Stand-up has a respect problem. Those who enjoy it, many other performers and the many who have tried it and failed to understand that it is a rare and incredibly difficult feat. However, there are many who fail to appreciate stand-up and view it as less than other artistic expressions.
It is limited. One person on a stage just talking doesn’t seem like a show when compared to a full stage play or opera or circus or a rock band. Stand-up is better compared to writing or painting or music composition. It’s an individual’s singular vision. A comic is one person filling many roles – writer, director, designer and star. The limitations are what make art. Even a movie is constrained by the edges of the screen and its runtime. The fact that a stand-up is making a performance with only voice and body and face does not make it small, it makes it remarkable.
A stand-up has to engage and entertain a crowd with no promise of expertise that will improve their lives and no spectacle to distract from the pure imparting of ideas expressed in a way that makes the listener understand and appreciate them in a new way. To dismiss stand-up as limited because it is just one person talking is like dismissing Michelangelo’s David as one guy cutting a rock. The medium is not a reason to dismiss something as not being artistic.
Another argument against regarding stand-up comedy as art is that some of it is crude or unenlightening or unoriginal or not funny. Like all art, it is subjective. What is funny or beautiful to one person is meaningless or even repellent to another. Regardless, every art form has examples that could be dismissed as unworthy. A lot of visual art is kitschy, derivative and technically bad. A lot of music is hard to listen to. In similar fashion, stand-up cannot be dismissed by pointing to the worst examples as representative of the form. Not every painter deserves arts grants or gallery shows but some do. In every endeavor, especially in the arts, the majority who attempt it will be substandard. That is why we respect those who show exemplary skill and vision. I would argue that stand-up is not art per se but it can be if it’s done right. The same can be said for, painting, writing, composing, singing, sculpting and any other creative activity.
Stand-up has a particular disadvantage of perception because its nature lacks a lot of the panache and glitz of many other art forms. Unlike the gyrations of a rock star or the sequins and acrobatics of a circus, a stand-up affects a casual demeanor as though they are just having a chat with the audience. Part of the skill is to mask a carefully constructed routine as off the cuff conversation. To those who do not know what goes into crafting a bit, it can look as though stand-ups are just making it up on the spot. That is part of the magic but it can also mislead the viewer into thinking there is no art. Open mics and amateur nights are strewn with the mangled egos of those who assumed it was “just talking” and quickly found out that the audience will not listen unless it is comedy, a delicate and fragile construct that only looks thrown together.
The challenge of stand-up never ends. Even the most skilled and experienced comics have bad sets. It takes minor disruptions in the setting, the crowd or the performer’s delivery to turn it sour. And, unlike other art forms, only the specific response of laughter qualifies it as a success. Other art can make one think or feel uncomfortable or even anger or upset us and still be considered worthwhile. Comedy is more like Evel Knievel. He clears the cars or he breaks all his bones. The pass/fail nature of it makes it riskier and more impressive and, unfortunately, more despised than any other art form but that should not dismiss it from the pantheon of the arts but grant it special status as the trickiest and most ethereal of all forms.
Written by Simon Rakoff