Letterbox #2: The comedian’s pre-game show

I am still on hiatus. This is an addition to my ongoing “Letterbox” posts, which rerun pieces that I wrote in comments sections and forums elsewhere, that I think would serve well here. These pieces are edited silently to correct typos and factual errors, to improve flow, and to excise inside-baseball references that might not be familiar or necessary to readers who aren’t familiar with the original piece on which I commented.

This letter was written to the A.V. Club’s late and lamented “Ask the A.V. Club” column in September 2007.

I was watching Jim Gaffigan’s Beyond The Pale last week, and found myself laughing at everything except the opening skit. He goes through this four-minute prelude whereby he pretends to “train” before the show (in Chicago), by slurping down raw eggs, berating himself in front of a mirror, and lifting weights. I guess it’s intended as a parody of the training montages in inspirational sports movies, or something, but it’s not funny at all. It dawned on me that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a televised stand-up special that didn’t begin with a skit or some sort of opening sequence, and 95 percent of them aren’t funny. How long has this been going on, and why do comedians feel the need to start things out this way? I can remember that, as far back as the early 1980s, a Richard Pryor special started with people (presumably in the audience) talking about how great he is, and a mid-1980s Robin Williams HBO special begins with him talking in a childish voice and “leading” the TV viewer into the auditorium where his show is to take place. Chris Rock starts out Bring The Pain in his dressing room, and we follow him, handheld-camera-style, as he walks from dressing room to stage. Etc., etc., etc.

(Incidentally, the only really funny version of this is Larry David’s original one-hour special Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is basically an hourlong lead-in to his stand-up special—done as a mockumentary—which he decides not to do at the last possible minute, leaving HBO executives scrambling for something to fill the time slot with.)

So why is the opening skit/intro so common now, when it seems like a comedian would want to start with the funny stuff, and not make us wade through five minutes of canned bullshit? Has it always been common? Is this some secret comedian’s joke—like “The Aristocrats”—that I’m not hip to? Any help would be appreciated.

Walter Biggins


I’m proud to say that The A.V. Club posted my letter and responded here.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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