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 never write anything down… I think comedy’s a spoken form, and if you’re writing it down you’re putting a bunch of filters on it…. If you write standup, you’re generating it on paper, and then you’re reading it, and then using your memory, and then…”
On killing old jokes:
“The way to improve is to reject everything you’re doing. You have to create a void by destroying everything. You have to kill it. Otherwise you’ll just say the same jokes every night for years and years. And I did that.”
Sacrificing your relationship for your career sounds noble and romantic from the outside, but the reality is that it can create a pattern of self-destruction that will ultimately burn you out on the career you've worked so hard to build. It's a trap, and for some, an easy way out of having to maintain relationships under stress.
Anyone who tells you "You have to be single to be a _______" is wrong.
One of Emily's tips: For every one thing you do for your career outside of normal, day-to-day tasks, do one thing for your relationship.
This is a good, concrete tip to help you keep track of who's winning--your career or your relationship. If you set up an evening meeting, make breakfast with your partner the next day. If you have to catch up on emails on a Saturday, do a household chore. It not only makes your partner feel valued, but it will help you to realize that making a meal with the person you love is just as important as any meeting--both are tasks that should make you feel fulfilled.
If you're aiming to keep both a relationship with a significant other and a life in comedy (or anything else really) afloat, it's worth a read.
It all depends on what you want to get out of it. I'd say the benefits of taking a class are, in order:
1) Forcing you to write every week. You leave class having written six sketches in eight weeks, all of which you've received notes on.
2) Getting extensive notes from an experienced comedy writer.
3) The curriculum itself; that is, the specific vocabulary and philosophy of the UCB approach to sketch writing.
4) meeting other comedians and writers who you might want to work with, though my sense is that this happens less in sketch classes than in improv, simply because the work is less collaborative. (In improv classes, I'd rank meeting other comedians as least the number two benefit.)
The first two -- writing constantly and getting feedback on what you've written -- are essential to being a writer. That doesn't mean UCB classes are the only place to get them, of course -- you could join or start a sketch group that commits to writing and performing a lot -- this is what I did in college, and what groups such as Meatsteak have done, to great success. Or you could simply force yourself to sit down at the computer and grind it out every day, then force your friends and co-workers to give you notes, but I don't recommend it. If these options aren't open to you but you still want to improve your writing, taking a UCB class will give you the structure you need. It also gives you access to an experienced comedy writer who will tell you how to improve your work and help you isolate the areas in which you can improve. The other teachers and myself have each written and given notes on hundreds of sketches, so we're able to give fast and effective answers to the question, "How can I make this sketch better?"
The third benefit, the curriculum, is definitely useful, but not strictly necessary. The UCB curriculum crystallizes a lot of useful nuggets of sketch wisdom -- the differences between parody and satire, for instance -- but a lot of it is stuff you could figure out yourself by trial and error if you wrote sketches constantly for five years, like I did. Maybe think of it as listening to the WTF podcast every week -- by doing so you learn a lot of great stuff about comedy that can give you a leg up, but hey, you can learn the same stuff by doing spots every night for five years. That said, taking a class can help you quickly pick up a lot of wisdom that you would have had to learn the hard way otherwise.
The last consideration is that if you complete the sketch program at UCB, you may be eligible to apply to join one of the theatre's Maude Teams. These are the house sketches teams at the theatre, analogous to Harold Teams for improv. These teams are hard to get on -- a ton of people submit -- but if you make it onto one you'll be writing and producing a new sketch show every month on the UCB stage in front of one of the greatest comedy audiences in the world. It's a constant trial by fire, which will make you a really strong writer really fast.
So: Is it worth $350? If you're already writing, revising, and getting feedback on your work every week, maybe not. But if you wish you were writing more than you are and are interested in comedy writing in general, AND you can afford it, then totally. And, as opposed to improv classes, where you can leave without anything tangible, (especially if all you do is take Improv 101, then call it quits), if you take a single sketch class you'll leave those eight weeks with six scripts you've written and an armful of information about the structure of comedy and comedy writing in general.
"In the creation of comedy, it is paradoxical that tragedy stimulates the spirit of ridicule, because ridicule, I suppose, is an attitude of defiance: we must laugh in the face of helplessness against the forces of nature - or go insane. I read a book about the Donner Party, who, on the way to California, missed the route and were snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Out of 160 pioneers, only 18 survived, most of them dying of hunger and cold. Some resorted to cannibalism, eating their dead, others roasted their moccasins to relieve their hunger. Out of this harrowing tragedy, I conceived one of our funniest scenes. In dire hunger, I boil my shoe and eat it."
In Heaven Hell Dave Chappelle, a 2006 Esquire piece, Chappelle talks about how Viacom's purchase of Comedy Central led to a symposium on how far you can go with the n-word.
Chappelle straightens his back and mimics the voice of an older white executive: ”‘Dave, we’re having a symposium on the n-word, and we wanted you to speak about your use of it. It’s just for our information.’ And I did it, but afterward I was like, That was real stupid of me. Why the fuck would I explain to a room full of white people why I say the word nigga? Why on earth would I put myself in a position like that? So you got me on a panel, me and all of these, like, Harvard-educated, you know, upper-echelon authors, me, and a rapper. So here I am explaining, and I was real defensive ‘cause of what was going on at the show at the time—we had just shot the Niggar Family sketch, and I was at a symposium on the word nigger. So I’m feeling like I’m fighting censorship. They say, ‘We just want to know how far we should go with something like that.’ And the subtext of it is, ‘Do you want to know, or do you want to tell me something?’
“You have all these Harvard-educated people saying, ‘I think the word is reprehensible’ and talking about the destructive nature of blah, blah, blah… . You know, pontificating.”
Silence. A sigh.
"But the bottom line was, white people own everything, and where can a black person go and be himself or say something that's familiar to him and not have to explain or apologize? Why don't I just take the show to BET--oh, wait a minute, you own that, too, don't you? Same thing happened with the Rick James episode. They gave us the notes and there were like forty-six or some insane number of bleeps that we would've had to put over it. 'Well, Dave, then why don't you go in and explain to them yourself.' So now I'm sitting in a room, again, with some white people, explaining why they say the n-word, and it's a sketch about Rick James, and I don't want to air a sketch with that many bleeps over it; it will render it completely ineffective. Give me another week and I'll just come up with something else. Run a rerun. 'No, we can't run a rerun, we've got ad buy-ins' and blah, blah, blah. Okay, well then, fine, I don't want to do it then. And so then there was a compromise. It was the only episode that aired with a disclaimer. But again, it was a position where I was explaining to white people why the n-word. It's an awful, awful position to put yourself in.
"I'm just saying it's a dilemma. It's something that is unique to us. White people, white artists, are allowed to be individuals. But we always have this greater struggle that we at least have to keep in mind somewhere."
Author Kevin Powell also recalls what it was like seeing Chappelle back in 1993 in New York City.
I remember being at the Boston Comedy Club in Greenwich Village and watching this tall, bone-thin young man with the contagious, toothy smile, the deep-socket, saucerlike eyes, and the perfectly oval head atop a twig of a neck wreck the mic, the stage, and the room like an old-school rapper. Only nineteen at the time, Chappelle was nicknamed by Whoopi Goldberg “the Kid.” Even then there was a razor-sharp racial consciousness to Chappelle’s material—he had a keen eye for that gray area between social satire and pop culture—and on that occasion I was lucky to witness something very special. Here was the classic working-class intellect of Charlie Chaplin’s conniving tramp, the jazzy, in-your-face audacity of Lenny Bruce’s birth-of-cool bebopper, and the gut-bucket, bluesy aches and pains of Richard Pryor’s dead-on mimes, all in one. There are comedians who have to work at being funny, but Chappelle seemed born to it.
Most performers in commercials don't make life-changing money. They often work for scale, a minimum negotiated by the Screen Actors Guild: $592.20 per day of work, plus a declining fraction in residuals as the commercial airs, down to $51.65 per showing. There are separate rate schedules for network, local and cable TV, and it can add up to a healthy middle-class lifestyle. But celebrities—and performers in long-term campaigns like Stephanie Courtney and Pete Holmes—may graduate to more lucrative deals, says Doug Ely, a commercial agent at AKA Talent.
"I'm sure Stephanie has a multiyear contract," Mr. Ely says. "Let's say she gets $100,000 per year, though I'm sure she gets substantially more than that at this point. They'd contract for x amount of work that includes commercials, print ads, radio, personal appearances."
Ms. Courtney declined to talk about her deal, but concedes, "It's definitely changed from where I was. But where I was, was a one-room studio, really hand-to-mouthing it. Now, to not freak out if you have to go to the dentist or something, it's made life a little easier."
Mr. Holmes also didn't want to be specific, but added: "When it's all said and done—many recording sessions, many rewrites, rerecords, and after they've all aired for a year— you're looking at about the starting salary of an ophthalmologist."
Brian Baker, a former Second City improv actor who played the "trench-coat guy" in Sprint ads for six years, says the role was like hitting the lottery. Bobby Collins, a Los Angeles comedian, says he got more than $300,000 for appearing as himself in four Certs commercials.
Also worth mentioning: All those auditions ya have to go on that lead nowhere.
Guest host Mike Birbiglia interviewed Marc Maron on episode 200 of WTF and hit up past WTF guests for questions. It's a great convo. Here's Maron on the best thing you can do as a comic:
The best thing you can do as a comic is make someone feel less alone...There are two things that I think are essential with good comedy: That you actually make somebody see something in a different way completely. Or that you make people feel less alone.
I also loved this line from Birbigs when he was talking about how Stanhope is his fave comic right now: "He's got a new hour every fifteen minutes." Heh.
Speaking of, I just relistened to Deadbeat Hero. Man is it fucking good. Watch below...
What’s so distinctly compelling about this season of Louie is how everyone seems to collectively realize that what C.K. is doing is not only cool, but also authentically artful and unnaturally profound. There’s no debate over its value because there’s no contradictory position to take. It’s not polarizing in any important way: If you’re watching this show, you intuitively know it's fantastic (and substantially unlike the way fantastic TV typically is)...
Right now, Louie is like the Beatles in ’66, or maybe Joe DiMaggio in ’41. These half-hour explorations are not just deftly written, but formally inventive....The level of insight and weirdness C.K. is jamming into these shows is flat-out unimpeachable, and I somehow get the sense that his entire audience is having the same experience as me. It’s a shared recognition of perfection, happening in the present tense...This is someone working on the most radical edge of mainstream culture and succeeding brilliantly without ever doing the same thing twice. There is no antecedent.
The most powerful feeling I get from watching Louie is the sense that it isn't made by a committee. It feels so different to see a TV show that is actually one person's vision. Big teams homogenize things. You watch Louie and you feel like you're watching a single filmmaker, not a writing room.
New option for following along: "Like" Sandpaper Suit at Facebook and you'll be able to see Sandpaper Suit post in yours Facebook news feed.
Also, an eagle eyed commenter wrote:
I really enjoy the blog! Just wanted to let you know that "The Pocket" has disappeared since all the videos went up. I find that section pretty invaluable and hope you're not getting rid of it altogether.
Sports blog Deadspin just wrapped up its Comedy Week 2011 and it was curated excellently by F.O.S.S. (friend of Sandpaper Suit) Luke Cunningham. Luke profiled a bunch of below-the-radar comedians and put together a bunch of other interesting comedy stories too.
He also went into this bizarre rant about a conversation he'd had with a guy about time travel and the concept of altering history and how this individual said he would go back in time and if not kill Hitler, he'd at least punch him in the face. Norm began to build on this notion: "Everyone uses Hitler as an example. They always say they'd go back and attack Hitler. But this was one of the most charismatic and convincing people in history and you're telling me that if you're standing two feet away from Hitler, you'd try to fight him? I doubt that. You'd probably try to blow him. That's what the end result would be. You'd go up to him to try to punch him and then Hitler would turn on the Hitler charm and instead of punching him, you'd most likely end up blowing him. I'd probably blow Hitler if I were in that situation. Why not? It's Hitler!" He went on for about two minutes and explored every subtle nuance of the joke's potential and context and weaved in both cerebral observations and mundane filth to perfection. The room was awestruck. He may have been testing out material or just showing off, but it was a pure joy to watch, as if he'd just opened up his head and pulled his brain out to tap-dance on the table for everyone there in a one-time-only performance.
Well, I think, how much of their humanity is being made available. That is the emotional risk of it. It’s how much of that person, how much of their heart is involved. It’s like watching Pryor. Everyone talks about Pryor, but the reason Pryor was so exceptional was you felt a real visceral sense that he was taking emotional risks. That his vulnerability was genuine. And I think that’s at the heart of great comedy...
There are plenty of clowns. There are plenty of people who are spectacles. I think people love spectacle. So I think success is not judged or decided by how much people put their vulnerability or sensitivity into something. People like train wrecks. People like things blowing up. It’s just a school of thought. It’s a different way of engaging the craft. It’s just a preference, really. And I think in comedy, people who are too sensitive and too vulnerable are more likely to crash and burn than become great successes.
So great comedy is about taking emotional risks, but you're more likely to crash and burn if you do it. Pick your poison.
There’s nothing worse than polling the audience. So many comics think that’s crowd work. Again, all they’re really doing is burning a topic, if they’re not going to follow up on it. We all have different skill sets. And if you’re a great joke writer, don’t think you need to add crowd work into your mix. You don’t need to. Just like how I don’t need to add one-liners into my act because I see somebody that’s great doing one-liners. So many young comics after they see me, or Todd Glass or Steve Iott, who’s more local, they’ll go, “Oh I got to start doing more crowd work.” No, no you don’t. Stick with what you’re doing, stick with what works for you. If eventually you figure out that’s what you want to do, then great. But don’t go out of your way to try crowd work if that’s not in your DNA.
In a way, it’s a little insulting to the guys who do it well. Like just the idea that you’re a comedian, “Yeah I’m gonna try doing crowd work too…” Why do you think you can do that? Because you saw somebody do it well? It’s the one thing that does kind of drive me nuts, when you see somebody really great at it, “Yeah I want to do that too.” That’s not what you do, so what are you talking about? I’d like to write great jokes too, I just don’t have that skill set.
Interesting to hear this p.o.v. from such a crowd work master. I get what he's saying, but a comic who's got ZERO crowd work skills is missing a tool on the tool belt IMO. And the only way you get better at it is by giving it a go.
It's especially helpful if you're frequently hosting shows or doing small/shitty rooms. When people are cold, it's nice to be able to do some non-material conversing that gets a few laughs and warms 'em up a bit. A little back-and-forth banter can serve as the foreplay that helps, um, grease the wheels.
Courtesy of Steve Hofstetter of the Laughing Skull Comedy Festival: Any comic that registers for the 2012 Laughing Skull festival can use the promo code FEST6343 and save $5 off the $40 registration fee. Deadline is September 1, 2011. A description of the fest from Steve:
Last year, first round judges included JoAnn Grigioni (VP Talent, Comedy Central), Ian Arougheti (Agent, Paradigm), Emilie Laford (Booker, Melrose Improv) and more. College agents, club owners, film directors, etc - even if you don't make it out of the first round, you will be seen by some BIG industry. And if you win the whole thing, the prize package includes cash, offers of representation, and a few months of club work, all routed and booked ahead of time.
I wish there was a site that listed all the upcoming comedy fests and their submission deadlines. Oh well. If ya know of any other festival submission deadlines coming up, go ahead and post 'em in the comments.
Ask any comedian who has done this for a while and they will tell you – and I agree with this – comedy clubs pay us not to make people laugh, but to stand in line at airports, take long miserable flights, eat food they wouldn’t allow on the set of “Fear Factor” and stay in hotel rooms so dingy, the only place you’ll find a “do not disturb” sign is around the maid’s necks. They do not pay us for telling jokes.
I know a few fellow comics, usually young ones, who haven’t grasped this theory yet. They’re like “I can’t believe I get paid to make people laugh!!” You don’t stupid. You get paid to kill five days in Davenport without killing yourself. You get paid to get undressed in public at airport security. You get paid to run the length of O’Hare, carrying a fifty pound suitcase, just to find out your flight has been cancelled. You get paid to listen to the couple in the hotel room next to you bang away until four in the morning, while you sit in the dark watching porn banging away by yourself. You get paid to each lunch alone at some food court in some mall in Livonia. You get paid to stand outside in the cold for a half an hour at baggage claim, waiting for you “limo”, that usually ends up being the club owner’s Mom – a 60 year old woman with a two pack a day cough and a 1983 County Squire station wagon. And oh yeah, you get paid to wake up at six am, on a minus 18 degree morning, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, to do the Morning Zoo radio show. Making people laugh? Nah, that’s strictly pro bono.
If you've ever glamorized the life of a road dog, this is a must read. [via DA]
Anyone who has ever watched a cooking show just knowing that when the cameras turn off the hosts are not the chipper, everything-is-yummy people they appear to be is probably not alone. Everyone feels that way. But what happens when the hosts' frustrations are so strong that they sort of start to crop up in the actual show? Well, if it happened and it were funny, it'd possibly be like this faux–Food Network segment, "Made With Love."
This new cooking show needs to be picked up by The Emotional Eating Channel...Made with Love is the kind of food program that I would watch. It has everything you could want: handy information about making healthy snack foods, a pair of knowledgeable hosts, and a passive-aggressive subtext!
He notes that his Curb character is "my version of Superman. The character really is me, but I just couldn't possibly behave like that. If I had my druthers, that would be me all the time, but you can't do that. We're always doing things we don't want to do, we never say what we really feel, and so this is an idealized version of how I want to be. As crazy as this person is, I could step into those shoes right now, but I would be arrested or I'd be hit or whatever."
Some comedians say the things that everyone else is thinking; Larry David says the things that nobody realizes they’re allowed to think. Deep down, most people would probably prefer to quietly bow out of the grand tour of a friend’s new home, or not sing the Happy Birthday song. It takes actually seeing someone else blow off such social niceties before a person begins to question the logic of simply going along to get along. Throughout his career, Larry David has had a similar effect on his peers and his heirs – after seeing what boundaries he pushes, others begin to figure out what they too can get away with.
The piece goes on to explain how Louis CK, Sacha Baron-Cohen, Ricky Gervais, and others have been influenced by LD.
What do you remember about Larry from the stand-up days? He was legendary, the ultimate comic’s comic. His material was just brilliant, as you can imagine. But there were also nights when he would just walk on stage, look at the audience and be like, “Nuh-uh, I don’t think so,” and just walk off. Nobody did that! I used to emcee all the time at Catch a Rising Star, so there was always that moment when we’re ready to go, “And please welcome Larry David!” – that moment where we’re passing each other and he’s going on and I’m coming off and he’d always say to me, “Stay close, stay close.” With Larry you always had to stay in the room ‘cause you never knew if he was just gonna do two minutes, he could just walk off the stage. What’s interesting is if I said to all the comics back then – Chris Rock, Colin Quinn, Jon Stewart, Joy Behar – “Larry’s going to be more successful than any of us,” nobody would have believed it. Not that he wasn’t brilliant – he was – he just didn’t have that kind of driving ambition...
What is the essence of his genius, if we’re going to say that? I think that it’s the thumbing his nose at social conventions, and he’s completely baffled by social conventions. He doesn’t see the world that way. And the thing that you have to realize is that Larry's very concerned about justice. This is right, this is wrong. And he’s concerned about that in the world. He’s very political, and cares, always cares about the little guy and the underdog and how people are being treated. It’s one of the reasons why the crew loves him so much. But he really, really has a tremendous sense of morality, and the injustices of the world I think are something that really disturb him. That life isn’t fair, I think really bothers him, and I think that that is one of his driving forces. And you know what, he’s absolutely correct. You don’t act like a pig and take up two parking spots. It’s also piggishness that I think really disturbs him. He doesn’t like rudeness, he doesn’t like piggishness, he doesn’t like injustice. And he’s right, and I think that that’s what people respond to. He just goes about saying it wrong, tactlessly.
Here's a montage of LD's standup from the Curb pilot. Too bad ya can't find any of his older standup online.
In Philadelphia, I was considered a better-than-average comedian. People thought I was smart and clever and all that. Coming to Los Angeles eight years later, I fell in with a very smart, hip crowd and got a lot of credit for being a “smart, cool” comedian. I did not realize I was coasting on that. And then after doing it for a while, I realized, ‘you know, I could work a lot harder than this...’
Going to therapy took away the fear that I had of being able to talk about personal stuff onstage. Talking about that stuff, I did not realize that I could make it humorous. I didn’t realize how much humor there is the human condition
If I could map out an ideal trajectory for a comedian’s career, I would say they should start in New York, where there are endless places to do stand-up, especially where there aren’t creepy industry folks lurking around.
They can hone their craft in obscurity, bombing without having to worry about who might see them. Once they’re ready, they can move to LA, complain about how bad the stand-up scene is compared to New York, but enter the casting world and be introduced to other club managers as a well-groomed, finely tuned comedian.
While starting in NYC has its pros and cons, I'd say the best path is to get stagetime in a smaller town (Boston, Chicago, or SF for example) first. Good luck getting 30 minute sets in NYC, ya know? Plus, you get to develop under the radar in other places. Here, people judge you and make up their minds. Once that call is made, it can take a long time to turn it around. Then again, this guy's name is Reg Tigerman which is a pretty great name so maybe just listen to him.
The audience is floating freely, like a ghost, until you give them a place to land...If there are choices, the audience picks someone to whom they relate. When in doubt, they follow their pity. Fade in on a raccoon being chased by a bear, we are the raccoon. Fade in on a room full of ambassadors. The President walks in and trips on the carpet. We are the President. When you feel sorry for someone, you're using the same part of your brain you use to identify with them.
For standup, this is probably a big part of why self-effacing jokes work so well as openers and get the audience on your side.