Konik’s Commentary: “Creating Something Out of Nothing — The Art of Being Funny In Los Angeles” (Part 2)

August 24, 2012

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.

Nick Turner

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.

Ron Lynch

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.

Konik’s Commentary: “Creating Something Out Of Nothing — The Art of Being Funny in Los Angeles” (Part 1)

August 24, 2012

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.

By Michael Konik

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.

Maria Bamford

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.

Eddie Pepitone

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.

Konik’s Commentary: “Jazz Is Dead, Part 2: Performing Artists”

August 14, 2011

By Michael Konik

We’ve previously discussed how poor programming choices on jazz radio are unintentionally sabotaging the medium’s noble mission to “keep jazz alive.” But terrestrial radio, an increasingly irrelevant distribution channel in the age of the Internet and satellites, isn’t the only culprit in our music’s alleged “death.” Some of jazz’s most effective assassins are the people who care most: the professional musicians.

In an age when fewer folks than ever are willing to pay for recorded music, the only way for a full-time jazz recording artist to earn a living is by touring, giving concerts, putting on shows, performing – being a performing artist.

Wynton Marsalis

Performing Artist: It’s a two-word job description. The majority of accomplished jazz musicians have no problem with the second part, the artistry thing. They’ve committed their life to learning and mastering a transcendent and mysterious magic replete with its own language, codes, and customs. They compose on-the-spot. They create. Jazz musicians are artists of the highest realm. Few of them, though, care enough about the first part, the seemingly less exalted imperative to put on a show. To perform.

Their disdain stems from an innate (and probably warranted) mistrust of “show business,” of an elemental (and probably warranted) disgust with a popular culture that tends to hear with its eyes and think with its genitals. When you make music that requires attention, concentration, and complete engagement, you’ve automatically narrowed your audience to the minority of sentient listeners for whom Twitter posts and Facebook updates aren’t reasons to live but a kind of obstreperous distraction. Yet even that dwindling demographic of thoughtful, observant listeners wants to be entertained – and transported, and thrilled, and provoked, and made to feel. They go to live jazz performances for some of the same reasons people go to pop, rock, country, hip-hop, and cabaret shows: for a performance. Otherwise they might as well stay at home and listen to their CDs.

Dianne Reeves

With few exceptions, most jazz musicians don’t want to be pop stars, or, indeed, any kind of star. They want to be serious. We don’t begrudge this lofty impulse; we love jazz musicians for their determination to invent something meaningful and profound.   They operate in a debased culture where stars and celebrity – even the brazenly manufactured kind that requires no discernible talent – garner more interest from the average American than the power mongers who actually control our lives. They make art in a culture where the court jesters and fools have supplanted policymakers on the throne of public opinion. In such a climate, refusing to treat audiences with as much respect as the repertoire is a terrific strategy for making oneself increasingly irrelevant and ignored.  That’s cool if you want your art to be the chief sacrament of a dwindling hipster cult. But if you want jazz to grow and flourish, you’ve got to reach across the invisible Fourth Wall and touch people.

Connecting with the audience matters. Maybe more than anything. They haven’t come to the club or concert hall or amphitheater to absorb disembodied sounds. They bought a ticket because they want shamans and wizards, divas and charmers. They want someone to take control and guide them through a journey. They want to have an experience.

This doesn’t mean the performer must behave like a buffoon or stripper or cheese-ball canister. It means accepting the implicit contract between Actors and Observers. It means being private in public. It means sharing something real.

Many jazz musicians, however, wear their ineptitude onstage as a badge of honor, as evidence of their outsider status. They behave as though the congregation on the other side of the footlights doesn’t exist – or is an annoying impurity in the otherwise pristine process of making exalted music. Aside from punk rock, where contempt for everything is sui generis, in the jazz realm you’ll frequently witness “performers” shut their eyes, construct an imaginary box, and literally turn their back on the audience, sending the implicit message that what’s happening on stage is an elite conclave meant just for the cats. In jazz you’ll often see front men (and front women) reading lyrics and chord charts, sometimes off a music stand planted in the center of the stage. There might be all sorts of good explanations for this unwieldy prop, but to consumers of live performances it looks like laziness: someone didn’t take the time to learn the song in advance.

Ticket-buying audiences are keenly attuned to nonverbal signals: Did the performer bother getting dressed? Did he comb his hair? Did she walk onstage like Diana Ross or like someone going grocery shopping? Casual presentations beget casual listening — which begets unengaged listeners who eventually find something more “interesting” on which to spend their concert-going dollars.

Stuff that’s unthinkable at a professionally mounted pop (or whatever) concert happens all the time in the jazz world. How many jazz shows have you attended in which the musicians huddle between tunes for a discussion of the repertoire – or to hand out under-rehearsed arrangements? How many times have you suffered through pregnant pauses and awkwardly mumbled announcements because no one on stage is ready to deliver the goods? To dedicated jazzheads, this kind of sloppy presentation has become expected, maybe even endearing in its naïf-like, “I’m an odd-meter-obsessed artist” ingenuousness. To new initiates or those not quite sure if they dig this whole jazz thing, amateurish stage conduct reads like disdain for the audience.

In just about every other segment of the Performing Arts, being unprepared to perform is tantamount to failure. Too many jazz musicians, focused on their flatted-fifths and diminished-sevenths, think it’s OK.

The marketplace is telling us it’s not.

John Pizzarelli

Some of the most successful acts in the business (both in critical and commercial terms) prove that it’s possible to be both a performer and an artist: Kurt Elling, John Pizzarelli, Bobby McFerrin, Dianne Reeves, Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride, Barbara Morrison. They’ve got monster chops and loads of onstage charisma. Neither attribute dilutes the other; actually, these qualities augment and complement in a kind of aesthetic symbiosis that audiences, sophisticated or not, can instantly intuit. Successful performing artists know how to project their talent, to share it in a way that makes each audience member feel like the gift was meant just for them.

Bobby McFerrin

Learning how to perform as viscerally and directly as popular artists do is like learning an instrument: you have to practice (and maybe get coaching and direction). Casting a spell happens consciously. It’s a process. For jazz recording artists who genuinely wish to “keep jazz alive,” making a renewed commitment to connect with live audiences is crucial, maybe even mandatory. It’s the surest way to invigorate our music.

To find out more about Michael Konik, click HERE.

Konik’s Commentary: “(K)Jazz is Dead”

July 26, 2011

By Michael Konik

Since the 1970s, for as long as I’ve been aware of the music commonly known as “jazz,” various authorities, mavens, and aficionados have been declaring it dead or soon-to-be-deceased. “Jazz is dead.” “Jazz is dying.” “Jazz is going extinct.”

If this is so, the suffering patient has been enduring a kind of decades-long hospice care that would bankrupt Medicaid. While it’s true that jazz record sales comprise a comically small percentage of the (withering) recording industry and an even smaller slice of the radio market, and live music venues calling themselves jazz clubs close more frequently than sales of foreclosed homes, the music itself is gloriously alive.

Michael Konik

Thanks to college jazz programs, the advent of cheap recording technology, and an irrepressible need for members of a free society to express themselves individually and collectively, there are more artists than ever creating modern American music rooted in improvisation. Some of it swings, some of it doesn’t. Some of it employs traditional jazz instrumentation, some does not. (Almost all of it, even the stuff that sounds resolutely “out,” remains firmly rooted in the Blues, the ancestral wellspring of nearly all popular American music.) Most folks who care about profound sounds are uninterested in the banal question “is it jazz?” since the form itself is (and always has been) evolving and shifting shapes. We who admire and revere artists as disparate as Bobby McFerrin, Brian Blade, and Maria Schneider aren’t much concerned with the marketing umbrella these un-categorizable creators fall under. We just know they’re alive and happening and necessary listening. They’re now.

KKJZ 88.1FM in Los Angeles (Long Beach, actually), is one of the few full-time jazz stations remaining in the United States. (New York, Denver, and San Francisco, among a handful of others, are home to thriving and exciting jazz stations, which anyone anywhere can access online.) K-Jazz, as it’s commonly known, is a “member-supported” radio station, which means that in addition to the “corporate underwriting” — read: advertising — they solicit, the station relies on the charitable contributions of its listeners, or “members,” to flourish. One of the oft-repeated and apparently compelling sales pitches the station employs is, “Help us keep jazz alive!” The implication is the same as it’s always been: jazz is a dying art form with a small but devoted cult of supporters, and without K-Jazz nobly spinning the nobly unpopular recordings over the airwaves the noble music will indeed finally suffer the ignoble demise everyone’s been forecasting forever.

If you listen to K-Jazz regularly, or if you examine their archived playlists from the past 6-months or so, since a new Music Director named Lawrence Tanter, public-address announcer of the Lakers, took over, you could easily get the mistaken impression that jazz really is dead, that it is largely the provenance of dead people or those, like Dave Brubeck, in the twilight of their life. Living artists do get played, but they’re a minority. It wasn’t always like this. The KKJZ DJs, who previously were allowed the latitude to program their own shows according to their individual personalities and tastes, drawing on the vast (and sometimes intimidating) trove of new music being produced, are now limited to a narrow palette of aural colors dominated by cats and kittens whose work, while historically significant and possibly immortal, is the stuff of Smithsonian archives and Ken Burns documentaries. Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Art Blakey are wonderful artists. But they’re early chapters in an ongoing narrative, not the climactic finish to the story. Listen to K-Jazz enough and you could get the impression that jazz isn’t a thriving, vital, contemporary art form but something that belongs in a museum. Or a hospital.

Outside of New York City, Los Angeles is home to more brilliant jazz musicians than any place on the planet. These folks don’t just gig in local venues and contribute their talent to movie and TV soundtracks. They make recordings that are played in every region of the United States. Some of them have international reputations and touring careers. Some of them have the powerful marketing imprimatur of Grammy nominations attached to their names. Many of them are younger than 50. But if K-Jazz were your primary source, you wouldn’t know they exist. I recently searched for the names of a dozen Los Angeles-based female vocalists, all of them quite alive, including a couple of the Grammy girls and two singers who currently have albums on the national JazzWeek radio chart. Total number of spins on KKJZ for the past two weeks? Zero.

Speaking of the Grammys, last year’s Best New Artist wasn’t Justin Bieber or a rapper. It was a 20-something jazz musician – bass and vocals – named Esperanza Spalding. She gets played on KKJZ as often as our local stars: almost never.

When the most progressive and current sounds emanating from KKJZ come from the overnight syndicated host Bob Parlocha, who’s steadfastly committed to what he calls “mainstream jazz,” you know that it’s not jazz that’s dead or dying. It’s the station that curates it. I don’t know anyone under the age of 45 who listens to KKJZ regularly. They don’t need to hear “Take Five” or “All Blues” every day. These “younger” people have been given tacit permission from “America’s Jazz and Blues Station,” as KKJZ likes to bill itself, to dismiss jazz as music intended for old folks, performed by old folks, best enjoyed as an antique cultural curiosity.

It’s not. Jazz is the sound of present-day America and, increasingly, the world. Jazz is searching and subversive, bold and beautiful, questioning and quiet, loud and proud. No, jazz is not popular music. In a 140-characters-or-less society, jazz music, like anything else that requires mindfulness and careful attention, appeals to a shrinking demographic of thoughtful and engaged citizens. But dead it’s not. Gatekeepers of the art form would do well for both themselves and the culture-at-large to stop living in the past and start celebrating jazz’s present-day vitality. The labels and genres and marketing tactics will inevitably change; the musical continuum – the entire thing, from Pops to the present — endures.

* * * * * *

Best-selling author Michael Konik is the proprietor of the independent jazz & blues label FreeHam Records. He’s produced several notable CDs, including albums by Linda “the Kid” Hopkins, Mr. Z, and the fast-rising jazz vocal artist, Charmaine Clamor. His latest book is “Reefer Gladness: Stories, Essays and Riffs on Marijuana.”

To find out more about Michael Konik, click HEREFor more information about Freeham Records, click HERE.


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