The Comedy Combine: Review of 10 August 2012’s John Oliver’s New York Standup Show

JONYSS is a great idea for a comedy showcase that’s structured a little misguidedly and aired at a time (10pm CST Fridays) to ensure few but comedy nerds and homebodies will watch. Maybe Comedy Central’s hoping for an audience older than its faithful Workaholics/Tosh.0/South Park-loving demographic, though given last night’s lineup (white guys under 40) I wouldn’t say this is the case. John Oliver makes for a X host. X = a certain value of delightful here but that’s a word I really don’t want to use.

But it works in that you can see a spark of light in his eyes when he’s doing his bits (best one from his introductory set last night involved the shitty state of our union, and seeing it as the hardscrabble underdog team going into halftime in a Hollywood football movie, POTUS as the angry coach who needs to shout his team into a turnaround victory). His mouth curls in and out of a grin that reads as pure delight in getting to deliver the material. This delight’s infectious, which is what you want a showcase host to do: infect the crowd with the energy the comics need to respond to. Is it his accent? The tone we’re used to hearing in Daily Show field reports? There’s some great mix of stern authority and giddy childishness that sets the right mood.

Here’s an analogy I think might be apt.

JONYSS : the one-hour TV special :: group shows : headlining in clubs.

If you don’t have an hour of material to headline at a club, you can get a 10-min spot at a group show and start working on that hour. Likewise, if you’ve never been on TV before, you can get on JONYSS and see how your live act works for TV audiences. It is a smart idea for a show that seems to do a great service for startup comics. There aren’t to my knowledge any other showcase-style standup programs on TV. We could use more. We could use more exposure to new comics before they’re picked for an hourlong special.

On some level this is what JONYSS provides: exposure. I’d heard before of only one comic from last night’s show, Kurt Braunohler, but I’d never seen his act. He stole the show with his opening bit, about having once been accused of being a quiet orgasmer. “It’s like a little kitten sneeze,” he said. And then, to compensate for this accusation, he tries to go big, in a sense, and it comes out “Oh! Oh! Oh…oh, BOY!” Which is a very funny thing to yell in bed. Even funnier is his followup to this, saying in a coy voice, “I’ll have what me’s having.” In its cloying cleverness and silly cultural reference this line undoes the whole bit masterfully. “I lost a few of you on that one,” Braunohler said, as though proud of a job well done. “But that is the funniest thing I think I’ve ever said.”

Braunohler was the only comic last night (other than Oliver) able to develop his bits’ initial premises in ways that let the material build and shift. Mike Lawrence opened the show, and did a solid enough job. He’s got a full beard and a plaid short-sleeved shirt and thick-frame glasses. Nerdy lumberjack. Told a great story about once receiving “the heckle that heckles you until you die” (3 of the 5 comics did jokes about working as comics, for what it’s worth), and ended with a story about once watching an improv group bomb in front of their parents. When he set this bit up I practically said, “Oh this I gotta hear about,” and likewise Lawrence fell down on his knees on stage. “It. Was. AWESOME.” The supposed awesomeness entailed one member of the group asking the audience for a place they should all be (in the forthcoming scene), and one dad raising his hand and saying, “Law school, now.”

End of set.

Andy Zaltzman looks precisely like Curly Howard and is British and something of a comedy partner for John Oliver, and his set ended with a found-document-style bit about some standup correspondence-course homework. The first question was fill-in-the-blank: Women don’t much like…. Zaltzman mimes writing his answer in in pencil, saying “the menopause,” and then going on to add an artfully drawn-out hyperdetailed description of the “slow, inevitable decline it foreshadows.”

End of set. No more potentially funny questions from the worksheet. It was a premise that had legs, and that could show off a lot from Zaltzman, just as Lawrence’s improv group story sounded like the sort of golden premise that could fill five minutes or more. This review’s about to get very quantitative and dull, because something has to account for the mediocrity of last night’s sets. My guess is that they were all (with one exception) too short.

Most live group shows I’ve seen constitute a host and six comics. Each does 10 minutes, give or take, and with intercomic banter and bits going long, the whole enterprise takes just under two hours.

JONYSS is a one-hour show with commercial breaks. So you’ve got 44 minutes comprising the following:

John Oliver’s 5 minutes
commercial break
1st comic’s 5
2nd comic’s 5
3rd comic’s 5
Headliner’s first 5
Headliner’s second 5
Headliner’s 3-min closer
End of Show

(Last night’s headliner was David O’Doherty, who played a Casiotone fore and aft of his set and felt more comfortable than the others moving around the stage.)

So you’ve got three 5-min sets to warm everyone up for the headliner’s 15. And what’s happened, then, is that comics reared on this 10-minute-set group show tradition are told to come on TV and cut their set times in half. For the most part it didn’t seem to work. If JONYSS is a kind of combine for scouts to see how new comics are doing on TV, doesn’t it make better sense to give them the 10 minutes they’re used to?

Solution: cut one comic. Do host + three, like so:

Oliver’s 5
1st comic’s first 5
1st comic’s second 5
2nd comic’s first 5
2nd comic’s second 5
headliner’s first 8
headliner’s last 8
end of show

That’s 41 minutes with the same 6 commercial breaks as JONYSS now deploys with the headliner’s set broken up just once. Yes, you provide exposure to fewer comics overall (six fewer, there aren’t many episodes in each season), but you provide better exposure to those remaining 18 comics.

Perhaps the thinking is that this is a late-night talk-show combine, knowing that Conan, Letterman, Leno, et al. give comics just 5 minutes of TV time. But that’s (with the exception of basic-cable Conan) 5 minutes of PG material, and last night’s comics happily swore and went blue as needed.

I’m not a comic, so what do I know. But from my perspective, most of the comics felt clipped and corralled by their time limit. It’d be a much better show to watch startup comics air their regular 10 minutes on TV, and then let those comics figure out how to winnow this down to 5, if the eventual goal is late-night.

I know. I hear it. It’s such a paltry, pissantish thing to criticize, set-times. But if I learned anything from last night, it was what a difference five extra minutes can make in the arc and feel of a comic’s set.

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