What’s the opposite of a joke? For standup comics, it might be the long-form comedic monologue.
Pick up any book on how to be a comedian, and they’ll all tell you that to be a comedian you cannot get on stage and tell jokes. There’s a great story in Patton Oswalt’s Zombie Spaceship Wasteland about getting booked at a shitty club in I want to say Oregon, where some local comic asks him where he gets his jokes, never thinking that Oswalt wrote his own. This guy got up and told a bunch of blue jokes he got from joke books and killed. Killed!
To be a successful comic these days you write your own material because the first audiences you have to impress are other comics. And if your material is “How is diarrhea like color blindness? It runs in your jeans,” nobody is going to be impressed.
So goes the popular wisdom. I’m hoping later next week to see how much this don’t-tell-jokes dictum’s across-the-board true.
With this book I feel I need to avoid looking at and thinking about improv and sketch comedy. Standup on its own is so vast and uncapturable that I need as narrow a lens as I can find. Ditto monologues. Who knows where they came from (This American Life? ASSSSCAT‘s guests monologist?), but of late we’ve seen the rise of storytelling and comic monologues. Micro one-person shows. If the purest definition of standup I can find is someone getting on stage solo (or in duos) to make an audience laugh, these monologues can’t be ignored. They are standup.
And they are the opposite of joke-telling standup, a kind of full evolution away from standup’s Borscht Belt origins. Phyllis Diller has a file of 50,000 gags for any occasion. Such material is useless to the present-day comic. Useless because utterly impersonal.
Last night I caught The Talent Show, produced by Elna Baker, whose storytelling credentials are manifold. The conceit was mock-TED-talks from seven comics. Eliot Glazer gave a talk on How to Age Awesomely, with clips of two seniors going for self-made fame on YouTube in diametric ways. New SNL cast member Kate McKinnon gave a talk as a queen bee (replete with costume a la Blind Melon girl), with graphic entomological details “taken” from her (hilariously named) “memoir,” The Places Hive BEEn. Cintra Wilson, creator of beloved Liquid Television series Winter Steele, gave a talk on the fashion industry’s corruption of women’s bodies and male desire.
There was much to laugh at. How Was Your Week? podcast host Julie Klausner opened with a super-risky Aurora, Colorado, joke that managed to simultaneously disparage TED talks. Wilson pointed out how the Cobra Command logo is pure vagina dentata. Glazer indicated that awesome-ager Diana Campanella may be high during one video, because “she has that thing where her hair is wet only on her neck.”
But the acts last night missed something of the feel of either a standup act or a sketch or an improv or a Drew Droege/Andre Hyland-type character performance. They lacked a turn, and what I’m thinking right now is that this lack’s inherent to the comic monologue.
The punchline is a turn. It is to the joke what the volta’s to a sonnet. It’s that moment toward the end of a McSweeney’s list or humor piece when the piece demonstrates its awareness of itself as a humor piece. It’s a kind of signal: Here is the place where you are supposed to laugh, and watch as I stay in control of when you do.
I haven’t seen enough of them to know anything of it, but on the whole the comic monologue has no turn. It may have a dramatic turn, a twist ending, but this turn operates semantically, altering the story’s eventual meaning. What has been established—I am here to tell you a story about X—is not undone by a such a twist. But a punchline is a kind of undoing. What began as a riddle has become a joke. What earnestness existed—in the riddle-type question posed, in the narrative begun about clergymen entering a bar—has turned glib.
The safety of the comic monologue comes from its steady assurance that this established premise or narrative will be handled humorously and is thus not to be taken seriously. With one exception last night we in the audience were never held somewhere too uncertain, and that was with H. Jon Benjamin‘s TED talk on how to roll on ecstasy with one’s nine-year-old on his birthday. It was presented as an example of how to be a good dad: give your kid a great experience in a controlled environment. There were photographs on a slideshow of Benjamin and what could presumably (because of looks) be his son Jonah, each pic showing the kid progressively more ecstatic and affectionate toward strangers. The talk worked because at every moment it wavered between plausible and im-. I was held, is what I’m saying. I wasn’t stably able to fit this talk somewhere, or see where it was headed. The story ended with a photo of Benjamin naked and covered in mud on his doorstep, wherein the comedy of the conceit was pushed to such an extreme that the unsteadiness of where we were resolved itself on the proper side: Laugh, for this has been a joke.
I’m having a hard time wrapping this post up, because I can’t resolve a certain tension between joke-telling and the monologue, a tension revolving around the personal. If standup’s an artform it began as a live one, ephemeral. A comic could make a living telling for years the same twenty minutes of material at venues around the country. And it need not have been his own material. Diller’s gag file is replete with citations of where she got the gag from. This is one of the beauty of jokes: anyone with a memory and a sense of timing can tell them and, in the right room, kill.
Then the comedy album began a process of codification or canonization. Then cable TV, video recorders, YouTube. Jokes, and comedy more generally, rely on surprise so much that we cannot get the same joy from relistening that we can from pop music, say. This is why joke-telling has had to die away. We don’t want to’ve heard that one before.
Toward the personal’s where standup’s evolved. And with its focus on characterization and (often) autobiography, the comic monologue is a kind of culmination. It’s what 90’s alt-comedy hath wrought. What I still need to figure out, though, is how the joke and its power have been sustained. Or maybe even what in the 21st century a joke even is.