You don’t have to look far to find someone making a case for this being a ‘Golden Age of Television’. It’s an argument that, frankly, you can get tired of hearing, and while comedy has reaped the benefits of modern multi-platform viewing — such as greater creative freedom, higher representation, and a rise of both the dramatic and the surreal — let’s get a little more specific here…
Let’s talk observational comedy. We as audiences will always, more than anything else, want to see ourselves and our daily obstacles reflected by those that take the stage. We want to laugh things off; to feel that we’re not alone, and stand-up comedy has always, and will always, provide us with this release.
“I was embarking on my dream job. I was going to be a professional stand-up comedian. Cut to 1994: the stand-up comedy boom has gone stand-up comedy bust. No one wants to see stand up comedy anymore.” — Paul F. Tompkins
The above quote is taken from the 2012 comedy album Laboring Under Delusions. Though Paul F. Tompkins reminisces on a difficult point in his career, he speaks from a decade of success. Not only does Tompkins now get plenty of TV work — perhaps most notably in Netflix’s Bojack Horseman — but he is also a renowned presence in the world of podcasting. Much like live comedy, humorous podcasts are current, generally unedited, and often observational. The key difference is that with podcasts, audiences don’t have to go to a specific location, nor do they have to wait until the evening to laugh at life’s little quirks. They can laugh while life happens around them. Although stand-up comedy itself has decreased in popularity since the early 1990s, its essence has seen a surge over recent years thanks to this fresh new format.
One of the earliest examples of podcasting is Smodcast — co-hosted by Kevin Smith — who fits into our timeline very interestingly. Not only is Smith a major part of this newfound medium, but he also made his mark in filmmaking at that aforementioned point when stand-up comedy began to lose some of its interest. The 90s brought in a time where folks could really see themselves in cinema — it wasn’t just action heroes with finely structured stories anymore — people got to see very real characters interact with one another in realistically thin storylines. For this, we can primarily thank the trailblazer himself Richard Linklater, cited as a big inspiration by many including Kevin Smith.
Smith’s directorial debut Clerks resonated with audiences enough to snowball from a micro-budget film to a highly profitable feature. Not only was it profitable in a financial sense, but it also gave Smith & his friends careers in the industry, and audiences something to truly relate with. In fact, twenty-three years after its release, young people are still seeing something of themselves in Smith’s creation. Although no longer as renowned for his filmmaking as he was in the 90s, Smith has continued to be a relatable presence through both his podcasting and frequent live performances.
Kevin Smith is now one of many people using popular culture to relate to an audience. This brings me to what I believe might be one of the most relatable forms of comedy…
You know, when someone or a group of people record themselves playing video games. This is a form of content that, for those unfamiliar with the subject matter, might have some negative connotations. However, the main criticism of Let’s Plays and streaming platforms such as Twitch — “why would you watch someone playing games, when you can play them yourself?”— kind of misses the point. People watch this content to laugh at and engage with a subject matter that they have a direct interest in. In a way, it is an understated form of observational comedy and one can argue that nothing else relates to an audience quite as directly. In these videos, often streamed live, the performer and viewer watch the same events together and consequently the commentary takes place in real time. Of course the gags aren’t as polished as those in a stand-up set — essentially, it is conversational, improvised humour between friends — the kind that inspired Kevin Smith to start Smodcast with long time collaborator Scott Mosier.
Not only was ‘Smodcast’ inspired by Smith and Mosier’s banter, but also a scene in ‘Clerks’ was directly based on a conversation the pair had in college about the construction of the Death Star in ‘Star Wars’.
Comedy has basically leaked into every part of our day-to-day lives — from listening to podcasts during a morning commute to reading humorous tweets at lunchtime — observational comedy is now at its best because it often is, quite literally, in the moment. Such has been the growth of this style of comedy that it can now reach into darker places and tackle deeper problems. For example, Chris Gethard is bringing his live show Career Suicide to television next month, and it will shine a comedic light on formerly stigmatised experiences such as depression, alcoholism, and suicide.
‘Chris Gethard: Career Suicide’ premieres 6th May on HBO
The dawn of YouTube defined a generation of funny people. Over a decade later, it seems that the capability to now reach out to an audience in the moment — whether that be through periscoping, live streaming, or podcasting — might be what defines a new batch of comedians. Therefore, if we are in a sort of golden age of observational comedy, then it has only just begun.