The impact of clarity on comedic development

A reader asks:

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.


Matteson said...

Matt - I believe you saw Tompkin's new show about his job. In this show, and a lot of his newer stuff, he seems perfectly comfortable going minutes at a time without a laugh. Usually it's paid off with a very funny few minutes that wouldn't have been possible without the set up. This certainly isn't "get in, get out, move on." Do you think he makes it work simply because he's so good, or it's an okay style if it's choose rather than arrived upon simply by rambling.

Mo Diggs said...

True Matteson but I think he is focused on what serves the joke. I saw that show. True not everything he said got a laugh but everything he said was necessary. Not one word was without purpose.

Moreover I think stories are different from jokes. Tompkins was telling stories. But I believe the reader was talking about jokes. Which can be filled with a lot of babble if told by someone who doesn't know better.

ECN said...

So... you think content is the main difference between a struggling new comedian and the same comedian when he/she is more successful later? That doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

I mean, obviously, there are going to be comedians who are never going to have anything interesting to say, so maybe the "most people starting out" you're talking about are the people who aren't later going to become successful comedians.

But consider a comedian who isn't doing well consistently when he/she starts, but later does well consistently. Is it because they have suddenly developed "interesting views"? This may be true in occasional instances, but I find it a lot more likely that the comedian has figured out how to structure the premises he/she has for maximum impact.

I mean, ideas being "interesting" is kind of vague, no? As often as not, it's the phrasing that makes the ideas interesting. There are plenty of really good comics whose jokes wouldn't be funny at all if you just recounted their premises and arguments in a straightforward fashion.

Of course, there are also plenty of really good comics who basically just go up there and recount their premises and arguments in a straightforward fashion. And that works for them.

Matt Ruby said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Ruby said...

(Ignore previous comment, just deleted it.)

@Matteson: I did see PFT's new show. I disagree he goes minutes without laughs though. Actually, I think it's fascinating to watch how Birbigs and PFT squeeze in a laugh at least every 30 seconds (or so?) while still maintaining a narrative. I think both make storytelling funny because 1) they're so good and 2) they've mastered it after years of developing tighter material and figuring out how to be funny about anything.

@ECN: Re: "There are plenty of really good comics whose jokes wouldn't be funny at all if you just recounted their premises and arguments in a straightforward fashion." I LOVE this idea. Get some actors – or maybe lawyers – to present the IDEAS of comedians without the comic delivery. Would be fascinating to see I think.

myq said...

Regarding the first thing the reader says, about there being an iceberg of shitty comedy:
I'd say that isn't unique to comedy.
There are icebergs of all kinds of shitty artists/performers/creators.
The difference is a shitty musician can be shitty all by themself and no one has to see it, but for a shitty comic to get better, they need audiences to see them be shitty and then learn from that.

I think the point about clarity makes sense. A lot of people starting out have funny ideas in their heads, but just don't know how to communicate them in an ideal fashion. So I agree with Erik.
Also, a lot of people starting out don't have funny (or "interesting") ideas in their heads. So I agree with Matt.
(As a corollary to that idea, I think that when some people start out, they go through some motions of talking about stuff they either THINK they're supposed to talk about because they've seen it done in standup before, OR they talk about stuff that has already been talked about by lots of people in standup because they HAVEN'T seen it done before. Some people eventually get beyond that.)

I think there are a lot of ways for a comedian to be great, and there are a lot of ways for someone just starting out to not be.

Did this add information? Was it interesting?
(Hopefully. I've been writing blog comments for a while now.)

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Bad comedy is like an iceberg in that it chills the atmosphere and you can see it coming from a mile away. Conveying what you want to say is important, and luckily editing is something anyone can do no matter how early they are in the game. I imagine experience plays a part down the road because you are already solidified in your perspective on things, so if you're used to mining a topic like, say, hotpockets, when you want to mine the topic of bacon it comes much easier.

You want to talk not connecting with the audience? I had a BRILLIANT joke about skin care products with food names beginning "Who's buying body butter?", and ending with, "It's cream cheese! Put it on a bagel!" with no explanation in between. 100% of the time it was met with silence and looks that said, Why are you shouting? Why are you talking about bagels? Why are you pointing at us? When will the espresso machine start hissing again so I have something to listen to?

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