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Jeff Maurer's Blog
Thursday, 20 January 2011
Alternative Comedy Cliches
Topic: comedy

"Alternative comedy" is one of those phrases like "urban" or "developing world": it's a fuzzy label with no clear parameters. But at the very least, it implies something that is different: it's the alternative to something, presumably "mainstream" comedy. And alt-comics and alt-comedy fans certainly don't think of themselves as behind the curve; they think of themselves as fresh, edgy, innovative and experimental...pushing the boundaries of comedy forward. That's the idea, at least.

Lately I've been wondering: is there anything at all fresh or innovative about alternative comedy (please note: I am often considered an alt-comic. Especially when I'm wearing my glasses)? Is it really edgy or experimental in any way? Or is it just a style of comedy, i.e. comedy performed by a person with at least one of the following: a beard, glasses, or an ironic sweater/t-shirt?  

Alt-comedy stock material is starting to emerge. There are several themes and gimmicks that reoccur way, way too often for my taste. Every style of comedy has its clichés. Def jam comics (not a euphemism for black comics - def jam is its own style) always talk about credit, ugly women, and getting hit by their parents. Redneck comics always talk about how stupid they are, immigrants, and getting hit by their parents. And now, there's a catalogue of boilerplate alt-comic material that we should recognize as hack. Here are some of the alt-comedy clichés that I've noticed:

Stories about trivial stuff that will never happen to anyone else. This one bugs me more than everything else on this list combined. Look, not every joke needs to be social commentary, and if something trivial but funny happens to me, I'll talk about it on stage. But I sometimes wonder if alternative comics just wander around the city all day just waiting for an animal or homeless person to do something weird. To be clear: these stories are about NOTHING. They're not indicative of societal trends, they in no way represent relatable life experiences. They're just quirky, random stuff that has never happened to anyone else and never will. They go something like this:

"I was walking down the street and I saw a rat wearing a tophat with a baby's rattle in its mouth!"

First of all: no you weren't. That didn't happen. I know that comedy stories are massaged and embellished, and I'm sure that quirky, wacky stuff happens to comedians from time to time, but there is statistically no way that this many quirky things are happening to this many alternative comics. And, again, I'm fine with embellishment: Louis CK said in an interview that his bit about people whining because the high-speed internet on an airplane didn't work didn't happen exactly the way he tells it. Which is fine with me; the anecdote is a totally believable story meant to illustrate people's attitudes. The joke is about people's entitled attitudes; the story is just a way to introduce the topic. But if your whole joke is about the funny thing that happened in the story, you really shouldn't make that up.

Second: even if that did happen, who cares? That didn't happen to anyone in the room, and it never will. Alternative comics always shit on late-80s-style observational comedy in large part because it's so trivial. And it is trivial: who honestly cares about soup and shoelaces and M&Ms? But what could be more trivial than some random thing that happened one time to one person and will never happen to anyone ever again? Who gives a shit? I can't believe that this type of storytelling is so common in a genre that constantly pats itself on the back for being edgy and original.

Shock humor, especially racist humor. Sarah Silverman and Daniel Tosh have taught us that you can say the most horrible things imaginable as long as you smirk your way out of it afterwards. And you know what: I think that's funny sometimes. I get it: the joke isn't about what you said, the joke is about how horrible it would be for someone to actually say that. When done cleverly, that can be funny. But it's really getting over-used; I'm starting to think that some Daniel Tosh fans must enjoy his humor in a completely non-ironic way. And a really shitty shock-comic is maybe the most unbearable thing in comedy: after your first two jokes, I get it - the next joke will be about hitting a kid, or deporting an immigrant, or killing a puppy. You can play Guess the Punchline with near 100% accuracy. We shouldn't think of comics as "edgy" or "bold" just because they say offensive things. Shock humor has been around forever, and this particular style of shock humor has been around at least since South Park first aired in 1997. It's stale.

Redneck jokes. We get it: they're not very smart. Now, I'm definitely in favor of making fun of the stupid and irrational things that people do - that's basically what comedy is. But the joke needs to be more than just "look at these fucking hicks!". Actually tell a joke; don't just go "NASCAR, Cracker Barrel, Jesus!", even though that will work. Make an observation about something in particular. And try to avoid painting with a broad brush; it's disconcerting when you see that the snotty, elitist attitude that people like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh are always complaining about actually does exist. 

Reading stuff on stage. I'm guilty of this one (appetizer joke, bible joke), but I'm starting to notice: this is being done a lot. I mean A LOT. If you work for a cable or cell phone company, don't let a comic goad you into a lengthy e-mail exchange - they're preparing material for a bit. Although they'll probably just write your part for you even if you don't reply.

The thing that goes on too long. I can't fucking believe how often the writers of Family Guy go back to this well. For how long will people still find this joke funny? The first time I remember seeing it was when Sideshow Bob stepped on rake after rake after rake during a Simpsons episode that aired in 1993. Norm McDonald would do it on Weekend Update with his ridiculously long pauses after "...or so the Germans would have us believe." How can anyone still find this funny? It's the alt-equivalent of a list joke. 

"Why does he sound like...?" after doing a voice. If you mime something or do a voice and then legitimately react to something unusual that you did...fine. That's not pre-meditated. But don't intentionally do a voice that you've been doing every night for a year and then say "why does he sound like Scrooge McDuck? I don't know." It doesn't bother me because it's insincere - having to perform every night requires that comedy be somewhat insincere. It bothers me because it's predictable and easy.

The quirky song that intentionally isn't good. This one only applies to musical comedy, which is a sketchy neighborhood to begin with. But I can't believe that audiences still laugh at this: "ryhme, ryhme, ryhme, line that doesn't rhyme/probably ends with 'bitch'." Or "ryhme, ryhme, ryhme, non-sequitur that only exists to make the song rhyme." Congratulations: you are now ripping off Adam Sandler circa 1992. Real edgy. 

That's my list. And to be clear: there's no particular topic or joke structure - on this list or otherwise - that I view as inherently hack. It all depends on the joke. And I admit to having done some version of just about all of these at one point or another. It's also worth noting that the really GOOD alt-comics - the Patton Oswalts and Paul F. Tompkins of the world - don't really do any of these things. But I don't think that the alternative comedy label or the alternative comedy circuit will be going away any time soon, so we should try to insist that comedy that claims to be edgy, new, and different actually be exactly that. It needs to be about originality, not glasses. 

 


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 3:24 PM EST
Updated: Thursday, 20 January 2011 3:29 PM EST
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Thursday, 6 January 2011
Soccer blogs for Washington Post
Topic: soccer

For a while now, I've been blogging about soccer for the Washington Post. The links are below, and I'll post them here from time to time, though you can always find them here: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/box-seats/jeff_maurer/

 

They're mostly about DC United (it's a Washington paper, after all), but there are some national team ones mixed in there. I particularly recommend the ones from France, Germany, and the Netherlands (mid-October); those were fun to write and are different from all the others.

 

Ignoring the burning wreckage, part 2: the defense, January 4, 2011 

Is United cheap?, December 21, 2010 

MLS re-entry draft, part 2: the Re-Re-Entrying, December 15, 2010 

The World Cup will not bring soccer to the Middle East, December 13, 2010 

MLS re-entry draft - who should United take?, December 8, 2010 

World Cup bid voting patterns make no sense, December 3, 2010 

Things to be thankful for as World Cup decision day nears, December 1, 2010

 

A parable about Ben Olsen, November 30, 2010
Expansion draft: United lose Graye and Wallace, gain McCarty, November 26, 2010
MLS proposes changes...oh, and Colorado are the champs, November 23, 2010
USA vs. South Africa game diary and player ratings, November 18, 2010
An open letter from MLS Commissioner Don Garber to Colorado and Dallas, November 15, 2010
Ignoring the burning wreckage: part 1, November 3, 2010
What do the Dutch think of the U.S. national team?, October 26, 2010
What do Germans think of the U.S. national team?, October 18, 2010
What do the French think of the U.S. national team?, October 13, 2010
A look ahead at the US National Team, October 8, 2010
DC United vs. Colorado recap and player guesses, October 5, 2010
DC United vs. Colorado match preview, October 1, 2010
Should referees have to give post-game interviews?, September 28, 2010
DC United vs. Houston game diary and player ratings, September 26, 2010
DC United vs. Houston match preview, September 24, 2010
Santa Cruz: is he for real? Should I believe in him?, September 23, 2010
DC United vs. LA Galaxy game diary and player rankings, September 22, 2010
DC United vs. LA Galaxy Preview, September 18, 2010
Fw: DC United vs. Toronto FC Player Rankings, Box Seats blogger , September 15, 2010

DC United vs. Toronto FC Game Diary, Box Seats blogger , September 12, 2010 


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 5:47 PM EST
Updated: Thursday, 6 January 2011 5:49 PM EST
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Tuesday, 2 November 2010
From the Onion: "Democrats: 'If We're Gonna Lose, Let's Go Down Running Away From Every Legislative Accomplishment We've Made'"
Topic: politics

The Onion gets it right probably more than any news outlet outside of the Washington Post or the New York Times (and even then it's debatable), but man...they really hit this one right on the screws: 

Democrats: 'If We're Gonna Lose, Let's Go Down Running Away From Every Legislative Accomplishment We've Made'

 


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 10:22 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 17 August 2010
Do You Have Even the VAGUEST Idea What You're Talking About?
Topic: politics

From Glen Beck, quoted in the Washington Post today:

 "To many have forgotten Abraham Lincoln's ideas..."

 So said the man who wants to repeal the 14th Amendment. 

 He also implied that Lincoln was a founding father. 

 And he said "...far too many have either just gotten lazy...". I wonder who he was talking about.

All of this was accomplished in two sentences. He is a can of concentrated stupid.


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:36 PM EDT
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Saturday, 14 August 2010
Feelin' Kinda Patton Tonight
Topic: comedy

Seeing Patton Oswalt at the Warner Theatre tonight. It's awesome that he's playing the Warner now - he deserves it. Louis CK, Brian Regan, and Jim Gaffigan are also big enough now that they played the Warner last time through. So, the world's not completely unfair.

I saw Patton at the Lisner Auditorium in February 2009; it was the taping for My Weakness is Strong. He did a bit more than an hour. I'm sure he'll do about an hour tonight, most (if not all) of it new. And that, to me, is when you know that you're an elite comic: when you're writing a new (high-quality) hour ever year.

George Carlin did a new hour every year for the last thirty-something years of his life. That was also about Bill Cosby's pace in his prime. Right now, Patton, Louis CK, Regan and Gaffigan (hey, all the Warner Theatre guys) seem to be going at about that pace.

That is an absolute breakneck pace. You have to really be on top of your game to do that. Right now, I write about 20 minutes of A material a year (that is to say: I write 20 minutes that I end up keeping and using as A material. There's a whole lot of other shit that gets thrown away). If I had a following, less material would get thrown away. And if I was a full-time comic, I'd write more and have more stage time to test things out. But I still don't know if that would get me to an hour a year. It's something to aspire to, though.


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 4:29 PM EDT
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Monday, 9 August 2010
Another Big FAIL for the Anti-Gay Marriage Argument
Topic: politics

In today's New York Times, Ross Douthat writes an editorial that could be called "An Anti-Gay Marriage Argument for the 21st Century." In it, he first disposes of three tired, discredited, arguments against gay marriage. Good for him. Then he takes a stab at a new, more erudite argument against gay marriage. Here's the money shot: 

If [the idea of marriage as a soluble institution] completely vanquishes the older marital ideal, then gay marriage will become not only acceptable but morally necessary. The lifelong commitment of a gay couple is more impressive than the serial monogamy of straights. And a culture in which weddings are optional celebrations of romantic love, only tangentially connected to procreation, has no business discriminating against the love of homosexuals.

But if we just accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit. 

I have to say: this is pathetic. Here we have a leading conservative thinker attempting to provide a new intellectual foundation for the anti-gay marriage movement, and this convoluted, crappy argument is the best he could do. So let me spend three minutes shooting this down and then I'll get back to more important things, like Brickbreaker level 37.

1. The first paragraph I cited starts with an "if": if the institution of marriage has changed, then gay marriage "will become not only acceptable but morally necessary." And Douthat spent the preceding paragraphs argument that the institution of marriage has, indeed, changed. So, I guess gay marriage is morally necessary. Good point, Ross - I agree!

2. But, bucking against the trend that he himself identified earlier in the article, Douthat feels that "lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate" is still possible and desirable. And, he argues, gay marriage threatens that institution because it is "different".

How? How is it different? Well, it's not heterosexual, I'll grant you that, but why is that an important distinction? What does sexual orientation have to do with anything? Isn't every marriage different? Aren't marriages performed under different religious traditions different? Why is the presumed difference between heterosexual and homosexual marriages so important? Douthat doesn't explain.

And even there was an important difference between the two, how does one threaten the other? In this country's history, expanding rights to others has never diluted the rights of those who had them to begin with. By allowing gay marriage, we're not giving up on the institution of straight marriage. In fact, we're giving rise to an equally venerable institution. You'd think that would be something the family values crowd could get behind.

So, Ross Douthat has swung and missed. William F. Buckley is dead. David Brooks, you want to take a stab at this? I guess he could try. Or, conservative intellectuals could just stop barking at the moon and get on the right side of history. 


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 9:09 PM EDT
Updated: Monday, 9 August 2010 9:11 PM EDT
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Monday, 2 August 2010
Comics are Writers, Actors are Performers
Topic: comedy

On last week’s episode of Last Comic Standing, Natasha Leggero (one of the judges) said to Myq Kaplan (one of the contestants): “If this show was called Last Comedy Writer Standing, I think you’d win.”  

That bugged me. It probably would have slipped right by me if that sentiment – the idea that comedy is equal parts writing and performing – wasn’t already bugging me. I don’t think that comedy is equal parts writing and performing…not in 2010. It’s more like 80-20 writing to performing. 

Back in the day (and, obviously, I’m speculating…I wasn’t there), performing seemed to be a bigger part of being a comedian. A lot of comics from the old days had over-the-top on-stage personas. Don Rickles, Jerry Lewis, Phyllis Diller, Rodney Dangerfield, Steve Martin, Rita Rudner…they were all different on stage than they were in real life (and a few of them were/are also outstanding writers). That makes sense if you think about it; the job of a standup had fuzzier parameters back then. “Comedian” was wrapped up in the broader field of “entertainer”. Comics were often expected to also sing and dance. Singers incorporated comedy into their act. Everybody was also an actor. Jokes – like songs – were often written by one person and performed by someone else. It was all one big, mashed-up, taped-together, one-size-fits-all field called “entertainment”. So a big part of being a standup was being a performer. 

Not anymore. Standups are, for the most part, standups. They work at colleges and in comedy clubs. They sometimes get writing gigs, which is essentially joke-telling in a different form. Honest-to-God acting gigs are rare…those usually go to actors. Most comics nowadays get on stage, talk, and then they’re pretty much the same person off stage as they were when they were on. Affected personalities are rare. When you do see a comic with a wacky, over-the-top persona, they usually don’t do well. Personally, I hate most character comedy – it strikes me as old-fashioned and lame.  

When comics talk about comedy with each other, we mostly talk about jokes. When our sets are over, we review the jokes. We look for topics people haven’t talked about. We try to find funny ways to boil down a complex idea. We work on cadence. We wordsmith. We don’t talk much about performance…we write. Because that’s pretty much what comedy is: writing jokes. 

But bookers…as well as TV producers, managers, agents, etc…hardly ever talk about jokes. They’re much more likely to talk about performance. They say things like “your smile lights up the room!”, “I just want to listen to you!”, or “your set didn’t pop.” Or – worst of all – “he/she’s got it.”  

Here’s the thing: “it” buys you about 10-15 minutes in a comedy club. Personality comics do very well in small doses. They kill at festivals. It’s good to have one at an open mic to break up the two dozen 20-something-guys-in-hoodies in a row. But a comic can only skate by on his or her personality – his or her performance – for so long. The audience will give a goofy or charismatic comic a 10-15 minute honeymoon. But then they want substance. They want jokes. Because that’s pretty much what comedy is: jokes. 

So why do bookers, TV producers, agents and the like constantly talk about performance? Maybe it’s because they have no idea what’s funny, so they don’t even bother trying to evaluate the quality of the jokes. But I think it’s mostly because those people are looking for actors. Acting is where the real money is. A moderately successful actor makes significantly more than a highly successful standup. If you’re an agent looking to rep a comic, you know that the big payday isn’t with writing gigs and shows at 300-seat comedy clubs. It’s with TV and movies. So they’re looking for actors…not comedians. And that’s why they overemphasize performance. 

One of the questions on the Last Comic Standing questionnaire – in fact, just about the only question, other than three varieties of “have you ever done porn?” – is: “What would a sitcom starring you be about?” What fucking year was the person who wrote that question living in? Did the author of that question slip into a coma in 1991 and wake up hoping to cast the next Roseanne or Seinfeld or Grace Under Fire? How many sitcoms are there on TV in 2010…six? Eight? The only ones on NBC – the Thursday night ones – follow pretty much the same formula: first-rate writing staff behind the camera, established comic actors on-camera. No current sitcom follows the standup-driven, let’s-bring-that-guy’s-act-to-TV formula. And no show I can think of has since Everybody Loves Raymond went off the air.  

Performing always has been and always will be part of standup. But let’s stop obsessing over it. Writing is the bigger part, writing is the more important part. The best comics nowadays – Patton Oswalt, Louis CK, Paul F. Tompkins, Bill Burr – are exceptional because their writing is exceptional. Performance is secondary.   

***Disclaimer: everything I just wrote should be taken with a grain of salt. I have a dog in this fight: I am all writing, no performance. So that’s shaping my opinion.***


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 5:10 PM EDT
Updated: Monday, 2 August 2010 5:14 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 13 July 2010
Olivia Munn on the Daily Show
Topic: comedy

Olivia Munn is being auditioned as the new Daily Show correspondent. This comes at an interesting time, since Jezebel recently wrote this poorly-sourced article about sexism at the Daily Show and the Daily Show women responded. I have a lot of opinions about what Olivia Munn’s audition says about women, comedy, and TV, but those opinions are all over the map. Here they are.

Olivia Munn’s audition has caused a lot of discussion for one reason: she's hot. The first time I saw her on TV – before she even opened her mouth – I thought: “Oh, I get it. They hired a hot chick.” So, there’s an anti-hot-person bias there (by me, at least, though I know I’m not alone). People hear that she was in Playboy and Maxim and assume that she can’t be funny. We should acknowledge that some people will prejudge her because she’s good-looking.

But didn’t she also get hired because she’s good-looking? At least partly? Of course she did. If you think that her looks had absolutely nothing to do with her getting hired, you’re naïve.

On the other hand, isn’t any performer judged by his or her personality? Can you really ask people to ignore what they observe about your race, age, gender, appearance, body language, and personality? No, you can’t, especially on a visual medium. So, yes, she was hired partly because of her looks…so what?

Here’s what: isn’t the job to be funny? Shouldn’t they just hire the funniest person, regardless of physical appearance? But that question already assumes that Munn isn’t the funniest person, which gets back to my anti-good-looking person bias. Maybe she is the funniest person…the jury’s still out on her.

And what does her hiring say about women on TV? Should women be happy that the Daily Show is auditioning another female correspondent, or should they be depressed that the woman they chose to audition may end up having more in the way of looks than talent?

Here’s where my opinions stop being so fuzzy: if Munn isn’t funny, then her audition is bad for women. The Jezebel article was obnoxious: arguing that you should hire women just for the sake of hiring women does absolutely nothing to advance women’s rights. In fact, it’s insulting; the subtext is that women can’t make it in a system based on merit – instead, the system has to be based on raw numbers. That argument is a loser.  

If Olivia Munn isn’t funny and gets hired, then one of two things is happening: 1) She’s being hired mostly because she’s a woman, or 2) She’s being hired mostly because she’s good-looking. Either way in that scenario, she’s not being hired for her ability, and that certainly can’t be considered progress for women.  


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 5:06 PM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 13 July 2010 5:07 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 22 June 2010
US vs. Algeria Preview
Topic: soccer

I did a Lexis-Nexis search today for "soccer or football" and "referees" and "world cup" and "crackdown or crack down" in English-language newspapers (which are like the internet, but made of wood) in the last six months. I got 70 results. That's a lot of hits for such a specific search.

FIFA are always cracking down on something. Every single World Cup, they're "cracking down on foul play", usually elbows, and two-footed tackles, and diving, but never actually diving.

The result? Well, that bullshit red card against Kaka was one of the results. Also the red against Behrami yesterday. I thought Gourcuff's red card today was harsh. In the World Cup, absolutely everything is a red card.

That was the main lesson of the Confederations Cup. The US drew three red cards in five games. We've done very well with avoiding cards in the first two games. I hope that trend continues tomorrow, but the looseness with which the cards have been flowing worries me. Dempsey started off the Slovenia match with a challenge that shouldn't have been a red card, but could have been. In the Olympics, Orozco got a red card in the third minute against Nigeria and we ended up a goal short. Bradley seems to have gotten the message across, but I hope everyone tomorrow remembers that they're not playing in EnglandGermany, or MLS.

Here's what I hope we'll see against Algeria:

----------------Altidore-----------Dempsey------------- 

 

Donovan--------Edu------------Bradley-------Holden

Bocanegra-----Onyewu--------Demerit----Cherundolo

-------------------------Howard--------------------------

 

Here's what I think we'll see: 

----------------Altidore-----------Buddle------------- 

 

Donovan--------Edu------------Bradley-------Dempsey

Bocanegra-----Onyewu--------Demerit----Cherundolo

-------------------------Howard-------------------------- 

 

A lot of people have been talking about Gooch. I think he's okay; sure, he's rusty, no question, but he's still one of our two best center backs (assuming you count Bocanegra as a left back). One thing I'm wondering, though, is if we could possibly see this at the back:

 

Spector---------Bocanegra------Demerit------Cherundolo

If there's a game to do it, this would be the game. You still have Bocanegra and Demerit for set plays, so you don't loose much in that regard. And Spector is better going forward than Bocanegra, which could be especially useful if Algeria play three at the back (as they sometimes do). I'm not saying I want to see this or think we will see this, but I think it's on the table. 


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 9:27 PM EDT
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Monday, 21 June 2010
So my friends and family know I'm not a liar...
Topic: comedy
 
 

See, I was a semi-finalist on Last Comic Standing. How else would I have gotten the ticket?

Kinkos, you say? Go fuck yourself.  

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 11:11 PM EDT
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