Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
When Marc Maron took on Carlos Mencia in a two-part WTF episode documented recently in these here pages, it was a profound professional mismatch. One of the most hated, least respected names in comedy was going up against one of the most respected names in the business. The sum of comedy, as well as pop culture, was like Michael Jackson in the ubiquitous Gif of the King of Pop chomping popcorn in music video for Thriller, waiting with baited breath and feverish anticipation for what promised to be, and proved to be, one of the all-time great dust-ups in podcasting and comedy.
Comedian and Comedy And Everything Else podcaster Jimmy Dore pursued a similarly confrontational, even combative approach when he turned his attention to standup comedians Kyle Cease and Louie Anderson’s controversial Stand-Up Boot Camp courses. This time, however, the combatants were more evenly matched. Dore is a well-respected veteran and while the Stand-Up Comedy Boot Camp was widely maligned in comedy circles, Cease himself seems to be a reasonably well-liked, earnest, and sincere comedian and someone eminently qualified to stand up for himself and his project when questioned sharply about it for three to five hours over the course of three episodes of Comedy And Everything Else.
Dore posits the Stand-Up Boot Camp as a divisive and much-maligned hot topic in the standup world worth exploring, but it’s also clear from the outset that Dore thinks it’s a sham, a cynical ruse to trick a bunch of deluded Rupert Pupkin types into thinking that if they shell over $3,000 and attend some courses, they’ll be million-dollar headliners in no time.
Cease is in a bit of an impossible situation here. If he runs through his resume and qualifications to teach a class like this, as he does here, he risks looking like a calculating, arrogant careerist bragging unbecomingly about his accomplishments. But if he doesn’t do that, then he risks coming off as a fraud passing himself off as an extremely successful comedian and authority on the craft of comedy without the credentials to back him up. To make things simultaneously more and less tense, Cease repeatedly professes to be a big fan of Dore (as well as Doug Stanhope, who eviscerated Cease’s brainchild in the blog on his own website), although that admiration is decidedly one-sided.
At the heart of this emotionally charged conversation is a fundamental disagreement about the nature of standup comedy. Dore, like any good standup purist, believes that standup comedy is an art form rooted in suffering. Cease doesn’t disagree with him on that point. He makes it clear, almost to the point of overkill, that he deeply respects the art and craft of standup, and its masters, including Dore. But Cease also clearly believes that in addition to being an art form rooted in suffering and personal expression, standup is a marketable skill that can be honed and refined by the right teachers.
To a guy like Dore, the idea of standup as a marketable skill that can be taught in a classroom in exchange for a not insubstantial amount of money borders on heresy. Listening to the podcasts, I sensed that Dore understandably was insulted and disgusted by the idea that someone could take a green open mic comedian and, over the course of a $3,000 intensive course, give him or her the skills he or she would need to confidently open for Louie Anderson in Las Vegas.
In his mind, and the minds of many of his colleagues, there is no such thing as a standup comedy shortcut. You don’t take a quick course, get some killer pointers, and start booking headlining gigs. No, you go to way too many open mics and bomb so often that you want to kill yourself. You drink too much and you spend far too many weird, gross nights in comedy condos. You have a nervous breakdown, your manager fires you, you fire your agent, you go to rehab, you go to yoga, you get a pilot but it never gets picked up, you lose everything, you end up sleeping on your parents’ couch, and then, at the very end of a long, exhausting and punishing road, you’ve finally got something worthwhile to talk about, a sharp point of view and something to say. The idea that you can skip all these steps by learning how to better project your voice or communicate more effectively with comedy bookers is deeply offensive to this way of thinking.
Cease doesn’t exactly help his case by throwing around obnoxious buzzwords, or by gushing about the results of the course, and his own commitment to standup, in screamingly hyperbolic terms that almost make it sound like Cease is running the camp as a charity or a philanthropic endeavor. There’s no sin in trying to make money in a capitalist society but Cease tries to present his business as something much more than a business, and that’s where he runs into trouble.
Cease is a salesman and a small businessman, and a big believer in the power of positive thinking. He’s also overwhelmingly sincere and earnest, and that makes him an irresistible target for mockery. Dore frets aloud more than once that he’s worried his colleagues will give him shit for going too easy on Cease and the Stand-up Boot Camp, but that’s because Dore asks a series of questions that collectively amount to, “Don’t you feel guilty ripping off rubes and wannabes with your bullshit, over-priced rip-off of a class? How do you sleep at night? How can you live with yourself?” without uttering those exact words directly to Cease.
Cease proves an exceedingly patient and even-tempered evangelist/pitchman for his class and his particular conception of comedy. Yet there are moments throughout when it’s clear that the stress of having to constantly defend himself against harsh criticisms is wearing on him. Cease makes some strong arguments on his behalf, like comparing the classes that he’s teaching with partner Anderson to the more or less universally accepted and respected comedy courses offered by Second City and the Upright Citizen’s Brigade.
No one thinks Amy Poehler is a fraud and a money-grubbing louse because the Upright Citizen’s Brigade offers classes in improvisation, yet Cease and his program wrestle with a terrible stigma. Part of that stigma is attributable to the widespread conception that much of what the class is ultimately selling is access, and that dangling the carrot that Seattle’s forty-seventh funniest open mic comedian can, or will open for Anderson or Cease himself is not too dissimilar from the payola scandals that rocked rock radio back in the day. You’re paying for access and positioning as much as you’re paying to learn skills.
In his bid to be fair, and to showcase both sides of the story, Dore himself went to Stand-Up Boot Camp, albeit several days in, so he got to experience part of the magic himself, if nowhere near all of it. In a weird move, however, Dore shares his thoughts on the experience partially in the third episode featuring Cease, but also partially in the previous episode, which didn’t feature Cease at all.
Dore goes through the Stand-Up Comedy Boot Camp’s eminently mockable, and exceedingly mocked commercial on YouTube (in no small part because it literally offers to teach students, “out of the box marketing strategies you can’t learn anywhere else”) and diligently critiques the clip on a point-by-point basis. In his defense, Cease frequently lapses into the touchy-feely, jargon-rich vernacular of self-help and self-improvement and fuzzy cults and unusual, sometimes criminal, spiritual paths.
At one point, Dore tells Cease that he could spare himself a lot of vitriolic criticism simply by taking the word “standup” out of the school’s name and positing his class as self-help or motivational speaking instead of something explicitly rooted in standup comedy. Cease seems to have taken Dore’s advice to heart.
Today, if you look at the “about” section of Cease’s website there is not a single reference to Stand-Up Boot Camp. Oh, and Cease isn’t calling himself a comedian anymore. On the same segment of his website he’s referred to as “a keynote speaker” dedicated to “transforming audiences through his unique blend of comedy and transformation.”
When you look up “Stand-Up Boot Camp” on Youtube today, the unintentionally hilarious original commercial for it comes up, but only after a scathing parody featuring a number of prominent comedians, including one Jimmy Dore. So it seems safe to assume that even after talking to Cease for five hours and visiting his class, he’s still very far from seeing Cease’s point of view on a controversy that accidentally says an awful lot about how we see standup comedy and the people who present themselves as authorities on it. It appears that with Dore at least, no transformation in thinking occurred, but he sure got some compelling, if exceedingly insider-baseball-y podcasts out of the experience.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.