The New Funny
In recent years, podcasts such as WTF and the documentary film Talking Funny have attempted to deconstruct the craft of stand-up comedy. While living legends Louis C.K. and Chris Rock have helped shaped that discourse, a younger generation of comics has emerged as stand-up stars in their own right, capitalizing on new-media marketing, do-it-yourself production and outré programming such as Adult Swim. This map explores a comedy culture that is close-knit, diverse and intensely self-analytical.
Louis C.K. and Chris Rock met in the early 1990s when both comedians were performing regularly at New York City nightclubs. C.K. recalls that Rock “did a joke and I laughed really hard, and I remember him saying from the stage, ‘Wow, I made Louis laugh. That makes my day.’ Something like that, and I was like, ‘That’s weird.’ Then he came off after his set and we became friends like in this one night.”
In 1997 Rock hired C.K. (who initially had turned him down) as a writer-producer for The Chris Rock Show on HBO (1997–2000). During that time, Rock and C.K. produced a number of notable sketches, most famously “Pootie Tang,” which they later made into a film. Rock and C.K. have remained close even as they have become two of the most iconic performers in American comedy. “Chris and I used to talk on the phone for hours about stand-up,” C.K. says, and Rock has called C.K. “the funniest man in America.” The two again joined forces on television when Rock appeared in an episode of FX’s Louie, reluctantly rescuing C.K. when he gets stranded in New Jersey after a random, uncomfortable sexual encounter.
Talking Funny is an analytical, introspective and at times downright nerdy dissection of the comedic process, and it features four of the most prominent comedians of the past 20 years: Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Ricky Gervais. They discuss everything from what makes a joke work to why some comedians drop F-bombs while others don’t.
Though it’s hard to find a comedian more accomplished, acclaimed and entrepreneurial than Louis C.K., his success has come only after decades on the comedy writing-performing circuit. He began his career opening for Seinfeld, but C.K. was little known outside comedy circles. Following the cancelation of his short-lived HBO show, Lucky Louie, in 2006, C.K. undertook a profound change in his approach. Inspired by comedy guru George Carlin (who wrote a new comedy hour every year and threw out all his old material), C.K. has written, performed and recorded six different stand-up specials since 2007. His legendary work ethic extends to his TV show Louie (prem. 2010), which he writes, stars in, directs and edits, and in which Gervais, Rock and Seinfeld have all appeared. While Rock and Seinfeld play versions of themselves, Gervais hams it up as Louie’s prank-happy doctor.
If Jerry Seinfeld was America’s most celebrated comedian in the first half of the 1990s and Louis C.K. has risen to similar heights in the early 2010s, then America’s most notable comedic icon in the interval (along with perhaps Dave Chappelle) was Chris Rock. Rock has appeared in blockbuster films practically every year for more than a decade. His television sitcom Everybody Hates Chris aired on UPN for four seasons (2005–2009), and HBO aired his fifth solo comedy special, Kill the Messenger, in 2008.
Talking Funny opens with a debate between Seinfeld, who believes audiences come to see a comedian’s greatest hits, and Rock, who always wants to see a comedian’s new material. The disagreement ultimately reveals the difference between the older Seinfeld and the younger Rock (backed by his contemporary C.K.), not just as appreciators of comedy but also as performing artists. Whereas Seinfeld gradually works new bits into his act, letting go of older material, Rock builds an entire routine from scratch and then throws it away once it becomes an HBO special. The two respectfully agree to disagree: “We’ve been having this discussion,” Rock joshes, “our whole relationship.”
In 2009, as Louis C.K. was ascending to superstardom, comedian Marc Maron got divorced, had his Air America radio show canceled and went broke. “I was at the end of the rope when I started [WTF],” he says. Since then, Maron has interviewed more than 300 comedians for his podcast, often in his garage studio. His conversational style has been singled out by critics as intimate and revealing. “Marc is an insanely intense guy,” blogged This American Life creator Ira Glass. “He’s emotionally present, and he makes you emotionally present.”
Perhaps the most popular episode of WTF is his two-hour conversation with C.K. The two “go way, way back,” as Maron says, having met in Boston in 1986 through comedian and mutual friend David Cross. One critic praised Maron’s interview with C.K. as “one of the more memorable explorations of friendship…seen (or heard) anywhere.” The two men discuss their closeness as young comics struggling to make a living doing stand-up. They also attempt to untangle their falling-out and the years they didn’t speak to each other. Since the interview, Maron has appeared on an episode of Louie that recalls this encounter and satirizes their on-again, off-again friendship.
Just as Louis C.K. admired comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and George Carlin when he was coming up, today’s comics, such as Aziz Ansari, look to C.K. for inspiration. “Louis works harder than anybody,” says Ansari, who strives to do stand-up every day. Like C.K., Ansari insists on throwing out all his old material once he finishes touring a particular show. Ansari is perhaps best known for his role as the irrepressible Tom Haverford on the hit television show Parks and Recreation. C.K. has also appeared on several episodes of Parks—as Dave, the bumbling police officer.
C.K.’s work ethic may inspire younger comedians, but his innovative new-media strategies have transformed the industry. In 2011 C.K. self-produced Live at the Beacon Theater and posted it on his website, charging five dollars per download. HBO, which first aired the special, let C.K. handle all the marketing himself. Ansari was one of the first comedians to follow C.K.’s lead, posting his 2012 comedy special Dangerously Delicious on his website and also charging just five bucks, before releasing it again through Comedy Central. Thanks to their DIY experiments, seeing top acts is now as cheap as paying the cover at your local comedy club.
Aziz Ansari began doing stand-up comedy as a student at New York University in 2001, the same year Adult Swim programming debuted on Cartoon Network. Adult Swim re-aired episodes of canceled animated sitcom Family Guy in 2003, and Fox renewed the show the next year, to exploding popularity. The program block played a similar role in reviving Matt Groening’s Futurama, solidifying its reputation for resurrecting cult classics abandoned by the major networks. In 2005 Adult Swim became its own entity, independent from Cartoon Network, cementing its creative freedom and commitment to the outlandishly funny with dozens of hit cartoon shows geared toward a primarily adult audience.
In 2007 Ansari, along with Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel and Jason Woliner, founded the sketch comedy show Human Giant, which aired on MTV for two seasons. Scheer later created the police procedural parody NTSF:SD:SUV. Woliner shot and edited the pilot of Jon Glaser’s Delocated, which Ansari has cited as his favorite show. Adult Swim is home to both. In fact, many of the comedians featured on Human Giant—including Glaser, Patton Oswalt, Jon Benjamin and Brian Posehn—have appeared on various, sometimes multiple, Adult Swim shows.
Few comedians have risen faster from obscurity to fame than Hannibal Buress. In 2008 he moved to New York City to do stand-up, arriving with only $400 and initially spending nights in subway cars and coffeehouses. Soon after, however, Buress appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and he was subsequently hired by Tina Fey as a writer for Saturday Night Live and later 30 Rock. With his comedy special, Hannibal Buress: Animal Furnace, Buress’s stardom reached new heights. He was named best club comic at the 2012 Comedy Awards (held by Adult Swim parent network Comedy Central), and that same year Adult Swim aired the first season of The Eric Andre Show, which Buress co-hosts.
The Eric Andre Show, called “the weirdest show on television,” seems an appropriate setting for Buress’s own bizarre sense of humor. Buress plays an Andy Richter–type sidekick to Andre’s wacky, deranged version of a nighttime talk show host. (Richter is most famously Conan O’Brien’s second banana.) “I basically shit on [Andre] and tell him he’s horrible,” Buress says. “It’s a weird, wild show. He’s a maniac, and I just comment on the weird stuff happening around me.”
“If Steven Wright, Mos Def and Dave Chappelle had a baby, that would be disgusting,” says Chris Rock, “but it would sound like Hannibal Buress.” Rock cites Buress as the next big stand-up comedian. Buress, in turn, recalls Rock’s advice regarding his first comedy special, Hannibal Buress: Animal Furnace: “Make sure it’s a special and not a regular.”
Rock’s and Buress’s comedic styles are markedly different. While Rock paces the stage, juicing his bits with exclamations and emphatic gestures, Buress is low-key and reserved, not unlike the deadpan deliveries of Wright and Mitch Hedberg. But Rock and Buress are similar in one respect: Both are black comedians with an ambivalent relationship to race humor. Rock says race occupies maybe 20 percent of his act: “If you watch any of the specials, there’s some race stuff in the beginning. By minute 20…it’s current events and relationships.” Buress introduces race at times—as in Animal Furnace, when he talks about being mistaken for an elevator operator and getting interrogated by security at a venue he was headlining—but more commonly toys with less heated issues. In fact, he thinks of himself as “the Lenny Bruce of grocery store and mustache humor.”
Even before August 3, 2012, Tig Notaro was a well-established comedian within stand-up circles. That’s a far cry, however, from breaking into the mainstream. But Notaro’s stunning half-hour set that night at Los Angeles’s Largo nightclub changed everything. Her performance became an overnight sensation, due in part to Louis C.K.’s tweet the next day, gushing that Notaro’s show was one of the greatest he’d seen in 27 years of comedy. (He also made Tig Notaro: Live available for purchase on his website, with a percentage of the profits going to cancer research.)
In her act, Notaro somehow manages (with both heart and humor) to discuss being diagnosed with breast cancer just a few days prior to her Largo performance, along with a number of other terrible things that had happened to her during the previous four months: being left by her partner, contracting C. diff (a life-threatening bacterial infection) and her mother dying suddenly in an accident. The show is an unrehearsed mixture of absurdist horror and humor. “Why, God?” Notaro calmly asks, only to set up her hilarious imitation of an overzealous Almighty blithely ignoring his angels, who suggest maybe he should tone things down a bit.