Sometime in the course of my Saturday morning errands I had picked up a copy of The Onion. Slurping noon coffee now at the kitchen table, I’m leafing through the thing. Suddenly my coffee mug is hanging in midair, jaw gone slack like some neglected hound of a man, as I take in the little ad at the bottom of the page. Friday, October 13th- Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter live at the Metro. That was yesterday. The Onion, which comes out every Thursday, had been good enough to tell me. The only person who let me down was yours truly. I just blew it. I love those guys. I watched the The State back when I was in fifth grade. Both MTV and myself were young, earnest, respectable entities capable of enthusiasm and positive change.

I’ve seen Wet Hot American Summer a dozen times, including with several girls one on one, absorbing the comedic genius of the movie as it radiates off the screen, making it my very own drizzling safflower oil on my crotchless leather chaps as I see her start to give me that look, (you know which look I’m talking about). I am an obnoxious conversational missionary of the grossly under-appreciated “Stella”. I think The Baxter was the fucking dutchess and totally hysterical. I can’t wait for the upcoming The Ten.

I guess you could say I’d built up an embarrassing one-way relationship with the media I chose to consume, a genuine case of cult-fandom. The fact that I had utterly dropped the ball on that Friday’s show, then, spiraled me for about five gut-churning minutes into a crisis of identification, smarting and shiftless in the wake of my self-betrayal. Why wasn’t I hip to that gig, goddammit!? Why!? Soon enough, soothed in the embrace of Cognitive Dissonance herself, I came to realize why news of Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter’s engagement at the Metro that Friday had evaded me. Many weeks before I had already consecrated myself as spectator to another cult-comedic legend, Steven Wright, whose show I had gone to see that very same Friday night. What had been an accident became, by force of necessity, a principle. Steven Wright, still abdomen-wrenching, red-in-the-face funny here and now, meant something.


Alongside Rock and Jazz, stand-up comedy is the third great Anglo-Afro-Judaeo-American popular performance art, and like those of its somewhat distant musical cousins, stand-up comedy’s lore and lorists are obsessed with spawning - lineage and influence, mutations, ages, periods, rises and falls and demises and sacred sites born and desecrated (the late CBGB comes to mind). Your faithful correspondent counts himself among these adenoidal, hairy-palmed theorists.

The Modern Comic Tradition in America, tracing the development of urban and suburban culture from turn-of-the-century vaudeville halls to the mass media of radio, film, television, and the current digital plasm, is marked at its midsection by a schism between the Structural and Post-Structural comedic schools. Prior to the Counterculture, almost all comedy was Structural - the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy. The concept of Form at play was at once modernist and ethnically traditional for participants in this comedic tradition - a fortuitous harmony of time, place, and craft. No matter how outlandish or apparently casual the action or premise, the principle was the same. Comedy was a finely tuned technical orchestration.

With the advent of the Counterculture, comedic voices in the performance art community embraced the notion that all the games and accepted conventions of the modern order ought to be eschewed to access a more raw or fundamental mode of experience. It is no coincidence that the first sketch to air on Saturday Night Live had John Belushi playing a European immigrant whose tutor in English, played by Michael O’Donaghue, has him repeating wacko non-sequitirs like, “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines.” Structure, however, cannot be discarded completely. The conclusion of this bizarre game of repeat-after-me consists in the tutor collapsing to the floor gripped by cardiac arrest, after which the earnest student proceeds to throw himself on the floor as well, an obliging mimic of his tutor’s demise. Yet this little comic syllogism is not “where it’s at,” so to speak. It is, instead, in the very gesture of the absurd. SNL and Monty Python, among others, led the charge in this new era of comedy whose engine of humor was not the structuralism re-connection of synapses in unexpected, unconventional yet semiotically cogent ways, but rather the shock of cognitive bafflement, the absurdity of juxtaposition as its own self-standing comedic premise. Heinlein would call it Grokking. A dozen Queen Victorias racing down the track. Land Shark.

Like the larger Counterculture itself, “something happened” to this post-structural mode of comedy. Did its basically inadequate premises spell out its own demise? Was it absorbed and co-opted? Was it suppressed? The answer to the fate of both the Counterculture and its comic avatar is “all of the above.” We are still living with the after-effects and ubiquitous persistences of the Counterculture, with the backlash against it. The same holds for countercultural comedy. Some of the best “comedy” cinema was made by countercultural stalwarts in a post-counterculture America, including Animal House, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and the immortal Blues Brothers. These movies weren’t even particularly funny, per se, just absolutely amazing pieces of something that make you want to watch them again and again, memorizing every line. This is all to say that after the 1960s, popular mass-comedy entered into a rangy, unstable and hybridized relationship with both the structural tradition and the Gonzo moment just passed.

The Structural legacy never entirely died. Ernie Kovacs, Nichols and May, Mel Brooks, but especially Woody Allen pushed the Structural envelope, continuing to innovate and produce comic (but also tragic-dramatic) material that was amazingly funny, truly glorious, and intimately human. Woody Allen is the only romantic American filmmaker.

Comedy, it might be said, is now passing into an era of New Structure. Its representational lexicon has infinitely broadened by the countercultural absurd (as well as the countercultural desire to lampoon and make strange the prevailing popular culture), yet returning with ever more effective fluency to the structural approach, with its implicit aesthetic claim that sometimes the truest naturalism is born of stylization, artifice. (The fact that the Jackass movies are the funniest shit I’ve ever seen throws something of a wrench in this premise). It is at this synthetic juncture that I place the crew from The State, whose show I missed on Friday; but I cannot neglect to name Steven Wright as their comedic uncle or older cousin, and also a sidelong rhizomatic contemporary

Steven Wright is as structural a comic as they come. He has been droning out little pellets of semantic somersault at a machine gun pace for almost thirty years now, and they still get you. They still smart like hell. Wright’s comedy represents the happy marriage of absurdist gesture and technical wiring. Like watching Groucho at work, there is a point at which the succession of jokes gives way in one’s mind to a steadily crackling state of humor.

Mitch Hedberg 1968-2005

Steven Wright has been speaking the weirdness of the off-kilter universe he inhabits for some time now. His direct comedic descendant, Mitch Hedberg, is already dead. Anyone who doubts this patrilineage need only follow Wright’s jokes about ants into Hedberg’s sets, albeit in fresh incarnations. In an odd way, Hedberg and Wright have more in common with Borscht Belt comedians like Henny Youngman or the Vegas zing of Rodney Dangerfield than they do with the more immediate comic impulses of their longhaired, strung-out milieu. Steven Wright, who played the fuzzily somnolent “The Guy on the Couch” in Half-Baked, seems exactly that: a vaudeville Rip Van Winkle who woke up high in the Stoned Age. I’m remiss to reduce Wright’s jokes into text, but will say that the long strange years have run a darker vein or two through Wright’s comedic tissues. There are the frequent offhand mentions of suicide, and the jokes uncomfortably swollen with Blue Velvet sickness and dementia. Hedberg, as you may recall, died in his hotel room of a heroin overdose. Wright, however, must either hold his junk very admirably or, and this is more likely the case, simply be the type of guy who indulges in the occasional or even semi-frequent joint. Heirnonymus Bosch never took acid. He was a natural.

For all the genealogy I’m attempting to put forward, the truth is also that Steven Wright is a school of thought unto himself. Like Bosch, he is not ahead of his time but rather, as a completely unique articulator of a perceptual world, from an alternate dimension - a claim that Wright often makes himself. One can imagine Wright remaining brilliantly prolific for decades, even as his nihilism grows. It is exciting to see a comic in the third decade of his career whose comedy is evolving, even if that evolution is driven by the fleeting snarls of an inner demon like Spider-Man, in the Venom suit, kicking ass. Comedy is going brave and beautiful places, and ought to consider it fortunate that the touchstone of its new ethos is still alive and kicking.



All opinions expressed by Jacob O. Gold are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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