What makes a bit great

After I posted my list of the 10 greatest standup bits of the past 20 years, Abbi asked:

By "greatest" do you mean "funniest"? I'd like to see a little blurb after the clip of why this made the cut (revolutionary / often quoted / spurred copycats, etc).

What makes a joke GREAT? Hmm. I kinda feel like I know it when I hear it. Tough to define. But let's try...

First of all, it's gotta be funny. Really funny. Then other stuff comes into play: how much of a point there is to it, how much it reveals something about the comedian, how well it's executed, how it's performed, and how unique it is.

There are things that I laugh at a lot but that I don't think are really "great" jokes. Sometimes they're just silly. Nothing wrong with that but, to me, the best standup is hilarious AND has a point too.

To go back to that list, these were jokes that all made great points: Chris Rock's Black People vs. Niggaz, Louis CK's Why?, George Carlin's God, and Doug Stanhope's Fuck the Jews.

But not every bit on the list was making an important point. Sometimes it's more the craft that turns me on. In Bernie Mac's You Don't Understand, the attitude, rhythm, and performance of it is incredible. Paul F. Tompkins' Peanut Brittle is great for how deep he goes into such a silly topic and how he acts the hell out of it. Jim Gaffigan's Hot Pockets is like a clinic in how to get all the comedy meat off the bone. He just hammers every possible angle. Andy Daly's Knock It Off perfectly deconstructs the silliness of typical hackery by going for minutes on end without ever actually saying anything.

I guess for those bits it's the artfulness of 'em. Same thing with a guy like Hedberg. He's not saying anything important but it's the way he sees the world and how he expresses it that makes his stuff so amazing.


Luke G said...

Was "you don't understand" really a bit, though? It seemed like it was just something he did to win over a hostile crowd in that particular moment and context. It's an amazing performance but the actual material he's doing is almost nonsensical. ("Bitch, I ain't had no pumpkin pie! HIT IT!") But it's what he's doing and how he's whipped the crowd into such a frenzy that's more impressive than anything he's saying.

Matt Ruby said...

It's debatable Luke. Really depends on how you define things. I think the way he keeps calling back things makes it a cohesive piece. But yeah, the jokes are kinda whatever.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

I like that Luke G. used the term "Whipped" on the subject of Pumpkin Pie. Am I the only one who's hungry?

These explanations needed to go UNDER the clips so I could let them sink in while watch. I can't be clicking on all kinds of links, man.

The fact that Mac's jokes sucked was the point. "I'm going to come out here with no material, and you're STILL not gonna boo me off the stage." It was totally unexpected, which is part of what makes great comedy great.

Since Myq hasn't weighed in I'll play devil's advocate. I don't know about stand-up needing to have a point. Maybe it all has a point. To paraphrase Gaffigan (XM Radio interview taping at Comix), his material comes from a real place and when he feels like delving into something deeper than bacon some day he will. But the food analysis is honestly what he's thinking about and what he has the most fun exploring. The silly-sounding critical voice came from criticizing himself to soften the blow of when others might do it.

Matt Ruby said...

I didn't leave commentary on those bits intentionally. Better to watch 'em pure the first time I think.

And I'm talking about the comedy that I like best. Gaffigan is a funny man. But I'd still WAY rather listen to CK because of the substance of what he's saying. Others can feel free to disagree.

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