Unbeknownst to many people, there’s a war of sorts in the world of comedy. Two factions, “alternative” and “mainstream”, stand more opposed every night, ever jealous and judgmental of each other and the way they get their laughs. Mainstream refers to to the traditional sensibility of comedy in regards of how to write/produce/perform it and alternative meaning ignoring traditions and going for something new. Many performers, writers, etc. cannot reconcile their differences and take sides. As comedy is an art form, that’s especially reliant on the subjectivity of its consumer; This war has been ongoing since for decades with acts like Lenny Bruce and Andy Kaufman rejecting the idea of “Catskills” comedy in order to make people laugh.
Lenny Bruce “All Alone”
In fact, there’s virtually a wall separating them, erected mostly by marketing companies, agencies, etc. where some members of either faction judge each other in their own snobbish way, arms always folded, whispering to their cohorts, “Again with this fucking guy and his stupid 80’s TV reference puns?” or just covering their face in shame during a joke about how Asians still can’t drive. Accusations constantly fly over this metaphorical Berlin Wall of comedy, “That only works for that crowd,” or “you can’t play that room with that act.” Fortunately, most of the English speaking population isn’t aware of any such war happening at all. Most people just see something that’s funny to them, with no regard to whether it’s alternative or mainstream comedy, and give into the involuntary human reaction of laughter.
Making people laugh is what the most staunch supporters of either side often fail to recognize. Thus, the further entrenched both sides become when all they’re really doing is dashing their chances to be seen by more people. Kyle Kinane has a large, dedicated following of hipsters and comedy nerds while Bill Burr, who’s about to play Carnegie Hall and appear on Letterman, gets to play to a broad audience when either could be appreciated by either side.
With all of that in mind, the truth is that there is really no such thing as alternative or mainstream comedy. As said before, those labels are largely made up. Funny is funny. The difference between the two is largely made up based on someone’s perception of what will make a specific demographic laugh. Though determining what’s funny is completely a subjective endeavor, just because someone doesn’t do jokes or someone delves into a flurry of rape jokes shouldn’t make them one or the other. If their material/performance/sketches/films/blogs are making people laugh on a regular and frequent basis, the only qualifier that need apply is funny.
Don Rickles on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson
One of the oldest working comedians today, Don Rickles, is still largely appreciated across the board, especially among comedians, for what he does. Technically, Rickles is considered to be a mainstream comedian from his days on Dean Martin’s Roasts, but even the weirdest comedians can and will laugh at Rickles insulting Craig Ferguson on the Late Late Show.
Sam Kinison’s First Appearance on Letterman
In Sam Kinison’s first appearance on Letterman, he donned a black trenchcoat and a very solemn face as he took the stage, nothing reminiscent of the rock star persona he adopted later, and preceded to do crowd work. In fact, he yelled at a man in the crowd. Technically, that’s a very alternative comedy act, but Sam Kinison can hardly be described as “alternative”. He was just damn funny to a whole bunch of people. The same can be said of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and how many people repeatedly watch it to laugh no matter how absurd and tangential the movie got.
Louis C.K. on Conan
The comedy concert film Tell Your Friends, which is really a showcase of what, again, can be called alternative comedy, has a number of comedians further explain that the “alternative” label is made up. In the film, performances come from Reggie Watts and Kurt Braunohler & Kristen Schaal, who have been on TV regularly. Watts has appeared on Conan more than any other comedian since he’s moved to TBS and Schaal has had one of the funnier pieces on The Daily Show this year. Though more than just nontraditional comedy acts, they all got a chance and they’ve entertained literally millions of people.
Reggie Watts on Conan