Who do you think is the richest actor in the world?
Tom Cruise? Mel Gibson? Tom Hanks? Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Not even close.
The richest actor in the world is Jerry Seinfeld. He is worth $860 million. The closest of the 4 above is Tom Cruise with $480 million. Almost two times less.
If you don’t live in the USA, you may have never heard of him. Jerry Seinfeld was the lead star of a cult tv comedy Seinfeld. He is also a very busy stand-up comedian.
Isn’t it strange that a comedian bypassed all of the famous actors above?
If you have a Netflix subscription, you may have noticed stand-up comedy specials that Netflix is promoting. A special is an original performance recorded exclusively for Netflix. Dave Chappelle, another famous US comedian, got paid $60 million for 3 one hour specials last year.
Stand-up comedy is clearly a big business.
While stand-up comedy has grown in exposure and popularity in the last 30 or so years, it has also changed. Comedy used to be a lot more superficial. If we watch comedy sketches from the 1960s, they will strike us as sexist, racist and full of slapstick. While there’s still some of that today (some comedians seem to build their success almost exclusively on their ability to imitate accents), comedy has become a lot more thoughtful.
My theory is that stand-up comedy has developed into the modern philosophy.
Stand-up as Philosophy
Look at the words of Doug Stanhope talking about suicide:
“Life is like a movie. If you’ve sat through more than half of it and it sucked every second so far, chances are it’s not going to get great right at the very end and make it all worthwhile. No one should blame you for walking out early.”
Or listen to the great George Carlin summarizing the concept of religion:
“Religion has convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky. Who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn’t want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer, and suffer, and burn, and scream, until the end of time. But he loves you. He loves you. He loves you and he needs money.”
Jim Jefferies on Gun Control, and on the hypocrisy of saying that guns are for protection:
“You have guns because you like guns. That’s why you go to gun conventions. That’s why you read gun magazines. None of you gives a shit about home security. None of you goes to home security conventions. None of you read ‘Padlock Monthly’. None of you has a Facebook picture of you behind a secure door going ‘Fucking Yeah!’”
Comedy and Culture
I am lucky since I have the privilege of being able to watch stand-up comedy in several languages – so far I tried English, French, German, Russian and Armenian. I can’t think of any other media where cultural differences are so ‘in your face’. You may watch a whole action movie in Korean with English subtitles and not notice a single cultural difference with a Hollywood movie. Watching stand-up comedy, you’d find the difference during the first minute.
Just look at this short German comedy sketch with English subtitles:
By the way, it’s interesting that of only three German Netflix specials to date, two are by performers heavily building on their immigrant heritage – Iranian-German Enissa Amani and Turkish-German Kaya Yanar.
In North America, this immigrant genre is represented by Russell Peters – an Anglo-Indian who became popular portraying a childhood and growing up of an Indian kid in Canada. Peters made his father a character in his tales, and gave the character of his father a thick Indian accent – even though his parents came from mixed English-Indian heritage and his father spoke with a British accent in real life!
Pushing the boundaries
It seems that nothing is off limits, nothing is sacred. Comedians perform about personal tragedies. Patton Oswalt performs on Netflix about his wife’s death. Doug Stanhope talks about the death of his mother. Louis C.K. talks about abortion, David Cross talks about shootings in schools. And then there’s a stand-up about a gay teenager growing up, Nanette.
Tig Notaro delivered a standup performance straight after being diagnosed with cancer – listen to it, her performance starts with “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?.”
What comes first – laughter or thought?
You do laugh from time to time listening to these performances. But laugh doesn’t seem to be the goal anymore. These people are not there to make you laugh. Rather, they use laughter and stand-up as a medium. They package their message into a speech from the stage with a microphone and use laughter as a lubricant and shock as the propellant. So that what stays in your mind after is not the laughter – but the message.