Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Keeping it Clean: The Comedy of Sinbad

Every once in a while the concept of “clean comedy” will come up, though never among those of us who are passionate about comedy because to us it simply isn’t an issue. We love comedy and whether that means listening to Doug Stanhope tell a filthy hooker story or Brian Regan talking about Fig Newtons, the only deciding factor in our enjoyment is, “is it funny?”

However, in the mainstream this is still a subject of fascination. They tend to marvel at comedians who choose to avoid dirty language in their acts as if those comics are pulling off some kind of magic trick. Unfortunately, this tends to have the reductive effect of dismissing comics who do use foul language, while coming off as patronizing toward the comic who chooses to perform without that language.

“Awww, look at you! You told a funny and didn’t even use a swear! Here’s a nickel, go get yourself some taffy!”

Sure, in my mind everyone still speaks like they live in the 1930s, but that doesn’t change the fact that this line of thinking can be aggravating. Do some comics use bad language as a crutch? Absolutely, but they tend to be either newbies or simply bad comedians. The dirty comics who are uncompromisingly filthy are often that way because after years of trial and error, found that through bad language they were best able to express their worldview. Seriously, does anyone think that Doug Stanhope or Jim Norton telling a hooker story on stage would be better served if they cut out the language?

And the “clean comedy” label is one that Sinbad has long bristled at himself. Like any human being, he does not like being put into a group and, in his words, “To me, you just play my comedy when you just call it clean.”

Sinbad’s got a point. It must be frustrating for any kind of artist to spend years developing a craft, just to have some critic come along and reduce your life’s work down to two words. It is also incredibly lazy.

Like most comedians, Sinbad uses the stage not just to make people laugh, but to explore life. He talks about love, marriage, career, money, and faith bombastically; prowling across the stage like a heavily caffeinated tiger. He growls, yomps back and forth across the stage, and yells into the microphone to get his point across.  He is at once cartoonish and yet emphatically sincere even when talking about something as trivial as placing an order at McDonald’s.

There is an old expression about the difference between a comedian and a comic often attributed to the late, legendary comedic actor Ed Wynn, “A comic says funny things. A comedian says things funny.”

This distinction seems to have been lost throughout the last couple of decades and if we accept this saying to be true, then Sinbad definitively falls into the latter camp. I'm often amazed at how Sinbad can garner the huge laughs he gets out of this routine that is almost all setups with few punch lines. It's the swagger, the gall, and the seemingly bottomless reserves of confidence that Sinbad projects that sells his material. Sinbad is a comedian and he says things funny.

This may come across as seeming like a backhanded compliment. “Sinbad? Yeah, he’s pretty good for a guy with no jokes.” But that's not my intention. While Sinbad’s style of comedy may not be my cup of tea, I still can’t help but be in awe of his uncompromising stage presence and one hundred percent commitment to a bit. This is something that every comic should strive for in his or her act.

It was this commitment to performance and ability to say things funny that helps Sinbad crossover to film and television work. Starting with a stint on the short lived The Redd Foxx Show, Sinbad went on to the popular and influential Cosby Show spinoff, A Different World. He made his film debut opposite Scott Bakula in the early 1990s sports comedy, Necessary Roughness, which led him to star in The Houseguest, First Kid, and co-star with none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger in Jingle All the Way. Heck, he was even given his own sitcom, The Sinbad Show.

In fact, while researching this article, I was reminded of just how ubiquitous Sinbad was during the 1990s. But familiarity does in fact breed contempt and by the 2000s, the public had grown tired of Sinbad’s antics. Of course, the case can be made that after the ridiculously buoyant and prosperous 90s, the litany of horrors that mark the 2000s made Sinbad’s goofy, upbeat humor seem anachronistic and shallow.

Yet, Sinbad still survives. In 2010, he was given a new comedy special on Comedy Central called Where U Been. In the special, Sinbad addresses his fall from 1990s glory. He went from being offered television shows and co-starring in a film with the biggest star in the world to tax issues and the ignominy of finding out that the Internet thinks you're dead. Throughout the special, Sinbad displays his good humor and general optimistic enthusiasm for life, letting his recent troubles roll off his shoulders to the delight of audience members.

While Sinbad’s bread and butter is definitely working clean, that doesn’t mean he isn’t opposed to appearing in edgier fare. In season 4 of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia Sinbad made a terrific turn playing with his family friendly persona and appeared as himself on Adult Swim’s The Eric Andre Show, proving that while he is definitely steeped in the old school of standup comedy, he isn’t afraid to get weird. The risk an entertainer takes when popping up on a show as weird as this is that they can't follow what exactly is happening on the show. This used to happen all of the time on the The Eric Andre Show’s spiritual predecessor Space Ghost Coast to Coast in which the celebrity is absolutely baffled by everything about the program right down to it’s core conceit. However, in this clip we see that Sinbad gets it and gamely plays along.

Although his recent Comedy Central special is titled Where U Been, he's quick to point out that he never really went anywhere. Sinbad has continually toured as a standup comic and while he may never reach the dizzying heights of his 1990s career, he continues to be a big enough draw that he plays theaters throughout the country.

And really, in a theater is the best place to see Sinbad. He has a funk band that he plays with throughout the show and his larger than life persona fills the auditorium. Throughout this series in which I have noticed that many of these comedians command a huge draw, but not necessarily the respect of the comedy community, it seems that what audiences respond to is the showmanship of the performer. These people work hard all week and when they shell out cash for a show, they are not showing up to have their worldview turned upside down with incendiary commentary nor are they looking for playful pranksters interested in playing with the conventions of the standup art form. They want to be entertained. Love him or hate him, there is no denying that Sinbad puts on one hell of a show.

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  • GershMershTersh

    Sinbad "Son of a Preacher Man" was constantly on HBO and Comedy Central in the mid/late-90's. It was like the b-side to Dana Carvey's "Critic's Choice". I watched both countless times in middle school. Sinbad is one of those acts like Weird Al, that I loved as a kid and I'm glad that's still around – even if I'm not watching everything he does. Also, like Weird Al, he's a terrific performer. He's is a master of crowd work. His last special is worth a look because it almost entirely faux crowd work – he shows you how to make material seem spontaneous in order to draw the audiences' attention in. He makes it a party and his audience has a blast. I always just saw Sinbad as a comic and he never felt like a "clean" comic because he still brought the standard issue anger and frustration that most stand-ups on stage with him. What you're really seeing is just him and his sensibilities as a comic and/or person. He has a place in my heart the same way "edgier" guys like Patrice O'Neal, Jim Norton, and Bill Burr did at one time or another. I would love to hear him on WTF.

  • TS Idiot

    He's a nice guy from my limited experience with him. A long while ago I worked as an extra on the Warner back lot for a terrible cable tv western he starred in. They pulled me from the group of extras to play a bartender who nervously nods when he enters the saloon in a ridiculously outlandish western get up. We did a few takes, and that was that. As I passed by him he smiled broadly and said 'How you like my boots?' and laughed. It was a long day of shooting and he was great the whole time, making sure everyone was happy and entertained.

  • CJS88

    I met Sinbad in the summer of 1994 while he was filming "House Guest" in Pittsburgh. I was at a public park watching my brother play a little league game and saw Sinbad. Sinbad was standing by the basketball courts so I went up to him and asked for his autograph (hey I was 13), and he gave me his autograpgh without any hesitation. Nice guy.

  • Eddie

    "…while coming off as patronizing toward the comic who chooses to perform without that language."
    Mm… Have to disagree with this synopsis. It most certainly does indicate a reverence for skill, but the patronization factor isn't typically a part of popular opinion. Maybe some people are patronizing, but fans of clean comedy treat it as a badge of honor. Those who are impartial are… well, impartial.