L.A. Comedy Trip: @robdelaney @HollywoodImprov

Rob Delaney writes club comedy for the alt-comedy set. What this means, what these terms mean, and why it’s so ingenious I hope in this blog post to work out.

You can find distillations of the differences between club comedy and alternative comedy anywhere online (here‘s as good a place as any), but I understand the difference in audiences. Club comics work rooms of people intoxicated via both two-drink minimums and the overall thrill of Having Gone Out Tonight To See Some Comedy. It’s not that it’s easier to get laughs in clubs (perhaps the opposite) such as that easier jokes can get laughs. Overall the jokes are broader in appeal because baser and more universal. So one can expect bits about shitting and fucking.

It’s this: the club comic needs to be sure her act can kill in Los Angeles, in New York, in Atlanta, in Kansas City. Anywhere. You don’t make a living otherwise. Alt. comics don’t worry about this so much, as their shows tend to be performed in smaller DIY spaces to comic-nerd audiences who haven’t paid a lot of money or waited in line outside for an hour to ensure they get a seat. It’s a gentler and more supportive environment, and the comedy tends to take more formal risks; you’re not going to see character work like Andre Hyland or Drew Droege at the Laugh Factory. Maybe ever.

Surely Rob Delaney isn’t the only comic to succeed in both worlds. And surely plenty of alt. comics have jokes about shitting and fucking. And maybe my take on his act is coming from having seen Dane Cook perform the night previous, but Delaney on stage appears as a kind of anti-Cook, entrancing the room with the same manic energy while also delivering jokes without malice. Or no: with a more self-abasing kind of malice.

We can start with his tweets. While waiting in line outside the Improv I heard this exchange:

“Have you seen this comedian before?”

“Well, he has, like, a 175 thousand followers on Twitter.”

It’s actually 466,423 as of this writing. Twitter is the monkey on the back, perhaps, of Delaney’s relatively young comedy career (not even two years of doing it full-time), and it was telling that he didn’t utter the word once during his entire act. Because anyone can be a comic on Twitter, but not everyone can work a room like the Improv. So it was a question of translatability last Saturday night. Having won his sold-out audience with one-liners typed into a Web/mobile service, how could he win them over with a 45-minute act?

Here are a few of Delaney’s recent tweets:

The snooze button is sleep’s sweet clit.

Instead of sending an “e-card,” why not swing by & fart in my mouth?

I’ll wear a condom, but a dental dam? Let’s not talk crazy.

Those three were written in a ten-hour span. Delaney is without question a prolific tweeter, and such is the content of most of them. Lots of scatological jokes that speak to certain truths, or sex jokes that reveal a kind of raw desire. One of Delaney’s talents is to retool this desire with a diction that helps to undercut the masculine energy of it (e.g., “do you know any wimmen who would be sex hole buddies w me”). And it’s this recalibration that makes his act so fascinating.

On stage, he’s got all the time he needs to develop jokes longer than 140 characters, and so he can tell stories. He’s a new father, so there’s a good number of stories about his son, who from all I can tell is a shitting machine. One bit about how diapers are good but really only catch 30 percent of what they’re meant to while the rest just spreads over the body like a natural disaster. Another about every time he tries to take a shit his son runs into the bathroom and tries to reach into the toilet (this bit he did Thursday at at his co-hosted Mapping the Heavens show and it took four times longer to tell that first time and seeing all its fat trimmed away for Saturday night was a great lesson in jokework I might try to reconstruct here in a future post).

Also: lots of jokes about women as objects:

This [upcoming story] is awful, why’d I do this? I was driving the other day, and I saw this woman jogging, and she had a small frame but she had these like big Russian peasant breasts. And she’s jogging and they’re like [mimes bouncing titties] … and I yelled at her. I go “Hey! Your doin’ pretty good in the boob department.” And she didn’t hear me because my window was up, but I heard me, and it upset me that somebody would say something like that … to one of God’s creatures.

Why this is fascinating is the use of “God’s creatures”, which works as both ironic nod (Delaney, and we can trust much of his audience, is this kind of religious) and supplicating gesture.

Who is being supplicatory, or abject let’s say, is the male comic stage persona. Though an absolute horndog lothario, Delaney continually abjects this side of himself to woman and womankind. Even when his jokes get straightforwardly misogynistic, he ends up the fairer sex. He opened the set with a bit about what his proverbial three wishes would be, and wish number three (i.e., the wish that needs to kill to make the bit work) was that he could be gay, so that his wife could be a big strong dude, so that every time she pisses him off he could throw a chair at her head.

It’s an exact inversion of Dane Cook’s model of comic misogyny, and this is why it continually works with alt. comedy’s Bon-Iver-listening audiences, who are literate enough to know flat-out misogyny when they see it and are unwilling to find the comedy in such direct expression of male desire. Male desire is so dumb and base. And also so historically menacing as to demand ironic expression if it’s to be expressed at all.

Delaney has this all down in like the bones of his act. He can express this libidinal abjection so quickly and repeatedly that it always feels honest, as though we’re taking part in something proudly confessional. The power of this, the power larger than what it does for Delaney’s act, is the potential it has to transform his audiences, if not the whole world of club comedy all together.

Even today club comedy is a hypermasculine culture, where women comics need too often to transform themselves into grotesques to succeed. Delaney’s last bit was about a sex position he invented called the Friendly Sanchez, which is a revision of the Dirty Sanchez where the man “weaves together a tapestry of mutual orgasms” and right when he’s about to blow his load thanks the woman for the experience.

He closed with this bit. It wasn’t his funniest by far, but he closed with it. What’s important for the world of comedy is that Delaney’s allowed to transcend his Twitter success to take his act relentlessly on the road as a club comic proper. That such jokes can even get aired (much less laughs) in comedy clubs is something we all should be invested in.

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