Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The artifice of stand-up

An old piece of mine in The Daily Texan:

A show about nothing

Some friends and I were waiting to make a left turn exiting Robert Dedman Avenue on Friday night after Jerry Seinfeld’s gig at Bass Concert Hall, when four young men, dressed in coordinated colors like the members of a disciplined ballet troupe, came jogging in our direction. There was quite a distance between us but we stopped just to be sure. Yet, as they got around our car, one of them whacked the hood twice in loud protest of what was essentially a considerate act.

You know what's especially irritating about that kind of behavior? It's the self-righteousness: “I’m out running at night trying to keep myself fit, while you and your debauched friends are conspiring to stop us from running in a straight line.”

That’s the effect Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up routine has on your mind; suddenly you see everything through the lens of comedy – partly from your own outraged sense of self-righteousness and partly to convince yourself that you’re just as observant as Mr. Seinfeld.

On Friday, Mr. Seinfeld, 54, co-creator of Seinfeld – a sitcom purportedly about nothing – was nothing if not reliably observant. He opened with a self-reflexive piece on how everyone was looking to go out on a Friday evening, how going out meant a lot of planning, and how honored he was that “going out” meant being “in here”.

In 90 minutes, Mr. Seinfeld took shots at the news media (none of which came cheap); he went on to mock both Apple i-phone and Blackberry users. He tossed out casual punch-lines – “There really is not that much of a difference between ‘life sucks’ and ‘great’. You’re licking at an ice-cream and it drops accidentally; you’re thinking, man this sucks, but what do you say? Great.” He did a bunch of funny faces, and from time to time the distinctive high-pitched yelp crept into his voice.

You wouldn’t know from watching his television show that Mr. Seinfeld is good with physical comedy. He used the stage well, ambling from side to side, and at one point during his performance, even pretended to drop dead.

Stand-up gigs are surreal events, and a celebrity performance renders it even more so. There is a subtle complicity between the crowd and the comic. You go there expecting to unwind, so unless the comedian is graceless you’d likely indulge jokes that might not sound as funny in the outside world.

It was a little incongruous to see so many well-dressed people at what was after all, a comedy show; most of us are used to grungy comedy clubs, but clearly this was the big league. Frank Sinatra – the presiding deity of upper-middlebrow acts – warbled in the background as the audience waited for the opening act to get on stage.

That part was filled in by comic hustler Mark Schiff, an old friend of Mr. Seinfeld, and whose routine was part-classic New York shtick and part-Morey Amsterdam (from the Dick Van Dyke show).

Whereas Mr. Schiff’s jokes occasionally seemed canned, Mr. Seinfeld had no such trouble. He was able to effortlessly create the illusion of spontaneity, which is so crucial to building a conversational rapport with the audience.

The show ended not with a goodbye, but a hello: an anecdote about meeting Wayne Knight, the actor who plays Newman on Seinfeld. “Hello… Newman,” Mr. Seinfeld said with one eyebrow raised, in reference to a recurring joke from the sitcom.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The exclusion principle

i was listening to an episode of This American Life on the subject of fraternity parties the other evening, and it struck me how the cultural logic of this country especially encourages and rewards participation in social groups, and punishes individualists and loners by labeling them with tags like "creepy losers".

the sense of one-upmanship embedded in the partying circuit, which ira glass was gassing about for half-an-hour, isn't nearly as interesting as how frats and sororities perform the insidious role of weeding out "undesirable" people from the pool of potential american success stories.

most american school and college kids obsessively perform some sterilized, socially-sanctioned-identity-with-a-name under the narcissistic illusion that they are different from everyone else: cheerleader, dope addict with a cap worn backwards, party girl, mr. sarcasm. even if you want to complicate their identities by acknowledging that the cheerleader also happens to be a genius at biology and mr. sarcasm should be known for his singing talents, my point still holds -- the performance of identity isn't as interesting as the overarching structure that commands that performance.

the hostel system in indian high schools and colleges almost never works as a brand. while it certainly helps in building close personal ties, few make imaginative use of it as a networking tool. nobody is really trying to weed you out, people are randomly assigned to hostels and often folks don't care enough to manufacture a rivalry between rival houses. nobody is going to cite your house affiliation while giving you a job 10 years from now. except in the case of the indian institutes of technology, desi university networks at home or abroad, are virtually non-existent.

perhaps, then, the defining feature that distinguishes a developed nation from the rest of the world at a structural level is the value the former places on the conscious idea of efficient social organization. in countries like india where social evils like caste continue to flourish away from urban centres, the appeal to make distinctions -- while often cynical -- is driven by emotion, instinct and prejudice. in the west, however, the hegemonic force involved is the hyper-valued commodity of logic, or at the very least, faux-logic: distinction is introduced through the formal practice of education. school and college social organizations become the earliest gateways put in place to cock-block a) anti-social people whose opinions are unpredictable and difficult to read b) average-looking people, or more accurately, people who aren't sufficiently "well-groomed".

grooming is one of those peculiar american virtues drilled into students of all races at every step; which is to say, because of contemporary values perpetuated in the media --

the american people might forgive
unflattering features on an ugly face
but not a strand of hair that is out of place.

fortunately it's not as if people who don't make it to one of these social groups are doomed to fail, but all of this really does make you marvel at how america continues to thrive upon the principle of exclusion. fraternities and sororities can offer a wealth of connections to some of the best talent out there. but at its worst, the system reaffirms and re-inscribes the art of bullshit.