Quitting stand-up should not have been as easy a decision as it ended up being. It was all I ever wanted to do growing up, even before I really knew it was an option. And while a lot of why I left had to do with personal hardships and the usual gripes that come with pursuing a creative passion—late nights, day jobs, dissatisfaction with my own amateurish level of talent—there was more to it than that, something deeper. This should be the golden age of consumption; never before have so many diverse voices had access to such a wide media landscape, and yet I can’t remember the last time a stand-up special genuinely aroused my interest, personally or professionally. This may be somewhat heretical to announce as Paste’s Assistant Comedy Editor, but it’s the truth. The marketplace of ideas that is the stand-up comedy world is notably oversaturated, and it’s really hindering my ability to care.
I recently discussed this on an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, The Culture Kings, and it’s definitely an opinion that’s been voiced multiple times before in a number of outlets. There’s a race to push out an endless stream of (cheap) content, and the sheer plethora of choices is killing our ability to actually choose. Netflix is the most cash-heavy, egregious offender, flooding the market with a thousand “specials” a year, doing their damnedest to shoulder out smaller competitors like Hulu and legacy outfits like HBO. If Netflix is the dick, the other two are the balls. No real analogy there, just imagery.
“It’s all been done, I’m bored with this, and there’s too much of it” is a lazy, often ignorant criticism that can be levied at any time on any art form by any rube, but I do genuinely think stand-up is particularly susceptible. Comedy in general is experiencing a phase of creative fatigue (just look at the premise of every major studio release in the last five years), but there’s still incredible work being done. It’s Always Sunny has been around for 13 years and (save for what I personally consider a lapse in quality around seasons six and seven) has literally only gotten better with age. Does the limiting nature of stand-up comedy stifle innovation? Sure, there are always articles and emails and podcasts raving about whatever the “fresh new voice” of the month is, but ultimately, it’s always just an overly-rehearsed rehashing of jokes we’ve heard time and time again told from a larger stage in a slightly altered pitch of the same cadence. How many times can we hear one person with a microphone talk about their basic human experiences? Specifics just serve as accessories dressing up the same old stories we’ve heard before.
To be fair, this very simplicity is why stand-up persists as an art form. Speaking cynically, it’s relatively cheap to make, and with regard to consumption, super easy to digest. I might be approaching this from a biased perspective, though. I was fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to pursue a career in stand-up comedy for a very short while, and while I had a ton of fun and made the best friends of my life, I ultimately grew bored of it for the same reasons. What could I possibly write that would really speak to people without seeming trite or hackneyed? Audiences typically enjoyed it, and I’m proud of a few of the ideas I had, but the medium of stand-up became stale to the point where I felt like I was doing an ironic impression of a comedian—the ones I grew up watching late night on Comedy Central and BET.
I’d hate to ascribe my admittedly biased, nihilistic view to the larger viewing audience, who for all I know are laughing their asses off at the most mass produced stand-up schlock their favorite streaming service is loudly promoting this month. More people are talking about stand-up than ever before, and if ratings, profits and news stories are any indication, a diverse array of consumers and creators are being granted access to platforms and communities that were previously known to be impenetrable and elitist. Who cares if it’s “bad?” (Furthermore, who am I to even say it is?) The fact is it’s happening and someone’s appreciating it. The hedonist in me finds it endearing—if what you’re watching harms no one and helps you escape, that really is an enviable thing.
Before a thousand stand-ups quote-tweet this article personally insulting me and my admittedly limited scope of experience as a “failed comedian,” please understand that this is more an expression of grief than it is bitterness or pretension. I find stand-up comedy really boring right now, but I yearn for something to bring me back in—not even as a performer, but strictly as a consumer.
On a more positive note, however, I was having coffee with a much more experienced former comedian turned successful TV writer, and after expressing a lot of these same feelings he simply said (and I’m paraphrasing) “ I understand how you’re feeling, but think of all the ten year olds that haven’t seen Mitch Hedberg before.” And I did think about them, and it made me smile. At least they’ll have that, I guess.
Yusef Roach is Paste’s Assistant Comedy Editor and the cohost of the podcast Death is Imminent. He’s on Twitter @yusefroach.