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 surveys the current Southland comedy scene.
Lately we’ve been immersing ourselves in stand-up comedy and feeling altogether good about it. You can be addicted to a lot worse things than endorphins.
Much of the past year in Los Angeles has been spent closely observing comedians doing their thing: ranting, rambling, telling jokes, riffing, raving, singing songs, reading from a script, making it up on the spot, playing it safe, taking risks. Being funny. Being very funny. Or not. But always trying to find the magic, searching for that moment or that thing that connects us all – most of us, anyway; the ones who get it – in a sense of real delight and shared understanding, similar to the way we communally react to live music or to a brilliant actor telling the truth.
Los Angeles is home to an enormous number of funny people, a minority of whom work in the entertainment industry. Like United States Marines and professional athletes, many aspire; few may serve. But whether or not Universal or ABC ever comes a callin’, these hordes of funny people require an outlet for their talent – an outlet being anywhere there’s a microphone and an audience. You can enjoy low-priced, high-quality comedy in Los Angeles seven nights a week. Some of the consistently excellent shows are free.
The best stuff happens in venues other than comedy clubs, where the noxious mixture of (overpriced) two-drink minimums and lowest common denominator humor tends to produce more anxiety than laughs. Although many of the most successful comics in L.A. perform at tourist favorites like The Comedy Store, The Improv, and The Laugh Factory, they’re at their freest and most effective at alternative spaces, like a sex toy shop, or a Mexican restaurant, or a comic book store. Local audiences know this, and these “underground” shows are usually well-attended. And funny.
Super funny. We’ve laughed more in the past year than in the previous five combined.
What we’ve seen is an astonishing variety of approaches to the art of making strangers happy. There’s no correct way to do comedy; either it works or it doesn’t. Yet, though there might be an infinite number of ways to get laughs, almost all the really funny people in Los Angeles – the impossibly funny people — have one trait in common: they’re blazingly intelligent.
They’re imaginative, creative, fearless, and all that important stuff. But they’re also spectacularly smart. They seem to have larger ambitions than making a ha-ha. They’re questing, yearning for something larger and possibly more important than giggles. They’re on a journey. We get to go with them.
Watch Sarah Silverman. Watch Eddie Pepitone. Watch Greg Proops. Watch Maria Bamford and Dana Gould and Ron Lynch. These folks are so smart they can name their Podcast “The Smartest Man in the World,” as Greg Proops has, and only be exaggerating a little.
Another thing the great ones have in common is that they have nothing in common with other performers. The great ones aren’t doing a style of comedy. They’re defining a style. They’re Duke Ellington’s favorite superlative: beyond category.
Whether blazing trails that sometimes straddle themurky line between stand-up and performance art (Lynch; Bamford; Pepitone) or writing material that explores ideas and connections that no one seems to have thought about previously (Gould; Silverman; Proops), the comedy masters always seem to be doing their own thing, without any regard to how it’s “supposed to” be done. Their only rule is that they must always be themselves. Marc Maron, T J Miller, Brody Stevens, James Adomian — if anyone else were foolish enough to construct his act as a diluted imitation version of these peculiar and easily identifiable comic geniuses, the results would be the opposite of hilarious.
Like serious jazz musicians, serious comedians concern themselves with content and form. Cats like Reggie Watts (who isn’t LA-based, unfortunately) and the Walsh Brothers (who are) often make audiences wonder what exactly it is they’re witnessing. Is it joke telling? Is it stream-of-consciousness gestalt therapy? Satire? A prank? Uninhibited weirdness? Yes and no and all those things and maybe none of them. That’s when comedy is exhilarating: when you’re not sure what’s coming next and you can’t wait to find out.
We don’t mean to suggest that the best comedians are the humorous equivalent of Coltrane or McFerrin. But they seem to be coming from the same spiritual place, where possibilities are endless and the fear of failure never overpowers the impulse to create something out of nothing.
To read Part 2 click HERE.