An Appreciation: Dying’s Easy. Comedy Is Hard.

The late Sam Kinison, in performance, probably around 1987-1988.

Where have all the comedians gone?

I bring this up because the other night I was watching “Man on the Moon,” the 1999 biopic of the late Andy Kauffman, starring Jim Carrey as the improv comedian.

If you only know him through his role as the lovably goofy Latka Gravas on the 1970s/80s sitcom “Taxi,” it’s difficult to explain just how dangerous and innovative a comedian Kauffman really was.

Consider for a moment that this was a guy who would routinely incite audiences just to get a reaction out of them. He would, for instance, punish uncooperative audiences by reading “The Great Gatbsy” to them. Not just an excerpt — the whole book — until he drove them from the theatre.

You won’t see that on the current iteration Saturday Night Live — where Kauffman famously debuted with his rendition of the “Mighty Mouse” theme.

Here’s Carrey, as Kauffman, reenacting that famous scene:

Which is not to say that the current cast of SNL isn’t doing some good work. Tina Fey’s dead-on impersonation of political personality Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign is a recent high-water mark.

But it’s been years since stand-up comedians such as Kauffman, George Carlin, Steven Wright, pre-crack up Dennis Miller, Dennis Leary and the late Bill Hicks, for instance, made us believe that a guy with a microphone, telling jokes, could challenge the established social order.

A Carlin routine, for starters, is actually responsible for one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most famous free-speech decisions, which infamously resulted in a ruling on the seven words you’re not allowed to say on TV.

Here’s the sketch. You might want to send the kids out of the room for this one.

For about 10 years, say from about 1975, when the original SNL debuted, to about 1987 or 1988, stand-up comedy enjoyed a golden age. HBO was airing comedy specials like crazy. Clubs were popping up all over the place. And performers with rock star status were parlaying club gigs into lucrative television shows.

And then, faster than you could say “parachute pants” the stand-up boom went bust. Clubs closed. The medium went back underground and the sitcom became king. I’ve always thought the end of the boom came with the death of comedian Sam Kinison in 1992. The fall is expertly examined in this 1995 Los Angeles Times story.

With the death of Kinison, comedy went into another phase. I’ll call it “The Seinfeld Years,” where genuinely challenging comedy was replaced with genial, observation humor that, while funny, was guaranteed to offend almost no one. That period lasted through much of the 1990s and breathed its last when “Friends,” which limped across the finish line in 2004.

These days, it’s almost impossible to find stand-up comedy on premium cable. HBO still airs specials. But these are by top-line stars such as Bill Maher and the inexplicably famous Dane Cook. The days of Rodney Dangerfield hosting a “Young Comedians” special are gone — unless you happen to catch a rerun on HBO’s specialty comedy channel.

And the sitcom? The medium’s on life-support. To be sure, some of the current crop of shows are trying hard. And yes, I’m looking at you: “Big Bang Theory,” “Two Broke Girls,” and “How I Met Your Mother” (saved, as it is, by the feral performances of Neil Patrick Harris).

But all are working within the confines of the four-camera, three-act sitcom. Those that hew most closely to the formula: Tim Allen’sLast Man Standing” and the post-Charlie SheenTwo and a Half Men” seem like relics of an earlier era — “The Honeymooners” with boobie and toilet jokes.

When comedy succeeds on TV now it’s in those instances — “The Office,” “Parks & Rec,” “30 Rock,” when it dispenses with the old playbook and the horrid canned laughter. I’m still disappointed that “Mr. Sunshine,” Matthew Perry’s post-“Friends” return to comedy wasn’t given a chance to find its feet. It fit right in with those more innovative shows.

Fortunately, there is some reason for optimism: And it comes from Comedy Central, where both “The Daily Show” and the “Colbert Report” are offering the sharpest social commentary around. Ditt for “Real Time,” the Bill Maher-starring series on HBO, where policy-makers and politicians discuss the issues of the day.

I realize that I’m not offering a particularly penetrating insight here. Minds far sharper than my own have expended endless column inches on the cultural and political influence exerted by these two shows.

But Stephen Colbert has taken it up a notch of late, forming a political action committee that’s solicited donations and gotten actively involved in the process — even going so far as trying to buy the naming rights to the 2012 South Carolina Republican presidential primary.

Here’s a commercial that Colbert’s PAC, “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” ran in advance of last August’s Ames straw poll in Iowa.

If you haven’t read it yet, Charles McGrath’s profile of Colbert, which ran in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazne, is definitely worth your time.

Here’s an excerpt:

“The new Colbert has crossed the line that separates a TV stunt from reality and a parody from what is being parodied. In June, after petitioning the Federal Election Commission, he started his own super PAC — a real one, with real money. He has run TV ads, endorsed (sort of) the presidential candidacy of Buddy Roemer, the former governor of Louisiana, and almost succeeded in hijacking and renaming the Republican primary in South Carolina. “Basically, the F.E.C. gave me the license to create a killer robot,” Colbert said to me in October, and there are times now when the robot seems to be running the television show instead of the other way around.

Stephen Colbert gets into character (New York Times photo).

“It’s bizarre,” remarked an admiring Jon Stewart, whose own program, “The Daily Show,” immediately precedes “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central and is where the Colbert character got his start. “Here is this fictional character who is now suddenly interacting in the real world. It’s so far up its own rear end,” he said, or words to that effect, “that you don’t know what to do except get high and sit in a room with a black light and a poster.”

Read the full story here.

In using a fictional construct to expose the very seamy and very real underside of our political process, I can’t help but feel like Colbert is ripping a page from the Kauffman playbook. And trained by two generations of comedians to accept irony as their default, audiences are getting the joke the first time around.

And while we may never get that Golden Age back — that is why they’re golden ages, after all — we may be enjoying the next best thing: a renaissance. And were he still with us, that’s something Andy Kauffman might appreciate.

About jlmicek

I'm an award-winning journalist in Harrisburg, Pa. I also run and cook all the things.
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