Do Stand-Up Comedians Have A Shelf Life?
By and large, every joke a stand-up comedian tells has a limited shelf life. The jokes really are a time capsule of a specific moment in time and where that comic was in their life. Not to say that jokes can’t stand the test of time. They can still be funny, but to some extent, you have to do some mental time travel to put them in the proper context.
For example, Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up from the eighties remains some of the most brilliantly constructed comedy material ever written. And those observational jokes (Seinfeld never actually said “What’s the deal with ?" except to make fun of hacky comics) still hold up, provided that you keep reminding yourself that these jokes were written long before Google Search was a thing. These rhetorical questions aren’t as funny in today’s context when we all have a device in our pockets that can give us the actual answer in real time.
But what about the comedians themselves? Do they have a shelf life? Some comics will burn out or simply become washed up. But we're also talking about the comics who become so famous (or infamous) for other things that we need to accept that they’re really not comedians anymore. And if they wish to continue to use the job title “Stand-Up Comedian,” there probably needs to be an asterisk or a modifier attached to it. So, here are a few alternate titles we could start using.
Retired With Honor
Some comics get a pass on this, like Steve Martin. In 1981, he walked away from stand-up at the peak of his popularity to focus on, well, literally anything else. Martin shared his reasoning on an episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee:
“My act was conceptual. Once the concept was stated, and everybody understood it, it was done. ... It was about coming to the end of the road. There was no way to live on in that persona. I had to take that fabulous luck of not being remembered as that, exclusively. You know, I didn't announce that I was stopping. I just stopped.”
Same with Eddie Murphy. He also retired from stand-up at the height of his career, mainly because it wasn’t fun anymore. Plus, a movie or two each year was easier (and more profitable) than touring. He has also stated that the flood of new comics from the stand-up boom of the eighties (many of whom were inspired by Murphy) made it harder to have a unique voice.
Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy are technically movie stars now, but we still consider them to be comedians. Well, Martin did one set five years ago, but it was just ten minutes and he only did it because he lost a bet to Jerry Seinfeld. Let's consider Martin and Murphy retired four-star generals. We salute them for their service, they’re always welcome to attend the meetings, but we totally respect their decision to stay off the front lines.
Then we have the flip side to retiring: Veteran comics who found fame doing other things, then returned to stand-up only to find that (gasp) the world has changed! Everyone is too damn sensitive these days!
Psst. Adam Carolla, Dennis Miller, Tim Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, all of the rest of you malcontents. Come here, I need to talk to you for a sec. You know who you sound like when you complain about this stuff, right? Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite.
You may have been a hell of a quarterback back in the day, but the fact that you keep bringing it up is just creepy and weird. And you wonder why kids today don’t respect your authority.
Here’s a riddle: Say you go on stage and tell a joke you think is absolutely hilarious. The audience doesn’t laugh. In fact, a lot of them are angry now. Their ears worked just fine--they heard every word you said. They just didn’t think it was funny. In comedy, we call this “finding yourself in a hole.” And guess who’s holding the shovel?
I’m not saying pander to your audience and be their little dancing monkey, but at least meet them halfway. They want to laugh, and if your supply isn’t meeting their demand, that's on you. Your only options are to write better material or quit… or at least it used to be the only options.
Because now there’s a new market: Anti-anti-comedy. All you need is a selfie-poster with caution tape over your mouth, title the show CANCELLED or TRIGGER WARNING, and spend an hour responding to everyone who didn’t laugh at you last time.
Now for a question I’m sure will not backfire in any way: When was the last time Dave Chappelle or Joe Rogan made the news for actually being funny? Respect to both for amazing careers, but let's temporarily stop calling them comedians.
Joe Rogan is a podcaster. That’s his wheelhouse now. Sure, he can sell out a comedy club in a heartbeat, but his podcast fans buy those tickets. Dave Chappelle is now more a guest lecturer. He’s become so huge that people don’t tune in to hear new material so much as to hear his opinions. He’s the Neil deGrasse Tyson of comedy – not many fresh insights, but it just hits different when it comes from Dave F--king Chappelle.
Problematic, But Tenured
On April 14, 1979, Milton Berle guest-hosted Saturday Night Live, and producer Lorne Michaels knew it was gonna be a disaster. Berle was one of the first TV superstars, and SNL was trying to break from the Golden Age of Television. The old school clashed with the new school in the worst way.
Berle ignored directions, bossed around cast and crew, ad-libbed terrible jokes, and mugged directly to the camera. Basically, he tried to turn SNL into a lost episode of Texaco Star Theatre from 1955. He even staged a standing ovation for himself using friends and family as audience plants. The episode was so bad that Lorne Michaels banned Berle from the show for life and until recently, refused to let the episode see the light of day.
Bad behavior was emblematic of Berle’s entire career. He wasn’t a brilliant comedian. Hell, he was barely a comedian at all. He was just an entitled bully who was more concerned with upstaging everyone than with actually being funny. Berle had an 87-year long career that went on fifty years too long because A) he refused to retire, and B) his list of credits was just a little more impressive than his reputation for being (as well as having) a massive prick.
Which brings us to the modern-day Milton Berle: Bill Maher. Can we finally admit Bill Maher is no longer a comedian? He may have been back in the 80s, but not anymore. Eight seasons of Politically Incorrect and 19 seasons of Real Time with Bill Maher have cemented his true legacy as the world’s most insufferable cocktail party host who’s so far up his own ass that he forgot to serve drinks.
For someone who spends so much time complaining about other peoples’ need for a safe space, Maher’s show is the most carefully controlled safe space imaginable. He has a studio audience that’s instructed to applaud for him. He has a panel of guests he can cut off at any time. And he has zero reason to hold himself accountable for anything because the only thing he gives a sh*t about is making sure everyone knows he doesn’t give a sh*t what they think. That attitude is horrible enough coming from a political pundit, but it is 100 times worse from someone who calls himself a comedian.
It’s worse any time Maher tries to do stand-up. His 2018 HBO comedy special, Bill Maher: Life from Oklahoma, was painful to watch, full of jokes from past specials and monologues, only this time he said them without wearing a tie. And to further cover his ass, he performed this set in a deep red state so he could blame the audience if any of his Trump jokes bombed.
Deluded Sex Monster
For years, Louis C.K. denied multiple rumors of sexual harassment against female comics and writers who were working for him. I won't list the details of these incidents here because trust me, they will just make your soul want to vomit.
On November 9, 2017, the premiere of C.K. 's latest film I Love You, Daddy, and all of his talk show promotional appearances were abruptly canceled. Why? The New York Times was about to drop a huge expose on the harassment claims… and they had the receipts.
The next day, Louis's publicist issued a statement from the comic, admitting all the rumors were true. He acknowledged the pain he caused, expressed remorse for his actions, and also regretted the actions of his manager for trying to cover it all up. Remarkably absent from his statement was an actual apology to his victims, but he did feel the need to point out that he did ask for their permission before he-oh, sorry… soul vomit.
Interesting side note: His publicist dropped him as a client right after that statement was issued.
Less than a year later, Louis C.K. claimed that the fallout had cost him more than $35 million in income. Not that it cost him anything he already had – that was just potential earnings. After nine months, Louis started making unannounced appearances at comedy clubs. A year later, he announced an international tour, and out of that tour came his latest special Sincerely, Louis C.K. Much of the special contains jokes about what his life has been like since the scandal, still without offering apologies to his victims. The album of that special is currently nominated for a Grammy. Now there’s a strong argument in favor of atheism.
Chris D’Elia is also staging a comeback after he too was confronted with sexual harassment allegations. Only in his case, it involved underage-ugh, soul vomit again.
He confessed to many of the allegations and has been trying to rebuild his career through his podcast and unannounced club sets. D'Elia is still facing civil and possible criminal lawsuits for his behavior. But unlike Louis C.K., D’Elia at least managed to include the word “sorry” in his statement about the allegations.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the last time we’re gonna see famous comics getting caught in, and trying to quickly move on from, these kinds of scandals. But when it happens, the very least we can do is strip them of the job title of Comedian. Perhaps we should go with this one instead: NOPE.
Nuh-uh. You stay in time out until you’ve made everything right. Not saying you can never be forgiven, but if you really want to seek absolution for your sins, you have to atone for them. And you don't get to say when the coast is clear. In the meantime, we’re gonna hand that microphone over to someone who isn’t a toxic, egotistical sexual predator. Cool?
Top image: Shout Factory