Jokes about pop culture are for passive and sluggish comics

From a review of the new Eminem record:

Thankfully, there are just a handful of his quickly outmoded pop-culture references on this album: — Michael Vick, Brooke Hogan, David Carradine, David Cook. (What, nothing rhymed with Kris Allen?) A decade ago they marked Eminem as a provocateur willing to take on enemies. Now they suggest he’s become a passive and sluggish consumer of pop culture.

Stuck with me 'cuz that's how I feel about comics who rely too much on pop culture topics.

If someone gets up onstage and talks solely about stuff that's on E! and Us Weekly, it just seems passive and sluggish. You're not initiating topics or coming up with something interesting on your own. You're just regurgitating what the Viacom/Time Warner/entertainment industry PR machine wants you to swallow.

Plus, the shelf life on that stuff is so quick. It's all completely disposable. That joke about the Kardashians is gonna seem just as worthless/dated as Eminem's Brooke Hogan reference in a couple of years. Personally, I'd rather work on something a bit more evergreen.


Dustin said...

First off, love your site and info. It's great stuff for a wanna be funny person like myself.

I agree with your point on the simplicity of pop culture comedy. Most of my favorites like C.K., Tompkins and Oswalt deal with life experiences which is probably what makes them connect so well to the audience. For them talking about what's in Us Weekly would seem completely out of place and make it more like chit-chat instead of a conversation.

But there are some people that handle pop culture so well. In "Proops Digs In" Greg Proops basically only rants on topical pop culture and absolutely destroys. Some of his stuff was already dated as soon as it was recorded but I think it can survive as an artifact to show how a brilliant comic mind works.

So, in the right hands, I don't think it's a bad thing.

Sharilyn said...

I agree with Dustin. I think like any topic, pop culture can be done well and done crappy.

At my job, I have to write about pop culture every day and make it entertaining. It's hard on days like today - when I had a story about Michael Jackson - to find a clever angle that doesn't just repeat the 3 or 4 things that everyone knows about him. Sometimes you CAN accomplish that. But yeah, it's hard -- a lot of times I have to go with the obvious, and I do view those as artistic failures as I'm churning them out.

I always prefer to watch comics who talk about their own lives, and I'm obviously not alone in that. But if pop culture is what you spend your day thinking about, then I want to see that too.

If everyone avoided talking about showbiz on stage, we wouldn't have a State of the Industry Address.

Matt Ruby said...

Yeah, you can also point to Chris Rock talking about OJ or Michael Vick as great takes on pop culture stuff. But overall, I'll stick to my guns on the idea that anyone who's constantly relying on pop culture as a topic of conversation, on or off stage, is more of a regurgitator than an originator. Of course, you could also say the same thing about most bloggers.

Joel said...

I've thought about this a lot lately as a stand up comedian. I don't know if I agree with you about it being a weakness to focus on the here and now - I'm glad there are comics doing that, and I think it's important because these are the topics that eventually stabilize into long-term cultural topics that are "timeless." On a personal level though, I just hate the idea of perfecting a bit and then having to walk away because it becomes dated. In that sense I would say the quest for timeless comedy is worthwhile, but hardly superior.

My name's Josh Guarino said...

Comedy is a very topical business. Comedians are often asked to be on news shows to discuss the hot topics of the week. Entire shows have been created for comics to skewer pop culture ("Best Week Ever," "The Soup," etc.) Saturday Night Live would not exist without a mainstream consciousness to lampoon. Mad Magazine and the Onion, too.

So for a comic to totally avoid doing topical material may not be so wise and could actually work against them. While there are terrible jokes littered with references, there are also great jokes--many, many of Patton Oswalt's and Todd Barry's jokes are technically dated but the skillful writing and performance continue to make them enjoyable today.

I run a hostel show with Jay Welch and Dan Enfield twice a week. Some weeks you'll see references go over the heads of everyone in the audience. But sometimes you'll find that a well-crafted joke can survive it's reliance on the reference, so much so that a joke about Mythbusters-- a show probably no one has seen in the room--will absolutely kill.

It's similar to what Louis CK says about hack premises: there are none. Pop culture jokes are not passive and sluggish if the comedian isn't passive and sluggish. There are comedians who are either strong enough writers or performers (or both) who can and have made absolutely genius jokes about pop culture.

Benja said...

The only issue here really is someone releasing a cd/dvd with that kind of material. If you aren't doing that, there is no problem. Audiences usually respond well to things that are going on in pop culture that particular week, especially when done right.

At open mics, I usually prefer when comics are riffing on pop culture, instead of talking about their boring lives and all the same struggles that other comics already have covered ad nauseum.

My name's Josh Guarino said...

" a show probably no one has seen in the room"

A show probably nobody in the room has seen, is what I meant. We're not carbo-loading the audiences with American references before every show.

Anonymous said...

First of all, M. Ruby is a hypocrite because he makes tons of pop culture jokes. In fact, half of his last tweets are pop culture jokes.

Secondly, a pop culture joke is like any other type of joke. If you can think of anything truly insightful and deep and funny to say about pop culture, then its great. If you say some hacky or obvious thing like "the people on Jersey shore are trashy, am I right??" well then you suck. It's like OJ jokes in the 90s. Everybody make OJ jokes; some peoples' were brilliant and some peoples' were hacky.

Ruby is right that a lot of people use pop culture as a crutch to not have to be creative. But if you can make a deeper societal point, why not? Look at Patton Oswalt; all of his comedy is about pop culture and you can't deny that he is one of the most brilliant comics out right now.

Matt Ruby said...

Anonymous commenters are pussies. Also, my tweets are quite different than my act. But you're right, I have on occasion talked about things like Tiger Woods, Tom Waits, rom coms, or Karate Kid...but I'd say it's still an awfully tiny % of my overall material.

Selena said...

Tweets are very different from bits that you perform. I'll tweet about inane, pop culture bullshit that I don't care about--that's what Twitter was made for.

But for stories and jokes performed on stage, I find it SO much more interesting to perform (and watch) a comedian discuss something real that he/she actually cares about. I find nothing more interesting and appealing than vulnerability on stage. You don't find much vulnerability or realness in one-off pop culture reference jokes.

ECN said...

Well, yes and no. "Topical" pop culture jokes are frequently (not always, frequently) pretty tedious. I mean, ultimately, half of them are interchangeable monologue jokes, and the other half are preachy. Well, except for the ones that are good.

But let's face it, whoever you are, some kind of popular culture is probably influencing the way you look at the world. Saying "jokes about popular culture are a problem" is the same as saying "jokes about British literature are a problem" or "jokes about dating are a problem". They're not a problem if they reflect something true, but when a lot of people do them, they either don't reflect anything true, or they just reflect the comic's biases and character flaws. (Not in a self-aware way. Or in a self-aware way that doesn't make up for the essentially petty or repugnant nature of the performer's opinions. I don't care what it is, just get it off the stage.)

But yeah, you know? Monologue jokes. They're monologue jokes. There's not a lot you can say about them, generally. Harrumph.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

It's similar to what Louis CK says about hack premises: there are none. Pop culture jokes are not passive and sluggish if the comedian isn't passive and sluggish. There are comedians who are either strong enough writers or performers (or both) who can and have made absolutely genius jokes about pop culture.

Well said!

Popical jokes are awesome. To Matt they're like Sandra Bullock's movies--he's not expecting much but can be pleasantly surprised by them. They're like Snuggies and Slap Chops and Roombas too--he's not buyin' 'em! (I can't believe you're getting this comedy gold for free).

Pablo Francisco's last dvd ("Ouch" 2006) had a William Hung reference--nay, a 5 minute bit on William Hung complete with impression, embedded impression of 'In a World' Movie Guy voice, and callbacks--that holds up to today. Insofar as making fun of mental disabilities is timeless.

myq said...

Matt started this off by saying he's not into "comics who RELY TOO MUCH on pop culture topics."
(Emphasis MINE... there TOO.)

I agree, and I agree with ECN who pointed out that relying too much on _____ is probably problematic. Such is the nature of reliance, I'd say. And the definition of "too much."
(I've never heard anyone say "that guy relies too much on being hilarious with great material." That is to say, just phrasing something as such implies negative connotations, no?)

PS Abbi, did you mean to write "popical material"?
If so, I love it. If not, I love it.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous commenters are pussies."

that's so ghetto, roobs, and you know it

--different anon poster

Kate Hendricks said...

How different is writing pop culture jokes versus writing political jokes - from an evergreen standpoint? I had someone at work come and tell me because I worked at Goldman back in the day I should be talking about Goldman when they were in the news. Why? So I can have a mediocre joke for two days?

I guess it depends on your end goal. If you want to write for Chelsea/Soup/Tosh, then hone your pop culture brilliance. I was amazed when I read an article about how they find new writers for the Daily Show: you send in packets of political humor jokes, and it better be fresh and new, considering how much their team of writers is dedicated to it already. But - if that is your end goal - to be hired on one of those shows... then by all means use your stage time to see how they hit.

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