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Alt comedy as the new mainstream

The rise of the likes of Sarah Silverman and opportunities for up-and-comers like Harris Wittels testify to a change in audience appetites.

August 30, 2009|Gina Piccalo

Four years ago, Harris Wittels was just another alternative-comedy nerd with big dreams, the kind of guy who started doing stand-up in junior high, revered the sketches on HBO's "Mr. Show" and could recite the late comic Mitch Hedberg's bits from memory. Now the 25-year-old tours with Louis C.K., hangs out with alt-comedy princess Sarah Silverman and writes for NBC's Amy Poehler comedy "Parks and Recreation."

This is what success looks like inside today's comedy pipeline. It starts in the small theaters of L.A., places like the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, Largo at the Coronet and ImprovOlympic -- today's version of the Catskills of the '40s -- where a comic like Wittels can be playing to small crowds and quickly end up reaching millions of fans on prime-time TV and the cineplex in one exhilarating ride.

Wittels' leap up the comedy food chain says as much about his talent as it does about the changing appetites of the American audience. What once was primarily the domain of self-proclaimed intellectuals and artists is becoming the new mainstream. When an oddball like "The Hangover's" Zach Galifianakis is a bankable movie star, College Humor.com is owned by Barry Diller and the Internet absurdity of Funnyor Die.com is soon to be an HBO show, something has clearly shifted in the collective idea of what's funny.

"In comedy alternative is the path to the mainstream," noted B.J. Novak, a Harvard grad whose offbeat stand-up bits landed him on TV.

Or, as Silverman said: "It used to be that alternative comedy was alternative to something. It really isn't anymore," added Silverman, whose shock comedy launched her from stand-up at Largo to a hit Comedy Central show to a $2.5-million book deal with HarperCollins last year. Years ago, someone with Wittels' dark, twisted sense of humor --with jokes about date rape and Megan's Law -- was likely to be the product of a poor, lonely childhood who spent years bombing at open mikes from Tampa to Barstow. Instead, Wittels is a doctor's son who grew up in Houston, watching MTV's sketch comedy show "The State" -- "That was my Monty Python," he said -- and whose parents booked 200-seat performance halls so Wittels and his friends could put up their sketches. Not exactly the school of hard knocks.

Indeed, this darkly ironic, scathing, scatological and subversive humor actually disguises a more pragmatic point of view: Comedy is a savvy career move. And though serious comics have always been creatures of New York and Los Angeles, more and more of them end up here for the work. Yes, success is still a longshot and demands slavish devotion, but the opportunities -- and the ethnicities of the comics themselves -- are far more diverse than they've ever been.

Study the credits of NBC's prime-time shows, for instance, and you'll find a whole crop of young comics like Wittels, an unassuming guy who looks like he just moseyed off the college quad, which is no coincidence: TV executives noticed alternative comedy selling out university campuses and generating millions of Web hits, and it got them to thinking.

"We love the fact that we can go toward some of these comedians who 10 years ago may have felt narrow, maybe harder for the entire country to get behind," said NBC's head of comedy, Jeff Ingold. "But because of the commercial success of these guys, we're finding it's OK to put them in our TV shows."

With more and more young TV viewers migrating to the Web, TV executives are trying to lure them back with the same awkward-ironic brand of humor that drew them to the Internet in the first place. But as Novak, costar, co-executive producer and writer of "The Office," points out, this isn't exactly groundbreaking strategy. Every successful mainstream comic has initially been labeled alternative, he notes. It's often just a matter of time before the mainstream catches on.

"Judd Apatow for years was synonymous with brilliant-but-canceled alternative programming, and now he is synonymous with the most mind-blowing mainstream success in comedy you could imagine. I don't think he would have been a success if he hadn't been alternative.

"Comedy is meant to be an alternative. It's an alternative to your expectation and the mainstream and the predictable. That's what the whole joke is of comedy itself."

What struck Silverman the first time she saw Wittels perform was his willingness to take something ordinary -- in this case, a fast-food order at Burger King -- and turn it into something ridiculously epic.

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