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November 03, 2021 - Image 16

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The Michigan Daily

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Wednesday, November 3, 2021 // The Statement — 4

The laugh track


here’s something perfectly unfinished about
the comedy club on 4th Avenue. It’s next to a
Running Fit store and housed in the basement of
a virtually unmarked building. You could pass it
every day and never notice unless you happened
to see the 8-by-11-inch sheet of printer paper on
the door that says “Ann Arbor Comedy Show-
The core of the building is used as a leasing
office — one that seems to be perpetually under
construction. I’ve gone to see three or four shows
there over the last year, and it never looks like the
project is any closer to its finish. When I walked
in that Saturday, going to see a show with my
friends, it seemed like there were the same protec-
tive plastic coverings and “Excuse our mess” signs
that lined the walls the last time I was there. But
maybe its dingy unfinishedness is exactly what a
comedy club should look like.
Past the entryway and down the stairs, a folding
table was set up to sell tickets. The man behind the
table handed me three pieces of paper, explaining
that one was for me to keep as a receipt, one was to
sign and give back to him and the last was for me
to hand to another guy behind a hosts’ stand. It all
felt very complicated for an operation being run
from a folding table in the basement of an office
building. When I asked some of my roommates
who had never seen live comedy before if they
would come with me, I felt like I was responsible
for their experience — if they didn’t find it funny,
then it was my fault that they’d wasted $15.
The exercise of going to a comedy show feels
simultaneously extremely cool and painfully
uncool. I felt like I wasn’t half-interesting enough to
be there while also hoping I didn’t run into anyone I
knew. For some reason, it seemed like everyone felt
this way, as if the audience was all milling around,
waiting for friends. Eventually, the rest of my room-
mates showed up and we were taken to our seats.
The Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase looks like
a scene from the “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” or the
opening scene of Seinfeld [COPY: need quotes
around tv shows]: The whole room is composed
of small tiered levels of seats that get increasingly
huddled as they go down to the stage. The floor
in front of the stage is packed with small, round
tables for two. The host led us down to the sec-
ond row of tiered seats. As we sat down, my friend
Emily leaned over to me.
“Can you imagine sitting right next to the
stage? You’d probably get spit on.”
Yeah, spit on or made fun of.

The front seats are the ones the comedians
bring into their sets, usually to pick on as a way
to connect with the audience. I theoretically
like the idea of being brought into the show,
but I assume it’s also terrifying, sitting there
with the constant knowledge that someone
could single you out in a room of 60 people.
I was glad we were sitting higher up, out
of the literal and metaphorical splash
zone. I wanted to do the observing
without the fear of being observed.
The stage looks pretty much as emblem-
atic of a comedy show as you can get: just a black,
three-legged stool and a microphone with a sin-
gular spotlight trained on it. Looking up at the
spotlight, I couldn’t tell if it was an illusion of the
lights or an image my mind had superimposed
onto the idea of a comedy show, but the air almost
looked smoky.
’ve loved comedy since I was in middle school.
I’ve always been really interested in the whole
“scene” of it all. I stayed up to watch SNL every
weekend. I read all of the trendy comedian’s
memoirs — Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, Tina Fey’s
Bossypants, Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hang-
ing Out Without Me, Aziz Ansari’s “Modern
Romance” — to figure out how these comics got
where they were. It would be a few more years
before I’d be introduced to stand up, but even
my initial brush with comedy left me wowed. I
couldn’t fathom how someone could be so witty,
so quick on their feet. It felt like magic to me.
But, of course, it’s not magic. If anything, it’s
closer to science. Plato and Thomas Hobbes theo-
rized that the motive for humor is pleasure in
pain, flaws or “the indignity of others.” When we
laugh, it’s because we’re laughing at someone else’s
shortcomings. On the contrary, Freud believed that
laughing was a sign of sexual or aggressive thought.
But he also believed the same thing about fear. And
food. And dreams. That theory is pretty much
defrauded, but the idea of tension and release is still
integral to comedy. It’s often the buildup to the joke
that makes the payoff rewarding.
Now, most people understand humor through
the incongruity theory: Our brains perceive two
things that don’t appear to make sense together,
but when the true context is revealed we see them
in a new light, and the comedy is revealed. It’s the
surprise when the doors open in a haunted house
and Tom Hanks is standing there wearing a suit
covered in pumpkins in SNL’s “David Pumpkins”
sketch. Or the absurdity of Costello asking, “Who
is on first?” and Abbott saying, “Yes.”
hen the lights went down — a transition
from near to absolute darkness — I saw at
least a little apprehension cross my friends’ faces.
The MC walked up to the stage to start warming
up the crowd. I’d seen her before, she’s an Ann
Arbor local who does this on the weekends. She
does bits about her job at a homeless shelter and
her son’s dating life.

I’ve always felt like comedy is very black and
white. In my mind, there was an “it” factor to cre-
ativity. People like the MC had it, and I didn’t. But
“art,” “artifice” and “artificial” all derive from the
same Latin root ars-, which means skill. All art is
artificial. Sculptures are built, words from poems
are carefully selected, the same scene of a movie
can be shot over and over again until it has the
desired effect. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real
or meaningful. I know “Meet the Robinsons,” the
2007 animated Disney classic, isn’t a true story, but
I still cry every time I watch it. And there is no natu-
rally occurring comedy just like there’s no naturally
occurring art. Every joke is preconceived whether
it’s in a Dave Chapelle bit or an objectively shitty
sketch written by an amateur comedy group.
I wish there was a formula for coming up with
creative ideas. I Googled “how to write a good
joke,” and according to Google, the golden equa-
tion contains three parts: There’s recognition, the
relatable context that the comedian sets up for the
audience; discomfort, the incongruity that leaves
the audience confused and creates tension; and
then release, the moment the audience under-
stands the larger picture and the joke pays off.

So who’s in love here?” the MC asks the crowd.
She started talking about how COVID-19
has affected her dating life. She told the audience
about how she was sick of the high-maintenance
men and college-aged boys she’d been meeting
in Ann Arbor and how she had been dating a guy
named James on and off for the past couple of
years. The setup.
“And, in other news, I lost 211 pounds during
the pandemic,” she says.
The audience cheers. It’s not really clear where
this train of thought came from, but everyone’s
happy for her nonetheless. The incongruity.
“His name was James.”
The release. I’d heard this joke before. This exact
joke from this exact woman here a few weeks ear-
lier, but I still laughed. I don’t think the fact that I’d
heard the joke before — the fact that it was probably
written and rehearsed and used dozens and dozens
of times before it ever got to me — took away from
its humor. If I heard it a third time, I’d probably still
laugh. But thinking about it that way does feel a
little off-putting to me like I’ve accidentally pulled
back the curtain to see the wizard. The logical part
of my brain knows that standup comedians don’t
make stuff up on the spot but I think there’s a kind
of belief suspension in watching standup.
We know it’s an act, but we have to believe the
standup comic even more than if it was fiction.
When an actor delivers a monologue, the audience
knows them as two people at the same time: the
actor and the character they are portraying. There’s
an obvious underlying assumption that everyone
on the screen is being someone they’re not. With a
standup comedian, there’s only who they say they
are. The audience has to believe that they’re seeing
something authentic. But does it even matter who
they are or who we think they are?

It’s why I’ve never understood heist movies.
In every art heist movie, the thieves sneak into
the museum or the mansion or the gallery, slip
the painting out of the frame and put a replica in
its place — and no one notices. At least four or five
scenes go by until someone realizes the painting
is a fake. Sometimes they never do. For all I know,
I’ve seen a thousand forgeries and thought they
were the real thing. Every painting I’ve ever seen
could be a forgery, and I’d have no idea. There is no
inauthenticity until someone tells you that some-
thing is inauthentic. You don’t feel cheated out of
a concert until someone tells you the band is lip-
synching. On some level, you can’t help but believe
the magician until you see the wires holding up
the trick. You don’t remember the standup come-
dian is reading from a script until you’ve heard it
twice. It’s almost as if the belief in authenticity is
more important than its existence.
Maybe the MC is an undiscovered forgery.
Maybe there never was a James. Maybe I’ll run
into her at Kroger someday, walking through the
produce aisle with her husband. But shopping for
lemons doesn’t make a very good punchline.
y the time I’d ordered my second drink, the
headliner, Ken Evans, came on. He was prob-
ably around 65, wearing a short-sleeve button-up
and a newsboy hat.
The first thing he did was call out everyone
in the audience: the nicely dressed couple sit-
ting at center stage is probably rich, the man sit-
ting alone couldn’t get a date, the larger tattooed
couple off to the side definitely lives in a trailer
park. He went on about the toilet paper short-
age during the pandemic and the Midwest and
the haunted hayride he used to run. I wondered
whether Ken practiced this monologue on his
drive over from Novi, repeating it to himself
and remembering where to pause for laughs.
He picked up the cord of the microphone and
walked around the stage, taking a path he’s prob-
ably done a hundred times before in a hundred
other comedy clubs like this one.
He’s not really my sense of humor. It’s a little
too crude, talking about the problems of middle
age that I might find relatable in twenty to thirty
years, so I mostly just watched the crowd. There’s
a woman near the stage who was absolutely dying.
She was far more entertaining than the show
itself. She kept cackling, grabbing her husband’s
arm and keeling over with laughter.
I read somewhere that caricature art is the
most vulnerable, authentic type of art there is.
The argument was that a caricaturist draws
exactly what they see before them in real-time.
There is no time or backstage for preparation,
no place to hide. As I watched the crowd and the
comedian, I felt like I was watching a caricatur-
ist at work.
Ken singled out the nicely dressed man at cen-
ter stage, playing up the bit that he had money.

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