Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Strawman/Straightman

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week is kvetch-time for Comedists. Sometimes it's just good to get it off your chest, so whatever you have to whine, complain, or rant about, this is it.

Me, I have a comedic bone to pick. There is a rising trend in stand-up that rubs me the absolutely wrong way, a combination of two perfectly legitimate forms of comedy that simply do not work together.

The first is a form of observational comedy that is best described as "don't you hate it when," wherein you take some aspect of life that is annoying and describe it in a way that everyone can identify with and poke fun at it or more likely those who make it so annoying. Think Bill Cosby's dentist sketch. Utter and complete genius.

The second sort of comedy is where you take something normal and blow it out of proportion but keeping it recognizable making it absurd and the more absurd it gets, the funnier. My favorite example of this is Richard Jeni's ode to yeast infection commercials, "A Private Itch/Exploding Scrotum Syndrome." I can't even think of the line "I'll never get that big account now", much less listen to it, without convulsing in laughter. "For God's sake give the man his two dollars."

So, on their own, great stuff. But what has been happening is that they are being combined in an unfortunate way. Many comedians are now taking something mildly annoying, blowing it up to something no one actually does and then using the non-existent annoyance as the hook for a "don't you hate it when" bit. It's using a strawman as a straightman. If it doesn't really exist, people aren't really annoyed by it.

That's not to say that you can't lampoon "don't you hate it" bits. Stephen Wright's line "I hate it when my foot falls asleep because that means it's going to be up all night" is fantastic, but the whole joke hinges on the fact that it is absurd, not that it hides the absurdity, dressing it up as if it were real.

It really pisses me off when the thing blown up out of proportion vilifies or plays on a negative stereotype or bias. I was watching a Larry the Cable Guy routine and he was complaining don't you hate it that you can't walk into a fast food restaurant these days and find a single cashier that speaks English. Um...yes you can. But then you wouldn't be playing working class white Americans against working class Hispanic Americans. You find it in other conservative comedians as well like Jeff Dunham and Jeff Wayne, but it is not just there. It's becoming standard in Chris Rock's writing also. It's laziness and it's an insult to the legacy of folks like Mort Sahl and those who followed. Cut it out and work harder.

There's my rant for the week. So what's got your hackles up?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve