Critics and other very intelligent folks like to claim that we live in a culture of cheap fame-whoring and endless Facebook status updates – the era of the Tweet, the 15 Minutes of Fame Generation. The root of the disgust seems to lie in the notion that it would be better – and indeed the only respectable option – if one went about one’s business (selling Mercedes Benzes or frothing milk at a coffee shop or writing the Great American Novel) with a modicum or superabundance of humility. Enough humility to avert one’s head from the madding, tweeting crowd – the pallor of shame-by-association discoloring one’s cheeks – and to seek instead a life of quiet, serious dignity.
What intrigues me about stand-up comedy – what makes me delight in it, apart from the (to me) self-evident joy of laughing one’s ass off – is that stand-up makes an art form of “look at me, look at me!” while simultaneously making it harder for the viewer to disassociate the attention-seeking from the human being who is vulnerable, who wants to share with someone else, to laugh at the specter of death.
I once sat in my living room as my old roommate, Freddy Blair, AKA Fred Thunder, refined material he had written earlier that day into a polished set to read that evening at a local showcase, Entertaining Julia. The spontaneity of the creativity and the effort to tighten the phrasing and get the words right was exciting to me. He took experiences from his life and things that annoyed him – like loud or annoying customers at the bar where he worked – and turned those facts and associated emotions and thoughts into bits – words combined and ordered so as to surprise by bluntness, by creativity, by phrasing, or by timing.
As we talked about one of his bits, a restaurant called Sips & Whispers where no one is allowed to talk at full volume and all you can hear are “the sounds of life,” people quietly chewing and sipping and murmuring, we laughed because it was bleak and probably other reasons, too.
It seems like nothing serious is at stake for a stand-up comedian in a single set – they either laugh or they don’t, and life goes on, and who cares. But at the same time, there is so much of a person’s personality, emotions, and thoughts on display. Many of my favorite comedians expose very personal emotions and experiences in their acts.
Richard Pryor brilliantly laid bare the undercurrent of sadness in comedy when he did sets that unexpectedly took a serious turn, without segue or explanation, and if you watch some of his videos you can hear the crowd growing quieter and quieter. But even when the crowd laughs throughout a stand-up set, and the mood remains cheerful and fun regardless of the source material, there often seems to be a lot of sorrow and yearning and anger and self-loathing along with the joy and laughter.
Here are some of my favorite stand-up comedians: