The Cult of the Insider

In recent weeks, I have become quite fond of comedian Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast, which is essentially a show in which comedians talk about comedy, their hang-ups, doing stand-up, the somewhat insular community of comedians and whatever else they want to crack jokes about.

I’ve always been fascinated by stand-up comedy, and I even tried amateur stand-up myself for a short period in my late teens. My record was two successes and one terrible bomb, which was so devastating that I basically swore the enterprise off. That is, until I started listening to Maron’s podcast a few weeks ago and felt the stand-up bug biting me again.

So it’s a weird irony that soon after I started writing up some material and Googling local open mics that I listened to the episode in which Maron talks to one of my favorite comedians, Mike Birbiglia. In that episode, the two comedians talk at length about how much things have changed since the 1990s, when stand-up had kind of fallen off after a big surge in the ‘80s.

“It used to be, ‘Oh my God, you’re a comic? I couldn’t do that.’ Now, it’s like, ‘You’re a comic? I’m doing that,’ ” Maron observes. Later, he puts it all on the line: “For every comic that says he’s a comic, for everybody that wants to be a comic, there’s twice as many people sitting around wanting to call comics thieves and liars.”

Then Birbiglia chimes in with a joke (or maybe it’s a bon mot) from a friend of his: “I’m sick of hearing every fuckin’ middle in America telling me how shitty Dane Cook is. Headline a club, and then tell me Dane Cook isn’t that good.”

I certainly understand where they’re coming from. Outsiders who have never done stand-up are all over the place now looking for jokes Carlos Mencia stole or jumping all over the guy who basically stole Patton Oswalt’s entire act a couple months ago. And they don’t know the community. They don’t know how things are done within the club of comedians. Some of them are starting rumors that just aren’t true.

But those people do know all about how much of a problem joke thievery is because it’s all over YouTube. Maron and other comedians have talked about it on that very podcast, whose primary audience is likely those open mic guys and middles (comedy lingo for comedians who go on before the headliner). Oswalt posted a long rant about his joke thief guy on MySpace.

A lot of people think they’re comedy insiders now because a lot of what used to be private among comedians is now public. Comedians used to work out their joke thievery issues between themselves privately. Now they do it on YouTube. Hell, there was even an entire documentary, The Aristocrats, about the comedian “secret handshake.” Why wouldn’t somebody who’s taken in all that seemingly private insider-comedy stuff think they know a thing or two about the profession?

It’s not just limited to comedy. A lot of Americans think of themselves as entertainment insiders now, and frankly, it’s not really their fault. Every week, there are the box office figures, right there in virtually every news source, out there for us to interpret as we will. The box office result weekend before last stirred up a nice mix of fan rage/crying and I-told-you-sos on Twitter when Scott Pilgrim vs. the World came in fourth place with $10 million or so.

Certainly that looks disappointing on its face. But what does it really mean? Unless you’re an executive at Universal who works with internal box office projections, you worked on the movie or you’re an indie comics creator with a similar project you’re hoping to make into a movie, does it mean anything? How much does it matter that 50 million other people went to see a movie? How does it affect your enjoyment?

It doesn’t. But BoxOfficeMojo and Cinematical and Entertainment Tonight keep telling us this stuff matters to us, the audience, somehow.

And yet, when you go to get your car repaired somewhere your measure of success isn’t how many other people’s cars they fixed that day or what their daily take was. You don’t care. You may check a few online reviews to see if other customers like the place, sure. But ultimately, does you car work? That’s all that really matters. There’s no validation to be gained from going to the most popular car repair place in town.

But that’s just it. People who don’t work on cars don’t read industry magazines about car repair. And where you get your car fixed isn’t somehow tied to identity. But more than 2 million people subscribe to Entertainment Weekly, which, let’s be honest here, is an entertainment industry trade magazine geared toward a general audience. A small percentage of those readers work in that business.

Which brings me back to the WTF Podcast and an episode with another one of my favorite comedians, Bob Odenkirk. In his episode, he talks at length about how hard it is to get a movie made, especially for screenwriters.

“That fairy tale of how it works, which is, you go off into a corner and you write, and you write something that’s kind of personal and poetic, and kinda interesting, and people can’t believe how great it is in Hollywood and then they make it, and  it’s unbelievable,” he says. “That fairy tale is sold to you by Hollywood, which knows it’s not true.”

Who wouldn’t want to be an insider in a fairy tale world?

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