Hey. I’m Matt Ruby (email@example.com). I live in Brooklyn and I'm a standup comedian and the creator of Vooza, a video comic strip about the tech world. This is Sandpaper Suit, a comedy blog about standup, filmmaking, and whatever else I feel like talking about. Established 2006. Phew, that's a while.
In Up the Mountain Slowly, Very Slowly, a mountain climber, who also has a dayjob as an accountant, says, “At work, the results of the decisions I make are always hard to gauge. This situation is clear — either you make it or you don’t.”
It reminds me of one of my fave parts of doing standup: There's no mystery about it. When you're in front a crowd, you know exactly how you're doing. People either laugh or they don't. In so many other art forms, it's subjective. With comedy, it's binary. The switch is on or off.
It's all part of the rawness. It's just you and your words. No instruments, no canvas, no middleman. Just put up or shut up. Love that.
It's weird when drag queens say, "I'm a woman trapped inside a man's body." How come that woman is always one who wears slutty clothes, 6-inch heels, and way too much makeup? Shouldn't it sometimes be a shy librarian type of girl that's trapped inside of them? You never hear anyone saying, "I'm a lesbian trapped inside a man's body...So I just look like a normal guy."
Update: Saw John Mulaney the other night and he did a totally similar joke. Maybe I heard him do it another time? I can't even remember but I'll err on the side of caution and drop this idea.
"Celebrities, they're just like us!" No, they're not. You know who's just like us? People we hate. The guy who works in the cubicle next to ours, he's just like us. People who write blogs that no one reads, they're just like us. Matthew McCaunaghey = nothing like us. We don't play bongos naked, no one takes pictures of our abs while we jog on the beach, and we don't get to use Penelope Cruz as a beard to cover up our gayness.
Fellow standup NB used to write for a big sketch show. Now he's back to doing standup. I thought it was revealing when he once responded to a heckler by pointing out the frequency with which he was getting laughs. "I'm getting laughs every 11 seconds here and you're heckling me!?" It seemed like he had an actual formula in mind: X laughs per minute = success. Maybe writing for TV instills that thought process.
Or maybe it's just a rhythm thing. Once you get people into the rhythm of your jokes, they find the beat. And that can be as important for laughing as it is for dancing.
In verse studies, scholars count syllables, feet and stresses; in film studies, we time shots. "If I use one word, I would have to say timing," Chuck Norris said in a recent interview to ABC’s Nightline answering what attribute won him six karate world titles. "Timing I think was my key thing. I was able to figure out the timing to close the gap between my opponent and myself and move back, and that was I think the key." Much like martial arts, or like poetry and music, cinema is the art of timing. This explains why, early on, filmmakers as Abel Gance or Dziga Vertov in the 1920s, or as Peter Kubelka or Kurt Kren in the 1960s not only counted frames when editing, but also drew elaborate diagrams and color charts in order to visualize the rhythm of their future film. This also explains why a number of scholars interested in the history of film style (as Barry Salt in England, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in the US or Charles O’Brien in Canada) count shots and time film lengths to calculate the average shot lengths of the films and/or use these data in their study.
Back to NB, we also discussed laugh tracks on tv. I feel like laugh tracks suck and mentioned how shows like The (British) Office or Curb didn't need them. NB said something like, "Sure, they're funny. But ratings-wise, they don't compare to shows with laugh tracks. There's never been a non-laugh track comedy in the Top 10." Hmm, maybe people really do need that sort of audio cue to wake up their brain to punchlines.
ok, i’m not necessarily in favor of people trying to kill me...
but i did think that this video was funny.
i especially like the image of me being eaten by a tyrannosauraus rex. and if you're going to die, it might as well be at the hands of a very young hall -n- oates. poor oates, he didn't even get to pull the trigger... -moby
p.s-with things like this i can never tell if the person making it genuinely hates me or is just trying to be funny. or maybe a combo of the two?
I want to start a podcast made up exclusively of mashups.
Now, for those of you who don't know, a podcast is like a radio show...but for people who don't have any friends. And a mashup is when you take two songs that completely suck and then combine them into one song that's brilliant.
I've been working hard on creating my own mashups lately. My latest is a combination of Christina (or, as I like to call her, Xtina) Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" with Cisqo's "The Thong Song." I call it "Genie in a Thong" and it is outrageously genius. It sounds like Rachmaninoff. That's a classical composer. I've never heard him before I read about him. That's how good my ears are, I can just read about someone and know what they sound like.
I've also worked up a mashup that combines Kelly Clarkson's "Since You Been Gone" with the moans of a dying pelican. It's a political statement. Blowing in the Wind 2007, if you will. This song moves people. Last time I played it, at least two South American governments were overthrown.
Ari Voukydis was my teacher for Improv 101 at UCB. I learned a lot from him about not only improv, but big picture lessons about comedy. I took a bunch of notes during the class but never got around to typing them up...until now. Here's a sampling:
More of your scenes should be bad than good. If you're not failing, you're sticking to your comfort zone.
Laughter and surprise go together: Laughter is there to tell the tribe that a surprise is safe.
The hard part of improv: Being willing to be a jackass.
You have to agree with your scene partner: "Yes, and..." That forces people to say things that add info. Don't ask questions unless they add information.
Within 3 lines, you should establish who, what, where.
Don't try to be funny. You want a real emotional reaction, you're not crafting jokes. Let the scene be funny, don't make it funny. It's like getting laid...You'll accomplish your goal a lot more if you don't try so hard.
Characters need to care about something.
Don't go negative. It's easy to disagree but it leads to a bad place. Antagonism is not funny.
Needy is not funny. Trying to be funny makes you look like you're trying not to be unfunny. It's like falling in love, you can't look for it...It just happens.
Give up on the part of the brain that goes to fear, safety, advance planning, etc. Be afraid. Lose the left brain analytical guy. That part of the brain kills improv.
How do you get good? Time and failure. You just have to get your shitty scenes out of the way.
Comedy relies on truth and specificity.
"Do I believe you?" is key to scenes. And so are details. They fill in the blank canvas. Someone who drinks Maker's Mark on the rocks is totally different than someone who drinks Kamikaze shots. Attention to detail is your best friend.
Pretend to use stuff ("object work"). 75% of great info in a scene comes from object work.
Everything you do on stage is true. Don't point a gun with a finger or use fingers as a phone. Pretend to hold a phone the real way.
Aristotle: "Character is revealed by conduct." How you do what you do is who you are.
Two questions in object work...1) Q: How do I do this. A: Just fucking do it. 2) Q: Am I doing this right? A: Yes. There's no "I don't know how to do this."
Three parts to a scene: action, emotion, and dialogue. If the audience thinks you're afraid, they won't laugh.
Be aware of your sight lines, face the fourth wall.
Narrow the gulf between the way humans behave and the way improvisers behave.
Emotions are the most important part of the scene.
Show, don't tell. The less you cockblock the scene, the better. Just let it happen.
Don't talk about what you're doing, talk bout something mundane that reveals your character (like Tarantino's hit men discussing Big Macs).
Improvisers always like longer scenes. Audiences always like shorter ones. Three line scenes can be surprisingly good. People like performing long, but audiences like watching quick.
Character work: Everything you need is in the first three seconds of a scene.
Try leading with a body part. Lead with your chin or your shoulders or your elbows and the character will follow.
Pick someone you know and play a cartoon version of them.
Don't worry about being funny. Be real.
Sing or don't sing, but don't debate whether to do it.
Everything that happens is real.
Comedy is tension broken.
It's ok if a scene isn't funny. Be ballsy and it will work. People onstage are the worst at judging whether or not something's funny.
Follow the path of least resistance.
Making sense doesn't matter.
Listening is manifesting a will to change.
Status is a manifestation of where a person sees themself in the world. There's a difference between status and rank. High status + low rank = a retarded snob. High/low status dichotomies are the bases of lots of sitcoms: "Who's the boss?," "Mr. Belvedere," Etc.
We tend to compress when we repeat things.
The game of the scene = what the scene's really all about. It has nothing to do with the plot of the scene. It's the pattern that repeats itself (like the theme in a Seinfeld or Curb episode).
Finding the game: Find the first unusual thing that happens in the scene, and repeat it or expand on it. Why is it unusual? How can you use that? If this, then what else?
The cab situation in Brooklyn is weird because everyone uses these random car services instead of normal cabs. "Oh yeah, just get in one of the random black Lincoln Towncars with tinted windows that drive by and honk at you. That's just the way cabs work here." This goes against everything you've ever learned about whom to take rides from. I wonder if there's a place where the cab situations is even more bizarre. "Yeah, just get in one of those beat up old vans with the creepy drooling guy driving it. He'll pull over and offer you some candy. Oh, and the van will have a sign on the back that says 'You will be raped inside this van.' That's just the way cabs work here."
Saw the improv group Mother at UCB recently. They were all strong but one guy, Jason Mantzoukas, really killed it. This interview with him has some good bits about improv and comedy in general.
On owning the stage...
That’s what makes improv fail onstage -- when people can’t be confident on stage or feel comfortable on stage. Improv is the only world in which there’s a contract between the audience and the group that we all know you’re making this up so we’ll be forgiving to a degree, but if you show any weakness, if you’re at all nervous or hesitant, the audience shuts you off completely. ‘I don’t feel comfortable because I know the person’s failing.’ And they clam up.
That’s why people who just own the stage will get laughs at something that’s not even that funny. The audience is reacting with relief that it’s going well. ‘Thank god this person knows what they’re doing. This is great.’ That’s something you learn by standing in front of an audience and doing it.
On comedy career paths...
That’s one of the super-frustrating things about a career in this industry -- there is no path, there is no way to do it. Everyone starts out at the beginning of the forest, is given a machete and told the end is somewhere out there, figure it out. You have to chop your way through the whole things.
On using patterns onstage...
The thing is, all games are is patterns -- patterns of behavior. Patterns should be a tool you use all the time. It’s a grounding device that allows you, your partner and the audience to understand that you’re still playing within the constructs that you’ve established for them to understand forward movement...Otherwise improv could be so diffuse that you could very easily lose people because it doesn’t make sense, so a pattern always helps you.
It’s like chord changes in a jazz solo. You understand what’s underneath it and you get it. It’s different now but it’s still John Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things.” You recognize “My Favorite Things” even though it sounds nothing like it right now. I grew up playing drums and playing jazz, so that’s how I think of it a lot. The pattern exists, and then I’m just playing on top of it.
TV producers are getting lazy. Case in point: Iron Chef. You know what they recently had as a secret ingredient? Breakfast. Um, breakfast is a *meal*. A meal is different than an ingredient. There's no recipe that calls for "2 tbsp of flour, 3 eggs, and 4 cups of dinner."
Then, two weeks later, they revealed the worst secret ingredient ever: Farmer's market. Farmer's market!? What kind of challenge is it to have the secret ingredient be EVERY ingredient that's available at a market. An unlimited selection of fresh, organic ingredients delivered directly from a farm...I'm sure the chefs were mystified..."How am I supposed to make anything with this? I'm paralyzed by choice." It's an existential challenge.
Really, how hungover were the execs when they approved this one? "Ah, fuck it. Just let 'em cook whatever they want. Make the ingredient a supermarket, what the hell do I care?"
Maybe they'll start doing unchallenging challenges on other shows too: "Tonight on Survivor, the tribes will have to create fire using nothing but these gasoline-filled blowtorches we've provided!"
I love Steven Wright. But his new album, "I Still Have a Pony," is, um, not so good. And by "not so good" I mean bad. 15-odd years between albums = maybe there's a reason for that. Best bet for Wright fans: Watch Zach Galifianakis' Live at the Purple Onion instead.