Having been energized and excited by the first #JOMECCPC lecture today, I immediately turned to Twitter, my goal being to 1) share some of my favorite comedians 2) provoke some interesting discussion about some of things that were touched on in the lecture today, but that weren’t discussed in depth, and 3) hopefully bring a little bit more of an American perspective to things (despite the fact, ironically, that my favorite stand-up acts are almost all British). Of course, having turned to Twitter, I was immediately frustrated, as I so often am, by the 170 character limit on posts. I just had too much I wanted to say.
So in this case, I have turned to my pet project, the unedited and probably scarcely read “Critically Penned” blog: my own little free-speech platform. I’ll try and keep this short.
Ya’ll should definitely correct me if I’m wrong, but as of now I’m under the impression that Simon Amstell is already relatively well known comedian in the UK, having made his name and career as host of the long-running quiz show series, Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Of course, he originally got the attention of the public and the media Powers-That-Be as the co-host of Popworld, gaining a huge following primarily because of his no-holds-barred approach to making fun of celebrities.
Depending on who you ask, Amstell’s approach to hosting Popworld, and later, Buzzcocks, was either comedic genius: satire that targeted all the worst bits of celebrity culture, pulling back the curtain on show business and revealing the dark underbelly of that world; or just relentlessly cruel and pointless torment of people whose lives were already made difficult by being in the public eye. He famously made Britney Spears cry, and later, Samuel Preston walk off Buzzcocks.
Honestly, I tend to think Amstell’s comedy during the early 2000s was a mix of both–it was at times sometimes sensationalist and cruel, and at others, insightful, honest, and critical. Most of the time, it was just funny. Entertainment, raising ratings–that was the primary goal. Regardless, his humor always made people uncomfortable. It put them in the spotlight, made them face things they’d rather have kept in the dark. Personally, I think it certainly had at least some satirical value, addressing many social issues most people would prefer weren’t addressed.
Simon Amstell didn’t hold back from making fun of anyone, especially if they were famous. And perhaps it was because of how famous his celebrity guests were that he attacked them so relentlessly. Maybe he wanted to humanize them? Take them down a peg? Make people see that their favorite celebrities weren’t idols, weren’t gods, but rather just normal people, with mistakes and failings like anyone else? Maybe he simply saw something in celebrity culture that the rest of us didn’t see, how damaging hero-worship was to our society, how mindless we’d become by watching TV. Or maybe he just wanted to make people laugh.
Almost immediately Buzzcocks gained a fearsome reputation as a popular show that most people were scared to go on. Many celebrities declined, many accepted and regretted it, and many others accepted, survived, and were sometimes even able to fire back at Amstell with some humor of their own. Amstell wasn’t untouchable, no matter how he came across. Comedy was the universal language of the show–if guests took Amstell’s insults seriously, they were reviled. If they fired back with a joke, however, they were loved.
Amstell was always blunt, confrontational, and talked about many things that were widely accepted as off-limits: drug abuse, suicide, gay culture. What saved him was that he was always bitingly funny about it–which I think definitely goes back to what Dr. Kilby was saying about humor as an essential component of satire.
Anyway, what do you guys think? Is this satire?
Amstell has since moved on from Buzzcocks to do some wonderful stand-up, which is where I really relate to him as a comedian. Perhaps, as he’s sometimes implied, it was because he was sick of building his reputation as a comedian at the expense of others. His stand-up certainly bears almost none of the hallmarks of his time as quiz- and talk-show host. It tackles what I think are some quintessentially “millennial generation” topics, things people our age can relate to: ennui, isolation, mental illness, loss of religious faith, agnosticism and atheism. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly encourage you to take a look. Am I completely misguided in calling these topics that our generation can relate to? Is it just a matter of personal taste, or does Amstell really tackle some stuff that’s important in the 21st century?
Wow, I’m utterly failing at keeping this short. Ok, if you’re still with me, here’s Eddie Izzard.
2. Eddie Izzard
The two main things I find notable about Eddie Izzard are 1) his deviation from traditional comedic/stand-up form, and 2) his transvestitism. He’s a child of the 60s and a true Renaissance man, an actor, writer, athlete, activist, comic. His act reminds me a lot of the vaudeville performances of the 1800s, popular mixed-genre stage performances for the mass public that incorporated song, dance, pantomime, clown, and slapstick comedy.
*Fun Fact: Charlie Chaplin’s career actually originated in vaudeville, on stage with Fred Karno company, which was what took him to America.
**Incidentally-Related Fun Fact: Chaplin, as one of the most influential and controversial men in Hollywood, was later targeted by McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Cold War era, along with such Hollywood and theater icons as Lillian Hellman, Leonard Berstein, Lena Horne, Arthur Miller, Charles Irving, and Uta Hagen.
(For more on the history of American censorship of comedy, I recommend checking out the famous Supreme Court case, F.C.C v. Pacifica Foundation (1978), which deals with George Carlin’s “Seven dirty words” comedy routine–https://youtu.be/kyBH5oNQOS0. As you may surmise, there’s a lot of profanity in this.)
Anyway, enough of that. Here’s a bit of Eddie Izzard’s act that I love but also find absolutely crazy. How does this work as stand-up comedy?
Regarding Eddie Izzard’s transvestitism, I find it curious how many members of the LGBT community are also stand-up comics, or perhaps how many of my favorite stand up comics are also members of the LGBT community. Of course there’s a history of minorities getting into stand-up comedy: the long string of Jewish comics in America, the pattern of women and racial minorities finding a niche in comedy, a style of performance that is often more easily accessible than the still white male-dominated Hollywood. I wonder if there’s something to be said about the expression of minority cultural values and concerns through comedy.
Do people appreciate Chris Rock standing as a representation of the African American population as a whole? Is Simon Amstell a good role model for young gay teens? I don’t think comics go on stage intending to speak for a wider population of people, but inevitably, whilst talking about their own life experiences, cultures, and perspectives, many become representatives for the minority groups they are a member of. Their concerns, experiences and perspectives may be equivocated with the wider minority group’s concerns, experiences, and perspectives. Is this a bad thing? How many of your favorite comics are also minorities, or represent a group that is less frequently in the public eye?
Ok, now for some good old American comedy. Number three is Bo Burnham.
3. Bo Burnham
Bo Burnham is my favorite for a lot of reasons, number 1 being that he, like Simon Amstell on Buzzcocks, makes a huge target of popular culture, pop stars and celebrities, and sometimes even stand-up comedy and performance itself. His show is often very meta in that it criticizes art, criticizes his audience, and criticizes himself as a comedic and musical performer. It can sometimes get a bit confusing, but when his act lands, it lands hard. Here are a few of my favorite bits of his show:
- Repeat Stuff: Classic satire that targets popular music, and more specifically, the enormous popularity of Justin Bieber’s song Baby.
- Art is Dead: I’ve already posted this video, but I think it’s worth repeating here, just because of how wonderfully self-critical and nihilistic it is. This is one example of how Burnham sometimes crosses the line with his art, making people feel uncomfortable, and ironically calling his own audience out, holding them accountable for attending and buying into his own rising-in-popularity show. Additionally, of course, Bo Burnham holds himself responsible for contributing to what he sees as our culture of mass consumption of meaningless media (music, film, TV). Art, apparently, can be a vicious cycle of need for attention, creation that justifies this need, and then guilt. Weird.
- We Think We Know You: This I simply find incredibly poignant and touching. Its a great expression of the way art can be both a rescue and a trap for the performer. Art, according to Bo Burnham, is a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which the artist creates in order to express himself, yet the rise in popularity or fame that makes him or her a successful artist often results a destruction of this expression. As soon as you perform on a stage, the artist loses control over his own art, loses it to the public, who will often project their own message onto the artist’s performance, and their own expectations and misperceptions onto the artist. With a rise in popularity comes a loss of control over the expression, with others trying to tell you have to do to your performance to ensure continued success.
Bo Burnham has often publicly claimed to having created and to performing within a stage persona, in an attempt to distance himself from the public misperception that he is how he appears on stage–cutting, sarcastic, and confidently superior and arrogant. I think here we see the misunderstanding of irony that Dr. Kilby was talking about, where sometimes the audience doesn’t get the message, confusing satire with reality.
4. Other Awesome Stuff
Other awesome stuff includes Voltaire’s Candide (classic social satire criticizing the popular religious/philosophical belief of the time, Leibnizian optimism, that because God created our universe we must live in the “best of all possible worlds”), Saturday Night Live (a very well-known, long-running sketch comedy show in the US, through which many a famous comedian has made his or her career. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristin Wig, and Seth Meyers all started here) and GIF culture!
I don’t know if any of you remember the US government shutdown from a couple years ago (in 2013), but here are some images that were making their way around the Internet at that time, criticizing the conservative Tea Party, the ones responsible for the shutdown. Disclaimer: all very obviously carry a liberal Democratic slant.
What other forms, besides the ones mentioned in class, might satire take? GIFs? Vines? Twitter posts/comments? Has the Internet destroyed censorship, or at least the effectiveness of censorship? What counts as satire? What counts as comedy? I don’t really know…I was hoping you guys might 🙂