I’ve recently started watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime and, in so many ways, it’s right up my alley: Well scripted, funny, amazing sets and costumes, and it’s set during a golden era for comedy nerds. Comics like Lenny Bruce (who appears on the show as a character), Redd Foxx, and Joan Rivers (who partially serves as the inspiration for the title character) were pushing boundaries exploring subjects and using language rarely heard on stage in those days. I’ve long been a fan of stand-up because I think it’s the scariest of the performing arts. It’s you and microphone and an audience that can turn if your set is just not good.
It’s interesting to watch the tension between those audience members who appreciate the newly frank material and those who are still shocked by it, This is illustrated neatly in the second season when Midge Maisel launches into an impromtu R-rated routine at her friend’s very traditional, very Catholic wedding. What flew at the Glaslight did not fly at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow. The show is very good at showing a society on the verge of a cultural shift.
Comedy often forces the audience to either look at something in a new way, or serves as a release when someone addresses a topic that is taboo in polite society.
Today, there is very little that is forbidden to discuss on stage. The president of the United States has admitted to paying off mistresses with zero consequences so nobody is going stop you from saying anything. We are somewhat unshockable these days.
But society changes and those who challenged the norms of their time often feel threatened when they find they’re the old guard and the audience just isn’t into it. You find this attitude among comics who came up in the 80s and 90s when suddenly the material that gave them their living doesn’t land the way it used to. They’re confused and somewhat resentful, complaining of “political correctness” ruining comedy.
It’s not, of course, ruining comedy. It’s ruining their comedy because they have no back-up material. Last year at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival, Darren Knight, who has gotten a small following with his “Southern Momma” character, bombed during a gala, in which he insulted the comics and then insulted the audience, saying that comedy shouldn’t be about sexism or racism. Saturday Night Live’s Chris Redd confronted him, saying essentially that his performance was his own fault, not the audience’s.
And he was right. If the material doesn’t hit with the audience, that is not the fault of the audience. You need to find a way to make the material work so that the audience responds to it. You need to read the room. Are you performing at your friend’s Catholic wedding, a downtown comedy club, or Just for Laugh’s infamous Nasty Show?
Are comedians really afraid of being offensive these days? Is the Nasty Show still one of Just for Laugh’s most popular events? There’s your answer.