Music of all sorts, especially jazz, has had a long amiable relationship with comedy and comics, reaching back to such inimitable comedic improvisers as Lord Buckley, Lennie Bruce, Mort Sahl, Steve Allen and many others. L.A., always a center for gifted humorists, continues to play a vital role in the unfolding development of contemporary comedy. In this post, author and musician Michael Konik continues his survey if the current Southland scene.
By Michael Konik
The most electrifying comedians in Los Angeles are capable of doing prepared material, yet they seem to shine brightest when they’re improvising “off book,” reacting to the present. The term of art is living in the moment. The now. Comedians with powerful improvisational skills hear and see and smell whatever is happening in the atmosphere and find ways to glean the funny out of it. What might seem at first to be distractions or irrelevancies in less capable hands turns to gold in the grasp of performing alchemists.
Two of the most consistently killing comics on the scene, Pete Holmes (the voice of the E-Trade babies) and Nick Turner (a recent import from NYC who recalls the volcanic charm of Jackie Gleason), are masters of living in the moment. They don’t pretend things aren’t happening when they are: a woman with crossed arms and a sour face in the second row; the clatter of dishes from the kitchen; the audible gasp of a room that might not be quite onboard with their bit about bestiality. Audiences sense that anything could (and will) happen. And that it’s going to slay.
Watch enough comedy in Los Angeles and you’ll encounter stellar writing (Myq Kaplan, Jimmy Dore, Jamie Lee), flawless delivery (all hail the Sklar Brothers, whose negotiation of space with twinned timing appears to be telepathic), and instantly likeable stage personae (Doug Benson, Jim Hamilton, Melissa Villasenor). If you’re lucky, you’ll get it all in one consistently powerful act (Patton Oswalt, Chelsea Peretti, Rory Scovel). The truth is, not everyone in Los Angeles is reaching for the stars, poking at the edges of the comedy universe. Many, many comedians here – and everywhere else, but especially here, where the casting offices are located – have modest ambitions. They do observational comedy or tell jokes about the latest Spiderman movie or share a cute story about their family, and it’s all very pleasant and charming. You sense their goal isn’t to be an artist but to land a Taco Bell commercial.
That’s cool. But we feel about these comedians – and there are hundreds of them performing regularly in and around Hollywood – as we do about smooth jazz musicians. They may have the chops and technical facility of their arty brethren, and they sound OK noodling over a groove, but the stories they tell are expertly constructed nursery rhymes, not epic novels. They aim for the middle and almost always hit their target. The visionary folks we’ve been digging the most don’t do Spiderman jokes; they help us understand why movies like Spiderman are symptomatic of a society and popular culture that’s rotting like a sunbaked fish carcass.
An alternative paper here recently published one of those weirdly talismanic Top-10 Lists that matter deeply to some people. We noticed that two shows we attend regularly were mentioned. What’s Up Tiger Lily – understand that comedy shows are never called “The Sunset Boulevard Comedy Show,” they must be named obscurely and ironically – is our favorite show in town. The ethos is strongly alt. Plenty of mainstream club comedians doing their mainstream material perform here, as well as numerous talents you’ve seen on Comedy Central and every place else. But the audience at Tiger Lily rewards the Bamfords and Pepitones and the Lynches – the out there on the edge performers – with their most enthusiastic applause and deepest laughs. At another show we see a lot because it’s around the corner, The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, which is held in the rear of Meltdown Comics, in a space dubbed the Nerdist Theater (as in Chris “The Nerdist”-podcast Hardwick), the ethos is strongly comic book. The amiable hosts and guests tap into the audience’s communal experience thumbing through their favorite Iron Man or standing in line to see the second Harry Potter movie, or going to their first Al Yankovic concert, and everyone has a good time. As a sub-species of nerd ourselves, we appreciate the inclusive attitude. Yet we seldom leave this show feeling transported or touched, or that anything consistently subversive or intellectually dangerous has occurred. The Meltdown rarely seeks transcendence; most of the time the show is justifiably content with merely being funny.
Is that enough? For most comedy consumers it surely is. Most of us see live comedy because we want to laugh, to feel good – or at least a little better than when we’re at work or fighting with the boyfriend.
Some of us want all that and a little more. We want to be astonished and amazed and thrilled and powerfully glad to be alive, as we are at the best jazz concerts or art exhibits. For connoisseurs and careful listeners, the danger of being a comic who’s aiming for somewhere around the middle is that when you miss you end up too low to be interesting.
Pop-culture-obsessed comedians — the kind of comics who open their act with thesis statements like, “People who don’t watch TV are either pretentious or poor,” the kind of comics who construct their act around how hot and sweaty Darth Vader (or Batman, or whatever) must have been underneath his black cloak — these pedestrian quipsters seem oblivious to the possibility that there’s a big, complicated, maddeningly unknowable and vexing world out there beyond the screens we stare into. Attempting to make sense of the mystery of consciousness, and doing it honestly and openly, might be what stand-up is actually all about.
In the vibrant Los Angeles comedy scene, we’ve learned that one not need to be a “political” comedian to be engaged with the realm of ideas. One only needs to have something to say. And know how to say it funny. Or be willing to die trying to figure it out.
To read Part l click HERE.