Your voice is what you say no to

Matt McDonald (no idea who he is) talks about how comics perform a little play for the audience. It's an interesting way to think about being a character onstage.

Attitude is at least half of a comic's act. Attitude, in the comedy circles I ran in, was more often called "persona". A comic is giving a little play to the audience he's performing for, so he assumes the mantle of a character. As all writers and actors know, the best characters are consistent. A stand-up act should be the same way: as a comic, when you're on stage, you should have material that seems to come from one person's vision. Of course, the trick is that all of your jokes really do come from one person's vision: yours.

But you'll find, if you write stand-up, that sometimes you'll write a joke that just doesn't seem quite right, doesn't fit in with the other jokes you do, the way you like to perform, the way you use words on stage and so on. An extreme example would be Andrew Dice Clay going on an extended bit about how much he loves his wife. His whole act is misogyny, misogyny, misogyny so if he plugs in a five minute bit where he's Mr. Sensitive, it simply isn't going to work. So his attitude, the persona of misogyny that he has crafted, definitely steers his act...

Think of just about any comic and their persona is in perfect accord with their material:

-Carlin does jokes about oddities and stupidities and his persona is exasperated (if you're the only one who sees the stupidity, you'd naturally be exasperated by it).
-Brian Regan does slice of life, very clean material, so he seems like a normal everyday, very personable guy.
-Bill Hicks is confrontational and seeks to destroy preconceptions so he's very emotional in his delivery and uses cursing and expressive body movements, like a crazy prophet.
-Steven Wright looks at everything very literally, so he has what appears to be an absence of persona/attitude - he simply says "this is the way the world is" and engages in no hyperbole or "extras" because his vision is so stark and bare.

Ya constantly hear comics talk about finding their voice. Lately I've been thinking how a big part of that is what you say no to. How the jokes you don't tell are just as important to your voice as the ones you do tell. Telling a joke that gets fewer laughs but fits your persona can be a smarter move than telling one that hits hard but seems out of character. Or maybe you have two different "styles" you can work in (one-liners vs. longer bits, angry guy vs. crowd pleasing guy, high status character vs. low status) but you're better off dropping one so your whole act feels more consistent.

Tangent: I recall hearing Birbigs in an interview talk about the challenges he faced moving to theater shows. One of the things he said was toughest was throwing out jokes that he knows will get a laugh. His director made him get rid of anything that didn't move the story foward. The narrative was more important than laughs per minute.

Tangent++: This review of John Mulaney's album includes this take on Mulaney's "comedic persona" — or lack thereof.

What I like about the album -- and about Mulaney in general -- is that he doesn't have an obvious "hook." He hasn't gone to great lengths to create some comedic persona or be known as the "fill-in-the-blank" guy. That doesn't mean he doesn't have a voice (something I've harped on other comics for in the past). He sees the world with a bit of amused detachment, and is simply funny in an unassuming way. Sometimes, funny is enough.

There isn't really an easy way to sum up Mulaney's persona. Maybe he gets away with that 'cuz he's such a damn good writer? Hmm.


Abbi Crutchfield said...

Amused detachment sounds like a good description of Mulaney's persona. I would venture to add the terms "snarky goofball" or "friendly hermit" or "modern-looking, retro-sounding guy" or "squeaky clean swamp monster". I like packaging things.

Good point about throwing stuff out that doesn't match up. You know how defined a persona Obama has? That would be something I'd like to strive for. Where a perfect stranger can read my joke in text and know it's mine. Or they say, "She wouldn't eeever do that," because they know what I will and won't stand for. But maybe I wouldn't want to be so predictably defined. I wouldn't want the world to think of me as some non-evolving fuddy-duddy. Does anyone really want to be figured out?

Mo Diggs said...

I have to admit this guy is right. I was thinking the same thing myself. Kind of reminds me of that thing they say in jazz circles, "it's the notes he doesn't play," which PFT hilariously deconstructs on "Impersonal".

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

Larry Gelbart has a quote I like. To sum it up, he says that as a comedy writer, one's style is formed by what one can't do. I think you can extrapolate that to include what one won't do.

Self-editing, knowing your personal strengths and weaknesses and how you want to come across... that stuff is key.

When I write, (I'm a timid clown who has yet to hit the stage) my stuff is dark and personal, which leaves me with this backlog of observational humor I've come up with but don't think fits who I am. Maybe once I start open mics, I'll figure out a way to meld the two - that.... or.... the cognitive dissonance will destroy me.

myq said...

@Rebecca: when you say that you write dark and personal stuff, but have a backlog of observational stuff, doesn't that mean you also wrote that observational stuff? of course, you should do whatever you want on stage when you get there (and you should get there if you want to), but there's no need to censor yourself in writing OR performing, certainly not when you're getting started and learning who you are as a writer and performer. even doug stanhope (one of the darkest and best) is doing jokes complaining about airlines these days (and hilariously and legitimately pointing out that such items are the REAL things that bother people on a daily basis, and that seinfeld has got it right on, etc.)...
there's nothing wrong with observations. (just an observation.)
PS observations can be dark, too.

@mo: this is the comment i DIDN'T leave.
i mean, not this one.


PS @everyone:
something to think about--if you THINK of something, and then decide it's not in your character, what does that mean? because you THOUGHT of it. it's something your brain came up with? obviously yes, if you're playing a character on stage, or representing only an aspect of yourself (chris rock is mostly his louder self on stage, steven wright is mostly his more absurd self, though i imagine he has some normal interactions throughout life as well, etc.), it's possible that developing that character will involve choosing to leave some things out, but if the character you're looking to play is your honest self, why rule out things that your self honestly thought of?
(louis CK had more absurd things in his earlier work, but that still shines through occasionally even in his more recent, grittier, "honest" material. but as ECN has pointed out, that silly stuff from before was hilarious, and equally if not MORE honest to who louis was at that time. and still some.)

final point--i don't think it's AS important to assess who you are and what kind of jokes you tell in the moment. just do. if you're so concerned with chipping away everything that doesn't look like an elephant to get to the sculpture of your persona, maybe you won't realize your potential as an elephant with wings. (don't censor your wings, everyone!)

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Disclaimer: how long you've been doing comedy does not denote your level of skill.

I think it's dangerous for a comic early in his career (let alone a person who hasn't tried comedy yet) to start censoring himself or leaving out material. Improvement in any craft requires producing over and over. You can't work out kinks if you never offer them up to be identified as kinks. The most important thing to do when you're starting out is to write and get on stage often. Forget about what you look and sound like.

For semi-pros or people who work regularly at it, being selective about which material you perform may not stifle your progress (you keep on cranking out jokes) but it can inhibit fulfilling your potential (you never experience total freedom because you put a cap on what you can and can't do).

I can't speak for pros or veterans, but I'm guessing that if you have evolved to create an act that speaks to exactly who you are, incorporating jokes that don't sound like what the audience is used to is a risk. It could be met with disappointment. But it could also help you learn to grow a ponytail.

I tweet a lot of one-liners but joke on stage in scenario-form. I'm hoping to meld the two some day. And then add storytelling. And then rap. And feats of strength. As long as I'm not doing next year exactly what I'm doing today. Because I don't want that. I want better.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

@ myq: I think I repeated several points you already made (censoring yourself when starting out, realizing potential, etc.) There have to be some comics here not interested in realizing the potential of their HONEST self. Who chip everything away and see that they don't have an elephant with wings. Just an elephant. But they want to add wings.

@ Rebecca: I had never heard of Larry Gelbart before. I'm going to try to get my hands on his memoir. Good quote. Reminds me that I HATE recognizing my own limitations. Someone else said, "make your weaknesses your strengths". So maybe by identifying them I can obliterate them through hard work. I hope.

Mo Diggs said...

@ Myq

I am NOT voting for Roy Wood, Mike DeStefano, Felipe Espanza or Tommy Johnagin.

Mo Diggs said...

I agree that beginners should not limit themselves as to what jokes they tell. It is mainly through trail and error that you find out who you are. As a beginner, you may have a one liner followed by a rant. After a while though, as more audiences/comics come around to you, their laughs tell you what works for you.

I am actually opposed to monotheistic religion, but I MUST approach the topic from a goofy/sardonic perspective otherwise, if I do an apoplectic rant, it doesn't fit my jokes about vitamin water and Entourage.

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