The State of Comedy in 2014: A Roundtable Discussion

Is this the Golden Age? Without a doubt.

    Consequence of Sound has always had an affinity for the art of comedy. Whether it’s a great record or a rare festival appearance, we’ve tried to keep tabs on the scene’s pulse. Last year, we named Marc Maron our Comedian of the Year as part of our Annual Report. This year, however, that choice appears rather difficult with the competition growing by the week — no lie.

    To put things in perspective, we appointed a committee led by Michael Roffman, including Managing Editor Adam Kivel and senior staff writers Leah Pickett, Pat Levy, and Dan Pfleegor. We tried to keep our scope as wide as possible, but if we missed anything, join in on the discussion in the comments section below.

    Michael Roffman (MR): Right now, as I type this, I’m listening to the last episode of Adam Scott Aukerman’s U Talkin’ U2 To Me?, and shortly after, I’ll spend the next few hours cleaning up my podcast cache with either Earwolf’s Comedy Bang Bang, WTF with Marc Maron, Norm Macdonald Live, Doug Loves Movies, Who Charted?, You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes, yada, yada, yada. It’s almost the same thing with my nearby DVR, where I’m behind on IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang!, Inside Amy Schumer, Late Night with Seth Meyers, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Real Time with Bill Maher, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and Nathan for You, which then competes with my Netflix queue of Jim Jefferies’ Legit, Ricky Gervais’s An Idiot Abroad, and a number of comedy specials from either Sarah Silverman, Moshe Kasher, and that Earthquake Presents ensemble. So, I’m either a hoarder of comedy, or maybe, just maybe, this is a new golden era of comedy. Please tell me it’s the latter, folks. Please.


    dan-harmonAdam Kivel (AK): I think the diversity of the forms and outlets is the key. In the latest episode of Community creator Dan Harmon’s Harmontown podcast, the discussion got around (amidst topics on necrophilia, fear of flying, and a Dungeons and Dragons session) to comparing podcasting to the early days of talk shows, before they became pre-packaged, prepared anecdotes, and promotional wastelands. I believe Harmon’s example was John Lennon drinking with Truman Capote, which makes sense, considering he’s been throwing back vodka while onstage with everyone from Brody “Enjoy It!” Stevens to a net neutrality organizer. Oh, and yeah, he plays Dungeons and Dragons. In front of an audience. And people go wild for his character, Sharpie Buttsalot, casting Ray of Frost. But he’s also simultaneously the guy behind one of the most beloved cult TV shows of the past 10 years AND a cartoon that leapt near the top of the TV cult lineup in a single season. People with enough energy, ideas, and conviction can get their comedy (no matter how eccentric) to people in a variety of ways, from the loose podcast to the structured TV sitcom, and the audience can have access to something that hits them in whatever method they prefer.

    Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 12.17.30 PMDan Pfleegor (DP): It’s been an exciting few months for comedy. The AV Club’s 1st Annual 26th Annual Comedy Festival was a big success. Plus Nathan for You is back, and Tim Heidecker has also returned with season 5 of On Cinema. But I think, looking at the state of comedy as a whole, we’re starting to reach critical mass in terms of comedy podcasts or acts branching out into other mediums. Every stand-up now seems to have one, but only a few, such as Louie, Maron, and Comedy Bang! Bang!, mainlined well and carved out long-term, legitimate followings on the boob tube. This bottleneck reminds me of the early 1990’s, when comedians were flocking to the west coast and turning stage bits into 22-minute sitcoms, most of which were doomed to fail. Similarly, The Pete Holmes Show was just taken off the air. It spiraled out of control for a number of reasons, but I think more importantly, it stands as a high-water mark where the comedic tide of the triple threat of stand-up/podcast/TV show host receded. Are there any other acts that come to mind who are heading for a similar humbling fate?

    Pat Levy (PL): No one really comes to mind when I search for the next victim of the conundrum Dan just alluded to, but I think that’s because Pete Holmes was kind of set up to fail, unlike Aukerman and Maron. IFC is a safe haven of sorts for comedy, a place that allows for the creators to work with little interference from network execs, and Comedy Bang! Bang! and Maron needed an environment like that to properly transition an audio format into a visual one. Being on a premium cable network gave them the space to create their visions uninhibited, and as much as TBS might like to think it’s “very funny,” it’s still a basic cable channel that has to adhere to stricter content guidelines. You Made It Weird is a special kind of podcast, one that shines a light on comics’ stranger sides and allows them a platform to actually converse about things you wouldn’t on a talk show, and The Pete Holmes Show was maybe 50% of that and 50% cookie-cutter talk show. Had it been on IFC, a network still without a talk show, I imagine we’d still be watching today.


    kumail-2013While I agree that there is a critical mass of podcasts attempting to branch out, I see that more as a good thing than a bad. Yes, everyone and their mother has a podcast now, but that doesn’t mean they’re all good (they’re definitely not), and only the cream rises to the top. Recently, Kumail Nanjiani, another of the stand-up/TV/podcast triple threats Dan mentioned, started a new podcast called The X-Files-Files, where he and guests dissect episodes of the groundbreaking ’90s sci-fi procedural. He also co-hosts The Indoor Kids, a video-gaming podcast that his wife Emily Gordon also hosts. The first episode of his upcoming television show, The Meltdown, with Kumail and Jonah just premiered online, and he also plays a supporting role on my favorite show of 2014, Silicon Valley, as well as popping up in Portlandia bits to steal every scene he’s in. His most recent stand-up album, Beta Male, came out last year and received largely positive reviews. This is who I think is the greatest triple threat of them all, because none of these things have anything to do with the others. No two mediums are connected by the same concept, proving his versatility and ingenuity.

    In 2014, comedy is not just whether or not you’re funny. It’s whether or not your humor is able to span a number of different forms and maintain not only comedic results but also your individual voice.

    MR: Jeez, Pat. Did you just get your check from Nanjiani’s PR or what? [Laughs.] Just kidding. I think it’s obvious why there’s such a boom, and while Harmon makes a brilliant point in referring back to the original talk shows of yesteryear, perhaps he’s underestimating the degree of intensity at hand here. Never in the history of entertainment have there been so many platforms to speak from, and for an entertainer, it’s a startling sandbox. For a comedian, however, it’s a wet dream. And what happens when there are so many voices out there? Only the most vital and clever turn our heads, which explains why so many of the acts we’ve discussed here are geniuses at subversion. Aukerman, Heidecker, Fielder, and Harmon have stretched and pulled the meta tag so many times that it’s wholly undefinable. Post-ironic? Pseudo-intellectual intellectualism? Nothing comes to mind.


    On the other end of the meta spectrum, we’re also seeing comics shatter the fourth wall and bring in their audiences. Amy Schumer never hesitates to tell us every squirming detail, Maron lets us in on his personal life two times a week, and Holmes has found a niche for himself in making people realize being secretive is actually weirder than keepin’ it real. Blame social networking or reality television, but a comedian’s way of not holding back today is by letting us into every personal detail of his life. Of course, not everyone’s doing this. Louis CK, for instance, has opted instead to meld life with art. And four seasons later, Louis CK has crafted a surreal world that blurs the line between fiction, reality, and the pitfalls of our own subconscious.


    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    Leah Pickett (LP): Okay, here comes the lady chiming in for the ladies. Mike mentions Inside Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman up top, but what about Broad City, a hilarious webseries-turned-Comedy Central show created by Upright Citizen Brigade alums Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer? And what about other certified funny ladies like Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Kristin Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, Issa Rae, Jessica Williams, Carrie Brownstein, Kristen Schaal, Jenny Slate, Megan Amram, Kulap Vilaysack (who, besides being Scott Aukerman’s wife, is a wickedly funny comedian in her own right) and comedic lady-led podcasts like Vilaysack’s Who Charted?, Cameron Esposito’s Put Your Hands Together, and Julie Klausner’s How Was Your Week?

    The podcast omissions are especially relevant. Last year, Third Coast Artistic Director Julie Klausner reported that men host 71 percent of the most popular podcasts. Obviously, the “women aren’t funny” argument doesn’t hold water; watching a female-led film like Bridesmaids or listening to a podcast like I Seem Fun: The Diary of Jen Kirkman clearly nullifies the point. But comedy is still very much a man’s world, particularly in the chest-puffing arenas of stand-up, sketch, and even podcasts. You have to have balls — the gender-nonexclusive, proverbial kind — to make it big. Unfortunately, women are often underestimated, or worse, totally invalidated, before they even take the stage.


    Sure, I like Louie, Maron, and Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show as much as the next guy or gal. But I felt compelled to bring up the oversight, and the fact that funny women are usually a) left out of these conversations altogether, whether it’s intentional or not, or b) tacked on as an afterthought.

    P.S. I know you guys are an open-minded bunch and totally think women are funny. What I’m wondering is this: why do you think male comedians, and male-led podcasts especially, continue to dominate the playing field?

    gobaysideAK: A good specific comparison of that would be X-Files Files and April Richardson’s Go Bayside! The latter follows a nearly identical premise to Nanjiani’s show; in each episode of Go Bayside!, Richardson and a guest watch an episode of Saved by the Bell and then tear it to shreds in a loving way. The podcast similarly runs on nostalgia, its host is consistently hilarious, and the TV show it follows has its own cult following. Yet, it didn’t receive the kind of insane attention that X-Files Files did immediately upon its launch.


    Could that be tied to the fact that Kumail is more famous from his TV appearances? Quite likely. And, yeah, I’d wager a good majority of those most popular podcasts hosted by males are hosted by males who were famous before they had a podcast. Podcasting is a growing industry in which the early favorites are holdovers from the non-podcasting world; by which I mean, maybe the lack of diversity is a holdover from a lack of diversity (either institutional or enforced) from the entertainment world of past generations, and hopefully as podcasting grows into its own in the mainstream, a means towards its own end, that will change.

    There are some examples of that already. When looking at major podcasting networks, Feral Audio runs six podcasts with at least one female host, Earwolf runs five, Maximum Fun runs seven, and Nerdist runs nine. Chelsea Peretti’s Call Chelsea Peretti has been a part of her continuing rise in prominence (along with a spotlight-stealing turn on Brooklyn 99 and an excellent stand-up career). You mentioned Who Charted (and I’m a serious Chartist), and though Howard Kremer had his own show on MTV long before the podcast, Kulap is just as essential to the show’s formula and beloved by fans.

    On the Nerdist-run JV Club, Janet Varney sits down with another female guest every week. Max Fun features a show about motherhood (One Bad Mother) and another show hosted by women with almost exclusively female guests (Lady to Lady). It also, for that matter, hosts Throwing Shade (which aims to “look at all the issues important to ladies and gays”) and The Goosedown, hosted by two African American comedians, Jasper Redd and Kimberly Clark. And these are just from those specific networks, and they’re all funny, excellent podcasts.


    We as a community just need to shed more light on examples like these and continue to push for this sort of diversity, because these shows deserve just as much attention as your set of classic, pre-podcast-famous, old white dudes like Joe Rogan and Adam Carolla.

    garfunkel-oatesMR: Yeah, I don’t think female comedy is out of the spotlight. Look at IFC, where you can’t turn on the TV without hearing about Garfunkel & Oates, or Comedy Central, where Inside Amy Schumer episodes play again and again, or how about regular network programming such as Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl, Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, and Amy Poehler’s exceptional run for Parks and Recreation. Look at Saturday Night Live, too, where Kate McKinnon is the show’s best star now? The stand-up scene is just as prolific. Look at Funny or Die’s upcoming Oddball Comedy and Curiosity tour, which features headliners Silverman and Schumer in addition to Whitney Cummings. Granted, they could have added far more female talent to its undercard, but I think it says something when the festival bill can have two female headliners in what used to be a male-dominated field.

    But it’s changing fast. Adam outlined a number of podcasts, a medium that tends to populate the scene, and lately a number of female comedians have been rising to the top. Maria Bamford, Cameron Esposito, the great Tig Notaro, and more recently Lauren Lapkus, Nikki Glaser, and Natasha Leggero all come to mind as must-hear guests on every podcast, which has since cultivated a community that appears to be growing by the week. Still, I understand your point, Leah, and for every female guest, there are always two or three male comedians to join them, which isn’t exactly unfortunate (they’re mostly all talented), but rather telling of the male-centric scene. But like I said, I think it’s changing, especially as more female comedians are offering truths typically unheard.


    Like … We know guys are dickheads and schmucks and conniving pieces of shit … both male and female comedians prove that each and every stand-up. What’s intriguing is that more and more female comics are offering the same angle on their own gender, which has blurred the gender lines somewhat in a fascinating way. It doesn’t have to be gross-out humor either, like Silverman, Handler, and Schumer trademark, but also unique observations on society that have been typically male-led in the past by the likes of Carlin, Hicks, or C.K..

    I’m curious, though. Leah, what are some areas that female comedians could improve upon? Or what are some facets to their comedy that might be problematic? For example, I know some women take offense with how grotesque Schumer, Silverman, and Handler get in their bits, considering it “trolling” on some levels. What do you think?