Hey. I’m Matt Ruby (firstname.lastname@example.org). I live in Brooklyn and I'm a standup comedian and the creator of Vooza, a video comic strip about the tech world. This is Sandpaper Suit, a comedy blog about standup, filmmaking, and whatever else I feel like talking about. Established 2006. Phew, that's a while.
Got to see a comic who's normally a one-liner guy break out of his shell the other night. His gf had just broken up with him and it seemed like he was taking it rough and needed to talk about it.
Well, saw it again a week ago. Comic split with his long-term gf and got on stage to rant about it. And man, it was really great. Just a raw, fresh, honest opening up of emotion in joke form. Whole crowd on the edge of their seats. Pain → vulnerability → big laughs. And then if one joke didn't do well he'd just follow up with the truth and get a laugh off that. The pauses and authenticity of what was happening made the whole thing sing.
The challenge: Bottling that up. Keeping those jokes alive as the pain recedes. How do you keep that same energy going after you do those jokes for months? Or is it even possible? Maybe if you're a great actor. But otherwise...
Also, it was interesting that he threw in a couple of older jokes he had about his gf. And they fell flat. Just seemed way outta place with the rawness of the current stuff he was talking about. Those other jokes seemed like playing with legos and the REAL stuff he was talking about seemed like building a bridge.
The difference I see between funny and not funny dating bits is that the comics I like a) aren’t trying to shock the crowd with how vulgar they can be (hey look, she’s just like a man!), and b) are NOT actively processing their love lives onstage.
This means that rather than being like “oh god I had this date with this guy and ended up on the floor of his apartment half naked and he won’t call me but I need to get my shirt back ha ha ha my life is a mess”, the female comics I prefer have had the experience of a messy hookup, processed it with their friends/therapist/whatever, and are now just commenting on their own situation from a safe distance. Watching someone process their own lives onstage is uncomfortable. Men, sadly, often have their processors turned off, so they can skip straight to the terrible rationalizing from a safe distance. This makes for easier joke writing but miserable emotional stability.
Matt Ruby, who I talked to about this, mentioned that he thinks watching someone process something painful onstage can be extremely hilarious, and I do agree with him. To me though, onstage processing of trauma is a heavy, tricky tool that should be wielded carefully, lest you chop your own arms off with it. For me, I need to feel like whatever trauma you’re actively going through onstage is out of character for you, not just another week in your life. And I need to feel like it’s your first time talking about it. Fake, rehashed processing feels a bit like when I saw Korn in 10th grade and had the realization that he writhes on the floor in supposed agony and torment every single night.
Good points. Plus that last thing made me think of Richard Lewis as the Korn of comedy. Which I guess he kinda is.
Watching the World Cup the other day. Guy on Japanese team brought the ball all the way up the field with a bunch of nifty moves, faking out defenders left and right. Finally gets to the penalty box and finds an open space — but then hits a weak shot that goes wide. I liked how the announcer described it: "The finish didn't match the run."
Totally wanna use that as a comedy term. Y'know, for when there's a great setup/premise that seems like it's a real winner but then fizzles at the end with a lame punchline or some other ending that doesn't deliver on the premise's promise. The finish doesn't match the run.
Of course, this will prob work about as well as my attempt to use "on the crab" to describe a comic who keeps coming up with great new bits.
Oh, and reminds me of another phrase I wind up using a lot: a long walk. (Think I first heard Jon Stewart say it.) Basically that's when a setup requires a lot of explanation/time. OK if there's a big payoff. But if not, it's a waste. Then it's just a long walk for not a lot of laughs.
Thankfully, there are just a handful of his quickly outmoded pop-culture references on this album: — Michael Vick, Brooke Hogan, David Carradine, David Cook. (What, nothing rhymed with Kris Allen?) A decade ago they marked Eminem as a provocateur willing to take on enemies. Now they suggest he’s become a passive and sluggish consumer of pop culture.
Stuck with me 'cuz that's how I feel about comics who rely too much on pop culture topics.
If someone gets up onstage and talks solely about stuff that's on E! and Us Weekly, it just seems passive and sluggish. You're not initiating topics or coming up with something interesting on your own. You're just regurgitating what the Viacom/Time Warner/entertainment industry PR machine wants you to swallow.
Plus, the shelf life on that stuff is so quick. It's all completely disposable. That joke about the Kardashians is gonna seem just as worthless/dated as Eminem's Brooke Hogan reference in a couple of years. Personally, I'd rather work on something a bit more evergreen.
In my experience it seems like there's an iceberg of shitty comedy. At the top of that iceberg is the hacks; beneath the surface are open mikers that have jokes that are not funny mainly because their jokes lack clarity. Most comedians when they start out struggle with clarity. Truthfully, I feel this is what separates the successful comics from the unsuccessful ones.
Paul F. Tompkins has a six minute joke about peanut brittle. Since he is a master, he focuses specifically on the unlikelihood of someone opening a can of peanut brittle and not expecting it to be snakes in a can. A lesser comic would have gone off on a tangent regarding how bad it tastes or they would have thrown in some lazy non sequitur about robots or ninjas.
So what are your thoughts on how clarity affects comedic development?
Interestingly, I wasn't completely clear on what this question was asking. So I asked him what he meant by "clarity" exactly. His answer, "I mean a joke that is clear to the audience. The set-up serves the punchline and vice-versa. The audience has to know what the fuck you are talking about. In other words, don't babble."
Which seems like he kinda answered his own question. I agree. Don't babble.
In fact, editing seems to me perhaps a bigger issue than clarity. Any word that's not the funny part or leading to the funny part is a waste of time. As soon as someone goes onstage and enters storyteller-without-jokes mode or just seems to be talking without making any point, I tune out. Get in, get out, and move on.
Also, I don't think clarity is the main problem for most people starting out. I think it's that they're not interesting. They don't have interesting views. They don't have anything they really need to get off their chest. They're not saying anything surprising. They're not compelling. They just want to be on a stage. Yawn.
There's another class of jokes that I come back to though: "nailed it" jokes. These aren't necessarily long or deep or anything like that. But whenever I encounter that person/thing/whatever in real life, I think of the joke. Some examples...
Mitch Hedberg on flyers: "When someone tries to hand me a flyer, it’s kinda like they’re saying, 'Here, you throw this away.'"
Daniel Tosh on "spiritual" people: "You ever hear girls say that? 'I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual.' I like to reply with 'I'm not honest, but you're interesting!'"
A few months back, Morgan Murphy won the award for Best Female Comic at the ECNY awards. When she accepted her award, she made a crack about the crowd of performers. Can't recall exactly but something like: "There are seven comedians in this room that I know. And the rest of you are the 150 reasons why I quit theater class in college." I thought it was hilarious. Rest of crowd = not so much. Actually felt a bit tense in the room after that.
Talked with someone afterward who thought it was in bad taste. My .02: If you're a comedian, you should be ok with getting made fun of. Thick skin is part of the deal. Don't like it? Start a book club instead.
The whole thing reminded me of Seinfeld's speech when he accepted "The Comedian Award" from HBO:
Your whole career as a comedian is about making fun of pretentious, high-minded, self-congratulatory, BS events like this one. The whole feeling in this room of reverence and honoring is the exact opposite of everything I have wanted my life to be about. I really don’t want to be up here. I want to be in the back over there somewhere, or over there, saying something funny to somebody about what a crock this whole thing is.
Oh indie rock, you are so delightfully silly sometimes.
This Pitchfork review discusses indie buzz band Salem's "apocalyptic lo-fi murk-pop aesthetic." It calls 'em "a group with a distinctive style and a couple of should-be indie hits." Hey, sounds promising! Let's check 'em out (clip from SXSW show)...
Wow. I actually think the drums here are WORSE than the vocals. Which seems barely even possible.
Here's another live track from 'em, with more of an "urban flava":
Fun comedy night last night. Performed at Revival show. Then went up to Caroline's to see Bill Burr do a set (was great). Then back downtown for Kabin 3-year anniversary show which was a packed out marathon party/show/goodtime.
While there, had an interesting pair of convos. Within 10 minutes of each other there was one discussion about how important it is to just go out and kill all the time. Even if it means doing older bits. Sure, comedians in the back might have heard 'em before but audience hasn't. That's how you start getting more attention, better bookings, etc. By destroying every time you hit the stage.
Yet a couple mins later had another talk with a comic who just got back from doing a bunch of road shows. He said he's gonna stop doing rote sets all the time in NYC and try more new stuff and follow tangents and see what happens. Better for developing new material and keeping things interesting. Plus, you keep getting better as a comic? So it's best to keep plowing ahead with new...right?
I nodded in agreement at both conversations even though they pretty much argue opposite views. I guess it's about striking the right balance between 'em? Hmm.
In 1992, then prez candidate Bill Clinton was speaking in favor of condoms in public schools when he got heckled. Interesting to see a non-comic handle a rowdy crowd member...plus it's fun to watch him take the mic outta the stand as he turns on the jets.
Did a strange midnight show in basement of a restaurant in East Village on Saturday night. Crowd was barked in by producer so strange mix of folks. Really packed which was good but they seemed to not even get that these were jokes. Good comics were eating it. Comics started pushing back and calling 'em idiots. Overall, felt more like hand to hand combat than anything else. (Can you have verbal hand to hand combat? Well, anyway...)
Talked to a vet guy who was on the show. He said, "You gotta understand: These are people who were tricked into coming into a basement on a Saturday night at midnight. We're not exactly setting the bar high." Good point.
When I was opening for him on the Comedy Central Live Tour, he offered to come to New York City for the release of my CD at The Comic Strip. I kept giving him an out so that he didn’t feel obliged to do it, but he insisted on it. So he flew himself to New York and performed on 2 shows for nothing. I offered to pay him and he kept refusing. He just gave me a hug and walked out the door.
George walks straight off of the street onto the stage. A crowd of 3200 people is going apeshit. A LOT of comedians would take that in, stand there looking proud and get every last clap and holler on tape before saying "Thank you. Thanks. Alright. How we doin? This is great!" But George is SO eager to get his first thought out, he's trying to make them shut up so that he can do the bravest, boldest opening joke ever. "Why is it the people who are against abortion are people you wouldn't want to fuck in the first place."
Whoa. What a brushback pitch. Amazing. Any comedian with a joke like that would bury it inside of an act full of goodwill so that they wouldn't lose the audience. George is DYING to tell it to a primo special taping audience. He OPENS with it.
This was a great man. An honest man. I loved him. His courage inspires me forever. It was from him that I learned to just say what is on my mind on stage and to stop worrying about who might not like it. As long as it's true and it comes from a real place, you have to say it and not mince words. I got that from him.
FRI (6/4): HOT SOUP 8:00pm showtime, doors at 7:30pm O'Hanlon's Bar - 349 E 14th St between 1st and 2nd Ave.
Hot Soup is a FREE weekly standup comedy showcase every Friday in the East Village. Doors at 7:30pm and showtime at 8pm. It's produced by David Cope, Andy Haynes, Mark Normand, and Matt Ruby.
Lineup: Keith Alberstadt Brooke Van Poppelen Sean Donnelly Phil Hanley Mark Normand (Thomas Middleditch does the boo-off)
SAT (6/5): WE'RE ALL FRIENDS HERE 2 YEAR ANNIVERSARY! 8:00pm The Creek and the Cave 10-93 Jackson Ave. Long Island City, NY
Two years we've been doing this goddamn show. That's a lot of suicide, sex, racialism, drugs, and more sex. We're celebrating our anniversary by inviting back three of our fave guests. We've got a whole new round of dirt and misadventures to chew on.
Lineup: Ali Wong Erik Bergstrom Brooke Van Poppelen
Often times, when someone finds out I’m a comedian; they’ll ask me what kinds of “stuff” I talk about in my act. There are a whole lot of questions that put a comedian on the defensive, but this one, where I’m asked to reduce what I do into some sort of theme or category is my least favorite. Once in awhile, I wish I could sum up my comedy as “shrewd observations on the ironies of religion, politics, or a general commentary on everything that’s right and wrong about the world we live in.” But that’s not the truth. My comedy is rarely, if ever, NOT about me and deals largely with dating and relationships—a single woman who in many ways refuses to grow up, makes a lot of the same mistakes, and tries to somehow make sense of it. I’m ok with it for now, because while it’s not always entertaining, well written or well executed, it’s always me. I don’t want to talk about things that don’t interest me and luckily, I always interest me. However, when this question is posed to me, particularly by a man, I hesitate to reveal that I talk about relationships and dating because I feel like their response would be something along the lines of, “of course you do, you’re a woman.” Not to say I care greatly about a stranger’s opinion of me, but it can be frustrating to constantly defend the two biggest misconceptions about female comedians--which I believe to be that all we talk about are relationships, and of course, that we’re just not funny.
I don’t want to spend too much time trying to dispute the notion that female comedians are generally not as funny as male comedians because it seems as useless as trying to defend any other kind of stereotype. Some women are funny, some aren’t, and it really is that simple. Perhaps there’s a male trait of being bolder, more direct, and less meandering than women, and these attributes can serve one well in comedy. But these can be remedied as you get more comfortable being on stage, become a more proficient editor, recognize your limits with time, audience attention span…etc, etc. Male or female, if you are talented, people will recognize that and all the preconceptions become irrelevant. If the audience is laughing and entertained and to some extent you’ve done what you set out to do, then you’ve succeeded. Bombing does not discriminate based on breasts or the presence or absence of a penis.
That being said, attitudes and resentments between men and women within the comedy community is another story. I’m speaking in generalities here, and understand that the word “some” can be placed before each statement--but just to name a few:
* Female comics feel outnumbered and mistreated at open mics, which can result in not attending them as often. * Female comics tend to think there is a certain “boys club” that exists and some women feel largely alienated from it. * Male comics think women can simply get onstage looking cute and talk about sex, and they themselves don’t have that kind of cheap strategy at their hands the way we do. * Male comics think women don’t work as hard and are rewarded more often for being a woman than by virtue of their talent.
To some degree, I believe every one of the above statements. Not necessarily because there’s so much bias and tension between men and women in comedy, but because I believe there’s bias and tension between men and women in life. To address each briefly and individually…
* Any circumstance where men outnumber women runs the risk of making a woman feel reduced and objectified, It’s fun at a bar, but not so much when you’re trying to be taken seriously. * Cliques in comedy exist, but men can feel excluded from them as well. Like anything else in life, there will be moments of feeling included and moments of feeling excluded and I think we all left the worst of it behind in middle school * Yes, some women get onstage and talk about sex in gratuitous and unimaginative ways. I know this for a fact because I’ve done it and certainly still do it when I haven’t done the work and know firsthand it doesn’t hold up for very long. However, I’ve heard both male and female comics tell some very unfunny sex jokes and maybe in the short term a women can get away with it more, but it’s not sustainable, particularly when it’s not authentic. * For the most part, myself included, female comics don’t get on stage and practice with the intensity and tenacity of some of the male comedians I know. For reasons mentioned earlier, I think women may find them counterproductive because it can feel like an unsupportive environment. In the end, it’s really what an individual feels like they need and is willing to do to improve. I know amazingly talented comics that get up twice a week and amazingly talented comics that get up 15 times a week. I believe there’s some level of natural talent but also think if you’re not working hard enough your work will reflect that. I know I don’t get up as much as I should, and in a moment of truth also know there isn’t any man, boys club, subway construction, happy hour or lack of preparation I can blame it on. If I want this, I will do the work, no getting around it.
So if the end is the point where I’m supposed to make a point, I guess I’ll finish saying this--it doesn’t really fucking matter and I think we all know this. By and large, if you are a comedian, male or female, it’s likely you haven’t had it easy. I think besides the obvious rewards--success, fame, a writing job, a TV credit…we’re all trying to work through something. And in doing so, will hopefully learn a little about humanity, both the world’s and our own. All of us are fighting obstacles and limitations, with comedy and within ourselves. Instead of blaming each other we really should come together and take the more noble approach, which is of course, blaming the audience.
The act of ‘stand-up ‘ is – your material aside – an aggressive art form. It’s aggressive because you have to have control of a room, and you have to be comfortable knowing that you’re in control of that room. It is my personal belief that this type of ‘desire to command attention’ is not something that is inherent in women. It is a learned trait: something you gain (or don’t) based on life experiences.
Pryor's the greatest comic of all time and here's why: Because he was a great actor like Charlie Chaplin or something. He had the ability to make you feel a pathos, a bathos. He could take you on a journey through the darkest depths of the horrible night.
"My mother was a whore. White men would come to my door and say, 'Is your mother here? I want a blow job.'" Huge laugh. That's the saddest joke ever told — ever fucking told.
Carlin isn't that person. He's not trying to escape the grinding poverty of growing up in a whorehouse. He's an astute, different type of person. Carlin I could be in my dreams. I can't be Richard Pryor. He's a genius and his writing is overwhelming. He's a force of nature.
Here's the joke he mentions:
pathos |ˈpāˌθäs; -ˌθôs| noun a quality that evokes pity or sadness : the actor injects his customary humor and pathos into the role.
bathos |ˈbāθäs| noun (esp. in a work of literature) an effect of anticlimax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.