The International Writers Magazine: Comedy in Crisis
I don’t understand why everybody is jumping all over Jay Leno for winning the comedy war against Conan O’Brien. I long ago predicted Conan’s demise, which I based simply on the fact that he is NOT FUNNY. He’s a snarky little dude who went to Harvard. Harvard may be a great institution for training economists who create all these great financial products that we all enjoy right now, like the derivatives and swaps that have devastated the economy (which I concede to be a great comedy in the tradition of “The Producers”), but it is no breeding ground for comedians, who thrive much better in the fertile, overly-manured precincts of Brooklyn.
Anyway, having a good stage act is not the only quality you need to emerge in the comedy business. Go to any comedy club and you will see 2-3 good acts. The world is littered with the debris of talented artists who couldn’t get a break. Going back to the beginning of time, getting to the top in the comedy business depends on politics and connections. Even in ancient Rome they had stand-up comics, which they fed to the lions and the gladiators. “Nobody to fight Il Supremo? No problem, throw the comedian in.”
Nobody has ever written about the politics of the comedy business because the process is so low-based and sordid that no intelligent person would waste his time in contemplation of it. The personalities in charge of running it, like club managers, agents and producers are functional illiterates burdened by their own complexes and inadequacies. If any illiterate stooge with a big mouth can get on stage and be a comedian, the same goes double for an aspiring manager or agent.
"What follows is a backstage charade of favoritism, backstabbing and triumphalism. The most striking literary statement I ever read about it was a play called “The Sweet Smell of Success”, which was made into a movie starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis and touched all the bases. Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” was a good stab at it, but I didn’t feel he included enough agents and producers in it, and they are the real fuck-ups, as the NBC mess currently illustrates.
I have been doing a comedy act for a long damn time. You can always find a place to go onstage. I would go in and have a good time until I got tired of it. In order to succeed at it, you have to go around to all the clubs all the time and hope that something will happen. I always had jobs, dating and sports also going at the same time, so when the club scene grew tiresome I blew it off and went on to my other interests.
Club managers were always my plague. They think they are critics, and it is reinforced by comics, who are broke, sucking up to them. Naturally, a lot of self-promotion is going on because everybody needs to get on stage all the time.
Naturally, a lot of socializing is always going on, and this is where you really feel the full brunt of comedy politics, which is primordial slime reduced to its most illiterate dimension. When Dante created The Inferno, he omitted mention of a particular circle of hell, which is a roomful of comedians. You got the intellectual Jew, who philosophizes his act sitting on a stool, like Seinfeld. All club managers drool over this type of comedian. Why, I don’t know. For the money, I suppose (what else?). Also, I think that these dummies regard the wooden stool school of comics, like Bill Cosby and George Carlin, to have more tone and be more intellectual. This wise man aspect of comedy is what I hate the most because these windbags always want to tell freakin stories, like the bible. Then you got your soul brothers, keeping things real from the hood. OK, they’re funny. They bring heart to the art.
Women in comedy are a peculiar species. They talk a lot of nasty shit from the stage, but offstage they are pretty boring, with the exception of the floozy, grande dame dramatic types perpetually recreating Tallulah Bankhead or the death scene from “Camille”, and who always have a gay guy in tow.
I happen to prefer Latin comedians, who bring a whole other dimension of reality to the set. They don’t respect nothing. That’s why I predict, given the current field, that George Lopez is going to take over. Lopez wears nice suits, but that doesn’t hide the mean, low-life gangbanger who is screaming to get out. His theme song is “Low Rider” from the band War, and tripping with George is like a little guided tour through Compton and South Central.
“My wife treats the dog better than she treats me. That’s ‘cause when she comes home, the dog goes over to her. Me, nyaaah!”
All comics are only interested in one thing: what works. Fuck truth or consequences, if it works in front of an audience, if it gives you enough survival to go on to your next bit, that is the only meaningful criterion for all the gas and hot air that you are expelling into the environment. As one guy put it, “In war, the first casualty is truth”. In the comedy business, the first casualty is sanity. The problem is, after a few years of being onstage doing literally anything I wanted to, I found myself talking that shit in my private life, which is not so helpful in a New York job situation. Shit, what’s the difference anyway? Oh, some important things get said in life, I suppose, but none of that essential discourse is ever taking place at my level, that’s for sure.
Lopez is all over the place. He had Jackie Chan on and he just happens to be appearing in Chan’s new spy comedy. Lopez’ reruns are now playing on Nickelodeon. He does clubs. What has Conan O’Brien got to offer? He’s only good for interview shows. He has no personality, and his haircut reminds me of an MGM cartoon character. No style. O’Brien is dead and Letterman is soon to follow.
Eventually it’s got to get down to hard war between Leno and Lopez, The Battle of Burbank I calls it, and that will be the evolution that defines contemporary comedy. Leno and Lopez have bumped off Conan, and Letterman will go next. Leno goes out all prepared, with a team of writers and cue cards, etc. With Lopez, it’s more visceral. Last night his monologue was totally ad lib and incoherent, but he survived to get to the interview segment, Charles Barkley, who also stunk, frankly. No matter. George Lopez is closer to the street. His nasty, bad-ass attitude is where the rubber is meeting the road in today’s downtrodden world.
© Dean Borok Jan 15th 2010