The Shift of Schtick

Stand-up comedians now fill a multitude of niches


Published: Sunday, May 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 1, 2005 at 12:51 a.m.
Like jazz, stand-up comedy is both an American invention and harder than it looks: A lone entertainer with nothing but a microphone stands before an audience and tries to make it laugh.
There was a time when stand-up comedians cast themselves as deviants and rebels - Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin - and their outsider acts were often aggressive, built around risk, designed to freak the squares.
''They used to scare the crap out of you,'' says Dennis Miller, a stand-up and host of his own CNBC show.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the comedy club. The stand-up comedian became our special friend. A cheerleader. The comics may still be as talented (or not) as ever, but it's a different kind of laugh.
The major trend for stand-up today is to fill the niche: a demographically appropriate stand-up for every demographic.
At the comedy clubs, there's Latino Night, which the Hollywood Improv calls Mi Orgullo, or My Pride, Night. Not to be left out, the comedy clubs also routinely book ''Asian Invasion'' nights, and ''Mo Betta Mundays'' and ''Chocolate Sundaes'' (for African-Americans), sometimes called ''urban nights'' at the clubs.
Dom Irrera, an Italian-American comic, predicts ''Russian Peasant Night'' coming soon to a club near you. This niche marketing is fine, Irrera says. But safe.
''It's become a family affair. Tribal. And now all the tribes get to elect their own jester,'' says Will Durst, a veteran stand-up from San Francisco, who does a political act from the left. ''It's like a revival tent out there.''
Today's stand-up comedian understands. It is the joke of affirmation, of shared culture and experience. Comic as empath. What the New York Times critic Charles Isherwood, in a slightly different context, called ''comfort comedy,'' the macaroni and cheese of joke-telling.
''I hadn't thought of it that way, but yeah, it's all about the niche now, isn't it?'' says Lewis Black, the exasperated ranter on Comedy Central's ''The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.''
''It makes sense,'' Black says, ''because in America we evolved 10,000 different cuisines.''
And so goes the stand-up. On many nights at a comedy club, the audience and act are coming from the same place. The audience that goes to hear Margaret Cho doesn't go to see Larry the Cable Guy.
Jamie Masada, owner of the Laugh Factory in New York and Los Angeles, says the niche marketing of comics ''is not to segregate but to bring us together.''
But the audience appears to be segregating. You get a black crowd for black comics, Latinos for Latinos. ''They're there to support each other,'' Masada says. ''You know, a lot of comedy comes from pain, and with these focused nights, they can relate to that. It speaks to their life experiences.''
On a recent Latino Night at the Laugh Factory here, one stand-up after another did his routine - meditations on sex and Mexican-American ethnicity. Some of them also took time to make gentle fun of the few whites in the audience.
''Any white people here?'' asks Fernando Flores. ''What? You guys make a wrong turn? We got White Wednesdays. Come back then.''
''It's like we're all so thin-skinned we have to stick with our own little cadre,'' says Miller.
Good for business But this targeted comedy is also about business - a marketing trick to get fannies in seats, say the comics. And it has provided access.
''The niche market is this really huge thing now,'' says Suzanne Westenhoefer, a lesbian stand-up. ''Because otherwise, there'd be no other way to get work, unless you're a white boy comic.'' (Most headliners remain white, heterosexual males.) Beyond race and ethnicity, there are NASCAR comics and southern comics - most popularly, the Blue Collar Comedy Tour (a quartet of millionaire faux-rednecks like Jeff Foxworthy pretending to be trailer trash).
Gay and lesbian? You can go to ''Gender Blender'' night or ''Ladies Night.'' We've come a long way, baby, since April 30, 1997, when Ellen DeGeneres caused a national sensation by coming out of the closet on her TV show.
Religion? No problem. Take your pick.
''I can offer a client a Baptist comic if that's what they're looking for,'' says Gail Stocker, a consultant who provides ''corporate comedy'' for business clients who want the appropriate comic fit for their sales conventions and annual meetings and company retreats.
Stocker says that corporations have gotten over their fear of employing comics for their gatherings.
''At first they were leery,'' says Stocker, who has worked with dozens of Fortune 500 companies. ''They want to be sure no one is going to be offended.''
And no one is.
On her Web site, Stocker offers the right fit. Female or feminist? Naughty or clean? You want an Asian comedian? ''Conservative or liberal - for every type of corporate event. Our Asian comedians are among the most sought after in the world of corporate comedy. Asian comics are in high demand due to their ability to connect with their audience through a specialized brand of humor.''
Female or feminist? Naughty or clean? How about a Muslim comic?
Currently working the ''Allah Made Me Funny Tour'' are Azeem, Azhar Usman and Preacher Moss, playing at mosques, schools and theaters.
''We believe the world needs healing,'' explains Moss, a Sunni Muslim who has written for George Lopez's TV show. ''We're navigating to somewhere we've never been and never been done. And we're blessed to be doing something so purposeful.''
What kind of bits do Moss and his colleagues do? Jokes about security at airports are big. Also, bits on ''the conversion experience.''
Example: Moss, an African-American who converted to Islam (his family is Baptist), says an immigrant from India asks him, ''How long has it been since you left black?'' And Moss says, ''You leave your car keys, maybe you leave your wife, but you never leave black.''
Ba-dum-bumm.
Healing is in.
Scott Blakeman, an American Jew, and Dean Obeidallah, an American whose father is Palestinian, have been touring together to promote Middle East peace.
''Be nice.'' That's Westenhoefer's advice to rising lesbian comics in an interview on the Web site AfterEllen.org, devoted to lesbians in entertainment and media. ''Being an obnoxious brat is so last decade.''
The anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote that comics work the terrain where power is confronted, and that a joke was ''a victorious tilting of uncontrol against control . . . of unofficial values over official ones.''
Perhaps that is true. Nowadays, though, the new bits are intended not to pierce but to mend.
Watch Black, the populist angry man, on the DVD of his concert show ''Black on Broadway.'' Black tells a joke. The camera pans to the audience for the obligatory reaction shot.
The people are clapping.
Which is very different from laughing.
Black says, for example, the Republicans are the party of bad ideas. The Democrats are the party of no ideas. ''And the only thing dumber than a Republican or a Democrat'' - Black makes his sucking-on-a-lemon face - ''is when these two . . . work together!''
Polite applause. Meaning: You go, Lewis. Couldn't agree more. Tell us another one.
It is not that Black is not funny. Depending on your bent, he is. Rather, it's the type and style of stand-up that seems to have shifted, and that audiences appreciate a kind of humor that feels comfortable, one that does not offend sensibilities, but enforces them.
Black says about the clapping: ''I think it's a 'we agree.' It's a form of recognition. Like, I get the joke. I really get the joke.'' But he understands this is less. ''Because applause is fine, but you want them to laugh.''
Applause is brain. Laugh is gut.
''When you get applause,'' says Westenhoefer, ''it's because you did a cheerleader line. Maybe you're preaching to the choir.''
'Satire is fading'
Comedy club owner Masada says the trend in stand-up is ''the material everybody relates to.'' Political humor, actually, is not hot on the club circuit. ''Current affairs is good, but political satire is fading,'' Masada says.
''I think you see a lot of safe politics,'' says B.J. Novak, a stand-up in Los Angeles' alternative comic scene and a writer and actor on the NBC show ''The Office.'' ''It's vaguely confrontational, but it won't really offend.''
Take the comedic stylings of Leno, gentle and bipartisan. A joke, for example, that makes fun of Bush's accent or John Kerry's stiffness. ''But it's not going to enrage the average Bush supporter or the average Kerry supporter,'' says Novak.
When Black takes meetings in Los Angeles to talk about film or TV projects, he says it's funny that the executives think of his act as ''edgy.'' ''I've got a fairly family-friendly audience,'' Black says. ''Families coming with their kids. They say I'm edgy. What? My audience is like Christian comedy night. Except they have more teeth in their heads.''
That last bit was a joke, of course. But Black probably didn't mean to offend anybody.

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