Really more of a one-woman show…

Really more of a one-woman show…

I’m certainly no expert in the field of stand-up comedy, but I’ve been a fan since I was a little kid sneaking viewings of “An Evening at The Improv” on late night cable television. I certainly listen to enough podcasts hosted by stand-ups—from interview shows to “hanging out with some friends” approaches to straight up “the history of stand-up” expos.

That said, I was only indirectly aware of what I’m told was a fairly common response to Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, hearing a lot of my favorite stand-ups puzzle about others’ negative reactions, and other’s gate-keeping of the definition of “stand-up.” They—the standups with which I was familiar—would summarize the reactionary views with quips like, “well, that wasn’t really stand-up… it wasn’t even really comedy—I mean it was good, but it wasn’t what I call stand-up comedy.” It seemed that most of the people I liked either arrived at the conclusion that it wasn’t important to strictly categorize the performance, or that we could take Ms. Gadsby at her word and consider if stand up comedy, as that’s what she called it.

Then last week I heard two things on two different podcasts that sparked a thought. In one podcast I heard two male 40-something stand-ups make a quick “it was great, but it was more of a one-man show” summary of Nanette. It surprised me. These were two guys that I would never have suspected would hold an opinion like that, let alone not think twice about saying it out loud on a podcast. One of the two was someone whose bread and butter is a podcast on which he talks mostly about feelings, folks’ life stories, spirituality, and the like. He admits to preaching quite a bit on his show. I doubt he’d call his podcast “stand-up,” but it was still striking to me that someone who makes a living occasionally saying something funny on his spirituality podcast would think it important to call Nanette “not stand-up, strictly speaking.” This is a guy who has spoken, repeatedly, about trying to broaden the horizons of what he does discuss on stage, desiring to spread more of his spiritual messages via that medium, and being disappointed that he hasn’t found a way to do so. He is quick to say it’s hard and maybe even impossible because the audience gets too uncomfortable.

And then this same guy sums up his opposition to Nanette: “Comedy is binary. They’re laughing or they’re not, and if they’re not you’re failing.”

The other 40-something male stand-up quickly agreed.

I don’t.

For the record, I’m 43, white, male, cis-gendered, and straight.

Binary? They’re laughing or they’re not? There’s so much great comedy that doesn’t fit in this tiny two-room (on/off, failing/killing) box. Andy Kaufman, for instance, played with that very mechanism and tried not to make people laugh. He did so in order to make them eventually laugh, sure, but I don’t think he was failing up until the moment people laughed.

What about Lenny Bruce? Richard Pryor? George Carlin? Eddie Izzard, Bill Hicks, and, while we’re at it, Hannah Gadsby? All of them pressed (or continued pressing) up against the edges of comedy. Each of them has moments wherein they’re not being funny, but they’re saying something meaningful, telling stories or drawing your attention to something you’d missed or been intentionally overlooking. Did they all stop being stand-up comedians for that part of their set? Or is stand-up, perhaps, more than just a transactional, "binary" action of setup, punchline, repeat?

It strikes me as such a masculine perspective, calling it a binary. I’m a guy. I don’t mean masculine as an insult (and I’m using the word "masculine" rather than manly because I think it’s a trait that is shared by lots of people to varying degrees, regardless of their possession of a Y chromosome). Single-minded. Focused. Unambiguous. There’s a time and a place for that. I think there’s a time and a place for that kind of comedy, too. But to say that’s the only way to do things is missing the majority of the spectrum of what comedy can be.

Any good cook, baker, bartender, or perfumer will tell you that you can’t just hit the sweet notes alone. If you want something with real, complex flavors, you have to play with it all—the sour, the bitter, the bracing, the downright dank (did you know that there’s literally a shit smell in many sweet-smelling perfumes, to give contrast, just as I’m describing, that makes the sweet smell stand out in a more sophisticated/complex way?). How often do you see someone just shredding away on an electric guitar all alone and enjoy it? But when you mix in the bass, the drums, the rhythm guitar, maybe some keyboards, and, you know, a cowbell…

The more feminine approach is not transactional, not binary, but collaborative. I don’t mean that Nanette is an improv sports event wherein the audience members literally participate, shouting out awkward Madlibs responses, but collaborative in that Gadsby takes you through the whole journey that landed her at the punchline. She doesn’t just tell the joke, as though she pulled it from the ether. She lets you in to see the pain from which it came. One of the most memorable moments from the show is literally her breaking down one of her own jokes and talking about how she had to outright lie to you in order to make it funny, and then deconstructs it so that it’s not funny anymore, and then reconstructs it again so it is. It’s not a transaction, it’s a shared experience.

The other thing I heard last week gave me hope. On another podcast I heard two civilians (non-comedians) discussing a recent John Mulaney show one had seen. This podcaster felt the need to qualify the show with “it went in and out of being something like a one-man show, but it was good!” If Mulaney is dipping his toe in this "story-telling," "one-man show," "in and out of stand-up" format, with as much mainstream appeal as he has, I imgagine it’s either already become more accepted among stand-ups, or he’s doing his part to normalize it. I found it particularly interesting that Mulaney was participating in this phenomenon because he’s good friends with the 40-something comedian from the other podcast I was talking about. Perhaps if more 40-something white guys will step up to the challenge (I see you, Neil Brennan, and your three mics!) of being vulnerable, open, and talking about some of the other emotions they’re capable of on stage, while still making us laugh, comedy might grow into something bigger, more inclusive, richer, and more relatable. Perhaps more feminine perspectives will be welcomed, rather than corralled and dismissed.

Perhaps stand-up comedy (and comedians) can grow up and stop arguing about whether or not Hannah Gadsby can be in the club, and instead invite comedians to be whole people who might have more to say than "amirite?"

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