Read that title again. It’s not “laugh because it hurts”, or “laugh through the hurt”, those are separate, valid ideas and are for discussing another time.
As most regular readers know, I spent most of my twenties in the world of stand-up comedy. I never made it past the small fish in a big pond level, true. However, I did enough gigs, traveled enough, and met/knew enough full time professional comics that I can speak to the subject with some bona-fide knowledge and experience. I’ve discussed my complicated relationship with comedy before, that’s not what this post will be about. I want to discuss the other side for a moment, the absolute joy that going to a live comedy show can bring.
I am not a person who is offended easily. I don’t mind “foul” language (if such a thing can even be said to exist). Just because I have chosen not to use it in my own work recently doesn’t mean I am offended when others do. I also believe that there is no topic that should be off limits to joke about, based on what I call the rule of “extent and intent”. Basically, if the subject matter, or topic of the joke, is blown up to outrageous proportions to where one can’t possibly take what is being said all that seriously, and if the idea behind the bit is to point out what’s inherently funny about an aspect of the topic itself, or the reactions and results that indirectly come from said topic, I’m fine with pretty much any joke out there. It’s okay to use shock value, as long as you can back it up with some relevant, well thought out ideas. I’ll even laugh at a dirty joke as long as it’s told well, and there’s something to it besides just the vulgarity. The only rule I have ever had when writing, performing, or viewing, is that it’s never okay to be mean for the sake of being mean. Also, try to be original. If not in the subject matter, at least in presentation, and in the crafting of the material.
Anyway, I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately, since the Grim Reaper has been declaring open season on comedians over the past few years. Some of the comedians I used to watch for hours, studying the way they both constructed and delivered their jokes, people who were some of our heroes in the scene have all passed on far too soon. When this happens, the natural thing to do is to go back and watch some of their old material, knowing full well that it will always be funny, but never quite hit the same way again.
Then I started thinking about the many great comics I have seen live. I’ve seen some of the greats, and the near great. Also the bottom of the barrel, but never mind about that. Most shows I’ve seen have been good, some have been great. Then there are the special, rare, elite shows. These are shows when I laughed so hard and so often tears came out, and I could not catch my breath. Some legendary performers did not have this effect (although their shows were very good), and a few comics that I mention you may not know off the top of your head. Let’s talk about them all. The following shows are not ranked, it would be a fool’s errand to attempt. Anyway, here we go.
Emo Phillips-I’ve seen Emo a few times, but his headline set at Comedy Etc. (RIP) in Fairview Heights, IL was the best. This was during the period where he ditched the Pageboy haircut and had slightly toned down his usual stage character. This actually made his material even funnier, and since he is one of the best American one liner joke writers ever, the whole night was just amazing. Emo is always worth watching so catch him when you can and be prepared for a great set. This one though, was my favorite Emo set.
Dennis Wolfberg-His is a name that is pretty much lost to all but the most devoted fans of late 80s-early 90s comedy. That’s somewhat understandable since so many have come along after. Also, his material may fall a little flat to a modern audience-stylistically, not topically. The thing about Wolfberg was that his jokes weren’t all that funny, but HE was funny. He was funny to look at, and funny to listen to, perhaps one of the last holdovers from the old time comics in that way. I don’t remember much of what he said-told a story about being injured in his privates I think-but I do know that by mid show I was laughing so hard I had slid down my chair and was halfway under the table, convulsing from laughter. Something about the way he acc-CENT-uated the…wwwwwwwwORDS he used ladies and gentlemen left me in fits. His was a sad loss.
Dana Gould-Often credited as one of the founders of the alternative comedy scene in America, Dana has written for The Simpsons, and guest starred in many of your favorite shows. He once said that in the Simpsons writing room that he was the one who came up with the “objectionable joke that inspired the less objectionable joke that made it to air”, and that’s probably a good description of his material. He is at once intelligent, silly, sarcastic, satirical, confessional, and very adult. I’ve never left a Dana Gould show without being in awe of his next level brilliance. It’s actually impossible to pick a favorite Dana show, but Westport Funny Bone in the 90’s is probably the favorite.
Gilbert Gottfried-I saw Gilbert in what I call the “before time”. You see, before he was known for just showing up and telling dirty jokes, Gilbert was one of the most creative, unique, and yes, mostly clean comics out there. His onstage character combined modern delivery and thought processes with Borscht Belt humor. Not only was it bizarre, it was hysterically funny, even when you didn’t know what it was you were laughing at. Seriously, look up his early stand up from the 80s-specifically his HBO “One Night Stand”, or just his Letterman debut. Night and day difference, and SO FUNNY. The show I saw is burned into my memory (what I can remember anyway) as one of the best experiences I have ever had in a club as an audience member. I have seen hundreds of shows-it was that good.
At this point I feel like I need to shout out another local comic who never made it, but was one of the funniest person I ever saw. Paul Stoekline (I think that’s how he spelled it) was the only local comedian I would never want to follow, and I was most in awe of how his brain worked. The fact that out of all of us he didn’t go on to bigger, better things is a crime.
Anyway, I guess I wanted to share those experiences to inspire others to go see live comedy, Covid restrictions permitting, of course, because there’s nothing like a live comic in a club. See the legends while you can, and the up and comers while they are still hungry and fearless. The intimacy and immediacy of the moment is something that cannot be replicated in a theater or, especially, at home.
For one thing, while sitting at home watching the television (or YouTube), you miss seeing the event with a crowd. Laughter feeds off of laughter, so the good vibes get passed around the room, and for a small period of time you are unique, one time sharing an experience with other people and you can’t get that in your living room. Also, most performers are different when they know they are being recorded. The shows aren’t as loose and comfortable, they are a little bit stiff. Not that most people viewing would notice but if you’ve seen enough shows you know what I mean. It’s a natural reaction. Sometimes it’s purposeful, sometimes not, but the difference is there. You will still laugh (if it’s funny), but the live show would be so much better.
Now, having said that, there is no guarantee that you will have the special experiences mentioned above. It takes a perfect storm for these shows to happen. The comic must be completely on his/her game, the audience open and ready, the club at just the right temperature (comfort is a factor), and there needs to be some sort of unidentifiable spark in the air that you can’t define, but you feel it when it happens. This is also true of live theater and music as well.
But still, go. At bare minimum you will be entertained, and have a nice evening out, which in these times may be enough. Let yourself be open to hearing a different, possibly loopy point of view, let down your walls, and be willing to laugh until it hurts. You will leave in a better place than you arrived.