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.
I’m very happy to announce Splitsider Presents’ second release, a new standup film called A Night at Whiplash.
Whiplash is a weekly standup show at the UCB Theatre in New York. Every Monday night at 11pm, people have a chance to see some of the best standups in the world today performing ten- to twenty-minute sets, all for free. Hosted by Leo Allen, Whiplash has become one of NYC’s premiere standup shows. A Night at Whiplash chronicles one such show, and features sets by Sheng Wang, Carmen Lynch, Eugene Mirman, Janeane Garofalo, Jared Logan, Michael Che, and Sean Patton.