In the hierarchy of artistic endeavors comedy occupies a hazy, confused space. The enthusiasm comedians are capable of generating among the general public is considerable but often fleeting; they seem unjustly deficient at inspiring the kind of long term devotion more commonly reserved for their peers in music and film. It was precisely this frustrating divide that drove Patton Oswalt to launch his Comedians of Comedy tour in 2004, a string of stand-up dates that circumvented the two-drink minimum drudgery of conventional comedy clubs in favor of smaller, hipper venues. “These are the kind of people that will support indie rock bands — for twenty years they’ll follow a band,” said Oswalt of the largely untapped fan base of younger, more enthusiastic audiences he was seeking out. “Very few people follow comedians and how they develop. It can be just as enriching and infuriating and fun.” Put simply, when it came to comedy, most people just weren’t all that invested.
Things have changed considerably in the time since The Comedians of Comedy helped forge the market for comedy nerds, but years before that demographic began edging toward the mainstream Jay Ruttenberg was already the kind of devotee that Patton Oswalt was hoping to create. By day the 25 year-old Ruttenberg worked as a New York City music critic, but by night he skulked along the streets of Manhattan dreaming up an outlet for his less exercised passion for comedy. Observing there was “a general dearth of writing about comedy, especially when compared with the fawning reporting on other corners of entertainment — most egregiously mainstream indie-rock,” Ruttenberg set about cobbling together a zine for likeminded enthusiasts. Not only would the publication attempt to improve upon the sorry state of comedy journalism, but it would also seek to hit back at a certain type of uptight, curmudgeonly newspaper reviewer — those crusty old men who exited Chris Farley movies shaking their heads in disgust and muttering about the decline of civilization. Launched in 2001, The Lowbrow Reader was both a labor of love and an act of protest.
Selections from the eight issues released between 2001 and 2010 have now been collected in a single volume, The Lowbrow Reader Reader, published by influential indie rock label Drag City and released today. From various disparate corners of the artistic universe Ruttenberg assembled a small stable of contributors to pay tribute to the comedic figures and sensibilities that mainstream publications habitually dismissed or ignored. Amidst the roughly 300 pages one can find some rare and unexpected gems: A short story by prolific New Yorker writer Gilbert Rogin, his first published work after a notorious three decade hiatus; insightful meditations by Royal Trux guitarist Neil Hagerty on the performance styles of Lou Reed and Don Knotts; and small humor pieces by the likes of Rob Huebel and Patton Oswalt. When entertainment journalist Margeaux Rawson was assigned to interview the Queens of Comedy about sex for Glamour she returned with a transcript so downright and hilariously filthy that the magazine refused to publish it. Lowbrow gleefully scooped it up.
Anchoring the entire enterprise are the writings of Ruttenberg himself. With the Lowbrow Reader its editor seemed determined not just to shine a brighter light on comedy but also to offer some relief from the snarky detachment endemic to other branches of entertainment journalism. Instead Ruttenberg provides fine, thoughtful prose that read like heartfelt love letters. An ode to Don Rickles observes that he “delivers his slurs so lovingly, they seem like compliments. When he dies, the comic will be halted at the gates of heaven by awed gods, eagerly waiting their insults.”
The centerpiece of the anthology, an exhaustive article about Billy Madison, is impressive in its scope. In fact, it was the virtually unanimous contempt that established film critics held for Billy Madison, a movie sacred to Ruttenberg, that served as the impetus for the zine’s creation. In researching the piece Ruttenberg sat down with the film’s director, Tamra Davis, and explored in depth the talent and brains behind the so-called lowbrow sensibilities at which most critics scoffed.
As an anthology The Lowbrow Reader Reader is an impressive and eclectic collection of comedy writing. Beyond that, as a document, it’s an interesting window into the enormous changes comedy consumption has undergone in the past decade since the journal debuted. Due in large part to innovations like YouTube and podcasts, the army of passionate comedy devotees that Ruttenberg spoke for and Oswalt sought after is now much larger and more conspicuous. Comedians are finally finding their people. Writers are giving comedy more careful critical consideration. But now as different skirmishes break out, such as arguments pitting alternative comedy versus club comedy or sketch versus stand-up, it’s useful to keep Ruttenberg’s outlook in mind. There’s an important place for everything in comedy. Even the stupid and the lowbrow.