By default art involves artifice
May 13, 2024 1:29 AM   Subscribe

A comedian’s only responsibility is to make the audience laugh. If you’re not making the audience laugh, then you’re failing at your job. You want to speak truth to power, you want to make a political statement, you want to be confessional—none of that is more or less valid than doing ventriloquism or doing an impression of Christopher Walken. They’re all equal, so long as they make people laugh. If it’s more important to you to do something that doesn’t make the audience laugh, fine, but it’s not comedy. It’s something else. from Two Guys Walk into a Bar: Kliph Nesteroff on the Evolution of American Comedy [The Sun Magazine]
posted by chavenet (30 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
Holy Hell, chavenet, I’ve read, like, a tenth of this and it’s awesome. I think I might get my hands on one or both of his books and give it a read. I didn’t hit the pull quote above and then CTRL+F-ed for it… and the context is just as good.

Not unrelated: it was maybe in Trump’s last year, or the year after (?), that John Oliver stopped being funny. He was just angry, yelling, and vicious. I remember thinking “this isn’t comedy, whatever it is.” Then he took a break and came back refreshed (or his writers did), and there were jokes and humor again. The yelling and anger was there, same as before, but it had humorous context once again.
posted by cupcakeninja at 2:35 AM on May 13 [8 favorites]


Kliph Nesterhoff is a national treasure.
posted by rhizome at 3:12 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


But when you tell a joke and people laugh, does that mean you finally got the right form of the joke, or that you finally got the right audience to tell it to?

Saying a joke has innate value if it makes someone laugh is like saying a political view (e.g. the Holocaust wasn't so bad) has innate value if it makes someone applaud.
posted by Brachinus at 5:04 AM on May 13 [4 favorites]


Saying a joke has innate value if it makes someone laugh

That’s not what’s being said. To put the sentiment in a more tautological way, if the audience doesn’t laugh, you’re not being comedic.
posted by zamboni at 5:16 AM on May 13 [11 favorites]


Kliph Nesterhoff's first book delighted and frustrated me. It is a THICK volume that's dense with information, and yet every chapter I'd hit a brief mention of something that I wanted 20 pages about!
posted by knile at 5:22 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Yeah, some of the worst comedy depends on the audience giving more of a conscious "Right on! Tell it!" affirmation than a simple involuntary laugh.
posted by pracowity at 5:29 AM on May 13 [8 favorites]


I went into this expecting to come away with the sentiment I think some people in this thread have expressed (making people laugh doesn't necessarily mean something's good comedy because sometimes it's just playing into shitty preconceptions and people are laughing from a sense of smug familiarity) but I think the point he's making is different than that; he's not saying that everything that makes you laugh is comedy, rather that, if you view your primary role as that of a gadfly or a truth-teller and not someone who makes people laugh, what you're doing is something other than comedy. I appreciate that, especially from the perspective of someone who loves laughing and is trans and often the target of shitty "humor". I absolutely believe comedy can speak truth to power and I also think the way some comedians give it this exalted status where they have a responsibility to say mean things is crummy and often not funny which is antithetical to comedy.

I'm also intrigued by a comedian saying comedy isn't necessarily "vital"; it's vital to me but after all these people making pompous statements about how Important comedy is and how they have a responsibility it's kind of refreshing to see a perspective that's more like "comedy is fun and if it's not funny it's not comedy". Thank you for posting!
posted by an octopus IRL at 6:42 AM on May 13 [10 favorites]


Stewart Lee:

"Hear that applause? That’s what I like. I’m not interested in laughs. I prefer applause. “Is it supposed to be funny?”, that’s what the critics say. No, it isn’t. I’m not interested in laughs. I’m interested in- people say,

“Did you see Stewart Lee?”
-“Yeah.”
“Was it funny?”
-“No, but I agreed the fuck out of it.”

I'm not interested in laughs. What I'm aiming for is a temporary mass liberal consensus. That dissolves on contact with air."
posted by robself at 7:21 AM on May 13 [16 favorites]


I knew the Nesteroff family, his dad was a teacher. They are Doukabours (Spirit-Wrestlers). A major part of their tradition/beliefs is the Living Book which wasn’t a book but an entirely oral collection of psalms, hymns and stories/ parables. I’m not surprised to see a connection to stand up- some of those folks where wicked quick on their feet.
posted by zenon at 8:22 AM on May 13 [9 favorites]


I knew the Nesteroff family, his dad was a teacher. They are Doukabours (Spirit-Wrestlers).
posted by pracowity at 8:59 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


(I posted too soon. Fuck it.)
posted by pracowity at 9:07 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


Although today comics like Dave Chappelle and Hannah Gadsby do something I’ve never seen before, which is leave the stage without laughter. They say something serious and then walk off. It’s supposed to be very dramatic.

Cohen: What do you make of that?

Nesteroff: I don’t like it at all. Comedy is supposed to make you laugh. Making you think? Who gives a fuck? One hundred percent of the population can be serious, but not everyone can be funny. It feels like a betrayal of your inherent gift to do the exact same thing that anybody else could do. It’s Jerry Lewis syndrome: the comedian who wants to be taken seriously, not just appreciated as a clown.


I was thinking of Hannah Gadsby as soon as I read the pull quote, which I guess makes sense because the interview had asked earlier... But just from the pull quote in the FPP, I was thinking: Yeah, sure, comedy is that which makes people laugh. Hannah Gadsby taught us how that works. It's a skill you can learn, controlling the tension, releasing it. But surely it matters what you do with that skill. You can use it to be cruel. You can use it to make people feel better, but that also means you can let them off the hook for things they should feel bad about. You can use it to get rich and famous. Or maybe you can use it to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, but that's not really where the incentives are in our capitalist society...

Upon reading the rest of the article, I'm really unsatisfied with this analysis... This dude doesn't give a fuck about whether he's making people think? That just seems careless. I mean, he IS making them think, and feel things, or he wouldn't be funny. You've got to make people a little nervous before you can let them have the "it's all okay actually" punchline to get those laughs. So how is he doing it, producing that tension? He's got to be bringing up some topic that makes people uncomfortable, and maybe the punchline doesn't work to release that for everyone, and he is leaving some fraction of his audience in that discomfort he created. Or maybe it works too well, and he's allowing people to dismiss the discomfort they feel with stuff that's not okay, actually (like rape jokes, to pick the first example that comes to mind, but there are plenty of others). Those are both risks you take when you do comedy. And they're necessary risks, but also, you're not really a professional comedian if you don't understand those risks and care about them, and take some responsibility for the effect you have on people.

He believes anyone can do what Hannah Gadsby did in "Nanette"? Yeah, I don't think so. He just doesn't want the responsibility Gadsby is saying that comedians have. Of course, Gadsby doesn't want it either. They're fricking GOOD at comedy, and they prove that in the special, and then they say they don't want to do it professionally anymore, because it's too hard to do it responsibly, at least in the entertainment industry as it currently exists.

This guy is just like "No, it's not. Do pratfalls or something." Okay, but no comedian just does pratfalls. You've got to make us like you and identify with you before we care enough to laugh at your pratfalls. And even then we'll only laugh at that so many times before it gets old.

I guess I agree with the rest of his comments, about how comedy doesn't need to be political to have value, and about how humor works, and how hard it is to do. But I think when he says "I don’t think comedy made things better or worse. It didn’t move the needle. [...] comedy was innocuous," that's just a cop out. The things we say matter, even when we're joking.
posted by OnceUponATime at 9:12 AM on May 13 [7 favorites]


(I posted too soon. Fuck it.)

insert: laugh track
posted by philip-random at 9:47 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


Kliph Nesterhoff is a national treasure.

He's Canadian so does that still count?
posted by Ashwagandha at 10:04 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


But I think when he says "I don’t think comedy made things better or worse. It didn’t move the needle. [...] comedy was innocuous," that's just a cop out. The things we say matter, even when we're joking.

I think the end of the interview, which is overall a good summation, speaks to this:

If anything, comedy might alleviate people’s stress about the political situation for a moment, which is a valid achievement. Making people laugh is a noble pursuit. Like I said before, everybody can make a serious point; everybody can have a political opinion. But not everybody can make people laugh. To compartmentalize one type of comedy as more important than the other is almost backwards. The part that makes you laugh is more important than the part that makes the point.

so yeah, it does matter what we say when we're joking, but not necessarily in what I'd call a political way (ie: working a particular ideology). There is, of course, the argument that "everything is political", but I've never bought into it. I can see how there are politics in everything, but that's a lot different from insisting that they are somehow the true measure of everything.
posted by philip-random at 10:14 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


There is, of course, the argument that "everything is political", but I've never bought into it. I can see how there are politics in everything, but that's a lot different from insisting that they are somehow the true measure of everything.

It sounds like you do in fact believe in what is meant by "everything is political" then.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:55 AM on May 13 [8 favorites]


not as I've seen some people work it. Everything becomes a battle. The measure of everything is how well it serves my side in that battle. I won't see that movie because [insert name here] is in it.

To be honest, I'm this way with Tom Cruise because of all the Scientology bullshit. Maybe I shouldn't be, but I am, particularly when he's being unambiguously heroic.
posted by philip-random at 11:17 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


I mean, the personal is political and all, but... I was trying to say I thought this guy should take more responsibility for the direct emotional effects his jokes have on his audience. Indirect political effects matter too, but even jokes which aren't "political" can be hurtful.

Or they can be super helpful, even therapeutic. Laughter is really good for us just on a biological level. It's just that being laughed at is probably not.

I've never heard of this guy, so maybe his comedy is actually just all watermelon-smashing physical comedy all the time. (Even that relies on making people uncomfortable, but it's just empathetic physical discomfort!)

But if he's not just watermelon and banana peel guy, then he should probably be thinking a little bit more about who is the butt of his jokes, rather than pretending that comedy is necessarily harmless.
posted by OnceUponATime at 12:13 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]


I think you're eliding a lot of the detail that led up to that statement, which does not read to me the way you seem to read it as a result. The preceding part of the interview is about how he built a routine and how many comedians would tend to work that out. This is spurred by Cohen recounting seeing a specific end joke get worked out over a number of days by another comedian. Then Nesterhoff gets to the part about Chapelle and Gadsby specifically ending their shows with bits that aren't intended to make someone laugh. When asked what he thinks about it, to me he's clearly saying that the laughter is of primary importance and without that you're not doing your job. It's not that you can't also do other things with comedy.

It actually had me thinking more about whether Nanette and even a couple of John Leguizamo's 90s shows in New York are comedy. I haven't answered that for myself yet, but at least initially, they're both contain funny things that elicit laughs, but this other dimension turns them into another vehicle. Like, if this were an essayist doing this type of show, we probably wouldn't be talking about them as comedies, definitely not as stand-up. So when a stand-up comedian does a one-person show that has this other dimension to it, does it have to necessarily be called stand-up comedy?
posted by Captaintripps at 12:36 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]


Excellent catch, chavenet.
posted by doctornemo at 12:46 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


So when a stand-up comedian does a one-person show that has this other dimension to it, does it have to necessarily be called stand-up comedy?

brings to mind an older friend (now gone) who was a huge jazz fan, Miles Davis in particular.

"So how'd you feel when he went electric?" I asked

"At first, I hated it. But then I guess I heard some of Bitches' Brew one night when I was little stoned, and I found myself liking it. And then I listened to it straight and I still liked it. So I thought, maybe it's just not jazz. Maybe it's something else that came from jazz, that would never have happened without the greatness of jazz. But no, it wasn't jazz. It was just ... music, I guess. A new form. Nothing wrong with a new form, though maybe that makes it more difficult to talk about."
posted by philip-random at 1:01 PM on May 13 [7 favorites]


(Seems like some of the discussion here might be missing that the interview subject is a historian/author, and hasn't done any standup himself in decades.)
posted by nobody at 3:39 PM on May 13 [6 favorites]


Guess I’m old-fashioned because I like to laugh at jokes, not nod along with profound liberal saddos or mean conservative shits. O tempora, o mores!
posted by cupcakeninja at 5:22 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Humor is good at sneaking points across battle lines. I’ve chuckled at memes that made points I disagreed with. They didn’t necessarily change my mind, but they got me to give up sort of a grudging “haha okay I see your point.”

That only works if what you’re doing is actually funny.
posted by panama joe at 7:17 PM on May 13 [6 favorites]


nobody: Seems like some of the discussion here might be missing that the interview subject is a historian/author, and hasn't done any standup himself in decades.

I find myself setting up a reference for later, all this discussion and no dissection of joking? Because you know that explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog, that nobody laughs and the frog is still dead?

There's also room for that Gary Larson cartoon saying "this step needs more detail" when Nesterhoff says "That’s sort of what separates the comedian from a musician or another artist: you have to practice to become a musician, but you just discover at a young age that when you speak in a room full of people, more often than not you’re making them laugh. "

His credibility failed with that, somehow an explainer of comedy waves his hands. He is blind to examples he cites later, both about refining jokes in front of audiences and about one act having the room is stitches but not fellow comedians at the back vs the audience not laughing while the fellow comedians respond like it's hilarious. To me, those examples say that there's skill in reading a room and working your storytelling to deliver suspense, relief, absurdity and surprise. There's the dissection, and the frog is still dead.

If the crowd are older, not progressives, or feel that their agency in the world is diminished by sharing with people who don't look like them, the tension, relief, absurdity and surprise will all come with racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia -- and nostalgia. (I don't think it's okay to punch down or tell these kind of jokes, this is intended to illustrate how a set works when you read the room.)
posted by k3ninho at 4:45 AM on May 14 [2 favorites]


So, did anybody else start humming Duke of Earl when they read Doukabours?
posted by y2karl at 10:03 AM on May 14 [1 favorite]


No, just Ferdinand the Impostor
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:01 PM on May 14


So, did anybody else start humming Duke of Earl when they read Doukabours?

So, maybe we could not treat the names of people's heavily persecuted ethnicities or religions like funny jokes in a post about how to do ethical comedy?
posted by adrienneleigh at 10:30 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


So guy was an insult comic, and I should care about his opinion of Nannette?

Nah.
posted by Vigilant at 12:13 AM on May 15


maybe we could not treat the names of people's heavily persecuted ethnicities or religions like funny jokes

and in recent news:

Seventy years after the British Columbia government forcibly removed dozens of children from their families and placed them in a province-run camp, some survivors and their descendants say a $10-million compensation package aimed at reconciliation falls short of their expectations.

and there's a movie ...

The Spirit Wrestlers


“The satisfaction of Hamm’s documentary is that it is subtle, balanced and seeks insights into the conflicted values and thinking of both sides…Hamm has done us all a great service. He reminds us just what can happen when the forces of righteous thinking are unleashed in the service of governments whose arrogance leads them to believe that talking with citizens who disagree with their policies is an intolerable waste of time.”
Stephen Hume, features writer, The Vancouver Sun

posted by philip-random at 8:09 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


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