Anyone doubting the resurgence of stand-up comedy need look no further than Netflix. In 2013, the streaming service produced five original stand-up specials; in 2018, they released 69 of these hour-long stand-up shows, as well as 25 episodes of stand-up from three discrete series. And popularity isn’t just measured in numbers. In the past few years, comedians have entered mainstream consciousness in a way we haven’t seen since the nineties.
But 2018 has proven a disconcerting year for stand-up, complicating this revival. In May, Bill Cosby was officially convicted on three counts of aggravated assault; in August, Louis C.K. attempted a quiet return to the stage following his public denouncement for exposing himself to at least five women; and last month Aziz Ansari released dates for a 2019 national tour, shortly after his own #metoo scandal. To witness these abusers receiving more attention than rising comedians this past year has proven as tiring as it has disappointing because, in truth, this industry-wide slash-and-burn has provided fertile ground for comics who redefine what stand-up can look and sound like. Now, more than ever, the stand-up community needs to dispose of the standards that defined these men as Great.
Historically, stand-up, as an American art form, has rested and relied upon a masculinist mentality and mode of presentation. The comedian is a man who struggles to woo women and impress other men, rendering his views towards women and the world frustrated and critical. This perspective might find rooting in the light-hearted quips of Vaudevillian one-liner Henny Youngman or Rodney Dangerfield, the latter a comic who, in the last decades of the 20th century, saw the more poisonous aspects of his shtick distilled by irony and post-irony. This beta-male comic only grew in popularity and critical reception; with C.K., Bill Hicks, Marc Maron and T.J. Miller, figures for whom angry degradation of the self and the other was central source material, this attitude reached its logical endpoint. They define themselves as straight-men: neutral, objective observers, free from any identity politics. They masquerade their privilege as detachment, making the world – from rape to terrorism – open for dissection. This, of course, is horseshit.
To be clear, this masculinist model of comedian does include women, but the women who succeed within this framework, such as Amy Schumer or the late Joan Rivers, filter their female experience through an embodied masculine sensibility. They’re assertive, lewd, overtly sexual and often eager to differentiate themselves from other women. For years, this tactic has been the only realistic option for female stand-ups to gain mainstream acclaim on par with their male counterparts. It’s an intelligent strategy that, at its best (Ali Wong), subverts the form from the inside, and at its worst (Iliza Shlesinger), is an uncomfortable pseudo-feminism that does nothing but regress womanhood.
A turning point came this past summer, when Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette (2018) was released on Netflix. In Nanette, Gadsby handcuffs our notion of the male-genius artist to the everyday abuse of the female body. It’s clear, she insists: the two are in cahoots. By truncating stories to set-up and punchline, Gadsby argues, comedy sacrifices pain for performance. But she refuses to take it down from the inside, as women before her have done; she wants to watch it burn. In a sobering finish to her show, a truth is laid bare: stand-up comedy has built its foundation on the humiliation of the feminine and the refusal to process trauma in full. If we are to continue, we need to rethink what it means to be a stand-up comedian and how power-relations work both on and off the stage.
Gadsby did not appear in a vacuum; comics with genuine vulnerability, pain and complete story-telling in their acts are no novelty, they’ve just never been considered mainstream. Many have substantial cult-followings: Maria Bamford’s work in the early 2000s, shortly after her inpatient experience; Tig Notaro’s 2012 Largo Comedy Club set on a slurry of disasters; or Aparna Nancherla’s recent work on depression and anxiety. That purists have critiqued Nanette – and hour-long specials like it – for being billed as stand up instead of a one-woman show is a categorical dismissal, one that is consistently applied to alternative comics who involve multi-media or narrative joke-telling. The ‘one-person-show’ is a semantic delegation to the theatrical, it wrongly places the performer as actor and strips them of their comedic legitimacy. It is a denunciation without merit, one intent on limiting diversity and divergence and limiting ‘true’ stand-up to a few angry men.
Comics, in this alternative model, use the stage as a space for narrative, processing and political positioning. Jo Firestone, who recently released her special, The Hits, enlists a pianist to improvise between sets. Her crowd work is conversational and not predatory, her experiences with social anxiety and depression addressed in full and her jokes don’t disparage the politically marginal. She does six minutes on raisins, and it kills. Comics of this ilk rarely come to the stage from a place of anger, submission or even aggression. Instead, their work is playful in delivery and political in content. They don’t play the part of the detached judge but are instead submerged in the contradictions and confusions of their own identity. Maria Bamford, in her special Ask Me About My New God (2013), is told by a radio jockey that if you’re a woman, over 40 and single, something is wrong with you. She throws the ultimate camp tantrum.
There’s no certainty – and, frankly, little likelihood – that comedians in the vein of C.K. or Miller will cease to perform. A number of the most notorious have already returned to the stage. But listening to their malicious, snivelling material at the end of 2018, in full knowledge of where it can lead, it’s sickening. As a friend of mine said: ‘watching Louis C.K. now is like watching a magician actually saw someone in half.’ We’ve seen behind the curtain, let’s let the next act on stage.
Main image: Hannah Gadsby, Nanette, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Netflix