Hey. I’m Matt Ruby (email@example.com), a Brooklyn-based standup comedian. I also write and make funny videos (including the video comic strip Vooza). This is Sandpaper Suit, a comedy blog I started in 2006. It's a how-the-sausage-gets-made look at doing comedy and where I post videos, jokes, and podcasts. Check out MattRubyComedy.com for a bio and show calendar.
Vooza: Huffington Post calls it "the most hilarious tech startup spoof EVER." Produced, written by, and starring Matt Ruby. More episodes.
Made With Love: CNN calls it "a fictional cooking show where the couple's relationship is crumbling just like the cookies." Also featured at Huffington Post, NY Magazine, and TruTV. Starring Matt Ruby and Brooke Van Poppelen.
Amish Cop Hasidic Cop: Two NYC detectives — one's Amish and one's Hasidic — lose their partners and are forced to work together to catch a bank robber. Starring Matt Ruby and Mark Normand.
Try the socratic method. The great philosopher Socrates used to ask questions of people and then re-state their answers back to them, often with hilarious results (seriously, most of Plato is like one big long comedy routine). So do that. Ask the person anything, like what’s your name? what do you do for a living? where are you from? — and then repeat their answer back to them, in your own words. Repeating the answer in your own words not only starts to create the tension that will provide laughs, but it also helps the rest of the audience follow along. As you progress, the questions are naturally going to get more complex, because that’s how a conversation works. If you ask a person what they do for a living, they can just say “human resources manager” but your next question is naturally going to be more complicated. You might ask “What does a human resource manager do?” or “Do you enjoy it?” The person has to consider these types of questions more deeply and give a longer, more interesting answer. Then you repeat their answer in your own words. If you are honest, and let a bit of your own point of view start creeping in to your summary of their answer, you will get laughs. If the answers they give don’t make sense to you, don’t worry! That’s a golden opportunity! Re-stating something you don’t understand is funny. Be honest and summarize it in a way that sums up what you think they were trying to say.
This is really all there is to it. But you have to commit! Keep going until someone says something funny. Don’t get nervous and bail early because you’ve asked a couple questions, they’ve answered, you’ve restated, and nobody has laughed. Good crowd work takes patience. If you’re being honest and keeping it positive, something funny will happen.
When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.
That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is: everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.
The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know, if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.
I think that’s very important and however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.
Matt Ruby is a comedian and writer who recently wrote a powerful essay about spending the last days with his dying father. It got a tremendous response across the internet and he came by to talk about it, amongst other things.
Listen as they cover relationships with fathers, supporting the comedy community, and preferring women who are strangers over being introduced.
"My manager was concerned, he said 'Mitch, don't use liquor as a crutch.' I can't use liquor as a crutch... because a crutch helps me walk. Liquor severely screws up the way I walk. It ain't like a crutch, it's like a step I didn't see." -Mitch Hedberg
Mitch is also the guy who needed to down a bottle of Jack moments before hitting the stage at Letterman. Unfortunately, we all know how that turned out.
The great comedic actor W.C. Fields had a similar realization. Fields initially started drinking onstage and on set because he thought it loosened him up and improved his comic timing. But since he had a naturally high tolerance for alcohol, it took increasingly large quantities to keep him loose. (Fields once estimated that he imbibed “eight or ten cocktails, possibly a bottle of champagne, and a half dozen or more bottles of beer and ale per day.”) He insisted that drinking had never interfered with his work—until shortly before his death, when he told a friend from his hospital bed, “I’ve often wondered how far I could have gone had I laid off the booze.”
Being fucked up a lil' has helped me at times onstage. Loosens me up when I'm feeling stiff. But I started backing away from it a few years ago because I hated the idea that it might be something I'd NEED to do before performing. The idea that I have a big set so I'd have to go out and pound some shots first creeped me out. That's not a sustainable approach. You have to be able to bring your A game sober. Otherwise you're on a dangerous path.
Then again, any comedian that does one thing too much, whether it’s colleges or corporate events or strictly bar shows on the road, doing only one thing makes your act get weaker in other venues. If you work thirty colleges a month, and do nothing but colleges, then your act will become very college friendly and a lot less club friendly, I think. I knew a guy who used to be an excellent club comic, then he started doing corporate comedy, now there’s certain clubs that won’t hire the guy because he’s become so crisp and corporate clean. There’s no sharpness or edginess anymore. Working in NYC could be the same way. If you do too much New York work, you might develop an act that works in New York City: you might have seven minutes of riding the subway which would kill in NYC but not in Indianapolis. People in North Dakota wouldn’t give two dog shits about the New York Subway experience. Once you get out on the road, you have to find something else to talk about.
It's like lifting weights. If all you ever do is lift with your right arm, your left arm will...eh, you get it. Anyway, this is prob why CK says, "Go on stage ANYWHERE."
I was recently cleaning out a garage in my house and found some of my first spec scripts that I remember thinking were quite brilliant at the time, and they were just horrendous. They were all basically a bunch of jokes thrown together with little story. So what I learned over time was how important it is to have a good story and conflict between your characters and that the jokes have to come out of that. My initial go was to let the story be driven by the jokes, which is not a good way to go. You’re entertaining yourself a lot when you write it, but when you read it, it’s really awful.
That reminded me of this bit from Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling: "You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different."
One thing that's nice about narrative is that it can replace laughter as a hook. When people want to know what's going to happen next, they're still engaged and ok with not laughing for a little bit. But if there are no laughs AND no "edge of the seat"ness going on, that's when they start to drop out.
Dove is owned by Unilever which owns AXE which puts out ads that objectify women and perpetuate those same beauty standards that Dove attacks in its ads.
Unilever doesn't care about beauty standards. It cares about maximizing profits. It's trying to make money off idiot teenage boys who buy that AXE “Bow Chicka Wow Wow” bullshit while at the same time profiting from women who are disturbed by those same images.
The whole thing is greasy. It's like watching Steubenville football players raise money for battered women. Don't give Unilever credit for attacking a problem it helped create.
Startups and other advertisers have been paying Vooza to include them in videos that take the piss out of the whole “startup” scene...It’s something that’s been pretty darn successful. So far, Vooza’s clients have included email newsletter startup MailChimp, app analytics platform Tapstream, branding firm Eat My Words and others. The companies pay to have their brand worked into a segment written by Vooza’s writers and featuring its cast of characters — the video then goes out to Vooza’s own audience, and can also be used by the company in any way they wish.
It’s a business model that can be classified as branded content or sponsored product placement, but Ruby says that he thinks of it more as “a throwback to the old school TV advertising model when the stars of a show would do the ads, like Johnny and Ed schilling for Alpo."
It’s a fresh angle that could be hitting at a good time for its niche…Founders nowadays know it’s good for business to be funny. It’ll be fun to see what comes out of Vooza in the future.
Nothing has generated interest among the VC (and entrepreneur) community like a series of about 30 mockumentary videos about a company called Vooza...The weekly videos surfaced in 2012. Rife with subtle sarcasm, the two-minute clips provide "insights" that actually lampoon startup culture — particularly the culture surrounding technology startups.
I'm watching my father die. It's rough. He's on morphine to deal with the pain. Sometimes he starts talking in Hebrew. He grew up in Israel but no one here speaks Hebrew.
He looked through a set of family photos today. He still looked proud when talking about how beautiful his wife was. "There's my model." "Here she was almost at the peak of her beauty." "I was astounded by how good her maternal instincts were." He keeps cracking jokes too. "Everybody else here looks so sad that I'm starting to think I should too."
He wanted a strawberry ice cream soda because he remembered that when he was a kid he used to love them. I went out and bought the ingredients and concocted one. He could barely get the straw into his mouth. But when he did, his eyes lit up. "Delicious!"
My sister, Tamara, and her 6 year-old son, Asher, are here too. My sister is amazing and strong throughout this entire process. We feel like warriors in battle together. One day we all decide to take a break and go for a hike near the ocean. I comment that it's beautiful. "No, it's not," says Asher. He is pissy today. I ask him, "Well what do YOU think is beautiful?" "The only things that are beautiful are Mommy and a rainbow."
My dad likes playing a game called Smartmouth with his Grandson. They each yell out words and are impressed by the other's ability to come up with surprising answers. They also both love Jeopardy and trains. He explained to his grandson why railroad tracks are built on stones. So they don't drown when it rains. The water needs somewhere to go. That's why the rocks are there – to raise up the tracks.
He still wants to take a bath. He loves taking baths. Always has. Would spend an hour in the tub every day. He'd bring a newspaper in there. But he's taken his final bath. The pain is excruciating. He can't get out of bed. They say the cancer is spreading "like wildfire." It is eating away at his bones. He wants to be out of pain. He wants drugs, even if means he can't think clearly.
When he was a child, he loved trains and going to the movies and taking a bath. My grandmother once told me this story about him: When he was about 12 years old, she came home and found water leaking down the stairs. She followed the trail of water and found my father sitting in the bathtub and reading. He was so consumed by his book that he didn't notice the faucet remained on. She told him he would have to clean up his mess. His response: "I can't. I just took a bath and I'm all clean."
He keeps thinking there is powder in his hands. "I want to put the powder in my tea." I get his mug of tea and place it under his hands. He dumps the invisible powder into the glass. He feels better. Later he offers me some powder. "It's for you." I take it. I carry away his invisible powder.
Earlier, when he was looking at the photos and he was beaming, it impacted me. I felt a glow. A power. Something I've only felt before while hallucinating. A strength of aura and presence. The glow of someone being while egos dissolve. He is a part of me and I a part of him.
I've never seen anyone die before. I was prepared for the sadness. The heartbreak. I wasn't prepared for the beauty. The purity. The clarity. The clear perspective. What matters is obvious.
He was in the Israeli military and served as a tank commander. I am convinced that sitting in a steel box in the middle of the desert drove his lifelong obsession with air conditioning. He was a man who could never have it cool enough.
He came to America to go to college. He knew hardly anyone in the US. He started off living at the YMCA. He worked at El Al airlines. He went to Columbia.
He then went to work as a journalist. He worked at Women's Wear Daily and in between covering his normal beats wound up covering the Six Day war in Israel since he was back home when it occurred. That job is also how he met my mother. My grandmother was a lingerie designer and my father went to interview her for a story. My grandmother said, "You should meet my daughter. She's learning how to type and she's seeing a therapist." That was enough of a hook for my dad. They met and realized they both loved some of the same music. Three months later, they were engaged.
When we asked him what he wanted to eat, he said, "Chocolate. Lots of it." At 2pm, he said he wanted to invite members of his song circle over to see him. At 8pm, the living room was full. Two dozen members of his song circle. They sang "Blue Moon" and "Amazing Grace" and "Country Roads" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and more. They circled him and he sang along. Even though his mind is having a tough time, he remembered most of the words. Maybe lyrics reside in a different part of the brain. Not where the memories are, but where the melody is. Where the feeling is.
He is dying and it is sad but that is not all it is. There is a grace to him. He is trying to be brave. He is scared about what comes next. But he is more scared about staying here. The pain is too much. I told him that whatever happens next, I think it will be ok. He responds, "Me too."
There should be equal amounts laughter and tears, according to the death doctor. I don't feel sad all the time. Once in a while i cry. But mostly it seems alright. Like what's supposed to happen. It feels like a George Harrison song. Sad but beautiful and ok because it's the way things are supposed to go.
He's not eating anymore. He told us to understand if he doesn't want to fight anymore. He wants to let it happen. He is letting go.
When I help him drink through a straw or turn his body, it's the closest I've ever come to feeling like a parent. To taking care of a helpless human being. I feared it would be a burden but it doesn't feel that way. You don't even think about it. You do it because there is nothing else to do. And it makes me think about what you get in return for the act of caregiving.
The death doctor also says there are only four things that matter: Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.
I keep thinking about those four things. My Dad expresses regret over not paying enough attention to his children. I tell him that I forgive him. And I ask him to forgive me for times when I've been a brat or hard on him. He grants me forgiveness. I tell him he was a good dad. I tell him his life had meaning and purpose. I thank him. I tell him I love him. I tell him I am proud of him. I'm proud that he is my dad. He says that he is proud that I am his son. I'm crying as I write this. I say what I need to say to him.
After that, my dad went to law school at NYU. He graduated and went to work in the D.A.'s office in Manhattan. He was an Assistant DA while there, working alongside Rudy Giuliani for a while. I think he saw some pretty awful stuff while working that job. NYC back then was a seedy place. He then went on to work at the U.S. Attorney's office working on white collar crime, racketeering, and stuff like that. Going after Wall Street types and mob guys and the like. After that, he went into private practice. I don't think he liked that nearly as much as putting the bad guys in jail. He eventually left the law entirely and went to work in the garment industry. But he always thought like a lawyer.
He and my mom had an interesting relationship. The prosecutor and the hippie. The teetotaler and the druggie. The logician and the artist. Surprisingly, they managed to make this civil war work. I think it may be because of their mothers. Both of them had intrusive, overbearing mothers that they rebelled against. A large reason their marriage worked is because they left each other alone. He'd be in the basement working on his model trains, she'd be in the garage sculpting. But we always ate dinner together as a family. I think that was important.
He wants to watch Jeopardy still. He used to shout out the answers. Now he just lies there and watches. Every once in a while he laughs. I hear the laugh from the other room sometimes and for a split second I feel like everything is fine. I've always heard that laugh. It bellows. But the moment passes and I recall that the laugh is vestigial. It's residue. Like the warm coals left after a fire.
He is less able to communicate. You can see it frustrates him. He spent is entire life stone cold sober. Maybe a Tom Collins every few weeks, but that was it. And now he's high as a kite on an insane amount of morphine and methadone. He is helpless. He asks me to sit next to him more. He said when I'm there he feels braver. Every day I'm there, I tell him I love him. And I say thank you. And I tell him he was a good parent.
The health care worker last night told him he had a beautiful house and that his wife was lucky. His response: "No, I was the lucky one."
I just learned today that he was on a show called Quiz Kids when he was a teenager. It was on the radio. He won. Even when you think you know it all about someone, there are more layers to peel away.
We are watching March Madness games. Well, they're on the TV and I am watching them and he is staring at them. I remember watching that classic Duke-Kentucky game years ago with him. The one where Christian Laettner made an amazing last second shot. I hate Duke but we both wound up jumping up and down and yelling about what an amazing shot it was.
Now here we are decades later. And it makes me think about sports and why they matter. I remember my dad driving me to AYSO soccer games every Sunday when I was a kid. I remember the drives to far away towns. And I remember him taking me to Friendly's after the game where I'd get a burger or an ice cream sundae.
And i think about when he would take me to see the Yankees. My favorite part was walking through the concrete tunnels on the way to our seats and seeing the glimpses of grass through each gate. That feeling of anticipation sticks with me more than the actual games. He couldn't care less about baseball. Sometimes he'd bring the paper and read it while I watched the game. But he'd go because he knew I loved it. And because it let us spend time together. Maybe the holy part of sports is how it brings fathers and sons together. A reason to connect. The way strangers talk about the weather.
He was from Israel but he didn't care about Judaism. I remember asking him if he cared whether or not I married a Jewish woman. He said, "If I cared about that, I wouldn't have moved to America." He didn't give a shit about religion or synagogues. He'd go along with it for my mom. But it seemed to have no impact on him.
He loved Jeopardy, trains, The New York Times, playing bridge, animals (especially his fish), crossword puzzles, WWII history, High Noon, Churchill, Reagan, John Wayne, the Marx Brothers, Abbot and Costello, Stephen Wright, Rita Rudner, MGM musicals, Twin Peaks, cable news, and singing.
At 3am one night, he begins battling the caregiver trying to change his sheets. She comes to get me. I sit by his side. He is out of it. He tells me he won't let her do it because she doesn't really want to do it. I explain it is her job. He does not relent. I sit by him. We talk. At some point he starts singing the chorus to "You Can't Always Get What You Want." I join him. Damn, I love the Stones. And I think about the music that was in our house when I was growing up. I start crying. And I say, "Thank you for exposing me to art. I grew up in a house with people who loved art and I am so thankful for that." It's true. The music from the speakers, the books on the shelves, the movies we'd watch. They are the reason I see the world the way I do. I remember being a little kid thinking my parents were weird when they would sing along to Bob Dylan. Now I listen to Blonde and Blonde and am mesmerized by how the words dance.
This process is such a stripping away. On a primal level, you see what matters. He has reverted to his mother tongue. He wants to see faces that he recognizes. He wants to sing songs he remembers. He wants his family next to him. Even when he doesn't understand what is happening, he looks at us and trusts us to do what's best for him. He's not hungry but he says he'll eat if we join him. Dining together matters to him. We always ate dinner together as a family. He likes to be touched. Whenever a woman goes to kiss him, he puckers up his lips and leans in for a smooch. He is floating away but simple things like these are the gravity that pull him back.
Every hour, he gets asked this question: How much pain are you in from 1-10? 10 is the most pain. 1 is no pain. The idea is to get his pain to a manageable level. If he's at a 6 or higher, he gets more morphine. The problem with that is he gets so zonked out that he's not even lucid anymore. Understandably, he's chosen to be pain-free over lucid. What a question though: Do you want to minimize your pain for the sake of mental clarity? What will you sacrifice to get to 2? What are the benefits you get from enduring at 7? I think about the choices we all make every day to numb our pain. What is pain and what is just the price of being aware? When are you broken and when are you just feeling?
Eventually, my mom got sick with MS and they moved out to Trinidad, California. The mild temperature there was good for her disease and she had a great view even when she couldn't move. I think her disease was more painful for my dad than it was for her. He felt helpless. My mom took the p.o.v. that "my journey is now inside my brain." I don't think my dad could see it that way. He saw her slow decline as a travesty. It tore him up. When she passed about six years ago, I think it was a big relief for him. It seemed to lift him out of depression. He joined a song circle. He played bridge. He made new friends. He met his "lady friend" Carol that he was with for a couple of years. I asked him why he didn't call her his girlfriend. He said, "After a certain age, a woman is a lady and not a girl."
We spend a fun day together despite his condition. We look through family photo albums. We listen to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. We watch The Sting and a Marx Brothers movie. I remember him showing me Marx Brothers movies when I was a little kid. And watching Steven Wright standup specials. He loved to laugh. It was my first exposure to comedy and the joy it could bring.
During the Cohen album, my Dad says, "He has such contempt for ships and shoes." I have no idea what this means. I say, "Really?" "Of course, listen to the lyrics." Alrighty then. I ask my Dad what he has contempt for. He pauses. "A shallow, meaningless life." I think he's talking about himself now. I decide to change the subject. "And what do you love?" I ask. Another pause. "Country." "You mean America?" "Yes." "Why?" "Because it gave the rest of the world hope." It takes an outsider to appreciate things sometime. He loves America more than most people born here. I think of the fervor of born again types. How not having something at first makes you love it even more when you do find it. He's that way with America. So many Americans take it for granted. He does not. His love for America is not a flag pin kind of love. It is the type of love that is so strong you don't even talk about it.
Things keep breaking around the house. The dishwasher stopped working the other night. It's closed but it doesn't think it's closed so it won't start. The garage door won't stay down. We had to unplug it in the closed position. The TV remote seems to have gone haywire too. You push channel up and it instantly starts scrolling through all the channels, like there's a madman at the helm. As his body shuts down, all his appliances are giving up the ghost too.
He was a gentleman. And he never wanted to be a burden on anyone. This is the email he sent when he found out he had cancer:
I was diagnosed today with advanced metastatic bone and lung cancers.
The prognosis is not good.
I've had a good run and don't mind dying, but I do fear the pain and helplessness that come with this disease.
Let me know if you want me to update you. I don't want to burden you with this needlessly.
I love you very much.
He weakens further. The end is near. I told him that he lived the American dream: He saw America in movies and decided to come here. He arrived and experienced Greenwich Village in the 60s. He knew no one in the US yet rose up the ladder through hard work. He became a prosecutor and put away the bad guys. He met an amazing woman. He settled down in the suburbs and had children that he loved. He built elaborate model railroad tracks in the basement. He watched Jeopardy every night. And then he retired to a house on the north coast of California with a beautiful view. What more could you ask for? I told him he had done well and lived a real fucking life. And then I kissed him on the forehead and said goodbye. He said ok and smiled. He looked weak and more beautiful than I'd ever seen him.
He's dead now. But it's ok. He had a good run. And today he'll be buried next to Mom, near the Redwoods and the ocean. His friends will gather and sing Amazing Grace. That was his favorite song.
I'm so grateful for this past week. I'll never forget it. And I keep thinking about those four things: Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.
Their disagreements were more entertaining than their agreements, complete with knitted brows, are-you-serious head-shaking and gentle (or not) barbs. Mr. Siskel once taunted Mr. Ebert about his weight: “Has your application for a ZIP code come through yet?” Mr. Ebert came back with a dart about Mr. Siskel’s receding hairline: “The only things the astronauts saw from outer space were Three Mile Island and your forehead.”
The article also mentions his credo in judging a film’s value: “Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions never lie to you.”
I always thought he was a standup guy, in the real sense of the word. No bullshit. Equally able to appreciate a Godard film and something with a lot of explosions. He got that both high and low can be beautiful. Whenever I see an interesting movie, I go and read his review afterward for some perspective on it. I'm gonna miss doing that in the future.
I was watching the Oscars, and I saw Jennifer Lawrence on the steps, and I thought: That was the perfect acceptance speech. How do you avoid the envy and appearing arrogant? How do you say the perfect thing, now that you're not an underdog anymore? I don't think she did it on purpose, but you see that and see how she behaves, and you're like, it could not go any better than that. If I was writing an acceptance speech, I would have it start with someone falling off the steps.
Interesting angle. Even when you're on top, make yourself the underdog.
Do you write out your jokes word for word, and then when you perform go from an outline and then speak off the cuff with just the general idea? OR do you memorize everything word for word and then rehearse it to the point that like an actor it comes natural?
I am able to develop funny material organically or by writing but once I perform it for the 2nd time, it starts to sound robotic. I want to be able to keep that natural off the cuff sound.
Also to get over the hump of being funnier in real life than on stage would you just recommend more stage time?
My answer: I do not write jokes out word for word. I have an idea and then I'll go out and try it and see what words come out of my mouth that work best. Sometimes I'll work up a pretty fleshed out version in my head. Other times I'm just more rambling. If the bit stays in the act, it starts to get more rehearsed and take shape as a more structured thing. There is a danger in a bit losing its energy and starting to sound rote. It might not be that good of a joke then. Or it might mean that you need to upgrade your performance chops/acting ability in order to get the bit to keep working. Sometimes giving a bit a rest and then bringing it back can breathe new life into it.
Being funny in real life is a different animal than being funny on stage. Ya may want to get into a zone of doing more riffing and bringing your natural energy up there instead of solely relying on prepared bits that make it seem like you are reciting a script. At some point though, you're going to want jokes you can fall back on – unless you're gonna be a 100% riff/crowdwork guy which can be a tough path.
After you take an idea to the stage, I'm assuming you'll record your set and then make changes to your new bit to the words are how you like them. Then do you write the bit down word for word just for memory sake? Or just leave it as an outline and let your brain do the work?
I do record my sets. If something is worth noting, I'll go about and listen to it again. Sometimes I'll write down the exact phrasing I've used, but I've noticed I don't refer to those notes often. So if I want to remember something specific, I'll make a point of trying to lock it in mentally.
Eater presents our newest video series We Love Food, in which a group of comedians tackles the weird, wild, and wacky food world news of the past month, from the overturning of the soda ban to Michael Wolff's anti-restaurant rant.
Vooza’s CEO, ahem, offers up an unhealthy dose of founder philosophy and explains why he’s anti-schedule, prefers email, thinks code is like poetry, and takes inspiration from chefs. He also reveals the secret to work-life balance and the key question to ask during job interviews. More at Vooza.com.
I keep thinking about a rock show I went to last month. It was Ty Segall and it was the first show I've been to in years that actually had a mosh pit and crowdsurfing. (No, I didn't mosh. It's bad for my arthritis.)
But I kept thinking there was a weird vibe at the show – in a good way. Finally, it occurred to me this was the first concert I've been to in years where no one was holding up a goddamn phone or camera trying to capture the moment.
Instead, the threat of violence took over. Maslow's hierarchy of needs in full effect! If you're worried about getting kicked in the head by a combat boot, you stop caring about your Instagram feed. And the whole show was better for it. The crowd was actually PRESENT.
See, we all keep taking photos and shooting videos in order to prove to others that we are experiencing something. But because we keep taking photos and shooting videos, we never TRULY experience that thing.
I want more gorilla mind and less Gorilla Glass. Lately, I've been wishing there were mosh pits everywhere I go. Maybe then people would actually pay some attention.
A reader wrote in with a question on monologue writing:
When it comes to monologue jokes for late night, I've heard other good comics say there are two (or maybe three?) different formulas that are used, and every monologue joke fits within this basic format (I want to say Jeselnik said it on a podcast, but not 100%). Anyway, when I write my normal bits I'm not conscious of structure / formula, and I'm not sure what these monologue "formulas" are... do you know?
amendment: I actually do understand one of the formulas, is to take a headline, read it back, and then just add a punchline to the end of it. So, not sure what the other one or two formulas are.
Easy question. The main formula:
Late night monologue joke = (1/2 base of celebrity × height of news story) × pi / Kim Kardashian
Actually, I know zilch about monologue jokes so passed along the email to a few guys who work at late night shows. Most didn't want to answer on the record. But I will say they bristled at the question ("it's not really like we have a Mad Libs for every story") and mentioned it's not as simple as it sounds because you have to write for your host's voice/preferences.
But David Angelo, funny standup and former writer for Fallon, was willing to tackle the question (kinda). He argues the jokes are formulaic and predictable because the public is those things.
I'll say anything but I don't really get what the question is.
Obviously there's a lot of formula. You want all the formulas? Just...uh...watch a monologue. They aren't exactly hidden. Phrases that get repeated: "Or, as X calls it..." Different hosts might lean on some more than others. There's like 10 in common use. Then there's non-formula jokes which might account for <50% of the monologue but are 99% of the work.
I will say this though - the formulas are used because the audience needs them. It's not because writers are lazy. The audience just reacts to them without needing to do any joke math. I can come up with a genius joke on a topic and - guess what - the formula one will get the bigger laugh. So, if anyone has a problem with joke formulas, take it up with the creeps you hang out with, not me!
I posed some followup q's:
Re: "The audience just reacts to them without needing to do any joke math." Are TV audiences dumber than comedy club audiences? Why are the formulas necessary on TV but not at clubs? How does having to generate so much material every night force you into using formulas (or whatever ya call 'em)? Or does it?
-Are TV audiences dumber than comedy club audiences?
I'm the wrong guy to ask here because I think they're all aggressively incompetent. On a micro level, it obviously depends on the club and the tv show. But a TV audience generally has more distractions.
-Why are the formulas necessary on TV but not at clubs?
Have you been to a comedy club? Have you seen the genre of comedy called "iPhone autocorrect jokes?"
How does having to generate so much material every night force you into using formulas (or whatever ya call 'em)?
Eh, it's like I said - mostly for the benefit of the crowd. But, also worth noting, is that the news is THE SAME ALL THE TIME. Same holidays, same crimes, same stupid celebrities, same events. It's all the same. You got two sentences to write something that's (A) funny and (B) makes sense. "The B has to 'be' there." That's a phrase from my new comedy workshop seminar I just invented. Want a joke on China? guess what, child labor and eating dogs. Does China have other references? Sure - but are you going to be the guy who mentions "The Long March" to 1 million households under the assumption they know it? Probably not.
If anyone else in the know wants to chime in, leave a comment.
Chris Rock & David Spade interviewed by Howard Stern. Howard asks them if they use writers for their standup. Interesting answer from Rock where he talks about how he writes two hours of material and then brings in five guys to watch him work for a week in Florida and offer up tags. He uses comics he knows and new guys too: "Sometimes I'll see a new guy on Comedy Central or something and I'll go, 'Let me see what that guy's got.'" That'd be some call to get.
At 56:10, he talks about working out new material in small clubs and going to Hannibal's show at Knitting Factory. He says, "You can manage a little place on just attitude. 300 people, I can just kinda bullshit my way through this. Experience will kick in."
HOT SOUP on Wed (3/20) has a super lineup. And ya also get 1/2-off drinks.
Wyatt Cenac (The Daily Show)
Ryan Hamilton (Conan)
Dan Soder (Conan)
Mike Drucker (Jimmy Fallon writer)
RSVP to confirm your spot:
If you RSVP with 4 or more people, everyone in your group will get a FREE DRINK at the show!
Doors: 8pm - Seating: 8:30pm - Show: 9pm
9 Avenue A (between First and Second Street)
FREE - RSVP: FREECOMEDYWEDNESDAYS@gmail.com
Produced by Mark Normand, Matt Ruby, Gary Vider, and Sachi Ezura. (Can't make it? Our next show after this one is at Ella on Wednesday, April 3 at 8:30pm.)
I've got a bunch of cool upcoming shows too. Check it out...
March 16 - Underbelly @ The Creek
March 17 - Hannibal Show @ Knitting Factory
March 19 - Late Show Standup Showcase @ Caroline's
March 20 - March Madness (Final 8) @ Caroline's
March 22 - BE Show @ St. Vitus
March 23 - Laughing Devil
March 24 - Creaghead & Company @ Union Hall
March 25 - Sack Magic @ Legion Bar
And at the end of March, I'm headed down to ATL for the Laughing Skull fest and then will be doing a couple of shows in Athens afterwards. (That's B-52s Athens, not Socrates Athens.) Full show details here.
When judging comics, there's lots of talk about being "authentic" onstage. But what's that really mean? Can you be fake and authentic at the same time? Isn't that what being a great performer is all about? Is there anything "authentic" about doing the same set every night but pretending it's stream of consciousness?
And I know we shouldn't talk about "authenticity" here, because (a) that subject tends to derail everything else, and (b) we're now supposed to pretend like it doesn't matter. But it DOES matter, and I think critics who refuse to worry about authenticity are actively ignoring something profound. The problem is that people misapply the term. Authenticity is not about literal honesty. If an artist says, "I'm a fake person who makes fake art as an extension of my fake experience within a fake world," I view that artist as deeply real. And I'm not arguing that this is how David Bowie thought about himself, because I have no idea how he thought about himself. But it's how I thought of him. I think he was way more authentic than most rock musicians.
Sometimes the mask is more real than actual reality. Ya see this occasionally with a comic who's doing a character. The fake version somehow feels more real than when the same guy talks about his actual life.
Author George Saunders mentions something kinda similar in the preface to CivilWarLand, his book of short stories:
I set foot in my first theme park in 1969. It was Six Flags over Texas, outside Dallas. I loved it so thoroughly that, all the way back to Chicago in the car, I conspired with my sister to build a scale model of it.
Well, that never happened. But I still remember the baffled joy I felt on leaving the place, thinking: Wow, someone did this, someone made all this, some grown-up sat down and designed the little Mexican back alleys and cowboy boardwalks, the fake bird sounds.
In a sense, these stories were that scale model, much delayed.
But also, while working on “The Wavemaker Falters,” I noticed something: if I put a theme park in a story, my prose improved, the faux-Hemingway element having been disallowed by the setting. Placing a story in a theme park became a way of ensuring that the story would lurch over into the realm of the comic, which meant I would be able to finish it, and it would not collapse under the conceptual/thematic weight I tended to put on a so-called realist story.
Reality has conceptual/thematic weight, but fakery can be light as a feather.
I'm about a year and a half in and have an audition-type set for a local booker who could help me get to a lot of different, new stages...
I'm wondering about structuring it, a 6 minute set. The advice I most often hear is start with your second best and close with your best, then basically alternate by perceived strength of the jokes: 2,4,6,8,10,9,7,5,3,1
I can't really do that. My best two jokes are both about a minute and a half long. They both work well and get 3-4 good laughs. Problem is my 2nd best joke is about Hitler and includes an impression and I just can't open with it.
Is it suicide to open with your best joke? Are you bound to be a let down for the rest of the set? I've done it before (to get attention from the getgo) and it felt a little flat until the close. I could open with my more mediocre stuff that can come off as persona building and then close super strong with my two best, but wonder if this risks losing the audience/booker's attention before I get to the real meat?
My response (as always, take any advice I give with an ocean of salt):
i think you're overthinking it. i never heard of that alternating thing before. but yeah, you wanna open and close strong. and i wouldn't open with a hitler impression or whatever. heh.
it is not suicide to open with your best joke. it builds confidence in the crowd (and in you). also good: if the opener joke explains who you are or your p.o.v. of the world or makes you seem self-effacing. all those things help get a crowd on your site.
if you're not feeling ready to be seen, you could always tell the booker that. he might be impressed that you wanna wait a lil' bit to get more material together.
overall, i wouldn't sweat it too much. oh, one other thing you can do: watch late night sets to see how people structure those if you really wanna suss out if there's a "formula" that works.
I'm wondering if you've opened a show before with what you felt was your best material and if you found it had any significant positive or negative effect on how the rest of your act went? I mean, I realize this can be a pretty subjective thing and to get a sound read would probably necessitate a good number of reps with it - basically, I realize that it's kind of a silly question.
What's in the back of my mind as I wonder about this is the Talking Funny show on HBO (Gervais, Seinfeld, Rock, and CK were talkin about being comics) and CK mentioned how he would start to open with his closing material in an effort to strengthen the rest of his shit (it's in the first 10 minutes of the show.) Just raise stakes and put the onus on more. Maybe this applies only to a certain level? The 5-minute-set level guys should just focus on working on X plus Y and not bother worrying about higher mathematics? Like, focus on crawling to get on your feet before you begin to worry about a sprint or jumping hurdles?
I've never found a negative consequence to opening a set strongly. If you can kill up top, do it. If you can kill at the end, do it. If you have to choose between just one of those, I'd choose to end strong.
Re: CK, he does that to make his material better. That can be a good idea if that's your goal. When you're trying to improve a set, you do different things than when you're showcasing. When it's time to showcase or record or "be your best," then you should prob close with your strongest (or close) material.
One other thing I'd add: Think about how your jokes flow into one another. If you can go from one bit to another naturally, do it. It gives your set an organic flow instead of joke-reset-joke-reset-etc.
We recently rebooted the podcast so each episode features just one guest. Easier to consume. Right now, there are interviews up with Donald Glover, Yannis Pappas, Michael Che, Ali Wong, Erik Bergstrom, & Jermaine Fowler. Juicy stuff. Hosted by Mark Normand & me. Produced by Marcus Parks for Cave Comedy Radio. More on the way too.
My uncles were all funny. My dad wasn’t funny, but my uncles were all funny. Now I go back and I like him better than them, they were manipulative funny. [AST, 2006]
Manipulative funny is an interesting frame. My interpretation of that in the standup world: Bait and switch/misdirection vs. an IDEA that's actually funny.
When you write from your gut and let the stuff stay flawed and don’t let anybody tell you to make it better, it can end up looking like nothing else. [Pitchfork, 2010]
Leaving the rough edges in makes it more, not less, beautiful. Wabi sabi!
Well, I think “likability” is an overused word. I don’t watch people ‘cause I like them; I watch them because they’re compelling. Sympathetic is a little different … Likable just thins you out. Working to make a character likable is what kills most TV shows. [Vulture, 2010]
Sympathetic vs. likable is an interesting split. Lets you move away from the whole "trying too hard" thing.
Nakamora - not sure about the spelling of this one, but this is named for a line in a Taxi episode — “Paging Dr. Nakamora” — that got a huge laugh at the table read (for some reason beyond my understanding), so the writers added a bunch of callbacks to it throughout the script. At the taping of the show though, the first mention of Dr. Nakamora got no laugh, and every subsequent mention was increasingly painful for the writers, and the actors, and the audience. If your episode has a joke that dies immediately, but you know it has several callbacks yet to come, that’s a Nakamora.
Also included: bananas on bananas, hanging a lantern on it, and schmuck bait. Those all sound like good names for racehorses.
With my stand-up now, I’ve realized there are two types of jokes. One type is me talking about miscellaneous topics and getting laughs. That would be how I feel my first two stand-up specials come off. The second type is, you get a laugh, but you also get the feeling that the audience is saying, “Thank you for saying that!” I find the second type way more satisfying. I found it in Buried Alive, where after the show, so many people around my age said, “I’m glad you said that, I don’t feel ready to get married, I’m scared of my friends having babies, and yes, it is hard to meet someone you really like.”
With this new material about texting and stuff, this has been even more pronounced. So many people have come up to me and talked about how they and their friends have been going through this same shit. I almost write stuff with two goals now: to have it be really, really funny, but also have ideas that resonate with people. When people come up to me and say, “Holy shit, man, I can’t believe you said that, that’s exactly what I’m going through, and I hate that shit too.” That’s way more meaningful than, “Funny shit, dude!”
Love this video. Features astronauts talking about The Overview Effect, interconnectedness, and how going to space changes the way you see the world. Cosmic! Keep an eye out for whenever Edward Mitchell talks – he's a special guy.
I think talent is overrated. Talent's important but the real accelerant, the real coefficient that's the mystery number is hard, hard frickin' work.
And then Jack talks about reading Steve Martin's autobiography and why he feels like a standup comedian. He works with no set list and is very "off the cuff" onstage.
I've always felt about my stuff that I'm like a standup comedian onstage. I treat the scenario exactly like they do. Every time I hear a standup comedian talk about his craft or what he's doing, like that comedian was ripping off my jokes or taking my material or I did this joke and it bombed and I took it out of the set or the next joke i told murdered, I think, "That's exactly how I play music onstage."
Later on in the interview, they discuss Jack's favorite song...
...the lack of instrumentation reminds me of a White Stripes song that returns to my brain a lot as relevant to standup (or any creative thing really): "Little Room."
Well you're in your little room
And you're working on something good
But if it's really good
You're gonna need a bigger room
And when you're in the bigger room
You might not know what to do
You might have to think of
How you got started in your little room