Hey. I’m Matt Ruby (email@example.com). I live in Brooklyn and I'm a standup comedian and the creator of Vooza, a video comic strip about the tech world. This is Sandpaper Suit, a comedy blog about standup, filmmaking, and whatever else I feel like talking about. Established 2006. Phew, that's a while.
I'd say somewhere else. Stay in (or, if you're in a podunk town, move to) Chicago, Boston, or Seattle and take some time to build your chops. The worst thing about comedy in NYC is how hard it is to get stage time. Other cities give you more of a chance to grow and get in front of real audiences sooner (and non-NYC crowds are usually more tolerant). Then, when you're really killing it in your home town, consider making the move.
That said, you'll be in for a rude awakening when you get here. Comics who are really cooking in, say, Seattle come to NYC and find that they pretty much have to start over. That can be a tough thing, to go from doing sweet gigs in front of real audiences to schlepping from one open mic to another where you're performing only for comics who don't give a fuck.
Also, you'll probably have to dump a lot of your material. Jokes that work on the road or in other cities can crash hard in NYC. The plus side to that: I think if you can kill here, you know you've got strong material. I feel like the talent level of other comedians and the savviness of audiences here really push you to come up with stronger material than you would otherwise.
After you move here, then what? Well, it helps if you've got friends here already. Being hilarious is a good start, but having people who can hook you up with spots and vouch for you to others can help you skip ahead and save months of grunt work. Still, you'll probably need to perform wherever and whenever at first.
And then there's the whole social aspect of being a comic. Being "on the scene" is cheesy sounding but it is the best way to get spots and get known.
Commit yourself to learning the social skills needed to be the guy that people call. It means a few hours a day of meeting everyone you can, being around the studios where people are hiring session musicians, being a good listener, being positive and helpful, keeping in touch, etc.
(I made a living as a session musician in NYC for a few years. I’m a good guitarist, but I swear the reason I kept getting called is I would find a way to appreciate whatever crap they played me, telling them that it’s awesome. It was a white lie but a good one, because people can be really insecure in the studio, and need encouragement.)
Be humble and constantly learning, understanding you’ve made a many-year-long commitment to mastery. Some may scoff at you for being the new kid in town, so agree with them, respect their experience, and make sure they know you’re committed. So few really are, that you’re sure to stand out.
Just translate that to comedy and it's equally good advice. Go to all the shows, listen to people, be positive, leave witty comments on people's Facebook accounts, tell someone when you like one of their bits, and show that you're really committed to it. Do that for long enough and people notice.
I'm at a mic the other night watching a comic who's kinda struggling. Yet a couple of lines he says get huge laughs. The thing is they aren't his intended punchlines. They're just little asides: "I was at this mic the other week and no one there liked me." "I work with Italian guys, the kind who wear gel in their hair." I know, they don't sound funny, but these lines got laughs.
Too bad he wasn't recording his set. He might be able to listen back, find the laughs, learn from 'em, and maybe even use those exact lines again.
A week later I saw this girl get up and riff off one of the earlier comics. She went into detail about her woes with men and how she was a late bloomer and it was all fucking hilarious. Totally off the cuff. Then she settled into her material. Wasn't nearly as funny. I sat there thinking what a shame she wasn't taping the set. She had gold, and it was probably just going to slip away.
In fact, I hardly ever see people taping their sets which is surprising to me. After the fact, it's tough to remember where the laughs came 100% of the time. Plus sometimes it's the exact phrasing or delivery that gets the laugh. If you don't tape it, you may never figure out how/why what you said was funny. You make your job that much harder. And you waste your stage time in a way. As a wise man once said, "Stage time in this city is too valuable to waste."
Here's an example of how taping a set made one of my jokes better. It's an older bit I've been bringing back recently:
"Promotion done!" wasn't part of the original bit. Just came out one night and it seemed to serve as a nice exclamation point. I think people wanted a hook to hang a laugh on.
If I hadn't been taping that set, I'm not sure I ever woulda remembered even saying that line (or that it got laughs). But now I always include it. Do I feel like a dork always setting up my recorder or a camera? Yeah. But it's better than just letting good stuff slip away.
It's weird that the word "anal" means either 1) you're doing a completely disgusting sex act or 2) you're incredibly neat. I'm sticking my penis where you shit...or I really like organizing my sock drawer!
If you are anal, you hate anal. Well, can you be a guy who's both anal and into anal? I guess it could work...some guy who uses his OCD as an excuse: "Nancy, I told you: I need to have sex with your body parts in alphabetical order!"
It almost seems like one of those things that would lead to a misunderstanding on Three's Company:
Larry: Jack, you told me she was an anal freak! Jack: Larry, I meant a neat freak. Mr. Furley: I don't think you're getting your beads back this time. Larry and Jack [in unison]: Mr. Fuuuuurley!
Actually, I think if you're anal, you have to find a different way to degrade a woman. I guess you could call it emotional anal. Like you call your wife from a strip club. "Yeah, headed to the Champagne Room honey, just thought you'd like to know." It's still messy, but only in your head.
Y'know the key to a good joke about anal: You've got to stretch it as wide, I mean as long as you can.
Take it easy ladies, ya gotta be the butt of the joke sometimes!
Seinfeld talks about writing for at least an hour everyday. George Carlin and Greg Proops tell rapid-fire, monologuish bits that seem like they must be written down on paper first.
But what about performers who hardly ever sit down and write? Ones who use the stage to come up with material.
Chris Rock goes up there with notes but they're really just bullet points for what he wants to say. Then he dances around those ideas until he hits on something funny. He says he wants his jokes to have the force of an argument and that not having them fully written out helps with that.
Sometimes it's a conversation with somebody. Or, sometimes it's just a thought that wanders through my head when I'm walking down the street, or an experience or a moment that I live where I realize there's a funny bit in it. And generally, I won't write down the whole thing because it's not a written word, it's a spoken art. So, I'll just sort of maybe write down one word. Because I've got kids and a lot of competing interests. So a day of being with the kids can obliterate all other thoughts. So if I have a funny thought I'll write down just a key word to remember it, and then next time I'm on stage is when I'll really write it. When I'm on stage is when I'll really talk it out with an audience there. An audience is a target, it's a guide. You can't really generate stand up material without an audience. They gotta tell you how to say it. And then once it's been said in front of an audience, it lives. And every time I say it, it changes, develops or gets worse.
And in interviews, I've heard lots of other comics talk about how they write onstage exclusively. For these guys, it's about getting up there, being in the moment, and seeing where it takes 'em.
Lately, I've made a go of trying to be more freeform when I hit mics. Sometimes ya crash and burn. But there are definitely some pros to this approach: It keeps you more conversational. You're front of mind and discovering ideas in the moment. It forces you to talk more about stuff that you actually care about instead of just aha/clever wordplay. And it keeps the audience engaged because you're talking to them instead of just reciting a memorized script.
Even when I do write at home, I find it really helps to actually say stuff out loud. It's amazing how much ideas change or come to you when there are actually words coming out of your mouth. It must engage a different part of your brain or something.
A comic who just got a killer 15 minute tape and doesn't have a lot of stuff online yet emailed me:
Hey, I've got a bunch of jokes from this new set I wanna put on YouTube. But do you think its dumb to put all my jokes online? Or do you think its better to put more up there?
my take on that: i'm more worried about people never hearing my good jokes than i am about them hearing them too much. but you could always just put up a few if you're worried.
i wouldn't do whole 15 min set. pick 5-10 min solid set that you can use for getting gigs or sending to industry.
then if you want to split up addl jokes and post those individually, that's cool too. any one who watches all those will be super fan anyway. as long as ya have some new jokes, how much can they complain?
if that's too much of a pain, just do one big one and leave it at that.
also, you don't need to promote on your own site if you're worried. you can just post and email it to people who you want to see it. if random others discover it, than no big whoop.
Of course, depends on how much material you have and stage of your career. If you're about to record an album or something, a different approach might be a good idea.
Saw an ad on a NYC bus for Bret Michaels "Rock of Love Bus." It was a big picture of Bret and above him it says, "If the bus is a-rockin'...you know what to do!" Actually, I have no fucking idea what to do. Change the channel? Call the STD clinic? Bring Bret his hair extensions? More details please, VH1!
Watching Groucho riff = good times. This clip from "You Bet Your Life."
Last line just too perfect.
At We're All Friends Here, Mark and I are actually making a point of not scripting out our banter too much. Leads to more fresh moments like this. When you get that "aha" moment of discovery onstage, nothing quite like it.
People are crazy in New York. I think it's because the apartments are so small. In fact, my apartment is so small, even my Roomba is seeing a therapist. You should hear the things the poor little guy says. "I feel like I've got nowhere to turn. It's like I'm constantly banging my head against the wall. Life sucks!" I think he's got attachment issues.
The scene: A comedy club in Chicago back in the fall. I do my set (including my bit on the Gay Pride Parade), get offstage, and head to the back of the room. On the way, I pass the comic who's going on next. (We also shared a bill another time I was in town.) He reaches out to shake my hand.
Chicago comic: Hey, that joke about the Gay Pride Parade? I've got a bit like that and I did it at that show we were both on a couple months back. Me: Uh, OK. You think I ripped you off? I've been doing that joke for years. CC: [Still shaking my hand. Looks doubtful.] Me: I've got a YouTube clip from 2006 where I do that joke if you want to see it. CC: [Still shaking my hand.] Alright man, honor system. Honor system. Me: Uh, alright. [He's being introduced so I take my hand back and walk away.]
He then goes up and performs. When he gets offstage, he comes to the back of the room with a notebook and pen in his hand and sits down next to me.
CC: So, I don't mean to accuse you or anything but where can I go to see that video? Me: [Laughing.] Well, I think you DO mean to accuse me of something. But sure. [I give him info for how to find it on YouTube. Then I give him my card too.] And here's my card, if you can't find it then email me and I'll send you the link. CC: OK. Me: Really man, it's not the most original premise in the world. CC: [Gets up and walks away.]
A few months back, I did a live set as The Hip Hop Pirate at Parkside Lounge (used some of the footage in the music video). I did an intro in character and then asked the hosts to drop the beat. Problem: They couldn't figure out how to work the sound system. CD couldn't play at first. Then it played but I could barely hear it. So I just kinda rambled and riffed, in character, for a few minutes while they got it sorted out. It was fucking painful for me though I guess some enjoyed it. Enjoy the awkwardness...
Got a new bit that's been working well lately. And it's depressing me slightly. Because it's sorta dirty. And I've noticed that a lot of my bits that get the most laughs are ones that are about sex in some way or have a "motherfucker" or some other curse thrown in on the punch.
I don't think that means these jokes are stupid or anything. But still, getting a laugh off a sex topic or salty language feels like cheating a little bit. How much are the laughs because you're funny and how much are they because people feel naughty listening to ya? You can get 8-year olds to laugh if you say naughty words too, ya know?
Tough choice though: Do you abandon an X-rated joke that's working well for a PG one that doesn't get as many laughs? I've heard people say they do this because they want to have "a network-ready set." Or they want to do colleges (or already do them) where you have to perform clean. But is that a silly thing to think about when you're not really doing either of those and there's nothing on the horizon?
Plus, a lot of the comics I enjoy most (CK, Rock, etc.) manage to be both filthy and smart. I guess that's what the key is...if you're giving a smart take on it, it's ok to be dirty. But I still feel like a clean joke that gets huge laughs is the ideal goal to shoot for.
Exciting news for the East Village — we’ve discovered that the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre has designs on the former Two Boots Pioneer Theater space at 155 East 3rd Street. Alex Sidtis, directing manager of the UCB’s current location in Chelsea, revealed to us that the troupe is hoping to open an East Village outpost, depending on whether it can secure a tavern wine license (the theater will plead its case at a January 12 meeting of Community Board 3’s licensing committee).
That'd be a sweet development. East Village/LES still feels like it needs something to replace Rififi. Piano's doesn't want too many comedy shows and crowds there tend to be stiff for some reason. Karma doing ok but still a bit smoky/weird as a venue. Saw a decent show at Sidewalk Café last week — maybe more to come? Sweethaven guys tried B3 but no luck there (too much noise). Kabin and Three 'O Cups hosting cool shows but I hear their owners aren't comedy fans. Still feels like there's room for a new venue to make some noise downtown.
Update: UCB needs community support and says, "If you or anyone you know live within Community Board 3 (the area of NYC from the East River westward to 4th Avenue, and from 14th Street down to the Brooklyn Bridge) and support this effort please take a moment and sign the online petition."
For one thing, it has lots of photos. And every photo includes Gurian himself (alongside someone else). And sometimes the column is even him writing about the photo of himself with these people. Usually at the Friar's Club.
I’m sitting at a table in The Milton Berle room, where most of the book parties take place, and I wind up at a table of only three people, me, Belz, and Paul Shaffer, who I’ve known even longer than I do Belz. As proof I offer the classic three in one photo that we started taking many years ago.
Three-in-one photo of me, Belzer and Shaffer taken at The Friars Club.
A few years later, I brought that original photo with me when we were together and took a photo of us standing in the same order holding the original photo, and then did it a third time years after that. So it’s a photo of me, Belzer and Shaffer, holding a photo of me, Belzer and Shaffer, holding yet another photo of me, Belzer and Shaffer. We actually tried for a fourth, but it didn’t come out.
I get dizzy just thinking about it! Does he carry this photo around all the time, just hoping he'll run into these guys!?
Then he starts harassing people. He gives Belzer shit for not giving him a personal enough inscription when signing his book. Then he admits to boring actor Tony Roberts by telling him how he "originally met him through Woody Allen many years before when they were in Play It Again Sam."
Then he gets around to talking about Birbigs' new show and goes into it with this great intro:
As a young child I had a lot of scary dreams. I dreamt of two men named Bunce and Bunce-Labin, (I swear those were their names, and if you don’t believe me, ask my parents!) who came into my room at night, and ran their very long, sharp fingernails over my body hoping to wake me up so they could hurt me. I was a very strange child. But never, … not once, did I ever dream of a jackal entering my room.
And then he tells how he interviewed Birbigs but lost the interview!
So I went backstage and taped his story, which somehow disappeared even though I downloaded it onto my computer. The recording disappeared and the computer file disappeared. Lately, I’m losing a lot of s**t!
And then he explains why Jews are funny:
There was a time when all comedians were Jewish, even the ones that weren’t. For whatever reason Jews like to laugh, and mostly at themselves. It’s a gift we were given for being The Chosen People! As we were leaving The Promised Land they gave out gift bags, and each one of them had a certificate for a sense of humor.
Oh, and he loves Wendy Williams.
She actually comes out onstage and opens the show. The night I saw her she pulled up in a red Bentley that made my white Jag look like a roller-skate. She sat in the restaurant like a Queen and all her subjects came to pay homage.
Did ya see how he through in that reference to his Jag? And in between all this stuff is LOTS more photos of him standing next to people like "super model Josie Maran."
Can you make his column if you don't pose for a photo with him? Where does he get his hair did? Is he actually for real...or just Punchline's version of Jackie Harvey? So many questions!!!
Energy is great, right? Pumps up the crowd when you've got big act outs and lots of enthusiasm. But it might not be the best way to make it onto TV.
Eddie Brill, Letterman's booker, sometimes does workshops where he gives notes to comics. I've heard that he's told a couple of good comics who are energetic that they'd have to tone it down before they'd ever get a shot at being on the show. To one, he said something like this: "High energy comes across as desperate onscreen."
Never really thought about it before but I guess it makes sense. A live room needs that shot of adrenaline sometimes. But on TV, that can seem manic. On the flip side, someone like Steven Wright comes off great on a screen, but his kind of low energy schtick might bomb in a typical club environment. (A reason why a lot of mellow guys prefer theaters to clubs.)
I'm relatively pleasant to Zach. I don't mind what he does. If you need to play piano to amplify the fact that your jokes are simplistic and not that funny. If you need to act all weird and crazy to garner attention and make a lot of money and that's a sacrifice you're willing to make, I think that's fine.
But this kinda shit. Why's he got to take shots at me for? I ain't bothering him. I accept him. I accept that he's a little bearded clown that needs props to be funny and I don't criticize him for that...
He's pretty huge. He's a big college act. The kids like his fraudulent insanity. "I'm so weird and off. I'm the little odd man that's cool because I have a beard."
Video below (starts 1:00 in):
My fave parts of this: 1) Maron's claim: "I don't criticize him for that." Yeah, good thing there was nothing critical said! 2) The constant references to "Fuji Water." Makes me think of Mr. Fuji...who actually would make a great bottled water mascot.
Wouldn't you buy water from this guy?
Anyway, before we get our ruffles in a lather, it's apparently a non-feud. A commenter at Best Show Ever host Tom Scharpling's site reports:
Maron said on his show today, that he spoke to Zach, and that they pretty much smoothed things out. Maron admitting it was a misunderstanding. He said that Zach was a really sweet guy.
Phew, crisis averted! Take down that steel cage you were building.
If there's anything of substance to discuss here, it's the idea that a comic who "acts all weird and crazy to garner attention" is doing something wrong. I don't buy that. Sure, some random manic guy covering up the fact that his material sucks is annoying. But that's not Zach, whose stuff shifts from really silly to really cerebral. Just because you're working low doesn't mean you're not working high too. Look at Steve Martin.
In fact, I think Zach pretty much nailed it in his sendup of comedy snobs who look down on physical comedy:
Maron also seems to imply that any comic who uses a prop needs it as a crutch. Now sure, everyone loves to rip on prop comics like Carrot Top for being unfunny. And that's probably fair. But I think people like Zach, Demetri Martin, and Eugene Mirman all use "foreign objects" [I can't stop with the wrestling references!] to fun effect in their acts. Part of what gives those guys a unique voice in the sea of soundalike standups out there.
On the pro-prop tip, here's a video of David Cross using a newspaper and a poster at the end of a set:
Had a conversation after a show the other week with a couple of comics where we were discussing how jokes go in cycles. A bit will work really well for a few months and then it will start doing nothing. That will last a while and you may dump it or put it on hiatus. But eventually, it makes a comeback and does well again. And all that can happen even if the bit didn't change at all.
One big factor to that: How confident you are in the bit. A joke's working and you feel good about it and everything's great. But after a while you either get tired or lazy or something is off and it doesn't do as well. You start doubting it. But then a good crowd or giving it a rest breathes in new life. It's all a bit strange. Goes to show how much of this game is about delivery and confidence. Material certainly helps, but it ain't everything.
Similarly, I've noticed the key test for a new joke is the third and fourth times telling it. Sometimes you get laughs off a new idea just because it's new. You're excited to try it and your delivery sounds fresh (maybe it's something you're just riffing even). But then, when you've told it a few times, it starts to go downhill. Once the adrenaline and energy of a new idea are gone, you see if it's really got legs.
I’m Matt Ruby. I'm a New York City standup comedian and this is my comedy blog Sandpaper Suit. Here, I post 1) about the art of standup (how the comedy sausage gets made, if you will) and 2) funny stuff — jokes, videos, etc. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for bookings or anything else.
Author of the comedy blog Sandpaper Suit, a favorite of comedians for its behind the scenes look at doing standup
Performs at venues all over NYC and around the country
Here's a clip of me performing:
From "Think Tank."
Time Out NY.
Featured comedians at SXSW 2009 (I'm on the far right). From L to R (approx): Janeane Garofalo, Josh Fadem, Charlie Sotelo, Marc Maron, Todd Barry, Matt Braunger, Eugene Mirman, Scott Aukerman, Michelle Biloon, Natasha Leggero, Andy Kindler, Chris Fairbanks, Matt Ruby.
Venues performed at:
Stand Up NY (New York, NY) Comix (New York, NY) Caroline’s (New York, NY) Comedy Village (New York, NY) UCB (New York, NY) Rififi (New York, NY) Comedy Death Ray (Los Angeles, CA) What's Up Tiger Lily? (Los Angeles, CA) The Josh and Josh Show (Los Angeles, CA) Comedy Store La Jolla (San Diego, CA) Comedy Studio (Boston, MA) Nick’s Comedy Stop (Boston, MA) ImprovBoston (Boston, MA) Hard Rock Café (Boston, MA) Arlington Drafthouse (Arlington, VA) Zanies (Chicago, IL) Lincoln Lodge (Chicago, IL) Beat Kitchen (Chicago, IL) Schubas (Chicago, IL) The Velveeta Room (Austin, TX) Coldtowne Theater (Austin, TX) La Nuit Theater (New Orleans, LA) Topaz (Washington, DC) Shubin Theater (Philadelphia, PA) Khyber (Philadelphia, PA) etc.
Mruby.com will tell you everything else about Matt Ruby that you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask.