With the recent death of Richard Pryor, the greatest comedian in the English-speaking world, this may be a good time to take the pulse of stand-up comedy. And, going on the basis of what we're seeing in movies and on TV, it looks as if the old forms are losing steam. Conventional comedy concert films, for example, don't seem quite enough anymore. Meanwhile, on TV, sitcoms built around a stand-up comic's persona a la Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond are not, despite the glorious exception of Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, nearly as hot as they used to be.
At the movies, what we've been seeing lately are films like Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (now playing at two area theaters), The Aristocrats (just out on DVD) and Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic (which recently wrapped a three-week local theatrical run). Meanwhile, on TV, the new thing is Sit Down Comedy With David Steinberg.
In Looking for Comedy …, Albert Brooks plays a version of himself who travels to India and Pakistan to investigate what makes Muslims laugh and ends up performing stand-up routines in both countries. Despite the exotic locales, a lot of the film is a satirical look at show business in general and at stand-up comedy in particular. ("I was in Kashmir last weekend," Brooks tells his Muslim-world audiences, offering them a deliberately old-fashioned joke. "Went to visit one of my sweaters.") The Aristocrats shows 100 comics from George Carlin to Andy Dick, Eric Idle to Chris Rock talking about comedy, specifically a notoriously filthy joke that comics have been telling each other behind closed doors for years. As you see some of these comics adapting the joke to their styles, you begin to realize that style itself is the movie's true subject.
Not only does Sarah Silverman appear in The Aristocrats, she's also the star of her own movie. Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic is part stand-up, part sketch comedy and part music, with Silverman playing a comedian who looks and sounds like herself but who is actually a clueless asshole a more complex cousin of the character Will Ferrell played in Anchorman. She makes unspeakable, hilarious jokes about such super-sacred cows as rape, Martin Luther King Jr., the Holocaust and Sept. 11. To me, her most appalling (and funniest) line is, "When God gives you AIDS and God does give you AIDS, by the way make lemon-AIDS."
TV, too, has been trying new things with stand-up comics, including NBC's Last Comic Standing, a Survivor-like contest (returning this summer) to find the funniest newcomer, and Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, a reality series (still in rotation on Bravo) in which the spunky funnygirl flashes us bits of her personal life. Each program has its moments, but neither ultimately works.
The most encouraging development in stand-up to come along on the small screen in recent months is Sit Down Comedy With David Steinberg. Tucked away on TV Land (not on Comedy Central, where you'd think it would be), Steinberg's show does not, at first glance, appear to break new ground. Structurally, it's just another talk show, with the negligible difference that Steinberg focuses exclusively on stand-up comics and other funny folk.
But there is something distinctive about these interviews. Steinberg, a stand-up himself (he's also in The Aristocrats), understands what makes his guests tick. Because of this, comedians like Martin Short, George Lopez, Bob Newhart and Larry David are simply more relaxed than they are on other interview shows and more interesting and funnier because of it. Although Steinberg is a comedy insider and has even previously worked with some of his guests, he never competes with them or becomes overly chummy in that disgusting way that excludes the viewer. (Remember Whoopi Goldberg's short-lived talk show of the early '90s?) He just sits there smiling his Cheshire-cat smile often sculpting the air with his hands or rubbing them together like some B-movie villain and allows his guests to blossom.
The episode I liked best (so far) featured Mike Myers, who talked about the enormous influence of Monty Python on his work, his boyhood crush on Gilda Radner (she played his mother in a TV commercial when he was 8) and, well, being Canadian as is Steinberg, by the way. What made the interview special was that Myers felt free enough to pretend to be irritated by Steinberg for, among other things, not doing enough research, making pretentious references and behaving egotistically.
"What else did you do?" asked Myers, after Steinberg briefly alluded to a movie the host had been involved with. "Because this is about you, now, isn't it?" Myers kept rolling his eyes, shaking his head and looking offstage, as if seeking help. This struck me as especially funny because Steinberg is so unpretentious on the series, even self-effacing, by talk show-host standards.
Sit Down Comedy is fun, but don't get the wrong idea: Compared to a stick of comedy dynamite like The Aristocrats or an ambitious bag of fireworks like Looking for Comedy …, Steinberg's show is just a small flame. It looks even smaller next to Silverman's radioactive flick, which, whatever its shortcomings, contains my pick for this past year's best female performance on the big screen. (No, I don't expect her to win any major awards; Pryor didn't for his 1979 masterpiece, Richard Pryor Live in Concert, either.) But Sit Down Comedy With David Steinberg has an inquisitive spirit, some spontaneous laughs and a weird, unexpected dignity. This program, together with those three recent films, suggests some tantalizing new directions for comedians. The great Richard Pryor, Lord love him, may be gone, but stand-up comedy, on TV and in film, is very much still standing.
Sit Down Comedy With David Steinberg
10 pm Wednesday