For years, wait a minute, decades, the comedy market has been so saturated with sitcom-aspiring white dudes with mullets and black guys with the name Wayans somewhere on their CV, that it's easy to forget that going out for a night of stand-up comedy should be a reality-shifting experience. The unique spirits of Shelley Berman, Lenny Bruce, Steve Martin, Steven Wright, Bill Hicks, Emo Phillips and Judy Tenuta (among others) were obscured by blazer-wearing "did ya ever notice?" wisecrackers. But there's a new generation of thoughtful humorists a-coming, and among the most visible expressions of this change is the Comedians of Comedy tour.
The late-cable/early TiVo era has given young comedians new venues. The independent comedy spirit has gotten a boot in the rear thanks to comics who aren't afraid to embrace non-comedy venues. Comics who book their own tours ("DIY" in rock 'n' roll parlance) at fringe theaters and rock clubs are hitting the road with their musician buddies. Comedian David Cross has found new fans among indie-rock-loving kids and adults by touring with and opening for the very rock bands he hangs out with. Cross' two albums for Sub Pop Shut Up You Fucking Baby and It's Not Funny have both reinvigorated and lampooned the comedy album form and become indie-sized hits. In other words, if the kids won't come out to the comedy, you bring the comedy to the kids. And it works! Just check these comics' MySpace profiles they're as popular as, say, Saturday Looks Good to Me. Yeah. Something like that.
And that's really where Comedy Central's Comedians of Comedy reality series comes in. In 2005, the cable network threw four of these independent newbie, non-mulleted/non-blazer-wearin' comics in an RV and taped them touring rock venues across the country. This year, they're doing it again. And the caravan rolls through Detroit this Sunday (and Lansing on Monday), with such comics as Eugene Mirman, Maria Bamford, Brian Poesehn and Patton Oswalt blinking into the camera and delivering their best shots. Mirman cut his rock-house chops opening for such bands as the Shins and Yo La Tengo. The New York-based comic is also a prolific video artist he uses audiovisual aids in his show (not in a prop-comic Carrot Top way, more in a full-on multimedia stand-up fashion). His sleepy bug-eyes, bulky presence and jet-black nest of hair are a kind of visual misdirection that he plays off to deliver deadpan, absurdist observations very much in the tradition of Wright or Phillips, but with a "hey, we're all pals here" kind of bonhomie.
He's set to release En Garde World, a CD/DVD set on Sub Pop May 9. The disc kicks off with Mirman warning the audience to "look out! I'm about to start killing!" and you can hear in his voice that he's hella-enjoying playing the fine line between going postal and borscht belt laff-meter self-aggrandizement. Along the way he rightfully skewers Christian right comics, reimagines the first game of truth or dare (between cave people) and advises folks on the potential negative result of grabbing babies off the street. (He also incorporates bears, tuna and penises into his routine which may be where the whole "absurd" angle comes from.)
Mirman who actually received a self-designed degree in comedy from Hampshire College adroitly breaks down both his own comedy and comedy structures in general from the inside, laying bare a bit's mechanics while simultaneously pushing the concept far enough to get new laughs.
Along for the ride with the new guy are Comedians of Comedy sophomores Oswalt (who plays Spence on the CBS comedy King of Queens), metalhead and Nerd-Rage sufferer Poesehn (who is featured on Mr. Show as well as Just Shoot Me) and Bamford.
Bamford may be less well known outside comedy circles, and that's a shame. The petite blonde with a deadpan, squeaky Midwest delivery expertly plays against her bubbly onstage demeanor, letting all manner of everyday foils inhabit her pipes. Whether it's the female boss who wants to be "pals" at a temp job, a serenely pushy cult guru or her own mother, the craft, concision and rope-a-dope setups put Bamford in a league of knockout female performers such as SNL's Amy Poehler and Amy Sedaris.
So props to Comedy Central for riding the zeitgeist and giving stand-up a pie in the face and a kick in the pants. By both showing the behind-the-scenes road-testing of new material and actually getting comics in front of people who aren't just at a comedy club because it seems like a good place to go on a date, they're helping make stand-up a cultural forum again.
Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org