"The more we try to perfect it, the worse it gets"

Recent discussion here about how screw ups are a gift. Here's a related idea from an NPR story on Jack White:

White says he could tell he was swimming against the Nashville way of recording when he swooned over the first take of Jackson's song "Shakin' All Over." The veteran horn players wanted to fix mistakes. He was having none of it.

"The more we try to work on this and perfect it, the worse it gets," he says. "And that's what happens nowadays with people working on computers. They can so easily fix things with their mouse and take out all the, 'Oh, somebody coughed in the background; we need to take that out' — or somebody hit a bad note. Those are all the best moments, and that's where music has taken a left turn and they need to get back on the road."

See also: Wabi Sabi.

Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It's simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.

Imperfection, authenticity, cracks, and crevices — sometimes you're best off leaving 'em in.


ECN said...

Yep. That's exactly what comedy shows need -- to go wrong more. I am sick of the vast preponderance of comedy shows where nobody loses their nerve and turns on the audience, nobody tells a long rambling story that doesn't go anywhere and clearly wasn't planned, and nobody does any ill-advised crowd work that wastes everyone's time.

These are the things that always make a show better, and it's about time someone spoke up for them. Three cheers for awkward silence and barely concealed hostility!

Matt Ruby said...

So ECN, is the view expressed by Wabi Sabi and Jack White just stupid bullshit? Or is there truth to it? If the latter, how would you apply these concepts to standup?

ECN said...

Well, the former comment was about a recording. Recorded arts are inherently different from live arts. As I said, I have no problem with a performer ad-libbing twenty takes of (for example) a movie scene and finding the one that really works.

But in this case, what are these people really doing? They're recording... "Shakin' All Over". They're recording a song that was written in 1960. Dozens of bands have recorded it.

These people are throwing their effort into the performance -- they're trying to put their own personal stamp on it. They're in the moment, as it were. But the underlying material is as solid and as unchanging as any material that has ever existed.

These guys are talking about turning in a lively, spirited performance, which is OF COURSE a necessity. But they want nothing to do with what you've been advocating this whole time. They're focused on conveying the spirit of the song itself, not on flailing about for some unrelated stuff that doesn't even exist. Me 1, you 0.

And yeah, that second thing sounds like pretty much bullshit. Any "art" that consists of looking at or collecting things isn't art. Art is about creating, or at least interpreting -- you can't start art from the angle of a consumer/observer. (A consumer/observer of things created without authorial intent, no less. Nonsense.)

Matt Ruby said...

Things like "Me 1, you 0" don't really help me take you seriously, ECN.

Anyway, you're saying this approach is right for recording a cover song but it'd be wrong for recording a new song? Because Jack White takes the same approach to his new music too.

And I like how you've dismissed thousands of years of eastern thought as bullshit. Go USA! ; )

Re: "flailing about for some unrelated stuff that doesn't even exist"

How can stuff that you say not exist? Any time someone riffs, it means they're "flailing about"?

ECN said...

A "new" song is still written in advance, isn't it? It's still material? The goal in recording it is still to convey something which has been thought of, reconsidered, and perfected, right?

And I'm sorry for gloating a little there. I just thought it was funny that you were taking that one small detail completely out of context while ignoring the fact that the larger structure of the scenario being described was directly contrary to the beliefs you've espoused.

(Alternately, "what if the trumpet player started playing an unrelated song two minutes into the recording? Do you think that take would've made it into the finished product?")

I like the orientalism implicit in "thousands of years of eastern thought". A lot of people in a lot of countries have historically wasted a lot of time on stupid bullshit. That's just the way things are -- makes no difference where it is. One place's acupuncture is another place's alchemy. (Or a third place's looking-at-some-driftwood-and-calling-yourself-an-artist.)

And generally speaking, yes, ad-libbing is flailing.

Even when there's a good underlying idea, the phrasing is generally awkward and imperfect.

And even when someone manages to come up with something funny, they've spent the last minute or two before saying it working it out, as opposed to being focused and in-the-moment with their performance of their material. They've voluntarily distracted themselves in the hope that they might be lucky enough to think of something at that exact moment.

And those are best-case scenarios. We're talking about a world where ad-libs are grace notes performed by comics who are doing well. That's sometimes the case. But far more often, an ad-lib is a desperate measure performed by a comic whose material is not working, and the majority of ad-libs reflect that fact. They introduce an unpleasant tone of desperation into a show, and that tone is hard for the next comic to recover from.

ECN said...

And really, if you want to use music as an example of fortuitous accidents, why not just go right to the top and talk about Hal Blaine accidentally missing a note and creating the drum intro on "Be My Baby"?

Though even that's not a deliberate ad-lib -- that's more a case of rewriting existing material in the moment.

You're not going to get a lot of "true" improvisation in recorded music -- except maybe in jazz. And even then, I imagine a lot of bands have gone over the piece before recording it and have at least a general idea of the dimensions of their solos.

Matt Ruby said...

"Even when there's a good underlying idea, the phrasing is generally awkward and imperfect."

Do you think it's possible that some people respond more to an imperfect, authentically in-the-moment thought than a perfectly crafted, scripted-in-advance one?

Also, did you ever come out and say whether you like/dislike T Barry, Patrice, PFTompkins and other comics who rely on riffing? Seems like you should really hate all those guys from your views.

myq said...

But Erik, we ARE all transient beings on this planet and our bodies WILL return to dust, whether we've riffed or planned everything out in advance.

Universe: 1. All of us: 1.
(We are all one. With the universe.
That's the "uni" part of it.
And the "verse" part comes before the chorus.
That's what a bunch of horned horses sing. Also they don't exist.)

PS That was all riffed.

PPS I notice that Matt's writing is practically (if not totally) devoid of typos. Matt, did you hit any wrong keys? And if not, why did you "fix" them?

This argument keeps happening, but here it is again:
Erik, some people are good at being funny in the moment, consistently.
There are improvisers who consistently create comedy that is as funny as many good standups who have taken time to craft jokes.
Not all improvisers. Perhaps not even most. But that doesn't invalidate improv as an art form. There are people who are great on their feet, able to come up with a turn of a phrase instantly.
And some of those people are standups.
And I believe that you, Erik, disagree with this, but if someone comes up with a joke on the spot, and it's just as funny as a joke they came up with in advance, that's MORE impressive to me. And to many people. That's why improv when done well is VERY impressive.
Riffing is basically just improv in standup.
Some people have a talent for it; some people don't; others might be able to gain a talent for it even if they don't start out with it.
Which is why it doesn't make sense to categorically declare that no standup should riff.
(I know you've said that you appreciate the quality riffing of Kindler and others, but that you appreciate their pre-written stuff more, correct? But can you recognize that speed, in conjunction with quality, can be reasonably valued by some, even if not by you?)

Sorry if that got off track. My mistake. Which I left there. On purpose. Perfect. Back on track.
The point (or at least A point, or possibly B point) is, mistakes happen, and in standup, sometimes a slip of a word here or there can lead to the incorporation of something funny that wouldn't have happened otherwise; and sometimes a purposeful riff can do the same.

Some people's WRITTEN material is bad. Why not rail against them? (Some people PLAN to say things that turn out to be horrible; why isn't that WORSE than accidentally saying something equally horrible? At least the latter doesn't involve wasted effort in advance.)

That is all for now! I will allow people to correct my beautiful mistakes now.

Anonymous said...

I find that audiences can somehow sense when a comedian has stumbled upon a fresh, organic moment within a planned piece and they generally LOVE it.
And I tend to disagree with ECN about the strength of such discovery. I've definitely discovered stuff on stage while riffing or expounding on a (planned) nugget and it's so in-the-moment and exciting (for the audience and for me) that I need to go back and watch the tape to write it down, then integrate it into the piece.

ECN, you said: Even when there's a good underlying idea, the phrasing is generally awkward and imperfect.

I actually find it to be the complete opposite. If a comedian has hit his/her stride and is really connecting, the phrasing is almost effortlessly great.

(I don't have any of the necessary account stuff, so I gotta choose an anonymous identity, then put my name. I'm a Luddite.)

ECN said...

Yes, I already covered this.

I really like Barry and Tompkins, but I think of them as mostly if not entirely material-based comics. (They do some ad-libs in transitions and things, but the bulk of their set is material. I will note that I've only seen Barry 2-3 times, due to the fact that he's in New York and I am not.)

I like Galifianakis a lot when he's doing material, but his ad-libs and crowd work tend to put me on edge. I find them unpleasant to watch.

And I can't stand O'Neal (though I admittedly haven't seen him live), but that's more based on his rampant misogyny/general ignorance than on any questions of how he thinks of his material.

There are comics who I enjoy seeing ad-lib -- Andy Kindler, for one. Brody Stevens. Tony V.

But as I said before, I can't think of a comic who I'd rather see ad-lib than do scripted material -- all the comics whose ad-libs I like are also comics who I like in general.

(The closest I get there, I think, is Doug Benson -- and my issue with Doug Benson is that a lot of his scripted material is basically late-night monologue jokes, which I have trouble bringing myself to care about, even if they're good.)

And yeah, I'm willing to admit that some people respond to showing off and risk-taking. I'm ESPECIALLY willing to admit that some people respond to that stuff when it pays off.

That doesn't change my opinion that ad-libbing is more often than not a lot of risky adrenaline-junkie garbage that primarily serves the ego of the performer more than the integrity of the performance (that is, when it's not a panic move,) is unlikely to create anything solid or lasting, and can do huge amounts of harm to the structure of a show when it fails.

And yes, a few very talented veteran performers can create ad-libs that are almost as compelling as high-quality written material. But "if you're really, really good, you can just about mimic the real thing" doesn't qualify as an especially compelling argument to me, especially when there's nothing preventing people from DOING the real thing.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

Jimmy Pardo is a great example of someone whose strength is in extemporaneous comedy. He's AMAZING off the cuff. So much so that he's almost divorced himself completely from the bits that made him famous.

It's important to be prepared, but I can imagine that being taken to an extreme where investment becomes recitation.

Magic can be found in mishaps. I don't know too much about this comic, but I just saw a Chris Fairbanks clip in which he flubs a line, taking him completely out of the moment, but he rolls with the punch and gets a big laugh from acknowledging and building on what was initially a mistake. Then, I saw a video dated a few months later... Fairbanks had incorporated that flub into his act. And it paid off. "Fortuitous accident" indeed. This made me curious about the rest of his material, and he seems to thrive on the nervous energy that mistakes produce.

Hyper-rigidity doesn't allow wiggle-room... that's got to get boring after a while. Though I read that John Mulaney writes his bits out word for word and commits them to memory. Seems to work really well for him.

To personally subscribe to one school of thought is fine, but to condemn those who subscribe to others is a bit myopic. We're all different! What works for one comic can be disastrous for another.

ECN said...

Myq, I think the issue is that this guy is disrespecting -- or failing to understand -- or, really, refusing to acknowledge, even though it's been brought up to him several times...

...the level of show-to-show in-the-moment control that a comic can achieve over his/her performance while doing planned material.

Mr. Ruby seems to equate performing material with "reading from a script", which is patently ridiculous to me. In my opinion, having material results in being MORE in the moment; I'm not trying to figure out what to say next, so I can devote my full attention to how to say it and reflect it off the audience.

Moreover, the kind of loosey-goosey aesthetic he (and other people) champion is, I think, a thing that has damaged a lot of shows in Los Angeles. I've seen a lot of performers in LA who spend a lot of time at loose ends... trailing off at the ends of bits, pausing, making false starts, not getting into their sets quickly enough. As someone who has a pretty good audience sense, I can generally feel the energy draining from the room at times like this. I'm sure you've felt the same thing happen.

Conversely, I've seen a lot of panicked ad-libs degenerate into complaints aimed at the audience. This, to me, is the sign of a needy comic who has not learned confidence and self-sufficiency. And to me, the best way to learn those things is to rely on your material -- once you know you CAN keep going with your material, any deviation from that material is completely voluntary, and therefore controlled.

And that's what it seems like to me -- this advocacy of the ad-lib as somehow "truer" than solid material, I think, has the ultimate effect of undermining fundamentals. Ad-libs are a tiny bit near the top of the pyramid -- all the really crucial stuff in stand-up (solid premises, polished phrasing, confidence, focus) is at the bottom, and if it's not there, the ad-libs are going to fall over.

Matt Ruby said...

ECN, i understand you view my options here as these things:

1. disrespecting
2. failing to understand
3. refusing to acknowledge

allow me to add one more option:

4. disagreeing

I simply disagree that someone is "more in the moment" when they're saying the exact same words every night.

but maybe you should just repeat the word "watermelon" over and over every night as your act...then you can REALLY wow them by devoting your full attention to how to say it and reflect it off the audience. seems that would be the MOST in the moment you can be acc to your logic.

oh wait, did i just extrapolate a ridiculously extreme scenario from your line of thinking? hmm...wonder what it feels like to be on the end of something like that.

ECN said...

Rebecca -- except that the extreme of polished material ISN'T "recitation". That's the opposite. "Recitation" is the first stage -- that's new material. (Though even then, a good comic will write with inflection and timing in mind, and rehearse that inflection into the first performance.)

The final stage comes when a bit is second nature. The final stage comes when there are an unlimited number of different ways you can build up to the punch line -- different levels of volume, paces, inflections, phrasings -- and you know the bit so well, and you are so attuned to the room, that you can perform the bit on the fly to perfectly match the circumstances.

Now, to me, it's tough to imagine anyone doing that if they don't know the joke so well that they have a completely clear sense of where it's going to go and how it fits together moment by moment. And it's equally tough to imagine anyone doing that with less than total focus on the material, and the room, and the sound of the thing -- if, for example, they're simultaneously trying to work out an ad-lib they're going to do next.

It's funny to me that you mention Pardo and Fairbanks -- because they're two comics whose strength is in SEEMINGLY extemporaneous comedy. Most of Pardo's crowd work -- if not all of it -- is largely scripted. And as you said, if any of Fairbanks' "flubs" were ever anything other than planned, that was a long time ago. Of course they can move forward with pace, because they have something to say next.

ECN said...

I'm not talking about "extreme scenarios", Ruby. I'm talking about the kind of crappy comedy performances I see every night -- distracted comedians flopping around like a bunch of idiots, unwilling or unable to commit to the material they have.

Meanwhile, you're talking about someone's cover of a Johnny Kidd and the Pirates song and claiming it as an ad-lib because one of the trombone players flubbed a note.

ECN said...

(And while I don't even know why I'm following you down this useless tangent, might I point out that being able to perform material to its fullest is dependent on the underlying richness and solidity of the material?

What you're describing is more like room-based ad-libs -- they only work one way, one time. There's nothing really interesting there, no craft or precision, once you take them out of context.)

Matt Ruby said...

OK ECN. Fwiw, I'm talking about the brilliant comedy performances that I've seen from people like those I mentioned earlier.

And the Jack White reference is because I think you can learn from observing great artists in other media too.

ECN said...

Great artists in other media who aren't ad-libbing?

Because to me, the analogous comedy scenario to "leaving in the occasional missed note in order to convey a sense of urgency in the performance" is "tweaking the pace/phrasing of a line on the fly in order to connect with the audience," not "bringing in entire swathes of material unrelated to the performance as it was planned"...

I mean, I'm not even a huge fan of Jack White, but I feel like pretty much all of the music I've heard from him was pretty deliberately crafted in a general/structural sense, with the small details left flexible for performance purposes.

Matt Ruby said...


My fave guitar player is Jimmy Page. Critics used to slag him for being so sloppy but it's that sloppiness that I find so appealing. The rough edges to his playing are a big part of what turns me on. If he played those same notes "perfectly," it wouldn't be nearly as appealing to me. Other guitar geeks like Steve Vai or Yngwie bore me to death because they are so technically adept. I prefer the humanity and soulfulness you get from a little shagginess.

That said, I agree imperfect notes and rough edges are different than completely improvising something from scratch.

As I've mentioned before, when it comes to standup, I like a blend of pre-written material and then diving into in-the-moment "off roading" when the opportunity presents itself.

I'm not saying someone has to do all improvising all the time. I'm saying closing yourself off to all forms of in-the-moment riffery cuts you off from part of the beauty of standup, in my opinion. And being open to that option has led me to some of the holier moments I've experienced onstage. And I want more of those moments in my life so I plan on pursuing 'em more. Do as you want.

ECN said...

And actually -- actually...

...now that I think about it, that's the way MOST rock musicians work. And it's the way I certainly work.

And if you think of jokes as analogous to songs in a musician's set, then the asides and transitions are like... stage banter. Which is also frequently ad-libbed.

And if that's the direction we're going in, I have NO PROBLEM with you saying "a musician/comedian should be good at stage banter."

I also have no problem with classifying the ad-libs of comics like Tompkins and Barry, who (as far as I know) mostly use ad-libbed material to fill up the gaps between the written material (i.e. "songs") that compose the meat of their sets, as "comedy stage banter".

But you've got to acknowledge that stage banter doesn't really work on studio albums.

Matt Ruby said...

ECN, there's also jazz. That has diff rules about improv-ing and ad-libbing.

And spoken word interludes/intros make up a big part of albums by Barry White, Isaac Hayes, Bobby Womack, and others. I wonder how much they rehearsed these parts before recording 'em.

From what I've seen of PFT and TB, they both enjoy riffing for as long/as much as possible and fall back on material only when they feel like they have to. I think the idea is the same expressed here:
"2. The act is something you fall back on if you can’t think of anything else to say."

ECN said...

That's not the impression I've ever gotten from either of those two comics... though then again, I've mostly seen them at relatively small shows, so their aims might have been different there.

And you don't want to get me started on Bill Hicks. Trust me. You don't.

(What I mean is, I don't want to get started about Bill Hicks, and I'm assuming that's a universal preference. So arrogant of me.)

ECN said...

And for what it's worth, I have no problem with comics who ad-lib, as long as they pull it off. But I'm going to call people on it when they take a risk and don't pull it off.

I feel like I've seen a lot of comics who are clearly constantly looking for a moment to ad-lib, and get pulled out of the rhythm of their sets as a result. Sometimes they try to force an ad-lib, and it ends poorly.

(Then again, I've seen a lot of comics who can't establish a rhythm for other reasons, whether it's a lack of stage presence or poorly written material.)

And, as I said, a lot of comics for whom ad-libbing is what they do when their written material is bombing. That, to me, seems pretty backwards -- whatever else you may say about ad-libbing, it's manifestly tougher than doing written material.

Ultimately, I think we can agree that some comics can get things done with material, and some can get things done with ad-libs, and some can do both. (I'm not entirely sure there are all that many comics who can do ad-libs and not material -- but whatever.)

But when you cut through all this, the ultimate difference to me is that a comedian failing with material looks unfunny. This is bad but excusable -- it happens to practically everyone occasionally. Whereas a comedian failing with ad-libs looks unfunny and unprofessional. This is not excusable, because it reflects on the standard of the show in general. That's the line I draw -- if you don't like it, you can draw your own one.

G said...

I think ECN is trying to say that this post (along with many others) advocates the idea that riffing/banter/improv/etc. is BETTER than material that is scripted/planned/prepared/etc.

We can all agree that both things, when done well, can be great.

But if we were to build the IDEAL comedian, would he/she:
(1) have an act entirely made up of the funniest written jokes ever,
(2) have an act entirely made up of the funniest riffing ever,
(3) or a combination of the two?

I literally cannot imagine someone arguing for (2), at least not if we're talking about creating ENDURING art. By that, I mean, as artists, it is our job to create something that outlives us, that continues to provoke thought and inspire beyond the single performance. More to the point, slowly crafting, writing, re-writing, and re-working on something is the only way to find something so solid, so on point as to be enduring.

(To take it further: the art that endures is the END PRODUCT of years of work and refinement. Riffing is not an end-product - it is, at best, the beginning of an idea, that over time, can be worked into an end product. This does not reduce riffing's value, per se, but to say that riffing has as much value as the true end-product - perfected material - is a mistake.)

But let's approach this from a completely different angle: doesn't the AUDIENCE deserve the best possible performance? Don't they deserve material that you've worked on and crafted and honed for a long period of time?

The material produced by/during riffing is like the first rehearsal of a musical. That first rehearsal might be great. In fact, a great first rehearsal might seem even more impressive to an audience than a performance that comes after months of rehearsal because it is a more awe-inspiring thing to see something so fresh and new and unworked on be so good already. (In many ways, they are impressed because it is so good DESPITE not being worked on.)

But the first rehearsal is not an end - it's the work we should STRIVE for. A show that's been worked on, that's been directed, that's been practiced for months and months - that's when we lift the curtain, call in the press, and have a premiere.

As comedians, we have tremendous good fortune: each one of our jokes is the opportunity to produce, direct, write, and star in our own mini-play. Some of those plays might indeed be in rehearsal. Some of them might be those riffed, first rehearsals. But we can't make the mistake of putting those first rehearsals on a pedestal ABOVE those plays that have been worked and worked to that perfection that comes through practice and mastery. That's backwards and hurts the art, especially if it's taken to the extreme.

We must be in the moment. We must respond to the creative muses whenever they call - even if it's during a set. We must acknowledge what's happening in the room, especially during a live set. But what we must do above all is WORK and REFINE our craft, producing the best possible performance we can, each and every night.

soce said...

Even if it's scripted, you can still riff on how you say it (what words to stress, the tempo, when to hold back and when to dive in for the kill.. generally it helps if you are in tune with how the audience is reading you).

And the best form of improvisation doesn't involve someone thinking about what to do next as he's reciting. The moment he gets to the improv / riffing, the words just magically are there. It takes a lot of practice to make sure that when your big riffing moment arrives, you don't choke or say something boring.

In all the improv classes I've taken, the teachers ask that you NOT plan ahead. They say it's best to be exactly in the moment, just doing what seems natural. That's something the audience often appreciates, and it's easy for them to tell how spontaneous you're being.

In terms of musical mistakes, I was recording this one song "Not Ready" (music video coming soon!!!), and as I went to play the violin, my shoulder rest fell off. As it struck the ground, it made this incredible "clank" sound. I looped it and put it into the song. It sounds almost like a clap. I'm glad that it happened.

ECN said...

Myq says:

"And I believe that you, Erik, disagree with this, but if someone comes up with a joke on the spot, and it's just as funny as a joke they came up with in advance, that's MORE impressive to me. And to many people."

And, in retrospect, I feel that's the root of the problem. If you examine that statement, you find that there is (theoretically) a lot of material which would come off as impressive/funny if it were ad-libbed, but would not do so if it were planned. Therefore, isn't ad-libbing a means of tricking the audience into accepting lower-quality material as though it were better than it is?

I mean, the doing of ad-libbed material is a restriction, an obstacle. (Kind of like writing a novel without using the word "e".) But it's a completely arbitrary, self-imposed obstacle. There's no artistic necessity behind it -- there's nothing preventing the comic from doing considered material.*

So it's either a) a pure show-off thing (harrumph harrumph), or b) a means the performer uses to psych himself/herself up.

And in the latter case, you could learn to ad-lib, but I'd suggest learning the performance skills to convey spontaneity without actually having to generate it on stage like a chump.

Or, alternately, having the motivation and the professionalism to actually stay engaged and deliver a good performance even when you're not full of adrenaline. If comedy bores you, well, let me point out that there are a lot of comics who comedy doesn't bore, and most of them are looking for stage time.

* Note that sometimes something IS preventing the comic from doing considered material -- when he/she is reacting to something going on it the room, it's presumably because whatever's going on in the room has become too big to ignore and demands attention.

Anonymous said...

Your acidic comments and constant know-it-all attitude are a great way to change people's minds, ECN.

Maybe if you use even bigger words and hold that pedestal you put yourself on even higher, everyone will come around to your point of view.

And definitely don't try to look at the things you've said and wonder if maybe you are being an asshole on this and other threads. It would involve a level of self-reflection that a person who speaks to others like you do can't possibly attain.

Neil Constantine said...

I just love heated debates over something completely subjective. Comics should be able to do both within a set at a moment's notice. Besides taping for tv, when performing you should be able to do both with weaving in and out. This is what makes a live show, compared to a taped show, stand out. Being funny is what is most important above all this "opinion", scripted, and riff giving.

I can understand you might be trolling a bit with your rebuttals, but if your method is as successful as you say it is, why are you still at all these shows where all this torture is happening on a nightly basis? Shouldn't you be sailing the seas of success and be beyond this all? I only ask since you take more a tone of finality and not one of an open mind in your comments. And do you think that maybe those comics that you find horrid, may find you just as much.

No matter what, all the big names that have been mentioned, for both sides of the argument, have been as terrible as any of us have been at one point. They found the way that works for THEM, not others, but THEM. Point being, is that there is no set way to this art. I know this is already known for all or most of us, but I feel that is being ignored and almost forgotten in this puddle of debate. Scripted with no riffs is better for YOU. Scripted with dashes of riffing is better for MATT, but neither one of these is the end all be all of how to have or deliver a better set. It's always changing. The experiment never stops, this is what makes it so fulfilling, exciting, and fun. What's right for us now, may not be later.

Patrice is a monstrous talent live. You should see him. I don't see him as misogynistic, but that's my opinion.

ECN said...

Have you been to Los Angeles? I'm not describing some specific horrible subset of shows, I'm describing Los Angeles comedy in general. Lots of good comics being dragged down by a persistently lackadaisical attitude toward commitment, and by the comics whose poor commitment makes practically every show seem like nothing special. There's not really much getting above it -- it happens across the spectrum. There's no education for new comics out here, and while a few shows do have decent booking standards... well, there's no fighting against a trend that large.

It's difficult to explain without going to a show, pointing at some guys, and saying, "eh! Eh! What's that? Why did that happen?" Which I honestly don't have any interest in doing -- I don't want to single people out for not committing to their material. I don't want confrontations. I want the understanding applied generally that they WILL commit. It's not about assigning blame, it's about making shows better.

ECN said...

And yes, I do understand that there are comics out there who don't need this -- comics who can and do deliver their material in a focused manner, do well consistently, and have the right to experiment beyond that point (should they choose to do so).

But there's something in me that says, you know, the people who have the experience and the skills to actually riff in a worthwhile fashion? Well, those people aren't taking very much advice any more. Maybe specific advice from their peers or other veteran comics, but they have the basics down.

Advice (this sort of general advice, at least) goes to newer comics -- i.e. people who should be focusing on developing a set and a stage presence, not on showing off and taking gambles. And anything that might persuade new comics that they "have to" or "really should" ad-lib on stage is just going to distract them and put pressure on them in the long run, in addition to the aforementioned effect on the shows on which they perform.

Anonymous said...

ECN: "I don't want confrontations."

Imagine how much material you could have written using all the time you spent confronting Matt Ruby, et. al. in this very thread.

ECN said...

An Internet argument isn't a "confrontation". This is just some people talking back and forth -- mutual respect, etc. I'm not going up to Matt Ruby at a show and saying "hey, Matt Ruby, you need to stop doing the kind of comedy you're doing, because it's ruining shows."

I don't know what he's doing as a comic -- I've never seen him, and have no reason to believe he's ruining shows. I just feel like his advice is biased and potentially counterproductive for the development of new comics, so we're debating it on that level, which is kind of the purpose of this whole site.

And that's not really how writing material works, is it? You don't just block out some time and the ideas magically come to you. Trust me, if I had an idea for a joke, I'd write that. It takes an hour or so to write 5 minutes, and maybe another hour to memorize them. It's not a time commitment.

But personally, I'm not one of those guys who writes material when he's not inspired. I know some people can work that way, churning out vast sums of text and picking fragments out to try on stage. Not me -- I never try to force inspiration. It's worked for me so far. It may work differently for other people. As long as you're not dragging the show down, work however you like.

No, what's happening here is that I have some free time at work and was a little on edge yesterday. (Been stuck in the house for a week with a cold.) So I decided to get into a bit of a philosophical argument, which you seem to want to cast as something else. Oh, well -- you're some anonymous guy, so that's a problem I guess you have to deal with.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

For anyone who plans to visit NYC and see a Broadway show, I've taken note of the following patterns:

See the show in its first few months and you'll see a few mistakes but a fresh approach. Actors are excited. Sometimes the audience gives generous applause breaks mid-performance.

See the show at the middle of its run, and you'll get the most bland performance for your buck. It looks like actors are going through the motions, and the chorus can be caught rolling their eyes or dropping their smiles after a number before the lights go out.

See the show towards the end, and you'll see giggles from the actors when a prop is handed to them wrong or an unexpected fly buzzes overhead. The chorus makes faces at each other to keep things interesting. Everyone seems more relaxed, as if there's less pressure and more freedom.

These are all really slight nuances that don't affect the overall quality of the performance you'll get as a viewer. But it says something for human nature when confronted with a performance art that requires talent, polish and repetition.

ECN said...

Perhaps! Though I feel like stand-up doesn't get QUITE so repetitive, does it? I mean, between new material, and new arrangements of jokes, and of course different audiences (which is a little more relevant to a stand-up show than a play -- not that actors don't play off audience reactions, but they've generally got a lot less leeway, and I would imagine more of a broad/vague sense of the crowd's mood), there's always something to focus in on, in the event that one needs something to focus in on.

In related news, long sentence!

(I should go back to sleep.)

G said...

Actually, Abby, that's not correct at all.

As someone who has seen a ton of Broadway shows in all phases (and sometimes the same show in multiple phases), I can tell you that you're completely mischaracterizing how this works.

First of all, riffing/improvising/etc. is not a show at the beginning of the run - it's a show still in rehearsal. On Broadway, before a show's "first run," a show starts out in a "preview" phase. Previews are a show in flux - in fact, reviewers are not allowed to review a show until it "premieres" (i.e. goes out of previews). Nowadays, a show debuts in another city before it even has it's "preview" in New York, so that preview in New York is really a mid-run or end-run in the sense of how much times the cast and crew has spent with the material.

For most Broadway shows, other-city debuts and previews are used to tweak small things. But sometimes, huge changes can happen.

"Aida," for example, debuted in Chicago. If you had gone to see "Aida" in Chicago, you would have seen a disaster: there was a giant golden pyramid in the center of the stage that rotated to reveal each set. It was ugly and atrocious and nauseating and everyone hated it.

Fast-forward a few months and the directors completely re-worked the set design and choreography, removing the pyramid and replacing it with some mind-boggling elements (such as a horizontal pool that actors "swam" in).

In other words, to say that a show gets worse over the course of the run misses the point. That first-run is only good because it's been rehearsed and re-worked to death already.

* As a result, your analogy is completely off. Riffing/improvising is NOT first-run - it's the first barebones rehearsal, something you generally don't want to audience to see. (Again, if it IS watchable, that's impressive and an audience might respond in kind.)

Also, as most actors will tell you, there's an upside down bell curve with material, just as there is in stand-up. The material is great the first few times, gets worse as you figure out how to make it sound spontaneous and fresh, and then gets better again by the 6th or 7th time. (This is something I believe Louis C.K. said, but I might be wrong. Regardless, it's good advice.)

A show towards the end of a run can be so much better than at the beginning of the run many times because the actor knows the play inside and out. There's no thinking, just doing. At that point, the actor can concentrate on the details and really make the play works, rather than struggle to make sure the lines are right or he's doing the right dance steps.

To imply that working on something to make it better causes the work to deteriorate in some way is a bit of step backwards. And to use Broadway shows - which are some of the most worked-on things in the performance industry - as an example makes it seem even less accurate.

Mo Diggs said...

Yeah Abbi fuck you!

myq said...

G probably knows what's what due to rehearsing with comments on blogs from the Chicago comedy scene.

PS Something more specifically relevant to the topic:

@Neil, who said "I just love heated debates over something completely subjective. Comics should be able to do both within a set at a moment's notice."

I agree, except for the part where I disagree about the use of the word "should."
It's certainly HANDY to be able to do both, as if someone never wants to go off book, even in the face of unexpected circumstances that can arise which, if unaddressed, can have an adverse effect.

But under ideal circumstances, I don't think any comedian NEEDS to go off book if they don't want to.

There should be no shoulds!


Abbi Crutchfield said...

Dear G: I respectfully bow to your theater-going experience.

Dear Mo: Suck a dick! If I say it's true, it's true! I know what I saw. Who the hell do you think you are--James Lipton?

For your information G agrees with me when he says:

The material is great the first few times, gets worse as you figure out how to make it sound spontaneous and fresh, and then gets better again.

We also agree on this point:

A show towards the end of a run can be so much better than at the beginning of the run many times because the actor knows the play inside and out. There's no thinking, just doing.

And put this on your sandwich:

To imply that working on something to make it better causes the work to deteriorate in some way is a bit of step backwards.

He knows that I wasn't implying that. He knows I was only pointing out that all-work-and-no-play-makes-Jack-a-dull-boy. He also agreed with my use of Broadway as an example of a performance art that involves much repetition:

...use Broadway shows - which are some of the most worked-on things in the performance industry - as an example

Mo, you'd better not ever let me find out where you live.

Dear myq: If we didn't have "should" we wouldn't have shoulders.

ECN said...

For the record, I'm told I do well at handling audience interruptions. I don't know -- I generally have a lot of trouble remembering those moments after I get off stage. (Or, indeed, anything that happens during a set.)

I also do a good job at preventing audience interruptions before they happen. I swear, some of these guys out there are just giving out some kind of "hey, mess with me" vibe. Even when they're funny, they're doing something that makes people think it's okay to talk at them. Or something. I don't know.

I mean, some of them are starting it with the audiences. I know that.

ECN said...

But wait, what was my point?

Oh, right, my point is that for some people, "work" is ad-libs and "play" is repeating and further exploring the written material. I think a lot of the underlying basis of you folks' arguments is the notion that you have to enjoy yourself up there.

Which I agree with -- that's possibly the most important key to getting laughs -- but I'm just saying that what some of you may find tedious and exhausting is not what some of us find tedious and exhausting. If I need to, I can get something new out of my Donkey Kong joke (2003-present), but I get nothing from ad-libs... to the point that I generally don't even remember them when I get off stage.

If it's not fun, and if doesn't help develop material or get laughs... eh. Maybe it does one or all of those things for you.

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