I haven’t been to a comedy club in years. The standups I want to see (e.g. John Mulaney, Kathleen Madigan, Brian Regan, Paula Poundstone) have all graduated to playing bigger venues that don’t have a two-drink minimum. But on a recent road trip, I had an evening free and decided to go see what the current comedy club scene is like.
One thing I remembered to do was tell the staffer seating audience members to not put me anywhere near the stage. I prefer to be towards the back of the room, where I can be a passive observer and not the target of some lame comic’s “crowd work.” The problem is that every comic picks on those same people up front, so if there’s anything unusual about them, we hear it over and over again. Yes, his name is Thor. Yes, she’s an earthworm biologist. We don’t need every comic to pick on them with ad libs that repeatedly miss the mark.
The night I was there, two older guys with service dogs were seated at the table right in front of the stage. I noticed them as I walked in and rolled my eyes, knowing this would be the go-to meme of the next two hours. Sure enough, not one of the dozen comics who took the stage failed to notice them and comment. They acted surprised to see the dogs, as if they were the first ones that night to notice there were non-human animals in the room.
I kept wondering why the woman who was emceeing didn’t report the presence of the dogs to the other comics waiting at the bar for their chance to go on. That way they wouldn’t be surprised, followed by stumbling around for something clever to say about the pooches. Certainly, after the first three or four comedians had fallen into this trap, word should have gotten back to those who would follow: yeah, there are two dogs in your line of sight, but just ignore them! Not one of them was able to. The penultimate comic actually spent more time on — and paid more attention to — the dogs than the humans in the room, bending down to pet them and make those dumb “who’s a good boy?” remarks in a sickening baby voice.
The show was already bad, as none of these comics had an original line of thinking about anything, and most of them went for sexual or scatalogical material because it can sometimes get a cheap laugh. I know that comedy clubs are where standups go to work out new material or to hone bits they’ve been working on for weeks, but they usually have some tried-and-true good stuff to surround the virgin material. There was no evidence of that among the performers I sat through.
Still, they probably all thought they did well. There were a few people in the crowd who laughed at anything any comic said — even the setups before the punchlines — which was either an indicator they’d had too much alcohol or too little exposure to really good standups.
The emcee introduced each of them with superlatives from the Jimmy Fallon playbook: “Coming to the stage now is one of the most talented people I’ve ever known” or “She’s not just gorgeous, but she’s funnier than anyone you’ll ever see” or “You’ve seen him on the hugely popular (name any TV show no one watches).” If I were taking the stage that night, I would have told her to tone down the hype, because it was so over the top it might have made audience members think there was an actually famous comic there to do a drop-in set. Thankfully, Louis CK was masturbating somewhere else that evening. Instead, we got one after another mediocre-at-best hacks whose names I couldn’t remember ten seconds after they left the stage.
One of the final three comics was some guy who did some impressions (“the best ever,” we were told by the emcee, who had obviously never seen Rich Little, Frank Caliendo, Jim Meskimen, or Darrell Hammond). There are two potential problems with impressionists. One is that they can’t do the voices that well. The other is that they have the voice down but no material to make the voice funny. The latter was the case with this guy. He’d no doubt spent hours perfecting the vocal tics of whoever he impersonated, but he’d failed to write jokes for them. Then, after he finished three or four — without a punchline in sight — he actually stopped and asked the audience, “Who else do you want to hear?”
I had to keep myself from shouting, “A comedian with talent!”