It was leg day at the gym. Still wet from a rushing shower, I painfully sped towards the Canterbury house on E. Huron Street on a surprisingly warm weekend night for early November. I was about to watch a student stand-up show from the University of Michigan’s Amateur Hour Stand-Up Comedy. I had little idea what to expect. I had never been to a live stand-up show before.
I exchanged a few notes and snippets of conversation with photographer Grace. Looking around the room, I struggled to grasp the exact demographics of those crammed into about 15 small rows of seats. It was varied, probably making up the assorted comedian friend groups. Just as the audience settled in, Tyler Sholtis, the club’s first stand-up and chef, had the audience laughing with a delightfully self-deprecating set.
With a background in writing and performance, I have a great appreciation for the craft of stand-up comedy and how difficult it can be to execute it. A stand-up must do a series of calculations quickly each round of their set. They probably don’t have time to do them all consciously. Preparation helps. They must not offend or annoy. They must cultivate a standing personality, a performance self, and feel its connection with each new audience.
I enjoy a good stand-up show. I like to laugh and I know that the job is difficult. And ultimately, I’m interested in how comedians and audiences negotiate discomfort in stand-up, revealing how a sense of community empathy (led by the comedian) is a factor in successful sets. of stand-up.
Nine other comedians graced the stage for the next hour, teasing each of us with roughly five-minute sets. Each brought their own style and personality to the stage. The group was mixing well and were vulnerable. But distinct from the stand-up specials I watched growing up, was the way the energy moved through the room during the performance.
In a chat with two aspiring comedians last week, Sholtis and Mackenize Mollison, both described the back-and-forth between audience and performer that is distinct from stand-up comedy.
Sholtis described stand-up as “a way to build community.” Mollison, a fifth-year theater student at the University of Michigan and aspiring comedian, considers laughter “the one thing that can naturally and immediately reduce tension. It’s beautiful and necessary when it’s done well.
Even so, comedy hasn’t always had a reputation as a healing agent. For sections of recent American history, comedy has been suppressed for perceived or actual danger to mainstream cultural values. In 1952, at the height of “The Red Scare”, Charlie Chaplin was banned from the United States for a series of satirical films, including the last in which he portrayed and mocked a Hitler character. Chaplin was not alone in his ability to elicit strong reactions: Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested for his comedy act on charges of obscenity. About ten years later, the famous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” by George Carlin” prompted a lawsuit from the Federal Communications Commission.
Thus, comedy has a history of toe lines that made others feel uncomfortable and challenged the dominant narratives of institutions as large as government agencies. On a comparative level, the obstacles faced by these older American comedians make some modern “crying cancel culture” comedians seem foolishly dramatic, asserting that their audiences are overly sensitive or self-centered in their discomforts. The self-centering of the actor himself in this perspective problematizes part of the logic. The reciprocal positive energy of the room dissolves into something less lovable.
So what creates that positive energy that a good stand-up is looking for? I find it extremely important in my own personal politics to do my best to be open-minded and aware while knowing that no one can be fully “awakened” to their internalized biases. If someone was “all awake”, they would have god-like abilities. This truth about human error contributes in part to the risk inherent in doing your best to be funny.
But still, we can work on improving our comedy while allowing ourselves to let go of attachments to perfectionism.
Sholtis posited that “every analysis of crossing the line should be ‘why does my group think like that?’ Mollison added that this boldness can bring a “new voice” to untouched prospects and that “sometimes having the comedy trick makes (untouched prospects) more digestible.” As Chaplin, Bruce, and Carlin prove (at least all three eventually won their cases), bolder or more controversial comedy can completely change the conversation around a topic.
Coming from a very socially sensitive music, drama and dance school, I’m not sure how all of my classmates would have sat with some of the content from the Amateur Hour show, although the volume of the laughter that night has hardly ever waned. At least some of this disconnect will come from nothing more than differences in taste.
But Sholtis points out that, especially as a group learning the craft, sometimes a joke that can be hilarious one day can be mistold or mistimed the next and result in a joke that “stay(s) on the line”, becoming offensive. After recently writing an article for Ann Arbor’s Groundcover News, a joke about a comedian’s homelessness struck me as particularly sensitive, and I didn’t like it.
I forgave that comedian. Maybe because the rest of their set was absolutely fantastic, with the joke shaping up to be a minor misstep through my critical lens. Perhaps because, in general, the atmosphere of the group, public as actors, seemed to accept that there could be some malaise and personal errors. Above all, the group’s intention seemed sincere to “break down barriers”, as Sholtis observes. It fostered empathy throughout the room, albeit with moments of discomfort.
Investigating this a little deeper, psychological studies and journals will remind us again and again of the benefits of seeking discomfort. This includes the media we consume. In an art form based on jokes, the way words perpetuate meaning, while remaining highly relevant, becomes looser. Because of the way stand-up naturally invites this experimentation, through a sense of playfulness, watching a good stand-up set or a special in its entirety can be a great way to both feel bad about comfortable and fulfilled.
Most of the time, we can realize that the discomfort we feel contributes positively to our sense of accomplishment with the artistic experience. Without it, maybe the punchlines wouldn’t have landed so well. Or maybe we’ve been invited to see the humor on a subject we take very seriously. I believe that every possible subject has humor. And it can be very soothing to laugh at what’s important to us.
But when a comedian uses the playful space of comedy to extend a joke into continuous rhetoric, their comedy will take on a broader meaning. When that happens, and we still feel uncomfortable, the stand-up is probably arguing for something we don’t agree with.
One comedian who complicates these distinctions and hosted Saturday Night Live this week, blurring the lines between messaging and gaming, is Dave Chappelle, perhaps the most popular and controversial comedian in recent memory due to his community jokes. trans. It’s not uncommon for the jokes and stated beliefs in his sets to seem to contradict each other. Chappelle’s comedy, as a provocateur, lives and breathes in the audience’s negotiation with discomfort.
I think of something Mollison mentioned when trying to conceptualize the ongoing Chappelle controversy. For the sake of their work, “comedians will put their personality first and humanity second,” Mollison said. And that can sometimes exacerbate the already heightened tensions produced by a controversial joke.
Mollison went on to say that it is both “respectable and unrespectable” to engage in this way. If the stand-up is able to clear up the controversy through its comedy, as we do when we strike after keeping the public in discomfort, that’s great. At the same time, for some, this move can feel like it sheds light on the offense. Discomfort will inevitably offend. It becomes a problem when it hurts, when sectarian rhetoric begins to take shape.
Chappelle is also well known for the empathy he usually has which he jokes about. Ultimately, stand-up can be best understood not by its doses of controversy, but rather by its incredibly personal nature. This intimacy contributes to an empathetic community.
Mollison has described her comedic personality as “Impressionist”. She likes to observe others. She described to me an experience writing a joke that was “cathartic.” Meanwhile, Sholtis feels seen by stand-up, describing himself as “hopefully part of this last dying generation of guys who find it impossible to express emotions besides anger.” I really have a hard time managing… all my emotions.
Sholtis continues that “stand-up is a way for me to express the visceral hatred I feel when someone talks loudly on the bus to North Campus without having a heart attack at 50. It’s very therapeutic for me.” He also likes stand-ups that “have an intention with every word they say.”
Sometimes jokes have to misdirect the audience. You have to be baited to be hooked. For my personal taste, the best joke is both the most gritty and the most empathetic.
And reading about the cultured space at Canterbury House, I think most of us yearn for a world with a little more empathy.
Link tree for Amatuer Hour Stand-Up Comedy – for anyone who wants to support or get involved
Statement columnist Nate Sheehan can be reached at [email protected]