The art of stand-up comedy is one that often doesn’t get studied by those not in the field. Upon first glance it looks almost easy to get up on stage and tell a few personal stories, making light of events that in the time they happened may have been life-changing, even traumatic. According to a splitsider article by Bradford Evans, many people actually believe that stand-up comedians get up and tell jokes as a way of purgation, a cleansing of many habits that may be based in alcohol, drug use, and depression.
However, outside of all of the rumors and busy chatter about what makes a comedian authentic, I say the best source is to go straight to a comedian. Hear any artist talk about their art and the craftsmanship that goes into it is incredibly interesting, but comedy especially (at least for me) is endlessly fascinating due to all of the politics involved. Almost a year ago, we had the Daniel Tosh incident, where he made an incredibly distasteful rape joke in an open mic after a woman heckled him before he finished his set up. This sparked a large debate in the comedy world about what is on and off limits in art, specifically comedy. Brilliant comedian, Patton Oswalt, spoke out about this incident in an essay he wrote a month or so after the incident where he didn’t condemn Tosh, since “most comedians go to open mics to try out new material that most of the time will never reach the light of day.” He disagreed with the way Tosh used this forum, and there are several other factors that go into why comedians like Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari get away with uncooth material like that, but Tosh doesn’t, such as onstage persona/status, and the golden rule of comedy (and artful decency) ‘never making the victim the punchline.”
Comedy has always ridden a fine line between too far and not nearly far enough. But, sometimes I feel we, as a culture, forget the use of comedy as a social barometer. It’s why if one watches old episodes of Saturday Night Live, they may not appear as funny as newer episodes, because the political and social institutions that needed to be subverted were different. Comedy changes with the times.
When I think of comedy being used for just that reason, to comment on a specific time, and riding a very fine line between too far, and hilariously human I think of Comedian Tig Notaro. A week or so before her due-to-be-recorded set at the Largo in LA back in August 2012, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She went onstage, deciding not to use any of the material she’d prepared, and did 31 minutes of some of the most candid, beautiful, hilarious, honest stand-up I’ve ever heard. Opening with the line “Hello, I have cancer.” would appear very risky in any context, but the sheer willingness she had to share with an audience is awe-inspiring. And 20 or even 10 years ago, could stand-up have been that open? Even George Carlin, who put out a new stand-up hour every year until his death, talked about mortality, but never specific ailments or sickness, for a very reasonable fear that it wouldn’t be funny.
Tig Notaro’s special, aptly-titled LIVE, stands as a cornerstone comedy album for me, and inspires me with my art, that no matter what, being open and honest with myself and sharing it with an audience (even in the most terrifying setting imaginable) could yield amazing results. Notaro is now cancer-free after several operation’s over the past year, and she keeps busy by writing and working with fellow comedians Sarah Silverman, Lake Bell, and Louis C.K.