The evolution from clever to truth teller

For the sake of argument, let's say there are two types of comedians: 1) jokey/clever/one-liner/short-bits comics and 2) truth teller/storyteller/extended bits comics. The question: Do you have to pass through an extended phase where you're a #1 before you can become a #2? Most of the people who you'd categorize as #2 started off as #1 at some point. Even Carlin and Pryor were a lot "jokier" when they started out. Maybe you need to build up your "how do I make this funny" chops before you can tackle heavier topics?

Or maybe it's more a question of age/maturity? (i.e. Who wants to hear a young guy without a lot of life experience throw down as a "truth teller"?)

Lately, I've been shying away from clever, one-liner, a-ha/gotcha stuff in favor of trying to build longer bits. I'm going after things that have more depth and genuine meaning to me than, say, a misdirection joke about a subject that I don't really care about.

Maybe that's a backwards approach though. Maybe the way you get to the deeper #2 bits is by chipping away at the clever #1 jokes. Myq Kaplan and I were discussing via email...


question, do you still write short punchy things when they occur to you?
if not, i would question that a bit
i imagine you wouldn't censor your thoughts, as i don't when i write
but then it certainly makes sense to pick and choose what you try to develop actively, on or off stage
i imagine i support what you're doing
but you never know when a good punchy line might complement a longer shit-beating rant, as well
most of my longer stuff started as shorter stuffs


yeah, i write shorter bits when they come to me, and often use them on twitter.

but i rarely work on 'em onstage. why? here's what i've been thinking...even if i get a laugh, it feels kinda hollow. it's not what i got into comedy for. like those comics who do all misdirection jokes. it just feels like card tricks to me. i want to get to a deeper, more truthful level. have a point, not just "that was clever." i don't begrudge others who do that, just the direction that feels right to me.

but lately i'm wondering if i got too dogmatic about that...agree there's a hybrid way of doing it. i like the idea of working in shorter one-liners into longer bits that have a point...maybe i should get on the short joke train and then let them stretch out over time (if it's meant to be.)


louis CK did ridiculous, absurd jokes for years and years, and he was a genius at That, long before he started doing what he's doing now
birbiglia's first album was full of awesome one-liners for the most part, he was a master at the short joke, the short set, the late night show, and now after years of being great at that, he's doing what he's doing
i don't remember exactly, but i think one of stanhope's DVDs had an appearance of him doing one of his earliest sets as a teenager maybe, and i'm sure it didn't have the resounding gravitas that he does now

it's not that you get more truthy with age, but all these guys became hilarious comedians first before they became great truth-tellers
not to say that's the only route...

you don't have to choose between being a one-liner comic and a truth-telling comic
and you know that
(obviously there's the evidence of all the guys that can do both
and the ones that don't fall into either category... what is attell?
he certainly doesn't often have Great truths of substance
but he's not just a misdirection comic, for sure
he's brilliant
like CK was as well before he started telling "the truth")


Dan Fontaine said...

i like to think that there is a progression of perception of what "funny" is. when you first start out, you have more of an audience's mentality in the sense that you don't know much, if anything, about HOW to make people laugh. So you learn to express what you think funny is rather than express what is funny to you.

growth, both on and offstage provides perspective and leads to change in most cases. some people realize how to write better, "jokes" where others become more story oriented in their expression.

two obvious examples are bill cosby and steve wright. Both evolved differently. Cosby will do a 2.5 hour show and get 10 big laughs where Wright still has, pretty much, the same style just from a more mature perspective.

In my opinion, the lesson is everyone should learn how to be funny and craft jokes/bits - and what you build on that foundation is up to you.

mike lawrence said...

I think crafting something short and clever is a skill that you can incorporate when doing longer bits that need to be punchier. I wouldn't be surprised if one or two of those twitter thoughts sneak into longer jokes.
Plus, if you get the light, and you just ended a long story, throwing out something quick is a great way to end. Why not end on a fun "card trick"?

Mo Diggs said...

It seems like this is the way with every art form. This will be the only time I quote Joy Behar (a fellow Stony Brook graduate) but when discussing Picasso on Politically Incorrect she said "You gotta paint the apple first" implying that first you learn the craft then the art.

I feel this is true especially when it comes to "personal" issue. My personal bits kill at Penny's open mike but that's because that's what they want there. I can almost guarantee any comic here who wants to do personal stuff there will kill. Same with storytelling shows.

But bars full of noisy drunks who don't know you from Alan King tend to shut off from stories (even though I killed with a mugging story last night).

The key is they don't know you. So I feel once you prove your chops then you can indulge yourself and talk about that time you sneezed in your salmon in front of a high school crush.

So the million dollar question is: how do unknown beginner comics work in more personal truths that do not have the punch of a good misdirection? I say, if you get a 7-10 minute spot, do jokes for the most part and maybe close with a story or a joke that expresses at least a huge chunk of your point of view.

Matt Ruby said...

Yeah, I still like doing one-liners if I think they have a chance to grow into something more or maybe be worked into something else in the future. But if they're just a card trick, I'm not sure it's worth it to me.

Also, you have the consistency of your voice to consider. It's tough to be super real, intimate, and honest onstage and then break off into a kooky, nonsensical one-liner. The audience could perceive that as a bit schizo if ya bounce around in style too much.

soce said...

I have seen certain well-established nyc underground comics who still basically do quick joke punchlines and don't jump into stories. I'm curious to see what their thinking is behind that, because to me, that seems like they have made a conscientious choice to go against the flow and stick with the short bits instead of the more personal tales.

It definitely makes them stand out. Clearly that method is not for everyone, but sometimes it's nice to see someone perform and not need to learn about all of his sexual inadequacies or other such overly intimate details.

Matt Ruby said...

@soce: "seems like they have made a conscientious choice to go against the flow and stick with the short bits instead of the more personal tales." Sure, I'm not saying there's only one way to do standup. I love one liner guys like Steven Wright or Mitch Hedberg too. Everyone's gotta figure out what's right for them.

Mo Diggs said...

That's right and I think the best way to figure out what's right for you is not what you want to do but what you end up feeling comfortable doing onstage.

My favorite example in this vein is about satirist George Saunders (this may be Pocket worthy). He was trying to write these realistic Raymond Carver stories until one day he wrote these silly nonsensical Dr. Seuss poems and he realized "that those seemed to have more life in them than anything [he]'d written in the previous five years."


RG Daniels said...

C'mon, as long as you say the word 'penis' does it really matter?

Mo Diggs said...

A good example of a comic who mixes clever and personal and John Mulaney. One second he's eviscerating Scarface the next he's telling a story of playing What's New Pussycat over and over again

myq said...

mo, i think the real million-dollar question is this:
where is this penny's open mic at which people can kill?

obviously no one way is right for everyone
with the examples of cosby and steven wright demonstrating that

unless you just broadly interpret the "one right way" as being yourself
which they're both doing
as are CK and attell and gaffigan and birbiglia
whether they're telling jokes, truths, or stories

the hard part for a Newer comic is obviously figuring out who they Are and who they want to Be
(and if the future goal can be met by making some efforts in the present)

sorry if this is being repetitive,
i'm definitely a fan of the organic "do you what think is funny, do what you think is good, and the rest will follow" method

i don't think people necessarily Need to spend that much time deciding what topics to cover or what styles to utilize,
so much as just covering the topics that occur to one's mind, and utilizing the style that naturally develops and comes out...

of course, if one comes up with some short punchy lines, and also some ideas for longer more personal/truth-filled stories, then does one have to choose?

maybe not
do everything that your self is, i say

(for example, MY self really likes writing long blog comments)

(in addition to the blog that matt graciously shouted out to in the body of the text
thanks matt)

soce said...

Yeah we all have our styles. My own style on certain message boards could be described as exclamation-tastic.. I get excited sometimes.

With some of my favorite comics, they don't even necessarily say very funny or insightful jokes, but they are just so confident that you believe in what they say. Just when they smile, it makes you laugh and feel good. A weird thing too is when you have a line that you think is really dumb but it always gets big laughs.. and then the jokes you put a lot of work into fall flat--

Matt Ruby said...

"covering the topics that occur to one's mind, and utilizing the style that naturally develops and comes out..."

yeah, in thinking more about it, i think it's this organic thing that may be key here. i want to talk about stuff onstage that i'd actually talk about offstage. what's something that's genuinely on my mind or pissing me off or that i feel strongly about. if i can get that to be in harmony with what i'm talking about onstage, that feels like a bigger win then just talking about meaningless stuff that gets a laugh.

myq said...

i think that's it, matt

i really believe that steven wright's mind is full of the stuff he's talking about on stage, even when he's off stage
that's him, that's what he thinks about

right now louis CK is thinking about his kids and the shit he's talking about
he used to think more about peaches and his empty bank account
not that he doesn't think or say ridiculous shit now too

(and not that steven wright probably doesn't think NON-ridiculous out-there stuff
no one is talking about Every thought that they have
because you're performing for, say, one hour a night, and living 24 times that much every day, minus sleep maybe, unless you count dreaming as thinking, which i'd say is arguable)

we all have to pick the parts of what we're thinking that are important to us to share, interesting to ourselves and others, and funny hopefully

Matteson said...

One thing that sticks out to me in this post is the talk of "evolving" from 1 to 2, which implies being a "joke teller" is inferior to being a "truth teller". And I know you don't totally mean that, but I think it does bring up a point that comics sometimes get carried away with, which is thinking about different styles as worse/better, or high/low, instead of just thinking of them as different.

I think often times comics get caught up in what they can't (or at least aren't currently) doing and think it's superior to what they CAN do. When I got into stand up, I was drawn to telling true (well, mostly true) stories. Even though this is what I really like to do, every time I hear a well written singular joke, I think "Man, I wish I could do that. Making people laugh with one line, now THAT'S comedy."

I think it was in a Seinfeld interview you posted a while back (can't find it now and I could be getting the source wrong), but he mentioned something along the lines of "the audience will tell you what's funny about you" and I think that's really true. In the beginning I think its important to at least try everything that you think is funny, and the audience will do the editing for you. Maybe they'll tell you you're funniest when you're telling one-liners. Maybe they'll tell you they like you telling true stories. Whichever it is, I don't think either is inferior.

myq said...

Matteson, what sticks out to me about your comment is the implication that evolution leads to a superior being than that which evolved into it.

I mean, evolution gave us the appendix, and all it does is burst.

Seriously, what's the deal with the appendix? It's not a pen, it's not dicks, they should call it Round-tine!
(One-liner over.)

Sincerely, I agree with Matteson for the most part...
I'm not going to say that no comedy is "better" than any other comedy (e.g. some one-liners are more poorly constructed than others...
or in the truth-telling realm, perhaps a story that is entirely truthful and equally funny to one that has funny fictions added is somehow slightly better, at least to me, because if I find out that a purportedly true story has revelant facts fabricated, that affects my enjoyment experience).

I'd say that there is something to be said for genuineness.

Which can come out in material, style, persona, anything.

There's genuineness to Louis CK's truth-telling.

Just like there's genuineness to Steven Wright's Steven Wrightiness...

I don't think anyone would fault Steven for being himself.
Or if they would, I think they would be misguided to do so.

Different strokes for different folks.
And Silver Spoons for other folks.
(That's a one-liner full of truth.
Not necessarily comedy.
And not necessarily truth either.

It's good to aspire towards what you like and what you want to be.

It's also good to learn what you are and become the best at that.


Hank in Chicago said...

As usual great discussion guys. Another factor that influences both is the length of the set. Starting out, one-liners and quick quips are a little more fitting to 4-minute open mics than are longer bits, plus they’re easier to memorize. As you get better and start to gain some traction you get to do longer sets, which means there is more time to fill (no respectable comedian should consider his words “fill” but you know what I mean) and allows you to stretch your thoughts out a little more.

Plus, in my opinion one-liners are best taken in small doses. I’d get fidgety listening to a guy do one-liners for much more than twenty minutes or so, unless he’s exceptional like Wright or Hedberg. How many one-hour specials are #1 style comics? The vast majority lean heavily towards #2.

No matter the style, genuineness is everything. People tend to have pretty good bullshit-dars.

I’m brand new at standup and I very much lean towards story-telling, even though I’ve always considered myself a shitty story-teller. Style #1 feels a little dishonest for reasons I can’t articulate. But I’m not ruling anything out at this point since the placenta juice still hasn’t dried on my comedy career.

Mo Diggs said...

Myq-It's at Under St Marks Place from 9-2 3 dollar cover. You may get up late which is the major hindrance for most comics who prefer The Pit.

Of course I am exaggerating but I feel personal stuff really works there - even from new comics who are not part of the scene - which I can't say for most other mikes, where personal stuff seems to fail unless everyone knows you already

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Hold the phone Ray Barrone. Why are the jokey bits categorized as "clever" and the stories are not? Are you saying the endearing quality of a story/extended bit is that it is inherently moving and therefore can go be told without the need of much cleverness and elicits less laughter? Time to watch Patton Oswalt. Long bits are made up of short bits. This meeting is adjourned.

Matt Ruby said...

Abbi, I guess I meant clever merely for the sake of being clever. A storytelling bit should still be clever, but will also have a point above and beyond just the "aha, i fooled you with words!" vibe of a lot of one-liner, misdirection jokes.

Chesley Calloway said...

I truly appreciate both the exceptionally well-written one-liner and the hilarious anecdote/story-telling bit... the former a definitive display of craft/skill, time, hard work etc, and the latter bringing an audience elbow-deep into a performer's POV--strapping everyone in until the payoff.

IMHO, being able to throw down both is optimum.
One-liners aren't out of place if they're fitting with and/or building your onstage persona (Myq is great at this--one-liners n' character building, no easy task).

As aforementioned in the plethora of posts (we've reached a plethora, right?), a "long story is a bunch of short jokes"... So one both opens up AND shares their world view, killin' 'em with non-stop laughs. Dave Attell-- all his bits are a ridiculous bunch of sometimes tenuously-connected one liners that usually tell a short story--hilarious. There's no huge setup followed by a once-every-ten-minutes Cosby-esque punch-- it's setup punch setup punch setup punch, with the overarching nature of the pov-sharing that makes it a truly unique experience.

Dare I mention Bill Hicks? During the few findable, forcibly shorter sets (and they're floating around on the net), he killed with combining the two approaches--short jokes--one after another-- that built up within a story (or topic), producing constant laughs yet communicating his unique world view... Amazing.

no matter the case, re our circumstances here n' now:
@Hank in Chicago is spot on re length of sets, as is @MikeLawrence re closing short n' strong if that's what the light calls for.

Mike Drucker said...

Writing a good short joke is like solving a good math problem.

Writing a good long joke is like writing a good English essay.

There's no inferior or superior. Or even an evolution from one to the other. Sometimes you just get tired of one and move to the other, the same way you might get tired of waffles and move to cereal for breakfast.

There's a flip side, too. You call short jokes "card tricks," but a lot of longer, personal bits seem like David Blaine magic shows: self-indulgent.

I've seen way too many long bits which are just "dating is hard, isn't it?" or "Marriage is hard, isn't it?"

Way too many long bits can be successful without being clever, just familiar to people. Everyone knows dating is hard, everyone knows marriage is hard, so it gets an easy laugh.

My favorite comics, Todd Barry, Doug Benson, and John Mulaney do longer bits and shorter jokes (think John Mulaney's "Body Found" joke or Todd Barry's "Roe v. Wade" t-shirt joke).

Personally I find the "Greater Truth" comics a little tiring at times. I like them, but I can only stand so much of "My Life, Waaaaa!" material. So many comedians think that the "Greater Truth" is complaining about relationships for half an hour. And really, they can keep it.

I'd rather have Doug Benson or Patton Oswalt's silliness, having fun and bouncing on the stage all goofy than Bill Hick's "ONLY I CAN SAVE THESE PEOPLE" faux preacherism.

Mike Drucker said...

My grammatical errors are legion.

myq said...

Based on Drucker's assessment, I think we can really get to the root of this issue by answering the question, "Is it better to be great at math or great at English?"

Or, "What if you could write a really great English essay in which you solve a great math equation?" (e.g. Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, or Fermat's thing)

In conclusion, the best comedians should be the ones with 800 on their math AND verbal sections.

Metaphorically speaking.


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