Monday, June 24, 2024

The Material, by Camille Bordas: Yes, Jerry, Comedians Can Still Be Funny

The Material by Camille Bordas is a novel about a fictional MFA program in stand-up comedy. It's a very funny book, and like the best stand-up comedy, it's also astute and wise. 

I think the funniest part of this book is the whole-book-long running joke that there could be an MFA program for stand-up comics. Can you imagine? LOL! As if the whole School of MFA vs School of Life argument among fiction writers isn't contentious enough, just think what that debate would be like among comedians? Imagining that is almost as funny as anything here on the page.

So the story is about a group of MFA candidates and their teachers and their adventures over the course of one difficult Chicago winter day. There are crushes and rivalries and a visiting professor who has just behaved badly and may be cancelled. But the school decides, despite some protests within the English Department (where else would an MFA program in stand-up comedy be housed?), to not rescind this famous comedian's invitation to come teach in the program. 

But the real meat of this story is the idea of mining real-life for material. Where is the line between one's private life (if such a thing exists) and what can be used to get a laugh? A drug-addicted family member? An unrequited crush? Holocaust survivors? Molestation? A school shooting? A childhood illness? All of these are considered throughout the novel.

Furthermore, though, when is it okay to "borrow" from someone else's idea or from someone else's experience for a bit? The age-old question: Where is the line between taking-off-from or being-inspired-by and straight-up stealing?

A huge strength of this novel is how it treats these questions -- less a question of WHAT is offensive (i.e., should some topics be avoided all together?) and more a question of how should supposedly offensive topics be treated. This novel comes up with much more nuanced answers to these questions than some of the whiny comedians (cough, Jerry Seinfeld, cough cough) who have complained recently that comedians can't be funny anymore. 

Comedians can indeed still be funny. Comedians can also still bomb. A huge part of the fun of this novel is watching these comedians develop bits, riff with each other, and dissect each other's comedy. Yes, a novel about comedians better be funny, and this sure is. The last scene of the novel, during which all the characters come together for a comedy battle against improv troupe Second City at the legendary Empty Bottle is just a beautiful mess of comedy and slapstick and cringe and just about anything else that'll make you laugh heartily.

(If you're interested in some further insight, here's a great interview with the author at the Chicago Review of Books.) 

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