Don’t let the screen door hit you…

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on August 5th, 2013

Somewhere in the stack of receipts and hastily scrawled joke ideas and bills and miscellaneous bits of paper on the double desk here at HQ (which also happens to be our kitchen table) is a Post-It note that says:

If television killed standup, what will people say that the internet is doing to standup?

The answer appears on, in an article entitled “Is YouTube Killing Comedy?” by Daniel Berkowitz, which tells the sad story of 34-year-old New York comedian J-L Cauvin, whose “visibility within the comedy world blossomed” after he uploaded a video wherein he trashed Louis CK. Of course, the blossom quickly withered (as do all these internet blossoms) and “Cauvin was back to his previous station as a 10-year veteran with a crushingly low profile.”

Cauvin’s career, like all others, has had its ups and downs. After getting a law degree at Georgetown, Cauvin moved back to his native New York to pursue law by day and comedy by night. On October 3, 2007, he made his television debut on “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” turning in a more-than-respectable set at four and a half years in. Since that time, however, a career that seemed to have great potential has witnessed a steady decline, to the point that, as of August 2013, Cauvin is set to retire from comedy at the year’s end.

And, following the revelation of Cauvin’s heartbreaking announcement, Berkowitz spells out the thesis for his article. To wit:

His trajectory is in some ways a sign of the times. Now that every aspiring comic has to be a social media presence, essentially giving away comedy for free online, it can be harder than ever to break through the crowd– or to make ends meet.

Where do we begin? None of the above quote makes any sense. Cauvin’s “trajectory” is unique to Cauvin. His career path can be analyzed, certainly. But precious few great truths of any great value can be derived from it or applied to anyone else’s experience. It’s a story that’s repeated over and over again from the beginning of comedy time. A guy goes to college, works part time and gets a TV shot or two. His profile– among his peers and the public– spikes briefly due to this or that… and then the profile drops and he quits the business.

Or he keeps going.

Very little new here.

The attempt to somehow conflate Cauvin’s career arc with the use or popularity of social media is a stretch.

First of all, not every aspiring comic has to be a social media presence. (Whatever that means!) But social media is not making it hard for a comic to “break through the crowd.” Let’s face it, breaking through the crowd is hard. An accepted definition of success is to break through the crowd, separate one’s self from the pack, standing out. The internet is a boon to comedians. It’s made it possible for comedians to do nearly everything in less time and do it more professionally and efficiently– contacting bookers, connecting with a fan base (if there is one), networking. The ancient practices of “sending out a tape” or “faxing in availabilities” or “mailing a press kit” have been streamlined, simplified or obviated. And the ability to do all these things electronically is available to every single comedian. (Whether or not they do it well is an entirely different matter. We’ve seen some online press kits that are execrable and the vast majority of performance videos are unwatchable due to poor sound or video quality.)

Certainly most comedians recognize Facebook, Twitter and Youtube as valuable tools. But when every comic has access to those tools, they don’t represent that significant of an advantage to any one comic. And they certainly don’t represent or cause there to be any disadvantages– either for those who use them, use them poorly or refuse to use them at all or refuse to use them for their generally recognized “proper” purposes.

And this idea that “giving away comedy for free online,” or that Youtube is killing comedy, or that it’s somehow the beginning of the end of comedy, is ludicrous.

We’re not sure why anyone is treating the internet (and, by extension) social media as anything but a wildly useful tool for standup comics. Such talk betrays a woeful ignorance of history. Vaudeville comics understood the usefulness of radio. Vaudeville and radio comics understood the utility of television and the exposure it afforded. And they all understood the wild exposure and fame that could be gotten through the medium of film. Now, the WWW comes along and… it’s killing comedy?

Berkowitz sees the tale of Cauvin’s impending “retirement” as a tragedy and a conundrum. And an indication that something is broken– in the business of standup in particular and in the entertainment business generally. Young, marginally talented upstarts are gaining widespread exposure via song parodies made in their bedrooms while honest, hard-working toilers like Cauvin are forced to throw in the towel goes the story. The capricious nature of the entertainment business is made all the more cruel by the introduction of this newfangled technology, enabling the undeserving to leapfrog into stardom while those in the trenches have their career arcs twisted into pretzels or worse, heartlessly and quietly ended.

The natural question, then, is how does a comedian with more than enough skill to rival the never-ending slew gracing television screens get passed over by virtually an entire industry?

How? How? HOW!?!?! (Tears garments and falls to the floor)

Pardon us for laughing. But this is the question that we’re all saddled with when we make that decision to be a real, live standup comic. Every one of us.

Get a load of this guy: He’s been in it for ten years. (Which, it is universally agreed, is the minimum time required to get anywhere near good at this thing we call standup!) For a good number of those ten years, he’s a part-timer (by his own admission, Cauvin pursued “law by day, comedy by night”), he gets a network television credit by the 4-/12 year mark and now, after the ebbing of the minor buzz from his Youtube video that bitterly savages one of the most successful comedians of the modern era, he’s says he might trade it all in for a wife, some kids and a golden retriever. Not exactly a tragedy of epic proportions. It’s a real “dog bites man” story if you ask us.

Perhaps the more interesting story would have been that of a lawyer who quits the law racket, quickly gets some minor success (perhaps too quickly!), has his expectations cruelly raised only to be smacked in the back of the head by reality.

Instead, we’re fed the dubious plotline that the internet might be a suspect in Cauvin’s career death and the WWW is distorting the usual order of things in the business of show.

We suppose this storyline has been repeated over and over again over the years with the introduction of each new medium. As each appears, it’s greeted with curiosity and suspicion, then it’s championed by visionaries, then a bunch of people lose money, then a bunch more make money, then a bunch of others demonize or sentimentalize the new technology (depending on how much skin they have in the game or how much they want to invest in the newer technology that’s just over the horizon).

We’re long past the point of talking people out of leaving standup. Or caring whether someone stays in or gets out. Buh-bye! Don’t let the screen door hit you on the way out!

We certainly hope Cauvin didn’t give this interview hoping that the business would beg him to stay or would confess that it was mistaken. One might get that impression from the way the article was written. Note the use of the passive voice– “The natural question… is how does a comedian… get passed over by virtually an entire industry?” The industry doesn’t “pass over” comedians. The industry is inert. It is inanimate. It has no feelings for you either way. It is a giant, shapeless mass and it up to us to scale it, beat on it, dig holes in it, carve our names into it, kick it hard, scream in its ear and make it our bitch. It doesn’t do anything. We do things to it, through it and, sometimes, around it. It’s not some god-like entity that favors us if we “do all the right things.” It can seem cruel or random or unfeeling, but it’s not personal… it’s business. Cauvin seems not to get that. His video– the one that might turn out to be his swan song and his lasting legacy– is, to be sure, wickedly funny (though a bit too long). But it is also rather obviously and blatantly bitter. He’s in the “bitter freefall” stage of his career. It’s safe to say that we nearly all go through the same stage, sometimes at the ten-year mark, sometimes at the ten-month mark. Some succumb to it and never emerge from it. Some gain perspective. Some quit the business. This isn’t something that’s particularly difficult to figure out. In fact, it’s spelled out rather clearly in paragraph twelve of the Salon article:

Throughout the decade that he’s done standup comedy, Cauvin has sacrificed his happiness for a chance at fulfillment. He abandoned a budding law career to focus on comedy full-time, he strained relationships by letting his comedy career take precedence, and he descended into bouts of despair as he watched younger, less-polished comedians advance past him. Even the proliferation of social media has done little to advance his career, save the five minutes of fame his C.K. video got him.

Yipe! Does anybody detect a glaring lack of self-awareness and perspective? Does Cauvin– who got a late-night credit at the tender comedy age of 4-1/2 years– not see the irony of his despairing at “younger, less-polished comedians advanc(ing) past him?”

There’s a whole lot more in the article that is alternately mind-bendingly illogical, jaw-droppingly stupid or howlingly clueless, but we had to focus on the above just to keep the task manageable.

(We would have embedded the infamous Louis CK video parody that Cauvin produced, but embedding the video has been “disabled by request.” Now THAT’s using the internet to advance the ol’ career!)