Okay so I want to say that in the year since I’ve been writing this blog I’ve tried not to do too much of anything negative. When I have, it’s been a mistake. I’m in a place in my life where I truly do love the art and craft of stand-up comedy. I love what it is, where it sits in the world, love where it came from, and where I feel it’s going. I love doing it again and enjoy chronicling it. I can’t go much further though just writing only about what’s working to me.
I have to be honest about what I see that is hitting, and what isn’t hitting and why from my point of view it isn’t firing. What I learn from it, and what it means to me. What I think I can explain to you about it.
A RARE OPPORTUNITY
This last week offered a rare opportunity to for me to do that in the delivery of two unique stand-up specials on two polar opposite platforms with two incredibly talented performers with drastically disparate results. Marc Maron released BLEAK TO DARK on HBO MAX and Roseanne Barr premiered CANCEL THIS on FOX NATION.
THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS
The biggest takeaways to watching both of these specials, very closely, is that there are no shortcuts to being great in stand-up comedy. Probably in anything. Shortcuts only get you a spot at the back of the line anytime, but in stand-up, it’s merciless. It doesn’t matter how rich or famous or infamous or how big a platform you have, you can’t skip the line in terms of the hard work it takes to build a first class hour. It can’t be done. You can’t jump time. You can’t cheat the hours. You can shorten them with the years of experience, you can hire writers to help. You can get more stage time at clubs to jump up and hone the act, to whittle, to grind, to dig, to polish, then dig and grind some more, but the work has to be done. There is no way around it. None. Not to be great.
Anyone that is great will agree with that.
Has been great. In the past. She’s not great here. She’s flat. She’s dull. She’s got no wind at her back here. She has no jokes here. None to speak of. Maybe three or four at the most. It’s all attitude and brass and silly faces. Anger and posture. I’m sorry to write this because there’s a lot I respect about Roseanne. About her journey. For the record I think the people at ABC shit on her and treated her badly. Overreacted when she made a mistake a few years back. Susan Rice and her friends at ABC should have shown more humanity. They didn’t. She made a hit show and brought them an audience they didn’t really want which was silly, and they killed her character rather than using it as a ‘teaching moment’.
That being said, Roseanne blew her chance to craft a smart, reasoned, heartfelt comeback special here. To teach everyone a lesson in comedy, unity, valor, love, and understanding, in a time when we badly need that lesson. instead she showed a whiny, childish, lazy, immature, amatuer version of herself that validated the rancor that was dumped on her.
I don’t care what she says, she didn’t work hard on this special. Not like she did in her heyday. No way. She didn’t hit the clubs. Not night after night. Not for six months to a year. She didn’t record late night sets or drop in sets. Hundreds of them. No way. She didn’t watch them back for hours at a time with confidants or writing partners or comic cohorts. Didn’t play comedy clubs doing the hour every night for six weeks in a row every single night week after week until the night of the taping. I guarantee she didn’t. She may have worked out a few times. Not a lot. No way in hell. Not nearly what I laid out here. Not nearly how she used to lay out her early specials or her early Tonight show shots.
Not nearly as hard as Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle have worked out all of their last specials. As thoroughly as Whitney Cummings, and Bert Kreischer, Tom Segura, and Bill Burr worked out theirs. Not a chance in hell.
She had a good-ish joke finally about ten minutes in. After a lot of sass and attitude. A lot of crowd pleasing ‘I’m gonna get everyone back tonight’ stuff. A bit about growing up in Salt Lake City and her mom being Jewish and unlike the other Mormon wives she was the only wife in the house and had to do all the work. Yet it didn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t worked out. She didn’t take it anywhere. She took three minutes of chat to set it up and then threw the one-liner out and it was done and she was back to flapping her gums to silence. She wasn’t there. She didn’t bring it.
“The world has changed a lot since I was alive”
She had great notions and ideas. She has a great comics mind. She didn’t work them out at the Store or the Cellar or on the road in clubs, or on tour. ‘The world has changed a lot since I was alive.’ is followed by a lot of nothing. Funny notions about not having any ass “being ass-less in an ass based economy” were never fleshed out. They weren’t given the months and months of repetition where night after night a new tag or idea would be added or replace something else so an idea would become a bit and a bit would become a hunk and a hunk would become a piece. That’s how a set is built. Slowly and methodically. Like putting a very tough puzzle together. You can’t get deep on a short dig. You can only get dirty. Messy.
Old people talking about their maladies.
Another notion that went nowhere that could have been something special was a routine about old people talking about their maladies. Instead of becoming something funny and raw, real and revealing about aging and dying, it just became ‘Oh just die already.’ and then it was done. The same with a nice idea about writing suicide notes to her loved ones and what she’d say. Unfocused. Scattered. Repetitive. Read off the paper and truly first draft stuff. This was a comeback special is all I’m saying. She’s a legend. Put some back ache into it.
The elephant in the room
The biggest problem was how she dealt with the elephant in the room. The tweets about Susan Rice. It was, again, all atitude. No jokes. Not a worked out routine. Just a lot of ‘they fucked me. They suck. It sucks. Not fair.’ Then moved on. She didn’t find the great comedy in the calamity. In the injustice. She didn’t use it. Didn’t take the high road or the low road. Just spit it all out in a way that a pissed off neighbor would be about a cop that arrested them unfairly a year later. You expect more from a great humorist. When you don’t get it you walk away empty.
I’ve made these mistakes/ I’ve watched others not make them.
I wasn’t a legend. But I had my shots and I used to get yelled at a lot by Leno and other friends, and for a lot of reasons, in my late twenties when I was doing stand-up the first time on a big stage, I couldn’t hear it. I didn’t put the sweat in. It came too easy. I didn’t understand the ‘craft’ part. I didn’t understand how hard the great ones were working. I only understood how much I wanted the rewards.
Back doing it again, watching the masters of today, older, soberer, a little wiser, I understand it better. You can’t skip the process. You either love it or you don’t. You’re either willing to do it or you aren’t. You can’t fool yourself that you’ll get over. You certainly can’t fool the audience. If Roseanne had done the work, had crafted a masterwork, which she could have, even if it was on Fox Nation, she could have turned some heads. She won’t. It makes me sad.
It also was poorly produced. I have to say that as well. It wasn’t all Roseanne’s fault, although this is her domain to be sure as well. The audience was overlit. Too many audience shots. It looked like a game show shoot sometimes. It had no sense of her status, or gave her none.
She did herself no favors. Comics should watch this. There’s a lot to be learned in the dead air and the attitudinal crutch- like moments. The anger that doesn’t feel even real, let alone funny. Not like the days of the domestic goddess. It’s a good lesson. I remember back when you had to wait to do the first Tonight show. You have to wait now to put out a special. Get it right. Get it tight. Have something to say.
Maron / The other side of the coin
I’m sorry again, because I have to kiss this guys ass. I’m a good friend but I can’t say I’ve ever been a huge fan of his stand-up. I’ve enjoyed his stuff. Always thought he was good. Smart. Talented. A good podcast guy. That’s for sure. This special though is another thing altogether. This is next level. Also something all comics need to watch. Very important. It’s a killer. It’s just opposite. The other side of the coin. A master class. This is an hour that was worked, pushed, pulled, tested, rolled, tried, written, rewritten, lived, re-lived, sweated, and formed from angst and emotion over a couple years. Marc didn’t tell me this, I didn’t read it an article. I understand it watching this show. It’s baked into the work. It’s as close to perfect as an hour special is going to be. Deep, dark, real, and funny as hell. Jokes. Jokes, and more jokes. Funny jokes. Real emotion, then more jokes. It doesn’t stop.
More importantly, it feels like you’re seeing something that someone put his soul into. His heart. His time. Someone worked really hard to get it to this point. It mattered to this person. He needed to get it a level that it would mean something to you, because it meant so much to him. There is air, but it’s not dead air. There is anger, but it’s not misplaced. You may not agree with the anger, but you understand his reasons for it. When he attacks Christians I’m not with him, but it’s clever, and funny, and I know what he’s saying and he makes me laugh. His opening piece about his ‘voices from the future’ one-man play is bleak and dark, as the title of the special implies, but it’s crisp, funny, unique and well thought out. He’s a great performer, yes, but he’s put his footwork into it get this to you.
Wrapped inside some heavy stuff are some great one-liners that I bet Woody Allen would even wish he’d have written.
“I believe there was some hilarious people in Auschwitz . I mean c’mon it was all Jews.’
“I can’t believe guys are silent on this. Considering if they had any game at all they paid for at least one or two of them”
“There’s a lot of priest around with a lot of free time and historically that’s not a good thing.”
By the way, in contrast to what I was saying about Roseanne, these one-liners all lead to, or are part of a much larger notion or routine. It’s all been flushed out. He never leaves the audience wishing he had gone down a road he had pointed to and didn’t go down. He deals so poignantly and brilliantly and yes, hilariously with the loss of Lynn Shelton, his elephant in the room, that it almost feels like a magic trick. Then he ends with a physical comedy routine which he acts out to precision, of attempting suicide with a baseball bat. It’s all so well done. So well conceived, without feeling manufactured. With so much real emotion.
Also much kudos to director Steve Feinhartz, and his production crew, and HBO MAX. The production here is so good and so cinematic. The flip side of the coin. The audience isn’t lit. Hardly at all. The stage is majestic. It’s really wonderful.
Again, every comic needs to watch both of these specials. I’m sorry to shit on Roseanne. I am. I wanted to champion her. It’s what I want to do here. Then I thought, if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything. That’s not my mission statement for this platform though. I think we need to look sometimes at the data in the black box after the accidents at the same time we’re looking at the wins. Especially at the time when the form is going so well, growing so strong
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