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Shtick Shift: Stand-Up's Edge No Longer Cuts

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page N01

LOS ANGELES -- Like jazz, stand-up comedy is both an American invention and harder than it looks: A lone entertainer with nothing but a microphone stands before an audience and tries to make it laugh.

There was a time when stand-up comedians cast themselves as deviants and rebels -- Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin -- and their outsider acts were often aggressive, built around risk, designed to freak the squares.

The "Blue Collar Comedy Tour" features, from left, Larry the Cable Guy, Bill Engvall, Jeff Foxworthy and Ron White. (Rod Tanaka)

"They used to scare the crap out of you," says Dennis Miller, a stand-up and host of his own CNBC show.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the comedy club. The stand-up comedian became our special friend. A cheerleader. The comics may still be as talented (or not) as ever, but it's a different kind of laugh.

The major trend for stand-up today is to fill the niche: a demographically appropriate stand-up for every demographic.

At the comedy clubs, there's Latino Night, which the Hollywood Improv calls Mi Orgullo, or My Pride, Night. Not to be left out, the comedy clubs also routinely book "Asian Invasion" nights, and "Mo Betta Mundays" and "Chocolate Sundaes" (for African Americans), sometimes called "urban nights" at the clubs.

Dom Irrera, an Italian American comic, predicts "Russian Peasant Night" coming soon to a club near you. This niche marketing is fine, Irrera says. But safe.

"It's become a family affair. Tribal. And now all the tribes get to elect their own jester," says Will Durst, a veteran stand-up from San Francisco, who does a political act from the left. "It's like a revival tent out there."

Today's stand-up comedian understands. It is the joke of affirmation, of shared culture and experience. Comic as empath. What the New York Times critic Charles Isherwood, in a slightly different context, called "comfort comedy," the macaroni and cheese of joke-telling.

"I hadn't thought of it that way, but yeah, it's all about the niche now, isn't it?" says Lewis Black, the exasperated ranter on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."

"It makes sense," Black says, "because in America we evolved 10,000 different cuisines."

And so goes the stand-up. On many nights at a comedy club, the audience and act are coming from the same place. The audience that goes to hear Margaret Cho doesn't go to see Larry the Cable Guy.

Jamie Masada, owner of the Laugh Factory in New York and Los Angeles, says the niche marketing of comics "is not to segregate but to bring us together."

But the audience appears to be segregating. You get a black crowd for black comics, Latinos for Latinos. Etc. "They're there to support each other," Masada says. "You know, a lot of comedy comes from pain, and with these focused nights, they can relate to that. It speaks to their life experiences."

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