Classical or jazz?

Interesting convo going on over at last week's "Focusing on industry over the room" post.

Erik C Nielsen said:

As far as this issue is concerned, I oscillate between the pragmatic -- "hey, if it gets laughs, whatever" -- and the idealistic -- "if it's dependent on the condition of the room, is it really yours? If it's ephemeral, you're going to say it once and then it's dead, did it really ever matter? If it's only funny in context, is it really as strong as a thing which is funny EVERY time?"

I feel like riffing is almost always the antithesis of craft, of efficiency, of speed. The most well-crafted set would contain little or no riffing -- the ideal comedy set, like the ideal in every other art form, is solid, filled up word-for-word, no wasted effort.

So while I certainly see the practical efficacy of riffing, there's something about it that feels like an artistic cop-out to me. ("Hey, I've got actual content, stuff I've crafted, but maybe I'll shock you a bit if I just make up a thing on the spot! Here it is!")

I mean, ad libbing isn't striving toward the ideal, you know?

myq replied:

Erik Charles Nielsen is about comedic performance as symphony.
Pro-riffers are about comedic performance as jazz improvisation.

A jazz improviser might play something only once and have it wow, compared to an orchestra performing Beethoven's fifth that wows every time.

I don't think either of those things are illegitimate as art or music.

I agree, there's good and bad riffing in comedy. Some people are amazing at it. (Paul F. Tompkins' latest CD starts with several tracks of fun riffing, before he goes into his excellent material, which is precisely the sort of thing he does at live shows as well... and his riffing delivers consistently, though it is unique to each situation.)
You can build up your muscles of riffery, just the way excellent improv performers put on excellent different shows every night.

And I'm sure there are symphony orchestras that can play a performance and mail it in.

There are ups and downs to each. Some people tend towards one rather than the other, and you're allowed to do whichever you like, or whichever you think you're good at. Or whichever you're NOT good at, if you think you can/should get better at it.

When you get down to it though, jazz is jazz and a symphony is a symphony, and a jazz symphony is a hybrid of the two, but they're all music; they're all art.

And the according analogy in standup--if you enjoy being in the moment, do it. If you enjoy working on polished pieces, do it.

They're both standup.

Andy Kindler is amazing and in the moment so much of his set, I love watching him. He is like comedy jazz.

Steven Wright is amazing and does a 90 minute show that is full of specific jokes that go the same way every time, for the most part. He is a comedy symphony.

They're both great, and neither of them needs to be the other way.

I think it comes down to intention. What do you want to do? Let's take CK. He's churning out so much new, great material at such a rapid pace. I guess it's more the symphony model but he's creating and retiring material so fast that there's def a slash and burn, jazzy thing going on there too. If he was doing the same bits for years at a time, that'd be one thing. But every six months he seems to have a brand new hour.

My fear is to wind up in a place where you're just phoning it in. Reciting a script every night. That might be the "ideal" perfectly crafted symphony, but to me there's a price you pay for that. You sell your soul a little bit.

That's why I love watching a Todd Barry, Patrice O'Neal, Todd Lynn or others who have great, crafted bits but also spend a large chunk of their sets really existing in the moment. I think they are as engaged and interested as the audience when they perform. They're having a good time each time they go up onstage. And that to me is the other idealistic thing to shoot for: To make people laugh but to also be fully engaged and having a blast while you do it. A lot of comics seem most fully alive when they're riffing. Then they settle into material and you feel the air go out of the balloon a bit.

Depends on how you see the world, I guess. I also think performing in a jazz or rock group would be way more fun than performing in an orchestra. The fuck ups and mistakes and wrong turns are what keep you from feeling like a robot. Symphonic perfection may be the ideal to some, but the idea of it kinda puts me to sleep.

One more thing: Erik asks, "If it's ephemeral, you're going to say it once and then it's dead, did it really ever matter?" Maybe that makes it matter even more. It was a special, unique piece of magic that existed only in that one moment in space and time. It's a once in a lifetime event that an audience and a performer get to share. Maybe that's how much you care for THAT audience. You're trying to make something special for them, even though you may never be able to use it again.


10 Comment(s)

Blogger soce said...

It can be similar with the hip hop. People enjoy the songs, but when I do improvised freestyles, that's when their ears really perk up, because they realize this is the once chance to hear what I say, and there's that whole excitement of not having any idea where exactly someone's going to go.

When I do my weekly stand-up show, I try to perform different material every time, mostly trying out new jokes, because I want to put a different show each time, especially for the fans who return each week. I tape it most of the time to keep track of which parts are the most successful.

Then when I do stand-up on other people's shows, I generally do my "greatest hits" string of jokes with less experimentation, unless I'm having a fantastic set and have fully won over the crowd, in which case I'll be more loose.

4/14/10, 4:15 PM  
Anonymous Robert K said...

Great post, great site. Thanks a lot.

4/15/10, 6:33 AM  
Anonymous ECN said...

Except -- except -- do you know how many ways I can deliver one joke? I feel like what I (and many other material-based comics) do is a lot closer to jazz improvisation than what you're describing does.

Just because I'm doing the same material doesn't mean I don't have a hundred cadences, a hundred tempos, a hundred varying phrasings with which to convey it, depending on my mood, or the tenor of the room, or its position in my set. I can get awfully "loose", as it were, without sacrificing control of the content.

I have pinpoint control over that material... I can really lean into it and PERFORM it in a way you can't perform a bunch of stuff you're making up on the spot. I don't have to fumble with the structure or worry about misspeaking -- I'm free to bring it TO the people.

But, you know, that's what engages me. That's what drives my enthusiasm. I couldn't fake an interest in ad-libs any more than you could fake an interest in the endless complexities of material delivery. If it doesn't engage you, there it is -- I stay plenty engaged with my iterations.

And that "you sell your soul a little bit" thing you're going on about is badly-thought-out nonsense. You want to know what my "soul" is?

Well, I shudder to use the word. But to the extent that I can say "soul", I'd apply it to the things I actually DO: the things I've thought out and believe in and stand behind -- the things that come naturally to me every time.

If you want to apply the word to some momentary, erratic whims you have, well, I can't stop you. But the ad-lib seems like an awfully airy sort of thing to keep so close to your heart...

4/15/10, 7:10 AM  
Anonymous ECN said...

And yes, yes, yes, I know I am taking an awfully hard line here. It just strikes me as more interesting this way -- you've already advocated for ad-libs, so I feel like really stressing the opposite view, maybe a little more than I otherwise would.

(A little.)


4/15/10, 7:15 AM  
Anonymous Hank Thompson said...

Is riffing the same thing as writing on stage? Going up with a concept and stepping into performance mode and letting the words come out as they may? Adding taglines as your head generates them? Is riffing reacting to something that just happened in the room? A shared moment of expression between audience and performer? Is it crowdwork?

I think it's all of those things. A simpler definition might be: going off-script.

Personally I enjoy a good riff, both performing and watching. Some comics are faster on their feet than others, and certain personas lend themselves to more naturally deviating from prepared material than others. Not to say that the ability to riff requires one to do so ALL the time. That's annoying.

Maybe the problem some have with riffing is that the laughter threshold is lower than it is for prepared bits, like in improv situations. The audience suddenly laughs a little easier and forgives mistakes a little more readily. People like moments that are original or that are at least perceived as original. If you rely on riffing because it's low-hanging fruit then you're avoiding the hard work of writing and performing a bit, like when comics have canned answers that are designed to look like riffing. i.e. prepared responses to What do you do for a living? You two dating?

But if a riff is genuine and funny and fits into a set and contributes to the overall performance in a way that makes the audience happy and demonstrates the performer's skill then there's nothing wrong with it all.

I riffed a fully-formed bit once and I kept it as a joke with very little rewrite but I was never able to capture the "magic" of that first time. Like Matt said, the air was out of the balloon a bit.

That's the strength of seasoned performers: the ability to conjure that "first time saying this" feeling that audiences love.

Anyway I'm going to a BBQ with some friends this weekend. I figure I'll do mostly riffing, maybe practice my crowdwork.

4/15/10, 1:47 PM  
Anonymous shittypantz said...

standup is LIVE. live in the moment.

4/15/10, 1:52 PM  
Blogger Abbi Crutchfield said...

I like that you took an awfully hard line ECN. Matt's a hippy. There are consequences to free love, Matt! And cut your hair.

I also agree with excrementypantz that you should live in the moment when performing so you can appreciate all the wonderful nuances that affect your set and see how your art develops and how your skill grows.

soce, I get something different out of freestyle than from regular songs. Like how a drawing a kid makes of you on the spot can be more impressive than the VanGogh you've heard about and travel to see. Like Hank says, my threshold of appreciation is lower since I have different expectations.

I feel like this is a good time to point out that riffing by Bill Burr is not equivalent to riffing by John Q. Comic, no matter how optimistic I get about open mics.

Delivering 100% solid material sans ad-libs does not necessarily mean you're phoning it in.

4/15/10, 2:48 PM  
Blogger soce said...

Also there are different kinds of riffing. There's the changing up of a prepared joke vs reactions to the crowd. I prefer the former in most cases.

It's great to be able to handle crowd comments and reactions, but you can't depend on that for your joke to be funny. The crowd isn't something that you can ever control from show to show, whereas your own content is.

I've certainly had jokes that began with premises and just sort of trailed off.. like this... And then later on, I retold them with actual solid punchlines, and then they were much more successful. I would not have discovered those improved punchlines unless I had done the poor versions in front of audiences first.

When I was practicing them on my own, the punchlines weren't forming. It wasn't until I had the pressure and "high stakes" of a live audience demanding to be entertained that I suddenly realized how to finish the joke properly. Coal squashed into diamonds or something like that.

4/15/10, 3:19 PM  
Anonymous ECN said...

I mean, that's the thing -- I don't really see a connection between "being in the moment" and "ad-libbing". To me, that's a false conflation of two largely unrelated ideas.

I mean, a Todd Barry (or whoever) is obviously in the moment when he's riffing. But he's also in the moment when he's doing his material. I'm in the moment when I'm hearing the audience, hearing the silence and the rhythm of the room, re-shaping my voice on the fly to hit exactly the right spot at the right time...

I've done a show in the last week where I shouted the whole way through, half-out of breath, the jokes and laughter ringing like feedback in my ears. And then a few days later, I went up to a dead crowd, and really bit into the pauses. I let the silence hang there, I drew them in... and then I hit them with three or four crescendos, all piled atop each other. Killed both times.

Both shows -- virtually the same set. Virtually word for word -- couple different bits, but close enough. Plotted out in the back of the room, in order. Completely different, though, in practically every other regard.

And I'm not saying this to boast -- I'm not the best at this or anything, and I'm not even close. (I probably do have a slightly wider vocal range to draw from, but that's just a side effect of my style.)

I'm just a guy who has a sense for momentum and can hear the audience. I'm, you know, in the moment. I'm playing to the crowd. And so are a lot of people. Sometimes the answer to "what do they want?" is "they want the best thing you know."

Whereas we've all seen "ad-lib guys" who AREN'T in the moment... fumbling about in a tone-deaf fashion, saying "um", chasing a tangent down only to discover it wasn't worth pursuing, turning on the room or the audience because that's what they're thinking right now. They're thinking "this sucks." I can't disagree.

I mean, consider not a symphony, not jazz, but a rock band. When you go and see a band, you're going to hear their new stuff, and a few album tracks from long ago, and they're always going to play their biggest hits. (Unless they're jerks.) They're probably going to do the same thing they do on the album. Maybe they'll stretch out on one section or another, maybe the guitarist will have a solo, but it's all the same stuff. But if they're a good live band, they're going to find something new in that song, even if they play it note for note -- and it's going to connect with the crowd.

4/15/10, 6:37 PM  
Blogger myq said...

You say a lot of comics seem most fully alive when they're riffing.
But just before that, you bring up Louis CK in a praiseworthy way, and he's certainly not famous for his riffing.
Sure, he might try jokes out in different ways while creating material, write on stage, etc., but he's doing it in service of creating a brand new, solid piece of standup. One that eventually has a beginning, middle, and end, and that he'll go around the country (or world) and share with folks, showing them the result, the end product, the symphony. And then he puts it on tape and starts again.

All I'm saying is while SOME comedians might be most alive when they're riffing, SOME might be most alive when they're performing their comedic symphony at Carnegie Hall (either the real one or a comedic equivalent), performing it just as they want it to.

And that's fine. Jazz and classical are both valid forms of music.

Comics who riff and comics who don't can both be great comics.

One might be more enjoyable to you (to watch, or to do), but doesn't mean it's the same for everyone.

I love watching people do what they do best...
Paul F. Tompkins is amazing to watch riff.
Andy Kindler is amazing in the moment.
But so is a polished set from Louis CK free of momentary riffs, is it not?

4/16/10, 11:38 AM