Sit Down for Comedy: Stand-up comedy is losing its touch in the digital age

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Stand-up comedians have been around for decades, some would even argue that the concept of stand-up comedy originates from court jesters, which would date stand-up comedy as centuries old. Across cultures, jesters served many roles reaching from simple entertainment to political critique and correction. 

Today, stand-up comedians continue to carry on that fluctuating tradition. Some comedians are known for their political opinions and activism, while others are known for their family-friendly humor. However, despite the history of stand-up comedy and the immense ranks of incredibly famous comedians, stand-up comedy seems to be becoming less entertaining and less politically acceptable in our current age of media. This change is partially due to a select few comedians failing in their role to entertain or critique, but it is primarily due to how we are consuming stand-up comedy. 

In 2013, Netflix added their first stand-up comedy specials to their streaming service, Aziz Ansari’s “Buried Alive.” This changed everything. As Netflix and other streaming services recognized the immense popularity of stand-up comedy, more and more specials and comedy shows were being uploaded to the world. Popularity grew as comedians like John Mulaney, Jim Gaffigan, Amy Schumer and other famous figures were added to the digital ranks. 

At first, this seems like an amazing idea. More people are able to experience famous comedians without having to shell out money for a live show, and lesser-known comedians are able to expand their career to more audiences. That being said, this digital age of stand-up comedy has ruined comedy in the long run. Stand-up comedy is an art form that is meant to be experienced in person with a limited audience. When the show is then added to the beasts that are streaming services, the experience is different for individuals, and the audience grows to an indefinite size. 

When you go to a live stand-up comedy show, whether it be a famous figure or lesser-known comedian, the experience is unique. You go in not knowing exactly what to expect, you sit down and enjoy a couple hours of someone who has spent weeks preparing this performance especially for you. You’re caught off-guard, you let yourself be vulnerable and laugh with those around you and when the show is done, you leave having had a shared experience of vulnerability, genuine laughter and a break from the rest of the world. 

Two things changed when comedy became a streamed experience rather than a live, raw experience: (1) we as a society consume such a high level of stand-up comedy that it loses its power, its vulnerability, its shock and its joy. Our standards have shot up so high that the second a person starts speaking into a microphone we are comparing them to other comedians. 

(2) Comedians lose the protection of their tradition that stems from a limited audience. Comedians, like jesters, have a role they can fill to use their comedy and their humor to critique society, government and all things we are too afraid to talk about. This traditional role of humor is protected by a limited audience, where some folks will often still critique the comedian, but audiences are in the raw moment enjoying the experience. When a show is uploaded to Netflix, or even worse, when a little segment of the comedian’s words is put up on Tik Tok, the entire world takes the words out of the context of the show out of the context of the raw, live experience, and prepares to throw stones at the one poking holes in the things we don’t like to talk about. 

Now, no part of this argument is meant to defend comedians who clearly have no taste, a lack of creativity or poor judgment. Comedians are not safe from the consequences of their words and actions, and they should be held accountable when necessary. Look no further than Jo Koy or Matt Rife for recent examples. Look no further than Bill Crosby for former examples. 

However, we as the audience need to be able to recognize that comedians do play a special role in our society. They are entertainers and distractors, but they are also able to seriously critique and push back against parts of our society that other people aren’t able to do. And we and the audience need to be better. Go watch your favorite comedy special on Netflix again if you want, and by all means sit down and watch that controversial bit from a show that comes up on your Tik Tok “for you” page, but I strongly encourage you to take a step back and experience stand-up comedy how it is meant to be experienced: in person, with a vulnerable mindset, surrounded by strangers who are looking for a laugh and insight into the faults of society. 

And if you are deciding to continue to consume the digital age of comedy, take a second and a deep breath before you start to critique and hate comedians when they don’t meet your comedy standards or when they say something you disagree with. We can and should throw metaphorical tomatoes at comedians when they make poor decisions, but we also need to recognize when we as the audience are the problem.

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