If you hadn’t noticed, we’re in the midst of a fairly sizeable comedy boom, especially here in the U.S. Standups are getting major features written about them in magazines and newspapers while also scoring book, film and TV development deals. Websites like Funny or Die and College Humor are flourishing, as are the subscriber numbers for comedy podcasts like Nerdist, WTF, Doug Loves Movies, and The Best Show on WFMU. Even here in my humble hometown of Portland, there are at least a dozen places now to see standups and improv teams tread the boards for laugh-hungry audiences.
What is fascinating about this current upswing of interest in comedy is how much fans are now almost expecting a look behind the curtain with their favorite standups and actors. They are no longer simply willing to take the humor at face value or skim the surface when it comes to the comic’s personal lives. The hope is now for them to splay absolutely everything out on the table and let fans and curiosity seekers pick through it all.
This sort of approach has already been explored in the form of memoirs and TV series, but it is starting to seep into the world of cinema as well. One much talked about film from 2012 was Sleepwalk with Me, a fictional adaptation of a book and one-man show by comedian Mike Birbiglia that explored not only his fear of commitment and the beginnings of his comedy career, but also the sleepwalking disorder that caused him to jump through the window of a hotel in Spokane, Washington. And this year sees the release of The Bitter Buddha, a documentary about Eddie Pepitone, an acidic and hilarious standup who struggles with, as the logline goes, “self-doubt, sobriety, and a challenging family.”
To be fair, about standups facing their personal demons are nothing new, but they’ve tended to focus on those comics that courted controversy throughout their careers. Directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas for their 2010 film American delved into the boundary pushing and often philosophical standup work of Bill Hicks. And Lenny Bruce, the socio-political comic who faced obscenity charges for his act has been the subject of not only a 1974 biopic starring Dustin Hoffman but Elan Gale‘s 2011 documentary Looking For Lenny that features interviews with many of his contemporaries and fans, as well.
But the cultural tide has turned enough that we now almost require even the most beloved of comic figures to delve into their real or imagined tortured past for our entertainment. What’s hard to pinpoint is exactly where this massive sea change started.
Follow the thread back far enough and you can see aspects of it in the work of Bruce and his fellow sixties iconoclasts like Dick Gregory, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor. And it connects further forward to the previous comedy boom of the late eighties and early nineties when folks like Roseanne Barr, Margaret Cho and Judd Apatow picked at the scabs of our collective and personal experiences in sitcom form.
Those roots didn’t start to see full flower in popular culture though until fairly recently, though. And it took a pair of films that looked at the lives and careers of two aging comedians to push these kinds of deeper explorations further forward.
The more well known of the two is the documentary John Landis made for HBO, Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, a film didn’t shy away from Rickles’ reputation as a button-pushing insult comic, but rather reveled in it. And it also attempted to peel back some layers from Rickles’ long life in show business and his personal life to get some sense of why someone who could be so out-and-out nasty to everyone around him is so revered and admired. The film was so well received that it took home a pair of Emmys and spurred on another late-career resurgence for this icon.
Certifiably Jonathan (made in ’07 but not released until 2011) on the other hand blended reality and fiction to explore the mind of Jonathan Winters. A gifted improviser and mimic, Winters is another comic figure that has streams of admirers, many of whom were willing to appear as themselves to help push forward the sometimes clunky plotline of this film. There isn’t a lot of revisiting of the past to be had, but you get to see Winters at his best and at his most unguarded. You are given a good luck at what makes this octogenarian tick and want to continue performing and being part of the action even at his advanced age.
What has rushed this desire from audiences even farther ahead has been the ways in which comics are embracing the Internet and social media over the last decade. Dig up the old MySpace blogs of Community creator Dan Harmon or Patton Oswalt or the personal blogs of Marc Maron and Louis C.K., and you’ll find them wrestling with personal, professional, and sometimes political issues with surprising candor and black wit.
The fire has spread with so many comics deciding to create podcasts and start cranking out bon mots a-plenty on Twitter. In the case of the former outlet, there’s no avoiding Maron, the gent who has exorcised so many of his own personal demons week after week, as well as providing a platform for his guests to join him via his podcast WTF. The success of his podcast (which has been parlayed by Maron into a book deal and a soon-to-premiere series on IFC) has inspired so many of his cohorts and former guests to join his ranks online.
While Tig Notaro and Jeff Garlin have carried the torch ably, the one gent who has been really captured the spirit of what makes the best WTF episodes so discussion worthy is former member of The State, Kevin Allison and his podcast Risk, which encourages fellow comics and friends to recount their most embarrassing moments in life.
On Twitter, the key is often to simply crack as much wise as you can in 140 characters or less, but it has also provided a clear gateway for fans to interact with their favorite comics. The combination of the two has meant that the number of followers for certain accounts seems to grow exponentially: Rob Delaney has over 780,000, Oswalt has 1.1 million, and Maron is just over 205,000.
Numbers like those and that of the subscribers to podcasts like WTF (according to a 2012 estimate, he was averaging about 340,000 downloads of each episode) have done wonders for attendance when any of the above comics have performed live. And when the market demands something in these numbers, folks are going to want to capitalize on it.
What remains to be seen is where the comics of the world go from here, and how many more memoirs, podcasts, and movies the market can bear. The comics of the world are savvy enough to know that the tide will turn eventually. It just remains to be seen how when the cultural consumers will decide that they’ve had enough wincing to go along with their laughter. Until then, there’s likely to be plenty of hilarious and knowing material to buoy us along these choppy waters of existence.