12/12/12 - alternative comedy

In today's selection -- in the 1990s, a young comedian named Janeane Garofalo and her contemporaries pioneered a new style of comedy that came to be known as "alternative comedy", in part because it was happening outside the traditional comedy clubs in alternative venues like coffee houses, bookstores and places like the Un-Cabaret Club. Garofalo was in a position to bring attention to this new school because of her new found fame gained from roles in Reality Bites and The Larry Sanders Show. Comedians of this school stayed away from jokes, punchlines and repeat material -- and instead emphasized current experience from their own lives -- the absurdity and angst of their own identities. Here are comments on the alternative scene from comedians that emerged during that time:

MARGARET CHO  Janeane invented this idea of alternative comedy. And what was popular in the late eighties/early nineties was a kind of observational humor where the joke-teller didn't have an identity -- anyone could be the joke-teller. Alternative comedy was more about the identity of the person telling the joke. And Janeane was a really big pioneer in this idea of identity versus observation. 

Janeane basically taught me how to do comedy. I used to think, 'Oh, you've got to think up all these jokes, and you've got to really work hard on your craftsmanship, and it's really about how the jokes are.' She was like, "No, they just want to see you. They just want to listen to you, they want to know what you're thinking, they want to know what you did that day. That's much more valuable than all the jokes the boys are working out.' Janeane brought me the idea that people are interested in me and that they're interested in what I have to say. They don't really care about how well I can craft a joke. ...   

DAVID CROSS  There was no concerted effort to make an alternative scene. It just sort of happened, and Janeane was at the forefront of that group. She was responsible for putting a show together in L.A. at a place called the Big & Tall Bookstore, which kind of presaged the post-alternative boom where all of a sudden people were doing stand-up at Laundromats and coffee shops. It was kind of going back to this sixties folk thing of doing comedy wherever you could. So she's very responsible for what we now see as an almost calculated idea, but that really wasn't.

JANEANE GAROFALO  The comedy boom [of the 1980s] lasted until about '92, '93. Then, one by one, comedy clubs started closing, and fewer and fewer people were seeing it as an entertainment option during the week or on the weekend. But out of that comedy bust, if you will, came a kind of interesting, 'other' comedy scene in the early to mid-nineties. Some people call it alternative. Others bristle when the phrase alternative comedy is used, because they don't understand that it just means performing in a place that's an alternative to a comedy club. So out of the comedy bust started springing up a scene of venues that would do spoken-word and stand-up comedy nights that were not comedy clubs proper. They weren't chains, like Funny Bone or the Improv, and they didn't charge an arm and a leg to get in the door and then have a two-drink minimum. And there were more thoughtful comedians performing in them. ...

In stark contrast to those successful female comedians who came before her, Garofalo used the influence she wielded to prop up fellow funny females. ...

KAREN KILGARIFF, comedian  The first time I saw Janeane, I was like, 'Oh my God.' She was wearing her black tights with her cutoff denim shorts over them and her Doc Marten boots. And she walked out and then starts doing all this brilliant, amazing observational comedy. I had just started to do comedy three weeks before, and after I watched her, I realized that I was speaking in a really high register onstage, almost in a baby voice, like 'Be nice to me, I'm the girl!' After I saw Janeane do stand-up, I immediately talked much lower and did much more of a pulled-back, too-cool-for-school character. ...

KATHY GRIFFIN  I'm always going to be grateful to Janeane. When I first started, I called Janeane and said, 'I can't get a break. I've been in the Groundlings forever. Everybody is getting on SNL but me.' Janeane said, 'Okay, look. I think that we should do something called alternative comedy. I don't think we should even try the clubs. F**k the Comedy Store. F**k the Improv.' This was when Janeane was in Reality Bites and she was the hottest thing in the world. So I started renting a theater myself and I would go to Kinko's and print out flyers that said: 'Comedy night with Kathy Griffin and Janeane Garofalo.' We would charge $1, because we were convinced nobody would come if we charged more than that. It was called Hot Cup of Talk, and the show was only an hour, and we promised we wouldn't be taking up people's nights. And then we would get celebrity guests: one week Lisa Kudrow would come and do fifteen minutes; another week Quentin Tarantino would come do fifteen minutes -- people who weren't even comics. And it was full every single week. ... That night changed my life. ...

KATHY GRIFFIN Janeane ... was helpful to me, because she said, 'Don't change a thing that you do. Don't try to become a joke-teller, don't try to become whatever is the stand-up comic du jour.' ... 

The rule of the Un-Cabaret Club was that you weren't allowed to repeat yourself. That was sort of the shortest version of the rule. But what it meant was: Don't do your act. This was a place of discovery. This was a place of being able to experiment. This was a place of being able to go as far as you could go. And we had other strict rules, too, like no characters. It was just really about you. And the audience came along for the ride.       


Yael Kohen


We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy


Sarah Crichton Books


Copyright 2012 by Yael Kohen


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