Who is this jerk with these set-ups and punchlines?

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on June 9th, 2012

The following is a quote from an interview with the fortunately named Isaac Witty that appeared in The Isthmus (Madison, WI):

You’ve been doing standup for 16 years. What are some changes you’ve seen in the comedy world?

When I first started, I would work with all these grizzled veterans who’d worked through the ’80s comedy boom. There’s all this folklore about those guys in the ’80s and early ’90s where emcees were making $1,000 a week and headliners were being flown in and making lots of money. And then when I was all excited about comedy and starting out, I would talk to these veterans, and I’d ask things like, “Can you give me some advice?” And they’d say, “Don’t do this! Comedy is over! It’s over!” Then they’d tell me how they were making a fraction of what they made 10 years ago, and that it was only going to get worse.

Then NBC’s Last Comic Standing came around, and people started coming out and watching comedy more. And all through that, there was also this alternative movement in comedy coming through, which was weird for me. I was living in New York at the time, and in New York I wasn’t weird enough for the alternative rooms, but I was too weird for the regular rooms. I was there when Demetri Martin started getting really big and Todd Barry was getting national attention. And I’d go to all these alternative rooms, and I’d get the feeling from the crowds like, “Who is this jerk with these set-ups and punchlines?” So I was caught in the middle.

It’s a story repeated over and over throughout the past few decades– Witty (and others) find themselves on some sort of “faultline” between this category or that (in this case, between alternative and non-alternative)– and it makes them uncategorizable. One can either jump to one side of the line or the other, or try to make the “uncategorizability” a selling point.

Oh… and emcees were not making a grand a week in the ’80s. This is folklore. Comics wondered why they were audited so much in that decade. Could it have been that comedians, every time they had the ear of a newspaper reporter, grossly inflated their earnings in order to make themselves appear more successful than they actually were?