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Social Media’s Difficult Relationship with Stand Up Comedy

Stand Up Comedy Scrutinised


In early 2012 Patton Oswalt was doing a routine at a small club in LA when he noticed that a woman in one of the forward rows was filming him with her phone. Oswalt politely asked her to stop, she politely protested, and then he asked impolitely. The debate spiraled out of control, leading the woman and her friends to awkwardly shuffle out of the club, still being berated by Oswalt even as they left. For the rest of the night and for days after the issue snowballed and Oswalt ended up looking like a bit of a jerk, so far as some fans were concerned

Incidents like this are becoming more and more common in the world of stand-up, with information being so freely available and distributable; the small, downplayed shows that comics use to hone their routines are becoming harder to keep under wraps. More recently Bill Burr, a comedian famously unconcerned with who he might offend during a performance, released a new show on Netflix with a warning about offensive material garishly emblazoned over the opening. During the gig, Burr joked about how his father never hugged him or his siblings for fear of making them gay and asked the audience to let him finish before they started blogging. 

Stand-up comedy is a medium of entertainment that is uniquely vulnerable to social media. A risky joke can play perfectly well within the context of a show aimed at a small audience, but isolate it and put it on YouTube and suddenly it’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said. More to the point, small shows provide rehearsal space for comics, a proving ground where new material can be tested and refined before it’s taken to auditoriums and amphitheatres. Oswalt argued that the way the woman was filming him as he performed was tantamount to “sitting at a table in a coffee shop or library, writing the first draft of a short story, or screenplay or, were I a musician, song lyrics, and having someone walk by, snap the sheet away from my fingers, snap a pic with their camera, and then say, ‘Hey, I’m a fan of your stuff. I want the new thing you’re working on permanently on my phone now. I’m deciding when it’s ‘done,’” 

When word does get out, it can be pretty dangerous, late last year Hannibal Burress made a joke about Bill Cosby in which he referred to him as a rapist (speaking in relation to the recent and past sexual assault allegations against the legendary comedian) and it ended up on YouTube. Burress later spoke in his own defense, arguing that he was “Saying that stuff for 600 people, not the internet.” Obviously the danger in that instance was that word would find its way round to Cosby himself. Dave Chappelle initially advised Burress to contact Cosby and clear the air. Then he watched the clip and hastily recanted his advice. 


Chappelle has his own approach to the issue; he bans phones at his shows, limiting any hearsay about his routines that might emanate to word of mouth. Chris Rock argued in a recent interview that it forces self-censorship amongst comedians. In days past, he says “ you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, “Oh, I went too far,” and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.”

Outside of the circuit, many comedians embrace social media as a means of lubricating publicity. Any time a particularly galvanising item of news drops, many people wait with bated breath for the reactive Tweets of big-time comics. Kevin Hart, Conan O’Brian and Jimmy Fallon all sit comfortably in the top 100 largest Twitter accounts with Sarah Silverman and Aziz Ansari not far behind. Creative secrecy and social media aren't the best bedfellows and issues like this aren't likely to die down any time soon, stand-up comedy is one of the most unchanged, esoteric art forms around, but in the age of information it may have to adapt to survive.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. Follow him @CallumAtSMF

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Social Media’s Difficult Relationship with Stand Up Comedy Reviewed by Unknown on Thursday, January 29, 2015 Rating: 5
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