The Standup Special Returns to Its Roots

Shortly after standup comedy burst free from the confines of Borscht Belt theaters and metropolitan nightclubs, cable television began its successful infiltration of the American living room, and the marriage between the evolving art and the expanding medium soon spawned a wholly new creation: the standup special. Many of these early performances were filmed on college campuses (Robert Klein at Haverford College, 1975; George Carlin at USC, 1977), evidence of the craft’s rapid transformation of character. Once relegated to a few shadowy corners of nightlife and the counterculture, standup had, by the mid-1970s, established itself unequivocally within the cultural firmament of the young, the intellectual, and the hip.

The airing of standup comedy on cable – most prominently on the nascent HBO network – was a happy development for audiences and performers alike. Comics no longer had to temper their material for broadcast network censors or hack it down to fit a five-minute spot on late-night television. For those unfortunate souls living a thousand miles from The Improv or The Comedy Store, there was now easy and intimate access to hour-long, unfiltered sets by the world’s most elite comedians. Although Carlin had already debuted his bit about “filthy words” on Class Clown, in 1978 he elaborated on that material in his second HBO special, and the performance doubtless shattered more than a few calcified suburban psyches that would have never actively sought out that content at the local mall. A venomous dose of irony now infused the bit’s original title: “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.”

The following year Richard Pryor released Live in Concert, the first standup comedy feature film. The art and the medium had reached their apogees. Filmed at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, Live in Concert maintains a graceful aesthetic that is at once functional and complementary to the performance on stage. As Pryor prowls and gesticulates and howls, the filmmakers, with great skill and intimacy, capture every feverish spasm of his unmatched physicality, every tortured crease of his uniquely contorted face.

Then came the bloated years of the 1980s. In a decade in which almost every corner of American culture seemed diseased by excess, standup was no exception. The rogues and flamethrowers of the ‘70s had ignited a comedy boom, and from coast to coast an infestation of comedy clubs sprung up in strip malls, bowling alleys, and failing discos. The disease also spread to television. Several shows like An Evening at The Improv and HBO’s Annual Young Comedian Special exposed national audiences to some good and great comics, and overexposed them to a lot of indistinguishably poor ones. At The Improv, the birthplace of modern standup, a sign was eventually installed on the now iconic brick-wall: Over 1 Billion jokes told. Standup comedy had been franchised, deep fried, and served up as fast food.

Some historians believe that a period of extreme decadence often catalyzes a culture’s swift collapse. To me that theory always seemed to fall on the side of selective Puritanical moralizing, but one piece of evidence possibly in its favor is Eddie Murphy’s 1987 standup special, Raw. While the actual performance itself is praise-worthy, the spirit of the endeavor is unapologetically gluttonous. Murphy arrives at Madison Square Garden in a limo (its vanity plate, of course, bears the the self-promotional letters “RAW”) before strutting into the complex accompanied by an entourage of friends, handlers, and security. Decked out in a skin-tight purple suit and leather gloves, he could pass as a courtier at the Palace of Versailles.

To what degree, if any, this sort of decadence contributed to the standup depression of the ‘90s is anyone’s guess. But it surely offers a clear illustration of just how much the culture of standup had become divorced from its modern roots. Comics were now rock stars, and the most successful ones had transformed into arena-busting superstars. A lot of the old intimacy had evaporated, and a gaping social chasm had opened up between audience and performer. (The great critic Lester Bangs bemoaned the rock and roll “superstar” trend of the early ‘70s, lambasting it as a “subspecies of the virus…which infests ‘our’ culture from popstars to politics.”)

When the boom curdled into a bust, many of the makeshift comedy clubs that had sprouted up just as swiftly closed down or returned to their original function, and standups were removed from their pre-eminent cultural perch. Specials continued to be aired steadily on cable, the majority finding a home on Comedy Central. Many were respectable efforts; few were remarkable. Often this had less to do with the talent of the comedian than with the inherent constraints of the format. An art as immediate, irreverent, complex, and intimate as standup can’t help but suffer from the myriad limitations imposed upon it in by corporate media interests. As a result, many feel more than a little static when compared to the sensation of actually being at a show; the mere presence of commercial interruptions every seven minutes or ham-handed cut-aways to guffawing audience members is enough to extinguish a sizeable portion of a good set’s vitality.

And this, more or less, has been the general state of standup specials – until recently. Part of the reason we are currently experiencing another golden age in comedy is because technological innovation has wrested a large measure of control and agency away from industry suits, back into the hands of actual artists. And a result of this is that the standup special, once one of the more anemic comedic endeavors, has received a revitalizing shot of adrenaline.

There is now an exciting, invigorating trend of talented comics putting their resources into specials that are personal and intimate, and more reflective of the performer’s persona and professional odyssey. Nowhere has this been on more naked display than with Louis C.K.’s most recent special, released last week, entitled Live At The Comedy Store. The day of the project’s release, the comic composed a long and heartfelt email explaining why, even after a wildly successful string of dates at Madison Square Garden – an accomplishment that certainly has him breathing rarified air – he chose to put out a performance at the vastly smaller Comedy Store, one of the country’s great surviving comedy clubs, as his latest special.

“Nightclubs, comedy clubs, is where comedy is born and where comedy, standup comedy, truly lives,” he wrote in the over-caffeinated, under-edited style that has become a trademark of his missives to fans. “Going back to Abraham Lincoln, who was probably America’s first comedian, Americans have enjoyed gathering at night in small packed (and once smokey) rooms, drinking themselves a bit numb and listening to each other say wicked, crazy, silly, wrongful, delightful, upside-down, careless, offensive, disgusting, whimsical things.”

Other notable comics, like Sarah Silverman and Marc Maron, have also recently filmed specials in venues that house audiences much smaller than either artist would typically draw. And in the past year both Todd Barry and Dave Attell have each released outstanding, innovative projects highlighting their unique comedic voices and skill-sets.

The Crowd Work Tour features Barry doing a series of west coast dates without any prepared material, simply relying on his ability to build a show around spontaneous interactions with the audience. A lot of comics riff with the crowd; few do it as masterfully as Barry, and fewer still would have the guts to hinge an entire filmed tour on it. In other hands, this sort of thing could quickly devolve into a merely amusing gimmick. But with Crowd Work we are being offered a window into a highly specific personal style, well honed over more than two decades of shows.

Attell’s Road Work gives us precious insight into another often obscured facet of the comedic profession: the sweaty, dirty, boozy, raucous gigs that club comics fight out on stage for most of their careers. “I don’t do theater shows, really,” Attell has said. “I’m a club comic. I’m a bar guy. And I wanted to kind of do the special the way I do my shows.” Built out of appearances at five different comedy clubs around the country, the performance is a blistering reminder of the craft’s crude, savage origins and possibilities.

It’s not a total surprise that both of these specials contain the word work in their titles. Lately it seems that one idea animating many of the best specials is to refrain from delivering a totally pristine and polished product, and instead give audiences a small taste of the punishing, humiliating labor that went into building the acts. In his email, Louis C.K. described some of the nation’s legendary comedy rooms, where “you can still smell the cigarette smoke exhaled by Bill Hicks” and where one good week could give a comic “the will to do this shit for another few months.” Fortunately for us, through this new wave of specials, we’re starting to smell Bill Hicks’ cigarette smoke too.

The Standup Special Returns to Its Roots