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The “Alt-Comics” Are Winning

September 12, 2010

There’s a big part of me which hates the term “alt-comedy.” Because really, what does it even mean? One supposes the term “alt-comedy” could be used as a catch-all synonym for any comedy not readily understood by the masses, not patronized by denizens of “flyover states” or less successful than Two and a Half Men. And indeed, if any of these were actually true, it would be very, very sad and closedminded of all of us. After all, I can remember when the Spin Doctors and the Gin Blossoms were both considered “indie” or “alt-rock,” and those two bands with two particular songs (“Hey Jealousy” and “Two Princes”) receive more airplay still today than any Jesus and Mary Chain song has ever enjoyed in the last twenty-five years.

But since we’re talking “alt-comedy” in a digital age, let’s go no further for the definition than the notoriously flimsy Wikipedia, which hypes “alt-comedy’s” definition as “conscious break with the mainstream comedic style of an era and typically avoids relying on a standarized structure of a sequence of jokes with punch lines.” Let’s break that down for a second — first, what exactly is the “mainstream comedic style” of this era, right now? It would likely be the easy way out for one to point to the basest examples of comedy in 2010 — let’s say, for argument’s sake, your Meet the Spartans and your The Ugly Truths (yes, I know they’re very distantly related) — as being a predominant form of sought comedy in this “era,” but likely you would only be doing that to subconsciously put yourself above things you think are beneath you, and the truth of the matter is that neither of these examples are horribly successful themselves.

What is successful? Increasingly, and thankfully, a particularly prickly, fun, smart level of new comedy purveyed by comedians like Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, Danny McBride, Reggie Watts and Tim and Eric, among others. Okay, maybe not completely, billion-dollar industry successful, but enjoying success. And that’s at least something. Mitchell Hurwitz has a new show on FOX. Saturday Night Live has gone back to picking cast members and writing staff directly from Second City, ImprovOlympic and the Annoyance Theater (as evidenced by recent news of add/drops). Former State cast members David Wain and Ken Marino are begetting wide-release comedies like Role Models. “Alt-comedy,” or whatever you want to call it, is getting its due. Or at least becoming less “alt.”

If “alt-comedy” (I will, undeterred by your tiring of such, refuse to stop putting this in quotation marks) does exist, how can we describe it? What falls under the umbrella?

-Clearly, pre-Hangover (and, thankfully, post-Hangover) Zach Galifianakis likely would make the list, from his exquisite Live at the Purple Onion concert special to his appearances as Tairy Greene on Awesome Show, Great Job. Galifianiakis’ style has been yet unphased by recent commercial success as he continues to do his own thing. Proof? Fine feel free to check out Between Two Ferns, a web series in which Galifianakis sits down with several mainstream-successful friends in a series of bizarre, mean and awkward interludes.

-Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block continues to showcase great pieces in fifteen-minute segments, notably and currently adapting the Daily Show’s Rob Corddry’s viral web series Childrens Hospital to a 10:30 slot (which, for Adult Swim, is quite the headlining gig). Stocked with a massive revolving cast of great comic actors (the variety of which often pop up as scene stealers in what others may call “mainstream comedy” — i.e. Rob Heubel, Corddry himself, Megan Mullally, Ed Helms, etc.), Childrens Hospital is an absurd send-up of your ERs and Grey’s Anatomies which has featured storylines involving rapid aging disease, faked deaths, the “healing power of laughter” and butterfly semen.

Comedy Death-Ray Radio is the brainchild of former Mr. Show (don’t even get me started on the Mr. Show contribution to today’s comedy scene) writers Scott Aukerman and B.J. Porter, which started as a live evening weekly in an L.A. bar before moving to the infamous Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre and can be found weekly by podcast. The podcast, gamely hosted by Aukerman, features a solid rotation of guests (Maria Bamford, Thomas Lennon, Kristen Schaal, Andrew Daly and Jeff Garlin, among many, many others) and exists as a combination talk-show and extended series of improv exercises, the latter often delivered weekly by the great Paul F. Tompkins, who has portrayed — sometimes in segments as long as forty-five minutes — characters from Ice-T and Danny Glover to TLC’s “The Cake Boss” and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The list could go on, prompting the question of whether “alt-comedy” (nope, not giving up the quotation marks) actually exists, or if this entire genre of comedy is — in a good way — becoming the norm. Sure, your average sixtysomething mom and pop isn’t going to begin DVRing Dino Stamatopoulos’ Frankenhole anytime soon, but they do have access to shows like 30 Rock, which could be called “alt-comedy” disguised as “mainstream Must-See TV” each week, and if Fey’s multi-award-winner still isn’t getting the audience it probably deserves, it’s not because the critics aren’t pointing the nation in its direction.

Comic Marc Maron dissects the nature of comedy each week on the podcast WTF with hard-working comics like Andy Kindler and Jimmy Pardo, and it’s worth noting that Maron — who himself has been around the block and knows his stuff — continually questions whether such a thing as “alt-comedy” exists. Maron does freely admit that a new type of scene seemed to emerge in the larger city comedy clubs in the mid-to-late 90’s, but he questions what terming a scene like that actually means. And he’s right to question it. It’s like “independent rock.” The Stone Roses would likely have a great deal of commercial success in 2010, but there may not have been a place for them yet in the Madchester movement of the late eighties. If shows like Mr. Show, The Mighty Boosh and Arrested Development paved the way for whatever you want to call the “alt-comedy movement” supposedly happening today, we’re all the better for it. Sure, it’s nice to keep things in their own separate niche, as if they belong to you and only you (and perhaps that’s where the purposeful outside-the-circle “alt-comedy” moniker is born), but what’s so wrong about that genre inching toward the mainstream? It’s a smarter brand of comedy, it’s more self-aware, it’s cleverly self-referential and each new entry seems to create a own fully creative universe of its own. And if more of America decides they like that kind of thing, can’t we call that progress?

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