Feels like everyone's trying to get on TV. Honing that showcase set. Trying to win contests. Doing what it takes to "climb the ladder."
I get it. Overall, it's a smart move. But it annoys me how it takes you away from what's purely funny in the room at the moment. The more you worry about a neatly packaged product that's well rehearsed, the more you lose rawness and immediacy. The idea that this room on this night is something special — that you're seeing something that couldn't happen anywhere else. It's part of makes comedy magical.
That's what I like about Yannis' crazy Bar Four show. You feel like anything can happen there. At most shows I go to, I feel like I know exactly what's going to happen.
Sandpaper Suit is NYC standup comic Matt Ruby's (now defunct) comedy blog. Keep in touch: Sign up for Matt's weekly Rubesletter. Email email@example.com.
Focusing on industry over the room
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I haven't been to Yannis' show yet, but have seen him perform a bunch and he's super prolific. Is the spontaneity and "you never know what's going to happen" feel of the show done intentionally? Could other shows mimic that or do you think it's a mixture of location, performers and audience?
I agree with you on the super polished acts, but sometimes comics who are actually preparing for a TV spot they've already locked down are working their 5 minutes out. If that's the case, do you think it benefits them to go away from their material during a practice run?
Is the spontaneity and "you never know what's going to happen" feel of the show done intentionally?
Yeah. But it's just a natural, drunken thing.
Could other shows mimic that or do you think it's a mixture of location, performers and audience?
I think you need a certain kind of host/performer to pull it off.
Do you think it benefits them to go away from their material during a practice run?
If you have something lined up, then sure rehearse for it. But constantly doing rote standup comes at a cost IMO.
I was recently chatting up with a scout, and she told me that at times she felt torn between revealing her identity at shows and staying incognito.
She wanted the performers she was scouting to do their best and be natural.
If she didn't tell them she was scouting them, there was the chance they'd spend the evening working on new material and end up doing a really weak set.
But if she did tell them, then there was the chance they'd just do their shiny perfect jokes and stay buttoned up. What can ye do?
I find the opposite to be true. Yannis comes across as super-predictable to me, down to the last flaming burp.
I don't think of this as two philosophies -- as in there are those who wing it and those who don't -- I just think sometimes you catch someone on a night when they're trying to impress. Most of these non-club shows in NYC attract no industry and therefore yield a lot of experimentation.
Good riffing keeps the 4th wall up -- you're still putting on a show. Bad riffing breaks down the 4th wall with key phrases like, "What else?" and "Eh, nevermind, you guys don't like that," and "True story," or "That's not even a joke!"
Ooh, can we have a list of phrases that comics need to "kick to the curb" ?
You'd better not put "ahhh", "ummm" and "like" on that list of phrases that need to be kicked to the curb. I spend hours meticulously practicing where to insert those into my set, and anyone who's seen me do stand-up recently will readily be able to attest to my liberal use of those extremely insightful words.
I think that kind of riffing certainly adds a lot to my set. Also I've been practicing what I call a "half-step partial shuffle" which really helps make my punchlines soar.
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?
Hooray for the point of view of Erik Charles Nielsen.
I don't completely agree with it, but it's a strong one, and I'm glad he came here to present it.
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.
PS Sorry this wasn't about the industry.
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