Ludicrous Yet Revealing: One Man’s Journey Into The Heart Of Comic Darkness

June 9, 2010 at 8:17 am Leave a comment

One of the things I find most interesting about Reality Television is that while it seeks to entertain the masses, by its nature it serves mostly as a document. A document of the depths to which people will go to win some money, find the love(s) of their life, or meet Flavor Flav. A document of the incredible capacity humans have to surprise themselves and those around them. It is with mixed feelings that I have watched us arrive at this moment in our history, where we broadcast ourselves at our best moments, as well as the decline of western civilization – and often within the same show.

Last Comic Standing is ostensibly a competition show which endeavors to find the funniest “undiscovered” voice in America and proffer it up with some sort of Seal Of Approval given by a panel of “Comics’ Comics” and the National Broadcasting Company. Yes, the proud home of The Jay Leno Debacle Volumes One and Two is here to tell you what’s funny. Sing Hosannas. (Anyone else like the Tonight Show promos wherein the creative genius behind ‘Jaywalking’ admonishes the efforts of the contestants by saying “Leave the comedy to the professionals”? Stay classy, Jay.)

The problem, which always arises when trying to rank something as abstract as performance, is that the process is fundamentally flawed by being entirely subjective. In short: What’s funny to me may not be funny to you. You might be a Dane Cook fan, and have no idea why Mike Birbiglia leaves me weeping with laughter. This is most obvious in some of the reasons the judges give for inviting certain comics to that night’s Showcase – reasons that are ludicrous yet revealing, as they are based less on material and more on some ineffable quality the judges suspect the performer may have. The simple truth is that some comics depend on the energy of the room, and are capable of giving tremendous live performances that don’t translate through a picture tube. Which, you know, is a pretty fundamental flaw for a television show.

Perhaps, though, this is the point: the inherent drama of injustice. While not all members of the audience maybe familiar with the specific indignity of bombing in front of a room of strangers, I’m sure the vast majority can relate to working hard for something and then losing it for reasons they don’t understand. Maronzio Vance had auditioned once before in Season Two, not making it past that first day. In the five years since, Maronzio has practiced and worked and refined his act into one he was confident would take him far. He made it to the Showcase, but no farther. Christina Pazsitsky is a first-generation American. Her material was strong, and her confession that she was happy just to perform on TV so her immigrant parents might finally understand why she’d devoted her life to this strange calling left me utterly beguiled. Again, she made the Showcase. Again, she made it no farther. Now, perhaps I was already in a sympathetic state of mind as I’d spent the last weekend at the National Spelling Bee watching small children experience crushing defeat on cable and primetime television, but watching these talented people stand before God and Country and not hear their names called for the Semi-Finals left me feeling dispirited along with them. Which is fairly audacious, that a show might explore the unifying theme of failure – though NBC seems to be specializing in that of late, with shows like The Office and Friday Night Lights celebrating characters’ relative victories amongst contexts of mediocrity. Then again, maybe it’s not so unthinkable that this story would play out amongst stand up comics…

It’s not all bad, though! Comics such as Jonathan Thymius and Chip Pope clearly know how to construct a joke, and Kirk Fox has created a persona that, while I don’t know how far it will go in the competition, will probably be one of the breakouts of the season. While some people dressed up as hobo clowns and Sasquatch in the hope of making an impression, Fox took the stage with an air of old-fashioned chutzpah that eventually gave way to discombobulation, and walked off my personal favorite. Always a fan of pretty Jewish girls, Rachel Feinstein’s Sarah-Silverman-But-Funny schtick made an impression as well.

Speaking of hobo clowns and Sasquatch, WTF LA? This season premiere took place in Los Angeles, which predictably offered a rich smorgasbord of WTF moments. (Really, middle-aged guy doing a Michael Jackson impression in the parking lot? Really?) My biggest WTF came when the aforementioned Pazsitsky was excluded on the second night so that Paula Bel might go on to the Semi-Finals. Like a boxer who moves their shoulders, you see all of Bel’s jokes coming a mile away. She’s got funny faces, funny voices, just not funny material. It’s all so wonderfully retro and faux-aggressive, more Don Rickles-Now than Don Rickles-Then. But what else do we expect from NBC? As Craig Robinson said to a man standing in the hot-ass sun waiting for his chance at glory, “It doesn’t matter what happens here, NBC’s gonna name Jay Leno the Last Comic Standing.” It’s a funny moment, but one fears that like so many other funny moments, this one might prove a little too prescient.

Full disclosure: I tried my hand at stand-up comedy once. I hated it, and I was awful. But I understand the desire to try and craft a joke that helps not only soften the blow of life’s many absurdities, but also to establish a shared language with those around you with whom you so want to communicate and yet cannot. To those who toil away for days and weeks on end, trying to bring laughter and joy to an audience – I salute you.

By Adam Stovall

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