We live in a great time to love standup comedy, but it’s a horrible time to be a standup. We live in an era when Louis CK has more influence than any standup comedian since the 1970’s heyday of Pryor and Carlin. Within his kingdom is a treasure trove of great, slightly more minor comics: Stewart and Colbert of course (though you can’t really call what they do Standup…), Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifinackis, Maria Bamford, Ricky Gervais, Kristin Schaal, Mike Birbiglia, Sarah Silverman, Eddie Issard, Tig Notaro, Brian Posehn, Amy Schumer, Aziz Ansari, Wanda Sykes, Marc Maron, Margaret Cho, Jim Gaffigan, Chelsea Handler, Doug Stanhope, Adam Carolla. Among the veterans, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Kathy Griffin, Lewis Black, Lisa Lampanelli, Colin Quinn, David Cross, and Jeff Garlin are still going strong. Until recently, Patrice O’Neal, Joan Rivers, Robin Williams, and Greg Geraldo were going strong, and Bill Cosby and Dave Chapelle both look determined to make a strong comeback.
And yet, it must be a stressful, anguishing time to be a comedian, because nothing is guaranteed to be funny anymore. Whether or not the outrage is justified (and I’m willing to acknowledge that much of it is), we live in a society of perpetual anger, perpetual grievance, and perpetual victimhood. Much of the anger, grievances, and claims to victimhood are entirely justified, and the voice which the internet gives to such people is so long overdue in coming as to render it an historic event in human history. When women, gays, and ethnic minorities have been bullied for a million years of human existence, it’s rather understandable that when given a medium which allows new levels of independence, they might overreact to some provocations. But our concern here is neither the long view of human history nor the history of twitter outrage, it’s merely standup comedy. Comedians can now stream their own albums with no intermediary, their work can also be scrutinized by more people than ever in the history of comedy, and combed through for matter which gives offense to anyone looking for it. This may spur comedians to still greater flights of creativity, but it must also makes their job that much more terrifying. There is already no job in the arts more punishing than the standup comic. Only foolhardy people would ever countenance becoming one, and in our day of internet searches and viral content, the burden of that job just became that much more onerous.
Nothing in entertainment or the arts dates faster than comedy. Routines from favorite comics which seemed hilarious three months ago can leave you in stunned silence as you wonder how you could ever have thought that bit was funny. Fifteen years ago, Bill Maher was considered the vanguard of comic performance for the morally righteous. Today, both most comedians and most progressives view him as an embarrassment for his sexism, his racism, and his pomposity. Whenever Conservatives need a straw man to show that liberals are ‘just as bad’, they use Bill Maher. But Bill Maher is merely an extreme example: every major comedian has a few bits that in retrospect make some among their listeners cringe - Louis CK has a bit about fantasizing about murdering his children, George Carlin had a bit about how rape could be funny, Sarah Silverman has a joke about how 9/11 is the worst day of her life because she found out that a Starbucks soy chai latte has 900 calories.
The job of a comedian is to push every conceivable boundary and find our weak spots. They are the frontier workers of our culture, working on our most sensitive fault lines. They inspire more love than anyone else in the arts, and consequently also inspire more hate.
Comedy is virtually the only artform that demands a completely visceral response from the viewer - if you don’t laugh, the comic fails. No artform takes more courage to practice, no artform runs a greater risk of failure, no artform requires more refinement and evolution, and in no artform is the humiliation of failure so obvious. It therefore follows that the people attracted to comedy are the biggest risk-takers. They’re often the smartest and most interesting people in the world, and they’re often the most dangerous too. To be a good comic, there must be a hole in your life so deep and empty that only the sound of laughter can fill it.
In the last year, the world lost two comedic icons, and it’s in the process of losing a third. Weirdly enough, not a one of them is Robin Williams. You don’t lose an icon through death, if you did, then we’d have to remember David Brenner (does anybody?). You lose an icon by the icon ceasing to stand for what made him iconic. We lost Joan Rivers to death, though perhaps we lost her as an icon a number of years before. Back in Februrary, the world re-lost Woody Allen as an icon, just as it prepared itself to re-embrace his hallowed status. And as of this week, we seem to have lost one of the biggest icons of them all: Bill Cosby. Both Woody Allen and Bill Cosby are still alive, but everything which made them such legends is dead.
On the other hand, we will never lose Robin Williams. Through suicide, Robin Williams underwent an amazing transformation. Just three months ago, he was a washed-up hack. He is now an Icon of American History. He was more than simply a Shakespearen/Mozartian talent of comedy, however ill-utilized, he was a primal archetype. He was the father my generation wished we had, who loved us unconditionally and always knew what to do to cheer us up. He bridged the divide between children and grownups, assuring us we didn’t have to be terrified of the adult world. But the adult world is a terrifying place, and to the end, Robin Williams was clearly half child. And like a child, when he realized that the world might not love him unconditionally, he couldn’t help but take it as a personal offense. It must have been terribly difficult for an unhinged talent like Robin Williams to process rejection. I can’t imagine that he wasn’t devastated by the downturn in his fortunes. I imagine him in his final years being something like TS Eliot’s infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing. Surely Williams had a dark side, but he admitted to it, and never excused himself for his flaws. In later years, his standup specials were virtual catalogues of his various human frailties. And even so, he never glorified in his failings. He wanted to be known for being a better man than he was, but since he was not a better man, he would be forthright about who he was instead.
In death, as in life, he generated more love than any other person ever could. In its way, his death was as devastating for my generation as John Lennon’s death was for our parents. It’s the ultimate wakeup call - our youths are over because Robin Williams will never give us any new consolation. We now have to fend for ourselves, and Robin Williams belongs to the Ages. In a hundred years, people will still watch his routines and marvel that this comedic volcano could possibly exist. What other comics had to log hundreds of hours honing and sharpening, Robin Williams seemed to do with no edit button necessary. Comedians like Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld gain tremendous respect for using no vulgar language - ‘working clean’ they call it - and supposedly that is the hardest thing to do in comedy. But I would argue that Williams worked clean in a much deeper, harder sense - he barely made fun of anyone except himself, and yet he was still the funniest man alive. His comedy was utterly without compromise. It hardly made fun of no one but the most powerful people, he never used it to project an image of himself as anything but the trainwreck he was. What he did was not only pure comedy, it was pure integrity.
But to Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, we now learn that there is very little integrity to what they do, and that the truth about them is unfortunately more interesting than the front they no doubt slaved to project. In retrospect, it’s difficult not to wonder how more people didn’t see the truth about them before.
It would seem as though every decade had three comics which dominate: the white comic, the black comic, and the female comic. The audience for comedy is sufficiently small that the same people usually listen to the same comics. But the traditions and concerns which they represent are so different that there always seems to be room for all three at the top of the food chain. And yet, today, the dominant comic is so obviously Louis CK that it seems tough to remember that there are other comics. But even today, clearly Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman together tower over female comics in both recognition and respect, but the comic who would probably be today’s dominant black comic is Patrice O’Neal, but he died quite painfully and tragically a few years ago. Perhaps Hannibal Burress will soon take his place, or perhaps Wyatt Cenac, or perhaps Key and Peele. But think of the 00’s, clearly Jon Stewart was biggest white male name, and clearly Dave Chapelle was the biggest black Male name, and clearly Margaret Cho was the biggest female name. In the 90’s, you could clearly see that Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Ellen DeGeneres were the most important names. In the 80’s it was Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, and Whoopie Goldberg. In the 70’s, it was George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Joan Rivers. In the 60’s, it was Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and Phyllis Diller.