Menagerie Menagerie Feature

Comedy and the city: Stand-up and beyond

Mow’s comedy bar, a faintly lit room nestled inconspicuously within the basement of a Chinese restaurant, houses a crowd of about twenty people hoping to have a few laughs. Huddled around wobbly steel tables and equally flimsy bar stools, they make attempts at conversation as The Strokes’ Reptilia blares through the speakers set up in front. 

Tell us a story. I know you’re not boring, Julian Casablancas sings as inaudible tales are shared within clusters of twos and threes. The first joke of the night is that the show starts—finally—at eleven: Two hours after people started arriving, two hours after the advertised time of commencement; and so, for a while, the only presence atop the makeshift stage is a single microphone stand.


Comedians - Renzo-2


No one laughs at this

A fit of silence then takes over as this quaint setup is disturbed by the brusque arrival of the host. Twenty minutes in and the crowd is transformed: Faces flushed and personal dogmas challenged, a kind of tacit acceptance of the borderline offensive and maudlin captured the mood of the night at that moment—one almost irreconcilable with the portrait of aloofness and comfort that everyone unknowingly posed for almost three hours ago. 

Anecdotes about rich kid privilege and race are delivered with a lagged quality that seemed almost deliberate while caustic observations about the dark, absurd verisimilitude of incest, and the glaring differences between men and women are spewed unsparingly, interrupted only by the entry and exit of a new performer—each of whom carried either a notepad or a perspective bleaker than that of his predecessor.

“Who are you?” asks one of the younger performers at one point. A question inherently funny for its ineffability and sheer absurdity, it is met with hesitant laughter, on account, perhaps, of the personal context of the question involving a grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. It was his version of Kafka’s famous cosmic joke: That there is plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope, but not for us! 

The night wore on in a series of five-minute intervals punctuated by varying volumes of both earnest and patronizing laughter, but it was the uncomfortable silences and the ellipses that carved out the unnecessary space for nervous swallows, yawns, and lulls. Each tedious punchline of each gradually dying joke made a definitive statement by slowly, torturously burning away the minutes everyone had hoped to be filled with mutual admiration: The audience for the comics and the comics for the audience.

This is the world of stand-up comedy. A microcosm of diverse personalities and frank, non-mediated, rapid-fire interaction that both cultivates and staves off social anxieties. A stand-up comic onstage exists at the precipice of comfort, willingly looking down into a deep pit of judgment and criticism, but is nevertheless reassured by the tiniest sliver of light that is laughter.

Except a large part of falling down into that pit is enduring criticism and rejection.

The great wall of expectations

“A lot of rejection in stand-up comedy is built in.  Jerry Seinfeld said stand-up comedians are judged every 6 seconds. If your jokes aren’t killing, imagine how much rejection you could get in a 10, 20, or 30 second set,” Victor Anastacio shares frankly.  “And if you do stand-up and its cousins for a living, it gets personal.”

Several presumptions about comedy are made in both television and culture at large: The make-a-roomful-of-strangers-roar-in-laughter kind of punchline and the requisite to be witty is embedded to a default state—one that is so deeply assumed and so thoroughly diffused into the audience’s expectations that an ultimately remarkable thing about it would be its violation. 

“[In other places] there are those we call hecklers,” says Ramon Cabuchan, a performer at Mow’s applauded for his deadpan delivery of jokes comparing the size of his head with the moon. “And the audience can be bold if they wanted to. If they didn’t like the joke, they can insult you.”

 “Funny” and “entertaining” as epithets are valuable adjectives to describe how comedians are doing at their job. And in a comic act, how the audience receives a set is a figurative version of a real-life thumbs-up or thumbs-down online. It’s that split moment the audience decides to—or not to—laugh. 

“When nobody laughs at our jokes and it falls flat, that’s already part of the job,” admits Carlo Bistro.  “It’s good that the audience is honest.  If you want to laugh, go ahead.  But if not, we don’t want you to pretend.  It teaches us that we need to work on something, that the execution of the joke is lacking.”

It’s a position that comes with attention, expectations, and—inevitably—criticism.  In an age of digital frenzy when their sets are not only performed live but also uploaded online, it’s a role that comes along with unique pressures.  

And it’s a truth not as flat-out hilarious as the jokes they spin.

Personally, funny

“I pursued this line of work because [in] other careers I pursue, I’d always be the funny one. Like the funny banker, or the funny accountant, or the funny doctor, always joking around making nurses laugh and patients die. Medical malpractice is frowned upon, so I pursued comedy and anything related to it,” Victor explains. 

Against the backdrop of a well-lit stage and a single, standing microphone, it’s easy to overlook the comedians’ reasons for pursuing this profession. 

“I’m proud of my job because I get to share ideas with the world,” tells Ramon. “I get to share my jokes.” 

Carlo, similarly, sees the upside to the freedom of communicating with a large audience.  “[Stand-up comedy] is my way of relieving stress. Your hilarious experiences, you can share with others.  And when they find it entertaining, it makes me happy and validated.”

For the qualities they represent, they give a newer, fitting embodiment of what comedy is all about, for stand-up and other genres. It’s a reintroduction of their craft’s power to deliver a message—regardless if it’s political or personal—and the power to unite a roomful of strangers through the skillful execution of humor.

In a time of short fuses and comment section outrage mobs, comedy dispatches a kind of action not often associated with its supposed purpose to make people laugh. It can ask, it can answer, it can criticize, and it can probe—the delivery of a punchline that hits and reaches farther beyond laughter. 

Danielle Arcon

By Danielle Arcon

Catherine Orda

By Catherine Orda

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