Making 'em think vs. making 'em laugh

"Daily Show" Segment Producer Patrick King in this article about the show's staff:

"The fact is, we are a comedy show, and if it's not funny we're not doing it, no matter how big of an issue it is," King said. "We care really passionately about the things we do, but first and foremost we have to make people laugh."

I agree. First thing ya gotta do is get laughs. Then you can worry about making your point. In fact, that might be a wise career path too. Worry about being funny first and then worry about getting across some sort of "message."

Reminds me of a recent email exchange I had with Myq Kaplan about making 'em think vs. making 'em laugh...

Myq wrote:

you see this carlin daughter interview in punchline?

"In the book, he talks about realizing that laughter wasn’t necessary to know he was being successful at his job. He says, ‘I got that as long as the audience is willing to sit there and nod their heads and I knew that the wheels were turning in their heads, that I was doing my job.’ So, there’s a man who is acknowledging that he is making people think, and he’s okay with it."

I wrote:

didn't see that. interesting.

i'm kinda fascinated by if there's a point when this "make 'em think over make 'em laugh" approach becomes ok. after x number of years, or a certain amount of success, or having been on TV, or once people are knowingly coming to see you vs. just a random crowd, or if you get 1hr instead of 8 mins.

i just can't shake the feeling that someone who does this [i.e. a laughter is not necessary approach] at my level and for the crowds i'm performing in front of is just being selfish. not to mention, that path will never get you on TV or enable you to reach a level of "fame" that you can do this for a career. in short: i wonder if you need to make people laugh first and THEN you earn the right to make 'em think. at least if you want to do it under the umbrella of "comedy."

MYQ wrote:

i think your assessment is pretty much dead on

i mean, if you can be as compelling and interesting as carlin was in an 8-minute set when you're starting, power to you, go for it

(because isn't ALL of beginning standup selfish to a certain degree? most people are bad, and if you weigh only the momentary benefits to yourself versus the horrors you're pushing upon crowds, strict utilitarianism might suggest that everyone stop and never start comedy)

also, when people went to see carlin in his later years, they weren't going to see "a comedy show"
they were going to see carlin

that's probably a considerable, noteworthy difference
(because even if some newby CAN be as compelling/interesting as carlin, that might not entertain or please an audience that's just coming to see "comedy")

i definitely think being funny first and interesting later makes sense, but i don't know if it HAS to be that way
it's probably just harder if you're more interesting than funny first
i'm trying to think of people like stanhope (who i believe always had the capacity to be funny initially), or other interesting people and how they started, and the one that jumps out as someone who might have bucked this route is maron...
i don't believe he was ever just a punchline-providing audience-pleaser, was he?
either way, i think you CAN do whatever you want from the get-go, but if you DON'T go the funny, audience-pleasing (at least learning that you CAN do it) route, it might be a harder road to hoe (is that an expression?)

I wrote:

agreed. and i also think there's something good about mastering the conventional way of doing something before you start breaking the rules. like miles davis playing standards before getting all freaky avant-gardey. do that (prove you CAN follow the rules) and the choices you make to NOT follow the rules become even more powerful.

MYQ wrote:

agreed agreed.

but then there are the few cases where people do seem to come up with something genius right out of the gate
i hear douglas adams created the hitchhiker's guide in his early twenties
not that it's particularly Unconventional
(and after reading "outliers" and hearing about the standard 10,000 hours of work that most geniuses seem to have put in before they were at the top of their game, like the beatles, etc... have you read it?... it also talks about how, sure, mozart did create his first symphony or whatever when he was 3 or 4, but after putting in 10,000 hours of work after that, the stuff he was writing at 10 or 11 made that original stuff look like crap... i'm paraphrasing... anyway, point is it seems like most people in any art, craft, skill, trade, most of anyone who is great at something does put in the work, and i presume the work most often comes in the form of the conventional at first, learning before becoming awesome)
that said, mozart DID write shit when he was 3 or 4, and regardless of how great it was, he was doing it
who knows

Related: Malcolm Gladwell on what makes a great performer: 10,000 hours


Mo Diggs said...

Great post! Maron and Carlin started off as joke tellers by the way. Carlin did commercial parodies. Watch old Marc Maron clips on his website; he had jokes about teenage girls. It was more in this decade that he's been having these "breakdown" sets.

myq said...

I'm not sure what you're referring to about old Maron clips... I just watched this one, which appears to be the earliest Conan appearance there, from 1994, fifteen years ago (http://marcmaron.com/video/1-25-94.mov), he's just about 30, fairly early in his career, and the style seems near-identical to what he's doing today.
It's not setup-punch jokes, it's the same brilliant, interesting personal stories and insights told with poignant turns of phrases; it's Maron.
Watch that clip.
And/or tell me what clips YOU are referring to.

My point was that, to my knowledge, Maron was NOT like Carlin, who of course started out with lots of jokes, also brilliant jokes, but lots of jokes about language and farts and less meaningful business than the social commentary he came to deliver later.

It seems to me that Maron has always been true to this truth-telling muse that he has; that he didn't necessarily learn how to be funny in a different way than he's come to be now...
(Like I said, I don't know what clips or jokes you're referring to, but looking at this one that I saw from three-quarters of his career ago, PLUS my memory of an early HBO special of his, a memory which is slightly foggy but mostly because it was ranty and less jokey than I was accustomed to or interested in at the time, much less than I am now... makes me stand by my assessment that one doesn't HAVE to go the "get funny THEN say the things you want to say" route, because it seems Maron was doing both the whole time.)

myq said...

PS I believe I found the clip you're referring to where he "had jokes about teenage girls."


It appears to be his first Letterman, two years after that Conan appearance, and I still don't really see how either set (this one with jokes about the Middle East, war, aging, his relationship, etc.) shows him to be anything other than true to himself, as much as he is now, and years earlier...

I don't know what he was like on stage before he started being on television, but I can't imagine that it was perfectly executed setups and punches about nothing, that all of a sudden morphed into this fully-formed personal style that appears to have been present for the past 15 years at LEAST (plus whatever time it took him to develop and write and perfect that first Conan set, etc.)


Mo Diggs said...

I am at work and can't prove you wrong right now. Truthfully I may never prove you wrong because I may be wrong. Can we at least agree that his jokes seemed more conventional back then? He had jokes about fast food employees smoking pot and teenage girls not giving him the time of day.

Here's a joke of his from '98:

"How complicated can ice cream flavors be? How much can you put in there? I mean, when the flavor's something like banana ice cream with caramel, fudge chunks, cheddar goldfish and pennies -- you've got to draw a line there."

VERY different from this 2007 joke:

"Is there any indication we shouldn't be depressed? Are you living on the same planet that I am? Do you ever think that depression might be the reasonable human response to the crap we're going through as a species, meant to propel us into the next..."

Though I agree he was probably the most consistent throughout his career.

Mo Diggs said...

"Can we at least agree that his jokes seemed more conventional back then?"

I mean by his own standards although I admit even then he probably never seemed like much of a setup/punch guy. But I also don't think he was just as difficult then. I think if he started out ranting on marriage and divorce he probably would not have gone too far.

I also have in mind his HBO One Night Stand when his delivery was a LOT more rapid fire and loud, compared to Final Engagement, where he almost seems to start the album talking under his breath.

myq said...

Watch the 1994 Conan clip and tell me if you think his jokes seem more conventional than they do now.
Sure, he might have written that ice cream joke years ago, but taking things out of context, you could also say that he's writing things about his cats now. Which he is.

(Neither of which do I see as a problem with viewing him as a consistent person who deals with, at various times, depression, cats, and ice cream.)

It seems to me that the more conventional topics (like the ice cream joke) are and have always been the exception, with respect to Maron's overall style and content choice.

(Again, not that there's anything wrong with joking about ice cream or whatever you want to joke about. Go for it, everyone. I scream, you scream, even Maron screams about ice cream.)

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Why is consistency worthy of praise? Shouldn't personal evolution imply a journey away from one's norms? You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who didn't sound the same famous as when he was breaking, because they've likely already found their voice. The only people whose style I heard dramatically change are Mitch Hedberg and Dwayne Perkins (Larry the Cable Guy).

Mo, good for you for citing your examples. You're not going to move Myq though. He is too analytical. Kaplan. Analytical. Kaplanalytical.

I would like to hear an entire album about ice cream. Does anyone do entire albums devoted to one topic? Dangerfield maybe.

soce said...

Sorry but I believe you meant Dan Whitney (not Dwayne Perkins)...

Ultimately, it's kind of fun to laugh at a comedy show. Although when someone is famous and craftworthy, it's neat to hear what's on their mind-- I get sad when they stop trying to be funny though and just sort of mope about how unhappy they are or how tough their life has become.. To me that's more just complaining and not really comedy.

soce said...

Unless of course their moping and complaining is actually quite funny, in which case that's fine.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

@ Soce: Don't be sorry, you're absolutely correct! Dan Whitney. But you get my point.

Matt Ruby said...

Myq, I agree there's no one right way. But I think the social commentary, truth-teller route may put a ceiling on how quickly and how high you can rise in the comedy world. I've heard both Maron and Stanhope complain about feeling like outsiders in terms of the industry. Not that they'd trade places with Mencia or Cook, but it does seem like there's a price to pay if you start out of the gate doing the "i will challenge you" path.

Abbi, not sure I agree with this:

"You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who didn't sound the same famous as when he was breaking, because they've likely already found their voice."

I feel like CK, Rock, Pryor, Birbigs, and many other great comics started off doing topics that were sillier and then moved into "realer," more honest topics once they had built up an audience.

myq said...

"But I think the social commentary, truth-teller route may put a ceiling on how quickly and how high you can rise in the comedy world. I've heard both Maron and Stanhope complain about feeling like outsiders in terms of the industry."

And you think they'd rather be insiders?
Stanhope, certainly, seems quite happy (at least according to an interview that came out this week, plus the theme of the show we saw him do at comix a month ago, where he complained hilariously about not being able to come up with as much hilarious stuff because he was so happy).
He's said time and again how he enjoys going to a city, filling a room with his people, keeping most of the door, not dealing with comedy club bureaucracy... that's a solution, not a problem...

So, practically speaking, I believe he's where he wants to be.

And as for Maron, I think he's been doing something similar these days, reaching his audience more directly through Air America, Breakroom Live, and most recently obviously his WTF podcast, which he has complete creative control over, and seems to be working for him financially as well...
Certainly, we can look at him and say "why isn't this genius more famous," but as he's said himself (paraphrasing), maybe he's not for everyone, and that's okay.

So, I don't think either Stanhope or Maron are good examples of people who have not risen far in the comedy world. They are two of the most respected, critically acclaimed, integrity-filled comics there are... and I don't think either of them would trade the experiences that got them where they are today.

And on the flip side, take someone like Gary Gulman. Brilliant comedian, superb joke-writer, who I believe has spoken of his "rise in the comedy world" as being fairly calculated, writing specifically Seinfeldian jokes on innocuous, non-confrontational topics, making himself perfect for TV spots and the opportunity to keep moving up in the industry (whatever that means). And it worked.
And then, according to a second-hand account because I wasn't there, a couple years ago, I hear he had something between an epiphany and a meltdown, and got down on himself for choosing the route he chose, choosing financial success with jokes about cookies over doing more important things while the world went to hell and our president brought us there as quick as possible...
So if this is an accurate description of events, here's an example of the exact opposite situation--someone who maybe WOULD trade how they got to where they are, if they could have had the chance to do it differently from the start.
(Or who knows, maybe not. Either way, I love Gulman, I love his jokes about cookies and everything he did in the past, as well as everything I've seen him do lately... He's definitely amazing and hilarious, and I guess it's difficult to say what he would be like had he begun his career differently.)

I certainly don't claim to have all the answers.
But since people have asked questions, here's one or two more...
(In another comment, because there are limits apparently.)

myq said...

"Why is consistency worthy of praise? Shouldn't personal evolution imply a journey away from one's norms?"

Consistency is worthy of praise in this situation (among others, probably):
for example, I watch Marc Maron today and think he's a genius. I wonder what he was doing 15 years ago, and I look and find out I think he was a genius then as well. That's impressive. I don't then think "he should be a different kind of genius now, or a better genius, some kind of super genius." I already think he's a genius, and it's impressive that he found his style, his honesty, who he is on stage and in life, so soon.
Not that he hasn't changed or evolved, either, just that there has been an additional consistency of style and integrity, a core of Maron-ness that seems to have been there for quite a while (whereas some amazing comedians have said it's taken them much longer to find that voice... Lewis Black, for example, has famously said it took him at least ten years to do so, and so to hone in on it more quickly and assuredly as it seems Maron did, then maintaining that, I think that is consistency worth praising).

(Sorry to write so much, I'll compact this last bit.)

As far as personal evolution requiring departure from one's norms, I only ask this... what if one's norms are awesome already?

ECN said...

Finding out that Dwayne Perkins is Larry the Cable Guy has damaged my respect for Dwayne Perkins, but even I have to admit that that's an impressive transformation.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

@ Matt Ruby: you're talking TOPICS. I was talking STYLE. Mo's point was Maron's topics have changed (ice cream to depression). Myq's point the topics can change but Maron's been consistently true to his style (plus he can still talk about cats). So when I say, "most comics...sound the same", I mean CK, Pryor and Birbigs haven't evolved much delivery-wise from when they had their BIG BREAK to when they became STARS. Rock actually evolved delivery-wise (I'm comparing this dvd I have of him from '89 to Bring the Pain....but maybe Bring the Pain was his big break. Just let me be right).

@ Myq: Why is genius so praise-worthy? Elitist. And if one's norms are awesome already there's nothing wrong with building on the awesome.

@ ECN: LOL! Dwayne Perkins to Larry the Cable Guy would be quite a transformation.

ECN said...

I mean, sometimes these "breakdowns" aren't for the best. I've seen Maron do some great comedy over the past few years -- I've also seen him ramble in a massively self-justifying manner about his divorce, or tank shows seemingly out of spite. Is it possible "I can get away with stuff I couldn't get away with before" could also mean "these people are letting me get away with stuff"?

Or Louis CK -- I know not everyone feels this way, but I like his earlier, more absurd-edged material a lot more than his current stuff, precisely BECAUSE it seems more "true", and less like an attempt to reinvent himself as some kind of Everyman figure. (Not that Louis isn't great all the time -- unlike Maron, he's always made an attempt to put on a real show up there.)

How is political commentary or unpleasant personal revelation inherently more "true" than faithfully documenting the inner workings of one's own mind? I mean, you wouldn't say Steven Wright or whoever is somehow "untrue".

(Whereas I WOULD say a lot of political comedy isn't as "true" as it could be, because it's not specific to the performer. Some is. But a lot is just a highbrow or deliberately confrontational spin on some guy's jokes about celebrities.)

Honestly, I'm on the other side of the fence with this one... some dude trying to be deep about politics is almost inherently not "true". If he was really trying to say something important and solid, he wouldn't be reshaping it into comedy in the first place. He'd be giving it the space it needed, and writing it down in an organized fashion.

And I understand that, for some audience members, a performer airing out his or her dirty laundry on stage can induce a satisfyingly visceral shock. But that's a visceral shock, that's all -- those guys aren't being "true", they're being shocking. Huge difference.

Don't praise these people for their "honesty" -- it's a ploy. They're indulging audiences' voyeuristic tendencies, and they know that those audiences will... well, those audiences will praise them for their "honesty", in part because that's the cliche now, in part because the audiences want to justify their OWN interest in that kind of wallowing.

Which, for one thing, removes the risk of REAL honesty. If a comic knows he/she can always escape judgment by justifying this kind of thing on artistic grounds, where's the risk?

And for another thing, who does it benefit to hear about how some guy is a jerk or a scummy character of one sort or another? I mean, if one of the aims of art is to exhibit and praise exemplary behavior (this is awfully 18th-century, but I think I might believe it), these people are doing the exact opposite. And even if not, what does the story of a jerk tell you? Myself, I'm valuing a jerk's opinion just slightly below the opinion of EVERYONE WHO IS NOT A JERK.

At least as regards their jerk-like behavior. I mean, Maron being an unsuccessful husband doesn't invalidate my desire to hear him do material about other things.

Ultimately, I guess you can forgive the appeal to visceral shock. it's a ploy, but it's no worse than any other ploy used to grab the audience. But it's also no better -- and a lot of folks seem to be under the delusion it IS better.

londoncalling said...

more tea vicar ?

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