Here Lies Stand Up
By Darryl Littleton
Stand Up Comedy is dead! Official cause of death – Coronavirus with Trump complications. After a lengthy illness due to the politically correct sanctions, and despite recent signs of resurgence (thanks to Netflix), Stand Up finally succumbed this past weekend from the prescription of no public gatherings over 10 people. That dose was barely enough for a club staff, much less a show. Not a Stand Up show, anyway. Not a real one.
Social distancing’s now the New World Order. Six feet apart minimum, sending industries scrambling to decipher how to hold crowd events without crowds. Football assured their players that the games would still be played. Just no fans in the stands. Music moved seamlessly into the new format of empty concerts when a worldwide audience experienced the history making performance of DJ Nice. From wealthy dignitaries to those who had no idea how they’d keep food on the table, an entire society was served up the future in the unifying dialogue of beats and sounds.
Stand Up was always the odd one out. Though athletes and musicians feed off the crowd, Stand Up depend on them. Without laughter, what is Stand Up? Riffing material into a camera is performance and in some cases therapy, but the absence of individuals to validate those musings with the requisite reaction diminishes the art to self-indulgent monologuing. Who says what you’re saying is funny – you? That’s akin to the lawyer who represents himself.
Stand Up relies on interaction. The old traditions from Africa of call & response, innuendo, pantomime are all by-products, and by the way Stand Up was the hardest art form of them all because it demanded your instant reaction. Thus making Stand Up more intricate than Painting, Sculpting, Music, Dance and by far Acting. Ever notice that some of the greatest thespians, such as DeNiro, Olivier and Hanks couldn’t credibly pull off playing stand-up comedians, yet stand-up comedians have earned prestigious awards for playing anything but stand-up comedians?
Needless to say, the public will be offered substitutes to fill the void. Some will even resemble Stand Up. For instance, on March 21, 2020 comedian Nate Jackson secured an empty studio and with only 8 hours of promotion did a live pay-per-view comedy show he dubbed “Laughter Lockdown Comedy”. Six people showed up and sat spread apart His pay-per-view take was substantial, but he admitted that the experience of doing the actual show was “weird”. Of course it was. It wasn’t really Stand Up. It was incorporating homosapien metronomes.
Other such altered configurations also popped up that fateful weekend Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank, California had a virtual reality open mic, consisting of comics doing 3-4 minute sets from home (one was even lying in bed) and receiving laughs from the other comics; the ones waiting for the camera to display them. In Virginia, Team Fred charged $10 for a virtual night of comedy with a portion of the proceeds going to their local food bank. While in other parts of the country, individual comedians did virtual sets for Cash-App payments. So money can still be made doing comedy; just not Stand Up.
Or is stream of consciousness in a vacuum the future of what was once Stand Up? In 2018, HBO aired the Jerrod Carmichael directed experimental comedy special written and performed by comedian Drew Michael. A very artsy endeavor that had Michael looking into the camera to express his inner thoughts on a topic before delivering material on said topic while pacing about in a surreal environment. Occasionally a girl would appear in another setting and validate or destroy his ramblings. It was not without merit and definitely a producer’s dream, but it was not Stand Up. It was talking by yourself. Interesting, but without an audience and immediate acceptance or rejection of a punchline – no cigar.
Stand-Up was magical. Its disciples were combination performer, writer, producer, editor and director all in one. Stand Up gave birth to verbal virtuosos and physical phenomenons. Not just an art of ability, but one of endurance. They are a lot of inherently funny people, but few of those had what it took to claim kinship to Stand Up. That required being professionally funny. Make ‘em laugh even when you don’t feel like it. That’s why to prove yourself to Stand Up you had to put in 5-10 years as an apprentice before claiming true Stand Up status.
This is the reason the passing of Stand-Up should be felt like a mule kick to the throat. It produced troopers as well as stylized wordsmiths. Stand Up was about “getting no respect”, “Mudbone”, “She ready”, “The 7 words you can’t say on TV”, “Let me tell you”, “I ain’t scared of you muthaf**kas”, “You may be a redneck if . . . “ “What my name is?”, “Bebe’s Kids”, “Oh, yeah”, “Shuckey Duckey quack, quack”, fright wigs & cigarette holders, tight leather suits, boxy-looking suits, moo moos & false teeth, dashikis, tuxedos, perms, suspenders, sunglasses at night, topless routines, removable hairpieces, stage names, and other assorted peccadilloes.
Stand Up welcomed people with so-called “problems”. A comedian devoid of issues was most times not funny. Stand Up encouraged those soul’s unbridled freedom to say whatever they wanted – let ‘er rip, but also taught the human mindset and the consequences associated with abusing that freedom. The audience subconsciously needed to look down at the jester to feel good about themselves. Just as every joke needs a butt, every person wants their ego stroked and what better way to feel uplifted than to hear the plight of another who is not you? Stand Up was psychology, wit and charm. Nobody ever laughed at anybody they hated. You could offend an audience and win them over with your askew viewpoint, but you could never get them to laugh with you if they loathed your guts. Stand Up gave tough lessons on the difference of each and never stopped teaching.
If you were one of Stand Up’s chosen you could find yourself playing golf during the day and cavorting at night with Presidents. Thanks to Stand Up esteemed award ceremonies were televised for its annual best and brightest. It was Stand Up that introduced the crop of comedy media stars that ruled the landscape since the industry got whiff of those comics having a sizable number of fans.
That world of Stand-Up is now history. A massive loss for fan and apostle alike. Gone are the crowded showrooms of drunken patrons, the rustling of waitresses in the aisles, hecklers and the joy of their comeuppance, boundless ad-libbing, distinct and piercing laughter from hearty patrons, eager groupies, staff with drugs before shows, bartenders with stories and drugs after hours, celebrity sightings and inclusions into the act, over-indulgers getting bounced, and the camaraderie with other comedians that every profession craves for the shared experiences as well as the shop talk which benefit all.
Another thing – Stand Up’s people had their own language that everybody knew and used. Bombing. Hacky. Rule of 3. Punchline. Wrap-it-Up. Two-Drink-Minimum. Heckler. Punching Down. Clapter. Segue. Callback. Let Me Holla Atcha. Crowd Work. Set. Tight 5. Road Smell. A lot of these words and phrases had limited or a different meaning before the existence of Stand Up and others simply didn’t exist.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Stand Up was only 54 when it kicked the bucket. However, there were earlier incarnations prior to their official version. The first time anybody ever heard of Stand Up can be traced back to the 1880s when African-American Vaudevillian, Charley Case went on New York theater stages and did comedy monologues without props or costumes. Case later lost the faith and committed suicide in a hotel room in 1916. Stand Up wasn’t reported being seen again until tapping Will Rogers in the early 1920s Ziegfeld Follies, making him Stand Up’s first white man (even though he was Native-American). Moms Mabley is attributed as being the first Black female Stand Up recognized dating back to 1939 and Phyllis Diller gets credit as the first white female in the 1950s (even though Jean Carroll preceded her, but Carroll started out as a duo with her husband and sang in her solo act. You could do that in the midst of Stand Up, but it was frowned upon).
Stand Up was fickle though; known to change every 5-10 years after becoming bored and seeking out new thrills. That can account for so many Comedy Booms. At first Stand Up favored joke tellers then it was self-confessional comedians, then the observational, the urban, Latin, Middle Eastern, female . . . transgender . . . well, it was going in that direction right before the end.
Internet Comedy, Stand Up’s upstart younger cousin can now be fully cooked and being laid upon the entertainment table of the masses. However, don’t be hoodwinked by the similarities. They’re related in last name only. Whereas, those in the Internet Comedy camp require the basic skill set of an average Stand Up faithful, the Internetters get to execute their craft with a safety net. No obstacles. So no need for nervous jitters. No pressure. Just blurt out in front of a lens and leave assuming it was funny. Compared to Stand Up, it’s the difference between solitaire and a high stakes poker game.
I once had a discussion with legendary Stand Up disciple, Marsha Warfield and she held the position that anyone could be a comedian. I argued that one needed to have reached a level of proficiency to claim that coveted title. No, she said – nobody can tell a person when they can or cannot be a comic. Well, with the way comedy is now being presented, where “comedians” are virtually masturbating to the sound of their own voice, pretty much manufacturing a generation of talking heads devoid of non-button hitting verification, her stance is not invalid. We’ll accept gaps of humor from Radio personalities, but not Stand Up’s performers. Get a laugh every 10-15 seconds or get off the stage. Well, when the stage is now your living room don’t be surprised at the number of mic hogs cultivated. So to Marsha Warfield, I concede the point. She was right. Anybody can be a comedian, but not a Stand-Up comedian.
Of course Comedy will live on; mortals need laughter to cope, but Stand Up will become a distant memory soon, just as the organ grinder and monkey, silent slapstick flicks and minstrels if we let it. Stand Up needs to be celebrated, not mourned. The way Rock N Roll and Jazz have remained in public life long past their heyday, Stand Up should constantly be acknowledged and appreciated for all it’s done for us. The way we viewed each passing chapter of our existence was often shaped by Stand Up comedians. We got smacked in the face with harsh realities thrust at us with fearless brilliance and searing purity.
Naturally, veteran comedians following Stand Up are scared at the reality of the demise. What will they do now? How will they survive without Stand Up? Well, I’m gonna miss Stand Up too, but this is the moment to reap the harvest left to us and show that the Stand-Up time was not spent in vain. True artists swim upstream and if the remaining practitioners of Stand Up don’t want to envision an old timers revival circuit, similar to Doo Wop or Funk materializing – they need to get with the times and create a lane for themselves on this uncharted superhighway. Stand Up may effectively be dead. That doesn’t mean those left behind have to take dirt naps. In a pool of talent so vast, innovation will prevail. The tenacious of the flock will move forward in an era no longer shining the bright limelight upon them. They’ll produce a new offspring for Comedy and in turn morph into a superior embodiment of themselves, or follow the advice laid out in Robert Townsend’s debut film, Hollywood Shuffle and get a job. The post office is always hiring.
Then there are those of you right now sitting back, waiting for Stand Up’s resurrection. That would be nice, but my desire is a bit more realistic. I’d love to have a drink and give a toast to Stand Up with each and every being who ever saw, heard or touched Stand Up on the planet Earth, but that would obviously violate the personal distance laws. So let me take the liberty and speak for all of us when I say to Stand Up – Thanks for the memories and enjoy your salad.