Steven Brody Stevens Memorial Festival of Coverage: Live From the Main Room (2017)
The late Brody Stevens had a very infectious personality. Comedians around him could not help but imitate, lovingly, his extremely imitable cadences and only half-ironic catchphrases: Positive energy! Yes! Enjoy it! 818 Til I Die! Push!
Stevens just had that kind of personal magnetism. I know that I have not been able to stop thinking about him since I found out he’d ended his sad, triumphant life but particularly since I binge-watched and wrote about Stevens’ 2013-14 reality show Brody Stevens: Enjoy It! for My World of Flops.
It’s a testament to Stevens’ powerful capacity for spreading joy that yelling out loud the buzzwords of an unhappy man who recently ended his own life produces pleasure rather than aching sadness. Stevens was funny like nobody else in the world was funny. He was like a human ear worm, a catchy, catchy personality.
But some people did not get him because guys like him aren’t for everyone. Heck, Stevens was so unique it seems heretical to even refer to him in the plural. There weren’t guys like him. There was just him and everybody else.
I’m a little obsessed with Stevens, so I figured that I’d further satiate my curiosity about the man and his work by watching and writing about his 2017 hour long special Live From the Main Room. I first learned about the special when I read that the negative response to it in some quarters may have contributed to the depression that led him to take his life.
I looked on Amazon and sure enough, it had roughly the same rating as You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, which is my not at all self-involved standard for something being poorly received online. Sure enough, Stevens’ first and final hour long special, 2017’s Live From the Main Room had around a three and a half star rating, in line with my book on my immersion into the worlds of Phish and Insane Clown Posse fans.
Reviewers who gave the special one star complained that it was nothing more than Stevens yelling at the many people leaving the show, trying to win audience sympathy for being a local and bragging about taping his special. There were a lot of glowing, positive reviews from fans who got what Stevens was doing, but on the whole at least some of the audience at the club and at home seemed more than a little bewildered, and not in a good way.
Comedians like to talk about how Stevens broke all of the rules for comedy, gleefully and deliberately, and succeeded all the same. That instinct is very much in evidence here, most notably in the way that Stevens playfully and sometimes not so playfully antagonizes the audience for not getting him or not laughing at a joke, or not laughing loudly enough at a joke, or for walking out on him.
Stevens makes these walk outs more awkward and potentially momentum-killing by constantly calling attention to them, angrily if jokingly rejecting the audience as they reject him, but there’s an undercurrent of genuine hurt that gives the special an exhilarating tension. Where others would try to hide something like people leaving mid-set, Live chooses instead to highlight this element of very public audience dissatisfaction.
There are a steady stream of walkouts through Stevens’ special, in no small part because he’s playing a midnight spot and not closing, so the audience isn’t there for him so much as they’re there for an evening of stand-up comedy and what Stevens does onstage and, in the case of Live from the Main Room, in the crowd, deviates so greatly from conventional stand-up that it’s easy to see why tourists might not be able to deal with Stevens’ overwhelming, complicated energy.
Hour long specials are for posterity. They’re for the historical record. They’re permanent records of the otherwise ephemeral art of telling jokes to drunk people in various sad places around the country and world. They’re an opportunity for performers to establish themselves as performers of national, or even international importance and significance, a big deal who has paid their dues, refined their art and finally proven themselves worthy of this kind of opportunity.
So there’s something wonderfully perverse about Stevens, a performer of national, even international importance and significance, a big deal who has paid his dues, refined his art and proven himself eminently worthy of this kind of opportunity, choosing to really double down on the local angle and spend a lot of his forty-nine minutes or so shouting the names of high schools and neighborhoods in the greater Los Angeles.
Stevens blissfully ignores the dictate to never go too local in your references or risk alienating anyone who doesn’t live within a three mile radius just as eagerly as he does the rules against constantly breaking the fourth wall and making a stand-up performance as much about the mechanics of stand-up, and the emotions of the comedian, and his connection to the crowd as it is about individual jokes.
The crazy thing is that Stevens was fundamentally a very good, solid joke writer with a knack for killer one-liners rooted in a vivid, larger-than-life persona people connected with in part because it was at once so theatrical and extreme and intense while at the same time being rooted in who Stevens genuinely was.
When Stevens mock-brags, in that Marv Albert-meets-Tony Clifton roar of his, “I make money. I do well. It’s a good feeling to be able to take my mother to lunch and pay half” it’s a hilarious joke, particularly in light of his complicated and intense relationship with his mother. But Stevens subtly sabotages his own material because he’d rather have an entryway to comic aggression and anger that might lead somewhere interesting than the laughter of a conventional joke successfully executed.
At times it seems like Stevens is yelling things at random, details and names and words and places seemingly important only to him. Sometimes those random details don’t feel so random. Instead, they paint a succinct portrait of Stevens’ life at once hilarious and tragic, like when he talks about paying 40 dollars on a sliding scale for talk therapy about a Hamburger Hamlet or when he yells “I drove a Pinto!”
Stevens is representing for all the Pinto drivers out there, all the oddballs, all the weirdoes, all the beautiful losers who don’t belong and find in themselves, and in each other, the love and meaning they’ve been searching for all their lives.
In a variation on a Stevens’ staple, the late comedian insists, “Give me a chuckle based on cadence alone!” The wicked beauty of a line like that is that it acknowledges that the tricky, singular genius of Stevens’ onstage could not be distilled down to something as simple and reductive as mere jokes while at the same time being a great written joke.
Stevens is hilarious and alive in Live From the Main Room, combative and utterly lovable. Sure, there are walkouts. Sure, there are stream of consciousness moments like Stevens pointing out who in the audience is wearing glasses, but that weirdness and awkwardness and uncertainty are features, not flaws, of Stevens’ radical design.
The special ends on an appropriately percussive, triumphant note, with Stevens drumming on a chair for several minutes, lost in a world of his own, child-like in his sublime simplicity.
I hope Stevens is still beating out a rhythm all his own somewhere a little kinder and that in death and creative immortality he’s finally found the peace of mind that eluded him in his lifetime.
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