Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Melting Down

I've seen worse.

I've seen heckled comics break down into tears of futile rage, sputtering incoherently.

A friend of mine was once carried off the stage by a bouncer named Mocha Thunder, all the while screaming at a heckler: "I'll cut you! I'll stick the blade in, twist it, and break off the handle so no one can pull it out!"

I worked a show in Niagra Falls where the headliner's 'finish' involved a card trick with an audience member, who thought it would be funny to toss the cards offstage while the guy wasn't looking, and then thought it was funnier to just stand there with a shiteating grin on her face, not telling him what she did with the cards, while he tried to figure out what to do next, now that his act, which he had worked on for months, maybe years, was just ruined by some unthinking dolt who must have thought that we made all this stuff up right off the tops of our heads. I remember feeling very glad that it wasn't me up there, because I really didn't know what I would do in his situation, and waiting with a mixture of anticipation and dread to discover what, exactly, he would do.

What he did wasn't pretty.

Welcome to standup.

Michael Richards is a gifted comic actor. His background is in improvisational theater, and acting, and therein lies the first problem. It's a lot harder to go from acting to standup than it is from standup to acting.

This isn't to say standup comedians are better than actors. They're just better at standup than actors. If everything goes well, and a comic actor has a good set, he can pull it off. But when things don't go well...

You see what happens.

You really do. My last post ended with me saying that it's so much harder to do standup now than it used to. Part of it is because there's so little room to fail. When every person with a cel phone is a videographer and every computer is a broadcast tower, mistakes are harder to bury. My friend was banned from the club for a while, got his head together, made his apologies, and got back into it. He is still performing, and making a pretty good living at it, too. If he had that sort of meltdown today, he would never get the opportunity to get back onstage. However, he probably would make several cycles of Headline News.

And trust me, there are mistakes. Bad jokes, bad ideas, bad days. Like in every other aspect of our lives, comedians need to learn from their mistakes, but they also need to forget them, in order to move forward. Hard to do that when your mistake is the number one viral video on the internets.

And the hecklers. Man, you want to make them shut up. Sometimes you can do it with funny. Sometimes you can't. Sometimes you can somehow ignore them, finish as much of your set as you can and get off. But sometimes your head's in an entierly different place and things just go very, very bad, very, very quickly.* It's in the back of everyone's mind all the time--very similar to the fear NASCAR drivers must have of hitting the wall. You know that every time you go out there, there's a chance it will happen. You just bury the fear, and hope that if it does happen, you don't lose it like so very many--including Richards, have done. The difference is, for most of them, there's no record. Richards wasn't so lucky. That video will never be far away from anything he does, probably for the rest of his life.

Actually, I think there's a lower tolerance for the learning curve now than there was when I started out, along with even fewer opportunities for comedians to work. Twenty years ago, there were three clubs here in Smugtown, all within a three block radius. We could--and did--work all three clubs every chance we could. Now, there's one club, and they rarely have open mike nights. Along with the decline of locations, there's an increase of exposure. There's standup every night on TV, and lots of it. You gotta get real good, real fast, to make it these days. Because the crowds are far less tolerant. As Richards has discovered.

The argument is being put forth that Richards is a racist. That's because the hecklers happened to be black, so he used the meanest words he could think of to hurt them, and those were racial. But what if the hecklers weren't black? I'm guessing that in that case, he probably be called a sexist, homophobe, or anti-semitic.

Which he might be. If he's any of them he's probably all of them. It's my view that all of us have, somewhere in our herd-mentality consciousness, a fear and loathing of 'others,' whatever they might be.** He may be less successful at restraining those base urges than others. Hell, that's what his entire character was about in Seinfeld, remember?
"He is a loathesome, offensive brute, yet I can't look away"

And that's the thing about Richards: that edginess is part of his attraction. And it has always been that way, right back through 'Fridays,' and his small, but memorable bit in 'So I Married an Axe Murderer.'

And it's the same for many of the best standup acts. Lenny Bruce. George Carlin. Andy Kaufmann. Richard Pryor. Bill Hicks. Even lesser lights like Bill Maher. All pushed the envelope. Difference is, they were standup comedians. They were able, through the tempering achieved by hundreds and thousands of nights alone on a stage, to craft their rages and their fears into something, while dangerous, was nevertheless entertaining, or at least not simply unacceptible offensiveness. Richards had no such skills. When his act was destroyed he was left with precious little but his rage.

So what's my point? I don't rightly know, to be honest with you. I do know that I'm not defending what Richards did--merely trying to explain how such a thing could happen.

Maybe my point is this: We can't have it both ways. We can't have comedy dancing on the edge of good taste when the occasional forays into madness will come back to haunt us forever. Especially if someone has a 'name.' I don't know if Richards qualifies as that anymore, but it's something to think about.

*In case you're wondering: No, I never had a meltdown. But only because I got out before I had many opportunities to have it happen. Had my day job not changed, I probably would have a story to tell.
**And stroking that fear is a huge part of what has kept the Republicans in power for the past decade.


Blogger Åsa said...

I thought that was part of the game: the stand-up might find someone in the audience to heckle. That’s why I try to sit far away from stage when I go. At Caroline’s comedy club in NYC we had to sign a paper saying that we understand the Nasty show might be – nasty. Maybe they should have that on all stand-up shows. People have to sign a paper saying that they are prepared that inappropriate jokes might be told. Personally I appreciate when someone is hilarious without being inappropriate, but I don’t see anything wrong with the other way either. If I don’t like it, I don’t have to go.

On another topic: your Thanksgiving pics are super! Looks like you had a good time and yummy food! Thanks for sharing :- )

3:55 AM  
Blogger Madame X said...

I think part of the problem is that people are just ruder and meaner and dumber now than they were say...20 years ago.

Cable TV and movies and videos have damaged audiences for live theater whether standup or music or theater-theater.

I've gone to plays where audience members just are too stupid to realize that the people are REAL onstage and can hear you talk about them.

With standup well...you talk back to your TV screen why not heckle the person in fron of you.

I am sure that the profile of a heckler these days is different than 20 years ago. Meaning that chances are the heckler of yesteryear was an obnoxious drunk who needed to sleep it off where as the heckler of today is just obnoxious no matter how much sleep they get.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Heidi the Hick said...

Well said.

And I agree with X. I think our culture has gotten meaner. Which is why I say less hatred more hay.

I don't have the guts to watch the video...there's enough crap in my head. I think I'll choose to stay free of that little bit of pollution.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Åsa said...

There was a video? Sorry – I haven’t heard what he said.

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As always, agree with you totally, esp the stuff about actors trying to do stand up...

5:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent posts on the world of stand-up. . . . I can only imagine the stories you must have about your experience there. . . .

6:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really refuse to get on the dis Richards wagon. He made a mistake and something he should not have. Does that alone make him a worthless human being? I think not

7:50 PM  
Blogger Cranky Yankee said...

Yes, it's hard. There's no excuse.... You have to own everything that you say and everything that comes with it. Lord know that can come with a heavy price...

Bill Hicks was a genius

9:37 PM  
Blogger United We Lay said...

Madam X,
I think people are the same, the perception is just different, and with the ease of media, incidents are more easily spread and commented on.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Nölff said...

I've seen worse too. Drunkards and comedy are a rough mix.

10:27 AM  

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