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Getting Referential Treatment

This video only hints at something that I find lovely about stand-up comedy. Allow me to elaborate.

Competition transforms me into a hideous shade of myself. Those who have played Goldeneye 007 or Super Mario Kart with me know, I had a particularly dark period from 1992 to 2000 where playing multiplayer video games made me red faced and manic. I would be taken over by a kind of pseudo-giddyness that was forced and fueled by the dark side. I would stutter dark, unflattering insults at my opponents, and when defeated I would crumble into adrenaline ash. I’m intentionally non-competitive, because I like to not be gross.

So with a couple of exceptions, I tend to avoid comedy competitions. Last Comic Standing terrifies me. I’m not afraid of TV cameras or audiences or whatever. I’m not a PUSSY (I kind of am). But besting other people I might like? Treating my art like a commodity to be rated? I’m fairly certain the first thing I’d say would be “Derp… I’m sor ruh ree? I mean, eh… So-” and by this point security guards would trying to tackle me out of camera range so someone who likes sports can knock their audition out of the park.

But I’ve watched this season of Last Comic Standing. I’ve previously only caught fleeting moments. This season is different. There’s some obvious changes like the new judges, but I’m also seeing a lot of really bold, risky material being performed.

Namely, there is some going off book from Mr. Myq Kaplan. While he’s done some nice riffs regarding the audience response taking up his valuable time, my personal favorite moments of his are at the beginning of his set. That is also an interesting use of his time. He could be jumping right into his written material, but instead he’s deftly acknowledging the absurdity of the entire competition. He references jokes made by earlier comedians, and crafts them into whole new jokes.

Once I got to emcee for a featured opener and headliner comic and I was a huge fan of both of them. The feature made fun of me for no less than half of his set. And I was thrilled because he understood my jokes and my stage persona and was inviting me into his universe. It also helped that he (Graham Elwood) was hilarious and my set had felt like it had gone great on its own terms. It’s one thing to have a comedian riff off of your material, but if the comedian is talented and knows how to connect with people, they can even be massively antagonistic towards the other comedian and it’s still fun and creative. A lot of my jokes involve strangers antagonizing me, and Graham took credit for being that person in all of my stories. It required lots of writing on his feet, and I’d have had to be an imbecile to take it personally.

What I like most about Myq’s tactic is that he’s giving a nod to every competitor’s heightened personas. There’s an idea certain stand-up comedians share, that when you are onstage no matter how autobiographical your material you are still to an extent portraying a “character.” Show one performer after another, and they now all live in a kind of bubble with fantastical rules and everyone watching is asked to believe the stories they tell have an element of reality when they may in fact be too ridiculous to swallow without an element of disbelief. In the most recent episode, Myq cracked a joke in which he claimed to have ordered chicken nuggets from the same restaurant as the preceding comic Roy Wood Jr.

Myq has been opening with these references, and while non-comics might not appreciate the absurdity of it, there’s the improvisational element as well. You can tell that, even if this was practiced in a rehearsal, Myq had to watch Roy’s set and take in his material before delivering his “joke sequel” or else the reference might fall flat. And something like that is also just plain surprising. You have to run a lot of material past standards and practices before saying it on TV, and here’s Myq seemingly living completely in the moment. If one of the stage lights were to crash explosively onto the wooden planks of the stage, there’s no doubt which comedian the viewer would hope to see comment on it during their set.

This isn’t rocket science. Many comedians start their material a little more improvised, talk to the crowd. Emcees at a comedy club say “hey, any birthdays tonight?” at the top of the show to help connect the audience to the performers. By keeping as in the moment as you can, you make people happy they’re seeing a live performance. Sometimes it’s not direct interaction but a reference to the room, the smell in the air, the lady in the front row who keeps getting up and going to the bathroom. Audiences enjoy a comedian who acknowledges this because the audience now remembers why they came out to a show, as opposed to watching an embedded video clip on a blog. Which, you know, can still be nice if followed up by a thoughtful deconstruction, right?

These bits are often hastily scratched on napkins, or with synapse pens on the wall of the brain. There’s not a lot of time. That Myq is pulling this gun out on a national network broadcast really drew me into a show I had no plans to get involved in. It’s very risky. If he bombs with his half-improvised joke larva, he’s not just missing an opportunity to engage the live audience, but the millions of people watching. But people have been voting for him enough to get him into the finals, and so there’s something in his risk that people are loving. And that makes me like stand-up comedy all the more. Whatever tension this competition carries, he’s popping it with whimsy.

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  1. Dan Telfer says:

    Why are well rehearsed jokes more valuable? I can see how they CAN be more satisfying, but the idea that only a well rehearsed joke deserved laughs seems very short sighted to me. It’s a point that only exists to support the idea that unrehearsed jokes shouldn’t be performed on TV. Well, they almost never are thanks to the standards and practices I mentioned in the piece, so why not see something different for once? Standards and practices exist to protect sponsoring products and provide censorship of bad language, not keep spontaneity off television. Competitions, as I laid out at the top, are weird unnatural things that smush what we do into a construct of “what’s best.” But this isn’t a rule, Myq isn’t cheating, so by taking this personally a comic would be inventing a rule and placing blame on Myq when he has done nothing to insult or diminish the other comics.

    Also, this IS Myq’s own material. He still wrote it. You diminish what he said by saying “something like ‘I only got 4 chicken nuggets'” but Myq also had a punchline and a transition into his material that was conveniently dismissed. It’s opinion-disguised-as-fact logic and say it is simply not clever and the audience is easy to please. Clever is a subjective term. I laughed at home. I’m not easy to please. I have ridiculous standards from working in comedy for over 10 years, and I find LOTS of polished, rehearsed stuff very over-polished and over-rehearsed. Forced and boring. In this case I thought Roy Jr. had a great set and great energy, but Myq did something that surprised me. And surprise makes a person laugh. If someone lost to that it could be for an infinite number of reasons, ones that might be harder to accept for the loser than if Myq was cheating, but that doesn’t mean Myq WAS cheating. People who lose competitions are dealt a sad hand, but if they feel cheated that doesn’t mean their feelings are rational. This goes back to why I avoid competitions. You’re left with your heart in your hands, thinking dark things that have no bearing on reality.

    There is nothing “easy” about the laughs Myq gets. Most jokes can be considered stories or observational asides, and Myq is fitting into those categories when he tells a joke about what the audience just saw. While his technique is different, the outcome does not make him some ghoulish joke vampire. It’s a premise the audience recognizes that he puts his own twist on. That’s a joke. That’s his material. Not liking it does not make it invalid.

    How can the audience care where the laughs come from? Laughter is spontaneous and given by the laugher. The rapport one comedian builds is not precious property that exists in the tangible world. And if it’s not a negative slam, why bother imagining it? As I said in the article, I feel he is just sharing in the ridiculous world the other comics live in. It takes a lot more brainwork to imagine what he is doing is some kind of talent siphoning scheme.

    Just because this is a competition is no reason for other comics to watch what Myq does and be insulted. If a competitor sees what Myq does and takes it personally, that is their choice and their baggage to deal with. It does not mean Myq has betrayed the craft and must be put in his place. I’m a comic, and maybe I’d take everything on Last Comic Standing really personally and have a hard time focusing, but I’d internalize it all because I’m a gigantic pussy. It’s nice that some people aren’t and wouldn’t internalize their sour grapes, but projecting sour grapes onto other people doesn’t make right. Maybe it makes someone more outgoing, or a more natural competitor. It’s one thing to take that personality trait and use it in competition, and another to act like hurt feelings make right. People who can’t play by personal, impossible-to-play-by rules that exist only in the mind of competitors.

    One might say that blog comments are, in effect, the exact same kind of riffing or glomming onto an idea. Therefore anyone commenting it beholden to my material and must be put in their place. You know what? It is the same thing! I just decided! I am the winner. Whew, I guess this entire discussion was pointless! Whoopsie! (This paragraph is what some call a joke.)

  2. Annonymous says:

    I gotta disagree, as a comic. If I was in a competition and other comics were referencing material that I had crafted, rehearsed, performed, re-written (and repeated that process, because thats what we comics do), I would not appreciate it. I would want them to get laughs off of their own material. Myq is a genius and great comic, but his callbacks to others’ material are NOT that clever. Getting on stage and saying something like “I only got 4 chicken nuggets” (in reference to Roy Jr’s set) is not clever, and the audience is easy to please for laughing.

  3. Jay Fralick says:

    I’m enjoying this season. The finalists are talented.
    I’m especially enjoying Felipe Esparza. I know he’s funnier than his sets have shown, but at least he’s not just a player in a Gabriel Iglesias joke anymore.
    I also like Tommy Johnagin and Myq. I think Myq is quick, but others seem more polished.

  4. Chase Roper says:

    I could not agree more! I’ve had to follow the previous LCS episodes purely for comedy journalism purposes. Well, and for fun. I loved when Myq acknowledged how the crowds applause were messing with his timing. He in his element and on his toes. Loved it.