What’s So Funny? | The Sun Magazine
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What’s So Funny?

Andrew Gleason on Alternative Comedy

By Andrew Snee, Senior Editor • May 29, 2024

When Andrew Gleason began working at The Sun, I was immediately perturbed. In almost thirty years at the magazine I had never worked with another Andrew. I introduced myself, trying to keep things light while I felt him out, see if he’d ever gone by Andy or Drew. No such luck. I certainly wasn’t going to give up my position as the alpha Andrew. Perhaps sensing the tension, a colleague made a suggestion: the newcomer could be known as Funny Andrew.

That’s how I learned that Gleason did stand-up. His essay in this month’s issue, “Occupation: Fool,” explores the origins of his interest in comedy and how, as a child, he transformed himself from broke kid to funny kid at school. While editing the essay, I learned a lot about my coworker’s past, but I wanted to find out more about his present. So I sat down with him to talk about being part of a local comedy scene, how he uses social media to promote his act, and whether he thinks artificial intelligence, or AI, might ever learn to write good jokes.

By the end of our conversation I’d decided that, on the whole, there was some benefit to having a funny Andrew around.

 

Photograph of Andrew Gleason.

ANDREW GLEASON

Andrew Snee: You describe your comedy as “alternative.” Back in the early nineties, when I was fresh out of college, an alternative comic was someone who appeared on a side stage at Lollapalooza between the sword-swallower and the fire-eater. What does it mean in 2024?

Andrew Gleason: I understand it as any comedy that’s not “traditional” stand-up comedy.

Snee: So it’s not about a setup and a punch line?

Gleason: Yeah, alternative comedy is anything that challenges the form. I think the lineage comes from the Brits, but there were a lot of American alternative comics in the twentieth century. Andy Kaufman was a big one. Before him there was Albert Brooks, whose early stuff was super out there. More interesting is the legacy of queer and other spaces which saw a lot of unique acts that had material that strayed from the typical “married life” or “edgy sex and race jokes.” I think the nineties rebranded alternative comedy as nerdy, and it became very pop-culture heavy and referential. Now it’s been sucked into the mainstream a bit, especially as more comedians are getting streaming specials and releasing self-produced videos on YouTube.

Snee: Is “alternative” the same as “edgy,” or is that something else?

Gleason: Edgy is often used to describe racist, sexist, dark-blue comedy, but making a joke about some racial stereotype that’s been around for a hundred years—how is that groundbreaking or edgy at all? A lot of comics end up hypocritical: “I’m saying the unsayable, crossing the line” while they are upholding the status quo. What are they challenging?

Truly edgy comedy exists on the edge of the art form. It’s not just getting up and saying something that might be offensive; it’s getting up and doing something that challenges people’s perception of what comedy can be. Like if you get up onstage and do stand-up through the medium of live painting. My act makes people uncomfortable by design, yet it’s because they don’t know what to do with me. It’s not because I’m “saying the unsayable.” It’s because I’m awkward and use silence. A lot of the time I’m doing comedy about comedy.

Snee: A long time ago I saw a guy do performance-art comedy in a punk club in DC. He took off his shirt and smeared shaving cream all over his chest, then told stories and drew illustrations in the shaving cream. He would smear the foam again to erase the picture and start over.

Gleason: I love acts like that so much. There are so many interesting people out there doing interesting things. It just sucks to see the same old racist, sexist, homophobic material be labeled as somehow pushing the envelope. I keep telling friends that I’m slowly drifting away from stand-up, and one day my act will be pure performance art. I’m building a one-man show right now that’s influenced by Tehching Hsieh, whose work dealt with time. There will be props and so much symbolism you’ll have to see it twice.

Snee: So how long have you been doing comedy?

Gleason: I started in 2014. For the first year I was a horrible comic who said horrible things, because I was twenty-two and TV shows like South Park were my main examples of humor. I didn’t say anything that might offend anybody. It was just embarrassingly bad. I remember in my first set I had a dead-baby joke. Until maybe three years ago I would write a new set every week, because I hated telling the same jokes over and over. I think that held me back, because you have to revise your material. It’s still a struggle. It took me a while to develop self-awareness. I’m still finding my voice.

Snee: Do you mostly perform locally here in the Triangle [the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina]?

Gleason: Yeah, the last time I did a tour was 2021. I traveled for a week, as far as Baltimore. I don’t typically perform out of town unless it’s for a comedy festival. Those are always a great time.

There’s a good number of venues in the Triangle. We’ve got Goodnights and the Raleigh Improv. A lot of big-name comics come through. And the local scene is solid. There’s also the Idiot Box in Greensboro, which is forty minutes away. That’s a great club. And up until 2020 there was a comedy club on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. That’s where I got my start.

Snee: I would imagine comedy is difficult to do locally, because you can’t repeat jokes for the same audience.

Gleason: Yeah, my sets are pretty improv heavy. I like the chaos of trying to get away from the prepared material and see what’s happening in the room.

Snee: And you teach improv too?

Gleason: Yes, there’s a club in Raleigh called ComedyWorx. I coach improv teams there and help them learn the form. Improv is a different beast than stand-up. It requires teamwork and trust. I’ll say that learning to fail in improv helps tremendously with stand-up. It’s easier to handle bombing in stand-up when you’ve been onstage, pretending to be a firefly who has diarrhea, and the audience is stone silent. It teaches you to stay in the moment whether you are bombing or not.

Snee: Who wants to learn improv? Is it mostly aspiring comedians or actors or do people just do it for fun?

Gleason: A lot of people who sign up for improv are looking to meet new people or do something that gets them out of their comfort zones. Maybe they did improv in college. And the number of people who stick with it is surprising. They’re not just showing up to take a six-week class. They want to get good at this thing. There’s that endorphin high from learning a new hobby. It’s all they can think about. It’s addicting.

Snee: Have social media and YouTube been good tools for comedians to reach a wider audience without having to travel the country, or is it kind of a double-edged sword to make your act available for free on the internet?

Gleason: I recently deleted all of my social-media accounts because of my own tinfoil-hat hatred of the big-data firms, but I think ultimately it’s good for artists to have a way to reach a larger audience. There will always be some who do whatever is popular to try to hack the algorithm, of course. The current trend is videos of comics doing crowd work, just interacting with the audience.

Snee: Is a crowd-work video more likely to go viral because anything can happen?

Gleason: Absolutely. There’s a lot of gatekeeping among stand-ups who say it’s not real comedy, but that’s what they said about the punk bands: That’s not how you play guitar. Whenever different variants of the form come along, people push back against them.

I have nothing against social media as a tool, but I do think that it can have a negative effect from the competition aspect of it: constantly posting and shooting for more likes and views. It can lead to people posting stuff that just isn’t good.

For a while I was trying to see what you could do with Instagram, messing with the medium. Like I did like a series of boudoir shoots, and the caption of each photo was a poem endorsing Texas Pete hot sauce. I did hypermasculine poetry for a long time—which, if you know me, I’m not hypermasculine, so I thought it would be funny.

Snee: On the subject of technology: a lot of creative people are concerned about the advent of AI and whether it might replace artists. Do you think AI is ever going to learn to be funny?

Gleason: I think comedians can bring their anxiety about AI down a notch. Someone recently did a “new” George Carlin album using AI to duplicate his voice. The creator acknowledged up front that it was AI but ended up getting sued by the Carlin estate. The material was not anything substantial or funny.

Snee: Was the material AI generated or just the voice?

Gleason: In the lawsuit the guy admitted he had to write some of it himself. So it still required some human input.

I will say, I do think there is danger in bosses having access to AI. If it’s cheaper than human employees, I’ve no doubt they will exploit it and feed us whatever it spits out. They will do whatever is cheapest. But I do not think it will have any impact on the quality of what human beings actually produce. Artists will continue to make great art. They will incorporate AI into their toolkit, maybe, but it’s just a tool.

Snee: So you don’t think AI can learn the rules of what makes something funny and then write its own jokes?

Gleason: I think there are rules to comedy, but it’s so subjective. There’s a book called The Humor Code by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. The authors apparently have looked at all of these different factors that contribute to making something funny. My essay for The Sun was initially going to be about different theories of humor. I got caught up in that last year. And I still don’t understand any of it.

Snee: I’ll tell you my theory, which is that laughter originally served an evolutionary purpose. If you were in a group of primates, it was the sound you’d make to let the others know that something which appeared threatening—say, a rustling in the bushes—wasn’t really a threat.

Gleason: Most, if not all, theories I have come across include some version of that tension and release. Like the “benign violation theory,” where the joke is violating your idea of the world, but in a benign way. I have no idea what I believe, but I will say that I use tension in my act, and I violate social norms. And that works for the most part.

Snee: One of my dad’s favorite stand-ups was Don Rickles, an insult comic who went straight for stereotypes about this or that ethnicity, or jokes about somebody having a drinking problem or being bald or whatever. I think it worked for Rickles because he was an innately nonthreatening guy. You just somehow knew he didn’t mean it. Whereas if you really do mean to insult someone, it stops being funny.

Gleason: Today it’s hard to tell the difference between somebody who says something horrific as a joke versus something they really believe. The lines have been blurred so much. I did a libertarian character for a while. I would start off by saying, “These jokes are true. They’re facts. Don’t let the facts hurt your feelings.” I put videos of it online, and all of these right-wing profiles began picking it up and running with it. So I immediately took all the videos down. You cannot underestimate people’s ability to take satire seriously. If you want to do satire in this day and age, you’d better be careful, because the truth is obscured enough as it is.

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