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Why Can’t We Just Be Funny?

Unbeknownst to many people, there’s a war of sorts in the world of comedy. Two factions, “alternative” and “mainstream”, stand more opposed every night, ever jealous and judgmental of each other and the way they get their laughs. Mainstream refers to to the traditional sensibility of comedy in regards of how to write/produce/perform it and alternative meaning ignoring traditions and going for something new. Many performers, writers, etc. cannot reconcile their differences and take sides. As comedy is an art form, that’s especially reliant on the subjectivity of its consumer; This war has been ongoing since for decades with acts like Lenny Bruce and Andy Kaufman rejecting the idea of “Catskills” comedy in order to make people laugh.

Lenny Bruce “All Alone”

In fact, there’s virtually a wall separating them, erected mostly by marketing companies, agencies, etc. where some members of either faction judge each other in their own snobbish way, arms always folded, whispering to their cohorts, “Again with this fucking guy and his stupid 80’s TV reference puns?” or just covering their face in shame during a joke about how Asians still can’t drive. Accusations constantly fly over this metaphorical Berlin Wall of comedy, “That only works for that crowd,” or “you can’t play that room with that act.” Fortunately, most of the English speaking population isn’t aware of any such war happening at all. Most people just see something that’s funny to them, with no regard to whether it’s alternative or mainstream comedy, and give into the involuntary human reaction of laughter.


Making people laugh is what the most staunch supporters of either side often fail to recognize. Thus, the further entrenched both sides become when all they’re really doing is dashing their chances to be seen by more people. Kyle Kinane has a large, dedicated following of hipsters and comedy nerds while Bill Burr, who’s about to play Carnegie Hall and appear on Letterman, gets to play to a broad audience when either could be appreciated by either side.

With all of that in mind, the truth is that there is really no such thing as alternative or mainstream comedy. As said before, those labels are largely made up. Funny is funny. The difference between the two is largely made up based on someone’s perception of what will make a specific demographic laugh. Though determining what’s funny is completely a subjective endeavor, just because someone doesn’t do jokes or someone delves into a flurry of rape jokes shouldn’t make them one or the other. If their material/performance/sketches/films/blogs are making people laugh on a regular and frequent basis, the only qualifier that need apply is funny.

Don Rickles on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson

One of the oldest working comedians today, Don Rickles, is still largely appreciated across the board, especially among comedians, for what he does. Technically, Rickles is considered to be a mainstream comedian from his days on Dean Martin’s Roasts, but even the weirdest comedians can and will laugh at Rickles insulting Craig Ferguson on the Late Late Show.

Sam Kinison’s First Appearance on Letterman

In Sam Kinison’s first appearance on Letterman, he donned a black trenchcoat and a very solemn face as he took the stage, nothing reminiscent of the rock star persona he adopted later, and preceded to do crowd work. In fact, he yelled at a man in the crowd. Technically, that’s a very alternative comedy act, but Sam Kinison can hardly be described as “alternative”. He was just damn funny to a whole bunch of people. The same can be said of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and how many people repeatedly watch it to laugh no matter how absurd and tangential the movie got.

Louis C.K. on Conan

Tell Your Friends Trailer

The comedy concert film Tell Your Friends, which is really a showcase of what, again, can be called alternative comedy, has a number of comedians further explain that the “alternative” label is made up. In the film, performances come from Reggie Watts and Kurt Braunohler & Kristen Schaal, who have been on TV regularly. Watts has appeared on Conan more than any other comedian since he’s moved to TBS and Schaal has had one of the funnier pieces on The Daily Show this year. Though more than just nontraditional comedy acts, they all got a chance and they’ve entertained literally millions of people.

Reggie Watts on Conan

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23 comments

  • Sure. When you mention mainstream acts like Louis CK or Don Rickles, nobody reading this is gonna get snooty.
    Try mentioning Jeff Dunham, Carrot Top or Larry the Cable Guy.

  • I think a good portion of the distinction can be explained away (without all the hand wringing about the walls between us) by analyzing what makes a funny thing funny. While comedy science is still in its larval stages, I think it’s pretty obvious that at least a portion of the atomic structure of comedy is essentially novelty. And what’s novel to a person who watches 3 comedy specials a year vs. a person who watches 50 is going to be very different.

    I also notice that the mainstream comedians you picked are people who would be considered masters of the craft of comedy; their subject matter might be the typical subject matter of stand up, but their delivery and on-stage personas are unique and very-well developed. I think there’s a distinction to be made between those mainstream comedians and the comedians that are product for product’s sake.

  • I have respect for Dunham and even Carrot Top, but for some reason I can’t find respect for Larry the Cable Guy. Maybe it’s because I have this made-up image of his fanbase being a bunch of Tea Partying simpletons.

  • Upon reading this, I immediately thought of Daniel Tosh and his contempt for certain comedy fans regarding this very subject. He’d been invited to comment on a televised tribute to the late Greg Giraldo. For some reason there was a segment devoted to surprise-he-was-Latino-bet-you-didn’t-know!

    Tosh talked about how smart Giraldo was and how he never had gone for the easy laugh/lowest common denominator or some crap like that. He meant that Giraldo had never done an ethnically-flavored routine or played to that audience. I forget the exact words he used because I was caught off-guard by the disgust on his face and the hatred that dripped from his remark.

    I agree that Giraldo was super smart and super funny and my heart broke when I heard about his death. But WTF does ethnic humor have to do with grieving for him? What kind of weird ax was Tosh grinding and why?

    Personally, I’d like to punch the baby-voiced Gabriel Iglesias if I ever seen him in person. But I wouldn’t say that he or his audience are dumber than me because I prefer Patton Oswalt and Louis C.K. They just like something different. I can’t explain what makes them laugh at what I don’t like or vice versa. But why hate each other for it?

    Tl;dr: Daniel Tosh says, ” STOP LIKING WHAT I DON’T LIKE!”

  • Marc Maron (or whoever he was interviewing) recently commented about this. What he said was that what used to define “alternative” comedians was different than simply what crowd they attracted. It’s that they came from a place of truth. That there was no posturing and no playing to the crowd. That’s why Dunham and Larry the Cable Guy could never be “alternative” or whatever you want to call it. Because there comedy is not about truth but about repeating people’s beliefs back to them. They’re serving a demographic and not being honest. If “alternative” bothers you so much then change the word. Call it “grunge” if you want.

  • alternative vs. mainstream seems to come down to the venue/audience more than the material. If I can (and do) get up on a ‘theater’ stage and tell a 15 minute (funny) story… that I have to PRETEND I’m ‘reading’ because it is an ‘essay’ show… how is that really different from standing up and telling the same story to a roomful of surly, disappointed (and probably drunk) people who’ve paid a huge admission fee and been forced to pay for 2 drinks? Given the choice, what performer would chose the 2nd option? or worse: the third option: waiting six hours to get five minutes at a coffeeshop ‘open mic’ to perform in front of REALLY surly (and probably drunk) other comedians?

    My favorite comedians, starting w/Bill Cosby, told STORIES… that were also funny. Tough to do that when you’re given a 4-5 minute max. set. If I can find a venue that’ll let me do 10-30 minutes, in front of an audience that is there for a ‘theater’ experience (as opposed to a ‘bar’ experience) again I ask: Who wouldn’t choose that??

    Is slogging it out in front of audiences that hate you really the only way to earn your stripes as a ‘real’ comedian? …if so, I’ll put my decade of playing in punk bands up against anyone who thinks a ‘really bad heckler’ is the worst nightmare that can befall a performer on stage.

  • It’s in our nature to quantify the unquantifiable and categorize that which has no need for such subtle distinction. Ask any heav metal fan about all the various sub-genres there are, some of which include just the one band you identify with that ‘style’.
    If it really interests you, have at it. If it bugs you, ignore it. Comics will do their work and find the audiences that are most in-tune with their ideas and personae. Say what you will about Jeff Dunham, his second hour special was incredible. You can like Louis Ck and him if you want and not feel like you’re betraying one crowd for the other.

  • There should be two rules for any comedian who wants to “take sides”.
    1. Any comments made had better be damn funny.
    2. Any opinions expressed must be done on stage.

    Otherwise, be your own comic and shut the hell up about others. If you can’t sell tickets, tough shit. Move on. Or steal an act from an actual funny comedian like Chris.

  • The last word on this one should probably go to Larry Miller. He recently said on Marc Maron’s podcast -:

    “There are thousands of ‘styles’ of comedy, but there are only two ‘kinds': Funny and Not Funny.”

  • Pfft. A war “of sorts” in the comedy world. Hahahahaha. A war, ha! I imagine it to be like the scene in Blazing Saddles where the cowboys get into a brawl with the fancy dancing men, ending in a pieintheface fight.

  • Just as in music, the ‘wall’ between alternative and mainstream is a tenuous construct at best. ‘Alternative’ comedians play to a certain sensibility, perhaps–typically educated, white, urban, trending younger, with a more progressive, cosmopolitan outlook. Then again, there was George Carlin, whose comedic subjects and overall worldview were far from mainstream, but who was enormously popular and influential. But he belonged to another generation, and another era. Hate to be cynical here, but at the end of the day, it is about marketing, and in these times of extreme social fragmentation, the only way to eke out a living as an artist is to find and hold onto that ‘core demographic’.

  • @Matt G. and @ Kiala Kazabee Lious C.K. is not only half-Mexican, but the Mexican side is also Jewish. His first language is Spanish, b.t.w.

    @MosaicDoll Chris is amazing, and it’s always a special treat when he’s on Chelsea–Greg Proops as well!

  • I always thought that the terms “mainstream” and “alternative” were code for “successful” and “not successful”.

    Meaning that by definition if you are mainstream then the mainstream of people know who you are which means you are doing big gigs and big shows. And since the producers and execs get on these “runs” where they want the next Jim Carrey or Eddie Murphy etc etc then mainstream comedians tend to play in the same ballparks so to speak

    Conversely alternative comedians are just that – not well known by the mainstream and are free to be different. Most are different just enough so that they seem a little edgy or weird but not so much that if Letterman or Conan were to call that they wouldn’t get rejected. Though there are the rare successful comedians who have been so underground and alternative for so long that they have built a cult following. These guys typically have unique voices and tend to be more mature (if you know what I mean ) in that they’ve come to terms with who they are and know their true voice.