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.




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