L.A. Comedy Trip: The Trickster and the Sycophant

Went last night to Stardumb, a new comedy game show hosted by Bil Dwyer at Flappers in Burbank, which is a newer and very clean club with great sightlines and food that looked attractive. Stardumb involves Dwyer leading six people in the entertainment industry, most (but not all) of them comics, through a series of games wherein he (Dwyer) recalls some foibles about his career in show business, then asks the contestants to share their foibles or come up with funny improvised notions, and then awards points to the best one. Like with Whose Line, maybe, the points are mostly arbitrary, an excuse to have a young co-host grace the stage, in that Stardumb ends through a series of elimination rounds that take into no account the previously won points, and but this quibbling is of course silly to do with a game that made me laugh enough that my face hurt afterward.

Last night’s contestants were these people:

I came for Bamford, but all the other comics on stage (Dore, Dore [no relation], and Gleib) were a revelation, in that I’d never heard of any of them before, and each was good. One of them, Jon Dore, was great. And I want to try to get at what made him so great.

His is the trickster approach, where what charges his comedy is the unease it continually keeps its audience in. He’s not like a Kinisonian live-wire, or a Hicksian truth-sayer. There’s some overlap with Galifianakis’s work … a kind of personal integrity too strong and too (it’s somehow made clear to us in the audience) firmly developed over a very long time to be sullied by, say, telling the truth or being in any way honest or sincere. It’s both jerky/cruel and honest/beautiful. It’s the trickster’s job to waver between these dipoles.

The best example came during the final game of the night: First to Cry. For reasons of sheer injustice Bamford (whose Keanu Reeves impression alone should have made her win), Gleib, and Jimmy Dore had been eliminated (oh, and Janet Varney, who, though a good sport with some good stories to tell, was self-admittedly not on the joke-deployment level of the other contestants), leaving Levine and Dore, Jon (again, no relation) as the two finalists. The first of them to shed a real tear would win it all.

(Not, mind you, win the game First to Cry, which would mean shedding the first tear so as to earn whatever points had been assigned to this single game, which would then be forced [the points would] to hold themselves up against those the other contestant had already amassed but whatever I totally don’t mean to repeatedly come back to the points’ arbitrariness here.)

So Dore and Levine get up center stage and start looking off into the middle distance in that way actors I guess get trained to do. And Levine looks pretty distraught and his face is fallen and his eyes well up superquick. Dore, too, is making a very sad face and his eyes are very thin, and even his lower-lip is quivering. And then precisely at this moment when it’s clear his lower lip’s quivering is the enactment of a cliché about what the body does when one is about to cry (Dwyer calls it out as he sees it happening), Dore breaks, and laughs, and shakes his head. “I can’t do it,” he says. Then he laughs a bit more and, Levine still in the game, decides to try again.

Meanwhile Levine’s straight working that tear our of his eyeballs as hard as he can, as some kind of proof of something. Again, Dore breaks. “I can’t do it,” he repeats, and suddenly that latter pronoun’s referent becomes unclear. What’s it here? Is it that he can’t shed a tear on command (like a good and properly trained actor) or that he can’t play a game where he’s forced to actually act on stage like a good and properly trained actor?

Oh, and all his answers to the games were either elaborate lies or the opposite of what Dwyer asked for (e.g., in a game where contestants riffed on what Dwyer’s wife’s reply was to the news that he got a Soderberg audition, Dore enacted an overly sincere word of support and encouragement that wasn’t funny so much as unwilling to perpetuate marriage-strife snark that’s been the bedrock of so many comedy careers for so long). Also at one point he faked a storming-off, only to come back up on the stage and raise his hands in a frustrated shrug that lifted his shirt hem high enough for all to see the head of a high-verisimilitude dildo poking out of the waistband of his corduroys. He’s also Canadian. He also got cast in a forthcoming sitcom that he said was “Not very good.” He said this numerous times. “It’s not very good.”

What’s going on with Dore has something to do with sacrifice. In the instance of First to Cry it’s like there was some part of himself he would not sacrifice just to win. But then his refused selling of the sitcom was a direct self-sacrifice, encouraging people not to watch the sitcom that could through high ratings propel him to, say, movie roles. It’s like what’s sacrificable to Dore seems to be anything related to the careerist aspects of his self, and nothing regarding the aesthetic ones.

Compare this to Levine, whose jokes were quick, well timed, and got laughs, but weren’t original. Early in the night, Jimmy Dore (a pro who can throw a funny knowing face at a crowd better than anyone, in a way that sorta yanks a laff out of them) followed up his introduction with this gag:

It's good to be here, thanks for having me, but I have to tell the audience if I seem a little out of sorts tonight it's because I went to the doctor yesterday,
and he told me I had to stop masturbating,
and I was like, "Why?" and he goes "Because I have to start examining you now," that's my life.

The last bit there serving as a kind of verbalized rimshot. Next up to be interviewed was Levine, who said this:

"The doctor told me I had to stop masturbating also, mostly because of the rash *thank* you!"

The last bit aimed with his face at the audience. Levine’s is the sycophant’s approach, seeking out, if not servile to, the audience’s favor. It’s not a poor tactic for a comic to take. Audiences are often on edge when it comes to comedians, having paid for and expecting laughs. There’s an inherent antagonism that sycophancy can smooth over really quick. Again, Levine got laughs. He also won Stardumb that night, for what it’s worth. But next to Dore I could see a near palpable absence of … power seems too creepily Nietzschean so let’s go with charge. Levine can’t transform an object or the direction of a conversation the way Dore can. He can only comment on it, or amplify its most salient feature. I don’t know who’s the better comic (or what this might mean), but somehow in its destructiveness Dore’s comedy is easily the more creative.

2 thoughts on “L.A. Comedy Trip: The Trickster and the Sycophant”

  1. Jon Dore did a set on one of Conan’s first TBS show that was absolutely perfect. I wish I’d remembered to recommend him to you earlier. Track down the video online if you can.

  2. As a public service, I’ll include the link here. Filed under “video” on the lower right. The set is sublime. Thanks for the heads-up, Seth.

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