A hybrid approach to writing onstage

Marc Maron interviewed Nick Griffin on his WTF podcast a few months back and they had an interesting exchange about writing onstage:

Nick Griffin: I'm so married to the words, I can't go up there with an idea. I need to go up there with an end line, a touchdown.

Marc Maron: I tend to find that stuff onstage because part of the vitality of doing standup for me is discovery onstage because that's when I really feel the connection. I think that I'm sort of addicted to that, to putting myself out there and seeing where it goes even if it goes into the crapper.

'Cuz I find that the jokes that I find onstage will stay with me. Like, I can write jokes but when I do them onstage as they're written, I feel detached from them and that it's something separate from me whereas if I really actually engage with an audience and drag them through whatever emotional shit that I'm going through that there's a type of mutual discovery that goes on that resonates with me and I kinda stick with that stuff.

But I've always envied guys like you who can write jokes and just do the jokes. I figure out what my jokes are but it's not an easy process.

One thing I've been noticing about writing onstage lately is how the audience tells you where you need a punchline. You can just sense that you're either going too long without getting a laugh or that some tension has been created that needs to be released. Then your mind struggles to come up with something to save that moment. And out of that desperation your brain will sometimes turn up something surprisingly good. Your subconscious rides to the rescue. Of course, sometimes you just wind up with crap.

Writing onstage doesn't have to be an all or nothing proposition either. There's the CK approach of never even thinking about an idea until you take it to the stage. That's pretty risky though. And then there's the more Seinfeld-y approach of going onstage with everything completely scripted out. That can be pretty stiff. Lately I've found myself taking a hybrid approach.

Like if it's a longer bit, I'll go up with some idea of where it's going to go. I know where it needs to end up and a few of the punches or points I want to hit along the way. But in between, I just see where my mouth takes me. That way things don't sound so stiff. And sometimes you stumble into funny stuff you didn't anticipate.

It's almost like what I imagine doing a Curb Your Enthusiasm scene is like. You know where you have to get to but you don't know how you're going to get there. And the result is more organic and fluid.

On Curb, each scene is filmed multiple times and then they edit together the best takes. A similar "shoot lots of footage and edit later" approach can work well in standup too. I almost never nail a long bit right out of the gate. The first couple of attempts are really just trying to discover where the hooks are. Then I try to focus on those and cut out whatever isn't working. Then I might sit down and try to attack a specific part of it, say coming up with the right tag or a good analogy or whatever.

Mike Birbiglia's guide to better storytelling is a good primer on writing onstage too.

A lot of times the best way to find out what the story is about is to walk onstage without having it completely nailed down. Because it’s in that moment of pressure where, almost, your party instincts kick in. Like where you’re at a party and someone’s like, “Hey Mike, tell that story from college about how you overslept for class and missed the final.” You get onstage and the audience is staring at you. You’re feeling out the crowd, and you’re feeling out what they’re identifying with, and you kind of go to that...

I’ll take recordings of telling it [onstage] four or five times, listen for where the laughs are and what the interesting parts are. Then I’ll try and write a draft of the story.

It def helps to record and listen back to wandering sets. Otherwise it's tough to really remember the particulars of what worked and what didn't.


Harrison said...

It's also worth checking out Daniel Tosh's interview with Nick Swardson. They also represent the two poles of the approach to comedy writing (Swardson doesn't write out anything, whereas Tosh is meticulous in writing out his jokes):


(Plus, Tosh also interviews Carlin, who's always worth watching.

Most bad-ass moment:

Carlin: When an audience is that small, 400...
Tosh: That's huge to me, just so you know.)

Abbi Crutchfield said...

I like the idea of listening for the laughs in recordings, instead of listening to my own voice and getting caught up in how weird I sound. Negatively anticipating the way I tell something keeps me from listening to sets right away, which probably delays my writing.

soce said...

It definitely helps to listen for the laughs in my stories. I find that sometimes the joke itself wasn't that funny, but then after I finish the story, I'll add on some random tags and endings that I accidentally made up on the spot, and those end up getting much greater laughs.

I'm not sure whether people are laughing because I say something funny or becuase they're thinking "I guess that's the end of that joke! Time to laugh!" but going back and experimenting with it more to see if you can recreate the moment is quite useful.

myq said...

Very nicely planned out blog post.

Unless you spontaneously came up with those Maron and Birbiglia quotes (which would be impressive, nice riffing).

Also, was the mention of Curb's improv mechanism planned out originally too? Or did it come up in some kind of Curb-like blog-writing improv session?

The only thing that I would add at this point is, you don't even HAVE to have an endpoint planned. Or you can, but you don't need to aim for it or get there necessarily, if the moment takes you elsewhere.

Rory Scovel is a great example of someone who can start a joke in one place, and just have it roll seamlessly into somewhere else completely, that I imagine wasn't part of any initial plan but more likely some improvising at some point.

If things are going well on stage, it can often be fun and helpful to just push things farther than you were planning.

I wasn't going to say any of this in my original plan to just make meta-jokes about the blog post, see?

Fart ninja!

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