Here's an article about a recent gig of his at the Napa Valley Opera House.
Mort Sahl - seen by many as the father of modern standup comedy - is still performing his often satirical routines even though he is now 83 years old. That's good to know. He also seems to be a much more rounded and complex figure than most younger comics. He clearly isn't consumed by hatred and anger, and doesn't have a drug habit. He also pokes fun at both sides of politics - rather than just taking aim at Republicans.
Here's an article about a recent gig of his at the Napa Valley Opera House.
In the democratic west we have a lot of freedom. Satirists can openly make fun of the government without suffering any negative consequences except maybe some outraged commentary in the media and the private cursing of their targets. But political comedians in countries that don't have such entrenched traditions of freedom of expression often have a much rougher time of it.
Here's a good article on the subject that lists some truly brave comics who risk a lot more than criticism when speaking (funny) truth to power.
Comedians often use the comments of politicians as the basis for their material. But it's extremely rare that politicians refer to what comedians say to get mileage for their campaigns. But this is definitely what happened to Massachusetts comic Lenny Clarke.
While doing a routine at a political fundraiser, he referred to a female politican as a "whore". News of this spread and the comment quickly became politicized, with both the Republican at whose fundraiser the comic was performing and the Democrat that he'd previously publically endorsed being condemned for their associations with the comic.
While Lenny Clarke himself probably doesn't feel compelled to write a routine about this right now, I suspect that he will in time. And I'm sure that other comics must be seeing the funny side. (Although considering the context, they may be wary of being swept up in a similar controversy if they are to perform routines about the episode.)
There are many factors that influence whether people find something funny or not - age and cultural background being just two of them. That's why trying to find the funniest joke of all time is ultimately fruitless.
Still, people try to do this from time to time. The latest attempt was made by some researchers in the UK. They polled tens of thousands of people about a list of 1000 jokes. The top fifty are listed in this article.
While there are some hilarious gags in there I find the one that was voted the funniest one of the weakest of them. As with so many other things, there's no accounting for taste.
There's inter-generational conflict in comedy, just as there is in so many other disciplines. One common complaint that older entertainers and agents make is that there's far too much swearing in comedy these days.
That's generally true, I think. Still, comics have always been generally more foul-mouthed than most entertainers - except maybe rock stars. And some have been swearing like troopers for decades.
Take Billy Connolly, who uses the F word almost more than any other in his routines. Interestingly, people very rarely find his swearing offensive. I think that it's because he's got such an affable personality, it doesn't sound mean or aggressive. I'm sure that many people who would usually find profanity offensive give Connolly a pass.
Here's an interesting article about satire and its limits. It deals with some recent satirical projects by entertainers such as Stephen Colbert and Joaquin Phoenix and asks whether they went too far with them. My personal feeling is that they did go too far - or, rather, they were just being overly self indulgent, and they ended up forgetting their audiences.
Phoenix, for instance, spent many months maintaining an elaborate hoax. While you have to admire the commitment, I can't really see how all that effort was justified. I mean, to do something so involved and extreme and for so long, you've have to end up with some earth shattering insights into the human condition. But what's he shown us? That journalists and talk show audiences can be fooled easily? That we're all pop culture junkies who are finding it increasingly different to tell the difference between reality and fiction? It's not like these questions haven't been addressed many times before. The fact that he thinks what he did was so important and worthwhile is the most revealing thing to come out of the project. I get the impression he's the one who's a bit too obsessed with the media - not society in general.
Regarding Stephen Colbert's cringe-inducing performance at a recent congressional hearing: Sure, it sounds like a very ballsy thing to do. But again it was extremely arrogant. Pompous blowhards they may be, but politicians are serving the people when they have these meetings, and if you hijack one of them so you can hold the whole thing up to ridicule then you are also showing contempt for the people who elected them.
Sacha Baron Cohen, another performer cited in the article, is much better satirist than both of them. He hits more targets and is far more versatile, witty and courageous. He also manages to be laugh out loud funny the whole time he is on screen. That proves to me that he doesn't take himself too seriously, and always remembers that what he is doing is ultimately more about entertainment than anything else.
I Am Comic looks like an interesting documentary about the stand-up comedy life. It has many interviews with many leading American comics. Some of them seem to confirm the stereotype of comedians as desperately needy people whose priorities are a bit out of whack. As this article states:
The hard-core practitioners say there is no greater feeling than winning over a room – not sex, and not having children. (Roseanne Barr immediately doubts the wisdom of putting that last comparison on the record.) “I need it,” says Roy Johnson, working as an emcee at the Tampa Improv. “My wife and I split up, and more than I need that love and attention and affection, I need that stage.”
That last comment in particular is a bit of a worry. I suspect he was exaggerating for humorous effect, as comedians so often do. (Even if he were, there's definitely a kernel of truth and honesty there.)
In any case it certainly shows that comics are generally a bit more screwed up than most people. And it's that emotional imbalance that compels them to get up in front of complete strangers and risk traumatic rejection for maybe half an hour of approval and something vaguely approximating affection. It's a very strange profession, no doubt about it!
Performing stand-up comedy can be a risky experience, even in a dedicated comedy venue. There are so many variables involved including the mood of the audience and the emotional state of the comic.
When comics perform one-off gigs for functions, fundraisers and weddings these there are even more variables at play. As a result sometimes these events can go spectacularly belly-up.
A recent event in the UK is a case in point. A comedian was hired to perform at a fundraiser in a cafe in Weston. But he made some jokes about the food and the cafe owner took offence and demanded he get off the stage. He and the promoters ended up leaving in a huff.
Stand-up comedians do have a reputation for being out of control types who are prone to drug and alcohol abuse. There is quite a bit of truth to this stereotype. It's sad, because they are usually such smart people. If they just managed to turn their keen eyes on their own behavior they would see the risks they are taking.
Unfortunately, their personal demons and appetites usually render them unable to do this, and they often end up dead. The latest tragic example of this syndrome is the comedian Greg Giraldo. This extremely intelligent man was found dead from a drug overdose. He was only 44.
One thing that comics should be wary of is taking themselves too seriously. It's a pretty obvious thing to remember, particularly considering their profession! But some of them do tend to forget it from time to time - particularly if they become very successful.
It looks like the very well known and widely respected liberal comedian Jon Stewart of the Daily Show might be starting to make this error with his increasingly strident attacks on President Obama.
My name's Matt Hayden. I'm a blogger and writer in Perth, Western Australia. I have a lot of experience in live comedy and maintain a keen interest in the subject.