With his signature beard and singular charm, one can't help but want to have a beer with Kyle Kinane, host of 30 Seconds Over Washington, an eight-episode web series that pokes fun at political ads, and whose Comedy Central special, Whiskey Icarus, premieres November 24. Having moved to Los Angeles in 2003 to further his stand-up career, the 34-year-old Chicago native now estimates the number of shows he's performed to be well into the thousands. Kinane performs almost nightly, making a living off his dream job.
"What is the role of the stand-up comedian in today's world?" I asked Kinane as he sat down in my living room. He took a deep breath before answering, "I'm split halfway between 'This is a necessary element' and 'You just fucking make fart jokes and expect to be a part of the world.'" I was somewhat relieved that he was torn over his beliefs, as it revealed that he was someone, like me, who did in fact see the inherently personal and societal benefits of the comedian, but also occasionally let the thought creep into his mind that, while this vocation is beneficial insofar as it brings people happiness, it's not necessarily vital to daily life.
After poking around this notion for a few minutes, I laid all my cards on the table. I told Kinane that my undergraduate thesis argued in support of the democratic role of the stand-up comedian. I told him that, in my eyes, the comedian is one of literally a handful of people in America who can speak the truth without fear, as he's self-employed, has no corporate, governmental, or bureaucratic ties, and, most important, people want to hear him speak. Furthermore, the comedian pushes the Emersonian precept of self-reliance: By listening to his own voice—what Ralph Waldo Emerson termed the "genius"—and telling others to listen to theirs, the comedian makes Emerson's democratic theories relevant to modernity in a way that no other vocation can.
My thesis used George Carlin and Bill Hicks as models, as each implicitly pushed self-reliance as the basis of his act, continually asserting, in so many words, "Think for yourself." Kinane's material, however, is nowhere close to Carlin or Hicks's. He tells stories in which he's the focus, though there are opportunities for social commentary within them. Kinane doesn't, for example, use the tale of his drunken escapade on a bicycle to explain the need for America to vacate the Middle East. What he does do is show us an alternate way to look at a situation, and thereby, life.
Kinane's genius doesn't tell him to follow in Carlin or Hicks's footsteps and point out the idiocies of daily American life. It instead tells him to look within himself and honestly speak what's on his mind. To this, Kinane says: "The [comedy] I like the best is when people are being truly honest up there. I want it to be the most honest thing I can do. That's when it's rewarding to me. What got me this far was being as honest as I could on stage. That's what people connected with." He continues: "I have to feel happy with what I'm putting in the world. Not just that people laugh at it. I'm arrogant enough to get up there and make people laugh, but can I at least figure something out for myself while I'm doing it?"
By virtue of being authentic on stage and not clouding his comedy with an artificial persona, Kinane is able to reap immense personal benefit. In this way, his comedy—his art—becomes somewhat therapeutic. The relationship Kinane builds with his audience becomes mutually reciprocal: He performs his duty by making people laugh and opening their minds to alternate ways of thinking, and he, along with earning a paycheck, is able to better understand himself and ultimately grow as a person.
The way Kinane operates, though, seems to contradict my argument that all comedians push self-reliance. For while Carlin and Hicks implicitly told their audiences to think for themselves, Kinane's M.O. is even more implicit—yet his endgame is the same. Kinane leads by example; he listens to his genius and performs—democratizes—according to it. The effect of this noble exercise is that he's able to personally affect others. Yes, Emerson wanted people to think for themselves, but he didn't want a nation of close-minded individuals either. It's certainly permissible to be affected by someone else's ideas and perspectives, but only as long as they don't contradict one's own sensibility. And only listening to one's genius can inform one whether or not they do.
Kinane affirms this position: "The way you look at the world is the way you look at the world. It usually takes a pretty monumental experience to change that." But he believes the comedian can in fact alter one's perspective. Mimicking an audience member, he says: "Oh, look at the way [the comedian] looks at things. I'm gonna do that. It might make me a little more open-minded by looking at things differently."
For our sake, Kinane describes the dynamic as occurring on a conscious level, but in reality, it's a typically subconscious act. Audience members don't consciously think that they're going to start thinking the way he does. "Everybody's thought these things," Kinane says, "and you can talk about it. Everybody's thought these sick, disturbing thoughts. It's thinking about it and realizing it's okay to think this way because you know you're a solid person. You're not going to kill somebody. Everybody alive has had unsavory thoughts."
The release of laughter is clearly beneficial to society, but it's the comedian's ability to tap into the universal subconscious that ultimately supplies his most powerful democratic benefit. As Kinane puts it: "It's people laughing, thinking 'I've thought that, but I could never tell my friends that.'" The comedian, however, can say whatever he wants because it's all framed with comedy. If the joke is set up correctly, the comedian can be offensive without fearing a backlash. Some comedians don't frame their jokes properly, and this is where they get into trouble. But, if done correctly, offensive thoughts can be not just a source of great comedy, but great democratic benefit, as well.
"If it sits in you, then you feel guilty," Kinane says. "Comedy's great because you say it and people laugh and it's as if it absolves you. Them laughing means it's okay because they thought it, too, and I hear them laugh, which means it's okay that I thought it." He adds: "It keeps balance in the world."
Stand-up comedy is the only art form that can affect other people's way of thinking in such a direct, intuitive manner. A painting, for example, can move one to tears, but it can't explicitly convey a universal thought or idea. Comedy, as Kinane points out, creates a sense of wholeness. It makes others feel happy because they laugh, content because their opinions can be affirmed, and affected because profound ideas delicately couched in humor must now jive with their sensibilities.
On his debut album, Death of the Party, Kinane muses: "The exciting part about life is finding out what you can't do, because you don't find out until you try to do something and you're stopped." He then tells a story about how he babysat his friend's children at a pool while everybody around him was suspicious because by no stretch of the imagination does he look like father material. Kinane takes something unique and makes it relatable, showing that, at its core, comedy comes from the simple act of observing one's life.
When Kinane sets out to create a bit, he naturally finds himself "psychologically analyzing everything that goes on" in his mind. That's his process. Yet like most comedians, he still struggles with fully understanding himself. "That's what I'm trying to do," he says. "I'm not saying I'm achieving it. That's more of the understanding thing. It's gotta be funny first and foremost, but I hope there's a complete thought that comes out as opposed to 'Oh man, he called that thing stupid.'"
Before Kinane left my apartment, I offered him a DVD of George Carlin's 1999 HBO special You Are All Diseased, one of the most spectacular hours of stand-up comedy ever written. To use Kinane's word, it's complete. If one were to poll today's elite stand-ups, it'd be a safe bet to say completeness, in so many words, is their goal as well. When the comedy is complete, the life is better, and when the life is complete, the comedy is better. When this occurs, comedy is at its highest level, and we absorb the content as well as the humor. In the same way that Carlin was never ultimately satisfied, it's that goal of ineffable completeness that pushes Kinane. As Emerson writes: "An artist spends himself, like the crayon in his hand, till he is all gone."