Who Says Stand-Up Comedy Isn't Theatre?: Lots of People-And That's Got One Aspiring Comedian Pounding out the Critical Theory

By Peretti, Chelsea | American Theatre, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Who Says Stand-Up Comedy Isn't Theatre?: Lots of People-And That's Got One Aspiring Comedian Pounding out the Critical Theory


Peretti, Chelsea, American Theatre


TODD LONDON, IN HIS AMERICAN THEATRE ESSAY "What We Talk About When We Talk About Good" (Sept. '01), envisions a new, more profound criticism. He notes that, in order to "reinvent critics, we'll have to do the same with editors and publishers." His comments address a problem that I have noticed in my field, stand-up comedy: Outside of a post-Sept. 11 surge of interest in the profession (and occasional New York Times coverage), there is a habitual exclusion of stand-up comedy from serious, elevated discourse. In newspapers and periodicals, it is de rigueur to segregate stand-up comedy and theatre event listings. Editors decree their resting places-theatre events in the left column, comedy in the right. There the two genres remain, holding each other at arms' length like wary neighbors, with comedy relegated to "Acts" or "Laughs" and theatre soaking up the bulk of critical commentary. Their shared qualities notwithstanding, comedy and theatre are treated as unrelated, disparate forms.

As a comedian and journalist with a background in theatre, I believe in the theatricality, impact and import of stand-up comedy. Although I can be prone to Malcolm X-ish bouts of separatist impulses, herein I shall explore my Martin Luther King Jr./Rodney King "Can't we all get along" harmonic instincts. A humble Bambiesque fawn, I trot out into print to discuss stand-up comedy as a viable performing art worthy of general respect and high-minded criticism.

To begin with, it's common knowledge that comedians are extremely serious people (think Belushi, Farley...or Sam Beckett, who wrote killer sketch!). If anyone has faith in this gravity, it is Dario Fo, an ardent believer in the significance of the comic performer and a Nobel-ized purveyor of comedic culture (particularly the commedia dell'arte and raw historical varieties). Comics, Fo says in The Tricks of the Trade, "always deal with the same problem--hunger, be it hunger for food, for sex, or even for dignity, for identity, for power." This perception of the yuk has heft.

As an undergrad at Columbia University, I once browsed through Aristotle's Poetics. I don't remember much of what the brotherman said, but there were scads of definitions, rules and categories; some pronounced ideas about the inferiority of women and slaves; and something, I believe, about heavier things falling faster. Stots (as we called him for short) dedicated a lot of thought to performance, some of which is still relevant. He deemed "character," "plot" and the elements of "reversal," "spectacle" and "catharsis" essential to tragic drama, which "by evoking pity and terror, brings about the purgation of those emotions." Had Stotsy popped in during this past New York season to see Margaret Cho at the Hammerstein Ballroom, John Leguizamo on Broadway, Marc Maron at the Westbeth Theatre or Jon Benjamin at Luna Lounge, where might his thoughts have wandered? I like to imagine that Tottles would have--between rasping, teary-eyed gasps for air--commenced rewrites and polishing on that slapdash Poetical assemblag e of lecture notes.

But since he didn't have the opportunity to adjust his thoughts, we're left--comedians and thespians alike--to create our own adjustments. And, yes, comic-types have been influenced by theatrical traditions. In both camps, the first key element is clever writing, or a "good script." It's also essential to train and develop the craft by "rehearsing" and redeveloping material--for comics, that means working at open mikes and "bringers" (invitational events) that function almost as an audition process, and finalizing with a polished "production" at a showcase, booked show or concert. Comics, like actors, are often nomads, touring the country up to 300 nights a year. This status improves as one's reputation grows, much like an actor's does. And, like playwrights, many comedians are known for a body of dramatic-comic work that often acknowledges a history of comic traditions.

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