I have always believed that the role of the artist is to reflect, positively or negatively, upon society and the world in general. I have no respect for the all-too-common "art for the sake of art" point of view. I have no interest in hanging a landscape painting on my wall. There are windows in my house!
I myself am a writer and a comic, and I also dabble in music and filmmaking. And I have always seen myself as a social commentator, especially in my writing. But until a few years ago, I was such a hypocrite that I actually didnâ€™t apply these ideas to my comedy. And thatâ€™s why my jokes, fart and dick jokes for the most part, generally sucked.
Then one day a friend of mine suggested I check out this really outrageous comic called Bill Hicks. I promptly sought him out, always being on the lookout for good comedy, and I was completely baffled. I simply had no idea what to make of this ranting maniac who wasnâ€™t even telling jokes. Not really. He was screaming about stuff that actually mattered, stuff he deeply cared about. And it didnâ€™t even matter if the material was funny or not (although most of it was). The sheer energy and drive of his conviction was so gripping that even though I was only listening to a poor audio recording, I couldnâ€™t resist his force. Here was a comic who was not just doing dick jokes (although there were some). He was talking about abortions, religion, the war in the Persian Gulf. Deconstructing western hypocracy bit by bit, he exposed us all, and himself, allowing us to see our own and each otherâ€™s nakedness. It was so liberating to hear a comedian tell the truth for a change; a very rare opportunity. Bill was the Lenny Bruce of his time. And unfortunately he, like Lenny, died way before his time (of pancreatic cancer in 1994, at the age of 32).
Getting to know Bill was such an eye-opening experience for me that I threw away almost every single joke I had ever written. I tried to tell them, but I felt like such a phony. So I started again from scratch (to be fair, this wasnâ€™t such a big step, since I was just starting out doing comedy, but still...). I started to write material about stupid, sugar coated pop culture. About war. About politics. About religion. Emulating Hicks at first, and then adopting my own style in time. But the ideology of my comedy is still his. I looked at myself and thought, "I canâ€™t keep telling these stupid jokes that have no real meaning. Iâ€™m not a â€˜comic monkeyâ€™ (in the words of Hicks). Iâ€™m not going to talk about relationships, sex and airplanes. I want to be a preacher, I want to have a point of view. I have a message, and by God, Iâ€™m going to deliver it!"
The next time I went on stage was at a small comedy contest at a small bar in Reykjavik. I did some of my new material, dropping in one or two of my old jokes as a sort of a safety net. Well, my new stuff killed. My old jokes got very few laughs. But to make a long story short, I won that contest, and am now doing alright as a stand-up comedian. And I owe all of that to Bill Hicks. And here comes my point (I knew I had a point!).
People want the truth. And I donâ€™t imagine for one second that this is any different for any crowd anywhere in the world. This is not unique in Icelanders. I believe, as Bill Hicks did, that â€˜we all have the same voice of reason inside us, and that voice is the same in everyone.â€™ Everybody wants, nay, needs the truth; Icelandic, English, American alike. Comedy audiences need to feel that the comic is speaking to them as his equals, not his subjects. This is what turns me off about a lot of comedians that I consider mediocre to downright terrible. This is what makes certain comics hacks.
There are a number of different types of hacks out there, in my opinion. Including what I term the "Grandioso"; comics suffering from illusions of grandeur. One of these is Orny Adams, who had his fifteen (in my opinion completely undeserved) minutes of fame in Jerry Seinfeldâ€™s Comedian. His whole demeanor, on stage and off, is that of somebody who clearly thinks himself much smarter and better than the audience, and therefore he treats them with a complete lack of respect. Another type of hack is the "Trivial Comic"; those who only talk about trivial shit that nobody really cares about. Now these are often really funny, but theyâ€™re just entertainers. Clowns. They have no message whatsoever. The sad part is that these are often the comedians who make it, either on TV or in the movies. These include comics like Tim Allen and the old Jerry Seinfeld (a lot of Seinfeldâ€™s new material has a real bite, and truthfulness to it). Then there are "Shockers"; comics who donâ€™t really do jokes, but only blurt out a bunch of shit about sex and defication and get cheap laughs out of that. The most famous of these is of course Andrew Dice Clay. And last but definately not least, thereâ€™s the "Idiot"; guys who appeal mostly to peopleâ€™s dumb side (I hesitate to say dumb people, although people do come off as stupid for watching these shows). Iâ€™m talking about comics like Carrot Top and Dana Carvey here, who get cheap laughs for portraying themselves as idiots.
Alright, still reading? That either means that these comedians piss you off almost as much as they piss me off, or that you disagree with me so much that you want to read the rest of this while pondering a law-suit. And thatâ€™s fine too. I realize that most people disagree with me on this. Iâ€™m not saying that these "hacks" donâ€™t have a right to do their material in their style, certainly not. After all, I couldnâ€™t do my style of comedy if it was the only one. We need diversity, in comedy as much as anywhere, if not more. All Iâ€™m saying is that a comedy audience is not stupid, and they donâ€™t deserve to be treated that way. The greatest comedians of all time, in my opinion, all share a certain connection with the audience that allows them to speak to each and every member of a theater audience individually. To be able to do that, you have to connect with them on their level; you have to tell the truth.
If you watch a George Carlin show, a Richard Pryor show, a Bill Hicks show, youâ€™ll see what Iâ€™m talking about. Even if you only look at them on video tape, youâ€™ll see that no matter what they say, no matter how outrageous, the audience will go along. Because thereâ€™s a sense of connection, a sense of truth, and essentially a deep sense of trust. When Bill Hicks started to tell british audiences about his explicit, sexually deviant alter-ego, Goatboy, they went along with it, because they trusted Bill. Would the same audience have gone along with Andrew Dice Clayâ€™s rant about pussy farts? Doubtful.
Have I got a leg to stand on here, doling out advice about stand-up comedy, it being less than a year since I took the plunge into a career in comedy myself? Yes, damnit! Because I have been watching comedy shows religiously all of my teenage and adult life, and although Iâ€™m relatively new to the practice, I sure as hell know what it is to be in the audience. So coming back to my point (there is one, I assure you), I have one advice to all stand-up comics, novice or professional, old and young: Treat your damn audience with respect. They deserve it!