I forget which comedian said, “I’d rather get a laugh than a clap,” but since I first heard this (in an interview? DVD commentary? Seinfeld’s coffeetalk show?)[1] I’ve thought of it as doctrine. Like Go Hard or Go Home: get laughs, not claps. It’s not just that the comedian’s job is to make us laugh (making us think, much less agree, seems auxiliary), it’s that laughs are much harder to win from an audience than claps.

Evidence? TED talks.

Lately I’ve been thinking a generational/zeitgeist shift is going on that’s rendering this doctrine outmoded, like purity as a virtue. Witness two specials I watched tonight: Fortune Feimster’s Sweet & Salty and Todd Glass’s Act Happy.

Sweet & Salty is memoir-shaped. Feimster moves us generally through the years of her childhood up to coming out as gay and getting engaged. The journey is mileposted with small but crucial victories the audience is encouraged to cheer at, more in celebration of Feimster’s becoming—the classic draw of the memoir: I’ve survived, see? Now watch how I did it—than in delight at her jokework.

Feimster’s best at slipping into a girlish pride within a bit, posing and doing a voice that blurs the lines between past self and present self. It’s itself a funny bit of clowning, and it gives her a moment to comically comment on the story she’s telling. Blah blah blah comedians’ talents are hard to convey in writing. The point is that her set takes lots of its shape and approach from Moth-style storytelling. It’s funny testimony. The jokes aid in our laughing at what mattered to her but no longer has the power to capture or define her.

And I mean it was just all claps and shouts and woos, just almost at every punchline break. Personally, it drove me crazy. It drove me up the fucking wall, but knowing it was never Feimster’s fault how her audience was choosing to react to her set, I tried not to let it get to me. When people woo’d it was more than a response, it was an offering. You could feel them giving back the love they either (a) felt they were getting from her, or even (b) felt that she needed to hear.

Every comedy-special audience is generous and forgiving, far from the standard skeptical-if-not-hostile audiences comedians cut their teeth in front of. But this one seemed more attuned to the risky anxiety of getting on a stage and Speaking Your Truth, and they obeyed the idea that such a performance deserves your respect. Their support was like snaps at a poetry slam. When they laughed, that felt auxiliary.

Todd Glass talks in Act Happy about his decision to come out as gay after his heart attack a few years ago. And from the beginning he signals this isn’t going to be the story of triumph and survival we might be expecting from younger comics: “I’m not crazy about the term ‘coming out of the closet’. It seems a little flamboyant for me, personally. You know, ‘busting out of the shed’ would work a little better. I’d feel a little cooler.”

Here’s a bunch of red flags if you’ve got certain notions of how queerness intersects with gender. Glass isn’t presenting in his standup as such a person. He’s not trying to. And indeed, as the bit continues, it fizzles out in whatever promise you might be expecting in a coming out story. Indeed, it verges on old-marrieds-style comedy. (Friends eventually saw that his disagreements with a certain friend betrayed way more emotional investment than you’d expect from straight buds, that’s it.)

It’s funny, but it never gives anybody a moment to clap. (Also, Glass’s comedy is so rapidfire it’s hard even to find time to laugh.) Glass isn’t necessarily proud of himself. He hasn’t survived anything. He’s a guy living his idiosyncratic life and talking about it in front of an audience. This is where his thrives; the best joys in a Todd Glass set are when he talks about this other hyperspecific thing that also bothers him.

(My favorite from Act Happy is people who walk backward on a treadmill.)

So: you think Glass is disinterested from being a claps comic, until the end of his uneven, shaky special, when it comes time for Jokes I Didn’t Get To. A few of these are straightup jokework jokes, but much of it involves truth rants. Preaching. Chiefly about the kind of irritating, unimaginative people who say they’re sick of “P.C.” Almost none of it is funny, it’s just right. Accurate and correct to any thinking human. And he goes out on it, and the audience is left standing and applauding and cheering, with his little side combo band playing “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.

It’s not ironic. It’s maybe employing some ironized touches, but it’s not ironic.

The star of this Not So Much Funny As Right moment is Hannah Gadsby, and I feel like everything that can be said about her comedy Hilton Als has already said. Lenny Bruce might be its originator, though what he said wasn’t exactly right as otherwise unspoken in his time by people with microphones. Still, that tells us a lot about how not-so-new this moment is—we have long wanted to pay money to hear people say things we can’t easily hear people say.

What makes standup comedy the best vehicle for this? We laugh when the truth is told to us faster than we’re ready for it. But note that the truths Feimster told (the best thing you can do is support your kids in whoever they are) or Glass told (it’s not being P.C., it’s being kind) weren’t new to anyone in their audiences. These truths weren’t thrown too quickly at the audience, they were given room and time to be aired.

Again: in both specials I watched too-rarely spoken truths get spoken. That this is a result of the post-Daily Show transformation of standup, with comedians as our new Walter Cronkites, feels too easy a gloss. Twitter is chock full of unexpected truth tellers folks’ve put their trust behind. Rarely are they funny, and rarely do they try to be. Too much is on the line to risk a laugh.

What does it mean that folks’re still looking for this in a standup context, where the truth-teller says—or perhaps once, historically said—Don’t take me seriously?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. UPDATE: It was Allison Silverman, head writer of The Colbert Report, in her interview with Mike Sacks from his book And Here’s the Kicker.