Thursday, October 02, 2008

Funny Thing In Vegas-What is Hack?

In a few weeks, Caesars Palace becomes home to the annual Las Vegas Comedy Festival, sponsored by TBS. Ellen Degeneres, Jerry Seinfeld, and dozens of others who are household names appear on the stages here, and even The Kids in The Hall make an appearance. The magic of the festival is the ability to see the new comedians, unknown to Agents nor to sitcoms, and the disgrace of the festival is the same comedians who appear to borrow material from others.

Most comedy today has been done to bits..and the words "sarah palin" are so intrinsic to the comedy stage, it's already too done to say them. But, the thing that bugs me on the comedy stages are the people who claim they are doing 'clean comedy' but are just redoing Bob Newhart, Rossi and Allen, and even older Alan King bits, and calling them original. It makes me upset because that is the essence of all things HACK. And, they get away with it because people who are supposed to know better actually hire them, and use them in clubs. Or promote them in contests. Either way, they're stealing and shouldn't be rewarded.

When I hear an insurance bit I think back to Alan King. When I think of bits about teaching, I think about Dennis Wolfberg, whose bug eyed delivery always made the bit better than it was. When I think of a white jewish girl pretending to be a big black man, it's Karen Haber. And, when I think of the Wizard of Oz, it's Lois Bromfeld. My personal heroes- Phyllis Diller and Moms Mabley did the "I'm ugly" bit long before others did. And, they did them right. The first time.

These bits are all on you-tube, and other websites, and are readily available. If you see them, you can see who is doing the exact routines. Mark Pitta, for instance, does one of the best Robert DeNiro imitations ever...because he LOOKS like DeNiro when he's not doing it. When I saw some kid imitating Pitta doing DeNiro, it just didn't ring true. He was imitating Pitta doing DeNiro and it was just not correct. It was mimicry at best, and falsely inflated ego at worst.

The fact is, there are thousands of us with ADD. There are thousands of us bringing note cards up on stage, and using THAT as part of the bit. The general colloquialisms that permeate our language, (all the izzle's inclusive), are not new. Bill Hicks did Bill's material, Denis did Denis's material, but the performances were so extremely similar no one can dispute them. Parallel thought is part of the world of comedy- parallel parking on an exact phrase, exact delivery, and exact timed piece is just plain hack.

The ones who bother me are the ones who assume that no one else studies comedy the way they do. That bothers me because I am one who would go to clubs EVERY night whether I was on stage, or not, and LEARN about comedy by watching everyone I possibly could. I sat transfixed to Lenny Clarke, Richard Jeni, and Roseanne with the same aplomb. (love that word) They were up there, headlining, and getting people to pay attention to them, and I wanted to know WHY- not what they were saying that I could improve on, or plainly steal, as so many seem to do now. When I saw someone doing a Bobcat imitation on a TV show supposedly designed to find "new" comedy, I nearly lost it- it wasn't anyone behaving as a comic and being funny, it was someone PERFORMING without WRITING anything new- and it was just theivery. It's the problem Fred Travelena and Rich Little have with those who imitate THEM, when in fact, they've written bits specifically to match their impressions. Other impressionists stealing bits from Fred and Rich are just telling the audience, "screw you, you don't know any better." That's just the wrong song to be playing in the Intel Age.

The online video sites are there for anyone to learn about what stand up is, and what it isn't. It's there for people to see "Oh yeah, Jeneane Garafalo had a good few years before she was on TV doing stand-up", "Patton Oswalt wasn't always killing when he first started.", "Oh yeah, look at Bernie Mac doing TV for the first time, wow, he was so much like Redd Foxx in his timing." It's for people to understand character motions, like those done by Buster Keaton, Mark Blankfield, and Jim Carrey. It's there for anyone to watch good comedians when they were not-so-good, and see them grow. It's there for people to see Ritch Shydner, and Mitch Hedberg and not just wonder who they were on the stage. It's there for the wisdom gained by Piper and Tupper, and Bobby Slayton, and Margaret Cho. Some continued on to be huge names, others great headliners and others, just footnotes in the comedy history books- but they're not up there so people can STOP writing.

Writing is what comedy is about. In Vegas, we have some terrific writers- Don Barnhart, Brandon Muller, Tanyalee Davis, Kathleen Dunbar for example. All are at different stages of their careers. We have terrific shows- the Short Bus Comics inclusive- where those who are more like Tim and Eric or even Terry Fator- can be alongside those who are college headliners, and longtime veteran champions of comedy everywhere. But people are writing constantly. It's what makes the stages come alive here. Diaz Mackie to Jeremy Flores, you'll find gems if you look.

So no, there isn't a reason to assume your audience isn't aware of comedy and the history of stand-up. (And before you start to mumble it, yes the Ass of U and Me line..done to death, thanks.) Assume that someone in your audience is also aware of Jim Norton and Jen Kober. Assume that someone in your audience has seen Carlin or Cosby, maybe even the same nights, and have played their albums for as long as they could. Assume that someone in your audience gets that Ernie Kovacs and Norm Crosby knew what they were doing. Assume this because if you don't, you are going to be disappointed when it comes time to talk to that person who DOES know these people and GETS that you are 'borrowing' material.

Everyone has their own views of something . I will write about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a different way, based on my own experiences and language than Grace Fraga. I will write my way, she will write her way. I will present my way. She will present her way. But I will WRITE and she will WRITE. When you're up there and talking about George and Gracie's version of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, it will be obvious to others that you're just "playing comedian" and not actually being one. If you want to do the acting thing, that's great, but you don't get a pass to not write your own stuff. Check out Michael Keaton's stand-up and see if you can't find Johnny Dangerously in it. Learn the craft. Learn to write.

And then be the comedian you want to be- don't pretend you are someone else. You WILL be discovered, as a hack if you do. You WILL be discovered as talent if you WRITE.

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