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The Elephant in the Room at the Comedy Awards

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This past weekend, the 2nd Annual Comedy Awards took place. These are the awards where comedians do what every other industry does for itself, while maintaining enough of a distance so as to still plausibly (but perhaps not believably) mock the idea of awards shows.

As I followed some of the results via Twitter, the name Louis CK kept coming up. No big surprise there. He has established himself as the man of the moment in comedy. A sort of infallible figure of fallibility for comedy fans. His show Louie won best show, in the alternative show category, helping it avoid a showdown with comedy series winner Parks and Recreation.

But as a stand-up comic I was most interested in seeing who won best stand-up special. The nominees were Louis CK, Daniel Tosh, Colin Quinn, Patton Oswalt and Norm MacDonald. First I will offer my opinion that of the nominees (for their specials, not their bodies of work) I would have CK no higher than third (I only actually saw MacDonald's, Quinn's, and CK's). I thought MacDonald's special was better than CK's and that Quinn's Broadway show was better than both.

But CK's special represented a game changer, or so I was repeatedly told. He bucked the industry by self-producing his own special. Jim Gaffigan and Aziz Ansari copied his model. Now, thanks to Louis' example, at least a dozen comedians can do this. Maybe even two dozen. And after that, I don't think it will have any effect on the careers of individual comedians. The widespread distribution and opportunities offered by television are still needed by almost all comedians to get to the next level. Did CK change the game? Or did he just demonstrate that after decades of climbing within the ranks of the business he now has the clout to reject it? And before continuing I must say, because, as I have learned, when people read my posts with their own predispositions, they read what they want out of my words, that this is still a compliment to CK. He made a brilliant decision for HIS career. My only qualm is the extrapolation that fans have made from his career to the rest of the industry. If he has changed the game then he is bigger than just a comedian and therefore worthy of cultural icon status, which may have already been bestowed upon him. But if, as I would contend, he has not changed the game, but merely his own game, then some of the praise heaped on him is overblown and is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of greatness around all that he produces, regardless of whether it is actually always great or not.

The last time I remember a comedian becoming as big (and CK is now bigger) as this was Dane Cook. Dane Cook had a methodical, social media-driven, hard work climb over 10+ years to become the biggest name in comedy. But the backlash against Cook was swift and furious. Probably because the comedy community and the public at large had no real qualms about bashing a young, fit, charismatic performer, regardless of how well he did for stand up comedy as a business. Louis seems to be bulletproof. Some of his invincibility comes from his soft underbelly, literally: His words are harsh and honest, but his delivery device is humble and not intimidating. Almost all friends of mine who are CK devotees acknowledge to me that they did not think that the Beacon Theater special was his best work and that there were more worthy specials this year. But because of the "game changing" aspect of the special, it was worthy. But as I already indicated, I don't really think it changed the game. The same way George Carlin claimed voting was just the illusion of power, at this point, only those entertainers who already have power, can wield enough power to buck the system. So if it was not the best special of the year (or at least not definitively) and not truly game changing, what is the justification?

My biggest disappointment in seeing the nominees and the eventual winner though, was the absence of the late, great Patrice O'Neal. In a twist of sad irony to this post, Louis actually dedicated the Beacon Theater special to the memory of O'Neal. O'Neal passed away late last year, but not before leaving the comedy community with Elephant In The Room, which is really just a notch below Chris Rock's Bring the Pain for me on my all-time favorite comedy specials, and Mr. P, his hilarious album, released posthumously. I remember watching Elephant In The Room and thinking "this is going to get Patrice the next-level recognition he deserves." I thought it was hands down the best special of the year. No distribution gimmicks, no hype, just great stand-up. The silver lining to his tragic death should have been an increased visibility and respect for his work. But then, late last year I noticed a poll on a popular comedy website that had eleven or so comedians up for "Favorite Comedian of the Year" and he was not even on the list. And then the Comedy Awards did not even NOMINATE Elephant in The Room.

Now people reading this who are already predisposed to embrace all that is Louis CK will probably just call me a hater. I'll admit there are a ton of comedians whose comedy I like more than Louis CK (if you want to know, Bill Burr and Chris Rock are my favorite living comedians). But I also greatly respect CK's dedication, his work ethic and and the prominence that he has brought to stand up. If you are not quite at the "fu*k you J-L you hater" level, then maybe you would like to say "Hey J-L, I respect your opinion, but why is it so wrong for Louis to have won this? He is a great comic and it is all subjective anyway, right? How is your opinion 'better' than mine?" Go watch Elephant in The Room and the Beacon Theater special and tell me there is not a difference. And it is also just the notion that CK was crowned the way Adele was at the Grammy's. I don't like a comedy world where we sort of have a coronation. Even Carlin's second to last special sucked and it was reviewed as such. But he came back and did a great one for what would be his last special. That is how comedy should work. You are only as good as your last show. Sure fans will give you a break because they are your fans, but should an entire industry be giving the same blind loyalty to a performer? That is largely what makes it difficult, especially when you reach that upper echelon. You have to produce new material regularly and it has to meet the high standards you have established for yourself (and admittedly no one has set the bar higher for themselves than CK in terms of sheer volume produced). Dane Cook tapered off after his hard-earned climb to the top and he was crucified for it. For Louis CK, however, it seems that there is no objectivity even allowed because the comedy community is so enamored with him ("Did you think his last special was an A+ or an A++? a B+? Well fu*k you you jealous hater!").

Now CK is not to blame for any of this, obviously, but I do believe the CK and Patrice issues are two sides of the same coin. There is a lot to appreciate and respect about CK and I have laughed at plenty of his material. But, if you honor everything Louis CK (or whoever the industry standard bearer is) does you dilute the power of some of his greatest work that truly does stand above others. And when this occurs, the avalanche of adoration can impede or submerge a deserved and justified opportunity for others. I think the Comedy Awards, for whatever they are worth, did Patrice O'Neal and stand-up comedy a great disservice by not awarding, let alone failing to nominate, Elephant In The Room. For me, the Louis win for his Beacon Theater special is a reason to re-think how the awards are given out, but Patrice being snubbed for even a nomination is a reason to abolish the awards entirely.