The backstory: Years ago, Crystal killed one night in front of a famous manager and then asked the agent what he thought. The agent told him he was effective, but not good. He said Crystal's own personality was missing — he didn't leave a tip.
You didn't do anything personal or unexpected. There was no risk taking. A comedian's job is to take risks, and you're playing it too safe. Don't be afraid to fail. And don't ever forget, 'Leave that tip.'
Interesting. My top priority is always laughs. Then, it's how much do I actually care about what I'm saying. But this "how much you is there in there?" thing is def a good factor to throw into the equation too.
Maybe it's even worth shifting priorities and going with something personal even if it's not getting huge laughs. I'm reluctant to do that (esp in shorter sets) but I can see how leaving an audience with a feeling, a piece of who you really are, can get you further than giving 'em laughs that are forgotten by the time they get home.
Plus, being memorable is key too. Anyone can get laughs. You're the only one that can deliver you.
I think an ordered hierarchy of priorities is complicated to assess.
Matt, you say your top priority is laughs, but you wouldn't use someone else's jokes to get those laughs.
I imagine you wouldn't use street jokes to get those laughs either, though there are comics that do and audiences that love it.
So you already have some qualification on the priority of getting laughs, and what is it? Originality, creativity... yourself. You've already got that priority then, no?
And as far as saying a comedian's job is to take risks?
That makes sense to say, but it also makes sense to say that a comedian's job is to get laughs. (Though I don't know if "job" means the same thing in both these instances.)
Also, I'd say that your goals can differ from set to set, depending on what you're working on, how long the set is, what kind of show it is, etc.
If being personal and memorable is important to you, then certainly, aim for that.
If getting the biggest laughs possible is important to you, the certainly, aim for that.
Do those have to be mutually exclusive?
"And as far as saying a comedian's job is to take risks?
That makes sense to say, but it also makes sense to say that a comedian's job is to get laughs."
Maybe he means the best/most memorable comics are ones who take risks.
I have this theory that today's up-and-coming comics are making the effort to be original far earlier than their predecessors. As a result, every comic, even unfunny ones, try to tap into what's going on in their lives and speak from the heart.
Billy Crystal has certainly defined his comedy style to the point where you don't confuse him with anyone else. Which I guess reflects a "big tip" (I'm not crazy about this analogy). I don't usually think of "risks" as meaning "originality". Most of the time I think of risk-taking as "making the audience think in order to laugh" (Chris Rock) or "being vulnerable" (Richard Pryor) or "being controversial" (Carlin, Bruce).
Ideally, it all happens in the same fluid motion -- the "risks" you take are what you would do naturally. They're not "risks" to you; they're just new material.
I mean, take Abbi's examples -- do you think Chris Rock sits there thinking, "I need to make the audience think about this thing"? Or Lenny Bruce was like, "all right, I'm going to go out there and incite some controversy"? Hell, I don't think Lenny Bruce could form that long a sentence during half of his career.
Nah, they were probably just like, "here's an idea, I'm going to do that." All that other stuff was internalized -- either second nature, or ACTUAL nature. If you're coming up with the idea, and then consciously trying to give it "your spin", you're taking a sharp turn there, and you're probably going to swerve into something wrong. Just write the material -- if it doesn't resolve ITSELF into something coherent,
Interesting . I was talking to a comedy promoter who had watched a lot of new act competitions at her club and she noticed how "samey " most of the young men were , they had similar choice of material and even looked the same, many seemed to mimic russell brand for some strange reason .What she enjoyed most were the women who in her words " brought themselves onstage " and were more memorable .I'm not sure I like the tip analogy much , can we all come up with something better?
...Don't ever forget to "try the spaghetti bolognese". Sure it's a common dish, but what does it mean TO YOU?
New comics always sound like their influences. What needs to change is after they have shed the mimicry but still insist on sounding inauthentic. Like someone who's quiet off stage who develops a radio voice on stage. Or someone who is not filthy off stage but insists on making filthy jokes on stage.
Chris Rock is actually very quiet off stage. I heard an interview with him on NPR once, and didn't even know who it was (tuned in midway through) because his normal speaking voice was so different than his onstage persona. And I believe he mentioned that in that interview, the fact that people don't want to see just the regular Chris Rock on stage, they want this bigger, louder, more opinionated version that's not exactly the real Chris.
Regarding the "samey" quality of many young comics, I was just listening to Marc Maron's recent appearance on the Keith and the Girl podcast, and he was saying something like that as well, like he could sit in the back of a comedy club with his eyes closed and for the most part not be able to distinguish between most of the comic voices on the stage.
Abbi, when you say that most comedians today are trying to be more original than their predecessors, there are certainly a couple ways in which that makes complete sense... Number one, in the vaudeville era, no one cared about originality of the jokes, people told the same jokes as each other, people used writers, originality wasn't even specifically a real issue in standup. So of course, as time goes on, today's comics are trying to be more original than them. And then even if you're looking at comics from 20 years ago, or 30 or 40, when comedians started having their own material that was distinctly told from their voice, they were the first generations of comics to do that, and so naturally if today's comedians want to be original, they HAVE to keep in mind what's come before and specifically strive to do that. It's harder to be more original later than earlier, I'd say... It takes more work not to cover ground that's been covered before.
I believe Maron said in that same podcast, when he writes jokes and finds that others are covering things similarly, he'll drop what he's doing, because he's striving to do just that as well, say only things that he can say as himself, etc. (So in this respect, I don't know if today's up-and-coming comedians are doing this any more than Maron is, or Todd Barry is, or Louis CK is... aren't these guys ALL concerned with being as original as possible?)
And I agree with ECN on the issue of a comedian's first/second nature, a comedian's motivations and such...
One final question: what IS risk-taking? For real? What is a comedian risking, in this day and age? Risking one audience not liking them? Risking bookers not liking them? Risking what?
Regarding Chris Rock, I am guessing the way he jokes on stage is the way he jokes naturally off stage. Like when he's in the groove, surrounded by friends, tossing around ideas. Not when he's asking his daughter to pass the eggs.
Yes, you can be shy off stage and truly gregarious in the spotlight. You can be polite off stage and sincerely crass in the spotlight. But if what you're doing in your performance rings inauthentic, you need to work on it. Whether your stage persona is actually who you really are or just a great illusion is your choice as an artist.
To clarify, I said most up-and-coming comedians are making the effort to be original earlier in their careers than their predecessors were in their careers. Louis CK did the same act year after year for a while. Then he changed his mind and decided to challenge himself to do a new act each year. Newer comics may start to do the same thing, and they don't have to wait until they're 37 to have the epiphany.
Or George Carlin joked in a conservative way until he decided it wasn't for him, and he completely changed his image. New comics may skip the whole "status quo" route altogether, before they get gray hair.
As for Maron dropping whatever topics he's working on when he hears others are exploring them, I have heard both Brian Regan and Jim Gaffigan say there is more challenge in mining the topics that are overdone in order to create something original.
Risk-taking can be different for each comic. That which challenges them to get outside of their comfort zone in order to be as funny as they can possibly be.
Ultimately I define it as stealing your neighbor's board game.
"That which challenges them to get outside of their comfort zone in order to be as funny as they can possibly be."
Is that necessarily what makes someone as funny as they possibly can be?
I'm not trying to make trouble, but I feel like, for example, Louis CK has said recently something to the effect that the reason he is able to be so prolific, mining so much of his thought process and life for material that comes naturally, is because he is now as COMFORTABLE as he as ever been, on and off stage.
Isn't that something we are meant to strive for as well? Getting to a place where we're as naturally funny as possible? I just don't see where risk-taking specifically plays into that.
"Louis CK did the same act year after year for a while. Then he changed his mind and decided to challenge himself to do a new act each year. Newer comics may start to do the same thing, and they don't have to wait until they're 37 to have the epiphany."
A couple things about this... one, Louis CK wasn't doing the same jokes for 20 years before deciding to start pumping out a special a year. He might not have been going at the rate he's going now, but I saw him a few times every couple years before this new phase, and he was always working on new things.
And as for comedians now, when you're just starting out, you HAVE to be creating new things all the time, because just to get to the point where you have your first hour that you're happy with, you've probably created many more hours' worth that you're NOT happy with...
Many experienced successful comics have said that it's not even until you're in it 10 years-ish that you might really know who you are on stage and in writing, so if you're turning over material every year before that, it might mean something completely different than when you hit that point.
Does that make sense?
I'm not sure if we're all using the same terms to refer to the same things, so my apologies if I've misinterpreted.
"As for Maron dropping whatever topics he's working on when he hears others are exploring them, I have heard both Brian Regan and Jim Gaffigan say there is more challenge in mining the topics that are overdone in order to create something original."
I don't want to get too much into what Maron said or meant exactly, but my impression was not that he wants to cover completely different TOPICS, but that if he hears that other people are covering a topic in a certain way, he'll steer away from that way.
As for what Gaffigan and Regan are saying, what if they do the challenging thing of mining a topic in a way they see as original, but they don't realize that someone else HAS done it that way and they just didn't know? I think Maron is just promoting the awareness side of things. I don't think these guys would be arguing over this topic at all.
(For example, Gaffigan has a joke about how to handle a bear attack, by playing dead, and how that's a rumor that bears started. Eugene Mirman has basically the same joke. Funny joke, and if they had seen each other the same night they both thought of it, maybe they wouldn't both be doing it, but sometimes it happens. Sometimes no matter how much you challenge yourself or how original you're striving to be, you can't know everything that's out there and you might end up thinking or saying something that someone else is also thinking and saying...
I think all these guys are great, but no one is immune. Except Reggie Watts. So if you want to be original, just be like Reggie.)
I have been doing comedy regularly for 5 years, 2 months and 18 days. Take what I say with a grain of salt.
"[Risk taking is] That which challenges [comedians] to get outside of their comfort zone in order to be as funny as they can possibly be."
Myq asks: "Is that necessarily what makes someone as funny as they possibly can be?"
What on Earth do I know about what makes people as funny as they can possibly be? If I had that answer, I'd have a comedy special, maybe an award or two, or at least my name on the Comedy Bible (NIV).*
My point is sometimes being comfortable can hold a comic back. (i.e. she's comfortable telling the same bad jokes, he's comfortable holding the mic cord when nervous, they're comfortable getting paid for the same act year after year and not growing).
And sometimes being uncomfortable can be a part of getting better. For example, I used to hate taking pauses while I searched for my next joke, and I would fill the air with awkward humming. Result: the audience could tell I was nervous. I later heard that in moments like that you have to "trust the silence." It's okay to pause and collect your thoughts. Half the time the audience is still reacting to your last joke and can't tell you've forgotten what you wanted to say.
Maron is a seasoned pro who has the right to drop whatever he wants. I am not criticizing that choice. Promoting awareness is great.
You are absolutely right about unseasoned comics churning out new material. You're not "creating a new act" if you don't have an act yet.
Myq, what is YOUR definition of risk taking? If someone you look up to in comedy saw your act and told you to take more risks, how would you interpret that? My point is, it's different for everyone. I think it ultimately helps anyone to assess their set and say, "how can I grow?" Being complacent is not a good way to grow. (There I go taking "comfortable" to mean "complacent")
For me, taking risks would mean to talk about the things I am afraid to talk about but certainly have an opinion on. Also being more physical to paint a better picture of whatever scenario I'm describing.
*I would use it for my own success and then use it to exploit others.
"My point is sometimes being comfortable can hold a comic back."
I agree, but I don't think that it's cut and dry that comfort is bad and being out of your comfort zone is good... I think it's good to strive and grow and develop so that your comfort zone expands... What do we say about the best comedians? Often that they look completely natural, comfortable, at ease doing what they're doing.
Certainly I would agree that if comfort means doing the same set year in, year out, not caring about changing or growing, then that's not the ideal comfort to strive for.
I think if someone is being complacent (I do like that word better for the negative interpretation of comfortable), not living up to some potential, then perhaps they need to take risks to do so (maybe they need more stage time but they're agoraphobic and hate leaving the house, or they've got horrible stage fright and hate getting up there, then yes, they should take those risks to their personal comfort level if they want to improve and grow as an artist).
I think the question of "how do I define risk-taking" and "how do I grow" are completely different questions... I definitely feel comfortable answering the latter, at least for myself--I know that I've grown by doing, and I hope that that trend continues. Write, perform, repeat. Gain more self-awareness, gain more confidence, gain more talent. Just work.
If a comedian I respect told me to take more risks, I'd ask them what specifically they meant. Risks in what? And how? In material? In performance? In venue choice? In how many questions I ask?
I honestly don't see "risk-taking" as really being super relevant to my experience with standup, and by that I mean this...
A lot of times people say things like "Oh, you're so brave, to do what you do, to get up on stage like that, I could never do that."
To THOSE people, what I'm doing is risky. Just the very DOING of it.
To me, it's not.
They could be a firefighter, running into burning buildings on a regular basis. THAT's risk-taking. THAT's brave.
I only might run into a burning building if there were stagetime to be had there. Maybe that's my comfortable level of risk-taking.
Sincerely, I think a comedian's lot in life is to get up on stages and speak their mind, to express their art... If they're not doing that because they're too complacent in some way (I really like using "complacent" better than "comfortable," can we do that? I don't want to be too comfortable with the usage of the word "comfortable"), or because they need to risk something more to say the things they want to in the way they want to... then they should strive to get to where they want to be.
One last thought--Andy Kaufman is a guy who springs to mind as someone who took risks. He was a genius and the risk he took in doing what he did was in people not recognizing what he was trying to do, he risked not connecting, not making it, perhaps.
And sometimes genius goes unrecognized. There are probably plenty of super talented people across the world, across all mediums (media?) of artistic creation, who want to be seen/heard/experienced who aren't.
But that's always the risk for all of us.
Being alive itself is a risk.
So do what you think you should do. Don't be afraid. Talk about racial issues even though some people might think you're racist. Dress up like Elvis. Take pauses as long as you want to.
Oh, and take everything I say with as much salt as you want.
risk (n)- a venture undertaken without regard to possible loss or injury.
ECN defines risk-taking in comedy as "new material" that you would "do naturally". One way I defined it was a process of becoming less complacent.
Getting on stage seems risky to your co-workers, but not to you. That's how they define it. How do you define it? Maybe you don't want to define it. You don't have to. But I think you should for the sake of this conversation. Are you not a risk-taker?
Maybe you have defined it. You talked about:
Risking not connecting,
Risking not being seen/heard/experienced,
Risking hypertension by eating lots of salt
"Sincerely, I think a comedian's lot in life is to get up on stages and speak their mind, to express their art..." [and if taking risks helps them to get there, that's good, but risk-taking is not necessarily the path all comedians must take.] Did I understand you correctly?
Why has there been no reference to Risky Business yet?
"How do you define it? Maybe you don't want to define it. You don't have to. But I think you should for the sake of this conversation. Are you not a risk-taker?"
I don't think of myself as a risk-taker, per se, and I don't specifically value risk-taking as being inherently positive.
Before I started doing standup fulltime, I had means of bringing in money to make sure I didn't risk starvation or homelessness, and it's a slight risk to me now that I don't have those means...
If you want to jump out of a plane, great. I'm more a fan of staying on the ground when it's not necessary to do otherwise. I have a good time down here.
In my standup (and life), I talk about the things I want to talk about, I do the things I want to do, I strive to grow and develop, as far as my performance and material go, and whatever else...
Maybe in the future I'll end up talking about more personal things from my life than I do now, open up and become more vulnerable on stage (though most of my life at this point is an open book, minus the pages which would adversely affect someone else's life with information that I might hold in confidence), which some people might view as a definition of "risk-taking."
But I don't necessarily view comedians who open up their heart and pour out their soul and reveal deep dark truths about them and their horrifying, hilarious happenings, as risk-takers... Maybe they are. And not that I'm saying they're not doing great work, creating great art. But I think they're doing it because it's their passion, because it's who they are and what they want to say, and not because it's risky to do so.
Because I imagine that for them, like I don't see going on stage as being brave (but some others do), it's just the thing to do. So they do it.
There are a lot of words here.
Yes! You make perfect sense. And now it's time for you to change.
Let's not forget the agent in Billy Crystal's story already defined risk-taking as doing something "personal or unexpected" and not being afraid to fail.
By "playing it safe" Crystal was getting laughs, but he wasn't being memorable, which this agent regarded as important to Crystal's growth as a stand-up.
Whether or not you agree with the agent, you agree that growth in general is important. To your career and to yourself as an artist.
MYQ: "In my standup (and life), I talk about the things I want to talk about, I do the things I want to do"
That is comfort. It's not complacency, but it is maintaining a level of stability. In life it's key to survival and sanity. Can you grow as a comedian by staying in your comfort zone? Yes. Could you grow at a different rate by getting out of your comfort zone? It remains to be seen.
I am so terrified of jumping out of a plane, I have to live vicariously through Adam Newman. But you don't die from taking risks on stage. You may feel dumb, embarrassed, judged, or alienated, but you live to tell the tale. If you learn anything from it then taking the risk was worth it. Even if you learn never to take that risk again.
As for people who spill their guts because "it's who they are and what they want to say," yes, getting personal comes easy to some. Making it funny is hard for everyone.
That's another reason risk-taking is individual and depends on the comic. By the time the comedian makes it funny, it's not a risk anymore. It just seems like one to the audience. But once it feels natural your mission is accomplished.
"There are a lot of words here."
But not right there.
Here are some more...
"Could you grow at a different rate by getting out of your comfort zone? It remains to be seen."
That is a good question.
I think leaving one's comfort zone doesn't necessarily equate to positive results, just as remaining in one's comfort zone (or even aiming to EXPAND one's comfort zone to include more things, which I don't see as the same necessarily as leaving the zone, though the two might be related in some way, if they are indeed two different but similar-ish things) doesn't necessarily equate to negative results or stagnation.
For myself, I'm happy with my productivity within my hopefully ever-expanding comfort zone...
One thing that springs to mind that might fit the bill of getting outside of it for me, would be to make more deliberate use of physicality on stage. It's not usually something I think about as much as other aspects of my comedy, but obviously it is relevant, and perhaps my performance quality would improve at a greater rate if I consciously focused on doing more with physicality.
(Of course, it's also the case that sometimes I look back on sets on tape of myself from years ago and think my physical performance has improved greatly just with time and practice and NO conscious choices about it, so I've been happy to let the natural progression of growth take its course.)
I think a major theme in life is figuring out how to be happiest and most productive, and hopefully align those two as much as possible.
If taking risks makes you more productive, then maybe it's worth it even if it makes you less happy.
Or if it makes you happy, maybe it's worth it even if it's not making you more productive.
Do what you like, go jump out of a plane everyone!
That settles it! I am performing on the Naked Comedy Showcase!
I'm glad we had this talk.
That's all I was trying to say.
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