L.A. Comedy Trip: Toward a Critical Method

First, some postulates, taken from John Limon’s Stand-Up [sic] Comedy In Theory:

  1. If you think something is funny, it is.
  2. A joke is funny if and only if you laugh at it.
  3. Your laughter is the single end of stand-up [sic again…I prefer one unhyphenated word because this formulation sounds in my head too much like stand UP].

It’s a clear way to show how comedy is subjective. To agree to the above is to require in writing about comedy a kind of syntactic shift. So I can’t say, for instance, “Dane Cook? Yeah, he’s not funny,” because I was not the only you in the audience of the Laugh Factory last night, where Dane Cook demonstrably got laughs, more than any comic I’ve seen all week save for Patton Oswalt (and that’s only because the latter’s set was longer). “I don’t find Dane Cook funny,” is okay, though, but look what’s suddenly happened to the critic. What a feeble little man he’s become!

All of which is irrelevant because I laughed out loud many times during Cook’s set last night. And so Dane Cook? Yeah, he’s funny. Apparently, I find Dane Cook funny. As much as I—this week, certainly, and in this slowly developing book as well—want to keep standup in my brain and write about it analytically, there is something in the gut I can’t yet figure out how to get at. We can be impelled to laugh for reasons our brains may not appreciate. I’m reminded of Louis CK’s bit about the kinds of women he watches in pornography, and how he knows they’re wretched people in person he’d hate and never want to date. Some comedy, it must be admitted operates libidinally, outside of intellect.

With book criticism, it seems to me the job is to figure out what the book is trying to do or say, and then to assess how it works to do that thing, and finally to evaluate how well the author’s gone about it. This doesn’t work with standup. If, in Limon’s formation, the single end of standup is the audience’s laughter, then at all times what the comedian is trying to do is make people laugh. He goes about this by telling them jokes (or not; as I’ve seen and written about plenty this week, “jokes” as we traditionally understand them are not requirements for laughs). And if the audience laughs, the comic has done his job well. This is almost always how it goes. What can a comedy critic do when, outside of an open mic, he’s yet to see a single comic not get laughs?

Three tacks come to mind:

  1. Go with Aesthetics. The comedy critic can do as art critics do and use theory and history to set comics within contexts broader than their individual acts, pointing out sensibilities and noteworthy approaches with the aim of swaying audiences’ tastes and serving, perhaps, as a kind of filter or curator. This guy’s judgey.
  2. Go with Content. The comedy critic can do as movie reviewers do and focus on a comic’s stage persona, or the flavor and subject matter of his jokes, forming a kind of narrative or character summary with the aim of giving audiences a sense of what they’ll get, were they to go and see the comic’s act. This guy’s servicey.
  3. Go with Analysis. The comedy critic can do as a scholar or scientist does and use theory and rhetorical analysis to break down how jokes work, deconstructing the makings of an act with the aim of giving audiences a sense of the diversity of reasons that jokes work and people are funny. This guy’s brainy.

It’s clear that successful criticism ought to do all three. Let me take a shot at it in writing about Dane Cook. Stay tuned.

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