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.
I frankly don’t give a fuck how it all turns out in this country or anywhere else for that matter. I think the human game was up a long time ago when the high priests and traders took over, and now we’re just playing out the string. And that is of course precisely what I find so amusing! The slow circling of the drain by a once promising species and the sappy ever more desperate belief in this country that there is actually some sort of an ‘American Dream’ which has merely been misplaced.
Live footage in 2006 of Dave Chappelle in his hometown of Yellow Springs, OH. He's on stage stalling while waiting for a band to come out. Someone gives him a harmonica. Then he notices a guy filming him in the crowd. Fun to watch him turn it all into laughs.
I got a music iPod and a comedy iPod. One is all comedy and spoken word, every speech, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, whatever...There's a lot of preachers in there, a lot of gospel stuff, a lot of stand-up. What I do, what a preacher does, what the president's doing, it's all the same -- you're picking your topic, and you're arguing your point. The president's trying to get an applause break; I'm trying to get a laugh. The preacher's trying to get an amen.
It would really be a terrible sign for great, single-camera sitcoms on TV on any network, NBC or otherwise. As the highest-profile smart sitcoms on TV (well, Modern Family counts too, but they certainly have no issues with ratings), they're kind of the canaries in the comedy coal mines. If they fail, NBC's new bosses are likely to take a cue from the much-more-successful CBS and put broader multicam stuff on the air instead. And frankly, that would be heartbreaking.
Well, the reason it's film-like is because it's closer to how they make films. I can tell the difference--can't you? SCM looks more like a movie, and to me, MCM is more like watching a play. Yes, they can switch perspective back and forth, but it's watching one scene on one set unfold in front of your eyes.
If you take the West Wing, for example, one of their signature styles is to film characters having conversations while they're briskly walking through the halls of the White House. That just couldn't happen in MCM, which needs a much more open space to accommodate the different camera angles. Have you ever seen a scene in a traditional sitcom where characters walk through several halls and rooms during a single scene? If you have, you probably noted the difference in the feel, like how weird it is when a sitcom goes on location to Disney World or something. You also can't really get tight close-ups in MCM, etc. What you give up is the energy of a live studio audience, which sometimes fits nicely into a traditional sitcom. It all depends on what you're going for.
In baseball, they call hitting a single, double, triple, and a homer in one game "hitting for the cycle." Today I witnessed the homosexual equivalent of hitting for the cycle: a flight attendant (1B) whose route is San Francisco/NYC (2B) with a handlebar mustache (3B) and a nametag that says "Papa Bear" (HR).
Papa Bear! Y'know, I once considered putting what I'm like in the bedroom on a name tag. But I decided I didn't really want people to start calling me "Foot cramps and excuses."
Sometimes it's dangerous to admire the best comics in the world. I mean, sure, be inspired by the greats and what they've done. But if you're doing an 8 minute set in front of 15 people, can you really take the same approach as a Carlin, Pryor, or CK? Can you go out and talk about your mom's funeral like PFT? Can you tell a long, winding rant/tale about fucking a midget like Stanhope does? Can you talk about your hospital visits like Birbigs? Can you talk about a hatefucking-the-crowd-with-magic magician you saw perform years ago like Patton Oswalt?
Sure, you can try. But it really seems like that's the sorta thing that's best saved for once you're doing rooms where people know who you are beforehand, you're getting more time, and you've spent years learning how to make things funny and interesting. Then you can start taking more chances and going for longform stuff.
Actually, I think Birbigs' evolution is especially interesting just because it's been so fast. I love Two Drink Mike. But it's what I think of as a comedy club album. It's rapid fire. It's rhythm. It's setup-punch after setup-punch. He makes fun of Busta Rhymes.
Now, I also dig his later efforts. Sleepwalk With Me was great storytelling. Personal and deep. But if a new comic asked me how to learn from Birbigs, I'd point 'em to that clubby, joke-filled record. Because that style (funny, tight, quick jokes) is the best way out of the starting gate.
I've got some bits that I love to do when I get longer sets — ones where the audience gets to know you and is on your side. But that's not reality for most of the places I perform. And doing the shows I do, I keep winding up feeling like the skill I most need to master is how to hit 'em hard and fast. It can still be personal, heartfelt stuff. But it better be the kind of jokes that slap people in the face.
And if you look at these big names, the bits we see them do now are way different than what they started with. For years, CK was doing silly, absurd jokes. Pryor didn't come out talking about setting himself on fire. It was years of jokey jokes first. You look at the greats, and it's usually the same path. There were years of learning how to write those slap-in-the-face jokes. And then, they began reaching higher.
Here's a 2002 interview with Patton Oswalt where he talks about a similar idea and breaks down what's wrong with folks who set out to be "alternative" comics. He thinks it's better to write knock knock jokes then to be an “I’m just going to go up on stage and talk about my day" comic.
All alternative comedy is are comedians that have being doing it for so long, for so long, that they were relaxed enough to start becoming personal on stage. I had been doing it for about six or seven years before I started doing places like The Largo and The Uncabaret.
I mean, ninety percent of all comedians are just boring people, and ninety percent of alternative comics are shitty comedians. You take the good ones in the ten percents between the two, and that’s where you get the good stuff.
So I’ve never differentiated between the alternative and the mainstream. There are plenty of alternative comedians, and I mean ones that sort of started off as alternative comics...that’s like saying, “I’m going to start off as a jazz improvisor.” Well, do you know how to play scales? “No. I’m going to start off by improvising.” It’s like a guy saying, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to start off as a four-star chef.” Well, can you cook a cup of rice? “No.” Can you cook an omelet? “No.” Well, why don’t you start off learning how to cook rice, and by the way, that takes about a year. Four star chefs take a full year learning how to cook rice and how to cook omelets. “Well, I’m not going to do that.” Well, then you’re never going to be a four-star chef.
So many guys start off going, “Well, I’m just going to be alternative, like Janeane Garofalo.” Well, Janeane Garofalo was banging away for ten years. She was a brilliant joke writer, a brilliant comedian, and then got so good that she could do it in her sleep, and started to challenge herself.
I mean, it’s the same thing with Richard Pryor. Guys watch Richard Pryor and think, “I can do that. He just goes up onstage and says ‘motherfucker.’” Not realizing he had been doing it for fifteen years. I mean, guys go up on stage thinking, “I’m just going to go up on stage and talk about my day like Janeane does.” Uhhh, no, you’re not, actually. You should actually go and write a joke first. You know what? Go and write a knock-knock joke first. Seriously, can you write a fucking knock knock joke?
I remember one time I was at Largo and a guy said, “I love seeing mainstream, headlining comedians come in here trying to be alternative, because they just sweat, sweat, sweat and say, well, it doesn’t really have to be funny! Hahaha.” And I went up after him and said, you know, that is fun to watch, but you know what’s even more fun? Watching an alternative comic out on the road. That’s hysterical. They’re on stage going, “Yeah, me and my friend Terry … you guys know Terry, right? … Huh. Well, we went to Blockbuster and Terry rented “The Wedding Planner” … I mean, if you guys knew Terry … Hell-oooo? Ok, fine, you guys are fucking idiots.” That’s my impression of an alternative comic on the road. “Uhhh, I mean, if you guys knew Terry, you would know … I mean, weren’t you guys there when we all went and played Putt-Putt? Ahhh, you guys are morons. I can’t believe that my thirty friends are not in this room in Ohio right now. This is the shittiest comedy club on the planet.”
Here’s my other impression of an alternative comic on the road: “Ok, you guys aren’t listening to me.”
Colin Quinn's Long Story Short wants to give away two tickets to one of my readers. I said sure. (Tickets normally start at $59 FYI.) If you're interested, email ColinQuinnGiveaways@gmail.com and mention "Sandpaper Suit giveaway" in the subject. The winner will be picked within four days. If you win, feel free to send me a care package with either candy or baboon hearts.
I saw a TV movie once about the American team that went to the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896. (Note: This is probably a bullshit story but I like it.) At the time, the discus was unknown in America. So the American team went to a blacksmith, showed him a picture of a discus from Greek art, and then had him make one. He made a discus that weighed 20 lbs. The American discus thrower trained with it and could barely throw it. But when he arrived in Athens and picked up the discus to be used in the actual event, it weighed only five lbs. He could throw it easily and beat the Greek champion.
That's kinda what I feel like doing standup in NYC is like. Training with a discus that's way too heavy. It's annoying and frustrating but it also is making you better. When you get out to real crowds in other towns, you know you can rip it.
NYC is a bizarre place to do standup. You've got to fight for stage time here. Meanwhile, I did a show in Virginia last week for a room of 80 real audience where some of the comics were total newbies. What a different way to come up than starting out in NYC.
In other towns, people are enthusiastic to be at a show. They're willing to meet you halfway. In NYC, it feels like a constant progression of arms-folded audience members silently asking, "Ok, why should I pay attention to YOU?" Show after show, it's a grind — like you're constantly trying to scrape people off the floor and inflate them.
(Worth mentioning here: The shows I do on the road are more crowded so that certainly helps. It's nice to be able to drop into a town and do the best shows there and then leave. Living in another place would probably be a whole different story.)
In other towns, there are Republicans in the room. In NYC, everyone already agrees with each other. In other towns, you can actually shock people. Here, it's almost impossible to truly push people's buttons. New Yorkers have their buttons pushed all day. They're numb to it.
Different material works. Things that are considered hacky here can get big laughs on the road. A guy can talk about his kids for 30 minutes on the road. Never see that at a show in Brooklyn. I've got a bit on 9/11 that works great in NYC but eats it on the road. As soon as they hear 9/11, you can feel the tone of the room change and a sense that they no longer feel it's safe to laugh. They shut down. Talking about drugs, rednecks, religion and other stuff can take on a different tone too.
It's fascinating. And it gets to the truth of what's really funny about your act. Not just to one group of people, but to everyone.
Last summer, Patton Oswalt hit the road with Kyle Kinane. While announcing the dates, Patton talked about Kyle finding his voice...
Kyle’s been opening for me for about two years, and during that time he’s grown in those lurching leaps forward that young comedians take when they find their voice and everything they experience then becomes a joke. The act of writing “jokes” is no longer a task separate from them being in tune with how they recognize and react to even the most mundane details of their lives...
...and then Patton praises the way Kyle books his own tours:
See, what he’s done for himself this summer is what a lot of young comedians with a lot of free time and slim prospects should be doing – he posted, online, that he was putting together a tour, and saw who invited him to use their space...
This is why Kyle’s going to be huge – he’s mixing the fringe with the mainstream. Doing those three D.I.Y., loosey-goosey alt-style places (and yes, there’s “alt” in Oklahoma – hell, one of the best shows I ever did was a punk club in Salt Lake City). Then he follows it up with a bucket of ice water called The Tempe Improv.
Comedians who only did rooms like The Largo and Uncabaret never grew any muscles or hide. Comedians who only did the road and never experimented eventually had their voices muffled behind the muscles. Kyle’s pursuing a balance here.
When I first moved to NYC, I was super self-conscious about sounding too "roady" in the sense that it might seem too rehearsed, but really, I try my best to be the same comic on or off the road. I try and challenge road crowds to go with me on certain, more absurd bits. On the other hand, I try to trick hip NYC crowds into embracing bits I've been perfecting for years...
They don't want to laugh at something that sounds contrived in any way. The trick is adding more "ums” and "likes” to give the illusion that you're coming up with it off the top of your head. I’m kidding, but seriously, they tend to clam up when they sense it has been done to death, as would anyone. It's good though, because it forces you to freshen up stale bits. It's a challenge...
I have learned over the years that the more liberal the town, the more groans you'll get. I remember thinking that San Francisco was going to be a place where I could spread my wings and let my darkest, weirdest material fly, but I quickly learned that was not the case.
Yeah, the absurb/weird stuff that might fly at a Brooklyn show won't get you far at a club in San Diego filled with marines. At that point, you start asking yourself: What kind of comedian do you want to be?
We're All Friends Here | 01.18.11 00:00 Mark Normand and Matt Ruby Intro 07:38 Damien Lemon 25:05 Mark Normand and Matt Ruby 26:02 Selena Coppock 36:00 Mark Normand and Matt Ruby 36:40 Chris Laker 63:36 Mark Normand and Matt Ruby 64:41 Finish
Is #4 a good idea? Seems like we comics always have the urge to say, "Wow, this is a huge pile of fail!" ...but as soon as we say that, at that point it DOES become a huge pile of fail.
I chimed in there with my .02 on it which is, basically, you should avoid dwelling on things going poorly for as long as you can. You often wind up sabotaging yourself by going negative. But at some point, I do think it's worth pointing out the elephant in the room if that elephant is a roomful of people who clearly dislike the words coming out of your mouth.
Had the hardest bomb I've had in a while the other night. Sucked. Someone in the back even yelled out "No one's laughing!" Oh, thanks for the update.
Felt terrible. But on the subway ride home I started going over what happened and what I shoulda done differently. And I started feeling like I had done what I could do, ya know? You can't always control the outcome, but you can control the process. And I felt like my damage control steps were what they should have been.
In my defense, it wasn't exactly an ideal room. Some people up front were there for the show but in the back was a chatty birthday party of 12 or so people who were there to celebrate, not watch comedy.
And I knew it was going to be rough as soon as I got there. Host had a tough time. Then first comic did ok but he was loud and yelling and that's just not my style. Then it was my turn.
I was gonna try new stuff but beforehand I decided to go with topics I thought would be most relatable to the room. And I told my quickest jokes. If I was gonna go down, I was gonna go down firing. Nothing worse than telling long, drawn out setups as you feel the air slipping out of the room.
Still, it wasn't going well. The "No one's laughing!" came from the birthday party in the back. I responded with something like:
No one's laughing because I can't tell jokes because you guys won't stop talking. See comedy needs the audience to pay attention too. And this kinda feels like trying to have sex with someone who keeps checking their watch the whole time.
And that actually got a round of applause from the people upfront. The people who aren't talking are the ones who always seem happiest when you try to shut down the yappy members of the crowd. They're on your side because it's their best chance at a good show.
I went back to bits but it was still awkward. I switched to my A material at that point. Still struggled. When A doesn't work, not much else you can do. So I moved on to crowdwork. Didn't go anywhere either. I admitted it was going poorly and got a laugh off that. Hung on for a couple more minutes and finished up.
It still felt like shit. But at least I pulled out every tool I had in my belt. Made me realize I have a subconscious checklist I go through during shitty sets:
1. Are you telling the right jokes for this crowd? If yes and it's not working... 2. Are you telling fast jokes? If yes and it's not working... 3. Are you trying your A material? If yes and it's not working... 4. Are you addressing the situation (i.e. it's not going well) honestly? If yes and it's not working... 5. Are you trying crowdwork? If yes and it's not working... 6. Do whatever the fuck you want.
The way that it comes out of the standup is that a lot of the ideas start as stand up ideas of what I end up filming, so I kind of make a decision, what's the funniest way to execute this? Is it going to be to just say it on stage, or is it going to be to see it as a film?
Made me think of one bit he does about how there's no masturbation equivalent for people who love food.
For sex, there's masturbation, but for food, there's nothing. You don't watch Food Network, like...[rubs his tongue as if he's jerking it off]...oh, yeah!
When I was watching the show, I felt like that bit was the seed for this scene...
...except he's going for laughs purely through visuals/editing instead of through words.