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Selected Summer Topics in Comedy

We’re deep into the dog days of summer, when populist rage and armed repression run rampant on the streets, evil portents fill the sky and wealthy oligarchs make violent pronouncements in arenas filled with angry patriarchs baying for blood. It’s a positively Roman time of year, when cracks in the brittle foundation of the Republic become most visible. In this season we need the soothing balm of comedy. Here’s some funny stuff that helped get my mind off the summer heat and its forced march of tyranny.

Bojack Horseman season three
The first two seasons of Bojack Horseman established it as a funny-animal adult cartoon that instills more empathy for its characters than most live action shows. What some might write off as another Hollywood navel-gazer about a washed-up actor—apparently Will Arnett’s wheelhouse now—turns out to be a surprisingly poignant show with top-notch animal puns and a deft touch for expressing subtler shades of humanity—er, animality.

This season they’ve upped the ante, advancing the existing storylines in unexpected directions and punctuating the season with ambitious standalone episodes. The most notable of these one-offs is “Fish Out of Water,” a visually arresting spree that takes place underwater. Since many of the characters in Bojack’s cartoon universe are aquatic and the series is steadfast about staying true to its zoological quirks, the episode plays out with virtually no dialogue but the muffled burble of attempted subaqueous speech. When's the last time you watched 25 minutes of TV with no talking? The episode was widely praised across the internet for its artistry, garnering breathless accolades like “Bojack Horseman’s underwater episode has elevated the series into art,” “[Bojack] hits its high water mark in a tour de force episode,” and “a must-watch, even if you’ve never seen the show.”

Just two episodes later, the season doubles down with an ethical tightrope walk that's equally astounding. In “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew,” social media ghostwriter Diane decides to get an abortion, then accidentally tweets it out from pop singer Sextina Aquafina’s account. Sextina decides to own it and become the celebrity face of elective abortion. She releases a brutally graphic single, “Get Dat Fetus, Kill Dat Fetus,” that disturbs delicate sensibilities within the pro-choice camp and provides lurid ammunition for the anti-choicers. I immediately thought of parallels with the Shout Your Abortion campaign that originated here in Seattle, which was similarly polarizing in its own way.

It’s remarkable that a cartoon can evoke the contours of such a nuanced cultural landscape while also doling out a constant stream of hilarious jokes and sight gags. Bojack certainly stands on the shoulders of groundbreaking adult cartoons like The Simpsons and South Park, and it surpasses them by delving so fearlessly into the commercially fraught, network-prohibited issue of abortion. I found myself surprised at how brutal the writers were willing to go and how tonally perfect they got it. Such a brazen approach is obviously a much easier sell when it's funny animals who are singing about the gleeful murder of fetuses or reciting the macabre pre-abortion disclaimers mandated by conservative lawmakers. Emboldened by freedom from meddling advertisers—it's on Netflix—Bojack is a show that does something brilliant and significant with the half-hour cartoon comedy. 

Scott’s plaid shirt
Every once in a while some random memory from my early days of comedy pops up and surprises me. When you’re new in standup you accept the strangest people and situations as normal because you have no point of comparison and besides, it’s a wacky business. It’s only later that you realize, “That was fucking crazy.”

For example, out of the blue the other day I remembered this one Seattle comic who used to wear the same plaid button-up shirt every time he went onstage until eventually it was a tattered rag hanging from his neck. This guy—I’ll just call him Scott—also happened to be a talented physicist, and the shirt was supposed to be a character prop that telegraphed “stoner math genius.” The only problem was he never addressed it so the audience had no idea he was attempting a “character.” Since most of his material had nothing to do with physics—it was mostly filthy jokes about weed and vaginal leakage—he just ended up coming off as a drunk guy in a really dirty sweater.

Because Scott went on the road often, setting up far-flung one-nighters in places like the rural Dakotas, I only saw him every few months. This gave me a sort of time-lapse glimpse of the shirt unraveling as he continued to wear it for over 600 shows, he claimed. Holes in the elbows grew and spread up the sleeves, the collar and cuffs got frayed and ragged, eventually detaching. The plaid stripes became muddled and sodden as oil, booze and food stains told a sad story of breakdowns, bar gigs and blackouts on the rural comedy circuit of the American West. The shirt was real but it also serves as a damn good metaphor.

Andy Kindler
Andy Kindler has been doing comedy-about-comedy since before that was a thing—hell, he’s been making things a “thing” before that was a thing. He even wrote the book on hacks. He’s still one of the funniest comics working and it’s a joy to see him mock the shibboleths of comedy, from Larry the Cable Guy to Entourage to Bill Maher's self-satisfied smirk.

Onstage, Kindler is funniest when the jokes “aren’t working”—the way he reacts to a flat audience response and uses it to lampoon his entire career is classic neurotic mania and no one does it better. One time I was watching Kindler at Laughs in Kirkland when a grouchy old woman in front of me turned to her husband and said, “Why doesn’t he just tell another joke? Why does he keep talking about the joke that didn’t work?” It was the purest example I’ve ever seen of “not getting it.” The woman was like a Kindler aside made flesh.

The last time I saw him was at El Corazon, and instead of a crowd stocked with Suburban Groupon-Americans who definitely didn’t “get it” this crowd was composed entirely of Andy’s people, including ardent Best Show fans who cherish his regular appearances on that excellent podcast. This time everyone in the room was completely onboard and it was one of the best performances I’ve seen in the past year. When Kindler is in his own element—when the audience is hip to this very special and particular thing he does—it’s sublime. [Kindler is pictured, left, signing a decades-old headshot at the Comedy Underground when he dropped in after the El Corazon show.]

Here’s an excellent recent example of Kindler in his element, delivering his “State of the Industry Address” for an insider crowd at this year's Just for Laughs festival, an annual tradition. He takes potshots at everything mockable about comedy including his own act. Plop down in front of a fan and enjoy almost an hour of prime Kindler talking about comedy in 2016:

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