Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

How does stand-up comedy hold up to repeated listenings? An over-analysis spurred by watching too many YouTube clips.

A while ago I was watching two stand-up comedy DVDs: The Comedians of Comedy and Brian Regan: The Epitome of Hyperbole, because Patton Oswalt and Brian Regan are two of the funniest living humans. What was interesting — where the laughter stopped, you could say — was that in the interviews and special features, they seemed to have differing opinions about how stand-up works. It seemed like a good opportunity to over-analyze it until I’ve drained all the humor out of it.

In the interviews with Oswalt, he says that the idea behind the Comedians of Comedy tour was to treat a stand-up tour like a music tour: they’d get groupies! Fans would want to follow their favorite comics from venue to venue and see how the performances change as the tour progresses!

In the opposing corner: Regan’s DVD has an encore where he admits he’s used up all his material, but he’ll take requests anyway. The audience would yell out their favorite bits, and he’d do them, but he acted like he was baffled by the whole thing: “Isn’t comedy supposed to have some element of surprise?”

It seemed weird, because I’d have expected them to be the exact opposite. Patton Oswalt’s stuff is absolutely brilliant and will have me in tears, and I’ll buy anything he puts out without a moment’s hesitation. But I’m not buying it for replay value; I’m really just paying the guy so he can keep making more concert CDs. I’m only going to listen to it once, because his routine’s mostly about the material. That’s not an insult — you can tell he’s put a ton of work into getting the delivery perfect, and when he starts in on his bit about Robert Evans’ autobiography [NSFW, in case you haven’t heard it], it’s brilliant. But still, the big draw is wondering what he’s going to come up with next.

Brian Regan, on the other hand: he’s all about the delivery. His bit about monster truck drivers is as old as the mullet, and I’ve seen it at least forty thousand times, but it just never stops being funny.

(Also, the bit about evil Flipper, around 2:20 in that clip).

I’m not saying one’s better than the other, just that I’d always assumed that stand-up worked like Regan says in his encore: after you’ve heard it once, you’re done. I always thought the point of stand-up was to keep up the illusion that you’re just a naturally funny storyteller coming up with all this material on the spot. I kind of thought that was the reason so many comedy clubs are called “Improv.” Even though all of us survived the proliferation of stand-ups and comedy channels and HBO specials and comedy festivals and movies in the late 90s, and we know that’s not how it really works, it’s still more fun to pretend.

Earlier, I confessed to being in the middle of a fixation on “The Mighty Boosh,” and I wasn’t kidding: I really have been scouring YouTube for earlier live performances*. The guys have been working on their act for over a decade now, and you can see some of the same material getting reused and reworked from a live act to stand-up to a radio show and the TV show. (And then, I’m assuming, the most recent live show that I didn’t see). The interesting thing is that you can see a gag evolving: they shed the bits that don’t work and cram all the good stuff together into rapid-fire stretches of dialogue that still feel spontaneous instead of rehearsed. Appropriately, it’s a little like jazz: improvising familiar material.

When the RiffTrax gang came through San Francisco, I saw the same show on back-to-back nights, and you could tell how the guys changed the show — not dramatically, since there wasn’t enough time — based on what worked and didn’t from the previous night. They’d tighten up the delivery on some lines, drop other ones altogether, or make a bigger presentation of the gags that were a big hit.

I still don’t think I’d follow a comic around on tour: I’ve seen a Comedians of Comedy live show in San Francisco, and having drunk comedy fans shouting out requests and going “whooo!” before the punchline does kind of kill the atmosphere. But I do have a new respect for how much work goes into a routine, and how hard it must be to make it look like you’re making it up as you go along.

* Another thing I learned from scouring YouTube: I’d recommend it to anyone who might be discouraged by globalism, or the homogenization of culture, or the feeling that people are disappointingly similar everywhere and there’s no real sense of the exotic anymore. Because the whole culture around British celebrity, chat shows, fandom, and tabloids is just batshit insane. We’ve got all the nonsense about Lindsay Lohan or Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie’s baby or whatever the current fascination is, but the UK just takes it to a whole nother level. Is it a side effect of taking all the normal lunacy around celebrity and cramming it all into one major metropolitan area? I’ll watch some of those shows and it’s the most relentlessly foreign thing I’ve ever seen, even on VH1 reality shows.