Global climate patterns changing drastically, overcharged political conflicts spilling over into the streets, police shooting unarmed black men, India’s Covid death rate skyrocketing, North Korea still threatening nuclear armageddon. There is a lot to feel overwhelmed by. And that’s just what’s on the news-don’t get me started on work or family. It’s difficult not to feel drained and depressed about the end of the world, but there is a cure for this melancholia. Cliché as it sounds, laughter may be the best medicine.
While laughter happens involuntarily, it is entirely generated through social interaction. Laughter can boost serotonin production and encourage other endorphin producers to activate; similar to sugar, but with half the calories That is not to say evil chuckles and forced giggles can cure cancer. However, according to a study by neuroscientist Robert Provine, laughter creates intimacy, and, like how one cannot tickle oneself, one cannot make oneself laugh. Laughter is cited most often as improving blood flow and reducing stress, primarily through the involuntary contraction of muscles, ranging from the gut to the face, providing a minor, full body workout.
Now, where can we get our hands on a bottle of this miracle antidepressant? Several sources have it in stock: cartoons, newspaper comics, late night talk shows, movies, and stand-up comics. While humor comes in a variety of forms, from the dark and crass like the Adult Swim’s show Rick and Morty, to the punniest of memes, all were born of the original form; the theater play.
The year is 411 BCE. Aristophanes, a Greek playwright, produced a ludicrous performance titled Lysistrata; a drama involving war, politics, and massive wooden phalluses. The plot? Twenty years prior, Athens and Sparta engaged in a war that spanned the Greek peninsula. In the play, the bloody battle came to an end when the wives of the men in each army came together and refused to sleep with their husbands. Men being men, the threat of celibacy was far worse than the threat of death itself; they came to their senses and the carnage that began with swords ended with ‘swordplay’. One of the first recorded comedic performances, with its insane plot contrivance, Lysistrata might be credited with piquing a novel appetite for comedy. According to Aristotle, a comic play requires a group of flawed characters bumbling along while a serious plot magically comes to a satisfying ending. This template works in several contemporary platforms, from cartoons like ‘Tom and Jerry’ to movies like The Pink Panther and Mr. Bean’s Holiday.
Comedies have rarely been serious contenders for film industry awards, from Hollywood to Cannes favoring more serious plots, like Judas and the Black Messiah, Parasite, and Little Women. Jokes are prevalent in action movies, and often are utilized to manipulate the mood, but rarely are the focus of the plot, with an ever-increasing emphasis on social impact and conscience taking center stage. The last comic film to win ‘Best Picture’ was Chicago in 2002. There’s a growing awareness on how humor can cause pain, and a growing question about whether the catharsis gained from laughter is worth the price of injury. On the other hand, comedy has started moving back to the spoken word, and live comedy has never been more popular. Comedians like Stephen Colbert, John Mulaney, and John Oliver made the practice mainstream, and it is now one of the most watched forms of late-night entertainment.
Stand-up comedy delivers laughs in a more unstructured fashion. Instead of delivering highly polished performances of dramatic quality on late night television, stand-up comics appear on a stage for an hour or so, telling stories and cracking jokes. Pre-pandemic comedy clubs across the country were full of practicing funny people. Far less lucrative than headliner comedy or a Netflix special, the stand-up industry commonly involves a grueling series of long road trips and nights in seedy motels. Most make their living off the merchandise they sell after a show, with the profits from the performance covering the travel costs to the next gig. It takes a tough state of mind to enter the stand-up industry, and none know it better than the comics themselves.
Sam Tallent, author of Running the Light and a stand-up comedian based in Denver, Colorado, has been working the crowds and cracking sides for over ten years. Therefore, it’s fair to say he knows how difficult it was to begin life as a comedian. “So, when I started doing stand-up in 2007, there were three open mics in all of Denver. You’re gonna be getting on stage at around 1:30. You’re surrounded by freaks and mutants who are also doing this thing that’s really hard to learn. You have to be okay with lying to yourself about the fact that you’re getting better at standup and it’s all gonna work out. There’s just a lot of barriers that prevent people from diving in full-fledged to stand up unless you’re like me and twenty-one and living in a punk rock house with twelve other people, and your rent was $120 and you were okay dumpster diving. It’s just tough for people who have the wheels moving on like other parts of being a member of society to go full-fledged into standup you know?” Difficulties aside, it looked like stand-up comedy was a weekly fix for many fans, a surefire method for laugh delivery.
“You’re gonna be getting on stage at around 1:30. You’re surrounded by freaks and mutants who are also doing this thing that’s really hard to learn. You have to be okay with lying to yourself about the fact that you’re getting better at standup and it’s all gonna work out.”
Enter Covid-19. Just like that, comedy clubs closed, people started hoarding toilet paper and Purell, and the masks began to cover up the place where smiles would have been. Laughter became yet another scarce commodity and the stand-up market dried up. Tallent has performed across the country and in both Canada and France. Over the phone from Colorado, he admitted to losing his sense of purpose as the pandemic wore on. “I did some shows last year in Montana and Wyoming, just some outdoor shows, where the population was very small, so the risk was not as bad as performing in other places. After October of last year, I didn’t really didn’t do any weekends; I didn’t do a headlining set from October of last year to February 14th. It’s been the most time I’ve had off standup, and . . . you lose the definition of yourself that you have. My entire adult life has been defined by being a comedian, so it was weird to be a guy for a while. My entire scheme of who I am is built around ‘Standup Comedian’, you know? Sam Tallent the son, the brother, the husband, are attached to that skeleton.”
Tallent’s sentiments are shared across the industry. Comedy clubs have been closed for months, leaving budding comedians searching for another creative outlet, like podcasts, webcasts, even making group zoom calls, in an effort to stay in practice. Tallent admitted that after months offstage, “I think everyone got weak. And you go back to standup and the crowds are so desperate to laugh, and the comedians they’re going to see are the worst they’ve ever been, it was a weird juxtaposition.”
“My entire adult life has been defined by being a comedian, so it was weird to be a guy for a while.”
When the clubs do reopen, and Tallent finds himself back under the spotlight, he believes that Covid will have a lasting impact on how comedy is performed. “It’s this shared experience that the entire world has been through. I think if you went back up there and just did your old act . . . I think that would be kind of a shitty thing to do.” As vaccines roll out and clubs reopen, it’s important to remember that a post-Covid world may change the sound of laughter. But at least we’ll be laughing; It’s just what the doctor ordered.
Ryan Day is a Staff Writer for the Blue Muse Magazine
Header Photo Credit: Sam Tallent