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“The aim of comedy is purely to make people laugh,” said a friend of mine this morning. But, in that case, the aim of music is purely to provide people with nice stuff to listen to. Good comedy goes far beyond laughter.
In order to perform first-class stand-up, one must have wit, speaking skills, audience perception, and stage presence. Oh, and I forgot BRILLIANT MATERIAL. The quote, “It is harder to make someone laugh than it is to make someone cry” is debatable, but emphasizes the skill a comedian possesses. That being said, the hard part is trying to get your audience to do both.
There have been so many great comedians throughout time, but that doesn’t make them great at standup. Comedy, like any genre, has multiple categories, such as movies and sitcoms, where there are props, writers, and breaks between scenes. Then there is sketch comedy like “Saturday Night Live,” with topical jokes and guest stars. Finally, there is stage comedy, such as improv, in which the comedians work off the audience for their material. All are enjoyable, but stand-up is the only faction of comedy that seems to incorporate all the traits of the former mentioned. There are months and years of writing that go into creating a great standup special. Some comedians use props like puppets or instruments. They can use topical comedy, share life experiences, or do crowd work to relate to their audience. Through the years, stand-up has evolved from joking about airplane food to confessing deeply personal memoirs that invite audiences to share in the pain and joy that makes up humor.
Some of the great stand-up acts of all time include Eddie Murphy’s “Delirious,” Steve Martin’s “A Wild and Crazy Guy,” Dave Chappell’s “Killin’ Them Softly,” and Robin William’s “An Evening with Robin Williams.” All of these older specials have something in common; they changed the way people perceived standup. There weren’t just jokes; there were heartbreaks, persecution, and depression combined with enjoyment, sarcasm, and hilarity. It’s a beautiful combination because these emotions are rarely mentioned in the same instance, yet many times one can emerge from the other. Ever heard the expression, “You can’t have light without the dark?” Well, those great comedians found the sweet spot between those emotions and created nothing less than an innovative art form.
Comedians such as Louis C.K., Mike Birbiglia, and Bo Burnham have mimicked this type of performance with success. Birbiglia’s “My Girlfriends Boyfriend” is a must watch, as well as a great example of the contemporary genius found in comedy. He first talks about love and marriage as stifling and unconformable, and about a girl that eventually revitalizes his outlook on the institution, all while cracking jokes that relate to the happily and unhappily married. Bo Burnham incorporates music, poetry and pre-recorded material to highlight the satirical humor in his battle with depression and his lost faith in society. Arguably, one of the largest name in comedy at this moment is Louis C.K. He is especially known for his dark humor that deals with his self-image problems, as well as his struggle with parenthood.
As we unfortunately realized, Robin Williams is a reminder of the depression that lives within comedy. I have no regrets in stating that standup comedy should be revered as one of the more prestigious and difficult art forms to master in our culture. Do not let it be forgotten.
For great local and regional comedy, check out Cozy’s Comedy Tavern in Newport News and the Funny Bone Comedy Club in Virginia Beach. Or if you’d like to see art in the making with comedy, definitely check out Push Comedy in Norfolk. The Push Comedy Theater hosts live sketch, improv and stand-up comedy on Friday and Saturday nights. During the week classes are offered in stand-up, sketch and improv comedy as well as acting.