Movies, songs, and paintings come to their audiences fully formed. They are clean moments presented from the outstretched arms of their creators. Like Christmas gifts tied up in sweet, gentle bows, these works of art are laid at our feet. They are eager to be fully explored and understood. Time passes and we grow, but the presents never change. Stanley Kubrick can disown “Spartacus” as much as he wants, but I can still watch it and feel his energy within it. Macklemore can insist that his album “The Heist” is not poetry, but when I’m listening to it on repeat sitting on the subway, it can be poetry to me. The artist is separate from the art, and any sense of authority vanishes when the work is out of their hands and into ours.
Stand-up comedy is a medium equal to these arts in merit yet opposite in form. It is a dialogue, and it won’t fit into any box you try and place before it. Trust me, I’ve tried. When looking at traditional art, the comment you hear most is: “Wow, that’s so beautiful.” With stand-up comedy, the comment you hear most is: “Wow, that’s so true.” Often, the goal is to relate to their audience members and try to resonate with the human experience. The most common jokes are often about men and women, sex, or race relations, because these are the things that people faces every day.
While the parasocial relationship and the sense of community are some of the most-loved aspects of stand-up comedy. We don’t just love Louis CK because he makes us laugh, we love him because he validates our experiences and emerged as the perfect voice for a post-9/11 America. Steve Martin did the same thing for the 60s, once remarking, “The world had been so political in very tough ways over the last ten years that I thought America was tired and it needed, wanted, to laugh at just silliness and fun again.”
These comedians still mean so much to us now, but their impact fades when their era fades. The tragedy of comedy, so to speak, is it’s unfortunate tendency to date itself. Excluding comedy giants like Pryor or Carlin, stand-up comedy is fickle and comedians who were once supremely relatable and ubiquitous are often pushed aside for a new crop who better represent the issues of the day. In an art form that is often centered around community and a shared cultural language, it can become dated quite quickly.
Kliph Nesteroff, an acclaimed comedy historian, caused a stir by posing that Lenny Bruce isn’t funny. He made this comment not without reasoning, for he had just witnessed a modern audience sit in silence during a forty-five minute showing of Bruce’s material. He almost expressed it as a question– What does it mean that Lenny Bruce isn’t funny? It is through no fault of his own, just the passage of time. There’s something poetic, actually, about Bruce’s particular breed of martyrdom. It reminds us how far we’ve come. If what was revolutionary in the 50s and 60s still vibrated in us with the same frequency, it would mean that we haven’t progressed enough. His breed of comedy is about pushing people, and a mark of its success is, in a sense, the moment it doesn’t need to push us anymore. Success comes in tandem with the end. Like training wheels, the goal is to no longer need it.
The problem is that we will always need it. Today, it comes in the voice of Bill Burr or Kyle Kinane. Forty years ago, it sounds like Pryor and Carlin, and forty years from now, it will sounds like something new. Perhaps the tragedy isn’t that it dates itself, it is that the masters of this art form won’t be able to adorn grand halls in the way that great painters or musicians do. Their work and their love is an act of sacrifice that cannot be overlooked.