Expanding the limits of Stand-up Comedy

A medium is the means by which you achieve your artistic goal. Whether it is paint or a musical instrument, there is a resource that we must work from. Sometimes we perceive ingenuity in art as a blending of different mediums; mixed medium being the term that is thrown around most often, or in the context of film, cross-genre.

In the pursuit of ingenuity we may perceive a limit in a genre’s capability, to which we respond by mixing elements found in other genres. There is nothing wrong with this, but when some people see a limit there are others who see a window for innovation. I would like to point out some examples of people who found a way to challenge their medium, without compromising the integrity of the genre that they are working with. The people I refer to are the folks that find themselves in seemingly the most restrained of mediums, stand-up comedy specials.

The tools that are used for a stand-up special seem incredibly limited. Simply put, there needs to be a performer, who is attempting to amuse an audience through humor. I am careful to not even say ‘make jokes’ because some avant-garde comedians, such as Andy Kaufman, can perform a stand-up routine by just reading the Great Gatsby out loud in its entirety. You can see how this must seem restrictive. However there are some notable people who have found innovation in the most unlikely of methods.

An angle that has been replicated by several comics is the manipulation of the audience. Harland Williams took this to the most extreme when he filmed A Force of Nature (2011) in the middle of the Mojave Desert. With no audience laughter to work off of it becomes difficult to laugh as a viewer at home. It is one thing to not be a fan of his work, but it is another to find yourself asking, ‘why does the audience’s absence matter to me?’

Maria Bamford challenged the concept of audience by filming her comedy specials at her house, one in particular was a performance for her mom and dad. It isn’t as jarring as Williams’ special but the intimacy of a small venue that most comics find comfort in is pushed to the extreme, with the smallest venue imaginable.

If you manage to watch either of these specials you will notice they are both heavily edited. Which is another dimension of stand-up specials that experienced performers are all too familiar with. Editing is necessary for ad space, but many comedians feel this compromises the art of the performance. This is something that comedians are definitely bothered by, so much so that some make an effort to prevent it. Demetri Martin regularly incorporates music into his performance as to prevent heavy editing, because if there is a back track there is no way an editor can shuffle the arrangement of jokes without compromising the music. Thanks to Netflix some specials can be performed with one camera uninterrupted, such as in the example of Tony Hinchcliffe’s One Shot (2016). Some performers take editing inversely and use it as another dimension of the special. Reggie Watts used editing to remix Why Shit So Crazy (2010) with surreal alterations reminiscent of adult swim.

This is literally how he ended his special, with the walls falling apart leading to this music video

Stand-up has a very niche audience, and isn’t too actively pursued by the wider audience as a regular source of entertainment. But, it should be respected that these people managed to see a way to alter the medium they were working with in such a way that we question how we take in humor. It’s not just that, but realizing that when it may seem like the extent of our craft has reached it’s limits we should realize that our medium has no limit.


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