The bad of cursing and the good of being conversational

I have a joke that used to end with "turn the fuck around." I remember the day I decided to drop the fuck from it. When it worked without the fuck, it felt good. To me, it proved the joke was actually funny and didn't need the shock value laugh-add I got from cursing.

Thought about that while listening to this Saturn Scene podcast, which might be my fave interview with PFT ever.

In this two-part conversation we discuss dissecting details, Lennon vs. McCartney, a wharf full of freaks, bad behavior, good reading, and a life-changing relationship.

Here's what PFT says about cursing onstage:

Even if people are laughing at something, I know when I could have done it better. An example is when I start a new bit, when I'm working on a new thing and it's the first time I'm doing it in front of an audience, I will tend to swear more than I ever do onstage because I'm filling in the idea very conversationally and I swear occasionally in life when I'm talking to people. But it's also there's a survival instinct that kicks in from my earliest standup days that cursing gets laughs.

People will laugh at the f-word. It adds a bite to certain things. But I have always felt that it's a crutch. I know that it is. To me, any time I'm using that word onstage and people laugh at it, I think that's the only reason they're laughing. And if that word wasn't there, they wouldn't find this funny. So I have to figure out how do I get a laugh without using that word and have it be just as big a laugh or bigger than if I was swearing.

Cursing (and sex stuff too) gets laughs because it's a "naughty" thing to do. So it triggers a nervous laughter in people. Sure, they laugh when you say dick, shit, fuck, pussy, or cock. But they also laugh if tickled. Both ways are a bit third gradery. Plus, you can't do it at a clean show (or, if you're at that stage, on TV).

Anyway, the rest of the interview is worth checking out too. Lots of astrology mumbo jumbo facts along the way but the interviewer really knows PFT's career and gets him to talk seriously about comedy in an in-depth way I've never heard before.

Here's what he says about being conversational with his material:

Being able to make it conversationally funny – it's dressed up a little bit for the stage – but I try to keep it as much like I would talk about it in life as possible. If you have a funny story that you tell, even if you're just hanging out with your friends, you're trying...It's the way you're sharing something with a friend of yours, you're not trying to impress your friend. You're coming at it from a point of view that's 'Wait until you hear this. This is what happened to me.' You're not approaching your friend like they are an audience. There's an intimacy there where you're saying, 'Hey, you're going to appreciate this.' That's the feeling that I'm trying to get to onstage always that we're all hanging out and I'm telling these stories.

I think the audience gets a different kind of connection from a conversational performance. It's more intimate. They get to leave feeling like they actually know you as a person instead of some mask that spits out jokes.


Abbi Crutchfield said...

I don't curse on stage because I try to write how I think and speak off stage, and I don't curse off stage unless I'm angry. My comedy is not fueled by anger. Yet. (Lightning crash, gust of wind, candle goes out, you clutch your purse).

Just watched the IFC Joan Rivers documentary "A Piece of Work", and when she's giving a tribute to Carlin at the Kennedy Center, she goes over which F-words she'd like to keep and why. It's interesting to remember that comedians mean to say exactly what they say on stage, no matter how conversational they come across or how much improvisation they allow into their act.

Anonymous said...

What if you curse profusely when you're having a normal conversation? And what if you're POV is angry? Is cursing still a crutch then? How is a person who is genuinely angry and genuinely foul mouthed supposed to be real on stage?

Josh Homer said...

Cursing is a tool, and like any tool if used improperly doesn't help your comedy. Same thing can be said of act outs, they are good but if every joke you do is an act out you're also using that as a crutch.

In the end no rule works for everyone, and we have to do what is best for our comedy and POV. Pryor and Carlin cursed all the time, but they used it in conjunction with well crafted/written material.

ECN said...

Heck, what about those of us who aren't "conversational" in conversation? Speaking as someone who didn't develop basic social skills until after starting in comedy, I'd have to do a LOT more work to put up some kind of "hey, guys, what's going on?" facade, and it would ring false.

The style I use is more like, "hey! You people over there! I have something to say, and it's basically consumed my thoughts for the last week, and here it is -- THIS and THIS and then THIS but what about THIS?" Which is really a lot more like how I deal with all but my closest friends when I have something to say.

And then I also draw on screaming at bullies as a kid. I was a very angry kid. I did a lot of screaming.

I mean, I agree the manner of discourse you use has to be a manner that's natural to you. But everyone speaks in multiple manners. I feel like there are at least three or four manners of discourse that are natural to me, depending on the situation. And "conversational" is barely one of them, if that.

And I think that's true of a lot of great comics who use a non-"conversational" style... for example, I've had the privilege to talk (very briefly) to Steven Wright, and I could see definite echoes of his stage persona in the way he talked. Do you want him acting like he's "hanging out with his friends" instead? What if he doesn't hang out with friends? What if, when he does, he doesn't fit into the template you imagine as "conversational"? It's not that simple.

Matt Ruby said...

JH and ECN: This isn't necessarily right for everyone. Depends what you're going for. If it's a Steven Wright thing you want, it's prob gonna take a diff approach than PFT does. It all depends...

ECN said...

Yeah, and how many people really do that style well? Paul F. Tompkins, Jen Kirkman... that's it. (And they don't even go about it in the same way.)

I'm sure I'm forgetting someone, but I'm not forgetting a bunch of comedians who "just go up there and talk", and fail. Younger comedians, older ones, whatever. This rambling trend is a plague upon real, crafted comedy. (And SO two years ago, anyway.)

I'm also not forgetting the Louis CKs and Marc Marons of the world -- comedians who lost something special when they stopped writing crafted material and started going for "intimacy."

(Yeah, Louis CK is still very good, even in his current diminished state. But 2003 Louis CK is my favorite comic of all time, or at least in the top 5. As for Maron, the guy has become essentially unlistenable... either he's slogging through a bunch of interminable stories about how he's a miserable human being, or he's decided he can't bear to perform, and would rather stand there glowering at people and bring the whole show down.)

I mean, that's opinion. But it's a little more objective to say that "be natural" has nothing to do with "be conversational". It has a lot more to do with "however you choose to talk to the audience, make sure you can maintain it, and that you sound consistent and natural when you do it."

And I don't fault Tompkins for not acknowledging that distinction -- for him, there is no distinction. The conversational style is what works for him, it's what he's most engaged (and most engaging) doing.

But acting like it's somehow superior to other styles of comedy is a load of crap, especially considering the amount of bad comedy that has been foisted on us in recent years by people following it as though it was some kind of precept.

Josh Homer said...

"But acting like it's somehow superior to other styles of comedy is a load of crap, especially considering the amount of bad comedy that has been foisted on us in recent years by people following it as though it was some kind of precept."

Very well said. I think right now comics get a handbook and in that book it tells them what comics to like (Louis CK) and what comics to hate (Dane Cook), and they don't even know why, and they look down on styles of comedy based on what they are told in that "book". You hate Cook because of his act outs yet there are a lot of popular comics in the alt scene who ONLY rely on act outs.

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