"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.