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Can Comedy Stay Punk?

If you attend a comedy show at the Nerdist Theater at Meltdown Comics, aka Nerdmelt, in Los Angeles, you might see something that was both hilarious and also incredibly cool. Without trying to generalize every audience member’s experience in that back room of a comics store, one can see that comedy has seemingly swung back on the pendulum towards cool.

The current DIY nature of comedy, much in part due to the advent of web comedy, has brought a punk rock, devil may care sheen to the present comedy world. Right down your street, you might even see a live comedy show in a garage where a name-brand comic has dropped in. IFC is hardly the Independent Film Channel any more with their comedy series Portlandia, Comedy Bang Bang, and Bunk. Adult Swim is on the cutting edge with Children’s Hospital, Delocated, Eagleheart, NTSF:SD:SUV.

Comedy is on the verge of another “Golden Age”, if isn’t already in the midst of it. But, for all the palpable excitement perpetuated by millions of people wanting to laugh at something on their laptop, can the aggregate of comedians, shows, movies, podcasts, blogs, memes, tweets, and more keep the prevailing punk rock-ness of comedy up? (For more detail on punk rock-ness of comedy, please read this essay by the hysterical Jesse Case)

Punk rock couldn’t stay punk rock. Sure, it has come and gone since the 70’s, but it has never quite been like when the Ramones first blared their first few chords, shouting their lyrics on stage. The Ramones drastically changed through their career, as did The Clash and The Sex Pistols. There are, of course, several factors that play into punk rock being unable to keep up with itself, but I submit that there is a natural ceiling of an art form that plays in gritty dive bars to the approval of hearty, rowdy fans that often times have no money to support said art form.

Doing live comedy in a dive bar isn’t a new concept, but the breadth of shows in bars and other alternative non-comedy venues across the country and the world is a new and welcome precedent . At a recent stand-up show known as The Josh and Josh Show in the back room of Bar Lubitsch in West Hollywood, the lineup included The Sklar Brothers, Maria Bamford, Rob Delaney, Jason Nash, Jim Hamilton, and Barry Rothbart. Whether or not that lineup means something to you, it’s almost good as any festival line-up you’ll see/have seen this year at either SXSW, Bridgetown, Bonnaroo, Sasquatch, Bumbershoot, etc. and, more importantly, it’s free. There is no cover or minimum to see several slices of comedic genius, which has provided the Josh & Josh Show with standing room only crowds.

It’s not a money making venture. They all do get other paid gigs, but the comedy in the paid appearances doesn’t compare to the wonderful art they put forth in a packed back room on a Thursday night.

If you’ve ever heard the voice of James Adomian on a podcast/been fooled into thinking Jesse Ventura or Huell Howser has forayed into comedy podcasts, realize that such comedic artistry has been done pro bono. Even though he has enough voices and characters to do his own sketch series and is about to release Earwolf’s first comedy album that will be amazing (I lost count of applause breaks at the taping), Adomian has tragically never been a regular cast member of any such sketch series.

There’s a near endless list that could be made right now of the great things that are being done in comedy that are done or are being offered for free. Hours of podcasts, web series episodes, and more are at the forefront of what people are laughing at, but as previously suggested, this can’t last. There is an inevitable boiling point at which, simply, the comedy we’re all excited about has to make money.

One can see NBC’s Community as an attempt at that, but somehow the TV ratings don’t match with the show’s online presence. Yes, Louis CK might have figured it out, but, as you might know, that’s Louis CK. There’s at least a million words worth of articles and essays from last year alone dedicated to how hilarious CK is. The comedy world has yet to see how Aziz Ansari’s, Jim Gaffigan’s, and Brendon Small’s eventual online projects fare before jumping on this business model.

Sincerely, I hope that making your own comedy special and distributing yourself works. That would be the ideal case for keeping comedy as hilarious and thrilling as it is right now. Otherwise, it’ll have to answer to the whims of someone with a heavy background in marketing and what they project a sizable demographic will be into. You know, like punk rock did.

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5 comments

  • so, in short, you mean “punk” as a smarmy subculture where you have a chummy lil community hugbox to listen to each other’s arch comments? i totally buy that thesis.

    the “friendster” references never get old.

    (p.s. boy, y’all still hate black folk like the punk rockers did 35 years ago. and don’t say bad brains. just. don’t.)

  • It really comes down to a question of how much money can someone make off art before it’s no longer art for the sake of art? I still go to punk shows in people’s basements and backyards, I still go to open mic stand-up in the corners of bars. I also like going to big shows at huge venues. The DIYers who start to make money are then seen as people who sacrificed art for money. But they have to feed their kids too. The question isn’t so much about doing things yourself, but it becomes more about the game, the commercialization. Most indie hipsters would say that comics who are really in it for the art wouldn’t sell a damned thing or make a record or even take a cover at the door.

    Art is subjective. But to commercialize is to attempt to make the subjective objective. Many have done it, many have failed. It’s not a question of remaining underground or not, it’s how we define comedy as an art form. Does someone doing some tiny open mic make art while people with Comedy Central shows can’t make art? I’m not so sure. I’m also not sure if intent is all that matters here. It’s a fine, fine line.