SO I HAVE this story for my stand-up act about a guy killing some dogs. I had a buddy who wanted to cut me into a drug heist, a dangerous one, in which we’d be breaking into a meth dealer’s house, killing the dogs that guard his stash, gaining meth and money. It’s a real story about a real kid that I was friends with because I peed in a Gatorade bottle to help him pass a drug test so I could impress this girl.
But with this guy, nothing is easy: his mother finds my urine and pours it down the sink, which makes no sense because there’s a toilet in the room. At 14, I’m not even really certain drug dealers exist, let alone that my friend is one of them, so when he asks me if he should cut me in and get me a gun, I say, “Yeah, uh-huh, get me a gun.” The next day he comes into school with a picture of himself holding a Desert Eagle semiautomatic, sporting it with his head mid-gangster nod.
“When did you say this was?” I ask.
“Saturday? Oh, Saturday we have dinner with my grandma, I can’t kill meth dogs on Saturday.”
He’s crushed, but he begrudgingly accepts that dinner with grandma is just too important for meth.
I come in on Monday, and he’s sitting at a desk waiting for me. As I approach, he looks up with the emptiest expression, shakes his head, and says, “I killed those dogs, man.” Then he pulls out his wallet and shows me at least ten grand.
On stage, this joke works, and I often wonder why. How’s it put together so audiences follow along and laugh, rather than sit there wondering how a suburban kid like me could have almost wasted a meth dealer’s dog with an illegal handgun?
Part of it is the shock, especially at the end. A look up, a shake of the head, and then, “I killed those dogs, man.” The end always gets one of the biggest laughs, because, all along, the audience thinks the kid is full of shit. The reversal and the harsh reality shock them. Another part is my persona. I’m a 20-year-old kid who goes onstage in a style best described as “Harry Potter on Christmas.” My awkwardness, my hopeless lack of control, and my blindness to the terrifying reality around me are central to the joke. Like Woody Allen, Louis C.K., and Margaret Cho, I self-deprecate, and that lets the audience laugh.
But the real reason this joke matters to me, and hopefully my audience, is the world that it constructs and the characters who inhabit it. In that world, my audience accompanies me and watches the events unfold from an over-the-shoulder camera attached to 14-year-old Taylor; they plug into his brain. They see his opinion of his friend sour and they see him awaken to a rough, adult world.
And yet it’s not just about me. The kid who kills the dogs needs the most attention. We need to understand him without sympathizing with him. His actions are horrifying, so the voice I give him is hard and forcibly careless. This is a person that I boil down to four lines, and I have to reveal something true through him. In this case, I’m using him to show that the world is far more serious than we think, especially in youth, and that the dark side in people goes deeper than drug tests and crushes. He’s the senselessness from which we’re often only a step removed.
Good stand-up is world creation. The comic creates a setting with characters, points of view, all with the aim of an enjoyable or enlightening experience. Ideally, both. When I watch a set, I might catch the world of someone crafting his Grimace/Mayor McCheese fan-fiction/pornography (this is a real and hilariously disgusting example). Comics create infinite worlds, yet all too often, I enter a less interesting world where the comic draws (or more likely traces) the lines with which we are all too familiar: lines between blacks and whites, gays and straights, men and women. Unfortunately, such reductive and commonplace comedy has a glaring ancestor.
The Minstrel Show
So here’s the problem with my world-creation theory: scholars have determined pretty conclusively just where stand-up comedy comes from, and that place is the minstrel show. I’d love to blame this on stuffy old professors who don’t get jokes unless tenure is the subject matter, but all one needs to do is turn on Comedy Central’s featured comics to find the remains of the minstrel show broadcast nightly.
Onstage, we have an actor/comic who plays the fool for our laughs, who appeals to the lowest variety of humor he or she (but often he) can tap into. In minstrel shows, the target is the poor, dumb African-American that inspires the Jim Crow caricature. Stand-up is broader, but no less cruel. Hackiness is not just laughing at an unpopular person or group. White men telling stories about how terrible they are (their sexual impotence, poor morality and general stupidity) is also a staple of the stage. This takes us no closer to complexity than a minstrel show, but at least these comics don’t bring minority groups into their crippling, self-deprecating narcissism. Still, the “look at this dumbass over here” mentality of the minstrel show is ever-present and always lazy.
Here at Ohio University, where I’m a senior studying English and president of the student stand-up organization, I see brilliant and not-so-brilliant comedy. Recently, I was invited to the Latino Comedy Jam on campus and asked if I wanted to see the comic Manny Maldonado. I was given this YouTube link.
In it, Maldonado attempts to link jokes about tetherball and gay mechanics with a transition and, instead of making a hard cut to a new subject, he claims that the gay mechanic is his brother and that hitting the tetherball turned him gay. The next joke is delivered with a wildly offensive lisp and normal mechanic jargon turned into “gay speak.” Sure it’s world-creation, but you don’t get any points for inventing a world of stereotypes. It’s harder than you would think to decide who is most debased in this clip. No one is treated with any dignity, including Moldonado. But the audience squeals in delight with every tetherball punch.
Even scarier is what minority comics are asked to do onstage in order to be “mainstream.” Raul Perez, a scholar on stand-up, reveals in this study discussed by TIME that people of other races are encouraged to throw out their old material for racial jokes. “The lower on the racial hierarchy, the less elaborate the strategies.” For instance, a Latino student in a stand-up workshop Perez enrolled in was advised “If you’re going to get racist, let’s go all the way.” Yikes. It also puts Maldonado’s comedy in perspective: this is what minority comics are advised to do throughout the industry. This social dynamic, where the disenfranchised are advised to accept and play up their stereotypes, is a cornerstone of the minstrel show. Poor whites, often disenfranchised themselves, were the ones yucking it up through the persecution of others. Comics like Maldonado and those in Perez’s class are pushed to find the “easy laugh,” which is often thought to lie in stereotypical premises, like airplane food and race. Just to keep everyone laughing. And audiences like Maldonado’s laugh, making it unclear whether these comics are the cause or symptom of an ugly, unsolved problem with stand-up.
Stand-Up Says Something
But that’s not the whole story. There are comics who resist what networks and advertisers want. The earliest and perhaps most revered figure in American political stand-up is George Carlin. Carlin’s antics led to a Supreme Court case that allowed the FCC to censor based on “indecency” as well as obscenity. Very few people, let alone comics, can say they singlehandedly brought about a new era of public censorship. Carlin’s bits on religion, homosexuals, human rights, and the famous Seven Dirty Words are just a few of his famous explorations. Between him, Lenny Bruce, and Richard Pryor, the ‘60s and ‘70s provided an explosion of raw expression on stage. These three are the most fascinating comics instrumental in gaining respect for stand-up as art, but I will focus on Carlin to illustrate the lineage over generations. Each would go on to influence virtually every comedian who followed, from Jerry Seinfeld to Bill Hicks.
Carlin’s ruminations are timeless: his bit on Vietnam is still harsh and relevant in today’s imperialistic world.
In style, Carlin stands far closer to famed essayists than any other comic. Historical essayists such as Washington Irving and Richard Steele as well as contemporary essayists such as bell hooks, Marilynne Robinson and Ta-Nehisi Coates write about race, gender, class, sexuality, politics and every other issue in the world around them. Take this brutal excerpt from “Fear Of A Black President” by Coates in The Atlantic: “White folks, whatever their talk of freedom and liberty, would not allow a black president. They could not tolerate Emmett’s boyish gaze. Dr. King turned the other cheek, and they blew it off. White folks shot Lincoln over ‘nigger equality’…beat Freedom Riders over bus seats [and] slaughtered Medgar in his driveway like a dog.” Tonally, it reads like a Carlin bit: blunt, angry, and full of perspective. Throughout this piece, Coates shocks the reader with his views, disturbing them with harsh language and brilliantly articulated anger.
It feels out of place, then, when Coates follows up this point in his essay with a stand-up joke from Chappelle’s Show: “The comedian Dave Chappelle joked that the first black president would need a ‘Vice President Santiago’—because the only thing that would ensure his life in the White House was a Hispanic president-in-waiting. A black president signing a bill into law might as well sign his own death certificate.” Stand-up comics question social norms with the same ferocity and freedom as the best essayists. In Britain, comics reacting to Thatcher-led England brought on an alternative comedy movement that swept quickly into the mainstream. In Africa, upcoming stand-up comics in Ghana and South Africa assert a cultural identity through thoughtful and angry stand-up, including alternative comic Mel Miller who was beaten by government officials in South Africa after an “indecent” show.
Stand-up, like the essay, has become a venue to discuss taboos. In his essay Upon Some Uses Of Virgil, Montaigne wondered why sexual intercourse was unable to be discussed in polite conversation: “But let us come to my subject: what has the act of generation, so natural, so necessary, and so just, done to men, to be a thing not to be spoken of without blushing, and to be excluded from all serious and moderate discourse? We boldly pronounce kill, rob, betray, and that we dare only to do betwixt the teeth.” Five hundred years later, poking fun at sexual repression is one of the central themes in American stand-up comedy. Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and others brought that essayistic tradition of skepticism to stand-up, aggressively questioning popular truth in hopes of starting a new conversation.
The Narrative and the Comic
One difficult part equating stand-up with the essay is that the form itself is so nebulous. I’ve come across many definitions, but what an essay needs has no consensus. Perhaps the best aim of an essay that I’ve ever heard is Philip Lopate’s: to “interrogate your ignorance.” This process of interrogation, a collecting of scattered thoughts and facts on a topic in an effort to glean understanding, plays out on the page to help the audience or reader find meaning. Certainly, that definition fits Carlin, but there are always more ways to interrogate ignorance. An important piece of stand-up’s history aligns less with the political essay and more with the personal essay, with no better example than Louis C.K.
Let’s compare a Louis C.K. joke to the work of the father of the personal essay, Michel de Montaigne. His most famous quotation asks: “What do I know?” In the Renaissance, Montaigne invented a written pursuit of knowledge, a genre he called an essay meaning “to try” or “to attempt.” He made the case that writers should organize what they know, putting together all of their thoughts on one topic and asking questions in an attempt at discovery.
Four hundred years later, Louis C.K. follows suit: “Will the Earth always go around the Sun?”
This question comes from Louis C.K.’s seven-year-old daughter. In a manner Montaigne would recognize, Louis gives what he feels is a good answer: “Well no, at some point the Sun is going to explode.” She, of course, cries. To comfort her justifiable horror, he says soothingly, “This won’t happen until you and everyone you know will have died.” The initial question opens up another four minutes on how his daughter is learning to understand a complicated world (she was bit by a pony). By following his daughter’s question onstage, he also follows the tradition of the essay deep into what he knows, only to discover more. That’s the very end that draws Montaigne to essay.
An alert on your scholarly narrator’s bias: Louis C.K. is my most favorite comic in the history of ever. He takes on a different role from the minstrel show, if one exactly as vulgar. Rather than identifying which fool needs mocking, he sets himself up to be the fool that is studied. This is also Montaigne’s move: examining himself and creating a complex character. He is the ignorant man that will be interrogated publicly and onstage. Just as Montaigne did, master craftsmen like Louis C.K. lead us into their world, guiding us through ideas toward a discovery that, because we know this is a performance, they’ve already discovered. This discovery provides laughter through the punch of knowledge. And Louis’s self is heavily involved, even when his story is not focused through his personal character. Fans like me love Louis because we feel like we know him. Everything makes sense because we trust him and because, through the journey, he leads the viewer to his conclusions.
For reference, let’s go to this bit above, where Louis contrasts the petty concerns of society with their technological marvels. He interrogates ignorance, certainly, though this time the focus is on others in Carlin-esque fashion. He finds that society is spoiled by technology to the point that past inconveniences are avoided and forgotten. Here, the world is stupid, and he is its mediator. How do comics create that world for themselves? They lie. And they do it a lot. Discussing the technology jokes in TIME Magazine, Louis explains making up a punchline:
Like the story I tell Conan [O’Brien] about the guy sitting next to me on the airplane when the Internet shuts down suddenly, and he says, “This is bullshit,” and I go, “How can you be angry? People owe you something that existed a minute ago?” There wasn’t anybody next to me on the plane, that was me. People don’t talk to me on airplanes. [Laughs] Anytime you see a bit where some stranger does something to me, it’s me.
Those characters spouting absurdities, such as “I don’t want to take off my shoes” in an airport or “I hate Verizon” are the voices in Louis’s head. They are his creations. And, wouldn’t you know it, essayists use this classic technique: famed essayists Richard Steele and Joseph Addison were creating characters for their social worldviews in early 18th century Britain in their publication The Spectator. Beyond the lead character, Mr. Spectator, other fictional characters stand for various values. Sir Roger de Coverley, a famous fictional example from the publication, stood for the need for chivalry in society in the same way that Louis C.K. discusses how much society takes technology for granted through his own author avatars.
Obviously, essayists are more committed to the truth than comics, but both are committed to the essential human experience, one that can be shared universally. We might call it Truth with a capital T.
Where Stand-Up Can And Should Go
The stand-up world was shaken last year when Tig Notaro, a relatively underground comic known only to stand-up nerds, took the stage on the night of a showcase show in L.A. to no cameras and little fanfare. She revealed that she had been diagnosed just that week with breast cancer. In a beautiful monologue full of wry wit, Tig takes her listener (the “you,” ever-present in stand-up and the essay) through the last year of her life, stopping to discuss her mother’s death, her breakup, her career, and the news that still has her in a state of shock. At the behest of many famous comics from that night, she released the audio in a 30-minute block entitled “Live” (as in to live or die). Tig doesn’t know in the set whether she will be onstage for much longer with treatment around the corner. Her cancer has since gone into remission, but the deeply personal details of Tig’s life leaves that original, shocked audience hovering between tears and laughter.
Tig starts by acknowledging her applause with, “Good! Hello! I have cancer, how are you?!” The punchlines are there-“They found a lump. I was like, ‘no, that’s my boob’”-but Tig also has to acknowledge a few audience members who start to weep, likely from their own proximity to cancer. She says to one upset audience member, “It’s going to be okay!…It might not be okay. But you’ll be okay!” to huge laughs. Louis C.K., present for the set, called it the greatest stand-up set of all time. I argue that it transcends stand-up: Live is a modern American essay, chronicling one person’s attempt at understanding the scope and senselessness of personal tragedy.
Tig is far from alone in essayistic stand-up. Innovators like John Mulaney tell stories with amazing characters. Hannibal Buress elevates observational comedy into mini-essays on the mundane. Mike Birbiglia, in place of traditional jokes, gives hour-long monologues of enhanced stories. I have seen my comic friends at Ohio University discuss deeply traumatic experiences with racism, rape culture, disease, fear, bullying and death. I have tried to live up to these examples: I try to lead my audience down a trail that I have blazed, even if we don’t travel far or if that trail has been blazed before by more competent artists. To keep an audience with my exploration of senseless violence that surrounds us all, I use shock and meth dogs.
In this tearful tribute to George Carlin, Louis C.K. documents what he learned from Carlin about joke writing. Write a new hour based on what you are feeling, do a TV special, and get rid of it. “Are you kidding? I worked 15 years on this shitty hour,” Louis jokingly reacts to Carlin’s advice. What follows is absolutely profound: “When you’re done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs, you can only dig deeper. Okay, talk about your feelings and who you are. So then you do those, and they’re gone. Then you start doing jokes about your fears and nightmares and then those are gone. And then you start going into weird shit.” Whenever I am talking to people with an interest in comedy, or talking to myself in the mirror after a bad set, I stress the need to find that weird shit. If stand-up comedy keeps chasing worlds that have yet to be shared, it will eventually be recognized as the art form that I love.