch Fatel, is why comics die onstage.

All of which is fair and, not coincidentally, honest assessment. But so much more could be said. I felt a little shorted.

And that is my beef with the whole program. Unsure of itself, it tried to do too much, ending up doing little.

Was it really the history of the joke? Kind of. But Jim Holt’s article “Punch Line: the history of jokes and those who collect them,” published April 2004 in The New Yorker (from which much of the historical content appears to have been lifted), does a far better and more thorough job.

Was it a search for the world’s funniest joke, as Black kept saying? If so, the program never presented it, other than Prof. Wiseman’s offering, which Black dismissed out of hand.

Was it an analysis of humor as a social construct? There was a bit of that, as well, with Penn Jillette presenting what I found a very compelling paradox of humor: “Comedy is a very intellectual form that’s supposed to get an involuntary reaction.” Interesting… but not deeply plumbed.

And that about captures it. It was interesting. Not terribly thought-provoking or engaging, but interesting, and pretty funny.

Ultimately, the line of the night belonged to the great Shelley Berman. Reflecting on the recent death of a loved one, he spoke of the visceral bond of laughter and sadness. “When you cry, when you laugh, you’ve been to an extreme,” he said. “And thank god for those moments in our lives.”

I can’t do any better than that.

__________________

Just for kicks, here’s this:

Killing frogs?

February 16, 2008

Welcome to my blog. I’m very excited to start this new endeavor, and I hope you enjoy reading it. Mostly, I hope you’ll think it’s entertaining and interesting, and worth coming back to visit.

But what, you may be asking, is this “killing frogs” thing about?

It comes from a quote by E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and co-author of The Elements of Style. There are several versions of it, but the one with which I am most familiar is, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

All due respect to the late Mr. White, I and hundreds of other professionals commit significant parts of our lives to thinking seriously about comedy. Humor is an integral part of human discourse, and it has significant meaning in many different ways. Academics from diverse fields of research investigate how humor happens, how it impacts our lives, and how it informs what sort of society we live in. Psychologists, linguists, rhetoricians, anthropologists, sociologists and many, many others turn an analytical eye to answering the age-old question, “What’s so funny?”

By profession, I am a college professor and writer. By training, I am a journalist and attorney. By habit, I’m a punster and wise-ass. By choice, I’m a comedy wonk.

By that, I mean that like everyone on Match.com, I love to laugh. But more importantly, I’m interested in why I laugh. And why you laugh. And what it means that we laugh at some things and not at others. And what comedy means to modern American society.

My particular interest is in political and social satire. I’m intrigued by the notion that making people laugh also makes them think, and that through laughter, we may change in some small but significant way our corner of the world. The great satirist, and my dear friend, Barry Crimmins says, “Humor is a great way to smuggle serious information to people who otherwise wouldn’t hear it.”

Looking at the popularity and social impact of performers like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Crimmins’ words are demonstrably true. Satire informs as it entertains, and can help change the society it mocks. Stewart and Colbert are not merely comics, but high-profile social commentators and media critics. They and others like them are helping to open people’s minds by challenging the status quo, carrying on a lineage that goes back at least to the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes (ca. 400 BCE).

Satire and other forms of social and political humor have been at the cultural core of American arts and letters, even if they are marginalized or unrecognized in their own time. Mark Twain, Will Rogers, the Marx Brothers, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Crimmins, Warren Thomas, A. Whitney Brown, Jimmy Tingle, Will Durst, Janeane Garofalo…. The list of American humorists who have drawn the attention of audiences to social and political issues of their day is a long one.

And their contributions should not be minimized. Forests have been felled to provide paper for books about Bob Dylan, and properly so. His music influenced an entire generation. But humorists like those named above also have swayed people, and it’s my interest to see that their work is given the same attention. It is art to craft a joke. It is transcendent art to craft a joke that enlightens as it entertains. That artistry should be given its due.

To that end, I hope to post at least once a week about issues in the world of comedy. Sometimes more than once as the muse, or the news, compels it. I plan on commenting on the goings on in the intersection of news and comedy, post interviews with comedians and comedy writers, and with any luck at all, occasionally be funny on my own.

I hope you’ll join me. Could be fun.