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THIS IS A THESIS: CO CREATING ALTERNATIVE STAND UP COMEDY BY JEREMY BLACKOWIAK A Thesis Submitted to the Division of Humanities New College of Florida In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Bachelor of Arts Under the Spo nsorship of Professor Andrea Dimino Sarasota, Florida May, 2011
ii Dedication This thesis is not dedicated to sleep, alcohol, or the government. This thesis maintains an emotional distance of fifteen missed phone calls at all times. The re ader hereby assumes full responsibility for any risk of neck, diaphragm, or gut injury arising out of or related to the perception and or comprehension (or misapprehension) of this thesis. Chapters II and III are non refundable. Kleenexes are available i n the main washroom. Check your gender at the door. This thesis is dedicated to the many, the angry, and the poor.
iii Acknowledgements So, my advice is when the lights start flashin' I 'll be zonin' all alone and In the place where my mind is goin' Filled with songs that no one's knowin' And the Devil in a hot pink dress tryin' to ask me for one dance He think he slic k, but my guardians protect me from his wrath So, in my place no hate shall enter Livin' high up there, up there Copin' copin' floatin' I will find peace somewhere KC, Man on the Moon First and foremost, I would like to thank Professor Andrea Dimino for her support and patience throughout the thesis process. A special thanks goes to Becca Furlow, whose presence was my endurance through this final semest er. To Greeley Dawson and Sivens Glaude, may the legend of The Three Kings live forever. To Mich ael Marazzi: They don't even know. I would like to thank my parents, Douglas Blackowiak and Joyce Mullins, for everything t hey have sacrificed for my sake. Finally, I would like to thank my siblings: Matthew Blackowiak, Andrew Blackowiak, Nathaniel Black owiak, Alicia Black owiak, and Chelsea Blackowiak. They are smarter and funnier than I am.
iv Table of Contents Abstract . v Introduction: If You Think Something Is Funny, It Is....... .6 This Is Ch apter 1: Demetri Martin ....... ....17 This Is Chapter II: Maria Bamford .......32 This Is Chapter III: Patton Oswalt ....45 Conclusion : Looking Forward ....51 A Timeline of Stan d up Comedy .. 54 Works Cited ... ...........58
v THIS IS A THESIS: CO CREATING ALTERNATIVE STAND UP COMEDY Jeremy Blackowiak New College of Florida, 2011 ABSTRACT This thesis examines questions of audience, gender, and com ic persona in three recorded works of "alternative" stand up comedy. After establishing a historical and literary context for the study of stand up comedy the project splits into three chapters Chapter I examines Dem etri Martin's 2006 album These Are J okes This first chapter focuses on questions of the comic audience relationship, in which Martin manipulates stage power dynamics Muting himself with a second performer, Martin shifts creative opportunity onto the audience Chapter II exam ines Maria B amford's 2007 album Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome. This chapter complicates the traditional power dynamic by appraising how the comic persona can fragment. Slippery and aloof, Bamford's rapid character shifting works to dissolve gender expectations. Finally Chapter III investig ates Patton Oswalt's 2007 album Werewolves and Lollipops Drawing on Julia Kristeva's theory of the abject, this chapter probes Oswalt's work for that which is somehow bot h intimate and objectionable. Like traditional comic performance, "a lternative" stand up comedy subverts authority but it also actively challenge s binary thinking in the most subtle and personal way s In the co creative moment, no seat is safe: "alternative" stand up calls everyone to perform. ____________________________________ Professor Andrea Dimino, Thesis Sponsor
6 If You Think Something Is Funny, It Is Before you begin reading this thesis, please pause and consider the foll owing question: What is stand up comedy? If you manage to bear the simplicity of the request, you might find yourself imagining a mostly empty stage. There might be a stool perched near the center, lonely but resolute, marking the evening's entertainment terrain. The lights may be dimmed, and there might be a restless shuffling of beer bottles and warm chatter. A silver mesh tipped microphone stands in electric anticipation. Viewing the microphone from the other side of the stage was a humbling momen t, the first time. The microphone sort of represents stand up as a tradition. After all, i t was t he microphone that enabled the performer to engage a large audience with the full range of his or her voice, even to a whisper. The stage and microphone tog ether feel very cold and artificial. You feel like you are some insignificant, squishy thing that is about to wrestle with a piece of steel, all while blinded by the overhead lamps. When the MC calls your name, there is no time for hesitation. Every sec ond from this point out is going on your performance report card, or calorie counter, or worse, the I nternet. I take the microphone from the stand, prop casually onto the stool, then crack open the first joke: Please come out next week to see my musical act. It's death metal. We go by Rectal Birth The thesis project began there, on the stage, at the realization of the "cocreative moment." Noting that my first joke was an invitation to the audience, the performance was suspended. It could not contin ue until the audience had responded. Further, I began to experience what John Limon writes on the fundamental nature of the "joke": ". .an untransmitted joke is not, structurally, a joke" (11). The theoretical relationship between
7 performer and audienc e became irreparably fragmented. Later, I discovered that the other Open Mic perfo rmers were not interested in a conventional academic discourse on stand up. Stealing back to New College campus, I began to research stand up's scholarly attention. What quickly emerged is a distinction that threatened to problematize the inquiry, that while the novel, the short story, the poem and the play so often are directed toward revealing a nation's loftier intellectual and aesthetic ideals, stand up comedy tends t o point itself in the other direction that which is unpleasant and even visceral, angry and profane, turning the floor over to observations and commentaries that grow out of negativity, disgust and carnal appetites. (Tafoya, 12) What threatened the i nquiry was not the tenuous argument of this attitude or the disrespect for the Oxford comma 1 The threat was in how embedded this attitude seems to be in scholarly discourse on stand up comedy. It is a comfortable mode of criticism that projects stand u p into a moral binary, evoking a distasteful conversation of "high" and "low" art. Further, the larger problem of humor theory lurks in the background, a very real issue. The problem in analyzing humor (and its exercise as stand up) lies with in the natu re of humor itself: "That one joke works and another doesn't seems illogical, the spontaneous consequence of chance." 2 On a much simpler level, the act of analyzing a 1 Who "direct[s] revelation," Mr. Tafoya? 2 Pfordresher, John. "An Approach to Analyzing Jokes," The English Journal, Vol. 70, No. 6, Oc t 1981, April 20, 2011. < http://www.jstor.o rg/stable/817158>
8 joke often strips it of its appeal. The experience of humor (read: laugh) is a temporal one: the collective experience of humor, like the personal experience of pain, fills its moment and perishes; reflection misprizes it of necessity" (Limon, 11). Since this is not primarily a theoretical thesis, the struggle for a unified h umor th eory must be put aside. Because the experience of laughter is simple and intuitive, this text will use well established literary theories of humor in their most basic framework. Relief Theory, Superiority Theory, and Incongruity Theory are the dominant t heoretical discourses available to this study (Tafoya, 72). Simplifying the theoretical discourse will allow a stronger focus on the material of stand up performance. Making an inquiry into stand up comedy as literature begs a question: what is literatu re ? Can stand up comedy be analyzed as literature? If stand up comedy is not literature, then what is it? Merriam Webster defines literature as follows: a (1) : writings in prose or verse; especially : writings having excellence of form or expression an d expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest (2) : an example of such writings 3 This definition seems to leave little room for stand up comedy. The etymology of "literature" leaves us even more stranded. The English word "literature" descends f rom the Latin lit(t)era literally "letter." 4 If literature is simply "writings" with artistic merit, stand up may not fit the bill, especially when most stand up performances are not transcribed, if written at all. Furthermore, many comics change their "script" in the midst 3 "literature." Merriam Webster Online Dictionary 2011. Merriam Webster Online.21 April 2011
9 of a performance, adding and subtracting to the routine. But before we banish stand up comedy to the amorphous Sea of Cultural Studies, consider the nature of literary text and publication. If a work being printed is literature's ma in requirement, where do we situate great works of oral traditions? Classical epics like The Iliad existed as something like literature before they were finally written. The same is true for much of the Old and New Testament s authors of which never work ed for print or publication (Lafoya, 21). What about the European fairy tales that were finally compiled by the Brothers Grimm? Were they not literature at their inception? As Eddie Tafoya finally charges the reader, "is the term oral literature' an ox ymoron" (21)? In order to rescue stand up from this semantic web, some parameters must come into play. If clarifying "what is literature" is too difficult, identifying some of the things that literature and stand up both do becomes the necessary critic al move. Since works of literature are active, dynamic, and intertextual cultural productions, this promises to be a powerful resume. At a fundamental level, literature codifies experience Liter ature is a network by which humans narrate their experien ce. There may be few greater examples of this principle than the primacy of religious texts. The Old Testament prophets claim its textual power is absolute: "So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void" ( King Ja mes Bible Isaiah 55:11). From Adam and Eve, to Shakespeare, to Chappelle's Show literary work contributes to the vocabulary and structure of the vernacular. In the context of influencing everyday language, stand up comedy's contribution is readily appa rent. For every Bible's "eye for an eye" there is a Chappelle's "I'm Rick James, bitch The rise of the Internet has provided access to an
10 unprecedented amount of multimedia cultural productions. Electronic versions of classic texts are accessi ble for free, downloadable in a few seconds. Stand up comedy is more accessible, with recorded (legally or not) performances available in video and audio formats. In the larger scheme of things, this means that both stand up comedy and written literature are ne arly the same few keystrokes away. Economic forces still play an important role in what is published, but individual bias toward any one form of media can develop virtually unmediated. One can switch between reading Homer's Iliad and watching George Carl in's "Seven Dirty Words" routine in an instant. When these cultural productions share language in common, they necessarily participate in the literary codification of human experience. Both literature and stand up comedy are also effective at providin g emotional catharsis It seems no coincidence that Aristotle's Poetics addresses theory of humor alongside this foundational literary term. Though one may experience catharsis in relation to any number of emotions, laughter may be one of the most obviou s applications of the concept As Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schopenhauer, among others, have argued, one of the main functions and benefits of laughter is the way in which it works as a safety valve by allowing the release of nervous energy built up befor e the person entered the laughter situation. (Tafoya, 72) Laughter may or may not be "the best medicine," but the infliction of humor can have measurable physiological effects. 5 But besides mirth and "emotional cleansing," stand 5 Martin, Rod. "Humor, Laughter, and Physical Health: Methodological Issues and Research Findings," Psychological Bulletin Vol. 127, No. 4, 504 519, 2001, 24 April 2011
11 up comedy can be a harrowi ng narrative journey. Richard Pryor's legendary Live at the Sunset Strip invites the viewer into a madness of drug addiction, divorce, and masculine identity crisis. 6 In Killin' Them Softly Dave Chappelle puts us in his passenger seat as he drives uncom fortably through the ghettoes of Washington D.C.. 7 Often, the stand up comic is primarily a storyteller and there is no limitation for content. The range of possibility for stand up catharsis is as variable as any storytelling tradition. Finally, b oth literature and stand up comedy are concerned with language play Working in the same linguistic traditions, both forms challenge and subvert conventional rules of grammar, syntax, and narrative logic. Observing e.e. cummings' "l(a": l(a le af fa ll s) l iness 8 If form is content, "l(a" follows a simulated gravitational (and emotional) pull, recalling the broken but chronological string of "le/af/f a/ll/s)". The dissected words descend around the underlying theme (and literal bottom) of the poem, loneliness and despair. One must decide how to read the poem before an analysis can begin, forsaking the rules of syntax and punctuation. Stand up comic Demetri Martin's poem "Dammit I'm Mad" 6 Pryor, Richard. Dir. Lay ton, Joe. Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip Columbia Pictures, 1982. DVD. 7 Chappelle, David. Killin' Them Softly Urban Works, 2003. DVD. 8 Cummings, e.e. "l(a." Complete Poems: 1904 1962. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: W.W. Norton. 1991, 673.
12 works in a similar way. The poem is a 224 word palindr ome, the same backward as it is forward. "Dammit I'm Mad" Dammit I'm mad. Evil is a deed as I live. God, am I reviled? I rise, my bed on a sun, I melt. To be not one man emanating is sad. I piss. Alas, it is so late. Who stops to help? Man, it is hot. I'm in it. I tell. I am not a devil. I level "Mad Dog". Ah, say burning is, as a deified gulp, In my halo of a mired rum tin. I erase many men. Oh, to be man, a sin. Is evil in a clam? In a trap? No. It is open. On it I was stuck. Rats peed on hope. Elsewh ere dips a web. Be still if I fill its ebb. Ew, a spider eh? We sleep. Oh no! Deep, stark cuts saw it in one position. Part animal, can I live? Sin is a name. Both, one my names are in it. Murder? I'm a fool. A hymn I plug, deified as a sign in ruby ash, A Goddam level I lived at. On mail let it in. I'm it. Oh, sit in ample hot spots. Oh wet! A loss it is alas (sip). I'd assign it a name. Name not one bottle minus an ode by me: "Sir, I deliver. I'm a dog" Evil is a deed as I live. Dammit I'm mad. 9 "Damm it I'm Mad" may have been written only to suit the palindrome form, but does that make it any less valid as a poem? If anyth ing, it occupies a parodic space that makes some targeted criticism. The poem says "poetry is ridiculous" as loudly as it says "I am a 9 Dovey, Rachel. "Demetri Martin's Palindrome Poem." Paste Magazine, Feb. 2009, 24 April 2011. < http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2009/02/demetri martins palindrome poem.html >
13 poem dammit ." It is a sort of found poetry as well, g enerating content from the parameters of a language puzzle. The speaker seems like he or she is grappling with an identity crisis, trapped in a deterministic selfhood that reflects the p alindrome form: "I'm a fool; I'm a dog; Oh, to be a man, a sin; Sin is a name/Both, one my names are in it". The poem must, by definition, end with the same words as it began. For all its strange but innovative structure, "Dammit I'm Mad" is closed. In his recen t book, This Is A Book Martin has another palindrome piece whose title is a long paragraph narrating the context of the poem (Martin, 84). It begins "Sexes. Eh, the sexes and follows a man's attempt to woo two strippers. The narrative is a disjo inted piece of slapstick: "A fine pose yet call I don't./Now I slam in a sad ogle./'Berate me!'" (85). As a verbal art and or al tradition, stand up comedy is consta ntly stretching language sounds with hoots, hollers, impressions, etc. In Martin's 2006 al bum, These Are Jokes there are many bits that draw attention to colloquialisms, literalizing them into something more self aware : [After dinner] I was so tired that I went straight home. The next day I got a call from him. I said How're you doing?" H e said Not so good. That burrito did not agree with me.' I said, [pause] Was the disagreement over how much you'd be crapping? [pause] Lemme guess who won. (" One Story") Unlike poetry, stand up comedy has the privilege of physical and temporal immediac y. The t ext of a written work is fixed and unchangeable. In this sense, the written text and stand up cannot perform the duties of the other. However, some comics are making the effort. Martin, for example, carries a large notepad onto the stage for hi s performances.
14 The Thesis Almost If stand up is enough like literature, then the thesis may move forward. The primary sources for the study are three comedy albums, each the work of a so called "alternative" stand up comic. "Alternative" is a term that must work like terms denoting literary movements. Though they are not fully descriptive or agreed upon, their categorical use is a necessary part of organizing academic study. The term "Alternative comedy" found usage in the United States in the early 1990s, purportedly by Los Angeles's "Un Cabaret" creators Beth Lapides and Greg Miller. Their goal was to "[apply] artistic criteria to stand up and [create] an alternative comedy' revolution, valuing story over jokes, meaning over form, urgency ov er polish, and intimacy over shtick." 10 They also "set out to be un homophobic, un xenophobic, and un misogynistic." Alternative comedy giants like David Cross, Janeane Garofalo, and Margaret Cho attended workshops at Un Cabaret before becoming major West C oast hits. Meanwhile, New York's improv scene developed its own flavor of "alternative comedy," owing to Manhattan's Upright Citizen's Brigade. Comics like Demetri Martin, Maria Bamford, and SNL star Amy Poehler got their start in the developing East Co ast movement. Andrea Rosen, curator of the "Pie Hole Comedy Show" in Manhattan, has a front row insight into the term "alternative comedy." Journalist Lisa Davis writes that 10 "About Un Cabaret UN CABARET FREE RANGE COMEDY." UN CABARET FREE RANGE CO MEDY "Taking Comedy Seriously Since 1991". http://uncabaret.com/node/1
15 the performances are varied in form and content some musical, some improv, some sketch comedy: anything that veers away from what Rosen calls "ba dum pum" comedy, the kind of pre fab mainstream comedy found in Manhattan's standup clubs like Caroline's or Gotham. 11 But Rosen makes no pretense about the movement's novelty She sa ys alternative stand up is an "ethos," even claiming Steve Martin, Woody Allen, and "a whole world of bars and basements." 12 Comedy journalist John Wenzel feels that "alternative" is an inadequate term, that it overlaps with subgenres such as rock n' roll comedy, political comedy, avant garde comedy, confrontation/experimental comedy, awkward comedy, pain as humor, and whatever unfortunate nouns we're saddling with the term post these days. (5) Though one can appreciate the disdain of his last s entence, the subgenre list is a theoretical mess. What is "political comedy," for example? When Andrea Rosen mentions that alternative comedy exists in "bars and basements," she brings up one of the more accessible and coherent characteristics of the "ge nre": alternative venues. Wherever "cerebral, reference heavy, surreal humor" can congregate outside the comedy club scene, the farther the scene can move from "patrons whose heads often seemed alternately filled with air, meat, and shit" (5). 11 Davis Lisa. "Serious Fun," The Brooklyn Paper New York November 10, 2003, 24 April2011. < http://www.brooklynpaper.com/stories/26/45/26_45piehole.html > 12 Ibid.
16 The comic s chosen for this study belong (according to a few writers, this one included) to the alternative stand up genre. They are comics who, in their own bizarre ways, actively resist some of the more apparent stand up conventions. Mainstays like "men vs. wom en" bits and self deprecation are out of sight. Instead, these comics develop a performative strategy that is consistent with the cultural situation of their "movement." The comic, by virtue of his or her innovation and alternativeness, wields a special knowledge or authority. It is by sharing this special knowledge that the comic develops a relationship with the audience. By belonging to the "in" crowd, the audience is invited to engage the coolness of the comic. Where stand up is usually concerned wi th subverting sources of authority that are mutual to the comic and audience (government, corporate America, girlfriends), alternative stand up infiltrates the everyday. And you are not safe.
17 This Is Chapter I: Demetri Martin Former NYU law student and comic Demetri Martin is classified under what critic John Wenzel terms indie ," a brand of stand up comedy that deviates from a more "traditional" material and venue (11). At the very basic, indie and a lternative comics take the concept of a joke, defined loosely as "set up pay off," and manipulate it to defy expectations (15). Demetri Martin's 2006 album These Are Jokes opens with a quick nod to the venue's host, then his first joke: "I have this stage set up very precisely f or the maximum CD recording -That's it, for t hat sentence" ("The Start"). Demetri Martin's set follows this type of pattern for the entire hour. Individual jokes are often missing pieces of language, opening a space where a punchline may not be immediately accessible, but implied or heavily suggest ed. In this case, the audience is invited to participate in creating the final element of the joke. "That's it, for that sentence" fits the space typically reserved for a punchline, but the reaction to the joke what is funny is in the ellipsis between "r ecording" and the end of the joke. Moving on from this introduction, Martin almost immediately responds to an audience member: "The show officially st arts -right, F ing, as soon as you sit down" ("The Start"). For the comic performer, a distraction fro m an audience member can make or break a set. Jeff Foxworthy recalls performing for Johnny Carson in his first television appearance (Brady, I Am Comic ). His set had been tediously crafted; nearly each syllable had been mapped out for what would be a cor nerstone performance for his career. When
18 his first joke did well, Foxworthy did not expect the Tonight Show "APPLAUSE" light to create a surge of response from the crowd. Losing precious seconds to the accolade, he was forced to continue the set while c hoosing which joke (s) he would have to cut in order to stay within his allotted time frame. That sort of audience participation is what negotiates the material of stand up comedy set. Without the audience, a comic's performance is a just a monologue th at may or may not make him or herself laugh. For Demetri Martin, manipulating the audience's access to certain areas of participation seems to be an important goal. As the wandering audience member finds a seat, Martin announces that he is finally starti ng the show: "The s how officially starts right, NOW: dating is difficult, black people and white people are different, also airplane food is unacceptable. Yes! That' s three jokes in five seconds. T his is awesome. That's a very high LPM lot of laughs pe r minute on this CD" ("The Start"). Martin's quick three jokes are dismissive, referring obliquely to classic stand up tropes. In a sarcastic, dry tone, Martin summarizes an image of conventional stand up material, distancing himself from it as the "real show begins. Theoretical Framework Quoting literature scholar Albert Rapp, Eddie Tafoya prioritizes a Superiority Theory of humor, "the roar of triumph in an ancient jungle duel" (qtd. in Tafoya, 73). Superiority Theory refers generally to the notion tha t every joke has a "butt," or a dominated object Humor is then created when the viewer experiences this dominance. Jokes classified under this theory include (3) jokes that poke fun at the joketeller himself" (73). Filtering Martin's work th rough this theory becomes useful immediately,
19 drawing attention to his ego. Much of Martin's work bounces between clever observations and the advantages that the insights bring to him: "I used to co mpete in sports a lot, b ut then I realized you can buy tr ophies ; n ow I'm good at everything (Martin, "Personal Information Waltz ). The joke feigns a slight depreciation of Martin's moral character. He has "given up" on sports. Approaching this joke in terms of gender, we can observe Martin throwing a wry gr in at a model of masculinity that demands physical or athletic dominance. Martin's stage persona is a geek, much more interested in crossword puzzles than gridirons. The joke's punchline inverts the angle of the joke in the terms of Superiority Theory. Where Martin had ironically entreated a sizing up of his masculinity, the attack of the joke falls upon the model of masculinity posed by the invocation of "sports." The positive attention of the joke rests on Martin's intellect, which manages a basic min d/body dualism, obviously favoring the mind. One can earn trophies, but this achievement comes off as superficial, or merely nominal. This power structure manifests more directly at the addition of Martin's tag : Now I'm good at everything" ("Personal In formation Waltz). Within the world of Martin's performance, he really is "good at everything," and his mind is the only relevant metric. The punchline of the "T rophies" joke angles a jab at masculinity at large, but the tag clinches his position. Imagi ne a lofted plane, on which a burly football player sits. Martin's character is one level below, swinging a grappling hook. The punchline bridges the planes, so that Martin and the football player can potentially sit as equals ("But then I realized you c an buy trophies"). Martin demonstrates that he too has access to a similar accolade. The tag is the moment that Martin kicks the football player out of the loft
20 ("Now I'm good at everything"). No longer is the accolade simply accessible; it is hollow, o r meaningless. Martin's planar advantage is his intellectual freedom from a traditionally masculine gender role. He pegs sports as an institution that has aggravated his gender participation in the past ("I used to compete "). The joke consider s an identity that draws support from this institution to be farcical. Free fr om this construction, Martin could surround himself with trophies without inviting a conflict of gender i dentity. Where the setup indicated a revision ("I used to compete. ") and the punchline a discovery ("then I realized "), his final assertion is a declaration ("Now I'm good at everything "). The third "I" statement overwrites the invocation of a "sports" persona with a general declaration of power. The vocabulary is no longer limited by sports terminology and the crowd responds with both laughter and cheers. Martin's material is innovative at its best, but more traditional punchlines pad the hour long performance: "I think an eating contest is really just the be ginning of a shitting contest" ("Other Jokes"). One liners like this follow a long tradition of observational humor. Comics like Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg, whose material resembles Martin's, rely almost entirely on observational, soundbyte punchl ines (Hedberg, Mitch All Together ). Their jokes work to "def a miliarize the minute and unimportant," separating them for closer examination (Tafoya, 120). A standard of stand up as a form, t hese jokes can be the result of a del iberate, daily rearrangement of conventional observational process es :
21 Often, however, I get an idea about something that I feel is funny, but I don't quite know how to articulate it. That's what happened with this joke. I wrote down the basic idea, something like "My plants often die ," and then turned it over in my mind to see where the exact joke lies. To do this, I'll identify the elements of the joke and wonder about how those elements go together. It means taking nothing for granted, which makes the world much more interesting to me. So, "My plants often die" led me to think about the idea of keeping things alive, which made me wonder, Are some things easier to keep alive than others? Then, What's the easiest plant to keep alive? This made me think of a cactus. 13 Martin wants to "ta ke nothing for granted," finding an "extreme" analogue to his ordinary problems. The joke develops further: I thought, How can you kill a cactus? By giving it too much water. But I couldn't really find a joke there. You can kill a lot of plants by giving them too much water. So I stopped worrying about the watering part and concentrated more on the idea of life and death. After a bit of thought, I arrived at a joke I liked: "I bought a cactus. A week later it died. And I got depressed, because I thought, D amn. I am less nurturing than a desert. 1 In order to contextualize the ordinary as something more personal, abstract, and "universal," Martin engages the cactus in terms of life and death While the final punchline draws the line of attention back to M artin's ego and 13 Martin, Demetri. How to Build a Joke," New York Entertainment Fall 2005, 25 April 2010 < http://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/features/14578/ >.
22 creative force, the effort of the setup is an appeal to his audiences. In the well reviewed Zen and the Art of Stand up Comedy Jay Sankey emphasizes an important rule for writing material: Why Should An Audience Care? If the audience d oesn't care what you are talking about, they will not laugh. It's really that simple. No emotional investment, no fuel for laughter. Fortunately, there are several ways, both indirect and direct, to coax people to become truly involved with what you are saying. (21) If we consider Sankey's instruction, Martin's "cac tus" joke appeals to a general audience by accessing a more "universal" discourse on life and death." 1 Though it may be likely that an audience member has owned houseplants, even cacti, it may be more likely that he or she has an emotional interest in mortality For the casual viewer this formula may seem like common sense. But a comic's relationship with an audience is not simply positive or negative The relationship is intricate, and Martin's work is interested in actively negotiating the space between. According to comedian Craig Anton, stand up material is organized first as individual jokes organized around a central theme or narrative: a "bit" ( I Am Comic ). The bit is then organ ized under the term "chunk," a larger portion of the performance much like an act in traditional theater. Multiple chunks comprise one "set," a singular performance. Martin's material is innovative in that it reinvents the traditional usage of the "chunk ." There is little transition between individual jokes, dissolving the temporal aspect of the "bit" with the observational one liners. Martin's "chunk" is a division in the
23 mode of the performance. Having worked with Comedy Central's Daily Show and dire ctly with fans on YouTube, Martin's typical audience is young and internet savvy. 14 Performing for a shorter attention span quickens the pace of the material, identified by Martin's term "LPM" (laughs per minute) in a previous quote. The material in These Are Jokes tends to avoid constructing a linear, meandering narrative, instead relying on succinct and independent jokes. These Are Jokes opens in a plain, spoken monologue. This is the first chunk, about a third of the total performance. The second ch unk opens with "Sames & Opposites," a bit accompanied by an acoustic guitar. The same quick, observational humor persists while following the bit's established formula: "A musical is the same as a burlap sack/I would not want to be in either. .A squirre l is the same as a can/When there's a B.B. Gun in my hand. ." ( Sames & Opposites ). The third and final chunk continues the musical aspect of the second, adding a xylophone and a second performer, comedian Will Forte. Audience, Same and Opposite Wh en the monologue form returns, Saturday Night Live cast member Leo Allen accompanies Demetri on stage : DEMETRI. Some of my jokes I think there's a visual component that is 14 Horn, John. "Demetri Martin, star of Taking Woodstock'," Los Angeles Times, 21 June 2009, 15 April 2011
24 lost on the CD without some accompanying description, so Leo will describe the par ts of the joke that are essential to know about that you can't see if you're just listening to this. LEO. Right, for people who aren't here. Or blind people. DEMETRI. I mean, blind people isn't really the demo I'm going for. In fact, there's going to be a sticker on the CD that says "not for blind people." ( These Jokes ) This is one of the few times that Martin a ddresses the listening audiences of the CD. What follows is an addition to Martin's metalinguistic style of humor, in which words or phrase s are removed or placed in an unconventional syntax. Earlier in the performance, this style manifested in his splicing of compound nouns: A birdhouse is not the same as a bird home; One is much more comfortable, for birds. ( Some Jokes ) If one can under stand a successful stand up strategy to be communicating a "special knowledge" to the viewer, the "bird home" joke achieves humor in at least two ways. It allows the "rediscovery of something familiar" in regard to colloquial use of the word "home" (as in home is where the heart is ), as well as a deconstruction of the same kind of adage (Freud, 122). The special knowledge that Martin communicates here is "home is where the house is." Martin packages the mild social criticism of the concept of "home" with in the familiarity of the "home is where the heart is" adage, simultaneously using and abusing the sentiment. Returning to "These Jokes," Leo Allen assists a similar style to "bird home," capitalizing on a set of expectations for comedic duos. As Allen takes the stage, an
25 intertextual link is created toward a history of American comedy teams. Though their origin can be traced to vaudeville traditions from the mid 1880s, modern stand up duos probably derive more from American film literature, and telev ision (Tafoya, 116). Famous pairs like Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and Lucy and Ricky Ricardo inform the development of the comedic duo as a literary institution. Typically, one member of the pair acts as a "straight" character, reasonable or serious. The other is somewhat a foil, humorous or clumsy, but these roles can be interchangeable. When the "buddy film" emerged in the mid twentieth century, the industry began to sublimate stand up comics into the evolving format. Films like Silver St reak a "salt and pepper buddy movie" starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, opened a critical space for topical humor similar to post 1960s stand up 15 Comic duo stage performances persist, including Hugh Laurie & Stephen Fry, Penn & Teller Brett McKen zie & Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), and Tim Heidecker & Eric Wareheim. A Duo Viewership Matrix For Demetri Martin, sharing the stage with another per former is a brief occurrence. Martin invites Allen onto the stage in a near whisper. Addr essin g the theater audience, Martin outlines Allen's function for the upcoming bit. His job is to orally demonstrate Martin's visual performance for the benefit of the CD audiences For the duration of this bit, twoaudiences (already infinitely various within the ir collective s ) are invited to an awareness of each other. 16 The stand up strategy of inviting emotional 15 Burr, Ty. Entertainment Weekly "Pryor's Films," 16 Dec 2005, 25 April 2011.
26 investment by sharing a special knowledge is complicated first by another performer, whose function is essentially to clarify, bridging a co mmunication gap that Martin claims he cannot do on his own. Further, the "new" audience (listening to the CD) enters as a third party to the theater audience and stage performers. For the laughers audible on the CD, the audience that Leo Allen addresses is both them and not them Having deferred the communication to the CD audience, Martin alters the relationship between himself and the theater audience. The CD audience has been isolated, confined to an other with its own performer. Meanwhile, the the ater audience has access to the liv e visual and auditory elements of the performance. The performers and the theater audience now share an even more special knowledge, having developed a more specific exclusivity. By linking the CD audience to "blind peo ple," Leo Allen operates within the Superior ity Theory of humor by exploiting a third, absent party. Notions of physical space, temporal space, and abl ist privilege distance the CD audie nce from the t heater audienc e. If we use Limon's model of power stru cture, "stand up is the resurrection of your father as your child" (4). Ignoring the complicated theoretical implications of this statement, we may use it as a simplified metaphor. If the performer(s) are authority figures analogous to parents, and the t heater audience to a child, the CD audience is the introduction of another child. Limon might claim a potential for something like jealousy from the theater audience, but for now they exist simply as others to one another. audiences as a singular collective manages the othering that is enacted by the theater audience, which exists in "the circle" of the live performance (13).
27 Theater "Live" Audience CD "Listening" Audience Having divided the audiences from each other rhetorically, Martin develops the multiplicitous relationship among the (now four) parties. Where the t heater audien ce gains a kind of privilege out of physical and temporal proximity to the performance, the CD au dience is invited to discover th eir own privileged space. The t heater audience receives a performance from two performers, while the CD audience receives a pe rformance fr om both the performers and the t heater audience. The "people who aren't here" have been listening to the performance, laughing or not laughing along with the live audience. Now identified as distinct from the laughers in the recording, an op portunity for a parallel but critical laugh track arises. The split communication between audiences adds another axis to the Superiority Theory lens By provoking the distinction between audiences Martin's jokes can liquefy the dominant/dominated binary Both audiences are simultaneously empowered and dominated. The live audience retains the privilege of a live and visual experience of the performance, but must accept that their experience of the following joke is necessarily different from the joke th at the CD audience will experience: DEMETRI. I got a haircut for the CD recording last week. I went into Demetri Martin Leo Allen
28 the salon in New York, and I said "Can I get a trim?" But it must have come out "Gay Beatle, please." LEO. [pause] Demetri looks like a gay Beat le. ("These Jokes") Leo Allen's description is funny for a number of reasons. The audiences have been led to expect a description from Allen that extrapolates the joke from Martin. Instead, Allen merely iterates the spoken words of the joke. Superior ity Theory indicates that Martin has become object to Allen's quip. This move plays into a comic duo convention of silly/serious, but also undermines it. The meta joke that occurs is the one that puts attention on the CD audience once again. Leading th e audience to expect a special communication about the visual experience of the joke, Martin instead leaves the CD audience without a clarifying description. In the four party matrix now in play, Superiority Theory can account for each layer of the joke's effort. The CD and theater audiences are invited to see Martin as the butt of Allen's hijinx, while each may also consider the other audience's defied expectations: One joke, three butts. Novo Duo Martin's relationship to Allen on stage works alongsi de the literary tradition of comic duos. Where either member of the comic duo may interact with the audience, they may also interact with each other. The dialogue between two performers on stage becomes a performance isolated from the di rect communicatio n of performer audience. A typical comedic duo may generate humor through slapstick or antagonis tic banter (Laurel and Hardy), creating a spectacle for the viewer. Demetri Martin and Leo Allen perform in a more sarcastic mode. They consistently lie to t he audience often unable to
29 stifle giggling among themselves ("These Jokes"). Al and Max of Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers" maintain a similar antagonism toward their audience. Dressed "like twins" in derby hats and overcoats that are "too tight, Al and Max are an immediate comic force as they enter the narrative (204) When Al and Max hold a small town diner hostage, the pair engages in playful conversation with the owner, George: "You're a pretty bright boy, aren't you?" "Sure," said Ge orge. "Well, you're not," said the other little man. "Is he, Al?" "He's dumb," said Al. "What are you looking at?" Max looked at George. "Nothing." "The hell you were. You were looking at me." "Maybe the boy meant it for a joke, Max," Al said. George lau ghed. You don't have to laugh," Max said to him. "You don't have to laugh at all, see?" (205) Leo Allen also wants to claim control over a joke: Demetri. The straw is a great invention. You can drink without using your wrists. The straw is your friend until you lose eye contact with the straw. Then he will betray you and make you look like an idiot. Leo. [Pause] Through the art of mime Demetri made it look like he was struggling with the straw, which caused us to emotionally connect to the joke [em phasis mine] ("These Jokes")
30 When Martin finishes his part of the "straw" joke, a sizable roar of laughter is audible on the track. As if attempting to negotiate the creative power out of the hands of the audience, Allen, like Max, calls attention to the script of the joke, naming it and the strategy behind its execution. Allen demystifies the original joke, evoking a mere patter of laughter from the crowd. Limon says that "a joke is funny if and only if you laugh at it . This theorem quarantines comedy not from the serious, but from the humorous in all nonspecific settings" (12). Also, "the particularities of the relationship of joke teller and audience do not make the joke seem more or less funny; they make the joke more or less funny" (12). B ecause "audiences turn jokes into jokes," the comic performer is never in any certain position with his or her material (14). In the cases of "The Killers" and the "straw" joke, the comic duos attempt to arrest creative control over humor from their capti ve audiences. For Max, this effort is manifestly weak and ineffective: "You don't have to laugh at all, see?" (Hemingway, 205). He commands George, the owner, to keep from laughing, but the success of Max's humor can only exist as a cocreation. George simply returns an "all right," to which Max becomes aggressive again (205). Al and Max leave the diner without accomplishing their goal essentially rendered impotent in terms of the narrative. The pair fails to intimidate George at all, despite wielding a shotgun and threatening murder. This demonstrates an analogous relationship to Leo Allen's jokes on stage. Later, Allen even offers b ecause that's what the joke was" as a summary of Martin's punchline. When Allen gives up on maintaining a dialogue w ith the audience, his jokes begin to fail. Like Al and Max, touting his intelligence above the audience quickly alienates him from the cocreative act.
31 These Are Jokes is a collection of observational, often surreal bits of humor. Most of the material is an exploration of Martin's unique perspective on day to day life, from putting on pants in the morning to the powerful shift in meaning when one adds a simple preposition to a sentence. Like many in the tradition of "alternative" stand up comedy, Marti n resists dominant trends in the form. There is little, if any, vulgarity in his monologues. The conversational, relaxed style of greats like George Carlin and Richard Pryor is nowhere to be found. Martin's set is memorized, bulleted. As secure as the material seems to be in his mind, the subject of his material rarely deviates from behind his eyes. These Are Jokes is a confident, vulnerable work. It provokes, but it does not seek hysterical belly laughs. Though it is not didactic, th ere is a subtle but present pulse of social commentary. Martin's voice is always subdued and monotone. Where many comics entreat connection with their audiences by appealing to emotion, Martin's stone face denotes his character as something aloof and mystical. The wei ght of his intellect and charm acts like a celestial body, establishing a gravitational attraction. But is aloofness and emotional distance a necessary virtue of alternative stand up comics? Must the material resist didacticism? Who is Maria Bamford? All will be revealed.
32 This Is Chapter II: Maria Bamford According to Professor Eddie Tafoya of New Mexico Highlands University, the "single most recurrent theme in world literature is parental estrangement," and "a close second is the quest to heal that cleavage" (82). Indeed, classic literary culture is vitally concerned with this narrative, from Hamlet and King Lear to Waiting for Godot and Home Alone. Even Jesus suffers the trauma of parental loss, at his execution: "Why have you forsaken m e?" ( New American Standard Bible, Matt. 27:46). In the context of Freud's introductory to psychoanalysis, the human creature finds him or herself in an internal struggle to reunite with and/or wield the original authoritative v oice, the voice of the "fathe r" (Tafoya, 72). While the short story, novel, or poem can "heal that cleavage" through narrative, there is necessarily a distance between the artist and the audience. This is a problem of immediacy, and it is simply a matter of format. Where a novelist and poet's text must be committed to page, the stand up comic, like the orator, addresses the audience directly. In Chapter 1, our focus fell on the comic performer's negotiation of the relationship with his or her audiences. Demetri Martin's work cha llenged Jay Sankey's binary of emotional investment/detachment. The relationship between the stand up comic and his or her audience can resist overt emotional connection and still "succeed." The joke needs the audience in order to exist this is perhaps t he only fundamental rule. Also, if we are to believe John Limon, the stand up comic occupies something like a paternal space on stage (14). The performer can represent the father figure in that "stand up is the resurrection of your father as a child" (Li mon, 4). Acting as a head of the
33 metaphorical table, the performer's elevated stature (stage) and booming voice (microphone) enable a phallic imagery. In terms of authority, the individual audience members are invited to a recreation of their childhood e xperience, where they must submit to an overwhelmingly more powerful presence. This relationship manifests as a result of the physicality of the stage performance. Like the father, the stand up comic is the focus of an "infantile" attention, as well as the focus of rhetorical power. On the subject of stage presence and authority, Dick Gregory said "the more power you have, the fun nier you are to the audience. You could walk out and tell some jokes and if they're not funny, p eople aren't going to laugh. The president could come out and tell the same jokes and people fall off over the table" 17 Dick Gregory may be devaluing the ability of the comic persona. In fact, the patriarchal discourse may be devaluing the art form in general. Stand up comedy i s notorious for being a boy's club, and all of the scholarly rhetoric about a successful persona being a masculine one only reinforces the gender gap. So if we backpedal the Father talk a bit, the stage can look less like a flexing ground and more like a forum for dialogue. Maria Bamford's 2009 album Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome, opens to a mild applause. She has been active in the comedy club circuit since 1989. Reproduced here is a piece of an interview with Bamford from 2006, in which she is asked abou t the state of misogyny in the industry: GUY MACPHERSON : Since starting out 14 years a go, have you noticed Nachman, Gerald. Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s Los Angeles: Pantheon, 2009. Print.
34 a palpable c hange in the way women comics have been perceived or treated in the business? Is it that much different now, do you think? MARIA BAMFOR D : I don't think so. I know when Phyllis Diller was coming out, there w ere no women comedians. So that changed. If it's changed a lot then it's been so gradual that I ha ven't noticed. I think in every interview most women c omedians get asked, "Is it hard b eing a woman? Ho w is it different?" So maybe it hasn't changed. But I don't know. GM: Some female co mics say it's awful and they're treated awful, whereas o thers say it's fine. So I wonder. MB: Here's an example: Most clubs will not book two women on one show. GM: Still? MB: Yes. It's a classi c three... opener, middle and a headliner, which is what they do in U.S. clubs, anyway. .if you look at comedy club lineups, I would be s urprised, unless it's a women's night, unless it's l ike, "Ladies are funny!". .. And it's the same thing with ethnic groups. MB: I feel like I've gotten enough comments where people have said, "Oh, it's so great that you're both funny and pretty." Or you've heard an executive say, "That comic is great but she doesn't have the sex appeal" or
35 something. But I think white men have the same issue because there are so many of them so it's hard for them to make themselves known. They just have a different issue. I think everybody has their own level of suffering. (laughs) GM: A nd that factor of good looking women getting ahead is probably true in every walk of life. MB: And good looking people. 18 Only the transcription of this interview is available, which leads to a more acute suspicion of the power dynamic. At the end, Bamford challenges MacPherson's quip about sex appeal. In general, he seems to doubt the experience that Bamford is portraying: others say it's fine". But the problem of marginalization of women in the comedy industry is no big secret. Jon Stewart's Th e Daily Show was written up in an editorial for Jezebel.com, a popular media blog aimed at "women's interests," claiming "Celebrity. Sex. Fashion. Without Airbrushing ." 19 The post quotes former Daily Show writer Lauren Weedman: I think that the thing is that Stacy Grenrock Woods does well on the show because she's cute. And [former correspondent] Beth Littleford, she was 18 Macpherson, Guy. "Maria Bamford Interview." The Comedy Couch 15 Sep 2006, 25 April 2011. < http://www.comedycouch.com/interviews/mbamford.htm 19 Carmon, Irin. "The Daily Show's Woman Problem." Jezebel. 23 Jun, 2010, 26 April, 2011. < http://jez ebel.com/5570545/comedy of errors behind the scenes of the -daily shows lady problem >
36 pretty, and it just helps.' They were saying this to my face. They were trying to be honest." 20 Weedman is one of many former employees c iting harassment in the article. The blog post made national news headlines, eliciting a formal response entitled the "Women of the Daily Show Speak." 21 The page features a group photo of the women who wo rk with Jon Stewart. Of thirty two women whose nam es follow a "Love," at the end of the response, only two are writers. The rest are non creative, administrative, or make up related jobs. Two out of fourteen writers are women, and they are the only ones who do not have Wikipedia pages. The point here is that a dominant and public discourse on humor considers women to be, frankly, not funny Christopher Hitchens, internationally famous journalist, author, and literary critic, wrote an article for Vanity Fair in 2007 called Why Women Aren't Funny ." 22 This is no joke. Those reading the electronic version of this document should find a stable link to the article in the footnote. Hitchens concedes that there are a few funny women breathing, somewhere. But ". .most of them, though, when you come to re view the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three." 23 A spirited response (also in Vanity Fair ) attempted to reclaim the funny for women, but it was over a year later. 24 Its argument also fizzles out mid article. After quoting J oan Rivers ("Men find funny women threatening . They ask me, Are you going to be 20 Ibid. 21 "Women of The Daily Show Speak." The Daily Show 2010, 26 April, 2011. < http://www.thedailyshow.com/message > 22 Hitchens, Christopher. "Why Women Aren't Funny." Vanity Fair Jan 2007, 26 April 2011. < http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2007/01/hitchens200701 > 23 Ibid. 24 Stanley, Alessandra. "Who Says Women Aren't Funny?" Vanity Fair April 2008, 26 April 2011. < http://www.vanityfair.com /culture/features/2008/04/funnygirls200804
37 funny in bed?'"), Stanley admits that [n]ow a female comedian has to be pretty even sexy to get a laugh." Stand up comedy is, for most live audiences a visu al experience. Like Limon and Gregory point out in the beginning of this chapter, the physicality of the stage performance plays an integral role in determining the power dynamic between performer and audience. What Limon 's analytical framework leaves ou t is the opportunity for a female body to be on stage. Bamford's persona on stage is complex. Her performance style carries a more conventional narrative arc than Martin. Her entire show is a series of vignettes, punctuated and embellished by an endless swapping through characters, each with its own distinct voice and physical gesture. Bamford is never "herself" for long, and the constant switching leaves the viewer with an incoherent image of any sort of normative personality. Unwanted Thoughts Syndrom e begins with Bamford cracking small pieces of speech through the clum sy applause: "Show business. I haven't even started yet ("Baby Jesus"). Without any introduction or welcome, she enters the first joke: So, my parents are very religious. I've been leaving them messages on t heir answering machine from, the baby Jesus. [violent vocal shift, BABY voice' and raspberry' sounds slapping against the cheeks]: HI MOM IT'S THE BABY JESUS. LISTEN, I WAS IN TOWN FOR A COUPLE DAYS, THOUGHT I'D GIVE YOU A CALL.' [M OTHER voice, inflected with exhaustion, disappointment]: Eh, stop leaving me those messages.'
38 [Bamford's original voice]: The baby Jesus is leaving you messages? [pause] W w ell, you better call him back.' ("Baby Jesus") Bamford's mother is one of her most common characters. Whenever "she" emerges, Bamford's original persona (from here: OP) often speaks in a quickened, shuddering tone. This joke is over in twenty seconds, and Maria has already embodied three different characters, one of th em a deity. Her first move, similar to Martin's opening joke, swiftly demonstrates how "powerful" she can be. 25 Where Martin's opening joke cut away the worn out material of stand ups past, Bamford's opening joke immediately engages her comic persona's au thoritative role on the stage. The security of her identity is the thematic material of the "Baby Jesus" bit. What does it mean that Bamford adopts the voice of her mother's subject of worship? At its most basic, Bamford's embodying the baby Jesus showc ases her attitude toward religious belief as something infantile, absurd, and a wedge that separates her from communicating with her mother. In her next joke, the mother returns to "practice" heckling on her: MOTHER. Honey, you're not any good. I don't like it when you're talking. You are HURTING me with your words. FATHER. Maria, women aren't funny. I didn't even think you were a woman. I thought you were a bowl or a stick. Heh heh. MOTHER. Yeah, sweetie, why don't you shut the fuck up you stupi d cunt before I snap your neck in half! OP. [whispering] Jesus, Mom. 25 pg 16
39 MOTHER. Well I'm just reading what you wrote down here. Bamford gradually reveals that she suffers from a laundry list of mental illnesses, though she does not name any outright. Of c ourse, there is no way of knowing if her comic persona is her "true" self. "Actually" ill or not, her performance on Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome weaves a disjointed, curious narrative. Sometimes a direct or coherent meaning is inaccessible. In the bit im mediately following the "Heckle" joke, Bamford notes that she has been working on a new impersonation. It is beyond this thesis's ability to transcribe the sounds she makes here, but they are a series of grunts and wet groans, deepening and rising in pitc h, and they are occasionally punctuated by a cartoonish laughter a la Disney's Goofy. The audience waits in an awkward silence as she repeats, for clarity, finally exclaiming "It's God!" ("Baby Jesus"). A combination of Incongruity Theory and special k nowledge sharing can contribute to a useful framing of Bamford's work. Put simply, Incongruity Theory explains that jokes "and laughter are produced through the juxtaposition of incongruous elements" (Tafoya, 74). More specifically, the realization of th e incongruity is what is to produce humor. The "incongruities" of certain jokes can be easily diagrammed. Bamford's God impersonation presents the silent audience with a series of dissonant, indecipherable noises. If we observe "noise" on a binar y axis with "melody," we can understand Bamford's utterance as drawing mental attention away from something like comfort, harmony, and coherence. Though those qualities might not be what an audience member associates with God, Bamford does not really care. She drops the audience into the God noise without apology. The quick pace of the performance carries it forward,
40 beyond that moment and into the next Bamford's gleeful, frenzied cadence relays a childlike innocence until it dips into one of her darker or m ore vulgar characters. What is interesting about Bamford's work in the analytical scope of the thesis is her multivalent comic persona. Because her visual and auditory presentation changes so rapidly and often, there can be no confident judgment of her "default" character. This variance is in conflict with Limon and Gregory's monolithic masculine power identity. If Bamford's individual self is not individual, but a postmodern, fragmented array of personalities then how might we frame an understandin g of her as powerful? As she shifts from her normally high, upper midwestern voice to a "languid California cool persona," Bamford makes public what appears to be a very personal, difficult struggle. There is a catharsis in hearing her timid, anxious pe rsona enter a traumatic anecdote and emerge victorious. Bamford's persona shuffle invites the viewer to a poppin g overlap of fictional worlds. No matter what the anecdotal realm she enters, she has no one identity to lose. The ironic power of her work i s that, despite her "illness" and social anxieties, she is invulnerable to her mother's disdain, the weight of religious tradition, or any other obstacle: Anyone in here trying to be a good person? Using the canvass bags instead of the plastics? I'm not e ven using bags anymore, man. Cause I learned to juggle. ("Being A Good Person") Even her "archenemy" simply unravels herself in the presence of her comic persona. In another of Bamford's sets, she encounters this archenemy in a Target in her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. Christie Coombs is a "dismissive, gum chewing" antagonist from Bamford's adolescence.
41 CHRISTIE. So I saw you on T.V. or whatever. It's just like in high school. It's like you're not funny. You're just weird. OP. [falling into wh ispers] C c c omedy is subjective. It's a subjective art fo CHRISTIE. So are you gay? Cause I heard a lot of women comedians are gay. OP. No, I'm not gay. It'd be okay if I was! But I'm not. CHRISTIE. That's good, cause remember when we all we nt to Christian Bible camp and we all went skinny dipping that one night and then we all gave you titty twisters so hard. I was like oh my god.' If you were a lesbo you would have been all turned on by that. Then I got all grossed out. OP. [ lingers in shuddering silence for five seconds] CHRISTIE. [exasperated] Press debit' or credit!' OP. Oh, booyah! [to the audience] She wins that one because she has health benefits. 26 Bamford's audience is invited to emotionally raw vignettes at their own risk. Together, all but Christie emerge unscathed It is not uncommon for Bamford's work to burn didactic on social fronts like gay rights or religion. In "alternative" stand up venues like the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in Los Angeles, Bamfo rd can record Unwanted Thought Syndrome more honestly than at an average comedy club. At least, that is what she says at the end of the album: 26 Arch Enemy." Perf. Bamford, Maria. Effin Funny. 22 Jan, 2008, 26 April, 2011 < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y DteBZgT9c>
42 Sometimes people don't always know what they're coming to see at a show. So I like to do a good job and provide the kind of comedy that maybe is more universal, that everybody enjoys. Or what I perceive that everybody enjoys. But something that I can enjoy doing as well, not to sell myself short. For the remaining bit, Bamford's voice shifts, and every sentence intonates upward. The bit is an impersonation of what Bamford sees as the "typical" female stand up comic at comedy clubs across the nation: Ladies! Laaaaaadies! When we're dating, ladies we have a system! We DO! Here's my system: first date, kiss on the cheek. Second date, we can make out. Third date, if he buys me shoes and chocolates, he can get keys to my apartment and he can go through the back door! Brrr! I'm empty inside! I'm a husk! I can't feel my hands! ("Road Show") This final chara cter seduces the audience into a quaint, esoteric satisfaction. Over the course of the set, Bamford has demonstrated the invulnerability of her fragmented comic persona. Her final gift to the audience is a peek behind the curtain, at the anti Bamford. Having traveled the full hour together in her frantic style, everyone is invited to lampoon the persona that was decidedly NOT on stage that night. This is a perfect shared experience working in the same way that Bamford's God noise joke did. Most of th e time has been spent deviating from a conventional, self deprecating, intellectually stagnant tradition. Already external to Bamford, the final character is made just as external to the audience by their new proximity to the alternative comic.
43 What Bamf ord has managed to do is employ the postmodern, fractured self to overlap the various fictional worlds created in a stand up performance. By leaving the viewer with no sure indicator of a coherent persona, Bamford's performance can negotiate its material, dissonant or strange in its innovation, while keeping Bamford herself too slippery for an audience's critical gaze to lock down. Where Bamford uses this technique to critical success, the same scattered, associative identity consumes Shakespeare's Isabe lla. In Charles Marowitz' adaptation of Measure for Measure nun to be Isabella is the lust object for a number of men in the play. In the original, an early modern work, the moral tyrant Angelo is her only suitor, blackmailing her into trading her virgi nity for her brother's life. Marowitz' adaptation seeks to conglomerate the patriarchal figures that were muted or overlooked in Isabella's original story. In one scene, a vicious and various lusthead of the play's male characters attack her. The light ing goes red, and a surreal dream like sequence disguises the entrance and departure of different characters, while a cacophony of their voices surrounds her. Isabella somehow begins speaking the lines of her brother's wife: BISHOP. Love you the man tha t wronged you? ISABELLA. Yes, as I love the woman that wronged him. BISHOP. Then was your sin of heavier kind than his. ISABELLA. I do confess it, and repent it father. (202) 27 Emotional threads begin running through characters who did not know them before. The conglomerate descends, and for a moment even her brother attempts to "close her in a lecherous embrace" (202). In the revised ending of the play, Isabella is taken away 27 Fischlin, Daniel. Adaptations of Shakespeare New York: Routledge, 2000. Pri nt.
44 instead of commended. The final scene is the bestial lust brotherhood li terally falling on top of each other, essentially overlapping and overwriting each other into a repugnant and multiple creature. Both Bamford and Measure for Measure 's fractured identity networks highlight the horror of one greater identity. For the char acters in Measure for Measure this greater identity is the patriarchal institution manifested into something grotesque and supernatural. For Maria Bamford, the greater identity is the conventional stand up comic, perhaps equally grotesque.
45 This Is Chapter III: Patton Oswalt Virginia native Patton Oswalt began performing stand up comedy at 19. 28 After numerous television writing gigs and three comedy albums, Oswalt plummeted to alternative stan d up fame with the creation of a tour grou p called the Comedians of Comedy Joined by fellow com ics Maria Bamford, Bria n Posehn, and Zach Galifianakis, the Comedians of Comedy toured alternative comedy venues across the nation. While hopping around indie rock clubs and music festivals, they reco rded a television show for Comedy Central, which was canceled. In the mid to la te 2000s, Patton Oswalt was an important figurehead of the alternative stand up comedy "movement" (Wenzel, 16). His geeky hobbies and English literature background inform his performance material. I n some sense, Oswalt occupies a kind of sanctified space for the alternative stand up comic. If Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Bill Hicks are paragons of 1970s and 1980s stand up comedy, Patton Oswalt is the ir overlooked, nerdy little brother. Pudgy and 5'5" tall, Oswalt is "alternative" even in body type. After his first open mic gig in 1988, he dedicated his education and career to touring. Oswalt's 2007 album, Werewolves and Lollipops is a cannonball. In concert with Jul ie Kristeva's theory of the abject the satirical project of the album is both an intellectual and digestible. Alternative stand up comedy's "cocreative" moment is a success of intimacy. The comic entreats a unique relationship based on shared experien ce like membership in a secret underground comedy club. Eddie Tafoya's investigation into humankind's first joke is also a success of intimacy. The scenario is that one p rimate is 28 Bromley, Patrick. "Patton Oswalt Biography." 28 April, 2011. < http://comedians.about.com/od/currentcomedians/p/pattonoswalt.htm >
46 threatened by another; h e defecates into his hand and hurls the dung at his aggressor" (75). The act has "little potential for long term" damage, and has a share in Kristeva's abjection theory. The abject is the psychic worrying of those aspects of oneself that one cannot be rid of, that seem, but are not quite, alienable for example, blood urine feces, nails and the corpse . The abject' indicates what cannot be subject or object to you. (76) The lobbing of abject material can simultaneously be a gesture of aggression and intimacy. Shifting attention to the "issue of flatulence," Tafoya begs: Was it through the expelling of intestinal gas that human beings were introduced to the idea that the digestive tract produces sounds? Was it through the gift of flatulence that we first realized that sounds produced by the d igestive tract could affect social circumstances? Is the fart the prototypical speech act? (77) Perhaps that question is better answered by a graduate thesis. What this can indicate here is a connection of the abject and visceral to the production of hum or. Oswalt's set begins with a short narrative about entering a KFC. Since Oswalt is interested in hearing the entire menu, he begins to recite it for the audience: WAITER. Our mashed potatoes are awesome. Our corn is really sweet, and crunchy. That's really great. Oh! We have these popcorn chicken things. They're breaded. Oh, and if you get the mashed potatoes, you've got to get the gravy. It's so tan
47 PATTON. Okay, stop right there. Can you, pile ALL of those items into a single, bowl; just kind of make em into a, wet mound of starch that I can eat with a spoon like I'm a death row prisoner on suicide watch? Can I just have that instead? ("America Has Spoken") A healthy portion of Oswalt's material is concerned with food. By opening with this parti cular bit, he settles in with the audience for a performative meal. Oswalt's comic persona is confident and comfortable in the dining room of a KFC. As the bit continues, the critical angle emerges sharply: KFC's "Famous Bowls." That's t heir top selling item! CAN'T KEEP EM OFF -AMERICA HAS SPOKEN! Pile my food in a fucking bowl. I don't give a shit. I'll have it all in one fuckin' I just want kind of a light, brown, hillock, of, glop. If you could put my lunch in a blender and lique fy it and then put it into a caulking gun, then inject it into my femoral artery, even better! But, until you invent a lunch gun, I would like a failure pile in a sadness bowl. That is what I want.. ("America Has Spoken") The way Oswalt speaks about A merican food culture sounds very similar to Kristeva's postulation on the abject For the satiric image of obesity and negligence that Oswalt is presenting, the "wet mound of starch" is definitely a worrying aspect. But is it abject? Within the fictional universe of Werewolves and Lollipops it seems permissible. Food in the middle of the digestion process is in a vital dialogic exchange with the nervous system for energy. When Oswalt calls attention to its form as a "light brown hillock of glop," it be comes matter that exists outside the "symbolic order" ( Tafoya, 73). Like the
48 corpse, having once been subject to the "natural" order, the food from KFC is part of a shared popular culture. This is food that has been magnified and glamourized in televisio n commercials and I nternet ads, and scattered throughout movies and video games. Its visual existence is a vital component of its pop culture existence. Fast food is one of Oswalt's hallmark signifiers, something he makes no apologies for enjoying. But its strategy within the context of the work is to refer to the shared visual experience of fast food, the industry of which strives to maintain a consistent product across the nation. So when Oswalt reforms the "mashed potatoes," "pop corn chicken," "corn, and "grav y," the transformation is mostly a visual one. The bowl as a container shapes the "glop" that it contains, further adding to the visual dimension of the joke. Along with the abject Relief Theory is another useful framework for analyzing Osw alt's work. Because "individuals are guided by bodily appetites" which are in restriction due to social decorum, Oswalt's protracted descriptions of food offer the opportunity for the relief of psy chic tension (72) About halfway through the set, a heckl er interrupts Oswalt as he is telling a "serious" story about an intimate moment with a woman. Wow, that's really awesome that you say that, because I could so see having a kid with you . I'm glad we can admit this to each other. It was really lik e this vu lnerable moment of humanity -[Heckler whoops]
49 Okay, I love the guy who is terrified of any kind of silence, like "He better say pussy' soon, or, AHHH!" ("I Tell A Story. .") Oswalt continues to ridicule the heckler, flatly calling him a "du mb douchebag" and narrating a thought process for just before he shouted: I'm gonna be a douchebag forever! Burned onto a CD! When my body returns to the loam and the cities are but dust, alien civilizations will know that I am a douchebag! ("I Tell A S tory. .") There is an uproar of laughter at this assault. At the moment when Oswalt went quiet in the first quote, the heckler found a metaphorical stage. Whatever his personal motivation, the structure of the moment recalls grade school bullying. Osw alt, for a moment, is without his voice, the primary weapon of stand up and the vehicle for his wit. The heckler pounces, initiating the "bully" act. Oswalt dedicates over a minute to disemboweling him, adding considerable f lourish to his language. P egg ing himself as a "comic b ook, science fiction nerd," a few minutes prior, the repeated assault on the heckler seems like a scripted schoolyard revenge. Unlike Maria Bamford, Oswalt's comic persona is not an invulnerable matrix of characters. His persona and performance may follow its own logic, but it is consistent. Compared to Martin and Bamford's performances, Oswalt's microphone had precious little "dead time." Oswalt is constantly talking. His vocabulary and syntactic skills allow the stream of co nsciousness to run undeterred. Though Martin's material is primarily concerned with his own ego and intelligence, the physical manifestation of that concern is minimal. Martin croons an audience for a line or two, then plays a few notes before switching into his next joke. Bamford does not lose momentum, but the energy that
50 continues is transferred into the shell of a new character, chopping up the performance. Oswalt's diction is proud and clear. Unlike the work of Marin and Bamford, I could not casua lly listen to Oswalt's Werewolves and Lollipops as I wrote. There is a (probably drunk) fury in the performance, complacent in its self saturation.
51 This Is A Conclusion Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, and Demetri Martin are brilliant p erformers. It would do no good to hide the bias that led me to their works for this thesis. However, that bias was informed by years of passively synthesizing an interest in comedic performance. After trying my hand at the art itself, it became clear th at I needed to prioritize these comics for scholarly attention. There are, of course, many other comics doing work that is relevant to this inquiry. For example, Janeane Garofalo, Louis CK, and Aziz Ansari are each working from distinctly different spher es of influence and experience. At this point in the history of the cultural production of comedy, it is not enough to simply work to catch up on lost years of scholarly attention. With the advent of the Internet and the reinvigoration of the improv comed y scenes across the nation, no one for m of comedic performance should be divorced from its larger contexts. If nothing inspires a mass collaborative scholarly attention toward stand up now, it may quickly be even further out of reach. Like the music indu stry, which has fragmented into so many genres and subgenres, more refined and specific comedic tastes can not only exist, but be fed and developed. The strategy of stand up comedy no longer needs to be Jay Sankey's ideas about finding the lowest common d enominators among your audience. Alternative stand up comedy is a functional category for the genre shift that is taking place in the stand up scene right now. The "co creative moment," though it does not seem to be part of the mainstream discourse on s tand up comedy, is something that carries more respect in the alternative stand up venues. As John Wenzel argues, the categorical distinction is just as much for defining what innovative stand up is as well as
52 what it is not The majority of performing c omics are not "alternative" comics, but the market seems to want to reinforce that. The alternative stand up consumers characterize themselves (and the acts) as an underground, intellectual community. This is an exciting development, because it means com ics will continue to innovate instead of awaiting for a second 80s boom. Whatever develops in stand up, c omedy in general is self referential and self reflexive. Any new piece of comedic material is immediately added to the backlog of material available to signify from. Distinctions between the comedy genres are beginning to blur. Improv teams like Second Nature in Los Angeles are pushing long form improv games into what is arguably the realm of stand up and the monologue. Big name comics like Demetri Martin are expanding simple prop usage on stage to something more functional and communicative. Musical stand up acts are now a very commonplace occurrence. Eddie Tafoya refers to the current period in stand up history as "the Glut," where the market is saturated with "mostly second rate" talent (214). Stand up comedy in the 2010s is now two full decades from the "hey day" of the form. Vestigial elements, whether they be in material, style, or even venue, must be identified. E mergent trends and innova tions may be more difficult to spot. The Internet is like a pressure cooker for creative material. There is an unprecedented access to both consumption and production of media. To continue this thesis would be to reexamine stand up comedy as a form. Understanding it first as a performance, the study would need to incorporate the visual experience of the stand up show. Also, studying stand up in the context of the "jeremiad" form seems like a useful direction. Among the scholarly work that turned up
53 in the initial research for the thesis, many sources were concerned with stand up comedy as situated in the sermonic tradition. Drawing from my own experience, evangelical sermons often include humorous anecdotes. It is almost a standard sermonic move, to grab for the laugh. A reexamination would need to contrast those two efforts. The "cocreative moment" would need to take center stage, excusing the pun. The study would need to be more comfortable reaching outside literary discourse. Interviews wit h actual performers and audience members would be a good start. Until a journalist with a strong academic interest in stand up begins shadowing comics to look for variants in their nightly sets, the relationship between performer and audience must remain nebulous. The same is true for the comic persona. Though still literary in nature, the temporal and spatial immediacy of the stand up up performance problematizes scholarly access to it.
54 A Stand Up Comedy Timeline from Eddie Tafoya's Legen d of the Wisecrack: Stand up Comedy as the Great American Literary Form. 1840: Vaudeville begins when Boylston Hall in Boston opens its summer season. January 17, 1856: While attending a meeting of printers celebrating Benjamin Franklin's 150th birthda y in Keokuk, Iowa, a 20 year old Samuel Langhorne Clemens (who would come to be known as Mark Twain) delivers an after dinner speech. This launches Twain's career as a humorous lecturer. Oct. 2, 1866: Mark Twain begins his first lecture tour. Over the ne xt 43 years, lecturing will be a major part of his life. His last lecture is on June 9, 1909, ten months before his death. 1880s 1890s: Charley Case, a vaudevillian, begins performing humorous monologues directly to the audience using no costume or props Stand up comedy is born. 1890s: New York's Sullivan and Ulster counties, in the southern Catskill Mountains, begin a transformation from a region of egg and dairy farms to an area of vacation resorts catering chiefly to Jews from New York City. The Bor scht Belt is born. 1890 1920: Burlesque is in its heyday. 1895: Beatrice Hereford begins performing comic monologues in London. 1909: The Theater Owners Booking Association, a Black vaudeville circuit, is established. 1909: While touring on the Orp heum vaudeville circuit, Will Rogers, a world class horseman, simplifies his act. He decides to forgo horses and a roping troupe in lieu of a solo act that involves rope tricks and humorous patter. 1910 1925: Vaudeville is in its heyday. 1911: Cabaret style entertainment becomes more popular and available in New York City. 1915: Will Rogers joins The Midnight Frolic, a show held on the roof of the New Amsterdam Theatre, a highbrow New York City nightclub. 1916: Charley Case dies in New York City. 1917: Marcel Duchamp enters an inverted urinal in a New York art show and dubs it Fountain. Dada, an "anti art" art movement, is officially under way.
55 Jan. 16, 1920: Prohibition begins in the United States, forcing liquor establishments to become small er and less visible. Crowds are smaller, entertainment is simplified and venues are more intimate. Consequently, emcees take on more important roles as entertainers. 1933: Prohibition is repealed. Aug. 15, 1935: Will Rogers dies in an airplane crash. 1930 1955: The Borscht Belt is in its heyday. June 20, 1948: The Toast of the Town, a television show with a vaudeville format, begins with Ed Sullivan, a columnist for The New York Daily News, as host and producer. Four years later the show's name is c hanged to The Ed Sullivan Show. It runs until June 6, 1971. 1951: Former concert violinist Enrico Banducci buys the hungry i, an 83 seat basement club in San Francisco's North Beach. Within four years the club becomes a beatnik hangout and the epicenter of the "New Wave" stand up comedy movement. Sept. 27, 1954: The Tonight Show begins with Steve Allen as host. 1955: Mort Sahl at Sunset, the first stand up comedy album is recorded. July 29, 1957: Jack Paar begins hosting The Tonight Show. Jan. 195 8: Lenny Bruce begins to gain national recognition while working at Ann's 440 in San Francisco. July 13, 1959: A Time magazine article entitled "The Sickniks" announces the New Wave of stand up comedy. Feb. 29, 1960: Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner opens the flagship Playboy Club in Chicago. Jan. 13, 1961: Dick Gregory headlines at the Playboy Club, becoming the first Black stand up comic to permanently cross over to a previously all White venue. March 1961: Playboy magazine publishes "The Playboy P anel: Hip Comics and the New Humor," a discussion on New Wave humor. Panelists include Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Jonathan Winters, Steve Allen, Bill Dana and cartoonist Jules Fieffer. April 12, 1961: The comedy album The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart win s the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Newhart wins Best New Artist.
56 Sept. 1961: Lenny Bruce premieres "To Come" at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. Oct. 4, 1961: Lenny Bruce is arrested and charged with obscenity after using the word "cocksucker" o n stage. Oct. 1, 1962: Johnny Carson begins hosting The Tonight Show. 1963: Bud Friedman opens the Improvisational Caf, later to be called The Improv, in New York's Greenwich Village. It is the first dedicated comedy club. 1963 : Hugh Hefner commissi ons Lenny Bruce to write his autobiography, which is eventually titled How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. The book is serialized in Playboy magazine from Oct. 1963 to March 1964. April 1964: Lenny Bruce is arrested for obscenity at the Caf Au Go Go in New York City. Oct. 18, 1964: Ed Sullivan accuses Jackie Mason of giving him the finger on national television. 1966: The term "stand up comedian" is added to The Oxford English Dictionary and Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. Aug. 3, 196 6: Lenny Bruce is found dead in the bathroom of his home in Hollywood Hills, California. Sept. 17, 1970 June 27, 1974: The Flip Wilson Show becomes the first successful nationally televised show to be hosted by a Black entertainer. April 1972: Mitzi an d Sammy Shore and Rudy DeLuca open The Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. It is the second dedicated comedy club. 1973: Mitzi and Sammy Shore divorce. Mitzi takes ownership of The Comedy Store and establishes an art colony of comedians. M ay 1974: Richard Pryor's That Nigger's Crazy is released. The album wins a Grammy Award for best comedy album. Oct. 11, 1975: NBC's Saturday Night Live debuts. Oct. 23, 1976: Steven Martin hosts Saturday Night Live and generates renewed national intere st in the art form. March 1979: After estimating that The Comedy Store earned $2.5 million a year, twenty two Los Angeles comedians form the group Comedians for Compensation, essentially a union, and begin a comedians' strike. Within eight
57 weeks, the gro up has 150 members. As a result of negotiations, performers in major clubs are paid at least $25 a set and are able to work full time as professional comedians. The Boom begins. June 9, 1980: In a fit of cocaine induced psychosis, Richard Pryor attempts suicide by dousing himself with liquor and setting himself on fire. 1981 1989: The Boom Years: stand up comedy is in its heyday. Feb. 3, 1982: An Evening at the Improv, a dedicated stand up comedy show, begins broadcasting from the Los Angeles club. Th e series lasts six years. Aug. 6, 1982: Steven Wright makes his first national television appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Dec. 1982: Richard Pryor returns to performing with Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. March 29, 198 6: Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal host Comic Relief, a stand up comedy show produced by HBO, to raise money for the homeless. Performers include Henny Youngman, Garry Shandling and Paul Rodriguez. Nov. 1989: TimeWarner launches Comedy Central, the first dedicated comedy television network. 1990 1992: The term "Alternative comedy" is born in Los Angeles's "Un Cabaret," founded by creators Beth Lapides and Greg Miller. Their goal was to "[apply] artistic criteria to stand up and [creat e] an alternative comedy' revolution, valuing story over jokes, meaning over form, urgency over polish, and intimacy over shtick." 29 May 25, 1992: Jay Leno begins hosting The Tonight Show. Dec. 23, 2003: New York Governor George Pataki grants Lenny Bruc e a posthumous pardon for his 1964 obscenity conviction. Dec. 10, 2005: Richard Pryor dies of cardiac arrest in Encino, California. April 29, 2006: Stephen Colbert roasts President George W. Bush during the White House Correspondents' Dinner. June 22 2008: George Carlin dies.
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