Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sever Notion

When accused of bias against the young, I flinch. Really? Do I emit that vibe? I hope not, because that's nowhere near the truth.

I got called on this during my NYC stint, after bitching about tepid bits and lax execution. Were performers more original when I was twentysomething? I was asked. In some areas, yes, decidedly so. Experimentation and explosion of forms resonated with numerous comics, though only a few made the conceptual leap to fresher ground. Once commodification expanded, comedy became yet another product, cranked out for mass consumption. An old radical slogan, Capitalism Is Killing Music, while true, could easily have been applied to comedy. Most comics not only welcomed this, they happily marched to the Flavor-Aid vats, party cups in hand.

What I've experienced so far in New York confirms this. Not that there aren't funny young people, but the form is so rigid and one-dimensional that it's nearly impossible to create something new. This also applies to sketch comedy. I spent one evening at UCB's Sketchfest, taking in young comedy groups, and I was shocked by their timidity, lack of social awareness, reliance on catchphrases, and glaring predictability (a Mad Men parody with stale drinking jokes; a "weird" sketch turns into the Twilight Zone, complete with familiar theme music -- this is 2010, right?). These were ostensibly the best groups in town, and much of their material was obvious and strained. Yet the young audience loved it. What's my problem?

I went to Sketchfest wanting to be wowed. Knock me on my aging ass. Shatter my brainpan. Make me pine for the comfort of Hee-Haw. If you won't be experimental when young, at what point will you ignore the rules? Judging from the jokes and repeated catchphrases, these kids are looking for an SNL or kindred pre-chewed gig where they can plug into the machine and get paid. Understandable. Were I their age, I'd probably do the same thing. What career choice do they have? The pigs have won and maintain control. If you can't write swine humor, your options are limited. Excuse me if I find this depressing.

What really pissed me off was the cartoon performance art display in the East Village. Penny's Open Mic is advertised as a freeform celebration of personal expression. No heckling allowed, sympathetic applause encouraged. We're all in it together. What bullshit. The front end of the show was loaded with Penny's friends and cronies, all of whom went well over the seven minute limit and received no light. After one egregious example, a young woman who sang amusing songs while jumping in and out of the audience, pushed 15 minutes, I yelled out, "Seven more minutes!" Penny responded that this was a special case, that her friend was going to Edinburgh Festival Fringe and needed the stage time. She then hit up the audience for donations, the first of many pleas.

It was a clumsy con job, and soon many people left. On the way out, I told the ticket taker that this was the most dishonest open mic I'd yet seen. She smiled, raised her pierced eyebrows, said nothing. Tattooed hustlers used to work carnivals. Now they operate near Avenue A. At least the tourists will feel at home.

Grumbling aside, none of this has any negative effect on The Project. I merely yearn for material that pushes and challenges, for there's plenty of creative energy in those spaces. I hear LA has a more expansive scene. I look forward to finding out. Until then, it's NYC through the fall and possibly the end of the year. For all my complaints, I still love that motherfucking city. So much so it drives me mad.

BETWEEN COASTS: Bob Odenkirk, who knows a few things about comedy, says that Chicago is the place to be.

"The things going on in improv and sketch and theatre in Chicago, that’s not duplicated anywhere. That amount of people, experiment, and honest excitement about what you’re doing as opposed to just career enhancement. If you go to New York and L.A., it’s just so much more about, 'How this can get me from here to there,' instead of, 'Let’s all do this cool thing.'"

Hmmm. Chicago, eh?