Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Political Comedy: Why So Much Drama About What's Supposed to Be Funny?

It's election time again!  At least it will be in a few months, but because this is America the political season began right after the last one ended.  For us comedians politics and elections mean a wealth of material.  At least for those of us who are brave enough to take on the challenge.

Despite the appeal of making fun of politician (many of whom deserve it) some comics choose to stay away from this controversial topic while others embrace it.  Today I thought I would take a look at the reasons why.

For as long as there have been politics there have been people making fun of politicians.  This goes back to the early Cro-Magnon days when cave men would gather around a fire and do impressions of their leader talking about his new hunting strategy.

Today this tradition is carried on by stand-up comedians, especially those on late night television.  Yet many, including myself, try to stay away from political jokes because it is really difficult to do a joke when you know that half of the audience is going to be offended by it.

Politics are one of the topics that many people have a hard time laughing at.  At least jokes that make fun of their side of the aisle.  Even when people are at a comedy show they tend to take jokes about politics very seriously and if they don't agree with a joke they will let you know about it.  For example here is a "non-political" political joke that I started doing after Obama was elected.

"I have a bumper sticker on my car that says "Obama in 08' but unlike other people I put it on my car after he won the election.  I realized it was the perfect size to cover up my "McCain/Palin" sticker.  And I didn't even vote.  I just want people to think that I can pick a winner."

At first glance this may seem to be a political joke, but it's really a self deprecating joke about how I flip flop my allegiance with whoever is in power.  What I discovered after a while is that I had to stop doing this joke because it kept offending people.  One time I did this joke on stage in a conservative town and the audience suddenly got quiet.  When I commented on it someone called out "it's because you mentioned Obama."  Another time I did the joke in front of a liberal audience and I had people come up to me after the show and tell me that they really liked the joke until I mentioned the McCain Palin line.

Any comic who decides to talk politics will probably have to deal with similar comments.  Most get around this problem in one of three ways.

The first is the tit for tat method used by a lot of late night talk show hosts such as Jay Leno.  If you ever watch his program (and based on his ratings you probably don't) then you may have noticed that every joke he makes about a politician is followed by a joke about the other party.  The idea is that he makes fun of everyone equally and thus walks the thin line of neutrality.  Unfortunately some politicians are just easier to make fun of than others (I'm looking at you W), and playing both sides against each other means eventually you will need to use a bad joke just so you are keeping your act balanced.

Another tactic is to pick a side.  Bill Maher is probably one of the best examples.  He considers himself a comedian, but many would argue he is closer to a liberal pundent than an entertainer.  On the other side of the coin Dennis Miller plays to the conservative base while balancing his comedy with his pundent role on radio and Fox News.  The problem with such a strong stance is that it's hard for people with opposing viewpoints to put up with you long enough to laugh at a joke.  I imagine in the early days of Maher's career he was chased out of many redneck bars.

Most comedians will rarely take such a strong stance and rather use a third option of letting you know their political views, but not shove them down your throat.  The Daily shows Jon Stewart leans far to the left, but still picks on both sides when they have it coming.  Jeff Foxworthy and his Blue collar boys appeal to conservatives, but with enough balance not to offend liberals too much. 

If you've seen a lot of comedy then you've probably noticed that a large majority of comedians tend to lean to the left.  There are many reasons for this.  Comedians often come from liberal households that encourage the arts, most comedians are well educated and don't make much money, and comedians are very akin to a modern hippie what with the sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  All of these points aside I believe the most simple reason for the left lean of comedy is that conservatives are just a lot easier to make fun of.

Comedy is about the oppressed making fun of the oppressor, or the smart making fun of the stupid.  In other words every hero needs a good villain and when it comes to politics comedians couldn't ask for a better villain than a hard core conservative.

Most people (especially liberals) think of conservatives as one of two main stereotypes.  First there is the white business man who has lots of money from investing in banks, cigarettes, and other companies that screw over the common working man.  Next there is the ignorant redneck church fanatic who loves to tell you why they should be allowed to own a bazooka and why gays should never be allowed to marry.  In general terms these type of people are a lot easier to pick on then an environmentally sympathetic well educated liberal who is living with a modest income.

No one wants to laugh at a persons genuine misfortune and in a world of political correctness an audience will turn on you for making fun of a minority.  Hence the safest targets are the majority.  In politics that means stupid white rich men with staunch religious views.  Sure half of them may be Democrats, but they all fall into the image of a conservative. 

One last thought:

It's been pointed out that there aren't nearly as many jokes making fun of Obama as there were aimed at Bush Jr. or Clinton.  I agree.  Bush was an idiot and Clinton was a slut.  Those are a lot easier things to joke about than an articulate family man who just happens to be the first black president in U.S. history.  Does that mean Obama is getting a free ride thanks to white guilt?  Yup.  Sorry conservatives that's just how the comedy ball bounces.  I promise we comedians will make up for it when the second black president is elected.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Double Down on Comedy

I BET YOU that if you go into any given casino in the country and ask if they have a comedy show they will tell you yes.  At least the odds are a lot better than any slot machine you'll find.  Comedy in a casino is a tradition going back to the early days of Vegas and today it is staying alive in small American Indian casinos in almost every state.  Only instead of a professional performance with a live band like the Rat Pack used to have, you can expect a stage right off the casino floor accompanied by the noise of slot machines.

About a third of all comedy shows that I do are in casinos.  They have helped fill a void that has been left by many closed comedy clubs.  When the economy was crashing for most of the country, casinos thrived and thankfully they are bringing comedy along for the ride.

The problem with performing in a casino is it's rarely a good show.  Because the casino is just trying to bring in people the show is usually free.  That means the audience has no investment in the show and talks the entire time.  The noise from the casino floor is also a constant distraction.  And most of the audience is either drunk, or seriously pissed because they just lost a mortgage payment at the craps table. 

Despite all these problems casinos love comedy shows.  For them it's a sure bet.  They attract a lot of people on otherwise slow nights who come in and lose a lot of money.  Comedians can be hired for relatively low costs with the knowledge that many of them will lose half their paycheck before they leave.  In fact the first time I ever performed at a casino I saw the comedian I was working with lose his entire pay for the night in 10 minutes at a craps table.  This happened about 5 minutes after he bragged about being a professional gambler and about 2 minutes before he swore that this sort of thing never happened to him before.

I myself dabble in the gambling, but thankfully so far I haven't lost an entire paycheck.  At least I'm not going to admit that in a blog that my wife can read.  I like to group gambling options at casinos into three categories.  First there are slot machines for those who would like to lose their money slowly, but without having to think too much.  Next there are gaming tables such as blackjack and craps for those who like to lose their money quickly but in front of a crowd of strangers.  And finally there is sports betting for those who like to lose their money while watching their favorite team lose.

Slot machines have a very simple premise.  Push a button, lose some money.  Push it again, win a little of it back.  Push it again and lose some more money.  Repeat until you have no money left.  I've been told the only way to win at a slot machine is to play as many lines as possible and max the bets for each line.  Then pray that you hit a big payout quickly and then walk away.  To my knowledge this has never worked for anyone, ever.   It is however a really interesting way to lose lots of money very fast.  Even if you play the penny slots you can still manage to lose nearly $20 a pull by betting every line to the max.  Imagine trying to explain how you lost $500 in an hour by making one cent bets.

Table games are a little more fun because then you are at least playing with other people.  Misery loves company and that way when the dealer hits blackjack you can take solace in knowing that you may have lost five bucks, but at least you're not the poor sucker next to you who just dropped $300. 

I will admit many of the table games confuse me.  Probably the worst of these is the famous dice game craps.  I've heard that the odds at a craps table are the best you will find in a casino, but then again it's the casino that likes to say this.  The most confusing part about a craps table is there are about 50 thousand different bets you can do.  To make things simple I put money where other people are putting money.  If they cheer when the dice are rolled I know I'm winning.  If they swear I am reminded that I shouldn't be playing casino games when I don't know the rules. 

Sports betting can be a fun way to make a game more interesting, but casinos take it so far it requires a graphing calculator to keep up with what's happening.  Forget betting on who beats the spread.  In Vegas you can put in side bets about which team wins the coin toss, which team will have the first injury time out, and what cheerleaders will be shown when the TV cuts to commercial break. 

Some gamblers can actually win a lot of money on sports by doing research and comparing performances, and other boring things.  Casinos don't have to worry too much about those guys because for every one of them there are a thousand more like me who like to put our money on which horse has the best pun for a name. 

When you look at the big picture I can't imagine casinos are that interested in gamblers like me.  I will lose $5 at the penny slots while drinking $20 in free drinks, meanwhile there are buses of old people betting $50 a hand at blackjack in a desperate attempt to make sure their children have no inheritance.  Of course my luck runs out when those people decide to take a break from their decline into poverty by checking out the casino's free comedy show. 

Sometimes I can hear them mumble as the take their seats, "This guy better be funny enough to help me forget that I just lost $2000."  That's a show where the odds are never in my favor.