The NY Times starts a comedy beat and truth vs. cleverness

Well, how 'bout this. The New York Times is starting a regular column dedicated to comedy criticism. First up: this well written profile of Hannibal Buress which includes this explanation of the new column.

Despite the rumbling buzz surrounding this comic who has refined his skills for nine years, first in Chicago and then New York, obscure dance companies have been reviewed more often in the mainstream press.

Stand-up is the only major art form in which most American critics don’t take performers seriously until they leave the field. Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C. K. needed television shows to really receive notice. To paraphrase a great man, today’s comics don’t get no respect, and considering their ambition, diversity and influence, they should.

That conviction undergirds this new feature, appearing every other week and dedicated to reviewing comedy. Not limited to stand-up, this feature will try to reflect that vast and fragmented scene, for creative, funny work can be found everywhere from late-night cable to bars in Brooklyn to a tweet.

Neat to see some NYC media outlet (other than Time Out NY) give some love to the comedy scene here. The paper also recently profiled the UBCeast opening and discussed how comedians are using Twitter.

[Aaron] Glaser got a new handle, retooled his approach and began filing the sort of one-liners that punctuate his stand-up. “If the Beatles were founded today,” went one Tweet, “Ringo would be a laptop.” He developed a system: tap out a joke on Twitter, then monitor the reaction. “I’m sure no one will admit it,” he said, “but it’s nerve-racking when you think a joke is great, and no one responds to it.”

If followers do react, though — with retweets, “favorites,” or “likes” on Facebook, to which his Twitter feed is linked — Mr. Glaser will drop the line into his stand-up material. Such was the case with the Ringo joke, which killed in performance after earning online kudos, and now it’s part of Mr. Glaser’s regular set. “Generally if it works on Twitter, it works onstage,” he said.

On that topic, I've also found that Twitter is a great way to test out premises before taking 'em to the stage. But I also think there's a danger in the overly clever, mix-and-match style encouraged by the 140-character limit.

As I've argued before, being clever often feels like the opposite of being soulful. Since I'm Times-ing out already, this article on people who write taglines for movie and TV posters offers a good story about cleverness vs. truth.

I asked them, of all the lines they’ve written, which is their favorite.

“Little Miss Sunshine,” David said. “I wrote the line that ended up on the poster. It was, ‘A Family on the Verge of a Breakdown.’ I didn’t know they were going to have the van on there, for the double meaning, I had written that line and it ended up being a nice part of the poster, it was very sweet and it had a good feel to it.”

Richard’s favorite was one he worked on with David for an ESPN documentary called “The Streak.” It was about a wrestling team that had never lost a match; it had “the longest running winning streak in the history of high school sports.” But “the tension was so unbelievable. If they lost they would be disgracing their grandparents. So my line was, ‘The more you win the more you have to lose.’”

I asked why that was his favorite.

“Because it’s NOT clever.”

David and I both tell him well, yes, it is clever.

“No, it’s truth! It’s true.”

“So truth trumps cleverness?”


Related: "The evolution from clever to truth teller" and "Misdirection" from here at Sandpaper Suit.


Andy Sandford said...

I think that anything clever has to have some element of truth or common understanding for it to be clever in the first place...even if the clever thing itself is fictional. So it may be that the closer something clever hits home, the more you can appreciate it. IMO, there a million things you could say that are true, but clever is much more rare.

Matteson said...

"The more you win, the more you have to lose" is a really great line.

Matt Ruby said...

Andy, I think the ideal is to have something truthful and surprising/clever. When something is just clever with no meat there, I feel like it's a card trick. My internal response: "Aha, you fooled me! But, uh, so what?"

Andy Sandford said...

agreed, I guess I'd say though that I appreciate truthful+clever most, but I also appreciate something just being clever, and truth without cleverness I can appreciate but I do not consider comedy. I just happen to think that the current state of comedy puts too much of a premium on "realness" and has resulted in people just being real without trying very hard to find the funny. People like rodney dangerfield and stephen wright wrote great jokes that are not "real" but that I appreciate just as much as any great joke, and nowadays comics claim to respect those dudes but at the same time write off guys who go that route.

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