Feature: That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore


That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

There was a time when comedy was challenging and it took people out of their comfort zones. Chandler Levack examines what the next generation of comedians have to look forwrd to.

By Chandler Levack

In her review of Ben Stiller Hollywood exploitation comedy Tropic Thunder, which notably co-stars Robert Downey Jr. in blackface, Salon critic Stephanie Zacarak maintains that for all the film’s problems, Stiller and co. understand that comedy is anarchy. “As much as we want our lives to be stable and manageable,” Zaracak writes, “comedy demands that we relinquish our sense of orderliness, sometimes even our better judgment. Respectful comedy is dull comedy.”

Zarack’s estimation seems apt, but for every Sam Kinison, the system begets another thousand Dane Cooks. While the next generation of comedians has more venues than ever before to deliver their incisive truths, as burgeoning laugh-makers capitalize on their ability to poke fun at societal ills, not to mention themselves, there’s a dangerous price to pay. Comedians want the audience to be on their side, but what happens if what they’re saying isn’t, well, all that funny?

“It’s a tricky thing,” says Andrew Clark, Director of Humber College’s Comedy Writing and Performance Program and author of Stand and Deliver: Inside Canadian Comedy, an in-depth examination of the Canuck contribution to the art of getting laughs. “The idea of shock comedy comes out of the 1950s, primarily with people like Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart–if you can believe that–and George Carlin. It was comedy that took people out of their comfort zone and challenged their core beliefs.”

Self-described as “Chomsky with dick jokes,” comedian William Melvin Hicks grew up in Houston, Texas to an unfunny Southern Baptist upbringing. Moving to Los Angeles at age 18, Hicks swiftly fell into the edgy Hollywood Comedy Store scene, performing alongside Andrew Dice Clay, Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld, where his vitriolic stand up, usually fueled by a dangerous cocktail of psychotropic drugs, stage fright, and enough gin to stone a Hilton, gained a counter-cultural following, his signature lit cigarette burning through the bright stage lights. Hicks would go on to perform on Letterman–though his material encouraging advertising execs to “just kill yourselves!” and plea to assassinate George Bush Sr. to avenge an Iraqi murder attempt was heavily augmented for live TV. (To a producer’s criticism that Hicks did not understand his audience, he countered, “What–do you grow them on a fucking farm?”) Hick’s twelfth performance on October 9, 1993, the one really nailed, was censored after a brief bit lamenting Christians who accessorize with crosses was thought to offend religious audiences, pointing out quite rightly, “Do you think when Jesus comes back, he’s really gonna want to look at a cross! Maybe that’s why he hasn’t shown up yet.” Hicks would die at age 32 of lung cancer, five months after being banned from Letterman, obscured from fame and fuming in the dark.

Sometimes you gotta play to the whole room. After being fired from Saturday Night Live in 1993 via fax message, comedienne Sarah Silverman lampooned the sexist and intimidating writer’s room atmosphere on a guest starring role on The Larry Sanders Show, penned by up and comer Judd Apatow. Stuck playing Jewish best friends and next door neighbours for years as she honed her routine, Silverman’s use of the ethnic slur “chink” on the Conan O’Brien Show during a 2001 interview spurred criticism from the Media Action Network for Asian Americans. While NBC and O’Brien apologized profusely, Silverman questioned the intentions of President Guy Aoki. Aoki maintained that Silverman should’ve replaced “chink” with “Chinese person”, that it was a comedian’s responsibility to consult with official groups before deploying any pejorative terms. Silverman maintained in a NPR interview that the experience taught her that racism is wrong: “And I mean bad, like in that black way.”

The success of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, humourist Stephen Leacock’s personification of a fictionalized Mariposa (a thinly veiled Orillia), led one publication to say that more people had heard of Stephen Leacock than they had of his country.

Whether Silverman’s foul-mouthed Jewish American Princess or Hicks’ truth-serumed bad boy resonates with the ideal aims of comedy–to make audiences bust a gut–there’s cultural value in having an act that isn’t centered on airplane food. Compared to comedy’s pretentious and estranged cousin theatre (you avert their gaze at Thanksgiving dinner but they insist on going on about their process), there’s less pressure on the comedian to make their five-minute set capital M-“Meaningful.” While comedians hold a palpable power onstage, they have an arguably easier gig–make ‘em laugh, by any means necessary.

Adds Clark: “Some comics today mean to be shocking and take their audience out of their comfort zones…but there’s a complacency today in Canada to the idea of free speech.”

Toronto-based comedian Guy Earle was hosting an open mic night at Zesty’s Restaurant in Vancouver, B.C. when Lorna Pardy, a heckler in attendance with her lesbian partner, took issue with Earle’s routine. When a brutal Youtube video made the rounds (choice retort: “You’re fat and ugly, no wonder you’re lesbians!”), Pardy sought justice the only way Canadians know how: by taking the comedian’s comments to a human rights tribunal. On June 24 this year, the board ruled that the evidentiary content in Earle’s defense warranted a day in court. When even heckling is prohibited by law, what do the next generation of comedians have to look forward to? Minus, the bit part on Corner Gas, that is.

Satire in Canada has its own small but proud history, heavily augmented by our tendency to play down our contributions abroad. The success of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, humourist Stephen Leacock’s personification of a fictionalized Mariposa (a thinly veiled Orillia), led one publication to say that more people had heard of Stephen Leacock than they had of his country. Poking fun at the self-centeredness of rural cities, Leacock writes in response to the threat of a country-wide election: “the town of Mariposa, was, of course, the storm centre and focus point of the whole turmoil.”

In Quebec, satire of the Catholic Church through the humourous social activist newspaper Le Fantasque, led to imprisonment of founder Napoleon Aubin in 1839. Criticism of society seems more pervasive for the Quebecois, from Joseph Quesnels’ L’Anglomanie Ou Le Diner A L’Angloise, an operatic lament on English influence, to the canonized theatre by Michel Tremblay. Perhaps there’s a reason that Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival welcomes the bon vivant.

The Dumbbells, Canada’s first sketch comedy group, were founded on the shores of Vimy Ridge, creating elaborate satirical song and dance routines that lampooned the cruelties of war. One sketch entitled the “Haig Co. Estate Office” mocked the attribution strategy of collecting soldier’s fallen bodies, as artillery man Ross Hamilton dressed up so convincingly in drag, the crowds of 300 soldiers (any more could draw enemy fire) were smitten. Upon amnesty, the Dumbbells’ London, ONT. revue “Biff Bing Bang” led to a 44-week sold out tour across Canada, including a stint on Broadway. Said one enthused reviewer: “If this be treason, let us make this most of it.”

Toronto’s 1970’s comedy scene was not the tourist-friendly, buffalo wing gorge fest one associates with a night out at Second City. Comedians had two decrepit institutions at their disposal, each connected to the burgeoning strip club industry: Starvin Marvin’s on Yonge Street, and the Victory Theatre on Spadina. Starvin’ Marvin’s, started by New York ex-pat Rummy Bishop (cousin of rat packer Joey), hustled comedians for brief sets in between burlesque performances, material centered on Mickey Rooney-worthy Japanese impersonations, “take my wife please!” one liners, and commentary on the stripper’s breasts. Yet the Victory was even worse: boasting bands, b-movies and four naked women an hour, patrons in the back rows masturbated with a copy of the Globe and Mail conveniatly splayed across their laps. Now that’s comedy!

Inevitably, Canadians would find their place in satirizing American pop culture, playing up national insecurities as authentic refabrication. Who could forget SCTV’s Bob and Doug Mackenzie, the loveable oafs who brought hoser culture to the forefront, shot gunning brews in a high-tension game of “Beer Hunter?” At the hands of clever Canadian svengalis like Yuk Yuk’s Mark Breslin and Saturday Night Live founder Lorne Michaels, comics carved out a future that the CBC couldn’t provide. A bad CBC show costs taxpayer money, one might argue–and so we settle for vaguely critical Air Farce sketches, defying authority in the smallest of ways, like Tom Green’s defiant burning of the Canadian flag.

Upon its inception in June 1976, Yuk Yuk’s waved a triumphant middle finger to Toronto The Good. In a skuzzy basement at 519 Church Street, where derelicts would occasionally stray onstage to perform a brief monologue, standup became a subjective expression of existential turmoil. Yuk Yuk’s was a place where anything went: bombing acts would be dragged off by a cardboard hook to a pre-recorded chorus of “Crucify Him!” from Jesus Christ Superstar, comedian Paul Mandel read from his divorce papers as the girlfriend of Mark Breslin sold rotten tomatoes in a French maid uniform to be hurled at comics. An unintelligible performance by avant New Yorker Sam Kinison was rewarded a $100 walkout fee, the only place the icon could perform. To those who left their seats in disgust, Breslin would shout: “Go fuck yourselves! The Jew has your money!” No wonder Jim Carrey at age 14 bombed at what would later become “Crash and Burn Mondays”, returning after two years in his dad’s pickup truck from Port Perry.

At the Laugh Sabbath 2nd year Anniversary Show, the atmosphere is kinder. Gummy bears intermingle with Swedish fish in complimentary candy jars, as impoverished comedians sneak as many crudités and Thai chicken skewers as can fit onto their paper napkins. Held at the Rivoli, the hip Queen West audience is doubtfully removed by any less than two degrees of separation. They laugh generously, even when the jokes don’t quite gel: Sarah Haywood’s lackadaisical lament to her diary (“Don’t be a dick, diary!”), Graham Wagner’s sadomasochistic sojourn to a Berlin improv festival that gave him fetish-kink whiplash, Aaron Eves’ nebbish routine about life being better “now that I got the thing removed!” Many comedians simply grace the stage to screen a video, scurrying for the exit when the lights grow dim. Other than offering up a piece of themselves, the risk seems far less momentous.

Two comedians make me think differently about the future of comedy. Michael Balazo, a Humber graduate and member of the Laugh Sabbath collective, dressed up in full cowboy regalia as a former alcoholic roofer turned Christian Youth Pastor, who sings a shameful monologue detailing how falling off a rooftop allowed him to the see the way of God. Headliner Nick Flanagan, who also fronts local punk band Brutal Nights, takes his nebbish Jewish persona one step further: making quips about the sexual transmitted diseases he’s able to give would-be dates, and his “tiny flaccid cock.” One way of shock comedy is the creation of characters that do it for you, masking your identity to provide social commentary from an alien perspective. Where would culture be without Scott Thompson’s “alpha fag” Buddy Cole, Michael “Thomas” Green’s spazzy degenerate, or even Martin Short’s loathsome Hollywood insider, Ed Grimley? If the audience likes you, you have carte blanche. Especially if they know they’re in on the joke.

In response to Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair asked, “Are women funny?” In the September 19th “Comedy issue”, Rolling Stone countered, “What’s funny now?”

This tenuous relationship was never better illustrated than Michael Richards’ (best known as Seinfeld’s wacky next door neighbor Cosmo Kramer) racist tirade at West Hollywood’s Laugh Factory in November 2006. After a black audience member commented that Richards’ set “wasn’t funny,” the comedian lost his cool.

“Fifty years ago we’d have you upside down with a fucking fork up your ass. You can talk, you can talk, you’re brave now, motherfucker. Throw his ass out. He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! And nigger look, there’s a nigger!”

The next day, David Letterman questioned whether Richards would have responded differently if the heckler hadn’t been black.

“I’m not a racist, that’s what’s so insane about this,” said a sweating, dumfounded comedian through the video teleconference. “The rage (went) all over the place–it went to everybody in the room.”

Backstage at the Rivoli, burgeoning comedians Michael Balazo, Levi MacDougall and David Dineen-Porter seem nonplussed about the controversial trappings of progressive comedy.

“Being shocking isn’t necessary for social change,” says Porter. “It has almost the opposite effect.”

“Yeah, shock comedy is the most conservative. It’s the liberals who are incredibly uptight, ” says Balazo. “Like (George Carlin’s) seven dirty words? Most comedy clubs hear them all the time. Especially with shock comedy based on sex, most people are already scared about it.”

Porter agrees. “If audiences are laughing about your material, at least it’s in the conversation. If the audience is uptight about sex, at least they’re laughing because they know what it looks like.” He pauses. “Except at Yuk Yuk’s.”

“I’ve told jokes about how it’s wrong to mix races,” offers Macdougall.

“Anything that genuinely shocks someone is misunderstood. Something is only offensive if it’s mishandled by a bad comedian,” says Porter. “Otherwise it’s like, of course immigrants speak English badly. He’s funny, he thinks the way I think, he’s not racist, he’s just telling a joke.”

But how do they feel about comedy’s ability to serve as say, a political bullshit detector?

“The real issue is that absolutely no one protests anymore. By laughing at America’s problems on the Daily Show, people think it benefits them,” says Balazo.

“Absolves them,” corrects Porter.

“That comedy of all things has to change things–that’s sad,” says Balazo. “Maybe it will make people think about issues in a different light, but it won’t change things.”

“I don’t know if that’s true,” counters Porter. “Some people say Will And Grace made gay people palatable. There’s polls in Vermont that show that it raised the approval rating of gay marriage by 12 per cent.”

But without Lenny Bruce’s 1961 arrest in San Francisco, ironically for using the word “cocksucker”, there never would have been a Will and Grace. The iconic Jewish comic and ex-Navy sailor died at age 40 of “accidental overdose of morphine”, declaring bankruptcy in 1965 with a track record of over 19 arrests from 1960 to 1964. Trouble seemed to follow Bruce wherever he performed–booking his volatile, filthy act was a declaration that your establishment was a virtual Sodom and Gomorrah. Convicted of obscenity in Chicago, an Illinois court made up of 47 out of 50 Catholics overturned the precedent of Jacobellis vs. State of Ohio to rule against Bruce. While Jacobellis stated “no work could be deemed obscene unless utterly devoid of social significance”, the court revised it to “gradual deterioration of its moral fabric.” In an official testimony Bruce maintained the opposite belief–“Obscenity has only one meaning: to appeal to prurient interest.”

The irony of cocksucking is further commented in his autobiography, championed by Hugh Hefner, How To Talk Dirty and Influence People.

“They said it was vernacular for a favorite homosexual practice. That’s weird how they manifested that word as homosexual, ‘cause I don’t. That relates to any contemporary chick I know, or would know, or would love, or marry.”

Lenny Bruce’s command of language, particularly the words that made audiences squirm made him a culture warrior. His approach to humour lay in “distinguishing between the moral differences of words and their connotations,” reveling in George Carlin’s shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits with childlike abandon. However, the stress and strain of his legality issues eventually took a toll on his career. A promising opportunity as a screenwriter was later withdrawn with the kiss off that Bruce’s “morals were not upheld by the television industry,” as one condition of bail for a LA arrest prevented from attending his trial in Chicago for obscenity. Not even Variety, the bible of Hollywood show business, would accept an advertisement to show that Bruce was still a working comic. At a 1962 performance in Australia, Bruce stood onstage, remarked “What a fucking wonderful audience,” and was swiftly escorted offstage by a police officer. 37 years after his suicide, Bruce was granted the first posthumous pardon New York state, claimed to be a show of New York’s faith in the First Amendment.

Today, the validity of modern comedy grows increasingly convoluted. In response to Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair asked, “Are women funny?” In the September 19th “Comedy Issue”, Rolling Stone countered, “What’s funny now?”

Local filmmakers Adam Brodie and Dave Derewlany seem poised on the cusp of the Youtube revolution. Members of sketch comedy troupe “Knock Knock (Who’s There?) Comedy!” their edgy shorts lampooning Celino and Barnes-style legal services and a quickie marriage by gunpoint have the surrealist knack of Stella, catching the eye of the Toronto International Film Festival and Much Music.

Says Derewlany: “To me, a lot of standup is lazy and boring. Comedians talk about themselves because it’s an easy crutch to lean on.”

“Still, we will never be incapable of being shocked, comedy will always find a way to get a rise out of people. It’s just that the internet has pushed things further. I thought 2 Girls 1 Cup was hilarious, and it shocked possibly billions of people.”

Truth be told, Lenny Bruce would probably love 2 Girls 1 Cup, but not for the same reasons we delighted in the most grotesque PDA in history. What comedy does best is question value systems that don’t necessarily reflect reality. It is the right to object, a value taught but rarely practiced, cracking a joke in the toughest of crowds, a punch line that might earn you a punch in the face. Clark maintains that satire grows popular during high periods of affluence. We crave the institution of comedy because, as Brodie says, “it’s a way for the powerless to attack the powerful.”

Borat wrestling with his sweaty, obese and naked business partner like a pornographic Abbott and Costello. Five Kids in drag, gorging themselves on chocolate cake doused with Kahlua, all saying they’re trying to watch their calories. Sarah Silverman sweetly delivering another racial epithet to a packed house hung on her every word. What’s funny now?

“People buy into this notion that’s it’s all over, but you have to hope that there will remain people who will stand up, and call attention to hypocrisy,” contends Clark. “It’s never easy–Bill Hicks died of pancreatic cancer, Lenny Bruce never got his own sitcom. You have to do it because it’s what you believe.”

Backstage with the comedians, they’re still debating the merits of the mechanism.

“Really, whatever kids find funny is I guess the future,” decides Porter blithely.

“After all, Andy Dick never took a stand and he’s hilarious.”

I feel a deep belly laugh rising through my chest until I can’t control myself. I laugh so hard tears start spewing out of my eyes, slapping my knees wildly in attempt to keep myself centered. I’ve officially been cracked up.