Ha! That’s rich

The boozy white noise of a recent Saturday night crowd at the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard confronts comedian Ari Shaffer as he starts his act. Sensing the lull, Shaffer tweaks the audience, “What’s the matter with everyone, is it the recession?”

That gets the laugh, and Shaffer moves on, but his riff on the current economic malaise isn’t the last that evening. Later, Barry Diamond boasts about a $6-million Venice “mansion” that cost him only $800 down -- and $87,000 a month -- and Bret Ernst contrasts his grandparents’ stoicism with his peers’ self-pity: “Unless you were in the Great Depression, you’re not allowed to have one.”

Despite a tsunami of deadeningly dire financial news, Ernst’s material kills, and the roars of laughter amid recession only highlight a stand-up’s gift for reaching into his or her own experience of suffering and drawing joy out of circumstances that are on the face of it, well, depressing.

Talk to comedians of every stripe these days and you find that even with smaller venues closing, the last clubs standing still fill with audiences in search of a laugh. To many, helping America find the funny in the meltdown is no joke. Take Jamie Masada, owner of the Laugh Factory -- he’s offering free admission to his 8 p.m. show on Thursdays to those who show proof of unemployment as well as petitioning Congress for a $700,000 fund, a la FDR’s Works Progress Administration, to send struggling comics out to perform for the economically depressed. Jay Leno’s also on the case, having announced he’s giving free shows in Detroit as part of his “Jay’s Comedy Stimulus Plan.”

In fact, rather than shrinking from the hardship afflicting their audiences, many comedians are tackling a pervasive sense of angst, schadenfreude and disgust head on -- and hitting a vein.


“Every time I start writing my resume, it turns into a suicide note,” quips young comic Duncan Trussell during “Comedy Is Dead 5,” a gothic night of stand-up that packed a crowd of hipsters and Silver Lake creative-types into the arch-vaulted, stained-glass-windowed Masonic lodge at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It’s a younger, more “alternative” audience than those at the tourist-stocked Sunset Boulevard clubs, but Duncan’s jokes strike a chord even with the ever-hopeful generation Obama crowd. He continues: “Obama has this look in his eyes, like a flight attendant who just found out the landing gear fell off but still has to try to keep everybody calm.”

That hits home with a group feeling the hurt of hard times just as it struggles with the responsibilities of adulthood. After the show, Jordan Kramer, 22, of Diamond Bar says business is so bad at discount mega-warehouse Costco that he had to take a demotion to janitor just to keep his job there. To him, Duncan’s post-apocalyptic humor is a sorely needed tonic: “Everybody can relate. We’re all in the Titanic, the only thing you can do is laugh.” Still, Trussell admits, “I certainly wouldn’t want to go to a show that was only filled with people talking as though they were pushing a shopping cart down La Cienega. But I think as things progress, more and more comedians are going to have to start talking about it because that’s all there is going to be to talk about.”

That’s just fine with Sheldon Anderson, a former UBS stockbroker turned stand-up comic (he left UBS in 2004, well before total market implosion). Anderson’s amusingly informative humor comes from a place of deep frustration, one particularly relevant considering his former colleagues have taken a penthouse suite atop the high-rise of evil previously occupied by terrorists and drug lords.

“I would do really well for clients and then they would turn around and totally [ignore] everything I say because some snake-oil salesmen would say, ‘You need an insurance bond.’ . . . I realized the only thing that was of any value to me was making people laugh and that’s where I could be of use,” Anderson explains.

As to how an audience can laugh at labor stats that might in other circumstances fill them with fear, Anderson says, “I think comedy is tension and release. I think people financially are living under constant tension right now, so why not give them release?”


Sharing the pain

It’s no secret to professional comedians, this release, the pithy vocalization of common anxiety, can actually make the recession a comedic gold mine. According to Bill Burr, a comic admired by his peers for an uncompromising approach, “It’s probably one of the easiest subjects ever because we’re all in the same sinking boat.”

Even invoking an audience’s own shortcomings in the erstwhile Age of Excess can pay off. A much-forwarded interview with Conan O’Brien from October has earned comedian Louis C.K. voice-of-a-generation status on the Internet for calling out “the Crappiest Generation” and its discontent with the marvels of modern life: “Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going, ‘Oh my God! Wow! You’re sitting on a chair -- in the sky.’ ”

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.”


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.”