The Indie Rock Roots of Alternative Comedy

The term alternative comedy is perhaps as over used and misunderstood as alternative music. Alternative comedy has been loosely defined as comedy where the audience has no pre-set expectations about the crowd, and vice versa. McSweeney’s offers a helpful FAQ for understanding alternative comedy. The current, working definition of alternative comedy was perfectly captured in the 2005 documentary The Comedians of Comedy, where Patton OswaltZach GalifianakisBrian Posehn and Maria Bamford took their unique brand of comedy and toured across the US, performing not at traditional comedy clubs, instead performing at smaller venues typically associated with indie rock.

By tapping into these smaller venues, these alternative comedians were able to gain followers that would typically support indie rock bands, a younger, more enthusiastic, and loyal (read: rabid) fanbase. As comedians took to these smaller, indie rock venues they became increasingly like indie rock musicians. But there in lies the rub of being an alternative or indie anything, with increased attention and fame, it is harder to maintain those indie credentials. Take for example the backlash from the past two years of the Polaris Music Prize where there was considerable shock and mild outrage that such big/mainstream acts, Arcade Fire in 2011 and Feist in 2012, won the award normally reserved for smaller more indie bands. So a question for some is whether alternative comedy and comedians can stay in style and keep alternative, or punk, without sacrificing the things that got them there, or moving into offending without purpose territory (great insights by Robin Ince on ‘its just a joke’ mentality, and comedy and offensiveness).

One comedian who has always had that alternative/indie/punk attitude is Tig Notaro. Notaro has had an incredibly difficult year to say the least, but has been dealing with the news of her recent cancer diagnosis in a very open, graceful, and humorous way. The performance where Notaro broke the news of her diagnosis is now available through Louis C.K.’s website. Tackling uncomfortable issues in an honest and humorous way will always be a mark of great comedy, and will never go out of style.

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