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The State of Stand Up Comedy in Western Mass (Northampton Blog)

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Stand Up Comedy in Northampton and Western Mass

A History of Comedy Meets Today: The State of Stand Up Comedy in Northampton and Western Mass

Stand Up Comedy. Photo Courtesy Freddy'sWhen one learns that he is a comedian, he faces a strange challenge. His/her job is to make people laugh while at the same time garnering the audience’s respect. He/she must display their viewpoints without becoming embarrassed and/or if clever enough, use analogy or metaphor to neglect responsibility. It is as tough a job as many people imagine it is, though once one overcomes their nervousness, the challenge of whether or not to pursue a career in comedy is equally challenging.

That’s where young comedians in Western Massachusetts find themselves now–out of school and lucky if they have a minimum wage job. Forget all that though, as comedy is thriving in its spirit even without money.

We’ve been doing it for years now without compensation, which proves the strength of our spirit. When most comedians take up the craft, they’re unsure about what it entails, and find themselves abuzz with feelings of excitement. This is why when newbies enter even an open mic for the first time they apologize as soon as they have the mic in hand:

“I’m sorry. This is my first time. I’m so nervous.”

The key to gaining your crowd’s respect lies with that the jokester must be outlandishly whimsical. The rare exceptions are those who are unafraid to reveal their vulnerabilities uniquely and without fear of the audience’s judgment. For the former and the latter, there are great examples. The overconfident have succeeded in the forms of Richard Pryor, Dane Cook, and Andrew Dice Clay. On the other side of the spectrum, we have the Dave Chappelles and Mitch Hedbergs, whose genius came through in their vulnerabilities.

But of the comedic geniuses, who now holds the attention of the trade? Looking across the board what we have on display is relatively unimpressive as Carlos Mencia, Jeff Dunham, and the like grace billboards. This is because the next generation of comedians are still in their beginnings, doing open mics, and paying dues. Paying dues gets old though, and it is generally true that the longer a comedian goes without acclaim, the more embittered by his act he becomes.

The comedy game could really benefit from extending its hand to us as all great comedians eventually rise from obscurity into fame. The question is whether or not we are great or if we are only fooling ourselves. Self doubt is inherent to the early comedian’s mindset as our rewards are paltry, other than laughter from the small crowd.

The SNL generation has faded away, and now what we have is a new element in which channels like NBC and FX are pushing television shows, such as “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” and “Community.” These are all great shows, but they represent a trend towards the budgeting of comedy instead of the promotion of new comedians.

But that isn’t going to a mob of comedians who over the past two years have been fighting to gain attention. We must persist and like decent people assume that our failure is temporary, and have faith, just like everyone else on this planet must. It is exciting to see how the comedy scene has gained popularity in Western Massachusetts as it attempts to branch out to Boston and NYC where the clubs are bigger and the crowds too. Soon there will be a direct link between Northampton and NYC as Northampton is planning on installing a railroad between the two.

Until the limelight is our own, we must try our hardest to succeed with our material, tweak it, write new jokes. It has to be new. What my generation of comedians faces is a challenge with overcoming shock value. The likes of “Jackass,” “South Park,” “Family Guy” are losing their appeal, as even shock can become routine. Just how much abuse against decency can viewers be expected to enjoy? I too am tired of easy jabs at political leaders because they have become as obvious and uninspiring as the figures they criticize.

And I’m not arguing for subservient comedy or for a tame approach, but instead something with more moral substance. Throughout the ages, comedy has tested the limits of what can and can’t be said. With that said, comedy today has progressed into an area where limits are without exception, broken. I believe we have reached the tipping point, and pray for the likes of Lenny Bruce and Louis C.K. whose comedy is more human than what the scene has rampaged its way into.

There is a large difference between offending your audience and providing insight into the quirks of the world. Any successful comedian has found the balance between these two, something which comedians in Western Massachusetts should be paying attention to sooner than later if they wish to be successful. What started at Bishop’s Lounge open mic two years ago has evolved into something bigger, as promoters from Springfield and Holyoke are attempting to seize authority over it as producers and managers. Suddenly we have the support of the African-American community, which is strange due to the bickering, though good-natured towards white comedians by black ones at any open mic, and vice-versa.

But it might be too soon, as we are still young, and don’t want our “careers” as comedians to be streamlined along someone else’s terms. And the question of just what these promoters could offer is up for question too, and so most of my fellow clowns have turned away from signing contracts with them, but still, this is proof that my generation of comedians is moving up…ever so slowly…ever so slowly…as people go out to see music more often than comedy since it is relaxing, requiring of less attention, and puts them less on the spot.

We know that most comedians do not climb instantly into fame, and must remind ourselves of this as our art is obscure, and often overwhelming to the crowd as…who are we to expect their attention is what the crowds and outsiders seem to ask…when so many of us are terrible at what we do, and rely on the shock value I have explained above–shamelessly, heartlessly, and without useful thought. Only crude idiots enjoy it, and yes I am a snob here, but rightly so.

Laughter is great because it is contagious, and the pulse of a crowds understanding can be measured by the response so obviously that it is hard to mistake a good comedian for a bad one. As such the challenge of a standup comedian is to be at peace with himself while at the same time being critical of his set, a unique paradox of progression. From open mic to savvy arts promoters promising us vague opportunities, to paying for his own admission onto the stage, we must persevere and overcome those frustrations or else lose sight of the beauty of the craft and become bitter before our dues have been paid.

A new generation of standup comedy is growing up in Massachusetts; I feel this article is well due, though I have tangled with the idea of it being self-promotional, and beg your pardon, as I am a comedian myself.

But here goes: check out Bishop’s Lounge Comedy Open Mic which occurs every Wednesday at 7:15pm or look into A.O. Wash Original Comedy Box on You Tube to view future competitions for standup comedy, which are sponsored by Budweiser, which you can buy at the bar.

Ezra Prior is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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1 Comment for “The State of Stand Up Comedy in Western Mass (Northampton Blog)”

  1. Hi Ezra,
    I appreciate your article of support to stand-up comedians. We need community cuz it can feel like a lonely job sometimes.

    Maybe I should try Bishop’s Lounge again, but the one time I performed at their comedy open mic (July 2013), I was offended by and unimpressed with the acts that went before me. Like you said, “There is a large difference between offending your audience and providing insight into the quirks of the world. Any successful comedian has found the balance between these two, something which comedians in Western Massachusetts should be paying attention to sooner than later if they wish to be successful.”

    Best wishes for your journey to stardom!

    Jan Morris (a.k.a. Melinda Marie)

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