Luisa Diez is an anthropologist, museum worker, and comedy booker in New York City. She splits her time between making exhibitions and producing and watching comedy shows. She currently books Too Many Cooks, a weekly show in Manhattan, as well as one-off shows at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn and other venues around NYC.
Jason Zinoman writes the On Comedy column for The New York Times. In 2011, he became the Times’s first comedy critic. He is the author of the bestseller “Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night.” He has also written the history of 1970s horror “Shock Value,” as well as the kindle single “Searching for Dave Chappelle.”
Listen to Episode #57 here
Twitter Friends with Luisa Diez and Jason Zinoman
My guests are Luisa Diez and Jason Zinoman. Luisa is an anthropologist, museum worker and comedy booker in New York City. She splits her time between making exhibitions, producing and watching comedy shows. She books Too Many Cooks, a show in Manhattan as well as one off-shows at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn and other venues around New York. Jason writes the On Comedy column for the New York Times. In 2011, he became the Time’s first comedy critic. He’s the author of the bestseller Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night. He’s also written the history of the 1970s horror, the book Shock Value, as well as the Kindle single Searching for Dave Chappelle. Welcome, Luisa and Jason who had never met before this podcast.
Thank you. It’s great to be here.
It was one of your ideas to do this.
I wanted to meet her. I know both of you from Twitter and I learned a lot from reading your tweets, and I thought, “This would be much more fun.”
Peter tweeted at me about doing the podcast as though he didn’t have my phone number and email. He invited people to invite themselves in my opinion.
If you two weren’t working as an anthropologist, museum worker, comedy booker, comedy critic or writer, what would you be doing? Is there anything left?
I would be a writer of some sorts.
You can’t be a writer.
Fireman, I’d fight fires because that’s the guy I am, saving lives. There was a point in my life when my career was not going well. I was not happy as a journalist and I was doing poorly. I made the bad decision many writers make, which is they say, “This isn’t going well. I cannot make enough money to pay my rent. I’m going to become a lawyer.” When I look back in my life, this is the critical moment in my life. It wasn’t even that long ago. This was a decade ago. I took the LSAT and luckily, I suck. I did poorly. I did badly enough that I thought if I did get into a law school, it would be a terrible one and I would have a miserable job. I’m stuck where I am. If I couldn’t be a writer, I would have probably been a lawyer because I like to argue. It seemed like a more responsible job. In my limited world, if you look at my friends, there are people who are either a disproportionate number of writers or lawyers.
Knowing your plan B was terrible. You had no plan B. Did it change what you were doing? Did it make you approach your craft differently because you were like, “I either need to make this work?”
For a good part of my career, there was the possibility that if I didn’t make enough money, I couldn’t continue doing it or stay in the city. That I find in retrospect was quite useful. First of all, a lot of my career was spent thinking about money. In my mind, I always had a percentage of my work that was done for money and the percentage of work that was done for me and that percentage changed as my career proceeded. I feel it made me hustle and probably frankly a way I don’t hustle as much, but it made me take all jobs I wouldn’t have normally taken with some of those turned into useful jobs. I met important people in my life and I was forced to learn new skills.
[bctt tweet=”You must work to live, not live to work.” username=””]
What would be an example of that?
I wrote for every publication you can imagine. One of my first money jobs was to write, this job doesn’t exist anymore, but the back jacket copy for books. It’s a sales job essentially, but it’s a useful skill to learn in a short amount of space to sell this book and accurately portray it to a point. The most valuable I ever had in my life was when I was a teenager and a kid. Every summer I worked as a telemarketer, who is the most hated person in the world, but I liked it. The one thing I do well, it turns out, I’m embarrassed to say, was to sell subscriptions over the phone. That is a job which prepared me better for being a journalist who interviews and anything else. That’s a job where people don’t like you and in a short period of time, you have to figure out who you’re talking to, win them over, learn how to talk wildly different people.
It’s not the same as interviewing. Being able to interview many different people is useful. In the same way, being able to write for many different forms, whether it’s O Magazine, ESPN Magazine, service journalism or it’s deep reporting. That’s one thing I take a lot of pride in my career is I can work in a lot of different forms and taught me different ways to think. That also is useful for a critic because the first thing you do as a critic is you have to try to figure out what the artist in front of you is attempting to do. What they’re attempting to do is wildly different than everybody else or the range is different.
Is your backup a telemarketer?
I have gone back to telemarketing. I may retire to telemarket.
I watched Sorry to Bother You. Have you seen it?
I’ve not seen it and I’m dying to see it.
It touches a lot of points of what you’re discussing.
It’s up my alley.
It’s funny because a lot of the things you said resonated for me, but I weirdly come from a whole different angle. I consider myself a work to live, not live to work person, which is something I specifically don’t have in common with artists and creatives. I purposefully made my fallback, my job, the thing I do for money, which is working in museums and making exhibitions. I always think of it as I’m good at my job. I like it. I do think it has a value in society, but it’s not tied to my identity. I didn’t grow up thinking this is what I always wanted to do. When something goes wrong or isn’t perfect, it’s fine. We can address it, no problem. It’s my job, we’ll fix it. It will be better the next time. I don’t have this thing that writers and comics have of struggling to make money off of the art they love and they identify with. I don’t live under this pressure of if I don’t make money based on my art form, then does that mean I’m not a good artist. That doesn’t float over my head constantly. Weirdly, I have ended up in a place where I work to work because I work the job, I work to pay my bills and live my life. I do have the freedom to work in comedy and I have this freedom to not have my creative impulses when it comes to giving artists’ platforms, recommendations or getting the spotlight put on them.
There is no pressure beyond the fact that I believe in their talent and that they can do well for a particular room. I’m in this weird place where I don’t make a living off of comedy, but I feel I often ask people who do make a living off of comedy to live to these high standards that I devised in my own mind. That’s what we do. As far as the backup, strangely like Jason, my only immediate thoughts are degrees off of the thing I already do. At first, late night booker is different than like a live booker. I studied to be an anthropologist, but it was never with the intention to be an anthropologist. Anthropology has a strange past and strange uses in modern society. I didn’t necessarily want to work that, but I wanted to think like that and I wanted to know what they know. Anthropologist is the lens through which I view comedy and everything else in my life. I would be an anthropology professor. If not, I’ll take Jason’s job and I’ll be a writer.
What do you mean when you say anthropology is the lens which you see comedy?
On my coffee table, I have a book called How to Think Like an Anthropologist. If you could give a primer on being an anthropologist.
The quickest first thing is making it a crude distinction between some of the social sciences. If we say that psychology tends to be a bottom-up science that starts with the individual and then proceeds up to how society reflects individuals. Sociology is the opposite. It takes a top-down approach in which society is this powerful thing that creates individuals. Anthropology chooses to observe both at the same time as concurrent effectors on both humans and society. It’s this way of always placing everything you look at within its historical context, social context, cultural context, biological context. Not looking at it through this tree root logic of everything has a single reason and that’s where it came from. My approach to stand-up, I started going to a lot of live shows. What I mean by approached it like an anthropologist was I took a view of the whole land. I spent probably a few months going to all different shows to understand what the difference was between them. I went to open mics, bringers, club shows, theaters, improv.
Bringers are basically you pay for your stage time by bringing people and often you also have to pay $20. It is important to know the distinctions between these shows because they have completely different levels and types of talent who took different paths to being funny. When people say, “Funny is the only thing that matters,” they can’t possibly be more wrong because funny has a history, funny has a context and funny has a cultural background. All the audience members that come to see it also bring their whole set of cultural values, experiences and knowledge. It’s almost impossible to look at whether it’s a comedy scene in a city or a performer that one would say is the greatest performer in New York without considering their social context, their hierarchy they came through.
You’re working on a project that is bringing both of your worlds together, your anthropology world and your comedy world. A big focus is this notion of hierarchy.
Not in that stiff way of there’s a ladder, everybody has to climb up this ladder and get permission from the gatekeepers on this one ladder, but more of this ecosystem. The American stand-up ecosystem, and this does not include sketch comedians, comedic actors, hosts and talking heads. Although some of those people also do stand-up and therefore sometimes go into this context. I would say it’s about their origin city, how long they’ve been doing it. Why they moved to New York or LA or a third city that wasn’t New York or LA. How long they lasted there? Why did they move to this other one? What was the goal for them in starting stand-up? Some of them accidentally got to stand-up. Some of them it was their goal, and then they got derailed by getting a writing job or an SNL position. It’s not about being these are all the steps you have to go through, and you have to be a five-year comic to do this.
That sounds more like a how-to book. If you want to be a stand-up in America, here’s how to do it.
It’s more of an acknowledgment of the social networks that make up comedy. The most obvious social networks are what we call gatekeepers industry because you can trace how certain gatekeepers were the gateway for a whole set of comics or a whole style of comedy. Beneath that, there are social networks about which headliners choose to open for them. There’s the fact comics are also gatekeepers who choose who goes on their podcast, who opens for them on their TV shows. They get to cast the people in their sitcoms. There is the peer vetting process. A lot of people in the industry and outside fans are focused on credits as a marker of this person is good at their job. I value having your peers respect in that same way.
When someone says he or she’s a comic’s comic.
Not even that far, but let’s say at the cellar they mostly operate on recommendations. There’s a difference between the comics who recommend somebody every two months and the comic who once a year says, “This is a person you should consider.” For example, I watch a lot of lineups on shows that are booked by comics. Since they tend to book their friends and people that are like them and in the same level usually. If you know the entire social landscape, then when there’s a name on there that it’s not of their friend group that to me immediately signals you saw this person somewhere. They made you laugh and you genuinely thought they were funny so you asked them. This is not a favor. This is not a traded spot. This is you made me laugh and I’d like to put you on my show.
I’m going to ask you a few questions about this. The first thing that comes to mind is hearing you say this. Jason, you’re an interviewer. You can jump into it. What you’re describing is essentially an examination of how even when you see things changing in comedy and reach for diversity and so on. There are many formal or not formalized ways that make it difficult to be an outsider and to come up. What you’re describing is if there are all these systems in place, some of them are designed to make money and some of them are designed to create fever.
[bctt tweet=”You do get to the point where only skill is going to get you farther.” username=””]
There are also systems outside those systems.
I wanted to make sure I understood this point, which is there’s not an easy fix as a result of it because it’s happening.
This is not a comedy issue. This is true for the whole world. Why do people bribe their way into colleges? Some of them because it’s a status symbol. They think they’re going to learn something. Probably the most rational reason is you’ll meet this set of people who will then go on and be helpful or useful or be a set. That is real capital in whether you’re a doctor.
There is a narrative that romanticizes being a stand-up in New York and how difficult it is to move here, do stand-up and live with seventeen roommates. That is not the only reality of people moving to New York City, especially in the last few years. This is what I mean about you can’t separate the bubbles. You cannot treat cities as silos that aren’t affected by comedy in other cities, for example. In the last several years, these other scenes built up that had some rank and some good talent there like Denver, Chicago and New Orleans for a minute, Atlanta. They built up enough talent and had enough platforms where their talents developed skills and got good enough to move to New York and LA. Instead of moving by themselves, they started moving in groups. Denver moved in groups. Chicago moved in a group. New Orleans was probably one of the earliest ones I noticed. It was Sean Patton, Mark Normand, a bunch of them.
What this did is they created this safe little nest for themselves because if six of you who already knew each other for a few years and watched each other come up. Moved to the city at around the same time, you all start shows, then you all book each other on your shows. Now you can trade spots with other people and your network becomes stronger than having to be around a couple of years until people recognize your face. Ultimately, there were a couple of effects. One is it emptied out the talent pool in these other cities.
It doesn’t mean there aren’t talented people there, but because it reduced the number quickly from seven about to be headliners to one possibly in a year will be a headliner. There are fewer rooms to do, fewer stages, fewer people coming out to shows. There’s a stagnation that happens in those cities until they rebuild that amount. The other thing that happens is some comics who weren’t at the level to be performing in New York City. They get to coast for a few years with their friends before they give up, get somebody pregnant or decide that their job at whatever company.
Comics and lineups are my ponies. I wake up every morning and I like to see the stats and who’s done what lineup. It isn’t this way of knowing this one’s going through a break. We can’t trust him to do one. This one got off the wagon for the third time. This is what happens. Some of them coasted for a few years, but then ultimately you do get to the point where only skill is going to get you further. It sloughs off some of those and they either go back or they stay doing small things in New York. Only maybe two or three of that initial group that moved from that city go on to do Netflix specials and be at the cellar.
The same mechanisms ultimately vet people, but there are alternate ways coming up, which includes podcasts and YouTube personalities. The problem that we’re having is that industry and by that I mean the people who dole out opportunities, not the people who write about them after they’ve received these opportunities. They haven’t kept up with the changing patterns, paths and networks that are going through. They’re still vetting based on this system of how many credits you have and whether a headliner recommended you.
Versus you have 15,000 people listen to your podcast when you come into the city and you can fill the room.
Even then I would caution you against that because being a good podcaster does not equal being a good stand-up. When comics send me tapes, there’s this feeling and it makes me feel like we’re in 1989 and you’re sending me a VHS. They send you these links and the expectation is you’re going to watch it immediately and then make a decision about booking them right then and there. First of all, I don’t think any booker does that. Best case scenario, they’re like, “This was good.” They put you on the list of, “I will get to you.” Once I put somebody on that list, I go to see them live before I book them. I’m not booking you to do a videotape set. I’m booking you to work in a live room. I’m interested to see you live and, in a room, similar to mine or even if it’s not, I understand that this is different. Would this apply to my room? There’s this disconnect in all these flourishings of the pathway for artists and the people who are supposed to be keeping those gates are not paying attention to them.
This is a question for both of you though because I said, “You can fill a room,” but that doesn’t mean they’re good. I immediately thought and I’m putting on my marketing professor hat for a moment. This is a business that this person is running and they want a full room and they’ve got a full room. These are people who are happy to see this person. Luisa, you work in museums. This notion of art versus commerce in the world of comedy seems it creates constant friction.
I’m wondering if I should argue. My feeling is show business is unfair. It always has been unfair. It’s never been fair. It’s never a meritocracy. Luisa, what she said is how bookers should act. People should imitate it. She’s 100% right that a video is not the same as a live performance. She’s 100% right that a lot of people who are the gatekeepers don’t have their ear to the ground. There’s also a limited amount of time for people to make this up. This has always been true. My defense of this system would be this, to play devil’s advocate. We’d be at their worse systems even in this world. For example, let’s say the unfairness of the fact you know your friends and that’s the safety. You’re 100% right in your analysis, but let’s look at improv. In improv, you have to pay a couple of thousand dollars before you even get to go on and have the opportunity to be on stage. It is a paid for play situation. I would argue that is a worse vetting process.
I’m saying to you I don’t think it is about dismantling this process of let’s say your friends booking you. It’s a matter of the gatekeepers being aware that is the situation. For example, I know for a fact there are bookers who book comics, especially women and people of color whom I booked without coming to watch the show. They’re like, “Luisa booked them. They will probably work in my show.” Here’s the thing, I like to gamble sometimes. I haven’t seen who wasn’t going to work out. I also have a low stakes room where I don’t have a minimum drink number that I’d have to sell or tickets that I have to sell. I can take these gambles whenever I want to. The fact that a person whose job it is to have their ear to the ground wants to shortcut that process and be like, “This person’s sign off means this person can do this job.”
The other way to look at it is you have a good reputation and that’s a reputation that’s earned. You didn’t get that through the locker. Once you have a good reputation and trust that people who have a limited amount of time, we’ll lean on you and that makes you more influential and powerful. There are worse ways. I’ve covered a lot of different forms of entertainment and there are bad gatekeepers. In a weird way, on the level of live comedy shows there are less financial stakes than in others because there’s less overhead. That’s true for all stand-up. This is why when HBO started, the first thing they started doing besides sports was stand-up. When Netflix started putting all their money in stand-up and the fundamental reason is it’s cheap. Fox started going into entertainment, there was a lot of stand-up shows they put on. That’s the advantage that stand-up always has of being cheap to produce.
You can’t address that part without addressing the fact that if somebody who is bitter about all the grad school I’ve gone to. The reality is comics are doing up to several years of professional training, unpaid, making money for venues that are making money off of them by selling drinks, by selling whatever. There is this weird disconnect between being art and commerce are always an issue when we’re not looking into the labor and how the labor has to be developed to a certain point. Not even fairly but sustainably make money off of them.
This conversation about gatekeepers, I had a conversation with someone who was a former Broadway dancer. Was working on investing in a new Broadway play and told me that there are basically three people in New York City who owned almost all of the venues.
Broadway is ultimately not a theater business. It’s a real estate business. You have Jujamcyn, you have the Shuberts. What defines Broadway is the size of the theater and where it is. It’s not how good the shows are.
We were having a conversation about this. For her, that’s the air, that’s the way it is. She was like, “Who buys Broadway tickets is affluent white women.” I was like, “It becomes self-perpetuating if you make things for affluent white women.”
This is the thing I wanted to address about that’s how it is. I don’t feel we have to change the system, but it’s more of these people taking more responsibility for what they’re doing. Stormy Daniels got booked to do this speaking engagement at a comedy club. Business-wise we understand the comedy clubs’ choice to do this. There is this complete negligence over the fact we are responsible for what audiences think comedy is when they come to our venue. What I mean by that, it drives me crazy because especially most of the women at clubs are there on a date with a man. A lot of the times they’re there for the first time ever. Not just women, but a lot of people go to see comedy once a year tops. It’s not a thing they regularly do. If you go to a comedy club and you bring your girlfriend and it’s seven white dudes of approximately the same age, dressed the same, all talking about, “My wife is like this. I hate my boss,” and whatever all your jokes are about, you can progressively see the women’s faces completely losing interest. Not just the women, but people who don’t identify with those six white dudes on stage.
By the time they leave, they don’t walk out thinking, “I wish there were more diversity. I wish somebody had reflected a point of view I identified.” They walk out thinking, “I don’t like comedy. This was not fun. I don’t want to come back next time.” There is this point where we’re making the consumers of comedy. We have to teach them. It’s something I tried to address with the way I book. I will give you what you want. I’ll give you some headliners that you want to come here and see, but I’m going to put in there some people you’ve never heard of that you’re going to want to walk out saying, “I want to hear more from this person.” That will be a surprised laugh because it was a point of view you never thought you would identify with. That makes people who are good comedy fans, who now know there are different styles, different types, different levels. Will be able to understand that if I saw something and I don’t like it, it’s okay because I can find something I do like.
I don’t often plug other episodes on an episode, but I’m going to make a plug for the episode with Jen O’Donnell. First of all, both of you should know Jen O’Donnell. She has a podcast called Take Down the Patriarchy, but she also does a women’s only show in LA at Westside called Ladies Room. She and I had almost this exact conversation about the audience and then also how if you are a woman among those six men, how difficult it is to work through new material. Ladies Room is designed to be beneficial in both ways so you can try out new stuff. I went to a show. It was outstanding and it was a little different.
I ran a mostly women show in New York Comedy Club for a while that’s also in LA, Witch Hunt. I ran it probably a couple of years. One of the things that were the most interesting observation that I made in that time was in New York because there are many clubs and venues that you could do stand-up. The majority of comics, especially if their headliners have multiple spots in one night. You have to schedule them right, then usually they are running in five minutes before their spot and running out as soon as they’re done. What I found in a mostly women’s show is the women, even when they had other spots, they always made sure to show up at least one or two performers before they went up. Almost every single one works on jokes in the room. They stand in the back, they’re going over their set and they’re listening to what this person is talking about and making notes and adjustments before they go up.
[bctt tweet=”Pivot by taking a weakness and making them into strengths.” username=””]
Every man I booked on that show ran in and out because their attitude is, “My comedy is my comedy. It will be funny wherever and I could walk in and be funny.” Whereas women are already conditioned to probably being the only one on the lineup. I’m going to have to pick up on the tone of the room, address it, see how much I have to talk about whether I’m a woman or not. Make sure I referenced the previous comic. They have to pull out every stop to make sure they can win over the audience and they’re ready to do that. I saw some great male comics bomb on this show because they walked in, they took no pulse of the room. They didn’t realize they were rudely contradicting what a comic said. That’s what’s changing for them is they have to adjust to having to be one amongst the lineup of different people as opposed to we all do the same stand-up.
I want to talk to Jason a little bit. This is beyond stand-up. This is about comedy more generally. It was something I picked up in your Letterman book than I had been tuned into with Chappelle and Neal Brennan. I interviewed Neal Brennan. It was a fantastic conversation. I give a talk where I talk about Neal’s Three Mics and I talked about how Neal is the funniest person you don’t know. He’s an incredible joke writer. The guy behind the guy, Chappelle’s Show doesn’t exist without Neal. They know him now in part because he tried to be a stand-up. His buddy’s Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle and he didn’t have their likability.
Not just that, he was perceived by some of his peers as skipping the line in certain ways and not putting in the time to develop as an open-micer, especially he has an older brother, Kevin Brennan, who’s a stand-up. Kevin is probably fifteen years older. He’s the youngest of a bunch of kids. Kevin was an established road comic who worked at the store. He got Neal a job as a door guy at the club. That’s where he met Chappelle and was like, “I’ll write this thing with you.” He found success first through writing with Chappelle and then was like, “I’m going to do stand-up.” It’s this Steve-O problem of you are trying to translate fame and success in one area into shortcutting getting on big stages, which he eventually earned their respect. Kevin is still pretty bitter about it. He was doing it for a good several years before Neal ever started and Neal’s more famous.
I felt what Neal did well was he pivoted in terms of taking a weakness and making into strengths with Three Mics. If you watch Three Mics on Netflix, he splits time between three mics, one-liners, traditional stand-up and what he calls emotional stuff. The emotional stuff is the best part of the show by far. Not comedic but riveting. It works well together. You get this palette-cleansing moments and so on in a case. What I liked learning about Letterman more was to me the star of the book was his ex-girlfriend and producer Merill Markoe. I found that to be the most interesting element of the book. Could you talk a little bit about that? Letterman’s not Letterman and the way that Chappelle’s not Chappelle without these two people.
I’m pleased you say that because that’s definitely one of the ideas I try to get across in the book. I wasn’t the first person to point out that Merill Markoe was important. She was the first head writer. She came up with Pet Tricks. Before that, she wrote jokes for him for sure. What I tried to do is put meat on the bones of this idea that why she was as a coauthor of his success, which to do that, I first had defined what his success is. The book is a biography of Letterman, but first of all is disproportionately focused on his ‘80s material because that’s when his real reputation is built on this period where he’s doing a lot of innovative things. That’s the period where he is influential. He’s known for breaking the form and deconstructing the form. They had this copacetic, artistic relationship where she was this heady person with an art background and went to Berkeley. He was this middle American and a guy from Indiana. She was confident as a performer. He was not a productive writer, where she was an incredibly prolific writer. One of the questions I began with in the book is how does this guy who revered Johnny Carson, which is the common wisdom about it. Who revered the most traditional late-night performer of the day ends up being this radical revolutionary performer?
Much so that he doesn’t become the next Carson.
Even before that, he’s part of this because he is known for being the anti-Carson for so long. The answer to a good degree is Markoe’s influence. Both of my books, to some extent even all my journalism, there are a few things I fundamentally believe that snake through all of them. A lot of critics and historians see art through auteur lens, which is we’ll look at all these movies through who the director is, you see all the director’s movies and you find the things they have in common and then you zero on those. Certainly, there was no more auteur genre than talk show. Most people who write about talk shows, if you’re writing about Seth Meyers, you’re writing about Seth Meyers. If you’re writing about Samantha Bee, you’re writing about Samantha Bee. The reality is these are deeply collaborative forums. To understand why you see on screen is the way it is. You have to not look at the writer’s room, which is something you have to look at, but you also have to look at the production staff and how the organism operates. Letterman, what I discovered through reporting is that the structure of that show change over three decades. Its success or failure had a lot to do with how it was organized. A huge amount of its early success and its DNA has to do with Markoe.
One of the stories I liked a lot about it was Dave was a terrible actor. He wasn’t good at doing sketches, which you might expect from that show. She started putting him in live action situations, interacting with the public. Am I remembering this correctly?
There’s also an idea of not only was he didn’t like acting, both of them had this sense that real people can be funnier than actors. In a lot of ways, they anticipated reality television and the world of remotes that Conan did.
Did they invent The Man on the Street thing?
They didn’t invent it but they mainstreamed it. Steve Allen did a few Man on the Street things, but they had some canned act. They had some contrived stuff. They were the first ones to make it a great art form, which was then picked up by The Daily Show, Conan and all these places. Now it seems a part of the meat and potatoes of late night. Letterman, but more specifically Merrill, who was the author of those remotes directed by Hal Gurnee created those remotes as a solution to a problem. How do we get around the fact? It’s funny because you look at this late night, someone like Fallon. The argument for Fallon is that he could do everything or he can act, he can tell jokes, he can sing, where Letterman was a narrow performer. His talents were narrow and I would argue deep. Where now it feels people like Corden and Fallon, they have a wide variety of stuff.
Be a little more showman-like.
They’re song and dance.
Part of that was Letterman’s background as a radio DJ or host. He would do call-ins. He had cut his teeth as a younger performer.
There wasn’t a TV in his house when he was born. If we forget that, TV is not that old. The first stars that he knew were radio stars. Bob and Ray and these people were who he emulated. His first jobs were radio jobs. With podcasting, we’re going back to that. It produces different strengths. In some ways, I argue that one of Letterman’s strengths is language. He’s got a great sense of language and a lot of that comes from radio.
We’re talking about interviewing. You’re interviewing people, you’re talking when you were a telemarketer.
That’s the main takeaway I want. If anyone has a job out there, my rates are low, but I expect a lot of commission.
I want to make this observation in case it wasn’t obvious to you or anyone else is you were good at selling theater subscriptions. Are you selling art?
I’m selling art. I had a lot of theories about what sells and what doesn’t. I would make sure to know as little as possible about the things I was selling. I found that made it harder to sell well.
As an anthropologist, is there an art to interviewing people? I’m asking partly for myself as someone who’s developing some time.
The answer’s yes. There’s no part of my job that’s harder that I learn more on a day-to-day level and I have more to learn. One thing people who don’t do this job don’t understand that being a writer is hard. Writing, thinking critically is hard and making an argument is hard. It is endlessly complex and it’s like anyone who’s been on a first date knows this. You’re reading each other and you’re trying to figure out. It also has to do with listening is such underrated. We all can be better listeners.
I agree because the only thing I could think of as an anthropologist is we do interviews. I would say it’s probably with a different aim than both of you do interviews. I would still say the thing to take away from anthropology in terms of talking to other people is always keeping in your mind, not out loud to the person you’re interviewing. In your mind always being aware of the limitations of your point of view. It’s part of this how to responsibly represent others ethos that comes with anthropology that they didn’t have 100 years ago that says that our impression of this conversation is limited by the knowledge I came here with. What the goal was that I had in mind in this conversation. What the power dynamic is between you and I. Using all of that to frame what your representation at the end is going to be of this other person in this conversation.
[bctt tweet=”What is wrong and what is okay depends wholly on the values and perspectives of the audience and their belief system.” username=””]
Part of the reason I chose to do the podcast was because it was a new skill. I was usually on the other side, the person teaching, giving talks, being interviewed. I was like, “This will be different,” and it is.
How to get interesting things out of people is complex and each person has a different key. Some people you ask a question and they’ll go. Some people, you’ve got to be contentious. I find sometimes there’s a certain person that you have to be confrontational to get their respect. I’m sure we all listen to more podcasts than we did several years ago. You can tell some people are bad at it and some people are good at it.
I listened to Howard Stern in preparation for this. I was like, “Who’s good at interviewing people?
Can we talk about Bubba the Love Sponge? You used that on Twitter. Remember that Bubba the Love Sponge in defending Tucker Carlson. You wrote a whole book on the Benign Violation Theory. I thought he completely described it incorrectly because you came up with a theory to define all of comedy. You used Bubba the Love Sponge in the Wall Street Journal, used your theory. I thought you described it incorrectly because the way he said it was that he was like, “No, Tucker is harmless because comedy is a benign transgression because it’s a comedy.” As opposed to what I thought your point was is that it’s comedy if it is benign violation. If it’s not benign, you go up to someone who’s mom died and you make a joke about her mom dying at a funeral. That’s not funny. That’s what I thought the benign part of benign violation was.
For people who don’t know this, there was an op-ed, an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal about unearthed tapes or something of Tucker Carlson calling into this show.
Tucker Carlson says and defends himself on his show and Bubba the Love Sponge defended it using the Benign Violation Theory, which you wrote about. It’s all covered. Explain that.
First of all, I was not going to get into that conversation on Twitter. Amazon linked to the book. What got missed there is the notion. What we ended up saying is things that are funny are wrong yet okay or threatening yet safe, don’t make sense yet make sense. We use this term Benign Violation. We have a Venn diagram, it’s overlapping the sweet spot where this simultaneously can see what’s wrong, what’s not wrong and what’s happened. The challenge with comedy is finding the sweet spot. The reason it’s hard to find the sweet spot is lots of things affect the sweet spot. The amount of alcohol you have, the person sitting next to you, how dimly lit the room is, whether the room is in a church or in a classroom or in a cellar of a bar. Most importantly, what is wrong and what is okay depends wholly on the values and perspectives of the audience, their belief system in short, which has influence culturally.
What happens is when you defend something that’s racist or sexist and you say, “These people were laughing, hence it’s a benign violation or that transgression was meant to be playful or meant to be in fun, thus it’s a comedy.” Maybe true. The intentions were this wasn’t a serious thing. That’s a great way to take a violation and make it benign. A great way to point out something is a benign violation is to show some group of people laughing at it. The problem is there’s another group of people.
It did Bubba define that accurately. I would say on his face, no, forget all that. He defined Benign Violation Theory one way, which is because it is a comedy, it is benign. That’s wrong.
We differentiate comedy, which is an attempt to make something humorous from something that is humorous. You don’t need comedy to make something humorous per se where you run intentional comedy.
How come you didn’t speak up? This is the most high-profile use of Benign Violation Theory. How come you say, “Bubba, this is totally wrong. You’re co-opting my phrase for the wrong ends?”
Where should I have done that? Should I have written a letter to verify?
It would have gotten you press. It would be good. It would have sold some bucks. I’ve been at Bubba the Love Sponge Show and I promoted Letterman. He ambushed me.
Honestly, I had a busy day. I will tell you this, I’m happy that happened. Here’s why I’m happy it happened is because several years ago he would never have been able to even make that argument. He wouldn’t even know what makes things funny, even his flawed interpretation of it. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a hidden mic on, but we had a 30-minute conversation while we were waiting for this room to become available. One of the things that we were talking about is this notion of the science of comedy or an academic approach to comedy seems to have bubbled into some broader group of people than it was before. By the way, did you notice how Jason got all contentious with me in order to get me?
I was like, “This show is getting boring. I need to spice it up a little bit by inserting some conflict.” I’ve only gotten started.
How has the academic approach to comedy become?
When I started going to see live comedy a lot regularly, it was with this intention to meet comedy fans. There are people who I thought loved comedy the way that I did. What I ended up finding was that most comedy fans are fans of particular comics and maybe their extended circle. The people who love comedy as an art form the way that I do, the vast majority chose to become comics. They love the process, the art and the final product. At some point, that switched into, “That means I should try it, I can do it and I can be better than these people I’m seeing that are not good in front of me.” With this whole comedy bubbles that have happened in the few times as everybody calls them. Even with the resurgence of comedy on the internet, self-made stuff and podcasts. Suddenly a portion of those people who love comedy in that way instead of becoming performers took an academic or a deeply critical tech into looking at comedy.
I can remember a time when there were no people who cared to have an in-depth discussion of one album versus another in the way that music nerds talk to each other or film nerds talk to each other. Until when there are not real academics writing books and having these conversations, but part of the success of podcasts is this rise of those fans who want to know about the process and think deeply about it. Which is strange because to performers, a lot of them are against this idea of overthinking comedy. They think that sex, the magic and the juice out of it, but for some of us the magic is in digging deep into what makes it funny.
It’s an interesting question about whether the boom and academic theories on comedy have infiltrated comedy. There are a lot of arguments against that, but if you were to build one and say that it is, I would point to Hannah Gadsby. Here is a much talked about comedy special that has built into an analytical theory about what comedy is. One, as it happens, I don’t necessarily agree with which is introduce more conflict because I did like your book. I see comedy as an art and I would never say you couldn’t boil theater down into a formula, that benign violation, you couldn’t do that. You couldn’t boil visual art down to that. While the benign violation, in my opinion, is a useful idea. It’s true for some comedy or it’s a useful prism to analyze it. I could give you 100 examples that don’t fit this theory like I can give you many examples that don’t fit Hannah Gadsby’s theory.
I’m fascinated by both Hannah Gadsby’s theory of that comedy is about building tension and you have to release it and your theory about the benign violation. They’re both these grand unified theories that intellectual, analytical minded-people is fun to play with. There is a difference between intellectual life and the artistic life. A lot of comedy, first of all, is intellectual on different grounds but also a lot of us is instinctual. It’s the job of critics and academics to try to understand the stuff. There’s a certain comedy that is mathematical. It is impossible to ultimately wrangle down an art form.
Let’s talk about the temporality of art. As an anthropologist, I did focus on modern American culture and in specifically through the lens of the artist and production of art in America. One of the biggest things I was concerned with and part of the reason I am into stand-up as I am is this theory that I have about the temporality that’s attached to different art forms. There are a couple of different ways that temporality matters for art. One is the amount of time it takes to produce it from concept to final product. The other is the amount of time it takes for an audience to take it in and have a response. There’s also the temporality of the artist taking in that audience response and adjusting their future work.
The slowest art form, I would venture to say is price sculpture. It’s probably the reason there are many arguments around America about taking down old cultures is that the slowness of sculpture as an art form. It means if you’re a sculptor and something happens in society and you have an idea, it could be six months to two years before you’re done with your sculpture. It will sit in your garage or your studio for many years until you matter or there’s a park where they want to put it and then it gets put in public view probably a decade after it was created. This is an art form that’s referencing an idea that is not part of the temporality of this society who’s observing.
[bctt tweet=”People are not appreciated until after their death because their ideas tend to not be of the present but of the future in their field.” username=””]
They’re always going to have to observe it through this lens of this is an old idea. They have the slow response time. That’s why sculptors tend to sculpt in one single style without changing throughout their lifetime because there are not that many points in which feedback is built into their work. The feedback is 100 years later. White supremacists are going to be fighting with somebody else about whether or not to take this down. The fastest temporality and the reason I started observing stand-ups deeply is because it has the fastest temporality in all three of those scenarios, which means I get to observe these processes more quickly than I would in any art form. In stand-up, there’s the idea can happen now. Something it happens on Twitter now and you get up on stage later. Not only do you already have a joke or the beginning of a joke with that, but also off the cuff remarks, things in the moment. You get immediate feedback from the audience as to whether they groan, they liked it, they laughed, you lost them at the end. Especially in New York, you can get off stage and go right back on another stage and make those adjustments in the moment.
The negative temporality attached to that is the short shelf life. They are about addressing the present and getting feedback in the present, even recording it and putting out a special is already a dead form of the art. It’s already a finished product that comics call it burning their material after they record something, then they stopped doing it. There was this painter de Kooning, he’s one of my favorite painters. He reminds me a lot of comedies because he worked on multiple art paintings at once. They would sit around in his studio and as he was working on one, he would be like, “This color would go great on this one,” and then he would come and adjust this one. In an interview, once he was asked, “When do you consider a painting to be finished?” He said, “I don’t consider it to be finished until it’s sold because then it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It’s not a concept that can keep growing and keep being addressed.” Painters are in this temporality that’s somewhere in the middle.
The most obvious thing with them is most of them are not appreciated until after their death because their ideas tend to not be of the present, but of the future in their field. There are some that operate closer on that spectrum to comics, in action performance of their art. Why did I bring this up? It’s because of the temporality of the short shelf life. The Benign Violation Theory works for me in terms of there’s a big difference between an accidental comedy and a crafted comedy. While we can loosely apply theory to both of those comedy, they are distinctly different because one is trying to find that sweet spot and the other one is stumbling to it. The whole work of being a stand-up comic is refining that sweet spot. It’s finding exactly the perfect spot to stand.
Knowing it’s shifting.
Even when you find it, it might not be there. In several years, your city will not find it.
I’ve seen comics get upset and audiences. I know this is funny.
It’s that biggest pet peeve on Earth. How do you not see that that’s you failing at your job? Try again.
I wanted to make sure I always end with the same question and I have a feeling that both of you will have rich answers to this question, which is what are you reading, watching or listening to that is good that stands out?
I know we both liked Russian Doll. I watched it twice already too and you had an interesting theory. I also had one.
For the audience, tell us what Russian Doll is?
Russian Doll is a series that has one season on Netflix starring Natasha Lyonne. She co-wrote it. It’s a time loop scenario, Groundhog Day where she’s reliving the same day over and over again, but it’s specifically New York. It’s very much about the late ‘30s woman lifestyle in New York. It’s good.
Sex and the City meets Groundhog Day?
It meets Groundhog Day but not Sex and the City.
Maybe like grownup Kids. Do you remember Kids? It’s a grownup character from Kids having a Groundhog Day.
I read a memoir, which is not good. I’m reading the good history of the vampire called The Vampyre, which is this English history that’s quite good, but I’m a horror nerd. It’s a pre-Dracula history of the vampire. I’m reading Joan Rivers’ biography. I’ve read the biography of her, but I didn’t realize that she had written her own memoir.
It’s funny you said because I read the Diary of a Mad Diva, which is a book she wrote, one of her books. It’s super laugh out loud funny and talk about taking aim at everyone. Her documentary about her was outstanding.
There are many comedy documentaries in the past several years, but I’m not sure any is better than that one.
I’ve been reading this academic publication called Behind the Laughs. I forget the author’s name, but he’s an anthropologist as well. I’m not that deep into it, but I don’t love it already. It’s a little bit of a shallow investigation into the business of comedy and a little bit about commerce and at what point comics start making money and how clubs make money off of them. The author was clear about having spent about one observing comedy before writing this.
If someone who came from outside, someone who watched Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy growing up, used to watch Saturday Night Live and liked comedy. Maybe fancied themselves as being funny around the lunch table. I got introduced to the world of comedy because I started trying to answer this question. What makes things funny? One of the first things I watched was the movie Comedian, the documentary comedian about Jerry Seinfeld going out on the road post-Seinfeld. It was like someone had turned the lights on. I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. It may be the case that book will be useful for novices. Nowadays, podcasts and there are other ways to find out about this, but that time, living in Boulder, Colorado.
It was unusual. There weren’t many things like that. There wasn’t even like if you hear Jerry Seinfeld says this one thing, which is interesting. It shows you how much things have changed. In 1975, there was a book that came out called The Last Laugh. There were no books about comedy. Seinfeld was like, “What helped you become a comic?” He always mentions this one book. At the time there were no books about describing what it’s like to get on a bill and a set. It’s held up pretty well. If I’m getting the name right, I hope so, but it’s the ’75. All of the comics of his generation talk about this one book. It gives you a behind the scene of what it was like. It was a different world.
It’s not that different. It’s not in terms of the traditional angles, networks and gatekeepers. There are more avenues for people to come through, but it’s generally a problem of the fact that comedy, especially if you count all types of comedy in that term, then it’s a giant iceberg and only 1% is surfaced. We all have different points of view on it. We’re all looking at a different side of this iceberg, but most people are not looking far beyond the surface.
In the same way, people don’t study how film is made or don’t appreciate when they’re watching a film all in connections to previous films. I usually end on that, but I have one question for each of you that I’ve been meaning to ask. I’ll ask you first, Jason. Your Kindle single Searching for Dave Chappelle, was it an investigation of him leaving Chappelle Show? Chappelle has a comedy special where he talks about this book Pimp by Iceberg Slim. Is this ringing a bell?
[bctt tweet=”We are continually examining the world around us and our own position in it.” username=””]
I saw that special.
It’s at the end of the second special and he says, “I’m not going to tell you why I left. I’m going to tell you the story instead.” In this story, it’s about a pimp from the ‘70s and his main prostitute, and she’s going to leave. He comes up with this over-the-top grift where she thinks she killed the guy to get her not to leave. I’m cursed with knowledge. He tells this whole story. It’s a fascinating story. It’s not even that funny, a set of things, then he goes, “That’s why.” I wanted to get your reaction as someone who probably has thought more about Chappelle.
That is a thing that he’s been telling for many years. That’s the one thing on that special that was not new. Chappelle, when he returned, the truth is he never went away. He was performing live constantly and he was talking about this stuff live. He was giving a variety of cryptic answers. My feeling on why he left, you should read the Kindle single. I don’t think most of the answers he gives are accurate. To your point, when you look at an iceberg, everyone’s looking at it from different angles. When I did that piece, I went to Ohio where he lives. I talked to a wide variety of people, people who knew him when he was a kid. There were many different answers. The most intriguing piece of reporting I unearthed was his best friend in high school who went on to star in The Real World. He was the African American guy. The first guy that got kicked out of The Real World. His name is Kevin Edwards.
The first guy to ever get kicked out of The Real World was a black guy?
It inspired the Chappelle Show sketch The Mad Real World. That guy who came up with Chappelle in DC. It’s going back full circle. There was a great local DC comedy scene said that when Chappelle was sixteen, he was obsessed with Bobby Fischer. Bobby Fischer famously at the height of his fame, disappeared. If Chappelle was doing fine by Fisher, but what’s fascinating is that he knew this history in his mind from way back. The power of disappearing and the objective fact of it is that Dave Chappelle gave up $40 million and he went from being the biggest comic in America to something bigger. Even from a purely financial point of view, that turned out to be a savvy move. A lot of the political reasons, like the white guy who laughed at the wrong joke, he’s given a variety of different reasons. I’m not saying any of them are 100% wrong. The truth of it is that it’s all mapped out in the book and Neal Brennan gives a different answer than the comedy. It’s not a monocausal. There’s not one reason for it.
As a psychologist, one of the things we do in psychology is to try to find how X influences Y, but it’s X1, X2, X3, X4, X5. It’s that behavior as we say multiply determined. Thank you because I was curious and I enjoyed that story a lot. It was fascinating. Luisa, you had talked about anthropology and being an anthropologist. As an anthropologist how you try to see, interpret the world, turn off and recognize them and so on. I’m curious about your view of the comic as an anthropologist. You’ve got psychologists, sociologists, you have anthropologists. When I think about comics, they’re more like anthropologists than they are sociologists or psychologists per se. Have you thought about this in this way? Do you think the average comic would make a good anthropologist?
I do with a whole lot of schooling. Part of what drew me to them is I do think that’s something we have in common is we are types of people who are constantly examining the world around us and our own position in it. We have in common that they center their own experience and the limitations of that experience in what they’re saying. They might make it more about them than anthropologists do, but that same acknowledgment is there. The only thing is our driving goal ultimately is different. I used to say like, “We do the same thing but I write 40 pages about your behavior and they write a pippy joke.” Something I talk to comics a lot about is when they purposely choose an incorrect point of view because it is funnier than you being correct. We have some friends in common who are more scientific comics who value using facts and teaching in their comedy. There’s that other end of the spectrum. It’s the joke that matters. If I have to lie or pretend or not acknowledge that this is flawed information to get to that punch line, I’m going to do that, which an anthropologist would never do.
I think that they are a RAR version of being an anthropologist and some of them are better than others in terms of the observations they make about the world. One of the things I’m not to say struggling with but thinking about a lot is these two extremes they saw in comedy a lot of what comics called clapter comics. Clapter comedy is pandering comedy that is PC culture. It uses buzz words. There’s that end of that, which I don’t think anybody would say is a high level of the art form comedy. On the other end of that are the conservative comics, who are doubling down on not understanding genderless pronouns and siding with like, “Somebody has to speak up for this point of view that is clearly not something they believe in, agree with or think is right.” They’re hiding behind this idea of funny is funny no matter what and not acknowledging the possibly negative effects of their words.
Temporality, I’ve noticed that a little bit with comics in their 40s and 50s and you’re like, “It’s time to change.”
It’s also interesting is that I was thinking about this that for a while comics incessantly talking about political correctness and how they can’t say these things, which is completely historical. There’s never been a time you can say more to a national audience. In the ‘50s, you couldn’t say hardly anything to a national audience.
I believe Joan Rivers did stand-up pregnant on TV and had to say she had a bun in the oven because she couldn’t say the word pregnant on TV.
What has changed in the last few years and this is probably because of Trump, but also people talking about people political correctness so much that a market has opened up for people who are anti-PC. If you go on Joe Rogan and that’s in some ways a bigger platform as any. There are places on the web for this. I don’t think they’re all disingenuous. Some are totally genuine and it is true that there are social sanctions on certain points of views. I was looking at the Andrew Schulz, who’s built up this YouTube presence based on being anti-PC. Every one of his clips is in opposition to this. If you look at it, put aside the politics of it. It’s a new business model.
It speaks to this problem of at what point is getting butts in the seat enough. It’s the problem of podcasts too where we all talk about podcasts are the way for you to find your platform and your audience. Without you also developing the skill set to be a good stand-up, then you’re asking people to come see you to do what? It makes you question the validity of having if there’s an audience for this, which means that it’s worth doing. I don’t think that’s necessarily the truth but that’s the model that we operate in capitalism is if there is a market for this, then it must be worth doing. I don’t necessarily think that’s the truth. If there are comics who are disingenuously doing it because they think this is a marketable way to proceed in building an audience. There are others because they believe in these points of view and are sure that PC people are stopping them from saying things they want to say. It’s a strange time.
What was happening is if you don’t have gatekeepers, which is true increasingly that the reality is they’re less powerful than they used to be. What replaces it? Algorithms. The algorithms you can get. Enough people who hate political correctness elected our president. If you can get enough people and you have the systems which promoted that comedy, that snowballs. To me, it’s self-evident that popularity doesn’t equal quality. Which doesn’t mean anything about these specific people, but I do think what is popular and what is not is interesting. I pay a lot of attention to it and it’s fascinating to look at, “How do people become popular? How do they not become popular? How is it different now than it was a few years ago?” and it is. In a weird way, we went to a point when everyone universally complained about gatekeepers to a point where I was like, “Do you know something?” If you hear Luisa talk, the amount of consideration she puts into her work and the amount of thoughtfulness and algorithm doesn’t do that or whatever the lowest common denominator is that will get attention.
Algorithms don’t have a taste. That’s the issue. We’re getting down to fundamentally is this issue of taste, who has it, who doesn’t and the people who have it can help spread it. Algorithms aren’t as good at figuring out taste as much as it is they’re good at figuring out popularity, which you’re pointing out or intended.
That’s where the crux of my problem with most industry when I criticize gatekeepers. It is from this point because I agree with you. They are less powerful in all this, but I perceive them mostly to be floundering and trying to keep hold of what little power they have through shortcuts. Through pandering in some ways instead of through a strong point of view in confidence in your knowledge of comedy.
I knew this would be spirited and smart. I appreciate both of you bringing both your spirit and your smarts to this podcast.
Thank you so much for inviting us and having us. This was fun.
This was great. Thank you so much.
- Luisa Diez
- Too Many Cooks
- Knitting Factory
- Jason Zinoman
- On Comedy column of the New York Times
- Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night
- Shock Value
- Searching for Dave Chappelle
- How to Think Like an Anthropologist
- Sean Patton
- Mark Normand
- Jen O’Donnell – Past episode
- Take Down the Patriarchy
- Ladies Room
- Neal Brennan – Past episode
- Merill Markoe
- Seth Meyers
- Samantha Bee
- Howard Stern
- Bubba the Love Sponge
- Hannah Gadsby
- The Vampyre
- Diary of a Mad Diva
- Behind the Laughs
- The Last Laugh
- Joe Rogan
- Andrew Schulz
About Luisa Diez and Jason Zinoman