What Movies and TV Get Wrong about Stand-Up

Comedy Features stand-up
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What Movies and TV Get Wrong about Stand-Up

No profession is completely, accurately portrayed in mainstream media. Doctors heal patients from gunshot wounds in minutes, crime scene investigators are never wearing proper protective attire, lawyers are making claims they have no right to in court, and Vin Diesel’s cars are magic. It’s fiction, afterall. These inaccuracies are partly for dramatic or comedic effect and partially due to complete ignorance and a lack of research, but it’s a standard thing we can expect from almost all media. As bad as it typically gets, though, there’s always something especially off base about fictional stand-up.

Film and TV have an aversion to portraying stand-up comedy for its true purpose, live entertainment, and instead frequently employ it as a platform for embarrassment. Either folks on stage are sweating bullets under the white hot lights struggling to get half a thought out, or unsuspecting members of the crowd are getting ripped to shreds by them. And then there’s Che Diaz.

Actual live comedy is still a rather niche interest and many people, even comedians themselves, start with a bad first impression of it. Still, the way it’s shown on-screen is baffling. We traced some of the biggest misconceptions about stand-up and reviewed the most bizarre portrayals and tropes for stand-up in film and TV.

It’s all crowd work, and all brutal

As seen in Sex and the City and The Nutty Professor

Public speaking is one of the most common fears people have, making stand-up an inherently daunting endeavor. But what’s stopping people from attending shows? There’s so much hesitancy around going to see live comedy and it’s easy to see why when they’re often depicted as tacky thunderdomes.

In season two of Sex and the City, Miranda is taken to a comedy club by her date (don’t do this) where a rude comic proceeds to snipe at her, snatch her date’s ringing phone from the table, and gleefully reveals to the crowd that the caller is his wife. On The Nutty Professor, an insult comic relentlessly rattles off 50 fat jokes about Sherman Klump despite his and his date’s visible discomfort. The front row is typically the last to fill in at a show because most people want to avoid the comedic splash zone. There’s a prevalent idea that all comics do is crowd work and do so brutally. I’m happy to report, neither happens as much as you’d think. Crowd work is a common tool but most comedians are just trying to run through their pre-written, workshopped material. After all, one of the most appealing aspects of stand-up is that it’s a one-sided conversation. Most do not want to talk to you.

And while insult comedy is definitely a thing, the aim is not to utterly humiliate people. I know some podcast stans think comedy is just hurling slurs at people, but it’s actually not. The job is to entertain. Unless you are being disruptive and trying to steal the spotlight, crowd work is usually light and playful. If you go too hard on someone, you’re more likely to lose the room than win their affection. Ruining someone’s night is not how you make fans or get booked again.

Audiences are hostile and ready to pounce

As seen in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, IT: Chapter 2, and The Comedian

If it’s not the comic, then it’s the audience whose primary objective is to be a bully. TV and film will have you believe that people go to comedy shows ready to rip comics apart at the first sight of weakness like a pack of wolves. On The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Carlton leads the audience to boo and throw cups at Will Smith during a terrible set. In IT: Chapter 2, famous comedian Ritchie Tozier blanks on a punchline for a second prompting someone in this giant theater that paid to see him immediately shout “you suck!” In The Comedian, a rowdy audience member tries to forcibly take over veteran comic Jackie Burke’s set for his web-series, resulting in a bloody nose.

Why would you go to a comedy show looking for a bad time? Every fictional comedy show is full of high school bullies trying to look cool by heckling. If you’re looking to try stand-up, you’ll be happy to know nine times out of 10, the worst a bad set will garner is silence. You’re more likely to make someone pull out their phone and check Instagram than scream at you. Sure, there are some rooms infamous for being rowdy and poorly policed, but by and large, a mediocre show is just that: uneventful. You’re more likely to get a helpful heckler (still bad) than a malicious one and no one is going to encourage them.

Everyone’s just winging it

As seen in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Spongebob Squarepants, Grounded for Life

Who needs a tight five? Screw it, just get up there and wing it. “Write on stage,” that’s what all the greats do. Do your coworkers say you’re funny? Then this should be easy for you! Look at Midge Maisel, she ran through a storm and off the street to commandeer an open mic for an impromptu set and, bam, management. Boom! Touring.

Nobody has a better case of beginner’s luck than first time comics on TV. It doesn’t matter how hard you kill at the frat house, stand-up is a skill, and like learning to surf, you’re going to fall down your first couple of tries. You need more than a playful personality to do stand-up much like you need more than speed to be a great soccer player. Don’t expect to adlib your way to an applause break. You have to come prepared with some material and be ready to bomb a lot. Is that fun to watch on TV? Not really. stand-up is a lot less glamorous than Netflix and late night make it seem, so obviously the overnight success is more appealing to writing rooms. A drunk, heat-of-the-moment rant is not going to kickstart a comedy career but might stop people from trying to fuck with you.

Lots of plants

As seen in Detroiters, Bones

A plant is a person secretly working with the comic, boosting their performance under the guise of a regular audience member. It must be these writers’ ties with theater, but shows are constantly posing comedy acts as a secret duet with a fake heckler setting them up for stock jokes or serving as a lightning rod in the front row for more faux-ad libbed zingers. If they don’t show up, the comic is screwed and has nothing to fall back on. While crowd work is often formulaic, no comic has a friend so available and so willing to watch comedy night after night to serve as a regular plant. I can’t say it’s never happened, though. There’s one too many “comedian destroys heckler” playlists on YouTube for this to be a complete fabrication.

And then, just like that… there’s Che Diaz

And Just Like That: Che Diaz

The comedy concert heard around the world. Years and years of retrospective listicals about the show’s dismissiveness towards bisexuality, queer women, and anything outside the Stanford Blatch cis white gay male archetype seem to have sent the writers of the new Sex and the City reboot scrambling to over-correct past faux pas. In And Just Like That, Carrie is part of a podcast helmed by superstar non-binary comedian Che Diaz. In episode 3, the girls go to the taping of Che’s special which they now infamously refer to as “a comedy concert.” Now, if the writers were trying to represent what a middle-aged person who’s never watched stand-up would call a special, they nailed it. That’s absolutely what your aunt would call it and your “little skits,” yet it’s clear by the tone and continued usage of the term that this is completely sincere. It’s a comedy show, it’s a special, it’s a taping, it’s never been a concert.

The girls are VIP guests, to which Charlotte notes, “When you said ‘VIP seats,’ I assume you meant actual seats.” As well you should have, Charlotte. It seems the writers are confused about what the term “stand-up comedy” means because there is never not seating at a comedy show. Again, this isn’t a concert. There’s no band playing. It would be unbearable to stand for the entire show. The only time that happens is if a lazy comic new to producing drops the ball and then some. Maybe some fun DIY outdoor gig employs a bring-your-own-chair system or has folks sit on the grass, but even bad dive bar mics provide some seating. It’s really one of the few things you need to run a decent show and a big budget production would know that.

Che’s material is as terrible as every other fictional comic’s act, considering the writers usually don’t have stand-up experience and, presumably, no comedian wants to give up gold to a fictional character. Che does some clapter material (eg. preaching to the choir to win some cheap applause) but their act solicits a much weirder response: snapping. What slam poetry, jazz night did the writers watch and confuse for stand-up? Is this just a Che thing? How does everyone in the audience (except our leading ladies) know to do this? This is an absolute first and feels like satire played straight. Everything about this scene feels like a hack club comic’s idea of what all the hip industry gigs he can’t book are like because he’s too “edgy” and “old-school.” The material is terrible and barely in joke structure, which is a given, but what’s really the most unrealistic is that Miranda would ever go to another comedy show after a previous venture made during the original series. That woman is done.

Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.

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