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LC#4: 50 Shades of Meta-Comedy
On outsider comics making inside jokes.
This 4th edition of letdown comedy will be the lightest in tone and the heaviest in comedy nerdiness so far. After writing about punching down, invincible assholes, and laughing at economic failure, this week I’m writing about comedians’ comedians, comedy about comedy, laughing at laughter (or lack thereof). I wanted to write about some of this stuff for a while, but there is no guarantee it will be clearer than my other pieces. In fact, it may be even link-heavier than usual and - while I might be tempted to give some historical context - it will definitely not be complete. Nonetheless, I promise there will be some gems to be found along the way.
These past couple of weeks I’ve been mostly watching Italian comedy clips on YouTube, so for the sake of inclusion I’ll just post some other international stuff that is not “ha ha” funny, but super interesting.
This last link is a podcast titled Humor and the Abject, which features a mix of writers/artsy folks discussing comedy and art in a pretty nuanced way. Unfortunately there have been no updates for a year and a half, but there’s still a pretty nice archive to catch up on. One episode I enjoyed is this one about humorlessness, social justice, and other stuff:
This comedian, performing in front of a young and partially unenthusiastic audience, is Andy Kindler. The definition of a comedian’s comedian, Kindler builds his entire act on a critique of the comedy industry itself. He has a yearly “State of the Industry Address” at Just for Laughs festival, where he satirizes the most famous and successful comedians: he was making fun of Louis CK before it was cool, and his jabs at Jay Leno are legendary (in the comedy community, at least). Kindler’s self-deprecating humor is classically Jewish, but the most distinctive mark of his act is the tension between his subjectively perceived status as a comedy outsider and the stubborn loyalty to dated, uber-specific comedic references.
The opening bit of his 2020 album Hence the Humor is exemplary of this attitude. While even his doctor is reportedly telling Andy he’s not going to make it (“career-wise”), he keeps self-diagnosing the failure of his own act in its very making. Just like in his bit on comedic premises, Kindler hints at archetypal comedy “types” by describing himself as “the guy who never quite completes the sentence” or “the breathing-into-the-microphone guy”. The title of the album itself refers to Kindler’s ineptitude when it comes to weaving jokes together through segways (he ironically proposes “speaking of jokes” and “on the subject of humor” as his go-to choices). If one of the main rules of comedy is jokes should not have to be explained, Kindler’s pre-emptive self-consciousness draws a line in the sand: you’re either with him (laughing at the situation of a self-conscious comedian on stage) or against him (you’re like one of the women in the first rows in the clip above, shaking your head and looking unimpressed).
It is all just an act, since Kindler is after all an energetic performer and a well respected member of the North American comedy community, but I find it to be an ideal example to define a key element in much cutting-edge comedy: the constant negotiation of a format’s boundaries through the figure of an “outsider” and the use of “in-jokes”. This is interesting because the examination of a situation from the outside often adds a comedic layer to it, but also because you cannot really understand how a particular medium really works unless you experience it from the inside. There are also power relationships at play: Kindler is establishing at once a community of comedy-savvy people and another clique of comedy-powerful (whom he antagonizes). The dialectic relationship between this “inside” and “outside” is what makes Kindler’s brand of comedy especially relevant from a critical standpoint. If cringe is about someone inadvertently breaking the rules of a specific social context, Kindler’s stand-up is about self-consciously learning to fit within a format that has specific rules, a box whose walls the comic is revealing by bouncing against them over and over again.
In a way, Kindler’s comedy snobbery is not unlike Stewart Lee’s. Lee is known as a pioneer of alt-comedy in the UK and he is one of the few English comedians US comics regularly mention in their podcasts. One of the reasons Lee is especially respected among comics is he reverts the power relationship between audience and comedian: if a performer often tries to pander to their audience, a big part of Lee’s act is telling those in front of him they are not good enough for his comedy. One way he does this is by over-explaining jokes, revealing the mechanics of laughter as he peels off layers of his stage persona. Ngai and Berlant (in the introduction to the special issue linked in the warm-up) dissect Lee’s prolonged explanation of a racist joke he claims telling to director Ang Lee as an “antiracist racist joke” - in their words: “one that collapses the difference between cathexis and catharsis, investment in the joke and the relief of release from it”. This sort of rhetorical Trojan horse - the performative divestment from a bad joke, albeit ambiguously re-enacting it - is a classic trigger of meta-comedy (or alt-comedy, or anti-comedy, or however you’d rather call it).
In fact, building a fictional “bad comedian” as a proper alter ego has been a classic trick since Andy Kaufman. As you might have seen in Man on the Moon, Kaufman famously impersonated a raunchy Las Vegas-style comedian named Tony Clifton, a confrontational type with bad manners and generally an opposite demeanor compared to Andy’s tame “foreign man” character. If Kaufman’s general focus was on comedic and more generally performative failures, the Clifton character acted as both a tribute to a specific type of entertainment and a mark of the comedian’s distance from it. By looking at messy club comedy from the outside, Kaufman could comment on its rules and conventions and constantly tease the invisible line that separates audience and performance. While the legendary comedian died many years ago, the persona of Clifton lives on through Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s former partner in crime, biographer, and unofficial guardian of his comedic legacy. It has also influenced other comics.
One example is Neal Hamburger, a pretty Clifton-esque persona embodied by Gregg Turkington. Hamburger is essentially a Clifton for the millennial generation, touring with Tim Heidecker (of Tim & Eric fame) and generally representing a brand of comedy that originated in alternative venues across the States and later found an ideal home in the stretched out urban landscape of Los Angeles. As evident in Entertainment, a drama film directed by Rick Alverson and based on the character, Hamburger is one notch less entitled and more removed from showbiz than Clifton. While Kaufman’s alter ego was showing up in the same venues as his established impersonator (sit-com sets, theaters), Turkington’s embodies a more distant and nostalgic allure. The existential accent of the movie also echoes the dilated spaces and metaphysical atmospheres of classic Antonioni films, zooming out far wider than Clifton’s in-your-face antics and delivering a far more cosmic quality to the character.
The long tail of Kaufman’s deconstructionist approach is also represented by less literal and more heterogeneous examples: Zach Galifianakis’ take on the interview format with Between Two Ferns, Maria Bamford turning a comedy special into an intimate experience for her parents only, Scott Aukerman staging a talk show where every interaction regularly spins into surreal twists. A more recent example is Up Close and Personal, a podcast project by alt-comedians Jay Weingarten and Matthew Goldin where conversations are always scripted (with entire portions blatantly taken from Wikipedia) and generally maintain a non-spontaneous feel that contradicts the very idea of an interview-based comedy podcast.
These are all wildly different formats (and I could make many more examples of comedy that is “meta” or “alternative” to different extents), but what I want to discuss here are the power relationships and norms that are made transparent by the aforementioned inside-out, outside-in dynamics. Like with Kindler, the “outsider” status of the performers is always ambiguous and tongue-in-cheek (Galifianakis and Bamford are household names by now, and even Aukerman’s Comedy Bang Bang involves too many people to be really an “outsider” endeavor) and the jokes are less and less “inside” the wider the public becomes.
Jon Benjamin’s jazz album - in which he “plays” the piano in a legit band, on a legit record, published by a legit label (Sub Pop) - is notably less ambiguous in this respect. While stand-up has been associated with a “jazzy” vibe since the Lenny Bruce days, Benjamin has zero musical training and his random riffs are effectively disturbing an otherwise seamless performance by the other members of the band. The longer a track proceeds undisturbed, the funnier his cacophonous incursion is. The comedian’s inexplicable meddling with an art form that is way out of his comfort zone, juxtaposed to the credibility granted by the professional context it is parachuted into, is precisely what makes the record funny. As in Kindler’s stand-up, it doesn’t really matter if Benjamin is really that bad at playing piano or pushing away his listeners: in one case the punchline is “you should have current references when you write a stand-up routine”, in the other it is “you should learn how to play piano before publishing a jazz album”. This knowledge, elementary as it is, in enough to set apart the performer from the audience, and those in the audience who are “in” on the joke from those who don’t get it.
The more obscure the format, the more effective this type of comedy is. A good example in this sense is Brandon Wardell’s ASMR comedy album. In it, Wardell follows all of the basic rules of ASMR content (he whispers into the proper microphones, uses props like scissors and brushes to titillate the listener’s ears), but at the same time violates all of the basics of stand-up: there is no crowd, very few jokes (of the “intentionally bad” kind, to boot) and the experience winds up becoming a very individualized, quasi-intimate one, with Wardell at one point even doing crowd-work with himself. Keeping in line with the tradition of self-defeating, outsider comedians doing inside jokes, the project somehow teaches you what stand-up comedy is (and why it is not compatible with an ASMR album) by not doing it properly.
Comedy is famously powerful in terms of uniting people, which is great, but I think meta-comedy is useful to understand the critical dimension of laughter, and how it is in part built on multiple taxonomies: what is funny and what is not, who is funny and who is not, who has a sense of humor and who doesn’t. Snobby and obscure as some of this may be, the ultimate message is positive: comedy may not be pretty (to paraphrase a famous Steve Martin album), but if you spend time with it you’ll see it is of great value.