What's the job of a comedian?

This post from last week led to some interesting discussion about what the job of a comedian should be. Is it to entertain? To make people fell comfortable? To make them feel uncomfortable but ok with that?

In "The Making of Zach Galifianakis" [via MD], Zach says:

Wherever there’s something that people don’t feel comfortable talking about, that’s where the good jokes are. People might misunderstand you, but I decided, right after my show was canceled, never to dumb my material down for anybody. A bad comic follows his audience, catering to whatever they want; a good comic will always lead.

Playwright Noel Coward once said [via JW] this about the theater (and maybe you could substitute standup in here?):

I think the primary purpose of the theater is entertainment. If by any chance a playwright wishes to express a political opinion or a moral opinion or a philosophy, he must be a good enough craftsman to do it with so much spice of entertainment in it that the public gets the message without being aware of it. The moment the public sniffs propaganda, they stay away.

One key factor on this: The stage of your career. When you're just starting out and making a name for yourself and trying to get paid and all the rest of it, can you really afford to be precious about your art? Can you get away with making people feel uncomfortable then? Or do you have to suck it up for a while and be a real crowd-pleaser before you get to the point where you can afford to turn people off? Except for anomalies like Andy Kaufman, maybe you need to spend years proving you can make people feel comfortable before you start making them uncomfortable.


myq said...

When you replaced "theater" with "standup" in that example, what if you had replaced it with "art"?

Do you agree with that statement?
"The primary purpose of art is entertainment"?

For the performing arts, certainly, entertainment is quite often ONE of the purposes, but is it necessarily the main one?

I think putting forth a point of view through the process of creation and expression is potentially just as much a purpose of art.

(This is considering standup as art, which not everyone would necessarily do, I'd say.
Even I would say, maybe standup isn't ALWAYS art, and in those cases, it better be entertainment, because if it's not either, then what is it?)

In conclusion, I'm not sure how much I agree or disagree with the idea that standup's primary purpose be entertainment, but I'm pretty sure my problem lies in the definition of the word "primary."

london calling said...

That's easy for Zach to say ....he's famous and people have paid cash money to see him and him alone .When the audience are your fans then you can be as outre as you please .

soce said...

There are different ways to make people uncomfortable. It's much like toilet humour in that when it's good, it's good, but when it's bad, it's abysmal.

It's fun when a comedian is zany and strange, and s/he pushes you to new boundaries, but I don't like it when they're really mean toward audience members, uncreatively racist or you feel like they're plain just not trying.

Aalap said...

London Calling: who's to say zach didn't get all these fans by doing exactly what he's doing now?

I think it's a little bit too much of a rationalization to say that he can do as he wants because he has fans.

I think we can all feel when we're dumbing down or pandering. The magic trick is to not do that and have the audience stay with you.

Myq: Standup is tough nut to crack in terms of purposes. I like to think of it as a clean slate. I think the job of a comedian is to present words in a fashion that is engaging to the audience. If we leave it that broad maybe art and entertainment can both fit into the same space. that probably didn't make sense.

Matt Ruby said...

Do you agree with that statement?
"The primary purpose of art is entertainment"?


Well, it depends. Different artists have different purposes.

In my mind, the primary purpose of standup is laughter. If you're a brilliant standup who doesn't get laughs, you're not a brilliant standup -- you're a brilliant monologist.

To me, standup is defined by eliciting laughter (or at least trying to). Everything else comes after that.

Matteson said...

I think Matt's right about "laughter" being essential to standup. It sounds obvious, but it's easy to over-think all the rules, approaches, styles, and motivations, and forget that funny trumps all.

I also agree with Aalap that Zack G. got his fans BY being awkward. Sure he get's the benefit of the doubt now, but he earned it with the same material he does now. When he said after his show got canceled that he would never dumb down his stuff again, I think he realized he was good at a specific thing, and trying to do something else (pandering to the mainstream) would make him unsuccessful. Had he gone the mainstream route we'd just get his one liners, which are fine, but nothing too special. It's everything else he does that really makes me like him. To get there he had to leave a few people behind that didn't "get it" and weren't entertained, but he's funnier for it.

Unknown said...

One useful question in looking at how big a factor career-stage is in whether someone can/should be a discomfort comic is how the successful discomfort comics got to be who they are. [Comfort comic vs discomfort comic are artificial and reductive labels, of course, but they're a useful shorthand for this discussion.]

There are definitely comics who use discomfort comedy more after they've had an initial break-through, but it's not like you can't break through just using discomfort comedy.

As other commenters have noted above, Zach Galifianakis didn't really start out as a comfort comic. Hasn't he pretty much been the kind of comic he now is since at least his talk show? He's been slowly moving up the fame ladder (CC Presents, Comedians of Comedy, G-Force/Hangover) by being a good discomfort comic.

A rough list of big discomfort comics might include
--Larry David
--Louis CK
--George Carlin
--Robert Smigel
--Garry Shandling
--Ricky Gervais
--Kristen Schaal
--Doug Stanhope
--Danny McBride
--Sasha Baron Cohen
--Norm MacDonald

Most of those people were making audiences uncomfortable but okay with that when they first broke through. A few of them broke through working in the discomfort vein, but did so while teamed with comfort comics who made the discomfort go down easier (Larry David/Jerry Seinfeld, Smigel and CK with various people, most notably Conan O'Brien and Chris Rock) Arguably the same thing is happening now with McBride and Will Ferrell (and McBride's other patrons). Only one of those names (Carlin) really strikes me as someone who was a comfort comic who later started playing for the other team.

Carlin actually strikes me as a misleading example, though, because when he reinvented his persona, he kind of had to reboot his career. He went from playing casinos in Vegas to playing smaller rooms on the coffeehouse circuit. When he made the shift from comfort comic to discomfort comic, he didn't bring the comfort audience with him.

Not to mention that there are also those who moved away from discomfort to comfort comedy as their platforms got larger and larger (Jay Leno being the most prominent one currently).

So it doesn't look like too many people really build a following as a comfort comic and then take that audience with them into being a discomfort comic. They either build an audience through discomfort comedy, or they build a reputation as a quality provider of comedy who then is trusted enough to get the go-ahead from a studio to provide discomfort comedy, but usually on a smaller scale (Curb Your Enthusiasm, for all its success, reaches only a fraction of the people that Seinfeld did and still does) or as a smaller part of a larger whole (Zach Galifianakis is in G-Force, yes, but the stars of that movie are talking secret agent guinea pigs).

Again, there's an exception which tends to prove the larger rule here. The Dana Carvey Show was definitely a case where its star, who made his bones mostly as a comfort comic, tried to give his audience discomfort comedy. The comfort audience didn't come along for the ride, and the show was cancelled after a handful of episodes. The love it's getting right now in its afterlife is from critics and comedy nerds, a different (and smaller) audience than the one that the show was originally going for.

Maybe the real lesson here isn't "Give them what they want so that later, you can give them what you want," so much as it is "There's only so much you can do to try to change what an audience wants."

Mo Diggs said...

In the book American Nerd there is this chapter on debate team geeks. In the '80s there was this experimental period where students would make all these unconventional arguments like simply putting tape on their mouths.

But this expert said that debating is very laissez faire; you can do whatever you want but people will call out bullshit.

This applies to stand-up. You can do your uncomfortable weird material but the question is can you withstand the lack of positive response from audiences and performers? If it's worth it then keep doing it but prepare to face the consequences.

I would stop typing but I hate my job.

myq said...

Just to keep playing devil's advocate...

Certainly, laughter or being funny are key to being a good comedian, let's say.

But what about a joke thief who is found funny and gets laughs with stolen jokes?
Are they a good comedian?

They're certainly fulfilling the function of both "entertaining" and "laughter."
But I don't think that makes a good comedian in this case, right?

There's something missing, right?
Something art-related?

Matt Ruby said...

Interesting points Jay. There's also just the universal > personal spectrum which maybe factors in here too? Louis CK didn't talk about hating his kids until he was relatively famous. Same with Birbigs and his more personal material about illness & relationships. Or PFT and his mom's funeral. Or Pryor and his talk about drugs, prostitution, etc. They all set the table with more "comfortable" material, got established, and then got into this other riskier stuff.

Matt Ruby said...

There's something missing, right?
Something art-related?

I said laughter comes first. I didn't say it's everything.

Laughs have to be at the top of the to-do list. Then comes being interesting and having a point of view and all that other good "arty" stuff.

Matteson said...

In a continuation of Myq playing Devil's Advocate - what if a comedian is telling jokes that he didn't write (like Conan on the Tonight Show). Obviously they're not stolen, because he pays a staff of writers (Josh Comers!) to create them for him, but he didn't create them. He's telling other people's jokes. Is he a "good comedian"? There's no doubt he's funny, but is what he does now (reciting jokes others wrote) being a comedian?

PS - Obviously he proved his chops early on in his career, so I'm not questioning that.

Hank in Chicago said...

It seems to me that there are two spectrums at play here. One is how true you are to yourself—how pure your voice is, how much your onstage persona reflects your actual self. It can be a lot or a little. The other spectrum is how commercially viable your act is. Again, a lot or a little, from selling out stadiums to playing open mics.

Where the rubber meets the road is the intersection of these two spectrums. Zach G. seems to be quite pure and has proven himself commercially viable for quite some time. Daniel Whitney plays a character that has little to do with his actual self but provides him an extremely lucrative career.

This point of intersection will slide around over the course of one’s career as skills develop, opportunities present themselves, a fanbase forms, etc.. Once a certain financial threshold is met (i.e. comedy lets you quit your day job) you might not have to make as many concessions to the art, unless it is those concessions that enabled your success.

Also, each person has his/her own ‘sellout price.’ Put a few million in front of me and I’ll rip the sleeves off my flannel before you can say, “here’s your trucker hat.” (ok, ten million.)

The Artist wants to be 100% pure to himself. The Human Being Who Needs to Eat and Stay Out of the Rain is willing to make compromises. It is the rare Artist who doesn’t have to make some form of compromise during his/her career. The trick seems to be knowing when stubbornness is an asset or a liability.

(Actually, make it eight million.)

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Yes Myq, stand-up is art.

myq said...

I agree/believe that standup is an art form.

But does that mean that every bit of standup is equivalent artistically? (If that question makes any sense, which it doesn't, but I think/hope it serves a purpose anyway.)

Like, not every novel is great literature.
Some of them are just created to be read on a beach or a plane or never.
Is it snobby to say that James Patterson (whose books I have enjoyed) is creating lesser art than Faulkner?
Would Patterson consider himself an artist?
Does that matter?

(I've heard Stanhope say that he doesn't consider himself an artist, for example.
Which seems the thing to do, when talking about oneself.
Just to avoid sounding douchey and full of yourself.
But Stanhope IS certainly an artist, and a genius one at that.)

We've all written jokes that haven't worked.
Are they art?
Bad art?
Not fully formed art?
Does breaking it down mathematically like this have a point?

Going back to the title of this post, I think it's interesting, the word choice of "job."

I understand it means basically "what is a comedian's FUNCTION?" and I think people have already come to the conclusion that there are different functions...

One, be true to yourself and your art.
Two, entertain the audience and make a living.

Hopefully, you can make it so that there's as much overlap there as possible.

(To conclude with points that other people have made already I think.)

myq said...

PS To respond to one other thing, specifically...

"Laughs have to be at the top of the to-do list. Then comes being interesting and having a point of view and all that other good 'arty' stuff."

This is an interesting response to my hypothetical where someone is getting laughs from stolen jokes.

Do we not agree that in this case, laughs should NOT be at the top of the to-do list?

If a comic is just starting out, and believes that laughs are the most important part of being a comedian, more than writing one's own material and developing one's own persona, will that not lead to the undesirable consequence of doing other people's jokes in other people's voices, because they work to get the top criterion of laughter?

Obviously, when people start out, some will unconsciously ape the style of people they like, and then aim to grow out of it.

But should one not strive for originality and other "arty" things from the get-go?

It might be rougher at the start, if someone is trying to avoid (in addition to stolen jokes, obviously) well-worn takes on heavily-trod topics, for example.

Is the reward of instant laughter better than the reward of gradually developing originally? Not that the two can't come hand in hand, and eventually they will/should.

But when one is starting out ESPECIALLY, and even further on in one's development, isn't NOT-laughter at least as helpful as laughter is in the development of ideas?

Laughter is certainly the desired end result, but not-laughter is a necessary part of the artistic process.

Maybe laughter is the function of comedy, but perhaps not-laughter is the form comedy often takes on its way to the function.

Am I even saying things anymore?

londoncalling said...

what a fascinating conversation !

Phil Murphy said...

A fascinating conversation indeed. Below I pasted a really good Bill Hicks interview..I'm sure some of you have seen it but maybe some of you have not. It brings up some of the points in this discussion.


Harrison Greenbaum said...

I uploaded a post on my blog in March called "Art vs. Commerce, or the Cheeseburger Theory of Comedy" (http://harrisoncomedy.blogspot.com/2009/03/art-vs-commerce-or-cheeseburger-theory.html) in which I talk about the art-commerce spectrum.

In an ideal world, you could be on both sides of this spectrum - both completely artistic and completely commercial (that is, completely create without restraint while also completely making a living doing your art). However, in the real world, you have to make choices since sometimes the two sides conflict. Thus, there is no one job a career comedian has - he/she has to continue to navigate between the art and commerce sides of the spectrum, creating art and making comedy a viable career.

Look at Zach Galifianakis - he's a king of alt comedy and can be very far (almost heroically so) on the art side of the spectrum, but also the upcoming star of G-Force, a Jerry Bruckheimer film about CGI guinea pigs who fight crime, which is obviously very far on the commerce/commercial side of the spectrum.

The difficulty of being an artist, I think, is properly balancing the two sides of your career, art and commerce.

Thus, if I had to say what the "job" (emphasis on the conversational usage of the word "job") of the comedian is, I would say that it is to do this balancing act in such a way as both sides of the spectrum are as fully satisfied as possible.

However, knowing what the JOB of a comedian is doesn't mean yet that we've finished discussing what the the PURPOSE of a comedian is. (That's where we begin to start to talk about the need to laugh; the need to talk about taboo topics, which can lead to discomfort; etc., etc.)

Roger said...

In my mind, the primary purpose of standup is laughter. If you're a brilliant standup who doesn't get laughs, you're not a brilliant standup -- you're a brilliant monologist.

Wow! You really destroyed that straw man who was arguing for standups who never make anyone laugh, and called them brilliant for doing so.

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