Funny business

By MIKE MILIARD  |  May 8, 2008

“AltCom stands for alternative comedy, with the ‘com’ part cleverly — and with astounding efficiency — also reflecting that ever-expanding cornucopia of alternative comedy, the Internet,” writes Philips, considered by many to be alternative comedy’s paraprosdokian-spouting paterfamilias, in an e-mail interview. (“Ironically, the Web domain seems to have been grabbed up by some Polish Web-domain squatter,” he adds in a parenthetical. “It’s a sad sign of the American dollar’s current sickliness that we couldn’t afford to buy it off him.”)

Mirman is agnostic about the term’s value. “I dunno. Is ‘modern rock’ a thing? Or ‘alternative music’? It sort of vaguely describes something. Is it helpful? I guess. But are there alternative comics who are huge and sell millions of records, or play giant venues? Sure.”

“If you look at the lineup, it’s all comedians that were around before the term [alternative comedy] ever existed,” says Barry. “Emo’s been doing comedy for years. He’s a joke-teller. And I’m a joke-teller. It’s a great lineup, and [AltCom will] be a great show, and it looks like a really beautiful theater. But I’m not walking around going, ‘I’m an alternative comic.’ ”

The best way to define alternative comedy, then, is probably by what it is not. It is not the massively, inexplicably successful Dane Cook, strutting smirkingly astride the stage in a faux-retro T-shirt, product in his hair and unfunny inanities spewing from his mouth. It is not Larry the Cable Guy (“Git ’er dun!”) or alleged joke thief Carlos Mencia.

The comedians on the AltCom bill clearly have a diverse array of material and deliveries. But they also share a definite sensibility — smart, sometimes cynical, probably left-of-center — that’s usually shared by their fans.

An alternate history
It’s not like this happened all at once, of course. What’s now called alternative comedy has deep roots. It starts, arguably, with the near-anarchic madcap routines of the early Marx Brothers films. From there, hopscotch to Ernie Kovacs and Andy Kaufman, with stops at Monty Python, SNL, and SCTV along the way. Troupes like the Kids in the Hall, Stella, and Upright Citizens Brigade — alongside David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s hugely influential Mr. Show — really lit the fuse in the ’90s.

And we’ve seen stand-up booms before, too, most notably in the ’80s, when the coastal cities and vast swathes of the American heartland were colonized by an ever-expanding sprawl of giggle grottos and ha-ha huts.

Problem is, many of the stand-ups that stood up on those stages weren’t especially funny. “I think there are as many comedians today as there were in the ’80s,” notes Philips. “It’s just that, back in the ’80s, there were also a lot of people doing stand-up who weren’t comedians.”

The Hub, however, was home to some worthwhile specimens. “Boston’s one of those cities where, when people left that city, they partially began the alternative-comedy movement,” says Mirman. “Boston is a fantastic place for comedy, and it’s a fantastic place to start out, and a lot of the people who came from there or are there [now] are fantastic.”

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Related: A User’s Guide to AltCom 2008, Interview: Eugene Mirman, Comic belief, More more >
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