How The Internet Ruined Stand Up Comedy
I’ll admit the the headline “How The Internet Ruined Stand Up Comedy” was meant to be provocative and help grab some traffic. Of course nothing can “ruin” stand up comedy, not even COVID-19. The Internet definitely hurst stand up comedy in a big way and I’ll explain how and why.
When I was a kid I attended a magic clinic given by the sleight of hand artist, Al Baker. He defined for me the difference between a profession and an amateur. A professional, he said, performs well tested and refined material for a new audience, while an amateur constantly needs to perform new material for the same audience.While not an absolute, there is a mountain of truth in that view.
I have been a connoisseur of comedy and, in particular, stand up, since I was a very young child. My parents had more comedy records than music and I would listen to them endlessly, and remember and recite all the acts from Mort Sual, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx, Pat Cooper and countless others. As I got older, I became fans of Carlin, Pryor, Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Rodney Dangerfield, Buddy Hackett and dozens of others. I learned all the routines. They were called routines on purpose. They repeated them routinely. I learned to take note of improvements and refinements in both content and delivery over a prolonged lifespan of an “act”.
The best comedian recognize the need for material to evolve. A different word or and extra second pause in delivery , a slight gesture or facial expression can make the difference between a good bit and a great and memorable bit. To facilitate that, comedians need to work a routine, experiment and sometimes find out by what Bob Ross would call a “happy accident”. Routines were important.
One of the many day gigs I’ve had was as a multimedia producer for an entertainment corporation. Somebody in above my pay grade got the idea to buy a struggling retail chain and hire stand up comedians to do 5 shows daily in the local stores. I had the job of videotaping and editing those performances and that meant seeing the same comics, daily for 2-3 each every day for a week or ten days. I then saw those shows again payed back in the editing suite another 30 to 40 times each. I got to see the evolution of routines in real time. Playing the final edits back for the comics they got to comment on how bits evolved, words were added or admitted, sometimes complete segments were added or omitted, inflections changes, pauses added or taken away, and art was created.
The advent of Youtube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services has created a mindset of protecting the material from being “burned” being far more important than refining the bits. As a result, comics feel pressure to write more, A LOT MORE! One a special has been “burned”, the general practice is to not do that material live any more. For consumers that generally means quantity over quality.
Whether the mindset behind the idea of “burning material” is valid is another discussion, I’m not sure it is valid. George Carlin would put out an album and then tour with that material for a year or more before starting on a new album. I saw Rodney Dangerfield four times and each of those performances was filled with jokes repeated from the others. The audience enjoyed the hits and laughed just as hard as if it were new material. And most of it had been heard before from television exposure.
In reality, every time a comic performs in public, the material is at risk for being “burned, due to people with cell phones that insist on ignoring protocol, and violating the performers intellectual property rights, and then posting the clips on social media.
What matters most, of course, is the comics perception that the material has been “burnt”. Rge working comic can tell if the material is still effective by the response they get from their audiences.
This is not just some boomer waxing that comedy was better in the old days. In my opinion, the state of comedy is as good as it has ever been. There are more quality comedians creating more ideas and hour specials than ever before and there is gold. That gold could be much better with old fashioned polish with time, nuance and craftsmanship.
So okay, the internet did not ruin comedy, but it lessened the quality substantially.