John Wenzel is an entertainment writer for The Denver Post. He’s also a huge comedy nerd. Lucky for us he combined his professional skill with his personal passion and came up with Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny. Wenzel talks about why indie comedy works, why some comedians aren’t fond of the term and tells us about some people you may find funny.
Chris Bowman: Indie music once referred to the way a label would operate, independent of major label affiliation and/or mainstream attention, now it seems to describe a sound. Is indie comedy similar that way, has the definition changed over time?
John Wenzel: At this point I don’t think so. I don’t think the term is wide spread or used often enough to denote that D.I.Y ethic of doing comedy outside the traditional club circuit or the mainstream stand up circuit. But, I think it has the potential to go that way. Like you said, and like I say in the intro to the book, indie music used to refer more to the means of doing it and its relationship with the commercial world but in the past ten or fifteen years it has come to mean more of an aesthetic or a tonal quality. And maybe for good or bad, maybe the book might have something to do with this, maybe indie comedy will come to mean more of a style than a way of going about things. I think it’s not well known enough as a term or used often enough to be used as a descriptor of a style. There are so many different styles that I talk about that to me fall into the indie comedy label, so to speak. I think it is short hand though, for people to know what it means.
Armando Iannucci is one of the UK's most prominent comedy writers, producers and performers, having helped create shows like The Day Today and I'm Alan Partridge among many others. His new film, which he both wrote and directed, is In the Loop. It follows a group of mid-level government policy personnel and their PR flacks as they steer the US and UK towards a war very much like the war in Iraq. The film opens in staged release in the US on July 24th.
If you don't know about Dick Gregory, you don't know your standup history. Gregory was essentially the man who integrated standup comedy. He was eclipsed in the mid-to-late 60s by the personal comedy of Cosby and Pryor, but in the early 60s, he was the only black standup comic doing political and racial humor for mixed audiences. In 1964, he wrote his autobiography (it was a bestseller), and it was called "Nigger." In 1964? That's guts. My mom used to have a copy of his very funny book "From the Back of the Bus" around the house, and I read it two or three times as a kid. Like Gregory himself, it was hilarious.
Gregory's career path, in some ways, mirrored that of Mort Sahl, another cultural commentator whose career peaked in the early 60s. As the civil rights movement became the black power movement, Gregory got more and more serious, and he lost much of his audience and became primarily an activist, rather than an activist comic.
I saw Gregory speak when I was in high school, and I was struck by two things. The first was that he was kind of nutty. His conspiracy theories were the conspiracy theories to top all conspiracy theories. Now, my dad helped found a super lefty organization in the 60s, and had his phones tapped and was on watch lists and all that stuff, so I can see where that comes from. COINTELPRO is no joke. But Gregory was talking about the CIA dissapearing 1000 people during the Rodney King riots and stuff. Stuff that, frankly, I'd put in the "wingnut" category.
The other thing that struck me, though, was that he was hilarious. You go to see a 65-year-old man give a lecture at a state college and you don't necessarily expect it to be funny. Even a former comedian, at 65, is usually pretty corny. Especially if what they're into now is juice fasts. But Gregory was quick-witted and genuinely hilarious.
He doesn't do standup much, but he's on this black comedy anthology series on Starz tonight, so we'll see what it's like.