Was talking about this with a couple other comics last night: How much are you putting on the line when you're onstage? If you're taking a risk or admitting something you shouldn't admit or showing vulnerability or laying it out in some other way, the audience can sense it. You're putting more chips on the table. If it pays off, the audience will give you back that much more. And the opposite is true too: If your jokes are low stakes, there's a ceiling to the kind of emotional connection you can make with a crowd. Of course, all that's easier said than done.


ECN said...

I feel like a lot of your "advice" assumes that the performer is bad at performing, and has to take shortcuts like getting emotionally involved on stage or airing out various private issues for the benefit of the audience's voyeuristic tendencies.

You can get around all that by, you know, being good at comedy and learning to commit.

myq said...

Do you think that Mitch Hedberg's jokes were low stakes? I think by your definition, it would seem so. But I also think he made major emotional connections with crowds, without explicitly revealing anything about himself in the way you're talking about.

If there is an emotional ceiling and Hedberg was beneath it? It's still a pretty high ceiling.

Matt Ruby said...

ECN: I agree being good at comedy and learning to commit certainly helps. Curious though, would you consider Mike DeStefano: Franny's Last Ride as "airing out various private issues for the benefit of the audience's voyeuristic tendencies"?

myq: I think Hedberg's jokes may have been low stakes but at the same time there was an incredible vulnerability to him onstage. You may be onto something with the explicit/implicit differentiation.

myq said...

Matt, I agree with you about his vulnerability. And I think that's important for most performers. Even with someone like Jeselnik who is mostly jokes and arrogance, when he breaks and smiles, that's something that's telling and revealing. But it's not "admitting" anything.

So why lump togeher "admitting something you shouldn't" with "showing vulnerability"?

Matt Ruby said...

Myq, I said "admitting something you shouldn't admit or showing vulnerability." (Note the "or.") Doesn't mean you need to do both in order to have high stakes.

myq said...

Not a big deal.
I just interpreted it like this..
"If you do A or B, then C follows."
That seemed to imply some commonality between A and B, beyond just leading to the result of C, in this context.

PS Boring! Sorry.

PPS I am sorry I spelled "together" wrong in my last comment. I admit it. I shouldn't have. Should I have admitted it? High stakes!

PPPS I admit I shouldn't have made fun of the high stakes concept.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Steve Martin and Groucho Marx had highly successful responses to their low stakes comedy.

I want the kind of emotional connection with the crowd where I make them laugh.

There is something to be said for keeping it real, but I don't care if you keep it fake if you keep it funny.

Josh Homer said...

by the definition mentioned in the original post every single alt comic is low stakes. There is no emotional vulnerability in a story about singing goats or a how great Robocop is.

In the end it boils down to if it's funny. If you're not funny, maybe you have to use tricks/short cuts as mentioned earlier by ECN.

myq said...

But there can be emotional vulnerability in the character of a comedian (a la Hedberg), regardless of whether the comedian is spilling out their soul/guts/heart via material or not.

There used to be a guy in the Boston comedy scene who went by the name "Milk." He dressed up like a carton of milk and told pretty much exclusively dairy-related puns in a silly voice. At one point during his set, he would drop the silly voice and say something like "what am I doing with my life" and I will say that that would really resonate with people.

PS Good points, Abbi! What do you say about the vulnerability of Marx and Martin?

Josh Homer said...

That's my point. I was disagreeing with the original post. There are tons of people like Gaffigan, who are not "emotionally vulnerable" on stage but are amazing comics.

I wouldn't say you're emotionally vulnerable on stage, and you're good. You prove my point by being Myq.

myq said...

Ohhh, thanks!

I thought you were just saying you didn't like any alternative comedians. Your explanation is much more on point.

You're good, too!

RG Daniels said...

Hedberg was a guy who sold crowds on his character first, material second. The only risk that guy took was shooting up before a set and banking on the crowd to buy into his slacker/soft drawl persona.

Anybody could tell his jokes on stage as long as they had the personality to hammer 'em home.

That doesn't mean he was a bad comedian. It means he didn't take many personal or emotional risks...which is I think what Matt was originally alluding to.

myq said...

RG, it seemed like Matt was saying if you are putting more "on the line when you're onstage," then "the audience will give you back that much more."
(It seemed like that because those are quotes from what he said.)

I was initially pointing out that I've seen audiences give back to Hedberg just as much, if not more, than a lot of people who put more "on the line."

Gonzalo said...

I don't think Hedberg connected emotionally through his material, but he did through his performance. There was a ton of vulnerability in his performance and even if he was talking about carrots, it was personal because it let you into how his brain works.

I think a lot of this discussion is interesting, but to be totally honest, I have no idea where some of your reactions to Matt's post come from sometimes. I'm not talking about everyone that comments regularly (there are a lot of people who are friendly and make great counter-points to Matt's posts), just a few people who seem like they just want to nitpick what Matt writes all the time. I don't think he means any of this as "this is the way to do this." Everyone knows comedy is all about exceptions and that everyone approaches it totally differently. Matt is just stating his opinion and it feels like just about every time he says anything, there are a few people that get so oddly riled up over it. Jesus, talk about low stakes.

Also, Eric, "has to take shortcuts like getting emotionally involved on stage?" What are you talking about? Isn't that an incredibly difficult thing to do? If you're a bad performer and have bad punchlines, getting personal or emotionally involved makes the audience uncomfortable. It takes a good comedian to take this route successfully, just as it takes a good comedian to do exclusively one-liners successfully.

Also, Josh, "every single alt comic is low stakes. There is no emotional vulnerability in a story about singing goats or a how great Robocop is." I don't think that's particularly true. Both in mainstream and alt comedy, there's lazy, boring comics and incredibly exciting, personal and impersonal comics. I actually kind of don't think the "alt comedy" style is that prevalent anymore (in fact, I'd argue it doesn't even exist), but that's another discussion I guess.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Thanks myq! I can't speak to the vulnerability of Marx or Martin because I don't know them well enough to know their motivation, fears or risks they took. What made them, as the online dictionary puts it, "susceptible to physical or emotional injury"? Choosing to do stand-up their own way I guess.

Reading "Born Standing Up", it seems like Martin was being more authentic to himself when he finally decided to have fun on stage and be as unexpectedly silly as possible, even though the trend of the day was to be political or heavy. I would say Marx was pretty brave leading a franchise as a minority.

Bo Burnham sums it up this way: "I'm honest at times but I'm surreal at times. But in exercising that I'm defining who I am. Doing my show and showing the weird things that I can think of is such a better representation of myself than me telling a story about what I'm feeling, or talking about my family."

I nabbed this text from Matt's side bar. He loses me when he later talks about not caring about being funny, but the above quote seems to apply to this thread.

Josh Homer said...

@Gonzalo - please read what I wrote, and the clarification when I replied to Myq's comment. I said by the definition outlined in Ruby's original argument all alt comics would be low stakes; they are not revealing anything about themselves when they talk about comic books and LOTRs.

The comment was a direct contradiction to the post. You don't have to be this narrow definition of "high stakes" to be funny. You can talk about Wolverine and get a ton of laughs (if you're in front of the right people or the joke is extremely well written).

Gonzalo said...

Oops, I did misunderstand your point, Josh.

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