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Comics Stripped

There were plenty of yuks to be had at last Sunday’s 12th annual American Comedy Awards (which airs in March on Fox), but not everyone is laughing.

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Some comedy insiders admit that the yearly event leaves them yawning.

“These awards aren’t representative of what’s exciting in comedy,” says Beth Lapides, who runs the Un-Cabaret in Los Angeles, a weekly alternative showcase that features such performers as Janeane Garofalo, and Bob Odenkirk and David Cross (of HBO’s “Mr. Show”). “The awards are misnamed. It’s really the American Who’s-Popular-at-Mainstream-Comedy-Clubs Awards.”

The award show’s producers select the nominees for the Best Male and Female Stand-Up categories by polling comedy club owners and managers across the country. Then the winners are chosen from the 10 finalists by a public vote on Comedy Central’s website (www.comcentral.com). Critics say this process means that comics who don’t play clubs all across the country, or comics whose esoteric sense of humor lacks universal appeal, can’t win.

The debate grows out of the differences between old-style, mainstream stand-up and the new breed of “alternative” comedians. Headlining club comics like American Comedy Award nominees Jeff Dunham, Dom Irrera and Kathy Buckley are expected to have well-honed routines that they’ve performed for years. At alternative clubs like the five-year-old Un-Cabaret, however, performers are prohibited from doing any pre-planned routines. “We’ve built our show around the idea that you wouldn’t ever possibly want to repeat the same thing over and over again, which is anathema to being human,” says Lapides. “But that’s what these mainstream American Comedy Awards are for. For mindless repetition.”

Understandably, the folks behind the Awards don’t see it that way. “Most of the people who do alternative,” says Budd Friedman, owner of the Improv comedy clubs and executive consultant to the Comedy Awards, “do it because they don’t have to get laughs, or can not get laughs.” Although Friedman schedules one night a month at his L.A. club as “alternative night,” he doesn’t foresee it leading to a comedy revolution. “I’m sure there’s room for variations on the old stand-up style,” he says, “but I don’t think current alternative comedy is the answer.”

Though they may not snag American Comedy Awards, alternative comics take solace in the fact that being snubbed by the mainstream is an age-old badge of honor. “Think of the birth of stand-up comedy in America,” says Lapides. “You had Borscht Belt and you had Lenny Bruce. They were both happening at the same time, and no one was giving Lenny Bruce awards.”