I owned a comedy club during the 90’s on St. Maarten for ten years before Hurricane Luis blew it into the Caribbean. I know the business.
If I were just commenting on an industry so small it is financially relevant to only a small percentage of the population, I would not have bothered to write, but stand-up comics have been the voices of their generation since they were court jesters who could tell the truth about the king and still live.
Satire Skewers Conformity, Paranoia, Racism
The beat generation had Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Jonathon Winters and Tom Lehrer who used satire to skewer the insufferable conformity, paranoia and racism of the 1950’s. The golden era of the 60’s and 70’s produced stand-up giants such as George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison and Robin Williams. Those guys were comic warriors whose astute observations about the culture war gave literate, innovative voices to the changes my generation wanted our society to make. Women’s rights, civil rights, and ending the Vietnam War were accomplished as much by ridicule as by protests.
In the 80s and 90s, a generation of comics talked less about the culture and more about relationships. The voices became milder and even mainstream. That comic aesthetic was typified by Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Rita Rudner and Chris Rock. Though no longer political, these stand-ups maintained a sharp edge of articulation and keen observations about the absurdities of modern life.
Enter the 00’s and something troubling happened. The quality of articulation and the cultural impact of the stand-up art form had been demoted to the realm of clowns. It is no longer a forum for ideas; it has become a stage for pratfalls. I need not list the names, but you know who they are. They do not say interesting things; they relate petty misfortunes or, in the case of many ethnic comics, their monologs have become increasingly obscure to those outside their demographic. The comics that preceded them frequently used words some might consider filthy, but today’s comics have developed a style that is obscene in its totality. The unifying message seems to be that humiliation is the root of modern comedy.
What Happened To Confidence?
I blame the Internet. As this generation coming of age now relies more on virtual social relationships and less on actual relationships, they have lost the nuanced perceptions one can only experience in real life. Of course they cannot comment on society or personal relationships; they are not participating. The only remaining chance for real interaction is at school or at work. Even then, many would rather text each other than have a personal conversation, even if they are in the same room. This seems like madness to me.
The loss of the stand-up comic art is a canary in the coalmine. We are losing our ability to understand irony, be moved by satire, to be angered by hypocrisy and to generally move the society forward to keep up with changes we cannot control. A confident society laughs at its foibles and is moved to make changes. A scared society looks backwards to so-called “simpler times”, loses the ability to laugh at its own absurdities and is hostile to thought provocative satire.
Who will challenge society if not the comics. Who is afraid to confront the issues?
A minority of Americans can still find comic commentary by watching Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert or Bill Maher, but those guys are viciously attacked by the “know-nothings” and ignored by many of the current generation. The redneck comedy phenomenon is an appeal to the anti-intellectual notion that ignorance is good. The young are watching cat videos and guys being hit in the nuts on YouTube. I like low comedy too, but not when that is all there is.
More than actors and politicians, stand-up comedians challenge society to look at itself. Maybe comics don’t want that gig today because they know so much of the audience won’t like what it sees and will blame the messenger.