Cross-Pollination in the Comedy World

Photo: Fernando Trabanco Fotografía via Getty Images

In today's divided world, and when looking at a vision of a more unified comedy world, one should acknowledge that the comedy world has never truly been unified. Even prior to the ultra-divisiveness of today, the comedy world has always had its divisions, based on philosophical/practical approaches or even just geographic/ethnic differences.

A key division line has been that of the more artistic vs. the more practical approach. Unlike other types of self-expression, there is a very A+B=C aspect to comedy (that being the end result being a laugh/positive response). The practical approach plays to this as a functional approach: “How do I make this audience laugh?”. The more artistic approach examines the self-expression a little more intently, seeking originality within that framework (and sometimes eschewing the framework entirely to varying degrees of success): “How do I stay true to my uniqueness while still making an audience laugh?” These two worlds lead to some divisiveness: the artistic approach sees the traditional approach as restrictive and potentially hackneyed, while the traditional approach sees the artistic approach as abstract and potentially too self-indulgent for an expectant and potentially paying audience.

Historically, this dividing line could be seen in many different areas of the comedy world. More traditional stand-ups (those in the New York comedy scene, for example), would adhere to a more standardized approach, while “alt stand-ups” (those in the LA comedy scene, for example) would attempt to break off from the overly tried-and-true stand-up of the early ‘90s (borne from the comedy craze in the late ‘80s). More traditional sketch shows and performance styles (SNL and the Del Close-established improv approach being primary respective examples) adhered to a stricter set of rules, whereas their more adventurous counterparts (e.g., Mr. Show or Kids in the Hall being the sketch show versions) were intent on maintaining a state of play with this form.

These scenes sometimes played along political lines, but in no way were defined by them. Certainly, the “alt comedy” scene had a generally politically liberal ethos, while a more traditional stand-up scene like that of New York (the Comedy Cellar/traditional nightclub scene specifically) would have trended a bit more moderate/conservative. Of course, because these weren’t defining lines, politics crossed paths with comedy approach all of the time, with the more traditional SNL and Upright Citizen's Brigade (traditional improv) trending liberal and libertarian comedians like Norm Macdonald and the South Park guys being some of the most playful with the form (while still admittedly respecting the principles of stand-up and story).

All that complicatedness said, this world was never really defined by politics. In recent years, however, it has seemed to be. The comedy world of the past number of years has trended towards the simplistic politicization that has impacted everything else. Politics (and geographic area) has seemed to replace comedic intent as the defining dividing line in the world of comedy. Those along the coasts and in metropolitan areas vs. those everywhere else – white collar vs. blue collar. These dividing political lines don’t seem to be about comedic approach either. In the liberal sphere, you have the adventurous “alt comedy” scene, as well as more standard institutions like SNL and Upright Citizens Brigade. In the moderate sphere (there is not a truly successful conservative sphere that I can sense), you have a wide variety of comedians and podcasters that span the range of traditional and experimental (including big-name standup comedians and those in the Joe Rogan sphere of comedians). Up to the very recent present, these worlds have seemed radioactive to the other, to an irrational degree. Judgment has been based not on comedic ability, but by political slant.

This unwillingness to “intermingle” has been detrimental to the comedy world writ large, in my opinion. To not have people from these different spheres interact with one another has felt like an internalizing, stifling thing - whether that is the insularity of metropolitan-types talking about things that nobody outside of a big city would know or care about, or the insularity of dude-bros talking about MMA. Ultimately, there are funny people on both of these sides, people that are going after the same thing (laughter), albeit from very different standpoints. To have these different approaches interact – whether that is through TV, movies, podcasts – makes for a richer comedy world/ecosystem (hence “cross-pollination”!).

I have been glad to see an increase in this cross-pollination in recent years. Whether that is someone in the SNL family engaging with someone in the more moderate sphere (Conan O'Brien hosting Bill Burr on his podcast, Dana Carvey/David Spade's podcast having Shane Gillis as a guest, John Mulaney appearing on Theo Von's podcast), or alt-comedians doing that same thing (David Cross guesting on Tom Segura's podcast, Reggie Watts appearing on Joe Rogan's podcast), it is indicative to me of a larger trend – that being a tiredness with this irrational “separate camp” mentality that has defined so much of our culture in the recent past. I have found this mixing of ideas in TV, too – two great recent examples are Nate Bargatze's and Shane Gillis’ recent hosting of SNL, and a recent show called In the Know, a teasing look at liberal radio which was created by Zach Woods (more on the left, UCB graduate) and Mike Judge (seemingly more libertarian co-creator of King of the Hill).

All that said, I hope that this trend continues – less concern about optics, more sharing in the joy of what ultimately forms the core of the profession. Each world brings an approach that I think complements the other. I understand why they are their own worlds, and I don’t necessarily want or think it is practical for these worlds to unify (the same reason I want ethnic foods to still exist, the same reason I think geographic uniqueness is a good thing). But I do like that there is less of a wall up. Hopefully it leads to more of these collaborations, whether more formal (TV/movie) or informal (podcast episode), that are made all the better because of the complementing yet disparate philosophies and backgrounds (and, yes, politics).

Picture it: A comedy world that's focused on, by and large, the merits of comedic ability.


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