Standup comedy, like science, is so full of technical terms and necessary context that it really can only be covered correctly by a specialist. It’s a beat, when reported on properly, or else you get questions from hometown papers and even big-time television programs striving for new comedy insights asking things like, “Gosh, don’t you get nervous up there?” People usually, somehow, manage to ask that twice. Then they’ll ask a clean comic if they ever get in trouble for saying something “too edgy,” and someone with the most hacky jokes how he manages to come up with this stuff!? It’s rarely pretty.
Denver Post ‚ journalist John Wenzel covers comedy. It’s his beat.‚ So he’s not completely the worst at it. He also has pretty good taste in comedy, and in the course of his reporting, he’s even stumbled upon something worthy of a book, Mock Stars. ‚ The book talks about a do-it-yourself trend in comedy that,‚ over the last ten years or so, has led to a “hipster-leaning offshoot” where standup, sketch, videos and everything else you can think of in comedy have become more independent from the practical constraints and indirect artistic limitations of mainstream venues. (Let’s not call it a “movement” until it all moves away from traditional comedy clubs entirely, which may or may not ever happen.)‚
Wenzel traces the similarities between indie music and indie comedy. And like a band you’ve never heard of, he thinks you really need to check this out. This comedy is for anyone “who finds most mainstream comedy boring, irrelevant, insulting, or worse-soul destroying,” Wenzel writes. Or for those who have “grown numb to the litany of ways white people are not like black people.”
Stylistically, indie comedy leans toward the absurdist, painfully self-aware or cynical as well as comedy that “challenges the audience to come to it, rather than offering safer, low-calorie humor.” Wenzel writes how there was a time after the “Ëœ80s comedy boom when, for many people, the idea of going to a comedy club, with its cheap laughs, expensive covers and often racist or sexist undertones, was one of the least cool things you could do. That’s a sentiment and a caricature, or stereotype really, of comedy that persists today-somehow simultaneously with the equally untrue notion that all comedy is “cutting edge,” saying what no one else will. For the reader who either thought that most comedy stinks because it’s lame or that the stuff he or she has seen is the best and all that’s out there, this book will be an eye-opener.
Indie comedy is more likely to appear in your local rock club than comedy club, Wenzel writes, though it can really happen anywhere. And don’t confuse indie with underground. Indie comedy exists off some people’s radar, but it’s become more often something parallel to the mainstream. Oh yeah, and the most important shibboleth and shared sentiment of indie comedy, according to Wenzel: It’s for people who like Mr. Show.
Wenzel’s depiction of the development seems at its strongest not when he claims music and comedy go well together on the same bill-which is entirely true with strong, disaster-avoiding caveats (daytime shows with bands who differ ideologically from the comedians are hard!)-or even when he shows how this independent comedy had its roots in some comedians being fans of certain bands and eventually collaborating. Rather, it’s when he highlights how indie music’s propensity to take chances with its audiences, its sensibilities and the actual infrastructure of indie music, the smelly-yet-backhandedly welcoming clubs, cheap beers, the cynical-yet-open-minded crowds who frequent them, have very often perfectly suited the performers who have come up this way in the last ten years. The book is a series of portraits of those people: David Cross on Mr. Show, his tours around the time of 2001 and the album he released on an indie music label; Patton Oswalt’s “The Comedians of Comedy” tour; and even MTVs Human Giant and Adult Swim’s Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, which Wenzel holds up as that sensibility of indie comedy-developed at a handful of amazing self-produced comedy shows in LA, Boston, San Francisco and New York-continuing to show up on national television.