I had been looking forward for quite some time to two comedy experiences from the past week – seeing Mike Birbiglia live and seeing John Mulaney's new album/TV special. Birbiglia has the combination of a dry delivery, traditional joke structures, and the tendency to get weird that I really like. Mulaney's first album, the "criminally overlooked" The Top Part, is hands-down the best comedy album of the Obama years. His measured delivery and tenor voice on that disc helped make him one of the more unique and recognizable new comics in recent years. On the basis of that album I was beginning to wonder if John Mulaney might be the funniest man alive at the moment.
So I saw Birbiglia's live show and listened to Mulaney's new one (New In Town). I laughed at both. A few times I even laughed hard. But I can't hide my disappointment.
Unbeknownst to me, Birbiglia has been appearing on NPR quite a bit lately, which guaranteed that the audience in the large venue in which I saw him was predominantly old white people with a smattering of young hipster types. Accordingly, his 75 minute set was more of the one man show variety than a true stand-up act. He delivered the kind of material (dating is hard, being a kid was hard, etc etc) that might appeal to the widest possible audience. He definitely was funny, but he pushed the boundaries of…nothing, really. It's not even a clean-vs-dirty thing; there was profanity, a few sex jokes, and so on. In terms of the ground he covered, though, it was all very safe. Standard comedy tropes.
Mulaney's new special has him using an entirely new delivery – why he went from the slowest build-ups this side of Stephen Wright to this rapid fire approach is not clear – and a similar reliance on less creative subject matters. He's a bad driver. He has a girlfriend (and hilarity ensues). Wacky stuff happens when you live in New York City. And he actually closes with an 8 minute ass/poop joke. There are laughs to be had, but nothing at all to make the listener say "Wow, this guy is something special."
Both of these guys are now far more popular than ever before. Birbiglia has a movie coming out and is selling out 1000-2000 seat venues with high ticket prices. Mulaney is a writer for SNL and is all over Comedy Central now. I doubt they are looking for any tips or have any reason to question the choices they've made recently. They've done what makes sense from a career perspective. If the choice is between doing dark, weird material and touring in a van 10 months per year or recording TV specials, getting high profile writing work, and making big money headlining, then the choice is pretty obvious. It saddens me, though. All of the weirdness, all of the edge, is gone. They feel flat compared to their earlier stuff.
Is that inevitable? I mean, is that what we have to do to become successful? I'm not talking strictly about comedy here – any creative pursuit (and a lot of non-creative ones) has the same dynamics. Is this simply part of a maturation process or is it selling out, consciously or otherwise? It feels counterproductive to push the envelope for years in order to get noticed and then immediately retreat to what I like to call Meet the Parents territory – that is, a product three generations can enjoy simultaneously without anyone getting bored or offended.
Hell, if you put me in that position I'd probably make the same choice to soften the material up a little and make it more accessible. A skeptic might say that the previous sentence is a fancy way of saying "dumb it down", though, and he or she would have a point. I wish there was some magical world in which John Mulaney could be richly rewarded for being John Mulaney rather than for taking a step, however small, toward being more like everyone else. I don't want to sound like the 15 year old who shit-talks bands who sign with record labels for "selling out, man." These guys need to eat and I have learned quite well the lesson that comedy does not pay well if at all on the lower rungs of the ladder. It simply depresses me that the market for real creativity is so small. I wish that people who write, paint, play music, act, talk, or whatever didn't have to work within such narrow confines in order to earn recognition and achieve success. Because being a starving artist is neat and all that, but so is being able to afford, you know, medical care and rent.