Sunday, April 09, 2006

SInce you asked

I was recently asked a few questions about becoming a stand-up, here are the answers.

Yeah, you bet your A$$ comedians write their own jokes. At least most of us do. It's definitely a bit grey at times, but if you are stealing other comics material your branded a theif and a hack. A hack is somebody who's doing pretty tired or hackneyed material. If you do an imitation of the Corocodile Hunter buying tampons, you are a hack. If you write the most amazing act in the world and don't change it for 20 years, it will probably BECOME hack. I've worked with a few older guys who do Yugo jokes. I always tell them at least make the Yugo a hundai or kia or something. No dice. I once worked with a comic who was doing jokes about Regan laying off the air traffic controllers. Umm, got any Ike jokes to go with that?

A big part of comedy for most stand-ups is writing your own material developing your own voice. There's nothing wrong with buying some one elses joke, but most folk starting out can't afford it. I've bought one joke. A buddy who's an open miker out West had a one liner that he couldn't make work. I thought it was hilarious, bought it and turned it into a 2 minute chunk. I had a one liner that really had no place in my act. A friend bought it and slipped it in to a 10 minute rant of his. I've also sold jokes to an actor, who was hosting a stand-up show at Aspen. He's a very famous comic actor, but not a comedian. He heard my bit about Chuck Jones passing away (which happened that week) and asked if he could use it, cool, as long as I could put it inmy writing credits.

There are still a few guys who tell street jokes, and most road comics have a few in the arsenal for when the other comic doesn't show up or the crowd's median age is 93 years old or they just hate you for some other reason. Street jokes, in comedy speak, are those jokes the bartender tells or you pass about the water cooler, "A termite walks into the bar and says 'where's the bar tender'" (OK, not a steller example, but most of my favorite would make my mom's ears explode). The guys who can get up and just do em, most comedians love to see those guys. At least the ones who are really good at it. Some still think their hacks, I think those folks are tools.

As to how you write stand-up, that's like asking how you make love! (Notice I threw in an exclamation point there?) It's different for every body and it can change over time. When I started I would type up new jokes word for word. Then I would read them over and over again. I'd convince some friends to let me do my act for them on the stoop or something, then, about 15 minutes before going on, I'd walk around the block reciting my act.

Some folks work that way, I didn't for long. I carry a note book and when I think of something funny, I jot it down. Rarely do I actually sit at a computer and type ub bits anymore. Honestly, that is laziness and I should get back to it because it takes you places you might not get to otherwise. Generally though, I think of a few lines, maybe a few tags or even just a general idea of where I want to go, then I hit the open mikes. Try the same joke in front of a bunch of different audiences and the wording will smooth out, things will drop and add in. I tend to write on stage. Lately I've been bringing my Ipod and recording shows that way.

It's important to keep a record of your jokes. I have probably lost 30 minutes of good material. People are always asking me to do jokes I'd forgotten I ever did. Currently I'm begining to mine old tapes looking for forgotten stuff. Jokes fall out of the act when you get sick of them. Funny, tell a joke long enough, and when it stops being funny to you, crowds stop laughing at it. I've had many bits that kill for a month and then become groaners.

There are also comics who do a lot of crowd work, chatting with the audience and the like. "So, what do you do for a living? Got any kids?" This may seem very off the cuff, and in a way, it is, but it's also very constructed. Often a comedian will craft audience questions that have only yes or no answers or just a few possible responses. You've got a line ready for each. It's very easy to look spontaneous once you know what your doing. Not to say there aren't moments in every show that are new, but there's an art to looking like this is all new to you.

Sick of me yet? One big piece of advice that helped me was a bit I was doing that I knew was funny but wasn't getting laughs. I was just starting out and another comic told me the audience had no idea what I was talking about. Going so fast, they couldn't rememver who Huggy Bear was. Even though the next few tags you didn't need to know, they weren't laughing cause they were still scratching their heads. Crowds are often not super brite as a unit. You've got to give them all the information they need to get the joke (within reason). For example, Huggy Bear became, "Anybody remember the 70's and a little show called Starsky & Hutch? Wasn't Huggy Bear the Snitch A$$ pimp?" Ok, it aint shakespeare, but it made all the difference.

Blah! OK, I'll wrap this up. 5 years ago I did the Seatle International Comedy Competition. THe sets are strictly enforced TV sets 6 minutes long. 6 minutes 10 seconds they start docking points. 7 minutes you are disqualified. The first night I bombed. I was reading Hemmingway at the time and what I'd heard other comics say clicked. Economy of language is essential. No words wasted. Read Hemmingway and listent o Live On Sunset Strip by Richard Pryor, it's as great a comedy album as will ever exist. Long meandering stories, all over the place, call backs and twists but no words are wasted. It is so artfully constructed. The basic anatomy of a joke is set up punch (tag tag tag optional). Break down those stories and each one fits that formula.

Well, that was way more than you wanted, if you're thinking of starting and want some practical advice let me know. If you're curious some good resources, some buddies in Seattle run a site called Doesn't look like they've updated it in a while, but lots of interviews with current stand-ups. Also check this out. It's a link to part of's store. This guy wrote a book about stand-up in the 60's and interviewed several of the top comics of the day. A few years ago he released the interviews on CD and they are fascinating. I had Woody Allen and Johnny Carson (One of my personal heroes). Pretty good stuff. Carson especially wrote his senior thesis in college on comic timing. They've also got Jerry Lewis and Seinfeld. I highly recomend checking out Seinfeld's movie Comedian. Shows the process of creating an act.

Hope that helps some.