Inside the Art of the Anti-Stand-Up Comic
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if stand-up comedy sucks, then it’s time for stand-up comedy that doesn’t care whether it sucks or not.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Sitting behind a radio console, long-haired and bearded and smoking weed while asking if anyone minds if he smokes weed, Cory Sklar looks very much like a gnome. Better yet, a troll.
People are calling in to the show, sounding like they’re smoking weed too. The 38-year-old son of a San Fernando Valley, California, Mexican mom and a Russian Jewish father hangs up on some, chats with others, plays some music, announces stuff. It’s typical radio rigmarole that before too long starts to go off the rails in a wonderfully perverse kind of way.
“Archbishop Desmond Tutu was an expert on volcanoes. … I don’t know how they tricked Jesus up on that cross … oh, you told him it was a diving board? … Would you like to hear my bass tribute to the musical career of Traci Lords?”
Sklar, without a shadow of a doubt, sucks so bad that he shames the word sucks. In fact, I’m going to do a TED talk on how he’s redefined modern conceptions of suck.
Aesop Dekker, drummer, friend and sometimes troupe member
Not ready for prime time? Not even close, but Sklar’s fevered intellect manages to amuse you as much as it’s clearly amusing him, no matter how hard you might be trying to resist.
“Man, stand-up has always been rough as fuck for me to sit through. Even the greats,” says Sklar from his San Francisco apartment, which, given real estate prices these days, means maybe more than it should. “I can only deal with about 20 minutes of it. And yes, growing up in the post–[Richard] Pryor world did render everyone boring.”
Sklar’s father was a musician — and not just a kibbitzer, but one who sang in 1960s bands of note like the Leaves (whose “Hey Joe” predated Jimi Hendrix’s) and the Spencer Davis Group (of “I’m a Man” fame). Add in a neighborhood of C-grade rock legends, one of the guys from Iron Butterfly sleeping on his couch, the bass player on “Ride Captain Ride” coming to cookouts, and it was “a lot of weed smoke and White guys playing blues.”
His parents’ divorce, a move to conservative Simi Valley and an older sister who took off to hang out with the Cure and to play in bands with some of the folks from Christian Death meant the younger Sklar was left to his own devices. “My parents just left me in front of a TV for hours at a time, so all I did was watch sitcoms,” Sklar says. “I can sing any ’80s sitcom theme song. Try me. Even the obscure ones, like It’s Your Move. It’s an instrumental, but I can hum it.” It congealed into a short-attention-span worldview that both perfectly matched the Reagan-era zeitgeist and created a burning desire to get the hell out of Simi Valley.
He moved to Los Angeles, and in the late ’90s, while he was performing as a solo musical act that was really performative and shticky, Sklar noticed something that others had noticed first. The shit he said on stage between songs was better than the songs and it got big laughs. He dropped the music and tried to go pro with the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe but washed out there too.
One near-suicidal break-up and a few dark nights of the soul later on the couch in his mom’s apartment, Sklar headed up to San Francisco at age 26, ripe for reinvention. It came courtesy of like-minded weirdos who started fashioning a live show around music, costumes, comedy bits and storylines. The Eureka moment came from Aloysius Cummings, an old-school San Francisco Mission dude with the weirdest sense of humor he had ever encountered.
“We kind of became a bizarre writing troupe and started doing these live shows,” Sklar says before name checking some of his more significant influences — Emo Philips, Chris Elliott, Garry Shandling, Margaret Cho, the Kids in the Hall and David Spade, “one of the funniest people I’ve ever heard speak human language.”
Sklar’s shows, while tying into his slighted weirded-out perspective, also drew detractors whose biggest beef seemed to be the size of the Emo-Elliott-Cho-Shandling shoes he’d been ambitious enough to try to fill. “Sklar, without a shadow of a doubt, sucks so bad that he shames the word sucks,” says Aesop Dekker, drummer, friend and sometimes troupe member. “In fact, I’m going to do a TED talk on how he’s redefined modern conceptions of suck.” And while you’d expect a mitigating laugh from a guy on his way to do a show with Sklar, you get none. These “jokes” refuse laugh tracks, an aesthetic that’s garnered a critical climb to significance.
“This kind of self-aware but not self-conscious comedy is the kind usually dismissed as an acquired taste,” says critic and reviewer Judge Roy Bean, “but comes closest to actually being art than the balloon-on-the-head type.”
So while Sklar is pulling off weekly Illogical Contraption podcasts, doing live shows in both comedy clubs and music venues, the Holy Grail of any comedic endeavor has come his way: Hollywood, a production deal and the possibility of taking his world of weird — “I started a start-up for making start-up T-shirts for dudes at start-ups” — worldwide.
“Since Eric Andre kind of rendered all future talk-show-based comedy useless — sorry, [Jimmy] Fallon — I’m going the sitcom route,” Sklar says. With a treatment and a script in the belly of a production hell with a superstitiously unnamed production house, Sklar hopes his show — which he describes as a less-British, more psychedelic version of ’80s absurdist comedy The Young Ones — succeeds not only on his terms but its own terms. “It’s got lots of visual things,” he says. “Lots of dunking on Jimmy Buffett fans. Also, I get to play some thumping-ass slap bass.”
How could it fail? “I was lucky to have that musical background and grow up punk,” laughs Sklar by way of an answer, “because it taught me not to give a fuck very early.”
Read more: It’s time to fall in love with this British comedy before the American version ruins it.