It occurred to me the other day that academics and businessmen are the opposite of standup comics in a way. They're always puffing themselves up. Dropping fancy job titles, where they got degrees from, trying to sound smart/impressive, etc. Meanwhile, standups lead with what's wrong with them. How they're fat, bald, lazy, depressed, neurotic, etc. They do it that way because they know these things build empathy and connection. They get the audience on your side. Once you do that, you can go wherever you want with them.
How does Larry David come up with Curb scenes? Watch him create a funny on-the-spot Curbish scenario based on "I donated money in your name" charity donations. It's at 40m10s in to 43min of this KPCS interview.
An excerpt from Haruki Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running." The gist: It's ok if 9 out of 10 people don't like you, as long as that other 1 REALLY likes you. Seems like you could apply that to standup too.
In other words, you can’t please everybody.
Even when I ran the club, I understood this. A lot of customers came to the club. If one out of ten enjoyed the place and decided to come again, that was enough. If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive. To put it another way, it didn’t matter if nine out of ten people didn’t like the club. Realizing this lifted a weight off my shoulders. Still, I had to make sure that the one person who did like the place really liked it. In order to do that, I had to make my philosophy absolutely clear, and patiently maintain that philosophy no matter what. This is what I learned from running a business.
After “A Wild Sheep Chase,” I continued to write with the same attitude that I’d developed as a business owner. And with each work my readership—the one-in-ten repeaters—increased. Those readers, most of whom were young, would wait patiently for my next book to appear, then buy it and read it as soon as it hit the bookstores. This was for me the ideal, or at least a very comfortable, situation. I went on writing the kinds of things I wanted to write, exactly the way I wanted to write them, and, if that allowed me to make a living, then I couldn’t ask for more.
Reminds me a bit of Kevin Kelly's 1,000 True Fans. You don't need everyone, you just need a few true devotees.
From the beginning, and to this day, I would never tell a lie onstage. So now I walk out, I go, “I’m so happy to see you,” and I really truly am so happy to see them. The one thing I brought to this business is speaking the absolute truth. Say only what you really feel about the subject. And that’s too bad if they don’t like it. That’s what comedy is. It’s you telling the truth as you see it.
I like this idea as the inverse to Steve Martin's old approach (i.e. everything he says onstage is a lie). Also, some of her advice to comics from that piece:
First of all, don’t worry about the money. Love the process. You don’t know when it’s gonna happen. Louis C.K. started hitting in his 40s; he’d been doing it for 20 years. And don’t settle. I don’t want to ever hear, “It’s good enough.” Then it’s not good enough. Don’t ever underestimate your audience. They can tell when it isn’t true. Also: Ignore your competition. A Mafia guy in Vegas gave me this advice: “Run your own race, put on your blinders.” Don’t worry about how others are doing. Something better will come.
THE RACIAL JOKE TEST
The test is “DO THAT JOKE IN FRONT OF AN AUDIENCE MOSTLY COMPRISED OF THE GROUP YOU MIGHT BE IN DANGER OF OFFENDING”. If if doesn’t fly or you don’t feel comfortable then drop that joke.
The last line of the piece: "Please go to harlem and pull that puppet out and see how it goes."
The film opens with simple, white-on-black titles, backed by an elegant, evocative jazz standard. The story that follows, framed by documentary-style straight-to-camera interviews, concerns a witty, urbane Jewish neurotic and his relationship with a sunny, fashionable shiksa. They stroll in through an autumnal Central Park and discuss death, sexual hang-ups, and New York real estate; the borough of Manhattan is captured in loving beauty shots, often backed by the music of Louie Armstrong. From that description, it would be easy to assume I was describing any number of Woody Allen films (Annie Hall in particular). But no, I’m talking about director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally.
So why did Harry/Sally do so much better at the box office than any of Woody's movies? Bring in the happy ending.
Yet the key to When Harry Met Sally’s initial financial success and subsequent cultural ubiquity most likely lies in its third act, when it takes some turns decidedly its own. To be clear, it’s not all an Allen carbon copy; the famous Katz’s Deli sequence, for example, is a funny scene, but it’s also a “funny scene,” an entirely unbelievable set piece with a (hilarious, mind you) sitcom punchline that one can’t imagine within Allen’s more grounded world. But most strikingly, once Harry and Sally take the plunge and their relationship becomes more serious, it becomes more of a conventional romance — and more of what we would come to define as an Ephron movie.
Most importantly, the picture culminates with an apologetic Harry coming to his senses, sprinting through New York City on New Year’s Eve, and delivering a big, heartfelt speech so he can win back Sally, who he really loves after all. This happy ending is When Harry Met Sally’s chief divergence from the Allen playbook. It’s not just that his best-known comic romances, Annie Hall and Manhattan, end with their focal couples apart rather than together; in Allen’s nearly 50 films as writer/director, only six (Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, Oedipus Wrecks, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and Melinda and Melinda) feature a couple that meets, falls in love, and lives happily ever after.
Allen’s jaded view of love — all broken relationships and heedless infidelity — may be the more realistic one, but realism don’t sell tickets, kids.
Love this Curb Your Enthusiasm scene. Interesting to me how different this kinda humor is than doing standup. He's milking the shy, quiet thing here – for a while – in a way that'd never work onstage in front of a big crowd. On a screen, you don't have to "command the room" in the same way. You've already got the audience's captive attention. The camera does the heavy lifting for you. That means you can get laughs from subtle looks or simple/quiet things that'd get lost in a live, "you need to reach the back row" setting.
“The way I see it is that I was always pretty comfortable with being vulnerable, but not particularly confident,” Tweedy said. “I feel like I’m a lot more confident, but I still embrace the fact that I am pretty vulnerable, if that makes any sense. I don’t have to be somebody else. I don’t have to be as good as somebody else, I just have to keep making stuff that I am excited by. That is one of the only things I have had control over. I am more aware of it — I am more aware of the things that I have control over.”
Almost no comedy will be inoffensive to everybody, and if it is it's probably pretty boring. With comedy you're relieving tension by saying and doing the unexpected, and a lot of times that by its nature will lead to people not liking the results or saying it's offensive to them — that your representation of their particular experience is unfair or inaccurate. That will always happen, but I think the likelihood of that happening is so greatly diminished when you're setting out as a performer or creator to try to be honest. Instead of just saying Okay, what's the first thought that comes to my head — what's the easiest stereotype I can make fun of? and then just going with that, thinking a little bit deeper and trying to understand the real motivations and attitudes and behaviors that make us human, and then looking at those things as the material you can focus the joke on — I think that's where the best comedy comes from and that's why people like Key and Peele are almost infallible. It'd be really tough to put together a legitimate case about them being lazy or insensitive comedians. They feel like humanists to me.
I like that notion: If you're coming across as human and digging deep and trying to understand people's genuine motivations and behaviors, it's gonna be tough for anyone to call you insensitive.
Love how this video (above) is making fun of the format of documentary trailers for flicks like Dogtown and Z-Boys (below). The actual concept isn't that meaty but the editing and style of it make the whole thing shine.
My one run-in with Robin Williams was when he was filming Patch Adams in Chapel Hill. Back then I was in a rock 'n roll band and we were on tour playing a burrito joint that night near UNC. After sound check we wandered around the campus and ran into the place on campus where they were filming outside.
About 100 people had gathered around to watch the goings on. When the director called cut, Williams didn't head for his trailer though. He jumped out into the crowd and signed autographs and started riffing with everyone who was standing there. It was that manic energy that we've all seen from him. He cracked jokes and worked the room (well, lawn actually) until he got to us, four shaggy looking rockers with mustaches. I thought he'd give us both barrels but he actually had a pretty sincere conversation with us about music, touring, being on the road, etc. He signed an autograph for our drummer, we invited him to the show, and he said he'd think about it. And then he moved on to the next available target and kept going until they needed him back on set about 20mins later.
It was just a brief encounter but it def seemed like he had an energy level that didn't go down. "Always on" would be an understatement. I thought this line from A.O. Scott's piece on Williams summed him up well: "His essential persona as an entertainer combined neediness and generosity, intelligence and kindness, in ways that were charming and often unexpectedly moving as well."
If I were asked to name the single scene in all of romantic comedy that was sexiest and funniest at the same time, I would advise beginning at six seconds past the 20-minute mark in Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve,” and watching as Barbara Stanwyck toys with Henry Fonda's hair in an unbroken shot that lasts three minutes and 51 seconds.
Stanwyck plays an adventuress who has lured a rich but unworldly young bachelor to her cabin on an ocean liner, and is skillfully tantalizing him. She reclines on a chaise. He has landed on the floor next to her. "Hold me tight!” she says, holding him tight -- allegedly because she has been frightened by a snake. Now begins the unbroken shot. Her right arm cradles his head, and as she talks she toys with his earlobe and runs her fingers through his hair. She teases, kids and flirts with him, and he remains almost paralyzed with shyness and self-consciousness. And at some point during this process, she falls for him.
Become undeniable. When was the last time you went on stage and you killed so hard the person after you bombed? If you're fucking doing that on a regular basis, people are gonna notice, regardless of what you have between your legs.
Barry Katz did an AMA at Reddit. ("I've managed, developed and produced for Louis CK, Dave Chappelle, Tracey Morgan, Jay Mohr among others and host the Industry Standard podcast on the business of comedy. Ask me anything.") In it, he breaks down the typical rates that comedians get paid...
If you're going to a comedy club in your city and seeing a person headline that you don't know that well, he's probably making between $1500-$3000 a week. The person going on before the headliner is probably making between $500-$1000 a week. The person MCing probably $300-$500 a week. If you go to a special event with a name that's a household name, you can probably figure out how much they're making by looking at how much you paid for the ticket and the people in the room, and normally the artist is making 50% of that gross, up to 100% depending on their pull. It the tickets are $25 apiece and 300 people in the room, you're talking about $7500 for that show. 6 Shows, about $40-$45K coming in. Chances are a headliner of that nature could make $20K or even up to $50-$60K that week, maybe more. That's usually how it works.
...and gives his advice on finding a manager (hint: don't).
Don't worry about finding a manager. When you're doing the right thing, when your comedy is undeniable, when you go to your home comedy club ten times in a row and you have the best set of the night by a landslide every, single, time and every bartender, every waitress, every manager, every comedian that hates you, every audience member if they had a truth serum in their veins would say you had the best set of the night. If you can figure that out, and do the kind of comedy that you love, embody the kind of material that blows you the fuck away when you watch it, when that starts happening, managers like me will chase you like your ass is on fire. But until then, keep working hard, keep doing the right thing and don't lose faith in yourself. You will prevail.
Katz also has a podcast where he interviews industry types.
To tell you the truth, Norm and I had done Update for three and a half seasons. I felt like we had made our point. What I did like about the way we approached Update was that it was akin to what the punk movement was for music: just real stripped down. We did whatever we wanted, and there was nothing there that we considered to be a form of cheating. We weren’t cuddly, we weren’t adorable, we weren’t warm. We weren’t going to do easy, political jokes that played for clapter and let the audience know we were all on the same side. We were going to be mean and, to an extent, anarchists.
I enjoy how "jokes that played for clapter" is the enemy here.
The “brainy” economy designed to produce this happiness is a fantastic vicious circle which must either manufacture more and more pleasures or collapse –providing a constant titillation of the ears, eyes, and nerve ends with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions. The perfect “subject” for the aims of this economy is the person who continuously itches his ears with the radio, preferably using the portable kind which can go with him at all hours and in all places. His eyes flit without rest from television screen, to newspaper, to magazine, keeping him in a sort of orgasm-without-release through a series of teasing glimpses of shiny automobiles, shiny female bodies, and other sensuous surfaces, interspersed with such restorers of sensitivity — shock treatments — as “human interest” shots of criminals, mangled bodies, wrecked airplanes, prize fights, and burning buildings. The literature or discourse that goes along with this is similarly manufactured to tease without satisfaction, to replace every partial gratification with a new desire.
Most comedy directors now believe that even an expertly written script can’t reliably elicit belly laughs. Nicholas Stoller, the director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, both of which were substantially improvised, said, “The movies we’re trying to make, which have a hard laugh every minute, could not be made without improv.” Traditional comedies have a sleekness that calls to mind the typewriter. Consider the moment in the 1980 film Airplane! when two passengers chat before takeoff: “Nervous?” “Yes.” “First time?” “No, I’ve been nervous lots of times.” The point of improv, Apatow told me, is to make scenes feel fresh and unstudied—“to get the imagined typer out of the way.” When an improv really works, it has a skewed specificity that bears the stamp of an actor’s subconscious. In Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, it’s the scene where a vexed Mike Myers, as Dr.. Evil, stifles his son, Scott, with a whole run of shushes: “Let me tell you a little story about a man named Sh!” Scott opens his mouth—“Sh! even before you start.” Tiny pause. “That was a preëmptive Sh!” Scott opens his mouth again—“Just know I have a whole bag of Sh! with your name on it.”
Getting the script outta the way and replacing it with the performer's subconscious makes an entirely different cake.
1) His energy onstage. So many comics rely on being high energy – practically yelling toward the crowd. Ted takes the opposite approach. He leans back. He draws you in to his worldview. There's a zen calm to his approach. Yet he still manages to be hilarious.
2) And I dig the way he's political. See, there's the kind of comedian who preaches and lectures about his political views. Ted doesn't do that. He's a "be the change you want to see in the world" kinda guy. He's super involved in the Occupy movement without being in your face about it. And he seems to constantly be doing things like making calls for Obama or cleaning up after Sandy or volunteering somewhere in Astoria.
3) He also founded the New York Comedians Coalition which got clubs in the city to raise spot pay for comics. I can only imagine how hard it was to bring together a group as lone wolf-ish as NYC comedians in any sort of organized way. But Ted managed to pull it off.
4) Then there's his most recent standup special. Most comics tape specials in a big room in front of a juiced up crowd. Ted taped his at The Creek in front of a few dozen people. It's a special about the reality of doing standup, not the "on steroids" version that's usually released. (And he was able to put it out without lining the pockets of a big corporation.)
5) A lot of big name comedians look down on comics who are less experienced. They ignore them or do the ball busting/hierarchy thing. I've never seen Ted do that. He's always been patient and kind in conversations with me and other less-experienced comics. No wonder he gets so much respect from his peers.
It's easy to measure the wrong things in this business – to look at who's got industry heat or a pilot deal or a high iTunes ranking. But sometimes the person who's really winning is the one who redefines success. When I look at how well Ted does both onstage and off, I see true success. I see someone who is an example of how you can make people laugh and be an artist and a nice, authentic human being.
When I hear comics tell those jokes, I wonder what other, more personal experiences they might have to talk about.. You say you worry that people think you look like a lesbian and you aren’t one? Okay, sure. How large a part of your life is that fear? The audience you are in front of tonight might never see you again, so is it a crucial enough aspect of your life that you’d want to it be the only topic an audience ever hears you discuss? If not, talk about something that is. If so, why is that? What are you so afraid of?
I think that's an interesting frame: If an audience is only going to see you once and hear you talk about one thing, what would you want it to be?
Artists fit into one of three categories-the natural performer, who does the best they can within their limits on stage; the superficial performer, who shouldn't be on stage in the first place because they've got nothing original to tell you; and the supernatural artist, who, in Bob's words, 'is the kind that digs deep and the deeper they go, the more gods they'll find."
It's like artistic limbo. How low can you go? Also brings to mind another question: What happens if you find demons in the depths alongside those gods?
I’m not saying it’s everyone’s path, but my path was being really good at everything. I can write something, I can direct it, I can edit it, I can produce it, because at the end of the day you have to assume no one’s going to make anything for you. Assume you have to make it yourself and then whenever someone will help you or you get money for it, that will only be a bonus as opposed to being an expectation. I feel like people get bogged down by feeling like they need someone to validate their idea before making it as opposed to just making it.
Good thinking. Waiting around for the industry to "discover" you puts your fate in the hands of others. Not to mention, a lot of industry folks operate from a place of fear and not wanting to get fired as opposed to caring about what's good or not (if they even know what's good). Make something you think is great and prove it's worthwhile. Even if it gets you nowhere, at least you made something. Makers make stuff. Complainers complain about stuff.
The one thing you don't want to do is say, "I'm going to be different than anyone else — I'm wearing jeans!"...Steve Martin told me when he started out he was dressed as a hippie, and that shocked me. He was like, "Well, I was doing avant-garde stuff. Then suddenly I realized avant-garde comes out better from a guy in a white suit." I thought that's pretty fucking smart.
People laugh at odd combos. High-low, skinny-fat, smart-dumb. Comedy is in the contrast.
Los Angeles friends: I'll be in your city next week. If you want to see me tell jokes, I'll be performing on the following shows...
Jun 10 - 8:00pm - Put Your Hands Together @ UCBLA
Jun 11 - 8:00pm - Pints & Puns @ Angel City Brewery & Public House
Jun 12 - 8:30pm - Josh and Josh Show @ Bar Lubitsch
Jun 13 - 8:00pm - Peachy Keen @ Bar Lubitsch
Jun 15 - 9:00pm - Neal Brennan and Friends @ Mi's Westside Comedy Theater
Jun 15 - 9:45pm - French Toast @ Le Taix