Comedy is the New Punk Rock
Although it’s been a really great year for metal, punk, and music in general — with tremendous releases from Meshuggah, Gorguts, Dillinger Escape Plan, and Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society — it’s no secret that music just doesn’t hold the same place in the cultural pecking order that it did from the ’50s to the ’90s.
I’ve been chewing over this for a little while, but it’s become more and more apparent to me over the last year as Trump, memes, and stale content have come to define our entertainment consumption. Meanwhile, comedy has become the cultural critic, the voice of dissent in America that metal/punk/rap/etc. used to be.
There are a lot of reasons for this, but the most important one in my view is that music doesn’t challenge the status quo as much as it used to. And when it does, it’s usually only doing so within its own boundaries, content to exist in a prism of its own obsessions. It’s become lame to be a “political” or “social” band, and few (basically just Run the Jewels) have found a way to be successful at it.
I think this is because, irregardless of the actual notes bands play, the content-consuming public ridicules people who dedicate themselves seriously to something. We don’t value seriousness anymore, and music is a serious, skill-based artform, like theater acting (when was the last time you were excited to see a play?). Actually, more than de-valuing it, we meme it.
Comedy is interesting because, even though we receive most of it through bigger and more relevant corporations than all the major record labels combined (Comedy Central, Turner, NBC/CBS, etc), the format itself exists to ridicule and critique norms. In our safe, PC culture, comedy is the only art form that is allowed to “go there.” And in a world where a gazillion media outlets vie for our attention every day, comedians who are in your face, who go for the throat, who deal with subjects that we care about, seem to constantly cut through the din.
So let’s take a look at a few comedians that in my view, represent the ethos of punk, metal, and their associated sub-cultures.
It’s corny to say that someone speaks truth to power, but that’s basically everything that Eric Andre does. His answer to nearly every creative issue in writing, staging, and comedy interviewing is total destruction. At times he’s almost more in pursuit of complete insanity than humor.
There’s also an interesting parallel between The Eric Andre Show and heavy metal/prog/punk music, in that it is heavily dependent on the talk show format, just like how extreme music is dependent on its’ genre conventions. Eric’s show works because we have certain expectations about what happens on Letterman, Colbert, and Fallon: guests come on to promote something, the show runs games and sketch segments, a monologue parodies the current news/pop culture cycle.
Every episode begins on an average-looking talk show set, which Eric precedes to destroy in increasingly bizarre, violent ways. From the start, the show presents you with a familiar universe, then immerses you in a parallel one where anything can happen at any moment. Andre’s show works best when it satisfies certain conditions of the format, then completely breaks down your expectations about those conditions, reaching a moment of pure genius in an episode a few weeks ago in which Eric’s talk-show desk gave birth to a baby talk-show desk.
This is exactly what a good metal or punk album does — Master of Puppets, Calculating Infinity, Leviathan, and any other number of records — challenging your expectations about songwriting, technique, and musical execution.
As a side bar, Eric is a big metal, punk, and weirdo fan. In addition to attending Berkelee School of Music and playing in a Frank Zappa ripoff band, he’s had a bunch of firmly underground bands on his show, including Trash Talk and Exhumed.
On the polar opposite of the entertainment spectrum is Anna Kendrick, who you’ve probably ignored because she mostly does normie/mainstream stuff like the Pitch Perfect movies. But she is SUPER talented — she’s a singer, dancer, actor and improviser — who has been approaching comedy from the outside-in, using her abilities in those disciplines to her advantage.
Anna stole the show in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, which was surprising given how much experience Aubrey Plaza has on her in the comedy film and TV department. Much of this, to me, was due to her pure performance chops: she knows how to commit to a character, no matter how absurd.
It’s also nice to see such a huge female movie star who is self-aware about how ridiculous it is to be a huge movie star in today’s culture. Anna embraces her personality and interests, which is punk as fuck.
I once found myself in a hilarious meeting of elite lawyers, investigators, and journalists, and when the subject of how many truly great interviewers/journalists are out there today in television, there was only one name agreed upon by the entire room. That name didn’t belong to a New York Times or Atlantic columnist: it belonged to a then-fake talk show host.
Colbert is a true punk because of the subtleties in his subversiveness. He’s so smart about so much cool stuff — history, politics, pop culture — and is so morally firm, that he’s able to sneak that subversion into his interviews with notoriously corrupt politicians. A lesser interviewer goes for the throat, which immediately turns off the interviewee and effectively ends any chance of going deeper on sensitive subjects.
Colbert’s been taken to task by some journalists for going easy on his new string of movie star and political guests, but I think this couldn’t be further from the truth. The easy solution would be to attack those people. It’s much harder to toe the line, creating an eerie space somewhere between low-brow entertainment and total vulnerability, as Colbert did with Donald Rumsfeld earlier this year.
This is different than Eric Andre’s strategy, which is to just go full bore without worrying about the consequences; he’s more of a Dillinger Escape Plan to Colbert’s calculated Meshuggah.
Colbert’s been truly coming into his own with his new show, exploring these subtleties without the cage of his iconic conservative character. He’s actually become more brutal in a lot of ways. Going up onstage during the Republican National Convention, banging a gavel, and declaring that the Hunger Games has begun, is one of the most purely punk things I’ve ever seen.
Seth Meyers, by contrast, is like Public Enemy or Rage Against the Machine. With Jon Stewart gone, Seth has fully taken up the mantle of holding bad guys accountable.
I’d imagine that you, reading this, probably put more faith in John Oliver these days; the late night format isn’t always Internet ’00s baby-friendly. But I encourage you to check out some of Seth’s extended segments like “A Closer Look,” which are like a more nuanced/less absurdist version of Oliver’s long stories. Also, Seth is the only major entertainment news figure who consistently takes on corruption in the financial sector, a notoriously complicated issue to communicate to the non-banking public.
Take for example, his recent piece on Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street. It would be so easy to lean back and ridicule Donald Trump like the rest of the late night squad do – but Seth and his team are constantly addressing corruption, especially when it concerns politicians whom we treasure.
These segments are really more news-first, comedy-second, which is why I love Seth. He’s taking a format developed by Weekend Update and The Daily Show and pushing the boundaries of what constitutes “news” in an era where none of us watch it.
Also, Seth’s production team is full of huge metal and prog fans! In the past month alone, they’ve had guest drummers like Brann Dailor from Mastodon, Matt Garstka from Animals as Leaders, and Danny Carey from Tool sitting in with their house band. And all this week, they have Corey Glover and Vernon Reid from Living Colour!
I love Natasha Leggero because she truly doesn’t give a fuck; she’s just completely comfortable in her style, demeanor, articulation, and point of view. As brutal as Comedy Central’s roasts often get, she truly pushed the envelope when she told Justin Bieber that he learned his dance moves from dodging coat hangars while he was in the womb. That is a joke that works on a nuanced understanding of who Justin is and where he came from, and then ripping that completely to shreds.
Natasha is metal as hell because she revels in her pretentiousness: how she dresses, talks, and what she concerns herself with. Her comedy is super style-driven, perhaps more so than anyone else in the field today. For Natasha, every single word counts, intonation is super important, and execution works best with flair.
Natasha is more like an over-the-top power metal or viking metal band like Amon Amarth or Dragonforce, where the success of the music is inseparable from the vibe/image. But it’s honest, which is why she’s had so much success in the past few years.
People can see through phony-phonies just as easily as they can see through phony-phony parodists. In our current culture, performers like Natasha — who revel in their “phoniness” — are rare.
Nikki is a new discovery for me but I’m already a huge fan! IMO she’s been beating Amy Schumer and Chelsea Handler at their own game when it comes to exploring the nooks and crannies of how sex/women’s issues are talked and joked about.
This is because — and this is a rarity in comedy — she doesn’t take a pedantic, scolding attitude about her material. As a recovering addict, she’s found a super-posi new take on life and relationships, and it really shows in the nuances of her show Not Safe. She just seems genuinely interested in how funny, strange, and exciting love and sex is!
But, as demonstrated by the above clip, she can also push the envelope and challenge norms, which is one of the jobs of comedy. It’s really hard in today’s media landscape to try and be “serious” when it’s so easy to be memed, be labelled an SJW, etc., but I think Nikki has been doing so with poise.
Nikki is the fun version of all of the above, even when she’s dealing with sad/messed up topics – she’s the equivalent of an easycore band like Chunk No Captain Chunk, The Story So Far, or Four Year Strong.
So yeah – those are some of my favorites. And that’s not even covering the bases of cartoons – particularly legacy ones like South Park, the Simpsons, etc, that are more relevant than ever in our insane political climate.
What do you think? Anyone I missed? Am I totally off-base here?
Sound off! And be sure to check out the new comedy series on Gear Gods that I co-created with Dave Davidson from Revocation. We just launched a new episode featuring Monte Pittman, guitarist for Madonna!