Make ‘Em Laugh: Comedy’s Renaissance in the Digital Age

By herbertwest

“And now, now it goes like this; you’re in college, you make a video with your friend, you do a set at UCB and then you’re in a Will Ferrell movie, literally that’s it. And you’re super attractive, and it’s awesome for you, then you get on an NBC series and then I see if I can get work on your show.”

            “Exactly, yeah, or you have a Twitter feed and then suddenly you’re staffed.”

                               -Comedians Greg Behrendt and Patton Oswalt on comedy


            Let’s face it, the Internet is not exactly the Mecca of good vibes we thought it would be. As Robert McChesney puts it in Digital Disconnect, back in the 1990s the Internet’s celebrants’ arguments were “that the Internet will be a force for democracy and good worldwide, ending monopolies of information and centralized control over communication.”

            That idea’s not completely wrong, just a little wrong. Yes, in many ways the advent of the Internet—if not ending them—has shaken the monopolies of information, and centralized control has been weakened no doubt. If I read a story on CNN’s website, I am only ever a couple clicks away from finding another view on Gawker, Wonkette or BBC News. But the Internet, while vast, is still tethered to the same conundrum that burdens 99 percent of us: money.

            Writing in 2004, for example, Lawrence Lessig saw blogs as some sort of revolutionary, impenetrable form of journalism; something that couldn’t be bought, not ever, but in reality today’s blogs are mainly used for DIY projects, recipes, and launching literary careers about DIY projects and recipes.

            Commerce–in one way of another–is now entirely enmeshed with the Internet. The idea of bringing people together has quickly morphed into “and how do we make money off of it?” At the surface it’s a depressing thought. Is nothing sacred? But maybe it’s not such a bad thing, maybe it’s a wonderful kick in the teeth of capitalism instead? Is this not the uplift the celebrants foresaw; a way to circumvent the powers that be through pure ingenuity?

            A primary example of this phenomenon of bucking the establishment and becoming better for it is, oddly enough, standup comedy. 

            It used to be that you did your act in clubs, sometimes at the bottom of a very long roster. If you got good, though, if people liked you, then one day you might be invited onto Late Night or The Tonight Show, and if Letterman or Leno, or whatever powers that be liked you, then maybe other equally important people would like you, until eventually you shot a special, which eventually led to a sitcom, which eventually led to you never having to worry about money again.

            But as the quote at the top demonstrates, the Internet has changed all that. Behrendt, along with his longtime friend and fellow comedian Dave Anthony, are a perfect example of the Internet’s influence on comedy.

            “Walking the room” is a term traditionally used by comedians to describe alienating one’s audience. To walk the room is to clear it out, sending your audience running out into the street. It’s also (and perhaps more well-known as) the name of a podcast hosted by Behrendt and Anthony. The show is quite literally recorded in a clothes closet in Behrendt’s house. For the most part the discussion’s light. They talk about their families, make self-deprecating remarks about their fledging careers and riff on weird news stories. Sometimes they invite a fellow comedian over, such as Patton Oswalt, to reminisce. Behrendt tends to make funny voices, Anthony tends to threaten him, and together they devolve, coming up with some of the most debased and raunchy scenarios imaginable. It’s oddly like listening to a pair of teenage boys who are also an old married couple. It goes without saying that I listen to it religiously every week.

            Walking the Room, however, like many of its ilk, has inspired a devoted, somewhat cult-like fan base. Fans of the show are called “cuddlahs.” They have a tendency to show up at Behrendt and Anthony’s live events wearing clown outfits, showering the hosts with gifts of handmade candies and posters. The podcast’s website has an entire glossary of terms exclusive to the show and there’s a rampant following in—of all places—Australia. When Anthony came out with his first comedy album Shame Chamber this year it charted No.1 in that country on iTunes. Behrendt was able to finance his band The Reigning Monarchs’ album through a Kickstarter campaign.  

            Behrendt and Anthony aren’t the only ones to inspire devotion in this new medium. Rob Delaney, another standup, has nearly one million followers on Twitter. Mostly his tweets are 140-character jokes unmentionable in polite company. Why exactly Delaney has such a vibrant following might be hard to account for, but whatever the reasoning it’s become the cornerstone of his livelihood. Followers buy tickets to his shows, and the Twitter feed has eventually led to a book deal.

            There are a dozen other stories exactly like these; of comedians—sometimes on the edge of career extinction—careened back into relevancy and importance. Marc Maron, considered a sort of forefather of comedy podcasts, started his WTF podcast after being fired from Air America several times. Now he has a book, a comedy album and a show on IFC. 

            As Paul Brownfield puts it in a 2012 The New York Times article, “On one hand, the appeal of podcasting to a comic is self-evident. There’s no time limit, no getting bumped, no pilot seasons, no standards and practices, no ratings-obsessed late-night wars. It’s just you and some recording equipment and maybe a few sidekicks for ballast. The audience? They’re imagined, in some separate, contiguous reality. Instead of urging them to tip the wait staff, you nudge them to leave a positive comment on your show page.”

            But here’s the thing, this resurgence, it’s done something else. It’s made comedy relevant again, like, Richard Pryor on race, Lenny Bruce on obscenity, Bill Hicks on marketing and George Carlin on anything relevant. It’s as if the Internet has given us a second wave of comedy’s Golden Age. In part this is due to the platforms themselves. Podcasts naturally lend themselves to stare-at-your-shoelaces introspection, just as Twitter lends itself to pithy political and social commentary.

            “In terms of comedy it does seem like comics are getting more interested in effecting the cultural conversation, or perhaps more interested again in effecting the cultural conversation, if you think about the 60s and 70s where comedy had a real role as social commentary with say Lenny Bruce and others,” CBC’s Q Radio host Jian Ghomeshi said during a November 6 interview with Delaney. “Whether it’s Patton Oswalt decrying rape jokes, or Russell Brandt sounding off about failings in government and his revolutionary manifesto now, or just Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert serving as mass media watchdogs.”

            “Well, comedy is very powerful,” Delaney answered. “It’s so powerful because it’s a form of alchemy. It takes pain and it turns it into laughter, and done well it can do it in an instant, so it has unbelievable power, and we have real, intractable, frightening problems in the world, so why wouldn’t you use every weapon that you have against them?”

            This past April things over at Walking the Room got real. Two months before the show had gone on a sudden hiatus. Listeners (me included) didn’t really know why. When it finally returned, Behrendt revealed that he’d fallen off the wagon nearly a year before, secretly taking painkillers that had originally been prescribed for a family pet. The head came when Behrendt, feeling suicidal, took one too many and subsequently whisked himself off to a rehab. 

            “The problem is I have to go to meetings with dogs now, that’s the weird part,” Behrendt said during the return podcast to which Anthony, the child of an alcoholic, said he sort of wanted to punch Greg in the neck.

            The podcast was aptly titled “A Very Special Episode,” and it was. It meant something to me, as well as all the other cuddlahs out there, in part because it spoke to our own demons, but also, perhaps, because it struck the perfect chord of humor and pathos; so completely tapping into the core of what makes comedy both wonderful and necessary: unwavering, unyielding honesty.




Protected: Preserving the Past in Spite of the Present

By herbertwest

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Homelessness and the Street-Level Bureaucrat

By herbertwest


“At some point, I suppose, all of us in our lives confront some unavoidable, outsized horror. Maybe it’s a tumor, or a little brother playing with a gun, or a psychopath in a day care center, but inevitably, a moment comes for all of us when we realize that we cannot beat the devil on this one.”

           The line, taken from Susan Jane Gilman’s essay Picnic in Treblinka, is one of those pristine nuggets of indelible truth; a passage so perfectly put that it just seems to scream out to be underlined and read again and again.

            In Picnic Gilman recounts her time as a fresh-faced, piss and vinegar-fueled reporter for The Jewish Week. She’s not very good (she orders lobster bisque during lunch with a prominent rabbi), mostly due to the fact that as a twenty-something who’s been largely sheltered all her life, Gilman is filled with hubris. The Jewish Week is just a bump in the road, the cross she has to bear before The New York Times and Vanity Fair discover her natural talents and snatch her away to print media Camelot.

            Eventually Gilman’s job leads her to a gig chaperoning teenagers on a trip to, of all places, Auschwitz, and that’s when the aforementioned epiphany comes; this idea that eventually the world is going to rear its ugly head and give you a toothy, terrifying smile, as if to say, yes, this really is a horrible place.

            We library science students seem by default to possess a naïve (albeit well-intentioned and possibly altruistic) idea of what our future roles as librarians will be. To put it more simply, we want to make a difference. Cossette might not enjoy seeing librarians as educators, but to some extent that’s exactly what we are: We promote literacy and facilitate the acquirement of knowledge. It is the hope of every librarian that a patron exits his or her library at least a little more well-informed.

            The desire to make a difference is not a bad thing. In fact it’s tremendous. Where, really, would the world be without its do-gooders or the selfless progressives who decided to stick their necks out? But do we as students, like Gilman, suffer from a sense of hubris if only because we believe we can affect lives for the better?  

            So what, as librarians, is our unavoidable, outsized horror?  What is that reality that’s so big and so overwhelming that it shakes us?

              The homeless.

            Now let’s put some quantifiers on this. We’re not talking about the squatter punks, or the Woody Guthrie wannabes riding the rails. We’re not talking about the recession-hit, as-seen-on-Frontline families down on their luck. We’re not even talking about shelter kids. These are acceptable, perhaps even gentrified forms of homelessness. A sort of homelessness that, if you don’t outwardly feel for its victims then you’re at least willing to engage with it. They are the not-quite-disenfranchised.

            No, what we are talking about are the chronically homeless: The drug addicts and alcoholics and above all else mentally ill. The ones who hear voices and talk to themselves. The ones who reek of bodily fluids. The ones who ooze and bleed and pus.

            When the tragedy of the world grins down at you it’ll come in the form of a guy screaming when you tell him to get off the public computer, a woman who insists she talks to angels, or the gentleman relieving himself in nonfiction. 

             The magnitude of this horror and the feeling of helplessness that comes along with it reverberate throughout Chip Ward’s America Gone Wrong: A Slashed Safety Net Turns Libraries into Homeless Shelters. Ward’s anger is palpable. He spends at least half of the article describing in detail the regulars of his establishment. Here Ward’s prose isn’t just flippant, but at points strikes an outrageously condescending tone, as if he were gesturing towards one of his miserable patrons and saying, “Hey, would you get a load of this guy? Whackjob!” Here, for example, is Ward’s description of a patron named John:

            John is trying hard not to be noticed. He has been in trouble lately for the scabs and raw, wet spots that are spreading across his hands and face. Staff members have wondered aloud if he is contagious and asked him to get himself checked-out, but he refuses treatment. He knows he is still being tracked, thanks to the implants the nurse slipped under his skin the last time he surrendered to the clinic and its prescriptions. There are frequencies we don’t hear — but he does. Thin whistles and a subtle beeping indicate he is being followed, his eye movements tracked and recorded. He claims he falls asleep in his chair by the stairway because “the little ones” poke him in the legs with sharp objects that inject sleep-inducing potions.

           Ward, the (recently retired) assistant director of Salt Lake City Public Library, could probably serve as a living, breathing case study in the negative effects of street level bureaucracy. He dehumanizes his involuntary clientele, while casting himself in the hero’s role, seething the entire time at the pure injustice of it all.  He is, as Michael Lipsky would put it, attempting “to alter expectations about job performance.”  

            And yet if you can get past Ward and his heavy-handed language you have to grudgingly admit that he has a point. He’s not just angry at his patrons, he’s angry at the system–or lack thereof–that created them. Ward is in fact suffering—yes, suffering—from a quintessential street level quandary: How to serve a community in need with little to no resources and even less support? And this is not just any community, but a community the rest of us goes out of our way to ignore.

            Ward documents his attempts to try and solve the problem, attending conference after conference about the homeless. When the gathered social workers, counselors and therapists find out his vocation, they inevitably ask him the same question: What are you doing here? To which Ward (I like to imagine at this point he throws a chair) replies, “Where do you think they go during the day?”

            When I originally conceived of this post I’d planned to do a number of things. I was going to talk about a rash of libraries passing policies set out to essentially ban the homeless; policies that forbid such things as bathing, shaving and washing hair in public bathrooms; policies that prohibit sleeping bags or deny entry to anyone with “offensive body odor.” I was going to talk about how the problem with such policies is not just that they’re discriminatory, but go against all the ethereal ideals of what we do, what we want to do, and how we are as librarians, namely the ideal that libraries are there to serve the people i.e. everyone. And then I was going to offer up solutions, like hiring social workers and peer counselors in addition to regular staff. I was going to suggest that libraries form partnerships with various non-profits to conduct surveys and put on workshops; that they take the ALA-recommended avenue and promote and purchase materials that respectfully and honestly address homelessness issues.

            I actually did write all that, and then I sent it off to a fellow librarian for feedback. Her response was to ask whether or not I was being sarcastic. As my friend saw it, the policies profiling the homeless that I’d found so horrific weren’t just justified but necessary.

            “Are libraries supposed to be shelters to the homeless that extend its facilities to bathing and changing of clothes? And frankly, have you ever been close to a person who has not bathed in months? Anna, that odor cleared entire subway cars,” she wrote. “Where does serving the homeless end and driving out the other patrons begin?  When I worked in Brooklyn, some homeless guy [expletive] all over the bathroom floor!  No one could use it after that.”

            Spoken like a true burned-out, alienated street-level bureaucrat.

            One of my original problems with Lipsky’s 1969 Toward a Theory of Street-Level Bureaucracy had been that it’s an analysis. His objective is to create a theory about street-level bureaucracy, not offer up solutions to its ill effects. After page after page of telling us everything that’s wrong he doesn’t give us anything with which to cure it, but perhaps that’s the point and the first admission we have to make before we can call ourselves librarians: There is no cure-all.     

            Perhaps once we get past the idea of saving the world, we can just do our best to try and change it.


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