A comic before you hits a topic you plan to cover...

Hank writes:

a topic suggestion I'd like to see on your blog: When you're at a show and a comic before you hits a topic that you plan to cover, or uses a key phrase that you're planning to use-- do you bail on the joke or do you forge ahead? Should you point out the previous reference before your bit? How easily does one alter his set at the last minute?

How I handle it when a comic hits a topic I planned to cover: If they're making a similar point or taking the same angle that I'm taking, I usually bail on the bit. You'll just look like a chump if you repeat the same joke that someone else just did.

But if it's just a similar topic but a different take on it, I like that. In fact, I'll often riff off what the previous comic said as the opening to my set and then work into the bit I had planned. If you make it seem conversational, this is a great way to seem spontaneous and in the moment, even though it's something you've prepared. It's a little bit of trickery but it's a good way to build rapport with an audience.

When you sell a funny prepared bit as something that just came to you off the cuff, people usually dig it even more. Some of my favorite comics to watch do a great job of weaving between riffs and prepared material in a way that you can't even tell which is which. It's a whole artform in itself.

If the similar topic thing is really a big worry, ya might want to think about what you're choosing to talk about onstage. Topical stuff can be fun...but the more unique and personal your p.o.v. is, the less you have to worry about having bits that overlap with other comics.


Harrison said...

In regards to the topical stuff --

I think if an event is huge enough/affects enough people, you are almost obligated to talk about it on stage. (For example, if you're a comedian in a New York comedy club right after 9/11, it might be weird to ignore what just happened.) Part of the appeal of comedy is its spontaneity (whether real or perceived) and not referencing a major event would really force the perception that you're sticking tightly to script. (Live audiences generally appreciate moments that seem or are unscripted because they validate the reason they are there - to see unexpected, unrepeatable unique moments.)

(However, this whole point is predicated on your interpretation of how big or major an event is. 9/11 is a no-brainer, but what about what's going on in Iran or Honduras? Your typical audience might not care, even if they are major world events.)

Also, I think you should obey the "yogurt rule." A comic once called topical jokes "yogurt jokes" because these jokes have the shelf life of yogurt, so take them out of your act when they've expired. (That being said, there are ways to salvage a current events joke and rewrite so it's more of a perennial.)

Finally, if another comic does a very similar bit to the one you were planning, it probably means that it's an obvious or easy joke. My strategy with topical jokes is to really go out of the box - between the Daily Show and all the late night shows (not to mention the Internet), all of the big and obvious jokes about a current events topic will have already been made. The only way to have something original that doesn't overlap is to go way out in left field.

myq said...

I have some comments that cover topics similar to what's already been written.

Here they are.

First, the word "topic" means much more than just the first part of the word "topical."

The question from Hank didn't even mention topical jokes.
He might just be concerned that he's got a ton of jokes about ice cream, and if someone else mentions ice cream, what is he to do?

Obviously, if someone tells basically your exact joke, take it out. But if you've got a different take, do it. (That is, do exactly what I didn't do here with this paragraph that others have already said directly.)

Now for some totally new takes on the topic at hand:

1) "When you sell a funny prepared bit as something that just came to you off the cuff, people usually dig it even more."
Agreed! Though some people might argue that you should sell ALL your funny prepared bits as things that just came to you off the cuff. And many audiences think that this is what's happening regardless. Maybe not jaded, comedy-savvy NYC audiences, but you know, wide-eyed country bumpkins at the Comedy Barn in downtown City Without a Downtown. (Also this city doesn't have the internet, so if you're reading this, it's not about you.)

2) As far as what Harrison said about being "almost obligated" to talk about major events, I disagree.

For one thing, think about some comedians that would never do such a thing. Would Steven Wright talk about 9/11 on stage? I doubt it.

For another thing, ESPECIALLY in NYC on showcase shows with a large number of comics on the bill, if everyone feels obligated to talk about the thing that just happened, then the audience is obligated to keep hearing about the thing that just happened.

This isn't a HUGE problem if comedians are paying attention and seeing what's already been said about the huge thing, but sometimes with multiple spots and different arrival times, that's not possible, as I'm sure we've all seen audiences put through the same paces with something as simple as asking the same people where they're from. THAT can really spoil the illusion that it's a professional show, I've found. (So, side advice: if you get to a show late and plan to either do crowdwork or talk about something topical or huge that others might cover, it might be a good idea to talk to either the host or another comic/friend who's been watching to make sure there's nothing glaringly obvious that you should avoid doing or saying, for fear of repetition, and looking dumb.)

For a third thing, in this second thing, as a comedian you're not obligated to do anything but be yourself and talk about the things that you want to. (Granted, Harrison DID say "almost obligated," so no worries.)

But I'd say ESPECIALLY for newer comedians, there's EXTRA no need to cover every major thing. Not only because (as has been said) every late-night show and cable comedy show is hitting it, along with every working comedian who DOES fulfill their almost-obligation to talk about that topic... but also because you're new. And if you're new, one of the best things to be doing is building a body of work, or at least a working evergreen 5-to-7 minute set, or 15-minute set, or half-hour feature set, or a headlining set (how new ARE YOU, anyway?).

Certainly, if you're drawn to writing topical stuff, do it; but if you're not, don't worry about it and just do what you do.

(Unless someone has just gone onstage and already done what you do. Then do something else.)

PS I hope no one else just said all this.

Harrison said...

I agree that there may be a difference between the question the reader asked and the questions Matt, Myq, and I have all tried to answer. (The last line of the post perhaps being the source of the confusion: "TOPICAL stuff can be fun...but the more unique and personal your p.o.v. is, the less you have to worry about having bits that overlap with other comics," emphasis added.)

I do think a lot of the overlap Hank writes about occurs more frequently in the area of topical humor though, since topical humor is generally based on events that are shared by the population at large rather than on unique events that might only be known by a few people or even only the comic (at least until he/she tells a bit about it).

I think the main takeaway, though, is that regardless of the topic that is overlapping, you need to ask yourself about the reasons that the overlap happened in the first place. If it's because you're making an obvious/easy joke, then you might rethink including that bit in your act in the future. If the only thing overlapping is the topic and you have your own unique spin on it, then I don't think it should be a problem doing the bit on the same show, especially if you use the "off the cuff" technique Matt mentioned.

I would add one more caveat: if a comic did talk about a topic that you'd like to talk about, too (especially if he/she does so at length), you might consider acknowledging that in your set (it makes the show seem more professional and more cohesive). For example, "Dave was talking before about subway tokens. You know, I realized that..." This prevents the audience from having any doubts ("Does he realize the guy before him also told a joke about this? This is awkward...").

myq said...

Agreed on a lot of counts, Harrison.

Though I would add that, while topical jokes certainly are one fertile area for overlap, other topics fit this bill entirely also--e.g. relationship humor, or observational jokes in general.

There's a lot of stuff out there in the world to talk about, but there's a lot of comedians looking for things to say about all that stuff also, so whether it's a huge current events item or an age-old truth, it's important to be as original as possible.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

I find that using Mad Libs helps my jokes become original. I take a standard format, I interview a few audience members before the show, and then I put their answers (nouns, adjectives and sounds a car makes) into my notebook. Not only do I have a different set every time, but I also make friends in the audience. (By raising my eyebrows and saying the buzzword in a French accent...but this is another lesson for another day).

myq said...

I find that using PIZZA helps my CAMERAS become ZANY. I take a standard FOOSBALL, I EAT a few COCKER SPANIELS before the show, and then I put their JUNKYARDS (CARS, CHEESES and GOATS a TROLL makes) into my HAT. Not only do I HATE a different GOD every time, but I also make CARDS in the CAVE. (By INVERTING my MAGAZINES and saying the ANSWER in a POPULAR accent...but this is another POOP for another FART).

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