Start off learning how to "cook rice"

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.”

[Thanks for the link, JH.]


Anonymous said...

Awesome post. As an aspiring comic - I spend way more time trying to find good original premises and then finding a way to set it up and find a punch-line. I have seen quite a few guys who will ramble on / rant without any sense of "here's the joke".

Max Reisman said...

Great post. Warning: I'm about to come off as way pretentious:

It reminds me of painting or any other art... all the greats like Picasso, they can do the classical, traditional painting. Go back and look at their early stuff, it's their and it's great. It's only after knowing the rules do they "break them" and innovate. What I'm trying to say is Picasso was an alternative comic. Oh, and Renoir's a hack.

Josh Homer said...

Do you think the great comics mentioned started off doing "jokey jokes" and progressed to be more personal and evolved as a byproduct of the length of time they were given or based on an increase in skills.

I think as a comic you start off looking at the world around you, then your focus moves inward and you understand who you are as a person and what you find funny and/or motivates you. Then you make that relatable. Then you turn your eye outward and using what you now know of yourself attack outside issues with your new personal spin on it.

To me the change in comedy, which Oswalt alluded to in the interview is one of exclusion and inclusion. Pryor talked about doing crack and setting himself on fire. Now most people have not done those things, but he made it relatable and brought you in. The current trend of comedy, which industry seems to be more than willing to cater to, is one of exclusion. The comic talks about a particular thing, action, event, etc and focuses his/her aim to make it funny to people who have the similar experience. There is no pulling people in, rather an unwritten idea of "You don't like/know this thing I'm talking about then my joke is not for you." I wonder how good Pryor would have been if he made his jokes just for people who smoked crack and lit themselves on fire. I think about this every time I'm in the audience listening to a comic talk about comic books where the joke is based solely on having read that particular comic book. (Comic books jokes like these is just one, there are plenty more examples I could give.)

PS - an 8 minute set is plenty of time, IMO, for the audience to know who you are. Alexandro did just that in his recent 5 minute Letterman set.

ECN said...

"Reaching higher"? In my opinion, Louis CK peaked in the early 2000s.

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