Can comedians be funny again?

I didn’t know how Steve Martin felt about his parents. I never did find out what sexual position Bob Hope preferred. And even when Johnny Carson cracked wise about his many divorces, he never dished dirty details.

And that’s the way we liked it!

Comedians are no longer crafting acts, instead they regurgitate every detail of their lives as if it were nutritious content for the masses to gobble up.

Marc Maron, I don’t particularly care what you did last Saturday with your comedian pals in the green room. Pete Davidson, I don’t care who you’re dating. How about being funny?

Look, I’m not asking to time travel back to the 1970s, or some bygone era of button-up comedy and entertainment. I like getting to know who these people are for the most part. Jerry Seinfeld is incredibly driven and a bit snobby about his craft, he grew up in a home that wasn’t very affectionate. Robin Williams had an intense desire to be the center of attention and he was haunted by his demons, he was also a noted joke-stealer. Conan O’Brien is in desperate need of affirmation. And so on.

But those guys built an act, they crafted their work into an art form. When David Letterman’s dalliances with an assistant producer came to light, he didn’t make a bit out of it, he apologized to his audience. One figures Davidson would have mined “material” like that for a two-hour HBO special.

Which reminds me: what would George Carlin say about all this? I mean, what the fuck would George Carlin say about it? Carlin, the greatest comedic voice and social commentator this country has produced since Mark Twain, passed into the mortal coil more than a decade ago. He pumped out incredible material for close to fifty years, and his comedy always adhered to two rules: be about something we all have in common OR something that separates us. He famously filled tens of thousands of note cards with ideas and lines, bits of comedy kerosene waiting to be ignited by his brilliant mind. It never would have occurred to Carlin to go to a fucking comedy club, talk to fellow comedians and incorporate their inane banter into his show. George wouldn’t have spilled his heart for ten minutes about his latest venture to rehab or one of his failed relationships. He had too much respect for the audience.

Call this the Post-Seinfeld Era of Comedy. Jerry germinated in the 1970s and 1980s, alongside heavyweights Jay Leno and Letterman, and on the heels of Robert Klein, David Brenner, and Albert Brooks. These were working comics who built “fifteen good minutes” and were “made men” thanks to the “okay” from Carson on his eponymous Tonight Show.

After a set from Brenner or Klein or Garry Shandling, the audience felt good, washed in laughs from a gifted artist. Today’s crop of comedians are building their careers with self-analysis, personal anecdotes, riffing while they “workshop” a few bits. It’s ultra-meta, the comic explaining the structure of his idea, grappling to wrestle it to funny even if it’s a bad bit.

There are a few notable exceptions. John Mulaney is a fantastic writer and his act reflects his commitment to crafting his art. Dave Chappelle is a near Mt. Rushmore-level standup who knows how to be personal with his material while still being funny. There are still a few comedians from the 1990s who deliver a quality show, like Chris Rock and Larry Miller. Patton Oswalt pours himself into creating a good show, as does Todd Barry. The latter comic has even gone on stage to work the crowd, abandoning prepared bits to interact with the audience. That’s notable because Barry is turning the attention away from himself and onto the paying customers. His audience becomes the content and he nimbly uses language to be funny. Imagine that! The self-flatulent joke thief Amy Schumer should take note. The Blue Collar Comedy Tour may not have been your flavor of comedy, but at least Jeff Foxworthy and friends went on stage with material. It wasn’t a psychotherapy session. Who wants to pay $45 to watch a comedian stumble through his comic-pal friends inside jokes? Who wants to pay to be the dumping ground for these people’s narcissistic joy ride?

There are two problems with this trend in comedic entertainment: the first is the disrespect it shows for the audience. “Is it funny,” Seinfeld asks, “that’s the test. If it isn’t, you kill it.” Today’s comics live in the world of their personal rantings on a podcast, hoping it “lands” so they can repeat it on stage. They smirk on the couch across from the Jimmy’s (Fallon and Kimmel), as if that’s an act. They forget their workplace, maybe they don’t know where that is? It’s that mark you stand on when the camera flashes red. Be funny, craft material that delights an audience.

The second problem is the insulated world these comedians have created. They bounce from podcast to podcast, from club to club, rubbing elbows with their pals. It’s a comedy cocoon where everything they utter is fodder for a joke they never complete. And too many of them think that the process of chatting with their buddies is their act. Some comics have actually read emails and tweets from conversations with other friends on stage. Who cares? Too many comics today think the world they live in is special, it’s a millennial fascination I suppose. They’ve crawled up so far inside their own assholes (so to speak) they can’t see where real people live.

Saying mean half-jokes on Twitter isn’t an act. (Looking at you, Kathy Griffin)

Artists have always used their own experiences in their art. You can argue it’s necessary, and perhaps impossible to avoid. But the best comics have known how to mine their experience, infusing it into their work. It’s the difference between throwing clay on the ground and making beautiful pottery.

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