…and Other Tales From the Fringe of Dayton’s Comedy Scene.
Mark Fradl Brings Clever Comedy To Wiley’s
Throughout the history of mankind, smiling, laughter and humor have become noted as an integral part of our genetic makeup, as evidenced in the rudimentary, usually obscene, hieroglyphs of the Egyptians, the crudely drawn doggerel of the Greeks and Romans and on through to the laborious treatises written by philosophers, psychologists, psychiatrists and medical doctors over the ages. Although the impetus for laughter varies wildly from individual to individual, the reaction itself is one of the most universally accepted, yet least understood in the lexicon of human responses.
Plato examined the negative aspects of humor in his exposition entitled The Republic, and concluded that the inherent “psychopathic laughter” was indicative of one’s envy and malice against his fellow man or an egocentric method to secure one’s superiority through the brutal ridiculing of others shortcomings, circumstances or lower social status. Arthur Schopenhauer later developed his “theory of the absurd,” which, simply stated, says that laughter is the reaction to the realization that a person’s expectations have been been misdirected by an incongruous element that, in the final analysis, is absolutely ridiculous. Theorists and scholars have postulated wildly divergent theories as to the origin of laughter and humor, yet have been shown to be debatable at best.
The reason I am expounding on the theories of humor in this rather long winded intro is that it reminded me of a series of correspondences I began with comedian Mark Fradl sometime back in late 2007, a dialogue that has been maintained into the present. When I first corresponded with Fradle, a Dayton native who splits his time between here and Austin, TX, he was just getting back into the comedy scene after taking a six year hiatus after becoming somewhat disillusioned with the world of comedy. Even after reemerging on stage around 2005, Fradl still remained somewhat nihilistic with regards to the direction mainstream comedy was heading in as well as the broad cross section of audiences who are less interested in clever comedy as they are in being entertained. One of the reoccurring themes of lie within the definition and decisive nature of a certain type of comedian.
“There’s the dark breed that want to connect with the audience…but only on their terms. As I write that, I’m realizing that this is really where the difference lies between the good comics and the hacks; Are you trying to put yourself where they are or are you trying to bring them over to where you are?” Fradl went on, referencing some previous discussions that we had had on the topic. “So that goes back to something we ended on yesterday; The difference between trying to bring the crowd onto your way of thinking, or pandering down to meet their way of thinking. Are you making them say, ‘Yeah, that’s what I always say too!’ or are you making them say ‘Hey, I never looked at it that way – he’s right!’”
The universal appeal of comedy is almost as illusive as it is accepted. While on the one hand, almost everyone needs the release that laughter offers, while at the same time, what one person may find as patently offensive another may find absolutely hilarious.
“Again it comes back to the unique nature of comedy. It has to have more universality than almost any other art form I can think of. Gore Vidal is a legend, yet most people have never read one of his books. Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits are never played on the radio and yet they’ve had immensely influential careers; but you really can’t be in a niche in comedy. The comic equivalent of Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen or Elvis Costello would die a miserable death in the average club. Even legends like Bill Hicks, Mitch Hedburg and Doug Stanhope were banned by more clubs than they worked, and only through years of persistence did they build their followings and move from clubs to theaters.”
At one point, Fradl was able to clarify, somewhat, was the nature of comedy for the masses with a rather apropos metaphor.
“Ranch dressing is bland, inoffensive (except to those who are offended by it’s inoffensiveness), and sells by the bucket load. No one’s ever sold a bucket of Sesame Ginger Wasabi Vinaigrette. You can’t get Roast Raspberry Chipotle dressing in a 64 ounce squeeze bottle. Likewise, comedy has to appeal to the broadest possible market. In most cities there are only one or two clubs, and those clubs survive only by attracting the largest cross section of the population – suburban couples, urban hipsters, a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, a bachelorette party, the trucker, the lawyer, the graphic artist, the cashier and the fry cook. Imagine coming up with anything that group can agree on. Best to just put out the ranch dressing – a lot of people will love it, most will like it, and even those who hate it won’t be surprised to see it. Welcome to comedy.”
As an example of the seemingly incongruous separation between brilliance and mass acceptance, Fradl related a personal experience he had.
“Bill Hicks is a legend of comedy, right up there with Lenny Bruce or young Woody Allen, but I don’t think most people know that when he was alive, his career was struggling. Even with numerous Letterman appearances and several HBO solo specials, he was having a hard time getting work because he wasn’t for everyone. I saw him live in 1992 in Cleveland and he ate it.” Fradl recollects that, “We were sitting in the second row in a room filled with 500 people just dying at his dark rantings, and I remember turning around at one point and seeing 495 faces staring at us, trying to figure out what the hell we thought was so funny.”
Comedy is the act of walking a thin tightrope in the dark, always at the mercy of the prevailing winds of public opinion and never really sure how far the fall might be, especially for a comedian who is just starting out or struggling to get ahead. Even road veterans are sometimes tripped up by the seemingly arbitrary change in social mores or the pressure of honing their material to appeal to the largest swath of the populace.
“But that argument misses an important point, one I’m only just now realizing as I think about this. Comedians are not weakened by this limitation, this need to create within a box. It is, in fact, our greatest asset, because it forces us to communicate our ideas with people who might not otherwise entertain such thoughts. This is our advantage over avant-garde performance artists, or fringe theater, or the protest singer touring the Unitarian Church basement circuit. The problem with deeply controversial art is that it never gets outside its own bubble.”
Fradl’s comedic appeal is one that is fast and intelligent while still being accessible to virtually every audience. It’s a hard course to chart, but one that Fradl has navigated through many times over. While Fradl has no problem with the the comedic form being used as simple, straightforward entertainment, it is just not the type of comedy that he is striving for. While mainstream comedy definitely has its place within the pantheon of comic legends, some of the clubs across the nation actually contribute to the dilution of the color of comedy, sometimes to the point where it becomes translucent. Clubs whose main audiences are drawn from a rather large, arbitrary swath of folks who may just be looking for some mild entertainment in between dinner and dancing at the club, people who may or may not even care about the actually artistic nature of comedy.
Over the course of years, I was easily able to discern a marked difference in the tone of Fradl’s recent emails and I wondered if current world events had changed people’s acceptance of comedy and, if so, were these changes good or bad.
“I’ll tell you one thing that has changed very much for me in the last five months is that my bit of cynicism about comedy has evaporated. In all the years of doing comedy, I’ve never seen people so appreciative and receptive to comedy.” Fradl went on to say, “Not to sound trite, but there’s this almost tangible need for relief. People have always come up after a show and told me they had a great time or they thought I was funny, but lately it’s been more about them expressing how much they needed to have this good time and how grateful they are to hear something that connects with them.”
On a parting note, Fradl imparted an insight into the misconception that plagues those of us that don’t live in one of the magical meccas of entertainment.
“A quick clarification of terms – when I’m talking about comedy here, I’m not talking about the stand up that happens at some experimental theater in Los Angeles or in a basement open mic in New York City. I’m talking about the comedy that takes place in strip mall clubs and bar one-niters (Comedy Thursday Night! Mechanical Bull Friday Night!) in the artistically unappreciated part of the country, which is to say most of it. A comic I worked with last week in Cleveland said ‘So, what do people do here in Cleveland? I grew up in NYC and live in LA, I always figured everything in between was Kansas.’ Nice of him to bestow upon us his august insights.”
You can check out some of Fradl’s clips and commentaries on his website, www.markcomedy.com or follow his schedule to see when he will next be appearing at one of the many venues in around the country.