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LC#5: Holiday Edition
On the comedy club and how important it is.
Happy holidays reader, hope you are eating the right amount and getting as tipsy as you should. As the end of 2020 inches closer, I’m dedicating the last edition of this shit year to discussing the key ingredients of a “good room”, that is the best space to experience (and perform, I’m told) stand-up comedy. I’ve been to my share of good rooms, and they tend to have specific architectural features as well as a unique sense of community that comes with time and work. That I’ve been missing good comedy rooms this year goes without saying, but as we keep binge-watching comedy online it is important to remember how important comedy clubs really are for both the craft and the culture. Humour me and scroll on!
I wasn’t sure I was gonna have any cool links since I’ve been catching up with Italian comedy stuff recently and I decided to make this thing in English, but thankfully Daniel Kitson just sent out links to two of his shows that are free to stream until the end of the year.
If you haven’t spent much time in the UK and haven’t had the pleasure of seeing him live, you might not be familiar with Kitson. He’s a great writer and storyteller and definitely someone who deserves your attention. He doesn’t show up on TV or YouTube as much as others, so - since the theme of this edition is experiencing live comedy - pounce at the opportunity to listen to someone you’d normally only hear in a live setting.
We miss places intensely these days. Personally I miss pubs, restaurants, and art galleries the most, but right after that I miss comedy clubs. Like pubs and restaurants, comedy clubs bring a sense of physical closeness to other people, which obviously we’ve come to cherish even more this year; like art galleries, comedy clubs are also imbued with the feeling you’re participating in an ongoing conversation, that you’re part of a community of sorts (see last edition on meta-comedy for more on that). Comedians often refer to specific clubs as “good rooms” - it seems a little weird, but it makes perfect sense: there are indeed architectural features (low ceilings, dim lighting) that naturally channel laughter more easily, but the aforementioned feeling of a painstakingly calibrated yet spontaneous interaction between a roster of regular performers and semi-regular audiences is what really puts it together. Comedy clubs are also great because they can educate crowds about what to expect at a comedy show - they manage expectations (e.g. not all live acts need to live up to the 1-hour Netflix special you saw online) and also allow a range of mistakes and unpredictable hiccups that are not really welcome in a theater, arena, or stadium environment (crowd work and heckling being the opposite ends of this spectrum).
I think the first time I properly experienced live stand-up was in New York, in 2008. I had just landed in the US for the first time in my life and live comedy was just coming to me: I attended my first gig at the hostel I was sleeping at in Harlem, got offered fliers in Times Square, and randomly bumped into the legendary Comedy Cellar in the Village. It is usually booked out, but you sign into a list, queue up, and if you’re not bringing too many people you can make it in without a reservation. That one night in 2008 I saw Dave Attell perform among some six other comedians, and he wasn’t even headlining; a couple weeks later, on a flight to Las Vegas, I was watching him do some of those jokes to a big theater audience in a Comedy Central special. What I’m saying is the Comedy Cellar is a great room: you get a sense of intimacy with the performers (even if they are super famous) and you get the feeling there is a familiarity between them and the staff as well. I’m not saying every night is like Bumping Mics (that show Attell did with Jeffrey Ross on Netflix), but that was the impression I got as a first-time (and second-time) visitor.
A culture of open and generous laughter does help. The UK knows comedy as much as the US, so it’s good to go to live shows there; other countries not so much. During the seven years I lived in the Netherlands, virtually every comedian coming from overseas showed overt signs of self-consciousness in front of the timidity of the Dutch audience. I had the chance to see some A-listers like Trevor Noah or Ali Wong, as well as Michael Che, Doug Stanhope, Moshe Kasher and Natasha Leggero, and pretty much all of them felt compelled to comment on how they were bombing or not performing enough. Tig Notaro did her closing bit to no laughs or claps, and masterfully built back up and eventually “requested” a standing ovation (that the audience politely executed). And this was happening at the excellent Club Toomler, a basement space that indeed is architecturally fit to host comedy at the highest level. As a regular audience member in Amsterdam, over time I gradually started feeling a weird sense of responsibility towards the guests, which eventually made me try too hard to audibly laugh and make up for the respectfully awkward silences of the Dutch crowd.
Over the 10+ years I have been living abroad, the Italian scene has also been developing a lot, trying to fill the decades-long gap between the Belpaese and English-savvier countries. To make an example, this summer I was in a small seaside town in the South of Italy and I randomly bumped into a sold-out stand-up show, which featured three of my favorite Italian comedians from the new generation (let’s name names: Luca Ravenna, Stefano Rapone, Daniele Tinti). I didn’t make it in, which was a bummer, but I was still pretty happy: after decades of corny character- and catchphrase-driven comedy (the so-called Italian “cabaret”, which has always dominated national TV channels) Italian stand-up is developing its own circuits and infrastructure. Significantly, both audiences and performers are also moving beyond the slightly awkward “stand-up comedy = Bill Hicks/George Carlin” dogma that markedly (and inevitably) influenced the pioneering generation coming before them. Not unlike nerds such as myself, in fact, I imagine earlier Italian stand-ups were educated about the genre through HBO specials downloaded from the Internet, rather than the open mic circuits where most great American stand-up comedians started off. As a consequence, in interviews and social media posts I have sometimes noticed a cultural resistance (or at least a love-hate relationship) between some of these older comics and the “institution” of the comedy club - a tension that, I suspect, is grounded in part on the idea of “culture” and “market” as separate entities. Personally I’ve never believed in this dichotomy, and I think the cultural value of stand-up as an art form is inseparable not only from the purely competitive and confrontational nature of live performance, but more materially from an infrastructure of venues and events that allow performers to make stand-up their job - and, then, raise the quality bar. This tension, however, is not new or exclusive to the Italian context.
In this respect, to read this 1988 Rolling Stone article about the booming of the comedy club industry in the 1980s feels pretty enlightening, although of course it does also feel like another world now. Beyond pre-series Seinfeld defining himself “the most successful unknown” (which is pretty hilarious), the description of the 1980s comedy club spree resonates with pre-Corona times: new opportunities for comedians and venues multiplying (today this would include Netflix deals), but also collateral phenomena like mass heckling, act stealing, and an almost industrial production of comedic personas (today: podcast overload, around-the-clock social media self-branding, and whatnot). A more recent article about the current globalised comedy boom ushered in by YouTube, Twitter, and especially Netflix, laments in fact the saturation of the market, systemic inequalities, and unsustainable business models as ills inherent to the expansion. On a good note, the sprawling of new media that may “break” a new comedian these days are symptoms of a technically much more inclusive and decentralized infrastructure; on the financial side, however, gatekeepers are still making the real money, while comedians need to hustle even harder (as seen now in Covid times, when they are basically relying on hardcore supporters on Instagram, Twitch, etc).
Whatever new models and opportunities this new global media infrastructure is bringing, and whatever challenges may come in the post-Covid world, there is no denying comedy clubs are not only places we like to go to for fun, they are the backbone of an infrastructure that allows performers to survive and educates their paying audiences to participate in what stand-up comedy is: a real life experience.