The pros to writing onstage

Seinfeld talks about writing for at least an hour everyday. George Carlin and Greg Proops tell rapid-fire, monologuish bits that seem like they must be written down on paper first.

But what about performers who hardly ever sit down and write? Ones who use the stage to come up with material.

Chris Rock goes up there with notes but they're really just bullet points for what he wants to say. Then he dances around those ideas until he hits on something funny. He says he wants his jokes to have the force of an argument and that not having them fully written out helps with that.

CK works in a similar way.

Sometimes it's a conversation with somebody. Or, sometimes it's just a thought that wanders through my head when I'm walking down the street, or an experience or a moment that I live where I realize there's a funny bit in it. And generally, I won't write down the whole thing because it's not a written word, it's a spoken art. So, I'll just sort of maybe write down one word. Because I've got kids and a lot of competing interests. So a day of being with the kids can obliterate all other thoughts. So if I have a funny thought I'll write down just a key word to remember it, and then next time I'm on stage is when I'll really write it. When I'm on stage is when I'll really talk it out with an audience there. An audience is a target, it's a guide. You can't really generate stand up material without an audience. They gotta tell you how to say it. And then once it's been said in front of an audience, it lives. And every time I say it, it changes, develops or gets worse.

And in interviews, I've heard lots of other comics talk about how they write onstage exclusively. For these guys, it's about getting up there, being in the moment, and seeing where it takes 'em.

Lately, I've made a go of trying to be more freeform when I hit mics. Sometimes ya crash and burn. But there are definitely some pros to this approach: It keeps you more conversational. You're front of mind and discovering ideas in the moment. It forces you to talk more about stuff that you actually care about instead of just aha/clever wordplay. And it keeps the audience engaged because you're talking to them instead of just reciting a memorized script.

Even when I do write at home, I find it really helps to actually say stuff out loud. It's amazing how much ideas change or come to you when there are actually words coming out of your mouth. It must engage a different part of your brain or something.


Aalap said...

Great post. I read the CK interview and loved it. This is a topic I think about quite often. I'm somewhere on the fence still.
Also I like talking out jokes to myself, I do this in my car during my afternoon commute and quite often in my shower (when I'm visiting my parents and taking long showers I sometimes go into long bits and forget that I need to be cleaning myself, not just riffing).

Matteson said...

I think writing on stage becomes tougher when you mostly do open mics, because the audience can't be as much of a "guide", as C.K. mentions. It would be great to be able to try out new stuff on audience, rather than other comics.

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