A few years back I interviewed Todd Glass and he made an interesting point: it's better to listen to stand up than watch it on video. Glass said that when he pops in a DVD he likes to turn the stereo up and flip the TV off, reckoning that the visuals added little. As someone who always got bigger laughs and a better overall experience from my collection of comedy LPs than a bunch of video specials, it made a lot of sense. Not fixing your eyes on a boring set seems to open one's visual imagination.
And so we come to a new wealth of stand up, as Pandora adds comedy to it's radio-tailoring services. They've got some 10,000 clips from over 700 comics, according to the NY Times.
The comedy offerings stretch back to the days of Will Rogers and W. C. Fields, and include most of the greats, past and present: Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Bob Newhart, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Joan Rivers, and Cheech & Chong. For more specialized tastes, there are routines by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Minnie Pearl and Yakov Smirnoff.
As with music, Pandora has developed a system to predict what its listeners will like. With the help of professional comedians, the company identified more than 100 traits common in jokes, from basic themes (ethnicity, family) and styles of delivery (dry, self-deprecating) to broader categorizations of how comedians toy with logic and language (spoonerisms, juxtaposition, misdirection).
Put together, these traits make a “genomic” composite of a joke or routine, and can be strung together to follow unexpected themes. For example, a listener who begins with Chris Rock may end up listening to Bill Hicks because of his similar “male perspectives, subject explorations, sarcastic delivery and slow delivery,” as the service explains.
I began by plugging in Richard Pryor and Pandora spit back a clip by the man himself. It was an older bit, before Pryor reached his pinacle as The Best Stand Up of All-Time. He was talking about hillbillies and imitating their voices. The Smothers Brothers followed and here came the tie-in (I think): they were using strange drawls and mush-mouthed language as well. Then came a piece from Frank Stiller and his wife Anne Meara. It was old stuff with a fine political twist at the end, recorded in a studio rather than on stage. Another track from Pryor popped up, followed by some weird fucking shit from a "truck-stop comic" with material all based on truckin'. I suppose it figures that a lifestyle that spawned its own musical sub-genre would do the same comedy-wise. But unlike those great long-hauling tunes, truck stop comedy is fucking garbage.
Next I created a station around Louis CK, and again was treated to the man himself. The comics that followed had that twisted sensibility, but none that wrapped around back to the heart as well as CK. There was also some lightly racist, hacky shit on this channel. But I guess that's how it goes with Pandora—you've got to put in the time and teach the bastard your sensibilities before things really become worthwhile.
I tried a slightly more fringe, up and coming comic in Kyle Kinane, but Pandora hadn't heard of him. Looking for alternative comedy, whatever that means, the David Cross channel got off the beaten path.
Thankfully, all the material I heard was presented in it's full, uncensored glory. Indeed, the folks at Pandora are down with comedy's dirtier side.
Again, I figure if one were to take the time and teach the thing about your taste it could really be a worthwhile service. And surely there's a lot of older comedy to be discovered... just so long as there's a "hack" classification and it catches on to my thumbs-downs.
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!