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Comedy On And Off The Radar

How the Wild West of late night cable and internet comedy is changing the world of American humor.

A screenshot from "The Maria Bamford Show. (YouTube)

A screenshot from “The Maria Bamford Show. (YouTube)

American comedy once had two big rivers:  late night and stand-up.  The network giants – Leno and Letterman on down.  The stand-up giants – George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers and all that.

Now, it’s a whole new picture.  TV has a zillion channels on cable, and new comedy all over there.  And the internet has unleashed a flood of funny guy and gal podcasters catering to a million stripes of humor.

It doesn’t have to make everybody laugh anymore.  Just you.

This hour, On Point: how the new Wild West of comedy is changing American humor.

-Tom Ashbrook


Emily Nussbaum, television critic for The New Yorker.  Author of the recent article “Small Wonders” on niche comedy on cable and the internet.

Maria Bamford, comedian, voice actor, writer.

W. Kamau Bell, comedian, host of the FX late-night talk show “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell.”

From Tom’s Reading List

The New Yorker “You have to head online to find the true Wild West, where pioneers have cobbled together quasi-organized Deadwood-like comedy encampments, shooting off viral videos like pistols, and scratching together a subsistence economy using Kickstarter and PayPal. The best sketches from “Portlandia” and “Key & Peele” are passed virally, friend to friend; Web sites like Funny or Die and College Humor operate as loosely run studios, producing material that viewers vote up and down. Standups saturate Twitter, devising new comedy forms within a hundred and forty characters.”

The New York Times “The premiere was Comedy Central’s biggest series debut in years, drawing 2.1 million viewers and dominating the young male demographic. “I think the network was thinking, ‘Fingers crossed, this could reawaken the “Chappelle’s Show” audience,’ ” Mr. Peele said. “But in our audiences, we see every single race, every single age, sitting together.””


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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paolo-Caruso/1778940602 Paolo Caruso

    As dumbed-down as most Americans are, for many there is an innate sense  of the authentic.  Dave Chappelle wasn’t just an act, he was a social and political statement, and he wasnt playing for his corporate media masters.  Chappelle was (is) for real, and he hits deeper than the funny bone, provoking a nervous laugh even among the brain dead. 

    The corporate media certainly wants to “reawaken” Chappelle’s audience…but not Chappelle.

    From what I see in comedy, Americans are back to slap stick, bathroom humour, and political gatekeepers like SNL, Jon Stewart and Brian Colbert.

    • 1Brett1

      Chappelle did a couple of skits that were right on the edge of making people uncomfortable (something any comedian worth anything should do), and they had brilliance written all over them. One that comes to mind was when he played a blind black man (who didn’t know he was black) raised by white supremacists. 

      Sarah Silverman did a sketch of similar theme where she argued with a black waiter over who can claim more oppression: blacks or Jews? Each character decided to get made up to look like the other. The viewer thinks at first it will be some sort of social experiment…When Silverman turns around, though, she’s done up in black face. She goes around and is chastised (of course, her clueless character begins to “understand”). She goes back to the diner where the black guy works to apologize…he then turns around and has some silly disguise on as a Hasidic Jew…  

  • sickofthechit

    Key and Peele are awesome declareth this 50+ year old honky.
    Daily Show and Colbert are my must sees and I go into withdrawl during their all to frequent breaks.  I wish they had the nerve to put up some amateurs or others when they are away on break….charles a. bowsher

  • 1Brett1

    That mash-up comedy show on CC (the exact name eludes me just now) is an interesting mix of comedy styles, devices, and mediums all blended together. It uses one device, effectively, of a comedian touching on a thought in stand up, then takes that idea and plays it out in a vignette/sketch. It is a device used a lot in cartoons designed for adults (a much easier medium in which to pull that sort of thing off).

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

    Where’s all the right-wing satire?

    • nj_v2

      The right-wing has become fully self-parodying. Nothing more needs to be done.

      • 1Brett1

        Yes, the proverbial nail on the head…

        John Candy once said, in an interview about SCTV, that when they tried to parody some cultural phenomena/events it didn’t work because their parodies looked too close to the real thing!

  • David_from_Lowell

    Hey man, cool beer!  Long live Dell LaRue!

  • J__o__h__n

    The pop-up for this screen directs me to Comedy On and Off the Radar. 

  • Coastghost

    And humor writing? (fiction, I mean, NOT television, NOT stand-up)

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

    Also, a vote for Onion Sports Dome and The Onion News Network. Like the namesake site, the unaware can be duped into thinking they’re really watching the real news.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.phillips.5268 Matthew Phillips

    I am heartened by this discussion. I have not yet achieved the age of 50 and my partner is only 30, yet we are more enthralled by Julia Child than Honey BooBoo. There may be someone somewhere who will be amused by my Michael Kitchen impersonation.

  • sarah terlaga

    So glad you guys are talking about this.Just got the “Get a Life” boxset for Christmas, 
    fantastic sitcom from early 90′s starring Chris Elliot.
    The humor was brilliant and completely bizarre, 
    can’t believe the Fox Network let it go on for 
    two seasons!! 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    It’s not all comedy or even intentionally funny, but the Moth presents just people telling stories and many are funnier than the polished acts on TV.

    • Mike_Card

      Edgar Oliver went from unusual to interesting to annoying to unbearable in the space of about 90 seconds.  I won’t listen to Moth if he’s on the program.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

    I may be showing my age, but for taking on the banalities of talk show chatter, I have to go back to “The Sammy Maudlin Show” on SCTV, featuring sidekick William B. Williams, and perennial special guests Bobby (How Are Ya?) Bittman and Lola (I Want to Bear Your Children!) Heatherton.

  • Alisa Bearov Landrum

    I agree that there are parts of this issue that are very exciting culturally, BUT (and it is a big “but”) it also provides a forum for bigotry as comics play to their own audiences…with more limited fora, comics helped us to laugh at ourselves – but now there is much more of an opportunity for laughing exclusively at others.
    In a media sense, this is something of a return to the back room and the good old boys elbowing each other in glee at some bigoted remark that they think is funny but which they would have enough sense not to repeat in a more diverse context.

  • Coastghost

    Yes, Tom Ashbrook, you have succeeded in conflating “humor” with “comedy”. Are they actually identical? Can only television and cable (and internet podcasts) tell us what is actually funny and humorous? only stand-up, only sit-coms, only late night? Please . . . . your Risibility Quotient rises as you take comedy so seriously.

    • 1Brett1

      I hear you…in terms of humor, say, in fiction, essays, and so on…perhaps you could list some interesting uses of humor in modern form, within other idioms such as by fiction writers, essayists, musicians, etc? That would broaden the discussion on this forum if not the already past show. We could go back in history, from Twain, Swift, and so on, to Shakespeare, Beethoven, etc…But whom do you see as carrying that torch into the 21st century? 

      • Coastghost

        To reply to your direct query and TF’s below about where right-wing satire lives: in literature, a conservative domain in terms of longevity, history, and tradition(s). From the 20th century, three that pop to mind: H. H. Munro (Saki), Mikhail Bulgakov, and Flannery O’Connor. Munro was a keen humorist, social satirist, and observer whose talents were not compromised by his professional work as a journalist, and his politics of these three may’ve been the most conservative, to judge from a work like “The Toys of Peace” or “The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat”, not to speak of his enlistment in the British Army at age 44; social conservatism comes through numerous stories, his closeted homosexuality notwithstanding. Bulgakov survived the Russian Revolution not to thrive exactly in the first two decades of the Soviet era, but his explicit sympathies with White (not Red) Russians in the 20s (his novel The White Guard and his corresponding play Days of the Turbins) were appreciated even by Stalin for their integrity, though they marked Bulgakov for the rest of his life and crashed his career as a playwright; but as a writer of science satires (Heart of a Dog and The Fatal Eggs), he has few peers, both titles offering explicit satiric gougings of Bolshevik pieties and pretensions; and his final novel The Master and Margarita I put in a category of its own. O’Connor doesn’t get much credit explicitly as a satirist, but plenty’s to be found in works like “Good Country People” and “The Lame Shall Enter First” (the former hugely comic, the latter deftly tragic); a clear-eyed Southerner, vivified with the staunch and uncomplicated Roman Catholicism that governed what she saw and how she saw it and how she reported it. I no longer read contemporary fiction so I can’t say what the 21st century offers so far: my tastes are going backwards, to De Quincey (quite conservative as a Blackwoods contributor, as Tory as Coleridge became [two marvels that opium wrought]), Machiavelli (few in this country seem to know that he wrote comedies, and Mandragola is every bit as effective as any comedy Shakespeare wrote), Lucian of Samosata (the late master of neo-Attic satire), Juvenal (all of his satires), and Aristophanes.

        • 1Brett1

          Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Coastghost. I found it stimulating. I can say that I’m somewhat familiar with all three writers you mention in the early body of your comment, but I am more familiar with Flannery O’Connor than either Munro or Bulgakov (although I’ve read a bit of Munro; I can’t say I remember reading any Bulgakov, so I must not have read him but simply heard of him). 

          O’Connor, being a southerner, is sort of required reading (in a manner of speaking) in southern literary-social circles. A southerner (which I am) of any literary knowledge would be embarrassed NOT to know her work. Yes, her writing was informed by her Catholicism, and her work explored a lot of ideas using characters (Protestant) who would become transformed in some way toward a more Catholic way of thinking…which I do find flawed artistically, but she WAS an entertaining writer. I think also a lot of her writing had that southern self-consciousness in it, the kind that comes from a perception that the rest of the world belittles a southern intellect for seeming unintelligent (due to the accents, earthy habits, etc.)…I suppose “self-consciousness” isn’t quite the right term, as it was a theme she played with in humorous ways, even mocking those perceived criticisms (and she was educated and intelligent), yet her writing was typical of southerners’ obsessions with the virtues of being southern, as if an “outside” world didn’t understand, therefore this phenomenon invalidated the opinions/views of non-southerners. As much as I hear a lot of southern humorists use this as a device, I also think it’s a bit pandering. It’s easy to win an audience of one’s own kind, as it were, by saying, “those others just don’t understand us; only we have an understanding of our own kind, can have an understanding of our own kind, and can comment on ourselves.”

          I do not agree with your statement, “literature [is] an intrinsically conservative domain in terms of longevity, history, and tradition(s).” For one thing, writing at its best transcends a “left-right” sort of paradigm. Only inferior writers  can be easily put into one category. Even among the so-called conservative writers you mention, their beliefs/views of the world around them informed their work, certainly, as do all artists beliefs/views. It is simplistic, however, to try a pigeonhole approach to characterize these writers, labeling them simply by who they were ideologically. They were good enough to transcend a “camp.” It’s seems a bit cheap to claim a writer as being in this or that camp, and even cheaper as a way to bolster one’s own idea that conservatism claims REAL humor/satire of LASTING value as its own.

          (It IS an interesting bit that Stalin defended Bulgakov, albeit Bulgakov was anti-communist. Even Stalin I suppose could abandon his “camp” enough to recognize good writing as good writing. Thanks for that one; it’s worth repeating.)

          I did notice that your two comments were criticisms of the show, specifically that what was covered today was more in the realm of current Pop culture humor/comedy and not in higher forms of humor in so-called higher forms of art throughout history. 

          Another criticism seemed to be that Tom contained discussion to only these ‘lower’ art forms using humor and comedy. 

          As far as the former, I feel the show would have tackled too broad a topic to bring in a broader discussion of humor throughout history and in literary realms (the show was about how modern comedy is changing the nature of humor/comedy). It seems your objection, as it pertains to this, is reactionary, in the true sense of the word. 

          As far as the latter, based on your replies, ostensibly your criticism pertains more to lack of conservative representation in humor than anything…well, there aren’t really many “conservative comedians” out there these days. People like, say, Greg Gutfeld would not be a “comedian” anyone would wish to hold up as being in his/her “camp;” the man’s just not funny. I doubt anyone would think the few “conservative comedians” there are out there are doing anything to experiment with different forms of humor or changing it in any fundamental ways.  

          Anyway, again, thanks for taking the time to reply, and I did find your comment genuinely stimulating.

          • Coastghost

            And thank you for your incisive and informed views. Of course I continue to insist upon the native conservative nature of literature: literature is inherently conservative just as law is an inherently conservative institution, bound as it is to legal history and legal precedent. Literature is a slow-motion art occurring in real time (as read); what it aims for and what it achieves (in terms here of humor writing and/or satire) is not what performance comedy aims for and achieves: I’m happy for both domains to maintain their respective integrities. Literature also maintains an institutional horizon called “posterity” that performed comedy does not possess: as today’s show taught, currency and contemporaneity are the hallmarks of performed comedy. And yes, laughter, risibility, humor, comedy is all too vast a wealth to be monopolized by anyone: but able, conservative-tempered literary practitioners (I didn’t feel the need earlier to invoke Swift after you had but I might here mention Ambrose Bierce for his stern practice: you’d NEVER hear “Oil of Dog” or “Cargo of Cat” read on NPR, I don’t much think) leave conspicuous marks that address not only the circumstance of comic encounter but which bear directly and deeply upon the nature and quality of us very human animals ourselves, a message televised comedy seems capable of delivering with only glancing blows. I myself am not much upset my devotion to literature entails my repudiation of television: literature’s eyes see more slowly but they see more deeply.

          • 1Brett1

            I agree with many of your points, especially how literature is a longer-lasting form (your “posterity”), in particular compared to the ephemeral quality to today’s performed comedy.

            I still, however, am not buying your “native conservative nature of literature.” Considering your use of the phrase “inherently conservative,” I wonder if there is any confusion on my part? I am considering the definition of “conservative” to be: holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation.

          • Coastghost

            You don’t seem to be confused by my usage, and I don’t think I’m claiming anything too extraordinary. (Granted, I’m taking a long view here.) Language itself is, by my reckoning, equally conservative a convention: we don’t get fresh languages coined once a century just as no set of language users elects to modify or revise drastically their language’s orthography with startling frequency. Dictionaries function as repositories of insight and experience and do the job of linking us users of language not only in our contemporaneity but also in our historical descent from our forebears whose lives were no less human and no less important than any of our own. So one thing I may be protesting is my perception that many of our contemporaries are letting themselves believe that ONLY what is current and contemporary has any viable ontological status: because we’re the human being alive at this moment, we’re the only ones who matter. (This I take to be a myopic view indeed, not the long view I can’t help but see as well and as poorly as I do.) The “conservatism” I speak of is no more of an absolute principle than would be the principles of Progress (if I believed in it or the future, and I disbelieve in both) and even humble Change (which occurs inevitably, no matter how robust the conservatism, but which is no more an absolute principle than is conservatism itself). My concerns as a conservative are with continuity and with cultural preservation, and I like to think I’ve shown on this page that the only conservatism that merits any appeal is a conservatism capable not only of criticism but of self-criticism. Thanks for your contributions to this exchange, Brett.

          • 1Brett1

            Yes, I do appreciate your ostensible trust in evaluating such ideas and  your flexibility to hear and accept the value of differing ideas. 

            I agree about the reliance on the past, especially regarding language/words and the evolutionary process of those   forms of communication. But I would cite the very same institutions (dictionaries, for example) as showing how quickly language evolves over such a short period of time (much to my own dismay and discomfort, at times). 

            I would also cite the art-form of the novel and how much that  changed from, say, the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. If one doesn’t particularly care for literature, say, post mid-19th century, this doesn’t negate it’s importance or invalidate how quickly the form changed or evolved.

          • Coastghost

            Not to belabor unduly, but an afterthought occurs: what I’m treating as inherent or intrinsic conservatism is an act of memory, inasmuch as I see so much of contemporaneity committed to forgetting: I’m sensitive to the pretense that the present is somehow self-substantiating and requires no historical foundation or recognition or appreciation. I’m all for living in the present, mind you, but our present eyes see only the past (this is what astronomy teaches us–most of what we see in the heavens took place a long time ago, our light at this moment is more than eight minutes old): by contrast, the future never arrives, so Progress has to be an illusion. (Now I repeat myself: I don’t see the need to “pursue” change because I am well convinced that change occurs no matter whether we wish it or no: change does not require domestication, that is: some forms of social change even seem impeded by efforts to institutionalize them.) 

          • 1Brett1

            Death in the margins! …Yes I tendto agree with yourassessment of progress.

  • Ashley Hodge

    Awkward Black Girl. It’s fresh and fantastic!

  • Caron Gala

    I think that these comedians are presenting the internal mental and inter-social reality that we are living in.

  • pwparsons

    Amazing that “comedians” seem to be one of the few reliable “Reality” resources, esp. re: politics. I’m also amazed that “A Royal Affair” is in the theaters, extolling the influence of the”Enlightened” “political satirist” Voltaire. We have Mark Twain, etc. etc.–even Charlie Pierce,(Esquire)  locally, etc. What interests me, is that their “speaking truth to power” isn’t acknowledged as EFFECTIVE and challenging to the moribund, compromised, MEDIA establishment.

  • Larry_Grasso

    Your discussion about audience appeal misses an important point.  Yes it’s nice to have variety, and people experimenting and creating humor that appeals to niche audiences.  But with that gain, we’ve lost the shared experience.  We need a balance between individuality and community.  We see it in comedy and we see it in society, in politics.  Every body “gets” their own niche and doesn’t understand anyone else – doesn’t even try to understand anybody else.

    The greater comedian would be one with universal appeal that can also play to a niche audience, probably with different material.  Richard Pryor, for example, could play Johnny Carson with quite different material than he’d use, say, at the Apollo theater.  Will the great niche artists you’ve described ever leave their comfort zones and reach out to a larger audience?  Will they be considered sellouts if they do?

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