Oct. 29th, 2013

pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
I'm going to take a brief break from the heavy blogging to do some nice, easy criticism.

I've really enjoyed Ron White's previous specials: They Call Me Tater Salad, You Can't Fix Stupid, and Behavioral Problems. Please enjoy these clips demonstrating why I like him:


(Ron White: Deer Hunting)



His latest special is called "A Little Unprofessional". This is not a great start. His first (excluding Blue Collar Comedy Tour) special, "They Call Me Tater Salad", had a really great, evocative name that no one else could have used. His second ("You Can't Fix Stupid") could have been more generic, but it was the punchline to a joke that was utterly his, and once you had seen it you couldn't imagine another comedian using the line. Almost everyone in comedy has "Behavioral Problems", and while I'm sure he used the line in the special, I don't remember it.* But "A Little Unprofessional" is so damn generic, and didn't tie into the act in the slightest. Wait, no, I take that back.

His act didn't talk about him being unprofessional, his act was unprofessional. Detecting altered states in comedians is hard: many of them do their best work drunk or high and do so deliberately. Others do it because they're addicts, but have been doing it for so long they've worked it into their act, or at least learned to make light of it. And others stay sober but act altered because it's funny.** So I'm very slow to make guesses about a comdian's actual mental state. But I'm pretty sure White was drunk, that he started drunk, and that it was hurting the act.

One of the things I admired about White was how he made consistency look natural. Like most comedians he doesn't repeat jokes between specials, but between amateur footage, his short Comedy Central Episode, his multiple solo concerts, and the Blue Collar Comedy Central specials, you can find multiple versions of the same joke. Every version you watch looks completely natural, with a lot what look like pauses to think, and spontaneous changes and interesting voices. But if you watch multiple versions, they're fucking identical. Check out this audio-only version of the Drunk In Public bit I posted above.


I am pretty sure that's a different recording, because the mic quality is different, some of the character voices changed, and you can hear other voices on stage with him (presumably it's Blue Collar Comedy Tour). But the timing is so close I can't be sure. The deer hunting bit was on one of his specials too: I can't find a sharable copy, so please take my word for it that it was the same performance on a different night in front of a nicer camera. And you would never know unless you saw the repeated clips, because he looks so natural every time. I can't stop talking about how amazing that is.

Or, was. I can't prove the pauses were genuinely because he forgot the joke, or that he isn't doing the same every other night, but it sure didn't look like it, and it sure wasn't aiding the material. His timing was frequently awful, and I'm pretty sure he dropped several jokes halfway through. Where his act used to be mostly long stories with outstanding transitions between them, it is now a lot of short disjointed jokes.

It still surprises me how much work and feedback you need to take the idea of a joke and turn it into a polished comedy bit. This is why even Jerry Seinfeld still occasionally goes to open mics.*** If a comedian doesn't get that feedback- either because they choose to stop going to open mics, or because audiences are too pre-disposed to laugh at them- you get the comedy equivalent of the writer who's too big to edit. Either Ron White has stopped getting this feedback, or he's stopped listening to it.

I'm not the only one who feels this way. This special is a marked step down from his previous one: the venue is 1/5 the size of this previous special, and the complete absence of crowd shots
makes me think it wasn't full. Or maybe they just didn't want to strain their videographer, who was having enough trouble keeping the top of Ron White's head despite both White and the camera being perfectly still. The lighting was mediocre. And it was produced by Country Music Television, not Comedy Central or HBO or even Netflix.

And while I wanted to take a break from the heavy stuff, I can't let the misogyny or racism slide. He does a joke set in a sushi bar, and caps it off with an impression of the chef's accent. There is no joke except that the foreigner talks funny.

The case for misogyny is more involved. There is a spectrum: on one side lives specific criticism of specific non-gendered traits of specific people, which is clearly okay. On the other lives broad derogatory generalizations about entire groups, which is clearly not. There is an uncertain middle ground where someone is saying something consistent with widespread stereotypes, but about a specific person, or a subset of the group for which it is legitimately true. You can't put noticing when people conform to stereotypes off limits, but you can use those stories to reinforce stereotypes without acknowledging it, or even meaning to.

Up until now, I'd put White on the safe end of the spectrum. I wondered why he kept marrying such high maintenance women, but thought the jokes themselves were okay, and they rested in a larger relationship context. Even the woman he'd already divorced came across as a real person who he remembered loving and why. This time around, he described telling a woman talking at the theater to "shut her cock holder", and ended three or four jokes about being annoyed by his wife with "this dick ain't gonna suck itself."

So in conclusion: not impressed with "A Little Unprofessional"

*Come to think of it, I don't remember enjoying Behavioral Problems as much as the first two. At the time I'd put it down to watching it with my best friend, two weeks after he transitioned from boyfriend to best friend, and Ron White's main selling point was as a way for us to spend time with each other without crying. It didn't seem fair to expect the same laughs/minute under those circumstances. Although I will note that a week later, Christopher Titus's "Love is Evol" was hilarious as I unpacked my boxes the apartment I had moved to but not yet furnished.

**I saw Dylan Moran this summer and thought his hungover thing was an act, until he called an intermission- a thing that is never, ever done in single person comedy shows. I assumed he must be completely destroyed to need that kind of break. I double checked that for this post, found reports of intermissions in lots of cities. So maybe it was an act after all.

***It's also why comedians are so protective/defensive of other comedians when they say terrible things at open mics. It is really easy to misjudge the proper amount of irony and exaggeration you need to layer into a joke, and if the topic is sensitive it's really easy to say something horribly offensive. I've done it myself. Saying you have to get it right the first time is the same as banning all sensitive topics from comedy.

Of course, that defense only works if your response to being told you offended someone is "I am horrified that that is what came across, thank you for tell me so I can correct it."

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