NY Comedy Trip: Matt McCarthy at UCB East

If standup’s effect on its audience were judged by scientists, they’d rig up people with all kind of Clockwork Orangey probes that measured vibrations in the belly and sides, constriction of the facial muscles, and the milliliters of wetness secreted by the tear ducts. If I had such data available from last night, it’d show that Matt McCarthy is the funniest comic I’ve ever seen live.

How is this possible? I wasn’t two-drink-minimumly boozed up, and owing to the mostly mediocre showcase that preceded McCarthy’s set I hadn’t been much primed to laugh. But throughout his set I couldn’t stop laughing. And now that I want to write about it, to figure out how what happened to me last night happened to me last night, I’m having a hard time. McCarthy’s comedy is nothing groundbreaking, formally daring, or even new. But he is the funniest comic I have seen in a very long time. Possibly ever?

There are funny people in the world whose funniness is more of them than something that comes from them. Kevin McCarthy (no relation?) from Kids in the Hall comes to mind here. He looks funny. He has a funny hair and face. He can sit in sketch and say “And I never got my water” or “Cat on my head” and I laugh very, very hard. Matt McCarthy’s gift is a similar kind of physicality. Picture the perfect union of Bobby Moynihan’s boisterous, indignant intensity and Conan O’Brien’s mawkish clowning between monologue bits. McCarthy can look at the audience with a certain bug-eyed severity, and everyone laughs.

Okay, so why? We’re not infants who laugh at funny faces. Or maybe we are? What I need to write about here is clowning, a tool some comics use to either deliver jokes or milk certain bits for more laughs. Steven Wright’s probably never clowned in his life. Seinfeld? Louie CK? Maybe sometimes. Chris Rock does it. Jon Dore and Aziz Ansari, too. Katt Williams? God yes.[°] Clowning as I want to talk about it’s a kind of exaggerated miming as a means of illustration. So you land the punchline, and then you act out the punchline through mime, to keep the laughs going. It’s all physical. It’s often silent.

McCarthy’s clowning is sometimes illustrative and sometimes just pure clowning. And you would think that, to keep the audience laughing continually as he did, this’d have to happen at a kind of rapid pace. But no. McCarthy’s presence is so strong that he can stand behind the mic stand and look at us (or not) or mime something (or not) and still hold us in thrall. It’s clowning elevated to the sublime. We look at him as though we might certain miracles unfolding before us.

Let me try to come up with examples. One bit he has is about NYC horses as actual deputized police officers (which I hope is true). This bit’s set up with McCarthy revealing that his favorite thing about New York is the horses (itself a pretty funny conceit). “Am I right?” he asks. “Anybody else?” Giggles from the room, but no vocalized agreement. “The neighs have it,” he says.

It’s a pun even a devoted pun-lover like me can’t find a way to love. So what follows are 26 seconds of McCarthy clowning increasingly large or arcane forms of weaponry he’s firing at the audience. Double-handed pistols. An old Civil War musket that needs filling and tamping. “The neighs have it,” he repeats a couple times, unloading on the crowd, over and over again killing us all.

Another bit’s about an old girlfriend who’d buy sex toys but never use them, because they were worth more in their original packaging. Again, a pretty decent gag about Star-Warsian geeks. “Nerd alert!” he screams at us. “Right!? Right.” And then he holds up two split-V’d Spock hands. “Go Mork your own Ork!” he yells, scissoring the hands together. We laugh. I’m cackling like a deceiving old prospector at this point. And then he holds his palms out like antennae from the top of his head, flapping them one at a time. “Go watch DVDs of Alf!”

That I’m doing such a poor job of capturing his comedy in print is a good indicator, I think, that McCarthy’s act is so charged and incredible. The best comics can somehow create a form of intimacy with each member of the audience, such that we come to believe each joke is meant for us most of all, and what this means, then, is that the strongest and most moving comedy is going to need to be in the moment. Live and direct. McCarthy accomplishes this while maintaining a fecund, loving antagonism with his audience. His improv skills are manifest in the way he could turn interruptions, flubs, and errors into sources for more comedy.

But of course any established comic can do this. It’s called being a professional. What makes McCarthy stand out is the reckless mania behind his improvisations and recoveries. Yesterday I talked about being held somewhere uncertain by a comic. Today I used the word thrall. That’s McCarthy’s power. In his hands you feel captive. It’s the exact same feeling as being tickled, the exact same mix of agony and ecstasy. We can barely bear it, but we don’t want it to stop.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. For some reason, examples of female clowning comics are escaping me. Any help?

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