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‘Standup for Drummers’: Fred Armisen’s hour-long inside joke

| Thursday, March 1, 2018

Diane Park | The Observer

Mark Twain, hailed by many as the godfather of contemporary comedic style, spoke of the good comic’s tragic underpinnings: “The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” Most people know this idea by the worn trope — comedy equals tragedy plus time.

For the most part, this theory holds up. Today’s most engaging comedy — Dan Harmon’s “Rick and Morty,” Nathan Fielder’s “Nathan for You,” Jena Friedman on ”Soft Focus,” “The Eric Andre Show,” Samantha Bee on ”Full Frontal,” Nick Kroll’s “Big Mouth” and Dave Chapelle’s incisive standup — derives its power from some elemental, seemingly unfixable, tragedy of the human condition. We laugh at it because it’s cathartic.

But these humorists engage us as performer, and occasionally performers, dedicated to a theory of comedy. They joke with us as professionals, not as friends.

Fred Armisen’s recent comedy special, “Standup for Drummers,” sidesteps the tragic avenues of the above comics. The special, during which Armisen performs with and for an audience comprised entirely of drummers, plays into the lexicon of shared experience and inside jokes. His material — which frequently references idiosyncrasies of a drummer’s musicianship, creative processes and technical knowledge — makes no effort to be universal. Instead, the context displays Armisen at his most personal, laughing among friends about his first love, drumming.

Armisen, with the help of Green Day’s drummer, Tre Cool, addresses the nature of the comedy with a particularly meta sequence. As Cool sits on the drums and Armisen stands at the mic, guitar in hand, Armisen explains: “If you’re in a band with someone else, there’s always an inside joke. It’s annoying to everyone else, but, to us, we love it.” Turning to Cool, Armisen applies a thick accent, “The orange is over,” and giggles. Cool bursting into laughter, pleads for Armisen to stop.

To those who’ve experienced the band dynamic, the brief dialogue sequence calls to mind uproarious memories of shared nonsense, mid-practice. To those who haven’t (and those Netflix viewers who may not know the first thing about drumming or bands), the sequence breaks the fourth wall. It’s Armisen’s way of acknowledging the absurdity of releasing a comedy special worldwide but tailoring its jokes and to a finite group.

The special’s Rotten Tomatoes user rating (33 percent) suggests that many filter Armisen’s insider humor into the “annoying” category. Understandably, these people probably turned on the special because they wanted to laugh only to find a musician talking and chuckling about obscure topics with likeminded folk. “What level of narcissism,” they must be wondering, “might it take for someone to produce this special and send it out to a world?”

But, such people would miss Armisen’s point. “Standup for Drummers” may not want to make everybody laugh, but it does position itself in such a way that everybody can relate. Armisen’s loose, conversational delivery (seemingly every transition begins with something alongs the lines of “oh, here’s my impression of …”), awkward giggles, collaborative elements (musicians Thao Nguyen, Tre Cool, Stella Mosgawa, Sheila E. and passing shots of J Mascis, among others) perpetrate comedy, not by tragic recollections, but through shared experience.

At a time when so much good comedy leans on the wall it creates between the performer and the audience, Armisen’s “Standup for Drummers” invites the audience to become a part of the performance. He and his fellow drummers engage as equals.

That’s not to say Armisen’s material totally shuns tragic material. A drummer, by nature, plays the tragic role in the band. He or she sits out of the spotlight, performing a difficult and essential duty (it’s often said that the drummer is the only one in a rock band who cannot screw up without everyone noticing) without pomp or flash. The drum kit becomes the hermetic drummer’s cave.

“Standup for Drummers” leads these tragic figures out of the cave and into their well deserved spotlight.

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