Revisiting Andy Daly’s 2006 ‘Comedy Death-Ray’ Stand-up | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #hacker

Daly performing in 2008.
Photo: Liezl Estipona

I will never forget when I first heard Andy Daly’s set from 2006’s Comedy Death-Ray album. I was fortunate enough to be doing regular club sets in Los Angeles, but aside from five minutes on racism that earned me a career, my act didn’t seem much different from any of the other five or so white male comics who taped Comedy Central’s Premium Blend that year in the same shiny, black, pointy-collared H&M shirt I wore. The double Death-Ray CD, also released by Comedy Central, featured performers on Scott Aukerman and B.J. Porter’s weekly show in a crumbling, 99-seat East Hollywood theater, including Mindy Kaling, Dan Mintz, and 16 more “alternative comedy” acts. The scene was a reaction to the slick, lifeless, cadence-driven bloviating that too often dominated the comedy airwaves, which I feared my act was beginning to resemble.

Daly’s set dynamited every assumption I had about what could work onstage. I had no idea that audiences savvy, attentive, and generous enough to appreciate a bit like this existed. I knew right then: It was possible to break out of the shiny-black-shirt brigade, and this theater is where I could do it.

Listen to “Andy Daly” now. The bit’s first YouTube comment is “God bless the crowd for being 100% on board right from the beginning.”

Todd Glass once said to me that Aukerman and Porter’s Death-Ray audience “treated comedy like it’s opera.” So many words have been written and so much podcast-studio coffee drained praising the value of drunk, tough, suffer-no-bullshit late-show comedy-club audiences to hone comedians’ instincts, cut the fat from their bits, and thicken their skins, but not nearly enough energy is spent praising engaged audiences that lean in to catch the comic’s every word. Comedians know that there is a performance level only the hottest crowds can unlock, a certain kind of audience support that empowers them into a sort of stand-up Super Saiyan from Dragon Ball Z. Stone-faced curmudgeons and six-beer hecklers might toughen a comic up, but they will never enable the creation of a masterpiece like “Andy Daly.”

Daly begins his set with what is ostensibly a question — “How’s everybody doing tonight!?” — but delivers it as a declarative sentence, making clear with the down inflection on “tonight” that he has no interest in actually hearing any answers; it’s purely perfunctory, insincere stand-up patter. Daly’s character sounds somehow like no specific comic and all of them at once. His broadcaster’s diction and heightened yet clearly feigned emotion bring to mind a parade of mediocre hacks from 1950 to the present. Like the best hacks, he’s fun, likable, playful, polished, energetic, engaging, and commanding. Daly isn’t just making fun of this style of stand-up — he’s nailing it.

“I gotta tell ya, I don’t know, I don’t know, you know?” Daly continues. “All this stuff that’s going on in the world today, it’s like, ‘Hello!’” It’s an absurd, banal, and inadequate way to respond to anything “going on in the world” at that time, particularly the disastrous Iraq and Afghanistan wars that hung over everything, and it earns Daly his first laugh at 0:18.

This is all it takes for the savvy Death-Ray audience to understand that this is a bit and strap in for the ride. (If you don’t find this impressive, read the rest of the YouTube comments and see how many people still don’t get it after watching the whole thing.) “Excuse me, I didn’t sign off on that!” Daly says incredulously. “I mean, come on! If that’s the way it’s gonna be, no thank you!” Each sentence is more of a trivialization of the current national moment than before, demonstrating how utterly inadequate this kind of comedy had become for addressing the era’s reality.

Skipping the part where an actual comic would give an example of what’s bothering them, Daly presses on. “It’s really nuts! You got guys over here going, ‘Hey what’s the deal?’” he says for his first applause break. The audience recognizes the “no specifics” game he’s set up and wants more. “You got guys over here going, ‘Hey, what do you think?’” Daly continues. “And I’m over here going, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! Knock it off!’”

Daly hits each “whoa” bigger than the last, selling “knock it off!” like it’s available on T-shirts, baby onesies, and beer cozies after the show. Beyond nailing the hack comic’s forced cadence and transparent insincerity, Daly also perfectly encapsulates their worldview. Taking his words at face value, Daly’s character feels that nowadays some people are questioning things, and that alarms him enough to want them to shut up. It’s hard not to hear in this rant the fearful core of many a sincere “anti-woke” bit in our own time. He serves up the additional merch-worthy catchphrases “okay, enough!” and “thank you very much, but no thank you!” to further laughter, and by the time he says “I didn’t get that memo!” at 1:25, one audience member is cackling uncontrollably for ten-second stretches like a victim of Joker gas in a Batman cartoon.

Daly piles one meaningless, rhythm-reinforcing Evening at the Improv cliché on another until, at 1:37, he makes it seem like we may finally get a specific premise out of his character. When he manages to stick to the game with “hey, I got an idea,” the audience applauds for eight seconds, resuming three more times between 2:27’s “here’s the deal” and the return of “knock it off!” at 2:43.

After managing to perform stand-up for two minutes and 50 seconds without once mentioning a single object, issue, or human being, Daly’s self-aware “what else is going on?” earns a 15-second eruption of applause. It’s the closest he ever gets to winking at the audience and rewarding them for being onto his tricks. When he starts another vague bit a second later, they applaud again, eager and excited to revisit the game now that they’re in on it. Daly’s first, truncated F-bomb at 3:35 gets another laugh, exposing superfluous swear words for the meaningless laugh-juicer they had become by the cable era. Then Daly shouts, “What is it, 1991?!” The audience howls. Finally Daly gives them an insanely specific detail that still manages to add no context whatsoever.

Two decades removed from its cultural context, “alternative comedy” is as meaningless a term as “alternative music.” But the Death-Ray scene had a valid critique of the comedy of the era, and “Andy Daly” presents the whole case. It’s a giant middle finger to everything alternative comedy found artistically unacceptable that’s funny enough in its own right to push a knowledgeable audience into involuntary spasms of laughter that go on for half a minute at a time. Hearing it in 2006 was like throwing a black light on all the stale, rote elements of my own act. Since then, whenever I get the queasy feeling that a bit of mine is sliding into shiny-black-shirt hackery, I’m reprimanded from the back of my mind by the command of a phantom Andy Daly, yelling, “Knock it off!”

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