Screw ups are a gift

Robin Williams on Marc Maron's WTF podcast discussing alcoholism, cocaine, divorce, joke stealing, heart surgery, fame, Richard Pryor, jealousy, and Twitter. Great stuff.

I liked this bit Williams said about working with Jeff Bridges:

Something screws up and [Jeff Bridges] says to me: "It's ok. It's a gift. If something screws up, it's a gift. Don't be afraid of it." That forces you to make something special that you didn't plan. You're in that moment and you're forced to deal with it and deal with it together.

He's talking about acting but applies to standup too. A perfect set is the same every time. But when something goes wrong, it's an opportunity to make a unique moment happen. It's you and the audience in it together.

Now I've just got to convince myself that Seamus — the drunk guy in Jersey City last night who kept yelling out to me "Show your tits!" — was NOT an asshole and was actually giving me a gift.


soce said...

I sometimes get lots of laughter when I incorrectly state my jokes. Almost makes me want to make the same mistake every time, but I won't be able to screw up as naturally during future attempts.


Seamus would have done the same thing to Jeff Bridges on the set of Crazy Heart.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

Of course his name was Seamus. Almost too perfect. I think that may be the gift.

myq said...

I don't disagree that great things can come out of mistakes, or the unexpected.

But I do disagree that "a perfect set is the same every time." Just along the lines that, to me (and I'd imagine others who are not me), sometimes a perfect set involves unexpected things happening and turning out wonderfully.

Even with material that you plan to say, the audience is never the same, YOU are never exactly the same, so nothing is ever "the same every time." I would say. (This time, but maybe not another time.)

If I made a mistake here, it's a gift to you. And me. To us all. (Or maybe less than all of us. But some. Mistake? Gift!)

ECN said...

You really are very enthusiastic about seeing people screw up, aren't you? I just get the sense you're overestimating the extent to which nervous laughter counts as laughter, and selectively forgetting the many times when a screw-up is a screw-up.

(Especially "screw-ups" which are embraced, or even fostered, by the performer -- it's nice to be able to make something out of a problem, because problems will happen, but a pro-problem attitude is ultimately going to lead to sloppy work.

That's one thing if you're Jeff Bridges, and you're shooting twenty takes to get one... but if you have to deliver in real time every time, you can't be that lax about quality control. In stand-up, the other 19 takes count equally, so you'd better have some kind of plan for them...)

ECN said...

Oh! By the way, is it fair to blame Jeff Bridges for "The Big Lebowski" not having an ending? Because I get the sense it's not, but if it was, that would've been an awesome way to end that post.

Jason said...

Alot of improv/standup posts this week. I dig it, Matt.

"Screw ups" happen all the time, even to seasoned performers. The difference is that the more experience performers know that you must react to them. You may think it is better to gloss over a mistake and push through, but the audience is soaking up everything and they notice the littlest details. They will still be thinking about it long after you've moved on.

Also, it shows that you trust yourself up there. Your unconscious brain can sprout some wonderful ideas.

Matt Ruby said...

You really are very enthusiastic about seeing people screw up, aren't you? I just get the sense you're overestimating the extent to which nervous laughter counts as laughter, and selectively forgetting the many times when a screw-up is a screw-up.

I'm just really enthusiastic about authenticity. And the specialness of the moment and being true to that as opposed to just reciting a script. And I think laughter with a tinge of nervousness is sometimes the best kind.

ECN said...

First of all, I disagree violently with you about nervous laughter. It's NEVER acceptable. It's the OPPOSITE of real laughter, and it will ruin a show. Speaking strictly as an audience member, I will say that being yanked out of my watching of the show by nervousness will ruin a show for me.

Second of all, could you do something about that "reciting a script" straw man? Put it away, maybe? You keep bumping into it and looking clumsy. How is some fluky thing you DIDN'T EVEN MEAN TO SAY more "authentic" than the material you've thought, re-thought, crafted for months, and learned all the nuances of?

You know your material. Your material is real. If it's not real, get better material. Even when they don't unnerve anyone, ad-libs are thoroughly disposable.

Matt Ruby said...

ECN, we're prob thinking of nervous laughter as two diff things. I think nervous-ish laughter is part of doing edgy material. The crowd is uncomfortable with the topic but you break the tension by taking 'em somewhere with it. Like when CK talks about abused kids (here).

How is something that comes to your mind in the moment more authentic than something you write? Because it came to you in the moment. It's at the front of your mind. It's not honed and crafted. It's why scripted/prepped interviews aren't as interesting as ones where the subject doesn't know the questions that are coming.

Seems to come back to the jazz vs. symphony thing again. Feel free to go the symphony route if that's what you want to do. It's not my ideal though. Vive la difference! OK, off to look less clumsy...

ECN said...

Nope -- we're talking about the same thing. I firmly believe that making the crowd uncomfortable is cheating. Louis CK can get away with it, but I like him better when he doesn't resort to shock value/putting people on edge.

There's a purity to his old comedy -- he's always touched on a lot of stuff which might be theoretically offensive, but there used to be a matter-of-factness to it, like, "this is what I'm thinking." And sometimes it was about balls, and sometimes it wasn't about balls. Whatever.

These days, though, he really bites down on the "edgy" nature of his material. It's like, whenever he goes that route, he's waving a big flag. I feel like that HBO show was what changed his approach -- having to weigh his act on a "scale" of offensiveness. Purely speculative, of course.

Anyway, he's still extremely funny, but I find his deliberate attempts to be shocking a little obvious, self-conscious and heavy-handed. Then again, I'd say the same thing about the Velvet Underground, and they've done okay for themselves.

(He doesn't have to do any of that, of course. But there are plenty of comics who CAN'T get laughs through the sheer strength of their comedy, and HAVE to put people on edge. To which I say: blah.)

And I disagree on your definition of "authenticity" -- the stuff that holds up every time is what's real. If it wasn't real, it wouldn't hold up -- a lot of very marginal shit can seem like a good idea momentarily. If it lacks the underlying solidity to work again, or only works when it's propped up by a momentary context, it's a cheap laugh, and I don't care what you say. You can have it if you need it to get by, but that's not my problem.

And honestly, this all seems to be a way to get out of having to acquire the talent and the dedication to engage people with prepared material, and to stay in the moment with that material. You know, performance skills. The kind of ad-libbing you're talking about, deliberate risk-taking designed mostly to spur the comic's own adrenaline, is like stabbing yourself in the thigh with a fork to stay awake. Real comics are always awake.

ECN said...

Or to shorten that: please have control of your own fight-or-flight response, and stay the hell away from mine.

Matt Ruby said...

Well there's our problem, ECN. I think CK and the Velvets kick ass. So I guess maybe we should just each take our own paths.

P.S. Myq did a joke about you and me arguing on this blog last night onstage. You'll have to address with him how "authentic" it was.

Matt Ruby said...

[Pulls fork out of thigh.]

myq said...

I think the thing is, SPEED is also impressive, especially when coupled with accuracy.

Obviously, perfecting a joke over weeks or months of honing and being able to deliver it every time is impressive to every audience that sees it. Erik is right.

But sometimes when all the forces align with circumstances in the room, the world, the act, the topic at hand, the moment, and a joke comes out that is just as creative and quality as any number of pre-planned bits material, but faster... obviously a lot of standup is making it seem like this is happening all the time, but when it actually DOES happen and people who KNOW that it doesn't happen all the time, and they know that it IS happening this time, and it's good... that is impressive as well. So Matt is right, too.

Also Erik is right that those circumstances don't always align themselves. Riffing certainly CAN fail, and if you've got material that generally works, I understand his point that you're cheating an audience by risking failure when you could provide them success.

On the other hand, the way I work (and the way I'm sure many others do) to create and hone new material, there HAS to be a risk of failure at some level... performing something that hasn't been done before, however planned it is in advance, can always fail, just as much as a riff can.

So, I'm right also.

Has all this been said before?

PS Point is, without this thread, there would have been one less large laugh at Matt's show, from all the comedians and comedy fans who read this blog who were in the room (which was a surprisingly high number, and I apologize for being so surprised).

ECN said...

Oh, great, I'm being mocked in New York. I've never even done comedy in New York. KAPLAN.

I think of humor the same way I think of truth. The level of truth a statement possesses is directly proportional to the percentage of instances in which it is true. "Dogs don't like grapefruit" is truer than "men are eight feet tall", even though neither of them is absolutely true or false.

So, to me, a joke that is always funny is an incalculably greater achievement than a joke that's funny once. It's not even ultimately about getting laughs -- i know you can get just as many laughs with ad-libs as you can with material. Some people can even do it regularly. It's about generating a body of work with substance to it. Not to be pretentious, but it's about the art.

Also, it's about me being massively uncomfortable whenever I'm watching something on stage and I don't know where it's going. That doesn't help.

Matt Ruby said...

ECN: Have you seen Patrice Oneal, Paul F Tompkins, Todd Barry, or Zach Galafianakis live? Were you disappointed that they rely heavily on riffing and/or crowdwork? Did you think they are less substantial and less artful because they don't rely exclusively on pre-written material? Seriously curious.

ECN said...

I find O'Neal's rampant misogyny too off-putting to care about seeking out any of his other work, recall Tompkins doing almost exclusively written material (and brilliant written material at that), vastly prefer Galifianakis' material to his crowd work (the latter puts me on edge), and haven't seen enough of Todd Barry's routine. (But the couple sets I have seen from Barry, any non-written stuff he did was more in the nature of asides or transitions than heavy ad-libbing.)

But yes, there are comics (Andy Kindler, Brody Stevens, Tony V) who I love to watch ad-lib. (I could definitely see Tompkins or Barry falling into this category for me... though I've seen enough of Tompkins to be kind of surprised that you think of him as an ad-lib guy. Maybe he's different in New York?)

I'll admit I'm a bit hypocritical -- heck, I've been known to ad-lib myself, though not extensively.

But even for most of the comics whose ad-libs I like, I don't think of the ad-libs as their life's work. I see them as... not "filler" exactly, but definitely as the stuff between the bits that are Actually Part of the Act. Even if they're having fun over here, and that's working, eventually they're going back to the real stuff and doing some real work up there.

If I had to be more accommodating, the line I'd draw is between the ad-lib as a useful tool (for some comics) and the ad-lib as an artistic credo. I feel like privileging the ad-lib over written material is a tough-guy daredevil kind of posture -- "it's not real skill if it can't all fall apart on you at any minute!"

And really, if you ad-lib, what do you have once you've finished? You have nothing. You've done it, burnt it, and now it's gone. You have to do it again every time -- there's no progress, no creation. It's like laundry.

You can say you're good at it, and a few people are... but if you're so good at it, where does it get you? How do you build anything enduring? Why are you hurling all that effort into a bottomless pit? Ultimately, ad-libs are DEPRESSING.

Unknown said...

In support of Matt's point of view:
I love to watch Todd Barry, Paul F., Tony V, and a few others go off-script. Even as much as I love seeing their material. (Although I don't think I'd like to see a show with -zero- material.) I feel as if an honest tangent or audience interaction can be rewarding for everyone in attendance. Especially because the comics in question are totally in control rather than careening wildly into inadvisable crowd work.

In support of Erik's POV:
As much as I enjoy seeing a comic improvising when I'm at the show, I feel like PFT's latest album gets way more compelling to me once he stops riffing and gets into the material. I'm sure the recording would have been a blast to attend, but the finished product leaves me a little cold during the ad-lib portion.

But maybe other people feel totally the opposite of that, which is also valid.

ecn said...

I will point out -- which I don't think I pointed out enough previously -- that all the comics whose ad-libs I enjoy have one thing in common: I like their written material as much or more.

I can't say there are any comics I can think of offhand who I'd RATHER see ad-lib.

So it's not a depressing endless struggle to get nowhere for those guys -- they're putting together a great body of work, and then ALSO ad-libbing stuff on the side.

myq said...

I would sometimes rather see a great comic (like Tompkins) ad lib when I've seen his written material a good number of times, though if he's got new stuff I'm obviously happy to see that.

Erik, how do you feel about that? Would you rather see written material that you've already seen and enjoyed from someone like Kindler/Tompkins/Barry, as compared to seeing them do some new riffing?

Abbi Crutchfield said...

ECN said:
How is some fluky thing you DIDN'T EVEN MEAN TO SAY more "authentic" than the material you've thought, re-thought, crafted for months, and learned all the nuances of?
...ad-libs are thoroughly disposable."

Another question for ECN: do you write on stage? If you think of a joke in the moment of performing or you think of it while you're writing on a park bench, it still comes from the same source: your brain. One idea is as authentic as another. Your planned child is just as important as your love child.


ECN said...

No, I don't "write on stage." It's an unacceptable risk, and one that distracts from what I'm ACTUALLY doing on stage -- reading the audience, formulating the phrasing and timing to reflect off their mood, etc. I need total concentration on my work, and I've gotten very good at generating that concentration.

If it's a good idea, and I happen to think of it on stage... well, as I said, why am I on stage, performing, and yet thinking of things unrelated to the performance? That's awfully unprofessional of me. Ideally, I'm staying in the moment, not getting distracted by random ideas unrelated to what I'm doing.

But if I do happen to think of a joke while I'm on stage, I can take it off stage, take it home, and GET IT RIGHT. An idea that's been re-thought and refined gets closer to what I'm trying to say than the random momentary blurting you're talking about. And who knows -- maybe once I actually look at it, it's not funny at all. In which case I've spared everyone the trouble.

And no, Myq. I don't ever get tired of seeing good material. Perhaps I'd rather see new material, if it's good. But if I'm never going to see it again, and there's going to be no record of its existence, I'd honestly rather not waste my time hearing about it.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

ECN, I think you could learn from writing on stage. Maybe it's time you take some risks in order to grow. We had a really long thread here about taking risks, for your reference.

myq said...

Just for reference, I know Erik and his comedy. We started together in Boston and he has since moved to LA. He was very funny when he started and as far as I know is still very funny. He's doing something right, for himself.

If he doesn't want to write on stage, he certainly doesn't have to. His concern for the audience's enjoyment is paramount, and that is admirable. Could an audience enjoy his show more if he spoke the thoughts that he didn't plan to say, rather than take them home and more formally incorporate them into his act? Perhaps. Or perhaps like he says, he doesn't want to risk it NOT going well, because he can assess whether it's something that he WOULD want to say better at home when he's focused than on stage in the moment while he's busy focusing on performing.

Some audiences appreciate when people are in the moment. Some audiences appreciate when people are presenting a polished product being executed flawlessly. Some audiences appreciate some of both.

Like jazz and classical, both have their place, and no one needs to do something they don't want to, especially when what they ARE doing, what they WANT to be doing, is enjoyable to them and the audience they care about.

Just wanted to clarify those things, mostly that Erik is hilarious.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

This happened the last time I spoke with Erik on this site. Myq stepped in and felt the need to point out that Erik is hilarious. That's not in question. (I've never seen him perform, but I don't doubt he works hard, and he is certainly able to articulate his opinions in a funny way on this site). What makes you think that's in question, Myq? I mean, no one has accused him of not being hilarious. I take it on good authority (yours) that he is hilarious. You never need to bring it up again.

But it reminds me of when you gave me pushback the last time I suggested YOU take risks, and we resolved that "risks" mean something different for each comic, and whether they choose to take them or not does not ultimately define their success.

I hold to my suggestion that Erik might benefit from permitting himself to have ad-libs as they come to him on stage. It may be an opportunity to grow, to spice up his life, to make Matt Ruby smile. Does he HAVE to do it? No! Does he WANT to do it? Doesn't sound like it. But COULD he do it? (children cheer)

I mean, does anyone have any suggestions for me to improve my comedy based on what they've gathered here or seeing me live? I'll take it! "Shut the f*** up", "Show your boobs", "Quit being too scared to talk about anything real", "Write more", "Marry me". If this site isn't for making gross generalizations about each other based on an intro to psych class and a handful of comedy books and albums then what is it for?

ECN said...

Honestly, I'm very rarely driven to ad-lib. It sometimes happens -- in a transition, for example -- I don't stop it from happening. But honestly, honestly, I don't want to do it very often. I'm too busy committing to my performance on stage to think of many things anyway.

And if I did want to ad-lib, that would be tough, as it doesn't fit my on-stage demeanor. I'm not conversational on stage -- I don't really take a leisurely pace which allows for digressions. When I describe myself as single-mindedly focused on stage, that goes for my persona as much as it goes for myself.

To phrase this in a more actorly fashion than I'm quite comfortable with, my character has no desire to engage directly with the audience. If I let my guard down and started interacting with people, either the rest of my act would ring false, or a lot of other fundamental things would have to change.

Not that I'm resistant to change -- I'm going through a pretty major change in my act right now. (After seven years of talking extensively about how I'm single, I suddenly find myself... um, not single. I haven't yet grasped all the repercussions of this, but it's clear that losing that angle means SOMETHING more than having to retire five minutes or so of material...)

But as it stands now, I don't think my isolated on-stage mannerisms are a problem. They reflect reality -- I DON'T want to engage with the crowd. I DON'T want to get distracted. I actually AM intensely focused on saying what I want to say. If any of that changed, it might find its way into my act. But it hasn't, so it hasn't.

And it's not that I'm not taking risks when I can afford to. New material's a risk, and I do that stuff all the time. But it's the kind of risk that a) won't tear a show apart if it fails, and b) actually pays long-term dividends for my act if it works. It's not an adrenaline-junkie risk for risk's sake kind of thing -- it's development.

(Now, if you wanted to see non-risk-taking Erik, you should've seen me in 2005-06. I did the same 10-15 minutes almost exclusively for a year and a half, and those jokes eventually got me a set at Aspen. Of course, I was severely depressed for most of that time, and just didn't have the drive to write or the confidence to perform new material. But hey, whatever works, you know?)

myq said...

Yeah, what he said.

Abbi, the reasons I brought up how funny I think Erik is are severalfold...

One, while I have said it before in other threads, I don't presume that everyone reading this thread has read all comments in all other threads.

Two, I think it's important to have context to know who's saying the things that Erik is saying. Because some of his positions are fairly extreme, and if they belonged to someone of lesser ability, I think it might be worth judging them in a different light, so I just wanted to make sure people know that these very particular thoughts on comedy are coming from someone who knows how to do comedy well.

Three, I might have had a (potentially mistaken) sense that you, by suggesting Erik could benefit by doing something different, were potentially implying that he doesn't benefit as much by doing what he's doing. I merely wanted to point out that what he does works, and he's got consistent (if not universal) reasons for keeping it up if he wants to.

Does three equal severalfold?

Abbi Crutchfield said...

myq, Thanks for the clarification. With all this public arguing about Erik I feel like we owe him an ice cream.

ECN said...

Good news! Erik is immensely self-absorbed, and almost invariably loves being talked about!

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