About a year ago, I started following stand-up comedy the way I do music: with a record nerd's completist intensity. This happened after falling head-over-heels in love with two albums: Doug Stanhope's relentlessly confrontational Deadbeat Hero and Joe Rogan's bizarro sojourn through psychedelic alt-thought Talking Monkeys in Space. Here were a couple of guys cutting through (with vicious honesty, intellectual savvy and gut-slaying rowdiness, mind you) the vast ocean of impenetrable bullsh*t that is the 21st-century American experience.
I can't begin to explain just how refreshing it was to encounter dudes who were actually speaking their minds, a rarity in a country drowning in corporate doublespeak, political subterfuge, mass-media propaganda and that oddly vapid networking jargon that seems to be the byproduct of social media. And if I sound like a cranky bastard, so be it -- there are a lot of us out there (if these guys' intensely loyal fan bases are any indication).
In many respects, Stanhope, Rogan and the other renegade comedians featured in this Cheat Sheet represent the latest evolution of "Gonzo," that vital lineage of iconoclastic American thinkers, writers, entertainers and flat-out ranters running from icon Mark Twain through legendary journalist H.L. Mencken through the tradition's grand patriarchs Lenny Bruce and Hunter S. Thompson and on to the late and great Bill Hicks (who is most definitely the single biggest influence on modern stand-up comedy). What all these characters share is a healthy suspicion of mainstream thought, a love for perverse satire and a vehement distaste for contradiction, whether it's coming from the right or the left.
Some of these comedians you'll recognize instantly, like Louis C.K., the absolute master of dissecting all the twisted thoughts and crippling insecurities furtively swirling about our heads every day. Then there's Sarah Silverman, who rips apart race relations with absurdist hand grenades and insightful irony. Also featured are cult comedians Tig Notaro and Rick Shapiro. Outside of Stanhope, Shapiro is probably the most brutal and surreal comic of the pack: As fellow Napster writer Mike McGuirk oh-so-succinctly puts it, "If Robin Williams had ever been a heroin-addicted male prostitute and Denis Leary were even more pissed off -- and the two of them had sired and then abandoned a baby Mel Blanc -- the product may have come close to this Tasmanian Devil of unhinged stream-of-consciousness semi-comedy."
And now, on to the modern renegades of comedy.