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?
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.