Had an interesting chat with Donnell Rawlings (standup who's done Chappelle Show and lots more) the other night outside Comedy Village about rhythm and comedy. The topic of John Mayer doing standup came up (supposedly he's not bad). Donnell said he met him through Chappelle Show and wasn't surprised that he'd be good at standup. "Anyone who's good at making observations and is used to being onstage talking in front of a lot of people will probably make for a good standup."
Being a musician/comic, I mentioned that I think rhythm has a lot to do with it too. (Note: I'm not a big Mayer fan — shoot me if I ever write something even remotely as pussyfied as "Your Body is a Wonderland — but whatever, he's got musical chops.) Good musicians recognize the power of rhythm, the difference between accenting the 3 instead of the 2, etc. Seemingly subtle differences like can have a huge impact (turn a punk song into a reggae track, for example).
Similarly, pause length and timing can make or break a joke. That's part of why you can tell a joke with the same words yet get completely different reactions. Some comics record and transcribe jokes that work and include every pause and "um" in an attempt to capture the flavor of the original kill.
There's a great scene in Chappelle's Block Party movie where Dave talks about how much musicians and comics have in common. That so much of comedy is timing. You see him playing bongos and "jamming" with The Roots and other musicians and you totally get the similarity between the two worlds. Donnell also said the between (and during) song banter on "Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall" has some of the best interaction between performer and audience he's ever heard.
More similarities between music/standup: Comics have to listen to an audience the way band members have to listen to each other. That's how you know when to pause and when to fill. You also have to be doing one thing while thinking about what you're going to do next. And you have to deal with fuckups and just keep going (tip: the audience almost never notices anyway).
How do they differ? Standup is rawer. In a band performance, it's a lot easier to hide. You've got your bandmates up there with you, you've got volume so you can bully people into listening, you've got an instrument so you've got something physical to do, etc. With standup, you're naked. It's just you and your words. You know right then, on the spot, whether something is working or not. Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide.
Sandpaper Suit is NYC standup comic Matt Ruby's (now defunct) comedy blog. Keep in touch: Sign up for Matt's weekly Rubesletter. Email email@example.com.
Rhythm in standup and music
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