Acts With Special Skills
Often unpopular with other comedians, acts that augment their comedy with a special skill or talent are immensely popular with audiences. Traditional stand-up comics look at these kinds of acts as being “easy” and are cheating somehow to gain an unfair advantage with their comedy. They couldn't be more wrong.
A joke is a joke. If an act is funny and original, that's all that matters. The fact that someone takes a different path to the joke shouldn't make any difference. The creative process for these kinds of acts is the same as a traditional monologist; there's nothing “easy” about it. In fact, it can be more difficult than traditional stand-up, and its audience appeal can't be denied.
These are acts that combine comedy with magic. Acts like Harry Anderson, Penn & Teller, the Amazing Johnathan, and Mac King are well-known to audiences and draw huge crowds at their live shows. They have achieved this success by redefining the audience's perception of what a magician is, just as a good comic redefines comedy.
There must be something magical about magic. Johnny Carson, Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Arsenio Hall, Dick Cavett, and Jimmy Stewart were all magicians — and good ones! In Arrested Development, Will Arnett's character Gob took his illusions seriously, but they provided some of the show's funniest moments.
These acts mix music with comedy by including original songs and song parodies. Jack Benny, Henny Youngman, Tom Lehrer, Victor Borge, the Smothers Brothers, Steve Martin, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Zach Galifianakis, Sarah Silverman, Flight of the Conchords, and Jimmy Fallon have all mixed these two art forms with hilarious results.
Comedians who make a career out of mimicking famous people are in short supply these days. The act is very popular on television sketch shows, and the occasional comic might perform one or two impressions. Rich Little, Fred Travalena, Jim Morris, Elon Gold, Darrell Hammond, and Frank Caliendo are masters of this difficult art, but a comedy act that consists solely of impressions in stand-up is a rarity these days.
A lot of impressionists make the mistake of relying on traditional subjects to impersonate. Does a young audience really care about John Wayne or Richard Nixon? Not enough to feature in your act. Also, many talented impressionists are good at their technique; they perfectly capture the voice and characteristics of their subject, but they lack the comedy skill to put that subject in an interesting situation.
What was considered a dead art form has found new life. In the past, Edgar Bergen, with his sidekick Charlie McCarthy, was one of the most popular entertainers in the country. Ventriloquists such as Senor Wences, Shari Lewis, and Paul Winchell appeared frequently on variety shows like the Ed Sullivan Show, but fell out of favor with audiences in the 1970s and 1980s. Today Jay Johnson, Jeff Dunham, Ronn Lucas, and Terry Fator are immensely popular with a whole new audience and are bringing this ancient art form back into the pop culture limelight.
Why do traditional comedians have a problem with acts that use a special skill?
It's because it's different from what they do, and people are usually afraid of things that are different. There are good and bad specialty acts, just like there are good and bad traditional stand-ups. Every act should be judged by its jokes, originality, and ability to connect with an audience.
These are acts that use weird inventions or sight gags with their comedy. The term “prop” is short for “stage property.” And that's all it is; it's something used on stage. While many comedians are quick to call a prop act a lesser act, they are slow to criticize their own use of a prop when the need arises. A funny object that a prop comedian uses is exactly the same as the beer bottle that a comedian takes sips from to help with his timing. A good prop comedian isn't defined by her props but by her jokes and talent.
Writing is writing. Comedy is comedy. Everyone is different and thinks differently. If everyone did the same things the same way it would be boring. Comedians should be encouraged to express themselves as they see fit. In fact, the more a comedian does to make their voice unique, the better. Being funny, talented, and original are the most important things. That's the bottom line. How an individual performer gets there is irrelevant.