Laughing Matters — Hannah Gadsby, “Nanette”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

nanette

When the most generous and laudatory assessments of stand-up comedy are presented, a view of the form as a habitat for uncommonly bold truth-telling is usually part of the conversation. That theory only looks more compelling as the various descendants of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show spread out use the heaping sugar spoons of raunchy punchlines to sweeten the medicine of their aggravated assemblages of investigative journalism that are otherwise likely to be missed by enormous chunks of the population. But most of the time, a heavy caution is obviously in place. These comedians might issue diatribes against a broken system, but they’re largely parroting the simplest social grievances. When the substance is really examined, there are few hard truths to be found, the sort that challenge the status quo rather than merely offer complaints.

Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, which recently made its debut on Netflix, is an entirely different matter. It is bracing, transformational, inventive, defiant, and — a word I feel I must now reserve for creative art on this level — revelatory. Gadsby succinctly identifies the core reason for the show’s success. “I broke the contract, and that’s what made this work,” Gadsby recently told The Guardian.

In Nanette, comedy is not a means to soothe or to escape. A remarkable amount of the time, comedy is not even a tool to extract laughter. Instead, comedy — its rhythms, its structure, its basic presentation — is there as a vehicle for the rawest emotions, identifying pain and betrayal, not just on a personal level, but across the expanse of the shared, misbegotten culture. It shares some DNA with the more theatrical comedian shows on the nineteen-nineties, when there was a tendency to claim a veneer of added legitimacy by declaring barely modified stand-up sets as one-person shows. But those relied on rickety appropriations of stage plays. Gadsby’s Nanette is pure stand-up, from beginning to end.

Gadsby employs deconstructionist technique, calling attention to the grammar or stand-up while simultaneously mastering and demolishing it. The art history degree Gadsby holds is drawn upon brilliantly in a counter to the fallacy that emotional misery is necessary ingredient to the production great art, but it also informs the entirety of Nanette. It is the treatise of someone who’s been trained to the understand the patterns, subtext, and nuance of art, and who has further learned to adapt that knowledge to a myriad of forms.

Despite proclamations to the contrary, I don’t believe Gadsby’s Nanette is the sort of performance that can change everything about the form of stand-up comedy. I think it’s too great to achieve that. It’s beyond the grasp of other practitioners, more akin to the unhinged monologues of Lenny Bruce or the pure honesty of Richard Pryor. It’s an astonishing peak that can’t be reached again, even — somewhat by design — for the person made it there in the first place.

Laughing Matters — Parks and Recreation, “The Cones of Dunshire”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

In the era of endless reboots, the teeniest rumblings have started about getting the Parks and Recreation gang back together. I’d personally rather they leave the show to history rather than risk the tarnish of an inadequate revival.

Although I have to admit that — especially on fairly glum days like today — I do miss Ben Wyatt.

Laughing Matters — George Carlin, “The American Dream”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

We recently slipped past the ten year anniversary of George Carlin’s death. I was reminded of his absence as the social and political discussion turned — briefly, tactically, disingenuously — to the concept of civility. Carlin famously went through several iterations in his long, duly venerated comedy career, but its his final chapters that deserve to still reverberate today. Although he never fully abandoned wordplay and making light of the mundane foibles that are the common denominator of most stand-ups, Carlin devoted increasing portions of his sets to caustic assessments of the state of the nation.

I used to have routines like “A Place for My Stuff” and “Baseball vs. Football” devoted to memory. And yet none of that sticks to my psyche with the same ferocity than a chunk of a larger piece called “Dumb Americans,” which was captured in his 2005 HBO Special, Life is Worth Losing. It’s class latter-day Carlin. He spends several minutes delivering mildly sophomoric lines directed at easy targets (there’s a lot of fat jokes in this stretch), before making a hard pivot into a brilliantly caustic explication of the strategic maneuvers of the U.S. power structure to keep the citizenry devoid of power.

“I’ll tell you what they don’t want,” Carlin says of the moneyed class exerting control over politicians and the media. “They don’t want a population of citizen capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interest in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interest.”

Carlin continues on to name what the wealthy overlords actually want: “obedient workers.” I think about that particular piece of phrasing all the time. “Obedient workers.” As the media and politicians of all stripes again expend mortifying amounts of time and energy defending the supposedly persecuted members of the ruling class, with nary a thought for the workers at the modest Virginia restaurant who felt uncomfortable providing service to someone who’s regularly taken and advocated political stances that opportunistically painted them as less deserving of the basic rights and opportunities afforded U.S. citizens.

The word “civility” strikes me as synonymous with “obedience” in the current usage. In the few striking minutes that have been carved out the larger Carlin routine — dubbed “The American Dream” due to the wry, bleak punchline at the end — there is barely anything that can be called a joke, even if it occasionally follows the rough cadence of setup and payoff. There is, however, a whole lot of hard truth.

 

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Laughing Matters — Robin Williams, “Come Inside My Mind”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

robin reality

Lately I’ve been reading Robin, the new book from Dave Itzkoff. A biography of Robin Williams, it is an odd experience for me, swerving between details that are true discoveries for me and material that I know as well as (or better than, really) my own personal history. I was seven years old when the character Mork made his network television debut, on an episode of Happy Days, and it imprinted on me deeply. I responded to his cartoonish manic energy, I suppose. That’s the age I was at. But I like to think I somehow recognized something more intricate and unique there, too, that some instinctual part of my being saw wild genius.

It was Itzkoff’s recapping of the first comedy album by Williams, Reality…What a Concept, that reminded me of a routine that had long ago escaped my memory, but which also illuminates a major part of why his approach was so unique. Williams was first and foremost an actor. Before he launched to fame as a stand-up comedian who had a sitcom tailored to his talents, he’s studied at Juilliard and had appeared in multiple stage productions, including several Shakespeare plays. The bit, titled “Come Inside My Mind” on record, is a minor masterwork of character study, with Williams playing out the competing impulses of a performer.

It’s no wonder it provided the title for a new documentary about Williams. In addition to being a perfect title for a biographical effort, the routine itself hints at the complex totality of Williams. Better yet, it reveals his gift for tapping into those complexities to convey emotion, precisely the quality that made him an Oscar-worthy actor. He was funny, and in boom years of rock star comedy that was the nineteen-seventies, his manic energy made him stand out. There was so much more to him than frenetic japery, though. “Come Inside My Mind” proved it.

 

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Laughing Matters — Bloom County on Return of the Jedi

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

death glass

As a kid in the nineteen-eighties, the comics page in the newspaper still held an allure. Let the grown-ups deal with all that yucky tragedy and conflict in the front section of the daily publication, I knew the only real pleasure could be taken from the pile-up on panels inside, delivering gags aplenty (and the occasional ongoing drama, but who read that stuff?). Like every other discerning comics reader, I had three favorites: Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, and Bloom County.

With the first two, I’m not sure when I discovered them, but I know with certainty the first Bloom Country strip that grabbed my attention. As Return of the Jedi dominated the box office, topping the weekly chart six of its first seven weeks of release (interrupted only by the opening weekend of Superman III), Berkeley Breathed devoted a week of strips to a gentle but pointed mockery of the spacefaring phenomenon. He knew how to find weak spots in the grandiose, kicking off the run with a rendering off a space battle in which the evil combatant was one of the countless merchandising abasements associated with the piece of blockbuster cinematic art. For years, I had that strip Scotch-taped to the wall of my bedroom, I loved it so.

Not long after, the first bound collection of Bloom Country strips, Loose Tails, was released. I bought it and then every one that followed. Other comics were clearly designed to be untethered to their time, but Bloom County commented on the ongoing pop and political culture I was beginning to absorb. As it turned out, Breathed’s comic was my gateway to the rest of the newspaper. To a degree, I have him to blame for the abundance of mental energy I now devote to all the new tragedy and conflict.

 

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Laughing Matters — Muppets Tonight, “Sid Knishes and His Mosh-Pit-atoes”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

In the past several days, I’ve taken great delight in the Emmet’s Otter’s Jugband Christmas outtakes making the rounds, and I’ve done everything I can to avoid the new trailers for The Happytime Murders, convinced to the pit of my stomach that a deliberately edgy, R-rated adventure populated by Muppets is a bad idea, even if a Henson scion is behind it. The brand of character crafted into life by Jim Henson and his compatriots haven’t been nearly as durable and adaptable as their less-than-benevolent corporate overlords at Disney surely hoped. Jason Segel’s valiant effort to return them to the big screen was enjoyable, if only because his clear affection cast a golden glow on the entire endeavor. Most other attempts has been messy, rife with evidence that no one quite knows what to do with these frolicking, felt vaudevillians

Although I’m must sure the answer truly lies there, as a lifelong fan I’ll note my enduring affection for the mid-nineteen-nineties stab at securing them a spot on television, a program called Muppets Tonight. Following the rough template of the original The Muppet Show, but with the conceit of a theatrical performance replaced overtly replaced with that of a television show, Muppets Tonight at least recaptured some of the joyously maniacal idea-flinging of the earlier success. Some of the best bits were over in a snap. The most recent prime time series tried to hard to wedge the Muppets into a sitcom template, with ongoing story lines that were an ill fit. In an era that thrives on shareable chunks of content, the little throwaways did far better.

Muppets Tonight wasn’t comprised of nothing but throwaways, by any means, but I could imagine the show thriving if it had existed at a time when people were eager to log into social media so they could share their favorite new discoveries. One of the bits from the episode of the show featuring Prince as a guest star even made the rounds not so long ago (though sadly not the sketch that should’ve taken off). I know this for sure: had I the means at the time, I would have cross-posted the live performance of Sid Knishes and His Mosh-Pit-atoes onto every digital platform available to me.