Last night’s Last Week Tonight took a closer look at the crumbling infrastructure in the United States, from the thousands of uninspected dams across the country to bridges in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and New York that could realistically collapse at any minute: “When we’re at a point where the Secretary of Transportation is struggling to decide between using the word ‘unsafe’ and the word ‘dangerous,’ we might have a problem worth fixing.” Since no taxpayers or politicians seem interested in the very unglamorous job of routine road maintenance, Last Week Tonight enlisted the help of stars like Edward Norton, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Steve Buscemi to film an intense thriller called Infrastructure with the hopes of making the issue sexy enough for people to start caring about again.
I was thirteen when I first saw a comic glance at his notes on stage, and I remember wondering why I was surprised to see this. Did you think he was making all this up on the spot? I asked myself. Well, I guess I did. Years later, when I began regularly attending comedy shows and would end up seeing the same set a dozen times a year, I began to have a similar feeling. What, I again asked myself, did you think comedians come up with a new routine for every show? Well, I guess I did. After all, isn’t that the rouse that so many standups employ in their act, that this is all a spontaneous, one-sided conversation?
Young fans of standup inevitably go through these revelations. At some point, we develop the moxie to learn that the character a comedian is on stage isn’t necessarily who they are off-stage (though sometimes they can be, for good or ill). Even though I’m a child of the indie-comedy generation, I still have no problem accepting a certain amount of theater and artifice in someone’s set.
Though if that’s the case, why do we get so punk-rock preachy at the idea of a standup comedian not writing their own jokes?
There are very few artistic depictions of what it’s like to be a standup comedian.
Sure, there are an abundance of explanations — celebrities churn out autobiographies, and everybody seems to have a podcast — but there is a comparative dearth of fictional works where comedy is the central theme. There are no widely read novels about standup comedy, for example, and there have been very few motion pictures on the subject. When you look at the numbers, it is clear why.
Judd Apatow’s Funny People came right after his two massive commercial hits, and it starred Adam Sandler. It should have been huge, but it lost the studio 4 million dollars. Man on the Moon starred Jim Carrey in the late 1990’s — the sort of movie which should have delivered Universal Pictures enough profit to buy a small island nation. It lost almost 40 million dollars.
The reason audiences don’t want depictions of standup comedians may perhaps be found in the exception that proves the rule: Seinfeld. While comedians in life are notoriously depressed and cynical, Seinfeld is (as well as being a postmodern depiction of a world without morals) undeniably cheery. Fundamentally, Seinfeld isn’t a show about doing stand up comedy – it’s a show that happens to have some stand up comedy in it. Actual shows about comedians tend to be a downer (see: Louie).
It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that a major video game studio hasn’t gotten around to making a game about being a comic. Never fear: an independent game developer has done it anyway. Comedy Quest is a new, and to my knowledge the only, video game that lets you play as a standup comedian.
Jordan Brady’s love of comedy has carried him through two great comedy “booms” and “busts” over the past 30 years. Although he was a highly active comic during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Brady’s interests turned towards directing and producing. His experience in comedy and love for the art of stand-up led him to make I Am Comic in 2010, which presents deeply personal and insightful interviews with comedians such as Louis C.K., Phyllis Diller, Jim Gaffigan, Janeane Garofalo, Sarah Silverman, and Dave Attell.
More recently, in 2014, Brady released I Am Road Comic, which focuses more specifically on the unique issues that face comedians who take their act on the road, often to diverse and unpredictable venues around the country. This time around, Brady gathered interviews with comics like T.J. Miller, Maria Bamford, Pete Holmes, Marc Maron, Doug Benson, Jim Norton, Judah Friedlander, Alonzo Bodden, Jen Kirkman, W. Kamau Bell, Nikki Glaser, and Kyle Kinane to recount their experience of “the road” as comics come to know it. He presents road comedy for what it usually is: a march into a small, unfamiliar town, in a strange bar, where nobody who knows who you are.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Brady over the phone about his experiences on the scene through the bang and bust of the ‘80s and late ‘90s, where he thinks the scene is now, and what really makes for a great comic.
Funny videos on the internet come from a plethora of sources, from established internet studios to TV networks to independent comedians. But how do comedy production studios fund their internet comedy videos? There’s no simple answer. In fact, one of the first answers I heard was “Our funding comes from everywhere.”
However, as I talked to representatives from CollegeHumor, Funny or Die, Jash, Above Average, UCB Comedy, and Comedy Central, a lot of common themes came forward. Branded content funds more than you think. YouTube revenue funds less than you think. Comedy studios, like everyone else, earn money so they can fund passion projects. Incubating new talent is also a huge part of comedy work, and that adds an extra line to the budget.
So let’s take a closer look at how some of the major comedy production studios fund their internet comedy videos, as well as how a few indie comedy teams gets work done.
Hi, I’m Stephie, and I’m a recovering assistant-aholic. For the past five-plus years, I’ve had the incredible fortune of working for a whole slew of professional funny people.
Many of my jobs were in film/TV production: as a personal assistant, production assistant, writer’s assistant, associate producer, and script supervisor, multiple times over in each capacity. But my absolute favorite gigs — the ones where I really cut my care-of-comedians teeth — were as road manager on three cross-country tours. If there’s one place to get to know a comedian (or anyone) in a profound way, it’s inside a compact rental car with a faulty GPS, desperately trying to find the highway out of Flint, Michigan.First of All, I’m Mom
This was Surprise #1. I first thought I’d been hired to be almost invisible — to do simple stuff my bosses didn’t have time for, but without leaving any trace of my existence. Like Santa Claus, if Santa left organized filing systems and updated calendars under the tree instead of toys.
As time progressed and my bosses entrusted me with more personal responsibilities beyond easy errands, I unwittingly began to assume Mom Role. Mom thinks twelve steps ahead. She strives to make life easier for her kids, and is so on point with her mom-ness that she’s clearly the envy of all the other neighborhood moms. Or, put another way: I became my own mom.
Transparent, Amazon’s foray into the Netflix-infested waters of quality internet binge watching, is deservedly the most critically-lauded show of this Fall television season (and was just renewed for a second season). Created by writer/director Jill Soloway (writer/producer Six Feet Under and The United States of Tara, writer/director Afternoon Delight, which won a directing award at Sundance in 2013), the show centers around the Pfefferman family, an affluent Jewish LA clan whose patriarch Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) comes out as transgender and begins to live as Maura in her late 60s.
Directed mostly by Soloway herself, (with the exception of three, credited to Nisha Ganatra), the direction in the show is strong and incredibly consistent, marked by what Emily Nussbaum refers to in her piece on the show in The New Yorker as “mildly funky pacing” of the current era of indie film/TV direction stylistic crossovers we are seeing particularly in comedy, with shows like Girls and Louie. However, a key difference between Transparent and those other shows is that Soloway is not a character, neither in physical or representational form. Rather, Soloway knows all of her characters extremely well, she knows them like family, and in the way one knows family, she allows them to speak for themselves and expose their own flaws. She is not at all precious about her characters and at times early in the series she can be downright misanthropic, allowing the whole ensemble (minus the consistently heartbreaking, inspiring, astonishing Maura) to tread deeper and deeper toward the brink of unlikability.
Janet Varney’s positive and generous attitude might be best exemplified by her Nerdist podcast The JV Club; in it the actress, producer, and writer interviews women in entertainment (and this summer, men) about their experiences growing up and how their formative teenage years influence their work and who they are today. In her often funny and sometimes emotional conversations Varney exudes warmth and an earnest curiosity to understand and share her guest’s stories with her audience.
As a comedic actress Varney has made a variety of guest appearances in shows and movies like Kroll Show, How I Met Your Mother, and Key and Peele, but she might be best known to alt comedy fans for her work on Burning Love, in which she played the disinterested lesbian love interest of Ken Marino’s pompous bachelor.
Varney also founded SF SketchFest with Owen David and Cole Stratton. The festival celebrated its thirteenth year in February with shows at nearly two dozen Bay Area venues.
This summer Varney has appeared on the relationship comedy You’re the Worst and stars in the animated adventure series The Legend of Korra, which released its third season finale online on Friday.
I recently talked with Varney about The JV Club, Korra, SF SketchFest, and interacting with fans.
Comedians like Doug Benson and Stephen Colbert have been getting a lot of joke-mileage out of Colorado’s legalization of marijuana last January. Though after Maureen Dowd wrote about being “curled up in a hallucinatory state for eight hours” in a Denver hotel room after carelessly ingesting too much edible cannabis, Bill Maher editorialized that Colorado “must realize that they are the Jackie Robinson of marijuana legislation,” and that residents “have to get this right, or else you’ll ruin it for everybody.”
The definition of what “getting this right” means is being played out in the Denver comedy scene, where marijuana has become more than just a cultural glue between comics and comedy fans, but an economic steroid that has propelled the burgeoning standup community to new levels of ambition and national attention.