Standup as a means to a different end (e.g. screenwriting)

Lee Hurwitz is thinking about trying standup and sent me a note. Here's his question and how I responded:

While the idea of performing stand up definitely intrigues me, my ultimate goal is to be a comedic screenwriter. I write all the time, but writing and getting my writing out there are two very different things. I have been thinking that maybe by trying to do some stand up, I can get my name out there a little bit (amongst other comedians) and network with other like minded people. But I know that stand up is obviously tough enough in its own right, and I don't know if getting into it just to try to later get into screenwriting is a pointless idea. Do you have any thoughts on this matter?

I def think standup is a smart move, even if you ultimately just want to be a writer.

One time I was talking with a big shot writer/producer who also does standup. I asked him where standup fits in. He pointed at the stage and said "That's the hardest thing to do. If you can do standup, you can do anything."

I think it's a solid point. There's nothing tougher than getting up on stage and facing that judgement of a roomful of people while trying to elicit a primal response from them. It's so unforgiving. But that's why it'll also tighten up everything else you do. It'll raise your bullshit radar. It's no coincidence that people like Tina Fey, Judd Apatow, Larry David, Woody Allen, Dave Chappelle, etc. were all stage performers first before they began writing for the screen.

It's easy to sit at home and write stuff and think it's brilliant. When you get up in front of a crowd, you quickly realize most of your brilliant stuff is actually crap. And you get to figure that out quickly, in small chunks. With screenwriting, you have to put in a huge investment of time before you ever get any feedback at all. I'd say put your ideas to the test right away in a real-life setting and see how they fly. If anything it'll make you a more ruthless editor — the world could certainly use more of those.


Mo Diggs said...

Good post. I would add that it is better to do the stage than just using YouTube. All the great content producers on the Web (Human Giant, Derrick, College Humor) have had stage experience and have also produced several successful viral videos whereas the amateurs tend to strike oil once.

soce said...

I think testing ideas up on stage is always a good idea. You never want to just run it past your friends and family, because they'll just tell you that it's marvelous.

And if all you do is post to the internet, you know how everyone there is hyper-critical, you can't really trust their judgment.

But when you're up there, and they're out here, you'll see that the audience is neither your friends nor your enemies. They just want to have a good time, so they'll applaud or attack with silence directly according to how well you're winning them over.

It helps to have a variety of different people look over your material and run it through the gamut of all different types of situations.

Mo Diggs said...

I would also say that the difference between just producing on YouTube and performing onstage is the difference between getting on the leaderboard in an arcade game and glory on the battlefield.

soce said...

To be fair though, if you're out there killing people in real life, but no one ever films it, then what's the point? Who will remember your story if everyone who witnessed it has been slaughtered?

Neil Constantine said...

I agree. Closest to truth is on that stage, no matter how brutal it may be, it'll always tell us how to become who it is we should be. We're like a blind man learning to see, if accomplished, we'll see the finish of whatever may be that follows easily.

Surprised no addition from Myq was made.

Matteson said...

Like Lee, I'd primarily done screenwriting before I got into stand up, and I think it was a great thing to do. Not only has it helped my writing, but it's another way to get content out into the world and let people hear my voice and sense of humor. In my experience, when I talk to people about screenwriting, the fact that I do stand up really intrigues them. People know if you can be funny on stage, you surely can on the page as well. I don't know you Lee, but I would highly recommend giving stand up a try, even if it never becomes more than a "hobby".

myq said...

Sorry to surprise you, Neil.
But happy to un-surprise you now, if that makes sense (which it doesn't really).

I didn't weigh in until now because this subject isn't something really controversial that there are lots of sides that need to be argued, I'd say.

My opinions generally match those that have already been expressed, and I don't just need to hear myself talk or see myself type, when I don't have anything new to add...
(I LIKE to. I just don't NEED to.)

But now that I have an excuse...

I mean, obviously having as many different creative experiences can only be helpful.

If you want to do standup only, it can still benefit you to take an acting class, try creating sketches, do some improv, write monologue jokes, go to story-telling events, make up some one-liners if you're typically longer-winded, get down some ten-liners if you're usually shorter-winded, try your hand at a spec script or a screenplay...

That's sort of the flip side of the question being asked here, I suppose, but it certainly goes both ways.

There's definitely a sense in which we all know that funny is funny and comedy is comedy, so of course getting good at standup will get you better in any other comedic endeavors, like screen-writing.

Of course, to play long-winded devil's advocate for a moment, there IS only a limited amount of time in most people's lives.

And if the thing you want to do is write screenplays, you should make sure that you have enough time to do that.

Additionally, I have a friend who is an author/journalist/writer. She's published two humorous novels and was the head sketch-writer for a theater in Boston, in addition to some other endeavors.
She never did standup, she never utilized the stage the same way that standups do to get feedback and learn and grow and adapt.
Not that she didn't/doesn't learn/grow/adapt, just as a writer, she does it more by simply writing.

There's something to be said for that--if you want to write, write.
There are plenty of authors and screenwriters who are hilarious and have never done standup.

So while it certainly CAN be helpful, it's certainly not necessary.

In conclusion, if you're a budding screenwriter, stay away from standup because there's not enough stagetime to go around.

The Devil

Mo Diggs said...

Or just have Myq write your screenplay (or adapt one of Myq's blog comments for the screen)

myq said...

Good idea, but I don't know if my comments would lend themselves to being made into movies... too much would have to be cut to fit into the length of a screenplay, I'd imagine.

Maybe this one.
It's pretty short.
Unless I keep talking about how short it is.
Then maybe not.

(I have a problem.)

Lee said...

I'm the aforementioned Lee. Thanks to you all for your input. I think the problem I have with trying to write standup material is that although I typically don't have a problem coming up with concepts, I can't seem to turn those concepts into jokes. What I like most about writing screenplays is writing dialogue, and a lot of the humor in my scripts come from the interactions between characters. So when I have a concept I'd like to try out, in a script I can turn it into an increasingly absurd conversation, with a straight man balancing out the absurdity and thereby adding to the comedic effect. There are no punch lines or even jokes, really, just dialogue that through the course of the interaction has come to such a bizarre place that it's funny. I guess kinda like improv. Improv would maybe be more my thing than standup, but I don't really want to act. With standup I haven't figured out how to translate funny ideas into jokes. But I suppose this is every beginner's problem.

Hank in Chicago said...

Yeah, I agree. I've convinced myself that even if nothing ever comes of my comedy career it's still worth the effort. Worst case scenario is that I'm having fun several nights a week and meeting cool, interesting and funny people. (plus a good share of weirdos)

It's as instant as feedback can get but starting out the delivery/performance doesn't always sync up with the quality (or lack thereof) of the material. There's definitely a learning curve that must be overcome before conclusions can be drawn about your performance. I hope to get close to the top of that curve some time around 2014.

soce said...

Maybe you should just describe the plot of your scenes. "So then he said this to the other guy.. and you'll never believe what happened next!!" Or something to that effect.

Sometimes it's not a matter of telling actual jokes.. If you just say something with conviction, people will come along for the ride. Practice practice practice.

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