How do you know when your comedic character has arrived?

Some questions from a reader:

1) What would you consider the best way to get feedback on your performance/material when you don't really know the other comics that you perform with regularly? I've been doing stand-up for almost two years, maybe three nights a week, at best. I know most comics by recognition because we perform regularly together but I don't have the family-like rapport the other comics have with each other. Aside from my girlfriend and a few random suggestions from strangers, I don't feel like I have the steady feedback that most other open mic comics get from each other. Thoughts?

Um, three nights a week for two years and you don't have rapport with any other comics? That's a problem. Start making friends. Comedy is pretty tough if you take a lone shark attitude. Find at least a couple of people who you respect and get to know 'em. You need allies in this game. In fact, I think the first few years is basically you trying to impress other comics and just using the crowd as a means to do that.

2) Recently, you posted something from Brian Kiley on trying to find your comedic character. I'm still trying to figure out what my gimmick is as a performer. Right now, I think I'm a grad student in a relationship who likes to gives random musings on what I find to be ridiculous. I don't know if the audience buys into it though. How do you know when your character has arrived? Does the audience tell you? Other comics?

I think the audience tells you with laughs. Also, other comics might be able to point out "this sounds like you." Like Mark will sometimes tell me a joke sounds "very Ruby" which can be a good pointer that it's something "in character" or however you wanna say it.

And fwiw: "I'm a grad student in a relationship who likes to gives random musings on what I find to be ridiculous"...This seems way too generic to be your comedic character. Try harder to figure out what's really unique about you or what you say on stage.

3) Lastly, what is the general rule on injecting esoteric references into your material? One of my favorite comics is Patton Oswalt and I would say that random cultural and literary allusions is 75% of his act. My mind operates the same way too but I always either a) get scared because of the audience demographic or b) psyche myself out on whether its funny or not. I just wanted to get your takes on this.

No general rule that I know of. Try it. If people laugh, great. If not, maybe it's a bad idea. Or maybe you need to find a different audience. One thing to keep in mind: If you rely too much on pop culture or specific niche references, you can limit the scope of people who get you. That's not a grand idea for someone just starting out.

And btw, I disagree that those kind of references are 75% of Patton's act. People like him and Dennis Miller certainly get esoteric, but there's a lot of stuff along the way that ANYONE can understand too.

Do you also want to get advice about standup from someone who is almost totally unqualified to give answers? Then send your questions to me at matt@mruby.com.


Elizabeth McQuern said...

Excellent post! As always, your blog is fantastic, Matt.

myq said...

I have a question also.

My question is, can I give some answers to those questions as well?

And the answer is yes! Here they are!

1) The best way to get feedback on your performance/material is by listening to the audiences. The things that audiences laugh at are usually the funny things.
(Also, I agree with Matt that you should reach out to other comics who are around your experience and who you like and make friends.)
Also, get out more than three nights a week. You will get steadier feedback when you perform more steadily.

2) You don't have to have a "gimmick." And you don't necessarily even have to figure out your character. Lewis Black says it took him 10 years before he found his. And it's not like he was doing something wrong such that he didn't figure it out earlier; it's just that sometimes it takes that long, and often it's something that just happens naturally. Don't think about what your voice "should" be. Just write and perform the things that you think are funny. Those are the things that will determine what your voice is. You don't need to consciously think about it.

3) Matt is right. Patton's act DEFINITELY has a much lower percentage than 75%. And he's right that you should just try it, if YOU think it's funny. There's no need to psyche yourself out; try your stuff on several different audiences, and see who, if anyone, likes it. Certainly, there will be some crowds that like or understand certain references and others that don't, and that's okay. Not every joke has to be perfect for every crowd. Not every COMEDIAN has to be perfect for every crowd. If you think something is funny, and audiences do too, you win, no more thinking!

4) There was no question four. I just like the number four.

soce said...

Aren't most comedians people who muse on what they find ridiculous? I haven't heard many comics start off their jokes with "Here's something that's completely normal and doesn't bother me one bit..."

So what I'm saying is that that's not a bad "character" to have. But yeah, from there, you can definitely get more specific and figure out what you'd like to muse about.

I personally just started standup a few weeks ago, so until I hit my stride, I'm going to throw out topics wildly left and right to see what hits and what doesn't, as well as what feels right to me etc.

When I think of most of my favorite comedians, most of them don't really have a "character".. I mean they certainly have quirks and mannerisms, plus an overall way of handling their delivery, but most comedians talk about pretty much everything--

--Unless they are literally "a fictional character", such as Larry The Cable Guy or Jeff Dunham's puppets.

myq said...

Soce--as far as comedians having a character--there are definitely comedians whose stage persona is not their exact personality (though likely a facet of it).

Chris Rock springs to mind immediately. He is NOT a loud guy in real life. He obviously talks about the things that he thinks and cares about, but on stage his persona is totally different than his off-stage, much more soft-spoken voice. I once heard him interviewed on NPR and couldn't tell who it was (turned it on in the middle) until they said it.

Same with Lewis Black. You can be angry on stage without being angry in real life. I believe he's a pretty down-to-earth, centered guy who doesn't yell NEARLY as much.

Unless that doesn't respond to what you were saying.
And then oh well.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

2.)...Right now, I think I'm a grad student in a relationship who likes to gives random musings on what I find to be ridiculous. I don't know if the audience buys into it though.

Why wouldn't the audience buy into it? Are you lying? I love the idea of you pretending to be a grad student in a relationship who finds things ridiculous and the audience is like, "Who does this guy think he's kidding? He's not gonna earn an MBA. People aren't dating him. And if he thinks I'm gonna buy that business about twist-ties being useless, he's out of his mind. Twist-ties are necessary for bread bags. I know it. He knows it. End of story."

londoncalling said...

I love the notion of a set being 75 per cent crammed with most obscure , pretentious pop culture references ever ...
" what's the deal with twist ties ?
they remind me of an early Joy Division Album that's been re-mixed by carl sagan and philip roth

Abbi Crutchfield said...

@londoncalling LOL

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