Point At Issue: The Future Of The Stand-Up Comedian

Comedy is known to be the last bastion of free speech. In a time where political correctness is becoming a more cultural value than it has in the past, stand-up comedians have been at the forefront of speaking truth to power. During the aftermath of the 2016 presidential elections, Comedian Dave Chapelle performed a necessary monologue on Saturday Night Live. When Donald J. Trump was elected president in spite of having lost the popular vote, much of the country took to the streets to protest. Nationwide anti-Trump protests dominated headlines and the threat of these protests turning violent was a very real concern. At such a time, comedian Dave Chappelle appealed to everyone with his ‘Give Trump a Chance’ statement he said at the end of his monologue. Chapelle echoed Obama’s statements about safeguarding one of the hallmarks of American Democracy, which is the peaceful transition of power.

Stand-up has a special place in the world of comedy. When you break it down, there’s just one person, a microphone and the audience. In recent years, stand-up comedy has taken on new additions than what we’ve traditionally seen. Take for example the case of the latest Bo Burnham comedy special on Netflix, Make Happy (2016). Musical comedy is a part of Burnham’s repertoire and has written and performed many of his jokes through music. He found his audience first through YouTube when he posted songs like The Perfect Woman and My Whole Family. The songs deal with subjects like Helen Keller and being in the closet as a gay man.

However, what makes Make Happy special is that the show was written and performed keeping in mind a larger audience. In the past, for most stand-up specials that comedians have released, the material has been worked on in front of a small audience, and then performed as a one-hour or longer set. With Make Happy, Burnham tried to write material that suits the theatricality of the format. Burnham mentioned how his influences came from theater, rather than from “brick-walled comedy clubs and two-drink minimums.” He also mentioned borrowing some stylistic choices for Make Happy from other arena performers like Kanye West. Burnham spoke about West’s choice of performing for about an hour and a half of his concert with a jeweled mask during his tour promoting the Yeezus (2013) album. In those tours, West would also perform monologues set to music in the background. Burnham did a version of the same for Make Happy. Set to monochromatic light, an autotuned microphone and some music, Burnham did a seven-minute rant that was similar to West’s monologues, except his jokes dealt with not being able to fit his hands into a Pringle can, and how burritos can’t hold all of its contents into the tortilla. The joke had the same sense of theatricality to it. Speaking of the format, Burnham mentioned that the material was performed in theaters that had capacities ranging from 1500-2000 seats. A larger audience had influenced the conception of the show. How about doing away with the audience itself? And how about doing that for your first comedy special?

Drew Michael (2018) is a comedy special performed by Drew Michael and directed by comedian, Jerrod Carmichael. The comedy special tries to question whether the audience at the time of the taping is who specials are targeted at. The comedy special has Michael’s interactions with Suki Waterhouse interspersed with his jokes that Michael performs as monologues. Even the visuals for the special feature only one person on screen at all times throughout the special.

On the Oct. 17, episode of the You Made it Weird with Pete Holmes podcast, host/comedian Pete Holmes, Carmichael and Michael discussed the influences and the motivations for making such a comedy special. Holmes spoke about comedy rules like getting a laugh every three seconds, but Carmichael questions whether such rules for comedy even exist.  Carmichael also discussed stand-up and comedy as an art form, and why it isn’t necessary to even stick to conventions. Michael mentioned that he wanted to try something different with the material that he had with him. About the material, he discussed how people think stand-up comics have problems that they don’t have any control over, but the opposite is true. Carmichael also spoke about influences for directing the special, which coincidentally came from other hip-hop artists.

Carmichael was a part of a video for a song from for Jay-Z’s album 4:44(2017). The video for the song Moonlight from the album featured a version of the TV show Friends that featured only black actors and Carmichael played the role of Ross in this version. Carmichael spoke about being influenced by hip-hop artists and complains about why other artists in other art forms get to stretch the envelope and stand-up comedians don’t. Michael expressed the idea that performing for live audiences influences the comedian into thinking that their material is good, to which Holmes added that audience laughter and applause sometimes act like cues for comedians to end their jokes before the comedian has reached to the end of their material. Not including a live audience into the equation gives the comedian the control of their material.

One of the important elements of comedy content is making sure that the material is catered towards eliciting a laugh from the audience. Sometimes, comedians make use of their own suffering from the audience to laugh at. Now, laughter is subjective, but suffering is probably not. To write material for a special that lays bare the suffering is a whole different thing altogether. Something that not all comedians would dare to do.

Hannah Gadsby did exactly that. Her special Nanette(2018) is by all intents and purposes an hour-long stand-up comedy performance. However, Gadsby stretched the envelope of what it means to present material about personal suffering to an audience. She questioned the very idea of why self-deprecating humor is thought of as being humble. She tells her audience: “It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.”

Gadsby’s material does all the things that a good comedy special does: it punches up, as it speaks about issues like homophobia and sexual assault, speaks about issues not many people speak about, like violence against women. It even goes one step further and explains the art form to the audience. However, one thing it doesn’t do is let the audience sit back and relax. It asks questions of the audience present in the theater, and at home, as Gadsby becomes more and more serious and refuses to give the audience the comfort of a punchline. Gadsby takes the power away from the audience and puts it back into the hands of the performer.

This is where we’re at as far as stand-up is concerned. Comedians have experimented with visuals, with theatricality, with the audience. The questions that need to be asked here are: where do we go from here? Does stand-up expand to include more emphasis on material only, and less emphasis on who it caters to? Or is it going to take a totally unknown route? All we can do is wait and watch.