Last month, I interviewed Bobcat Goldthwait and Dana Gould ahead of their summer co-headlining tour The Show with Two Heads (which ends this weekend with dates in Oregon, California and Colorado). Seeing as how these two have been around in the business for some time, we talked about a lot, but something that Gould brought up hasn’t left my mind.
“Comedians don’t get shuffled into categories the way music does, even though they should be,” he said. For context, here’s the whole bit from the Forbes article:
“Bob and I are guys who like weird, old, culty movies, and our acts are, well, we’re sort of weird,” he laughs. “The kind of people who like The Thing with Two Heads and still listen to the Ramones are going to want to come and see me and Bob. This is our crowd. This is our tribe. This is the stuff that we like and I’m very happy about that. I never wanted to be the biggest star on the bill, but I did always want to be the most interesting. That’s my goal. We do the stuff that we like, and people are welcome to enjoy it with us as well.”
In conclusion, Gould notes that “comedians don’t get shuffled into categories the way music does, even though they should be.”
“You wouldn’t book a hip hop act and a country singer together, but with comedians, they’ll do that. People that are of completely different audience appeals will be lumped together. Bob and I definitely have a specific appeal to a particular demographic, and hopefully, that's who will show up on the tour.”
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Gould’s comments on stand-up comedy’s categorization (or lack thereof) because it’s something that has bothered me ever since I first became a fan of the genre many years ago. What Ali Wong does on stage is nothing like what Robin Williams did in his heyday. Meanwhile, Gallagher and Mike Birbiglia are worlds apart. And while George Carlin and Emma Arnold are both known for their political (or politicized) comedy, that doesn’t mean they’re doing the same kind of stand-up.
Stand-up contains multitudes. You’ve got elements (or outright uses of) improv and sketch and drama and documentary and monologue and speechifying and more — and those are just the forms. Content, though it varies quite often in the realm of the stand-up comedy special, can be just as genre-specific and, therefore, amicable to further categorization.
We already do with with movies and television shows and documentaries and, as Gould specifically noted, music. Why aren’t we doing it with stand-up?
I mean, we are — technically. Stand-up comedy subgenres do exist. From alternative and anecdotal forms of performative humor, to cringe, deadpan and insult-driven comedy, the stand-up genre is rife with forms and types. The problem is, nobody seems to be using them regularly — let alone in a generally agreed upon manner.
This brings me, finally, to Taylor Swift (who’s in the headline) and Hannah Gadsby (who’s in the header). I’m invoking both because of the latter’s recent appearance on Conan O’Brien’s podcast Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend. The Australian comic has been touring her new show “Douglas,” which is set to become her Nanette followup on Netflix, across the globe. While the pair did discuss what’s new, however, O’Brien unsurprisingly — and thoughtfully — pondered his own response to Nanette and asked Gadsby about her thoughts on the comedy world’s reactions to it. They specifically dug into the notion of comedy as genre, what makes comedy comedy, and how it may need to be broken up.
“I had a very strong reaction to anybody… who thought, ‘Well, wait a minute, is this stand-up? It starts out as stand-up and then it becomes this,” the host says while referencing the massive think piece and social media-fueled argument that critics, comedians and trolls engaged in following Nanette’s Netflix debut last summer. “First of all, where is the rule? It’s an hour and 10 minutes of you and a microphone. It is going to be what you want it to be, and it is powerful. At no moment did you lose me and I laughed a lot. You also did, what I think, great art, great theater, great works of writing are supposed to do.”
As for the mythic “rule” that O’Brien was referring to, Gadsby quips, “It’s made up.”
All of this is true, more or less. There is no one “rule” that defines what stand-up comedy is or is not. Rather, what passes for it today is the result of nearly a century of artistic development that traces its immediate lineage to American vaudeville and, before that the vaudevillian theaters, cabaret cafes and music halls of 18th and 19th-century Europe. It’s not a static form of entertainment that has remain unchanged all this time, but a highly dynamic craft that, for the moment, concerns a lone performer standing on stage with a microphone.
I’m able to state this with confidence because I’ve been researching the history of comedy, a time-consuming act that’s only happening because, aside from my personal interest in the subject, I’m working on a number of related book projects. Lay comedy fans, on the other hand, have neither the time nor the inclination to inspect what’s come before and discern how and why it informs what their favorite comedians are doing now. So it’s completely understandable, at least generally, that most people would have questions or concerns when something as dramatically genre-altering as Nanette comes along. (Unless, of course, it’s the complaints of misogynist assholes who still hold comics like Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison in high esteem. They’re idiots.) It’s also understandable in the sense that, without the existence of easily identifiable subgenres a la Gould’s comments about music, they’re left to sift through the Netflix-fueled onslaught of new comedy specials to figure out what comedy is out there.
The fault lies with many actors. Major comedy outlets like Netflix, Comedy Central and HBO do little to identify and categorize the various subgenres that any given piece of stand-up might boast. Larger entertainment catalogs, like the iMDB, do even less. (If you’re lucky, a special might get both the comedy and the documentary genre identifiers, but that’s usually it.) Critics, too, don’t always refer to these established norms when writing about a given comic or comedy special. I’ll admit I’m guilty of this! But, so too are the majority of writers working this beat today.
To make matters worse, there’s the increasingly meaningless nature of the catch-all genre identity that stand-up comedy has come to occupy. Gadsby pinpoints this problem with precision while discussing Donald Trump and, yes, Taylor Swift on Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend:
“Two interesting people that I thought about when I wrote the show [are] Donald Trump and Taylor Swift… I was kind of watching, with horror, Donald Trump and his rallies. This was before he was nominated. It’s like, he’s not saying anything. Just watching that group mob mentality. [With] Taylor Swift, I went through a brief obsession because I wanted to understand. I still don’t, but I really studied it hard… During her 1989 world tour, I think it’s called the “Clean Speech”? … She just sort of, in her concerts, went up on this platform. She stood there like a messiah. Just talked to this huge crowd and they were crying. This is profound [for them]. So I got some transcripts and just studied them. She has said nothing. She’s genuinely not saying anything. She meant it, whatever she didn’t say. She really meant it. I think it was that sort of vagueness of speech that people were just like, “I want this.” They fill in the blanks. It’s preaching to the converted, quite literally.”
The similarities Gadsby found in the ambiguous speechifying of Trump and Swift are not unlike the oftentimes vague, or at least increasingly similar, types of comedy that many are using to identify (and defend) the genre. This isn’t a rigid-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness performance art that must always adhere to certain ways of being or thinking. It’s far more than that.
“I don’t think that’s healthy,” Gadsby adds. “That’s now how you open a closed mind. So that’s why I started to go, ‘I need to shatter that illusion and break the audience up.’ So that people are like, ‘I don’t know how to react.’ That consensus is being broken so that people are left as individuals in the room.”
I think this is a far greater, healthier and more productive attitude to have about art and entertainment in general, and figuring out what is and isn’t stand-up comedy more specifically. And while Gadsby’s rather precise efforts to deconstruct these bad habits is one aspect of such informed behavior, simply referring to the tools we already have on hand can be just as successful. We already have these stand-up subgenres at our disposal. Let’s use them!
Don’t forget, I actually want you to respond. Send me whatever questions, comments are snide remarks that you may have about my thoughts on stand-up comedy, or comedy-related matters I didn’t cover, but are nonetheless on your mind. To get in touch, simply email me and we’ll go from there.