October 15, 2018

A Radical Transformation of Stand-Up Comedy

“RICHARD PRYOR is considered by many the greatest standup comedian of all time. Watch one of his most famous performances, Live in Concert (1979), and you see an almost flawless (that “n” word, those Asian jokes) comic who excels in all aspects of the form—his physicality, his impressions, his observations, his wit, his emotional intelligence. This was a victim of abuse (and, later, an abuser himself) addressing fraught issues of sexuality, gender, and race in a way that seems fresh even now. And he bent the form around himself. In one bit, Pryor performed in excruciating detail his childhood experience of being battered black and blue by his grandmother. Twenty years before the invention of “cringe comedy,” he had his audience laughing in pain with him, joy and sadness mingling side by side, transgressing the axiom that humor relieves tension.

Pryor’s harrowingly candid approach had audience members shouting “Preach!” and sometimes would cause him to drop the joke altogether. During his 1982 gig Live on the Sunset Strip he announced he would no longer be using the “n” word, which he had peppered liberally throughout his act up until that point. “That’s a word that’s used to describe our own wretchedness,” he says. “I ain’t trying to preach nothing to nobody, I’m just talking about my feelings about it.” In this he differed from other politically aware comics, like Bill Cosby, who in his infamous 2004 Pound Cake speech unapologetically evangelized about what he saw as the failures of the black community. “Are you not paying attention, people with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack,” he says. “Isn’t that a sign of something, or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up?”

There seemed to be a direct line from Cosby to Louis C.K., who after he had children in the early 2000s, began injecting his self-deprecating routines with a liberal amount of sanctimony, despite, like Cosby, engaging in wildly contradictory behind-the-scenes behavior (C.K. has since attempted a guilt-free comeback while his forefather’s incarceration prevents a parallel resurgence). His sincerity appeared to seal him off from judgment; indeed, disagreeing with C.K. meant your moral compass had gone awry. He soon became something of an Oprah-like self-help guru, peddling advice while perpetuating a toxic environment that alienated and even cut short the careers of female comics around him. And his confessional-verging-on-sentimental storytelling informed a cadre of popular male comedians, from Aziz Ansari (also accused of misconduct, also already back at work) to Jim Gaffigan to Marc Maron to Chris Gethard. “I’m not wasting all this time pretending comedy is going to fix me somehow, it’s not,” the latter says tearfully towards the end of Career Suicide, his HBO special about depression. But there is a clear dose of prescriptive uplift in these newly introspective male routines. For instance, Patton Oswalt’s catchphrase during his 2017 Annihilation show, “It’s chaos, be kind,” is borrowed from his late wife. That comics like Sarah Silverman and Tig Notaro have in recent years given high-profile TED Talks—“ideas worth spreading”—is likely a side-effect of C.K. The irony being that C.K.’s success is a side-effect of female comics.”

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