Processing your love life onstage

I wrote this a while back: When a one-liner guy drops the script.

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.

Was also talking about this with Emily Gordon. She wrote a post about ladies in comedy which mentions some similar stuff. Here's an excerpt:

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.


ECN said...

Question. You "think watching someone process something painful onstage can be extremely hilarious" -- is there a missing clause in there?

Because what you're describing in booth of these posts is the experience of watching someone who you know personally process something painful onstage.

This, to me, seems like a potentially crucial factor...

Matt Ruby said...

ECN: No missing clause. People in the rooms during the sets I'm discussing who did NOT know these comics personally were also fascinated and laughing hard. You don't need to know someone personally to be able to identify/relate/laugh at their breakup experience.

ECN said...

Eh. Every time I've seen (or, for that matter, done) this sort of thing, it's seemed self-indulgent, tedious and/or rather exploitative. Maybe I'm just not watching (or, for that matter, being) the right comics.

I will say this, though... I do recall one of the three or so times I've done something like this. The story itself fell flat for the most part -- I had just found out that a woman who I had thought I had been on a successful first date with had posted some unflattering comments about me in her blog.

This happened literally right before I left for the show -- it made me fifteen minutes late... there wasn't enough time to condense it into anything resembling comedy.

And when I did have time, it turned out there wasn't anything to work with beyond "hey, I'm going to quote verbatim some bad things a person said about me." Which, let's face it, we've all seen people do too many times before -- it's way cheap, and even if it weren't, it isn't interesting enough to sustain an entire bit.

But... the actual material I did at the top of that set went great.

I was clearly agitated, I suppose, which might've lent my performance a little extra verisimilitude... plus, as always when I'm finishing my set with new stuff, I was extra-focused on keeping the audience in it until I got to the new parts.

So, yeah, I'm going to say exactly the opposite of what you said. Typical!

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