Many years ago (I think it was probably in the late 1980s), I went to see a comedian named John Fox. He was the headliner. He came out, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Two firemen are in a smoked filled room butt fucking”. This led rapidly to the punchline. For his entire set, he did a rapid-fire set of unrelated jokes. The jokes were so quick and risque that he had the crowd in stitches.
About ten years later, I just happened to see that he was touring and was stopping off in Seattle. Remembering how much I enjoyed him, I decide to see him again. He walks out onto the stage and the first words out of his mouth were, “Two firemen are in a smoked filled room butt fucking”. It was ten years later and his act was, word for word, identical.
Going to see Anthony Jeselnik this week got me thinking a bit. As I previously wrote, he is, despite his extremely dark humor, actually a conventional joke teller. His act is not personal. I learned nothing about Jeselnik by listening to his act. For all I know, he could have a staff of crack writers that grind out the jokes that he delivers.
This is counter to the current trend of comedy. Comedians today generally are much more personal. They delve into their psyche and their personal lives and use what they discover there as the subject matter of their humor. I listen to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast pretty regularly. He is definitely one of the reigning senior spokesmen for the current state of comedy. He’ll talk to fellow comedians and he’ll occasionally reference some other comedian and say that he/she tells jokes. Although he tries to be impartial, it’s pretty clear that he kind of holds them in some disdain. Such comedians that simply tell jokes are, in his eyes, children of a lesser comedic god.
The deeply personal comedic perspective is a tradition that goes back 50 or more years. Before that, comedians told jokes. In fact that was their job. It was to tell jokes. It was not their job to write jokes. There’s a famous book named the Joe Miller joke book. Joe Miller was an 18th century British actor. Shortly after his death, a joke book was published in his name. It consisted of 247 jokes. Over the years the book was revised and new jokes were added.
By the time that vaudeville and then later the Catskills Borscht Belt were going on, there were comedians still making use of those same jokes from the Miller book. There were comedians who were successful for decades and never changed their act. In fact, I might have my facts screwed up here, but I believe that one of the great vaudeville comedians, Eddie Cantor, was in real life pretty much incapable of natural humor.
Clearly, the reason why they were able to do it was because there was extremely limited recording taking place then. Most people would only occasionally go to comedy shows, so the fact that large numbers of comedians were using essentially the same material was not a big deal. Comedians regularly stole successful bits from each other. It was known and just accepted.
Things started to change in the age of television and radio. Suddenly, a comedian could reach millions of people with one show. A comedian could go on the Ed Sullivan show and do some piece of his act. Well, when he went out on the road again, many people in his audience would have seen his act and wouldn’t want to see it again. Unlike singing, comedy does not improve with repetition. People who had been touring for decades were effectively driven out of the business, unable to come up with new material.
Desperate for new material, joke stealing became a real issue. Someone could go on a national show with stolen material and would ruin that material not only for him/herself but also for the comedian that originated it. Milton Berle, Mr Television himself, was an infamous joke thief.
Some famous comedians hired a team of writers to generate new content constantly. However, it was a losing battle. Every new joke that came out could be instantly stolen.
Some comedians started trying a different approach. Led by so-called coffee house comedians like Mort Sahl and yes, Lenny Bruce, instead of just telling jokes, they began to tell stories. These weren’t generic let me tell you about my wife kind of stories. These were deeply personal experiences that were clearly unique to them.
By telling such personal stories, they were inoculating themselves from thieves. The stories just wouldn’t make sense to be told by other comedians with obviously different life experiences. Not only that, but the personal nature also changed the delivery of the act. Instead of a rapid fire set of gags, the comedy act became more thoughtful. This more thoughtful style was so foreign to the more typical joke thief that even if they tried to steal it, they’d just look silly trying to imitate it.
Lo and behold, the audience grew to appreciate this kind of humor. It effectively made a tighter emotional bond between the comedian and the audience. It created a depth to the comedy that was previously missing. From the coffee house, it expanded outward and eventually became the de facto technique for most future comedians.
However, think now of the stress that is placed on modern comedians. Many comedians have Netflix deals. Some comedians have a contract to release a new special every year or so. This places tremendous pressure upon them. Every year, the comedian has to delve deeply into his/her past or psyche and come up with another hour of comedy. I can’t even imagine the difficulty that goes into doing that.
Tig Notaro’s show about her fight with cancer and Patton Oswalt’s show about the death of his wife are now rightly considered landmark comedy. Today, if you look back on youTube at the giants of comedy from the vaudeville or early radio/TV days, you’ll find yourself amazed at the difference in sophistication between the comedy of today and comedy then. It has quite literally morphed into a different form of art.
And to think that to a large extent that this transpired because someone was trying to keep fellow comedians from stealing their jokes.