Thursday, June 14, 2018

John Mulaney vs. Amy Schumer

Today’s post concerns television specials you might not be able to see. If you have Netflix you’re golden. But even if you don’t, you’ll be able to get the gist. And I’m sure you’ve seen similar TV specials in other places.

The ones I want to focus on are the stand-up comedy specials. Usually about an hour, a big name comic performs in a huge packed auditorium to delirious fans who laugh at everything they say, even if it’s Kevin James doing tired airport people mover jokes. Generally the comics will record two or three shows and cobble together the best performances or reaction (should anyone pee in their pants over airport people mover jokes).

I enjoy watching them. A few big name stand-ups who were comedy darlings at one time are starting to seem a little creaky. Their best specials are behind them. But there are usually flashes of what made them great so it’s time well-spent.

I used to be a big fan of Amy Schumer. Loved her Comedy Central show, thought her early specials were terrific. Then last year I saw her “Leather” special on Netflix. It was atrocious. Lazy, unfunny, just an endless collection of raunchy sex jokes – the kind you hear in frat houses just before everyone pukes. My position on sex jokes is the same as Carl Reiner’s: I don’t mind a sex joke, no matter how raunchy, as long as it’s FUNNY. But sex jokes just for the supposed shock value leaves me flat. And apparently, the Netflix audience agreed. It’s gotten horrible reviews and very few stars in the rating system.

I go back to the “lazy” factor. The entire routine seemed slapped together. Some comics reach a sweet spot where audiences laugh at everything. They don’t have to earn the laughs. You listen to some of Steve Martin’s old comedy albums and if you’re too young to get his tongue-in-cheek persona, you very well may be saying, “What the hell are they laughing at? A guy saying ‘Excuuuuuuuse me’ brings down the house? What the fuck?” Amy must’ve felt she had arrived at that pinnacle and just doing slut jokes and obvious blowjob jokes were enough to keep the flock fed.

But the material was so bad that even many diehards were turned off. And I say that fully expecting a flurry of angry commenters saying “She was fucking hilarious and you don’t know shit!” If you thought the “Leather Special” was great, I’m happy for you and glad you were entertained for an hour. But I bring up the “Leather” special to make a point.

Compare that to the latest John Mulaney Netflix special, “Kid Gorgeous.” He’s had others but I’m choosing that one because it’s a better equivalent in terms of where he and Amy are in their careers. The thing that struck me about this special is that it is packed, every second with good material. You can see how well-crafted it is. Filmed at Radio City in February, he had spent the better part of last year touring. And it shows. I’m guessing that for the hour of material that made it there was probably an hour that didn’t.

It was also refreshing to see that he wrote everything himself. There were some big laughs and wonderfully astute observations. Was it the funniest comedy special of all-time? No. But it was pretty great and one has to admire his professionalism. Is John Mulaney at the point in his career where he doesn’t have to earn every laugh? Considering he filled Radio City Music Hall I’d say he’s getting there. But the fact that he earned them anyway made him all the more impressive.

There are a gazillion stand-up comics out there. The night I did my one (and only) open mic night there were probably forty on that bill alone. Everyone got only five minutes. And I was shocked by how sloppy and lazy most of these young hopefuls were. Jesus. Five minutes. If they can’t do a tight very funny five minutes how do they ever expect to have a career in comedy? They should be studying Mulaney. But his comedy takes a lot of work and effort. My guess is they’re studying Schumer. And my other guess is you’ll never see a Netflix special starring one of them.

35 comments :

Matt said...

Yeah, the Amy Schumer thing was bad. I had to open the windows to get the skankish odor out of the house.

Craig Gustafson said...

Steve Martin's stand-up career died because of his popularity. If you listen to his last two albums, every word out of his mouth is *cheered*, not laughed at. He couldn't gauge what was funny anymore.

Mary Goff said...

I have really been on a stand-up binge lately. Kid Gorgeous was the first Mulaney stand up special I watched, and I fell in love with it. It was original and crafted. I also watched Kevin James, and was disappointed he was making Cinnabon and people-mover jokes.

Another favorite of mine is Tig Notaro. I became a fan a few years back watching her documentary where she went around to people's homes and did stand up shows for them. She has a new Netflix special that was also a huge let down. I love her timing, tone, and cadence, and this special started off great! The problem was the last 20 minutes. She made some gag about the Indigo Girls being there, and then just teased the audience about it for the solid 20 minutes trying to convince them they were there/not there. I ended up fast forwarding through it.

Pete Davidson has a special on Comedy Central that I really liked. I'm a huge fan of Pete, and though the set wasn't perfect, it was definitely entertaining. He's only 24, so I anticipate he will perfect his craft soon.

As for Amy, I've never been a fan...

Barry in Portland said...

Marc Maron has a couple on Netflix now. If you can find 'More Later', watch that one.

Bryan said...

I saw the Mulaney show and enjoyed it. But to your point... It is like his third one. All of my kids (in their 20' s) agreed it wasn't as funny as the first two. It would be hard (if not impossible) for a comedian to do large numbers of these specials and sustsin it over a period of time: The audience gets used to you.

Terry said...

"Lazy, unfunny, just an endless collection of raunchy sex jokes..."

Isn't that pretty much all Schumer's act has ever been? I've never found her funny at all. There are plenty of other female comics that do it better than her - Sarah Silverman, Maria Bamford, Wanda Sykes, just to name a few.

I did enjoy the Mulaney special though. BTW if you haven't heard it he has a bit on one of his earlier specials (I forget which one) about a prank he played involving the Tom Jones song "What's New Pussycat" that is hysterical.

Gary said...

Steve Martin's standup career didn't die. He realized that his sort of act wouldn't sustain itself for very long, so he ended it on his own terms. He talks about this in his Comedians in Cars segment with Jerry Seinfeld.

The only time Ive seen John Mulaney was his opening monologue recently on SNL. It was hilarious, check it out on YouTube. I'm looking forward to seeing his Netflix shows.

Justin Russo said...

I highly recommend Michelle Wolf: Nice Lady on HBO. I've been a fan of hers since I first caught her at the Comedy Cellar in 2013 and she keeps getting more refined. This special was really well done and with her new Netflix show, I only hope she doesn't follow the Amy Schumer trajectory and become over-exposed and less witty.

I recently lost my father tragically and we used to watch Robin Williams: Weapons of Self Destruction. That is easily one of the greatest programs of comedy put together and of course holds a special place in my heart.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Amy Schumer looks like if Frank and Margaret had an illegitimate lovechild who learned eating habits from Radar. I mean seriously, she's got that same ferret face Frank did.

E. Yarber said...

To be fair to Steve Martin, he's been honest about what happened:

"Today I realize that I misunderstood what my last year of stand-up was about. I had become a party host, presiding not over timing and ideas but over a celebratory bash of my own making. If I had understood what was happening, I might have been happier, but I didn't. I still thought I was doing comedy."

He credits Carl Reiner with bringing him back to a genuine sense of creative work.

Janet Ybarra said...

The last stand-up special I saw that was really good was Ellen DeGeneres on HBO a month or two ago. But at the end it said it had been taped like a decade ago.

I've also got to say, not a fan of Amy Schumer.

Cat said...

Tig Notaro's recent special was indeed a letdown. It's a "smile a bit" special, and not "laugh out loud."
John Mulaney's best work was "New in Town" and "Comeback Kid."
Louis CK's most recent special was nowhere near as funny as his previous ones.
My favorite standup this year is, strangely enough, Judd Apatow's special.

Ralph C. said...

I get five minutes in front of an audience a few nights a month, at different venues. I don’t get laughs, though. I read poetry at these monthly open mic readings they have in various places. My poems aren’t funny— on purpose. The crowds are small, no more than 20 people in an audience. So that’s my stand-up experience.

estiv said...

Jerry Seinfeld was on Letterman about ten years ago, in what I’m pretty sure was his first standup appearance there since his show had ended, several years before. It was interesting. To me you could tell that at first the audience was going nuts because it was JERRY SEINFELD right in front of them. But he kept going, and by the end of the routine they seemed to be engrossed by, and laughing at, what he was actually saying. He worked for it, and he got it.

Anonymous said...

Been taking advantage of Netflix (in a respectful way, full consent) whilst waiting on new project to start. Trying a lot of new comedians. Agree with you Ken about the two specials you mentioned however Russell Howard is the standout to me, hands down. British, goes into some sex jokes fairly explicitly but has the charm of Billy Connolly to pull it off. Not an easy thing to pull off.
cheers
Dave.

Mister Charlie said...

I agree about the Leather special. I'm a big fan of Amy's but was appalled at how unfunny and flat she was for the whole hour. Embarrassing.

I'm still a big fan but have at least seen the clay feet of li'l Amy Schumer.

VincentS said...

Couldn't agree more about Amy Schumer, Ken. Got TRAINWRECK as a screener; stopped it in the middle of the second scene and tossed it in the circular file without laughing once. People like that keep on skating by then one day they wake up and are told they're not in demand anymore and spend the next twenty years in the wilderness scratching their heads wondering why. Then if they're smart enough to eventually right the ship and make a comeback they smugly say, "But I didn't go anywhere!"

Buttermilk Sky said...

The Irish comedian Ed Byrne (YouTube) is about the only one who makes me laugh out loud since Richard Pryor in his prime. A few others evoke smiles only, the occasional "Hmm, that's interesting." Standup is one of the toughest art forms to get right. I will check out Mulaney on your recommendation.

Mike Bloodworth said...

A comedian's early stand-up specials are usually better because they're a compilation of tested material. i.e. jokes that have already been performed at various venues, so he/she (or other) knows they work. Its later when they have to come up with original material that's the real test. As for the stand-ups you mentioned, I have NEVER been a fan of Amy Schumer. She's just not funny to me. And to reiterate, it has nothing to do with her politics. I'm even willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe now that she's a "movie star" she hasn't had the time to properly develope and hone new material.
John Mulaney. I had never heard of this guy. Or at least I thought I hadn't. I had to 'Google' him. Then I remembered that he was the guy on that SEINFELD rip-off sitcom, MULANEY. Most critics said that it sucked and I agreed. Without any other examples, I have no idea if he's funny or not.
I'm really not a Steve Martin fan. Not that he didn't have some funny bits, but I'm one of the "What the fuck?" people. I also felt THE JERK was highly overated.
Finally, Keven James is a comedian?! Just kidding. Now that's funny.
M.B.

Astroboy said...

Ken, have you watched the Katherine Ryan: "In Trouble" Netflix special? She's a Canadian, living in England. To me the funniest I've watched in a long time. But, my taste....I don't know, I usually don't recommend anything anymore because no one every seems to like what I like, LOL. But I think this woman is worth a shot for anyone reading this.

RyderDA said...

In my very short, part-time stand up career, I learned I needed about an hour offstage writing, prep & honing for every minute on stage. A 20 min routine was 20 hrs of work. I'd like to think that my material was tight and funny; the crowds liked it. But if I didn't have time to put the work in (normally because it was only a part-time gig and I had a real job to do), it was not tight and I found I was sliding back to toilet humour and dick jokes. I quit doing stand up because in my local market, I needed two new 20 min routines every gig -- almost every week. I had a 40 hr a week job, and a 40 hr a week stand up gig payed crap relative to my real job.

I kinda envy the travelling stand up guys who can re-use material over and over. They can (if they choose) pare it continually and always upgrade it. Sadly, many I see... don't. Instead I see the lazy guys who don't put the "hour per minute" in, never re-work stuff, never add new stuff. It has turned me off comedy shows all together.

brian t said...

I'd honestly never heard of Mulaney before this, must look in to him. One comedienne I can recommend these days is Katherine Ryan, who also has a Netflix special out. Ryan has the weirdest back story: Canadian, worked as a Hooters waitress while at university studying city planning, became a trainer for Hooters, visited the UK to help set Hooters up there, and ended up staying there and moving in to comedy full time. Sometimes it seems like she's on half the TV comedy shows in the UK.

Dr Loser said...

"Dave:
To the English (and after all, he is English) Russell Howard isn't very funny at all.

This is off-topic a little, but it does pertain to longevity and freshness ... If you ever liked Russell in the first place, don't buy a box set, because it's all the same schtick.

Try, as an antidote and a far superior form of comedy, either Dylan Moran (Irish, he of "Black Books") or Bill Bailey (also, coincidentally, of "Black Books."). Either one of them can carry the audience du jour just by ... reacting. Russell Howard, not so much.

(But then, my taste, your taste, etc.) Frank Skinner, who Howard apparently cites as one of his influences, has had a far more approachable and varied career. I'd have paid to watch him in his glory days in the '90s. I'd pay as much to see him now.

Anonymous said...

I’ve just listened to Norm MacDonald’s special Me Doing Standup on youtube. It’s from 2011 and may be the best hour of comedy I’ve heard in the last 20 years. The bits are long, extremely well constructed and consistently funny. Worth a listen.
Tom.

Janet Ybarra said...

I've become increasingly disappointed with Netflix ever since they've given up being a comprehensive repository of good old shows and movies and they've focused primarily on original content. The original content just isn't that great.

I'm Outraged! said...

Agree about Dylan Moran, his standup, especially from his 30's is superb.

Peter said...

I really like Anthony Jeselnik. I know his brand of humour is a bit too dark for some people but his delivery kills me.

Dave Wrighteous said...

I've done standup comedy and am a HUGE "student of comedy". I study it, absorb it and take tips from the various comics (while NEVER stealing anything). That is verboten. you don't rip off material.
I've come up with a "Holy Trinity" of what you need to be a good comic: #1. Material. If your shit ain't funny, yr in the wrong line of work, bub. #2. Timing. If you spit out "Whydidthechickencrosstheroad?Togettotheotherside" It falls flat. You need to let the material breathe. #3. Performance. I've played in bands and when yr on stage, all eyes aren't on you. Stand up? EVERYONE is watching and hearing you, so you gotta PERFORM! If greats like Carlin and Pryor did their hilarious material standing stock still behind the mic stand, would it have gone over as well? Nope. You gotta engage the audience, get them laughing with you, so move around, use yr hands and body language. ENTERTAIN THEM!
Just my thoughts, feel free to disagree...

Don R said...

One way you can tell a comedian has worked on the material is when he or she does a carefully constructed piece that builds from joke to joke. Two of the best pieces in Mulaney's "Kid Gorgeous" are the cop who comes to the school to teach kids about safety (the Chicago Tribune did a story with him and he confirms just about everything Mulaney said)and the bit where he compares the Trump presidency to a horse being set loose in a hospitsl. Pure gold.

Chris said...

Friday question: Credits were a little weird back in the days, I saw a Gilbert Gottfried failed pilot called Norman's Corner, which has a Created by Peter Rosenthal credit, a Developed by Peter Rosenthal & Tim Grundman credit (they don't receive these credits on imdb), but a written by Larry David credit, which appears on his imdb, but he's never mentioned it. No story by credit, so what did the "creator" and "developers" actually do if Larry wrote the thing? (also says special material by Gilbert Gottfried, so he's done some writing too).

slgc said...

I'm watching the Amy Schumer special now. I agree that it's far from her best work. That said, I'm finding it entertaining enough.

sueK2001 said...

Never got into Steve Martin's stand up. He works best when he can play off others..Martin Short, David Letterman. His banjo playing is out of this world though!

I am so glad you liked the John Mulaney special. I knew of him from SNL where he wrote for the STEFON character. Some of that Kid Gorgeous material was done as part of his SNL monologue this year but the rest of the special was new to me. Fantastic stuff. This guy also did a great riff on Law and Order..and thanks to that, I can never watch that show the same way.

A bit off topic though, I watched a rerun of PERFECT STRANGERS the other day..the show about the immigrant living with his cousin in Chicago. It wasn't as funny as I recall it being but the acting of Mark Linn Baker and Bronson Pinchot elevated that material. It made me wonder what you and David would have done with a Miller/Boyett production if given the chance. It also made me sad that Mark Linn Baker would have had a great career in more comedic television if given the better material. (He has a great gift for physical comedy and deadpan). He's on Broadway now.

Michael said...

Mark Linn Baker actually prefers theater. He has often referred to movies and TV as "a great way to finance a theater habit."

sueK2001 said...

I'm sure he prefers it..as STRANGERS went along, I noticed the Broadway flourishes they added in later seasons and it worked. I just wish I'd see him in more things since I don't live anywhere near NYC.

Jahn Ghalt said...

No comment on Mulane and Schumer. I did see Martin when he was "hot" (who, as I recall, was much more of a "personality comic" - a goof - than one with strong material.)

I'm trying to remember what features he made - except for The Jerk - I'm drawing blanks.

(oh, a "remake" of The Pink Panther, like I'm going to see that trying to follow Peter Sellers)

I will comment on your five minutes on the podcast, Ken. That was well done - definitely a tight set. You could work another five out of your "weird assistant" stories.