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The economy melts down, and stand-up comics joke

The banking crisis. Rising unemployment. Foreclosures. Comedians call it material.

March 25, 2009|John Lopez

As he preps for his Friday night show in Los Angeles at the Wiltern, C.K. says he feels no qualms about mining the pain for humor. "The more emotional and more negative a thing is in a person's life, the more reason to travel to that place and find something funny." To him, brutally honest soul-searching goes arm in arm with self-deprecating laughter:

"I'm including myself in the Crappiest Generation. I think what I'm trying to say is something positive. Life is about surviving failure, having a tough knock, and coming back stronger. . . . In a year, maybe we're not going to be the fattest people in the world anymore. Is that so bad?"

Burr agrees that you can make the dreariest, most self-damning material funny, if you tell the truth from an authentic perspective. "I do it from my point of view, from the boat I'm sitting in. I don't like to be lectured to -- if I was going to make fun of what a scam mortgages are . . . I make fun of the ignorance I had going into the mortgage, which is, I bought an apartment because I heard in a bar it was a good thing to do."

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A ring of truth

For him, the key is tackling serious material honestly while not taking himself too seriously: "You know that guy who rants in the bar and you're laughing because he kind of makes sense? That's who I am."

This seems to be the understanding comics have that lets them lead audiences into the dark parts of life and return with laughter. Iliza Shlesinger, whose 2008 victory in NBC's "Last Comic Standing" catapulted her to headlining status, knows the deal. "You should only stay away from a topic if it's not going to be funny," she says. "As a comic, your priority is to make people laugh while staying true to your views."

Of course, comics walk a fine line between inducing groans of joy and moans of despair. As Marc Maron, co-host of Air America's "Break Room Live," put it, "The weekend used to be, 'Let's party!' Now, it's just a couple of days to reflect on how [messed] up life is. Expectations are much deeper, it's like 'you better do something . . . to make sense of these things because I'm at the end of my rope.' "

But Maron relishes that kind of tightrope: "I personally like those stakes because I kind of like the laughter that could very easily be crying." Still, he prefers to temper rage with inclusion. Maron demonstrates with a joke about the now-slightly-less-wealthy: "You should welcome these fallen millionaires into your home . . . help them adjust, walk them around and say, 'These are ramen noodles, and no, that's not a doggy bed, that's a sofa bed. That's where you'll be sleeping. Why don't you get comfortable and try to write some songs?' "

As these comics demonstrate, night after night, there's something about the shared humility of laughter that can bring a needed dose of the kind of perspective easily lost in any crisis, a point driven home by Burr when he shared his plan for dealing with newly rediscovered deprivation. "I'm going to get a dog. Yeah, I'm going to get a dog. And I'm going to make sure it has a great life, so maybe its happiness will wear off on me. That's all I got, cause I sure as hell don't have a 401(k) anymore."

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