Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Stand-up comedy and our reptile brains

Note: HC wrote this guest post; LFC furnished the title. The post contains some language that certain readers may find offensive.

Bro (that’s me) and LFC went to a comedy club (actually a cinema-'n-draft-house doubling as a comedy club) on Saturday night. We originally set out to see a movie but got lost in Arlington (Va.) because I had jotted down the Google directions without looking at the Google map (always a mistake); so, in a decision that would have made André Breton proud, we gave up hope of making the movie (Doubt) and pulled up at a random movie house whose marquis advertised something starting at exactly the time it then was (9:45).

Turned out the thing advertised, Doug Benson, was not a movie at all but a stand-up comic best known for his jokes about pot and his movie about smoking too much of it (Super High Me). We had traded Doubt for Doug, exchanged a highbrow film with some capital-a acting for jokes about jacking off and gays. Whee! Plus everyone was smoking (cigarettes), there was no noticeable ventilation, and it was one of those bars where they had the contract with Heineken not Becks, which is almost as bad as Pepsi not Coke.

Doug himself was highbrow compared to the warm-up acts, which I don’t really remember, but I’ll try. Each guy had his schtick. The black guy talked about sex. Funniest bit was about getting old, which was not affecting his sex drive but was affecting his drive to do the stuff it took to get sex. First white guy talked about sex too, starting off with a joke designed to trigger/allay the anxieties of the guys in the audience. (Does size matter? Of course it does. You gals need to stay small and tight. I don’t want to be f---ing an open car door.) He also made jokes about his weight even though he was not really fat, just as the black guy was not really old. Second white guy did physical comedy about how he was a yellow belt in karate and how those karate moves (like the palm strike) were so gay.

Then came third white guy and main act of the evening, Doug, who seemed smart enough to know the audience, for the most part, probably wasn’t. He acted high, shuffling around the stage and reading jokes from napkins, then putting them either in the right (“yes”) pocket or the left (“no”) pocket of his vinyl windbreaker depending on crowd reaction. He had a patrician manner and occasionally used some big words and even made one joke about politics: McDonald's is a democracy because you get a choice of bacon or sausage on your McGriddles, unlike Florida and Michigan, where you don’t have a vote.

Doug was a method actor inhabiting a role. He probably rubbed his eyes a lot just to make them look bloodshot. Probably not that far from Philip Seymour Hoffmann in Doubt after all. The role allowed Doug to get away with some sophisticated stuff, because among your average kids today (by “kids” I mean anyone under 40 taking a date to a comedy club) being stoned seems to excuse all kinds of things, like word play and caring about politics, that would otherwise just be gay.

All in all it was pretty depressing but I admire any kind of public performance and I also admired the way the comics stood in the lobby afterward next to their CDs and t-shirts (their “merch” as Doug said) while the crowd avoided eye contact and filed by into the drizzly night.

Postscript. Did you see the piece in the NY Times the other day about how it’s hard to remember puns because the act of getting them resolves them so thoroughly that they are wiped out of our memory banks? I wonder if that’s true for jokes in general. Which would mean that comedians are bards, keeping alive an oral tradition that we can’t lodge in our heads. (Have you heard the one about x? Maybe, but tell us again, we can’t remember.) To put it another way, comedians are the collective memory of our reptile brains. Another Heineken please. I like the red star on the label.

-- HC

No comments: