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It is the world’s most scoffed-at art form. It has been denounced as vulgar, irreverent, and irrelevant. It has been decried as filthy, simple and, for lack of a better word—stupid. It is stand-up comedy, and despite the way that the rest of the pop-culture universe looks at it, stand-up is performed in basements, attics, and back rooms of countless Chinese restaurants across the country. And, what’s more, it’s blasting its way past every barrier en route to your sophisticated eyeballs and carefully maintained eardrums. Whether you like it or not.
For a long time, music has distanced itself from comedy, especially stand-up, and rarely does a comedy album reach a prominent spot on the record charts. Large record labels usually do not put out comedy albums, and at the end of 2005, only two of the top 200 albums were of the comedy variety. But in 2006, one comedian with a great idea and a few hundred thousand friends flipped the entire world of pop culture on its ass. His name is Dane Cook, and his album, Retaliation, is helping comedy move out of the “Soundtrack” and “Spoken Word” sections, and onto the Billboard charts.
If one had to pinpoint an exact moment where comedy’s Retaliation began, you would have to go back to 1979, at about the time that Barry Crimmins, an aspiring comic, walked into the Ding Ho restaurant in Cambridge, MA and convinced the owner to let him book a few shows. The products of those sessions, which featured chucklemeisters like Steve Sweeney, Lenny Clarke, Denis Leary, Tony V, and Steven Wright, cemented Boston’s place in comedy history, and kickstarted a New England laugh scene that is still going strong today. The Ding Ho shows stopped in 1984, but the torch has essentially been passed to another Cambridge restaurant, Rick Jenkins’ The Comedy Studio, a joint that also features rising stars at decent cover price.
While not as impressive in size as the New York and Los Angeles—you can count all of the city’s comedy clubs on your fingers—Beantown promises instant success to anyone that can get a few laughs, puts a little work in, and distinguishes himself from the crowd. A scene is defined by its devotees, not its fans. Fans may own a Carlin album, catch one show every six years if Seinfeld comes to town on a weekend, and never even think of going to see an unknown comic. Devotees study comedy, they see it once or twice or three times a week. Devotees are often the first to see a rising star, and, much like local music aficionados, know the local ‘scene’ and everyone in it. Boston is filled with these enthusiasts.
But long after the Ding Ho closed, the restaurant’s old patrons caught a glimpse of genius in the explosive, violent style of Dane Cook, and soon, the word was out. Now, five years later, after two albums, hundreds of shows, millions of laughs, the Daneiac is quite possibly the most popular man in the United States. If Cook went on the Ed Sullivan Show today, he’d be a tough act for The Beatles to follow.
But unlike musicians, comedians aren’t signed by top record companies, and don’t receive instant stardom. Fame is not handed over on a silver platter. So how did Dane Cook go from Nick’s Comedy Stop near Chinatown to hosting SNL? By making his fans bosom buddies. By ‘friending’ every MySpacer who asked him. By signing every autograph. By shaking every hand after every show. By pouring his life savings into building an interactive website. By devoting time, energy, and money into connecting individually with fans, Cook has become the hottest name in showbiz.
Forget Johnny Carson. Forget Letterman. Today, comedians are quickly following Cook with their own MySpace sites. Future superstars and established comedy veterans like Myq Kaplan, Danny Hirshon, Gary Gulman, Bobby Kelly, Joe List (at left), Sarah Silverman, Jim Norton, and Jay Davis all have profiles, and use cyberspace as a vehicles to build support and fill seats. MySpace is the new town crier, and the operators of the service fully embraced the site’s new role as Chief Chuckle Lighthouse by setting up a MySpace comedy section. But the major beneficiary of this MySpace boom has not been the comedians themselves, but the network that validates them. Comedy Central.
Unless you have been living under a rock for the last decade, you know what Comedy Central is. It brought you the shows that you quote the most often. Fine programs like “South Park,” “The Dave Chappelle Show,” “Mind of Mencia,” and “Reno 911!,” the left-right punch combo of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” and Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report,” both bastions of earnest, balanced reporting; but at the nucleus of Comedy Central is the Comedy, and it is the “Comedy Central Presents…” series is what has made it the Center of Comedy (thus the name). The success of the aforementioned shows has brought a special, well-deserved reputation to the network—as the channel to turn on when you want a laugh. Comedy stars like Jim Gaffigan, Bill Burr, Bob Saget (yes, THAT Bob Saget), Lewis Black, Brian Regan, Greg Giraldo and Stephen Lynch appear regularly, and, as a result, Comedy Central has threatened Fox News’ once secure position as the biggest joke on television.
But on a completely unserious note, armies of comedy fans have overrun record stores in search of a few chuckles. And of course, many of them are passengers on the “Dane Train.” Cook’s sophomore album Retaliation, which debuted at #4 on the Billboard charts, has now become the best-selling comedy album ever. As if to cement Cook’s celebrity status, his new show “Tourgasm,” a behind the scenes look at Cook and three comedy compadres who hit the cross-county road in an awesome tour bus, ripped it up at the (Home) Box Office, and enforced the belief that Stand-Up comedy is
dynamite “Dane-o-mite,” and it’s coming to taking over a record store near you.
And that is some serious LOL.
Take that home and chew on it, it’s delicious.
Some Boston Comedy Clubs:
The Comedy Connection
The Comedy Studio
Dick Doherty’s Comedy Vault @ Remington’s
Nick’s Comedy Stop
This article is unedited thus far.
Alex Edelman’s Myspace is www.myspace.com/alexedelmancomedy