A funny thing is happening on the way to Connecticut Forum.
If you were looking for three people to demonstrate the changing face of American comedy today, you might well decide upon Fred Armisen and Tig Notaro and Marc Maron — the comedians gathering for a Connecticut Forum discussion Nov. 18 at The Bushnell titled “Laughter, Anyone?”
They aren’t just anyone. Armisen, Notaro and Maron each took unorthodox routes to mainstream success, though they’ve all since crossed over into a variety of funny-making formats.
Armisen used late-night TV and small cable TV networks as outlets for his bizarre character sketches and improvisations. Notaro shifted from deadpan one-liners to longer stories drawing from downbeat personal experiences. Maron started a podcast in which he discusses comedy with other comedians.
They’re all remarkably prolific, balancing acting gigs and tours with an awful lot of writing. Maron’s “WTF” airs twice weekly, each episode lasting 90 minutes or more and beginning with a lengthy, self-reflective, effortlessly funny monologue from the host.
Armisen improvises routines with Seth Meyer regularly on “Late Night” and, between “SNL” and “Portlandia” has written and performed more than 1,000 scripted TV comedy sketches. In the last three years, Notaro has produced and starred in (and written several episodes for) her own autobiographical TV series, “One Mississippi,” been a recurring character on two other series, written and starred in a short comedy film, released a book and a stand-up special and been the subject of a documentary called “Tig.”
Not that long ago, the standard trajectory for comedians was to do stand-up shows, turn those sets into record albums or TV specials, then get gigs on sitcoms, comedy movies or variety shows. The routes today are more varied. Sketch comedy is as common as stand-up. YouTube channels, audio-only podcasts or one-liners tweeted on Twitter can be as effective as TV appearances. Comedy specials can be produced expressly for Amazon and Netflix or other pay channels now, without the material being compromised or censored for mass consumption. The three “Laughter, Anyone?” panelists have all benefited from these new comedy freedoms.
Notaro was born and raised in Mississippi, which inspired her Amazon TV series “One Mississippi,” in which she plays a character named Tig Bavaro. Notaro had been doing stand-up for several years before her bold, life-changing 2012 set at the hip L.A. concert hall Largo, where she discussed her recent breast cancer diagnosis, her hospitalization for a bacterial infection, concurrent with the death of her mother and the end of a romantic relationship. The set began with her announcing “Hello, I have cancer. How are you?” Notaro’s memoir “I’m Just a Person” was released in the summer of 2016.
New Jersey-born, New Mexico-raised Maron established himself as a stand-up comedian in Boston and New York (where he did a one-man theater show, “Jerusalem Syndrome”) before being plucked as one of the original team of radio hosts at the short-lived Air American liberal talk network. After a few other radio opportunities didn’t pan out, he moved to California but stayed behind the microphone, creating the successful “WTF” podcast. “WTF” is largely devoted to discussions of comedy, but Maron also regularly interviews musicians and actors. In one momentous episode, then-President Barack Obama visited the humble garage from which the podcast emanates. A new book of excerpts from the hundreds of interviews Maron has done, “Waiting for the Punch — Words To Live By From the WTF Podcast” was released in October. Besides several TV stand-up comedy specials, Maron starred in four seasons of his own sitcom “Maron” and currently plays the wrestling promoter Sam Sylvia on the series “GLOW.”
Before his notable 11 seasons on “Saturday Night Live” (playing everyone from “Vladimir Putin’s best friend from growing up” to Prince and President Obama), Armisen was known in the punk rock realm as a drummer for Trenchmouth who spent his time offstage making comedy videos spoofing indie-rock culture. Armisen’s co-starred with Carrie Brownstein for seven seasons of the satirical sketch show “Portlandia” and with Bill Hader in two seasons of the parodic “Documentary Now!” He’s also the band leader of “Late Night with Seth Meyer (though he’s appeared less frequently in recent seasons) and composed that show’s theme song.
Maron, Notaro and Armisen have all performed in Connecticut. They’ve even all done shows at the same venue, New Haven’s College Street Music Hall: Armisen played College Street a year ago, Maron was there in March and Notaro performed there shortly after the Music Hall opened in 2015 and will return there soon for a show on Dec. 10.
Maron has interviewed both his “Laughter, Anyone?” panelmates on his “WTF” show: Notaro in July of 2010 and Armisen in Sept. 2015. Notaro performed a radio play by Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in 2014 on the podcast “The Organist.” The comedians’ familiarity with each should make for a friendly conversation.
Still, as Steve Martin once opined, “comedy is not pretty.” The discussion could go in any direction. Notaro, for instance, was one of the first to call out Louis C.K. (an executive producer of her “One Mississippi” series) for abusive behavior. Difficult topics are regularly addressed on Maron’s “WTF” show, including a lot of political, religious and psychoanalytical content.
Jamie Daniel, director of programming at Connecticut Forum, says that forum topics are selected through “broad brainstorming” and outreach to the community.
“An evening with comedians,” she says, “was the number one vote-getter.” Because “we knew we wanted diversity,” she explains, she thought it would be good to have panelists “who’d been through the stand-up grind as well as “from the world of sketch comedy, who had gone through ‘SNL.’” She also says “I’m a fan of all three of these comedians. I’ve wanted to bring Marc Maron to the Forum for some time; he’s such a skilled interviewer. I came to Tig Notaro through hearing her on ‘This American Life,’ then saw her live — she’s so honest about her experiences. And I loved Fred Armisen on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Portlandia.’”
Colin McEnroe, the WNPR talk show host, Hartford Courant columnist and bon vivant, will moderate the discussion. It is his 10th time moderating a Connecticut Forum.
Panelists are briefed on the unique nature of these events.
“We’re pretty clear with them about the format,” Daniels says. “We don’t want them arriving thinking they’re going to do 45 minutes of stand-up. These are unscripted events. There’s a lot of space for current events. We also give them space to just be funny. Panelists are often surprised at the scope of it — a 2,800-seat auditorium, which we usually sell out, for a discussion.
“We talked to Colin about some of the directions the conversation might go in, like who draws the line in comedy? When does it go too far?”
The Connecticut Forum’s “Laughter, Anyone? — An Evening With Comedians” is Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Tickets are $15 to $100. 860-509-0909 an ctforum.org.