Hey. I’m Matt Ruby (email@example.com). 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.
Everyone wants to know why you don't do a TV show. It's 'cause they're hard, and I'm not curious as to whether I can do it or not. I know I can do it. It comes down to the specifics of who and when and what and where. I did it. I'm not curious. I don't even want my own sitcom. I see my friends that are comedians going in. It's like people who are single and like, 'Oh, I guess I've got to get married.' No! You don't have to get married. If you're a comedian, you don't have to be...Hedberg used to do that joke about, "You're a farmer, you wanna cook?" No! I like farming. That's how I feel about stand-up. I got into it late. I feel like I have some ability at it and I think it's a wildly noble profession. Not because it can be hard and it's grueling. It's noble because if you're doing it right, you can affect change a little bit. Or you can certainly affect the way people think. You can do it in a way that has long-lasting effects. The people that have affected my thinking the most in my life are f*cking Hicks, Chappelle, Rock, y'know, Carlin. These guys really affected the way I think.
He also talks more about smiling onstage...
I figured out another way to smile onstage. Look at the audience laughing. If you look at the audience laughing, you will laugh. [...] The face has mirror neurons. Whatever you see in someone else, your face will subtly do. Laughter is really contagious, as corny as that sounds. It's worth doing.
Might be the most inside baseball joke about the comedy industry to ever air on a CC special. Mitch could really get away with anything.
Speaking of that, I dug Gary Gulman's line at his recent We're All Friends Here appearance when I called a discussion we were having "inside baseball." His response: "The term 'inside baseball' is inside baseball."
Tuesday, Nov 1 10pm showtime (9:30pm doors) The Bowery Poetry Club Tickets: $8 308 Bowery (Between Houston and Bleecker) F train to 2nd Ave, 6 to Bleecker For advance reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org Facebook event
When I was sixteen years old I got my first job. It was as a comedy writer for an advertising agency in New York. I would come into this advertising agency every single day after school and I would write jokes for them. They would attribute these jokes to their clients and put them in the newspaper columns. I would get on the subway—the train quite crowded—and, straphanging, I’d take out a pencil and by the time I’d gotten out I’d have written forty or fifty jokes . . . fifty jokes a day for years. People would say to me, I don’t believe it—fifty jokes a day and writing them on the train. Believe me, it was no big deal. Whereas I’ll look at someone who can compose a piece of music—I don’t know how they ever begin or end or what! But because I could always write, it was nothing.
He also talks about the tenuous relationship between how long you work on something and how funny it is:
I’ve written on legal pads, hotel stationery, anything I can get my hands on. I have no finickiness about anything like that. I write in hotel rooms, in my house, with other people around, on matchbooks. I have no problems with it—to the meager limits that I can do it. There have been stories where I’ve just sat down at the typewriter and typed straight through beginning to end. There are some New Yorker pieces I’ve written out in forty minutes time. And there are other things I’ve just struggled and agonized over for weeks and weeks. It’s very haphazard. Take two movies—one movie that was not critically successful was A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. I wrote that thing in no time. It just came out in six days—everything in perfect shape. I did it, and it was not well received. Whereas Annie Hall was just endless—totally changing things. There was as much material on the cutting-room floor as there was in the picture—I went back five times to reshoot. And it was well received. On the other hand, the exact opposite has happened to me where I’ve done things that just flowed easily and were very well received. And things I agonized over were not. I’ve found no correlation at all. But, if you can do it, it’s not really very hard . . . nor is it as tremendous an achievement as one who can’t do it thinks.
What I've noticed: The longer I work on something, the more fussed over it seems. And a lot of times, that's the opposite of funny.
It always amuses me when I show up somewhere with a bunch of new material that I worked on for a while but the only thing that winds up worth keeping comes from a riff on something that happened in the room. Happens all the time too.
Announcing... The 4th Annual SCHTICK OR TREAT Hosted by Matt Ruby and Mark Normand 2011 ECNY nominee for Best Comedy Event Halloween comedy tribute show featuring 30+ of NYC's top comedians performing as their favorite comedy legends
Tuesday, Nov 1 10pm showtime (9:30pm doors) The Bowery Poetry Club Tickets: $8 308 Bowery (Between Houston and Bleecker) F train to 2nd Ave, 6 to Bleecker For advance reservations, email email@example.com Facebook event
The concept: Bands often perform special "tribute" sets on Halloween and do a show as some bigger, more famous band. It's fun and crowds dig it. This is like that, but with comedy. It's a quick turnover show where each comic gets up to three minutes to do a set as a famous comic and then it's on to the next performer. It's always a TON of fun. This year's edition will feature FAKE versions of:
Anthony Jeselnik Aziz Ansari Bobcat Goldthwait Colin Quinn David Cross Sam Kinison Jerry Seinfeld Judah Friedlander Larry David Marc Maron Maria Bamford Paul F. Tompkins Richard Lewis Rodney Dangerfield Susie Essman Todd Barry Whitney Cummings Zach Galifianakis ...and more!
Who are now the squarest people on earth? Who are the only ones left who want to get married and join the military? Homosexuals.
After I heard that, I thought, "How has that never been a standup premise before?" So ripe for the stage. And her thoughts on race also sound like they could be the premise for a great (Chris Rock?) bit:
The way to approach it, I think, is not to ask, "What would it be like to be black?" but to seriously consider what it is like to be white. That's something white people almost never think about. And what it is like to be white is not to say, "We have to level the playing field," but to acknowledge that not only do white people own the playing field but they have so designated this plot of land as a playing field to begin with. White people are the playing field. The advantage of being white is so extreme, so overwhelming, so immense, that to use the word "advantage" at all is misleading since it implies a kind of parity that simply does not exist.
It is now common -- and I use the word "common" in its every sense -- to see interviews with up-and-coming young movie stars whose parents or even grandparents were themselves movie stars. And when the interviewer asks, "Did you find it an advantage to be the child of a major motion-picture star?" the answer is invariably "Well, it gets you in the door, but after that you've got to perform, you're on your own." This is ludicrous. Getting in the door is pretty much the entire game, especially in movie acting, which is, after all, hardly a profession notable for its rigor. That's how advantageous it is to be white. It's as though all white people were the children of movie stars. Everyone gets in the door and then all you have to do is perform at this relatively minimal level.
Additionally, children of movie stars, like white people, have at -- or actually in -- their fingertips an advantage that is genetic. Because they are literally the progeny of movie stars they look specifically like the movie stars who have preceded them, their parents; they don't have to convince us that they can be movie stars. We take them instantly at face value. Full face value. They look like their parents, whom we already know to be movie stars. White people look like their parents, whom we already know to be in charge. This is what white people look like -- other white people. The owners. The people in charge. That's the advantage of being white. And that's the game. So by the time the white person sees the black person standing next to him at what he thinks is the starting line, the black person should be exhausted from his long and arduous trek to the beginning.
New York is such a monolith that it’s pointless to have an opinion about it. It’s like bitching about the weather. It certainly won’t accomplish anything and it certainly won’t make you feel better about what you didn’t like. New York has a couple of characteristics that are undeniable and one of those is that it’s a magnet for assholes who couldn’t get any attention at home and decided that the problem wasn’t that they weren’t interesting but that there were all these squares around them in Dubuque or whatever and they need to go to some big cosmopolitan city like New York where people will appreciate them. So if you can imagine that scenario playing out within every city in North America and every one of those assholes with an opinion slightly outreaching his ability getting on a fucking Greyhound. You end up with a pretty good description of what’s annoying about New York is that it’s full of people whose self-image just ever-so-slightly outstrips their ability.
I studied painting under in college under Ed Paschke, who is dead now, he was a brilliant, brilliant educator...He described it as the “catch-all of runners up.” And I think that’s probably what annoys me about New York when I’m annoyed by it. Whatever they’re doing at the moment, that’s not really them, in their minds. Like, I’m working in this bookstore but I’m not a bookstore clerk, I’m a writer. Or like, I’m working in the restaurant but I’m not a waiter, I’m an actor. There are all these people who are not the thing that they are doing at the moment and therefore feel demeaned by every second of their existence. And the chip on New York’s shoulder is the thing that keeps everything on the ground there. It’s the massive weight that causes all of the gravity that happens in New York.
Ouch. Btw, Albini's The Problem With Music (from the early 90s) is a classic among bands and music biz types. Though it's a bit dated now, I'd still recommend it for anyone who works (or wants to work) in the entertainment biz.
According to his private secretary, Winston Churchill would invest one hour of preparation for every minute of delivery. And so for a major set piece speech in the House of Commons, running to 45 or 50 minutes, we are talking of 45 or 50 hours of preparation. While fighting Hitler at the same time.
It's interesting to see how much prep time Churchill would put into his speeches. While comedians ain't giving speeches about fighting a war, that ratio of prep time to finished product is prob worth keeping in mind.
The finished product is just the tip of the material iceberg. Way more gets buried under the surface.
I think about this sorta thing in terms of a 1/2 hour standup special (or headliner set). It's not about getting to 30 minutes worth of material. It's about getting way more — 300 minutes worth of material? — and then picking out the best (or most appropriate/thematic) half-hour of stuff from that.
The Comedy Nerds interview Steve Heisler, writer for the AV Club and one of the people who helps decide who gets into the Montreal Just For Laughs Comedy Festival. What is JFL looking for? Heisler's answer (starts around 27:00 in):
I can tell when people are really excited about their material and they've tried it out a lot and they've road tested it and it's very unique to them. And I kinda like people that are wildcards in a way, where they have a very unique energy or they have a very unique sensibility that they completely go for. Nick Turner is really goofy and he just goes for it. He doesn't have like a goofy joke and then a joke about, "So I'm dating this girl..." He just totally goes for it.
Heisler on what he thinks comedy does best:
I think of it as a matter of art and artists. The best art we see is where the artists are talking about some real raw truth and they're trying to explain that thing to as many people as possible and there's a vulnerability that goes into that. And there's a lot of setup to be disappointed. And in order to get to that place you have to be very clear about what it is that you're saying. And there's a part of you that needs to be ok with the fact that people might hate it. But as long as you expressed it, it's ok.
Heard this story from a club manager while on the road: Road dog comic comes into town. Club gives comics two free drinks but that's it. Before the comic goes onstage, he pulls aside a waitress and tells her to wait until he's 20 minutes into his set and then to bring up a shot to the stage and tell him it's from a customer in the back. She does it. Comic makes a big deal out of it, does the shot, and raves about the customer from the stage and how great he is. The set continues and, as it goes along, eight other audience members wind up buying the guy a shot (his intention all along). And that's how you manage to drink for free when you're a road comic/alcoholic.
Re: the Wall Street protesters, we just went out there to get some laughs. But I think it's worth giving some context too. Yes, there were some funny freaks there. But most of the protesters we met totally had their shit together and gave intelligent, compelling reasons for why they were there. If you think it's just a bunch of drum circling hippies, I recommend stopping by for yourself.
Speaking of Real Time, a couple of written pieces on the protests by frequent guests there are worth a read: Andrew Sullivan, a conservative, wrote "Why Occupy Wall Street Is Here To Stay." (Excerpt: "This is not socialism. It's pointing out how capitalism, unchecked by government, can kill itself.") And Matt Taibbi offers up "My Advice to the Occupy Wall Street Protesters." (Excerpt: "The primary challenge of opposing the 50-headed hydra of Wall Street corruption, which is that it's extremely difficult to explain the crimes of the modern financial elite in a simple visual. The essence of this particular sort of oligarchic power is its complexity and day-to-day invisibility.")
Unsurprisingly, neither of them discuss Jews or body odor.
I was probably more of a “joke writer” in the early going, shorter jokes, less stories, but I was always pretty comfortable with silence. I learned a lot from working with Louis CK that being interesting, being intriguing, and engaging the listener is as important as being funny. At this stage, after almost twenty years, I know how to be funny. So, now it’s more about figuring out what I want to say and how I want to say it. Can I show more humanity? More colors? To me, doing what I do is more interesting than just joke, joke, joke. You always go with what you’re drawn to. And now I’m more drawn to being human, being interesting, still being funny, of course, that’s the job, but I like engaging with people and letting them see me think and then it becomes more like a conversation. There are pauses in conversation, there are people searching for the right words, so, yeah, I try to be more organic with my presentation.
Something else about the patience Ted (or Todd Barry) shows onstage: It makes them stand out from other comics.
Also, Ted's advice to new comics:
You’re not getting into a business, you’re getting into a lifestyle. That’s my approach. Others might differ in their opinion, but in the first five years it’s not going to be much of a business anyway because you’re not going to be making any money. [Laughs] It’s going to be a failing business that will put you in a hole. It has to be something that you have to do, you don’t have any choice, you know? It has to be “in you.” Then do it, keep doing it and put yourself into the mindset that it’s a job. Go to the work environment. Go to comedy clubs, even if you’re not performing. I was just at one last night after a set; I just stopped in with a friend to see a show at the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre. Here we are, fifteen or twenty years in, and we’re just going to watch a show. Go to the workplace; you’re going to learn something, develop relationships. I didn’t realize this initially, but the people you build relationships with early on may very well last your whole career. You have a special kinship with the guys you started with, that you were in the trenches with, that you were doing these shitty open mics with. So start that journey and the rest of it will work itself out, the money will work itself out. Where you land, whether you become an actor or writer, you do videos, you do songs, or whatever you do, all of that is going to work itself out through the relationships you make. It’s all very mystical. How does it all come together? Who knows? But you have to be present, put the work in, the time in, and, essentially, try not to think too far ahead.
"You have a special kinship with the guys you started with." Reminded me of an interview I heard with Jim Gaffigan where he was discussing Greg Giraldo. In my mind, those guys seem like such opposite people. But from Jim's stories, you could sense just how tight they were due to coming up in NYC together. It's akin to soldiers: The people you're in the trenches with are the only ones who truly know what it's like.
So the other week at Kabin was one of those nights. I'm five minutes into my set and it's going well for the most part. But this couple in front row won't stop talking to each other. They're two feet away from me. I give 'em a nice warning to keep it down but they go right back to yapping. It wasn't THAT loud but when it's right in front of you, it's tough to ignore. So I abandoned my set and started talking to them about it.
The gal was the one who wouldn't stop talking and I remember telling her that she doesn't always have to be the center of attention. She told me I wasn't funny. I asked the crowd if they thought I was doing alright. Lots of applause. I asked her how it felt to have a roomful of people disagree with her. She kept giving me attitude.
So I pivoted into talking about how I really felt at that moment. I talked about what it's like to do standup. I explained to her that it's hard. That it's like trying to hypnotize a roomful of people. And that her constant talking was making that really hard. I asked her to imagine trying to hypnotize someone while someone two feet away kept yelling, "I don't think she's a good hypnotist."
But she wasn't having it. And then someone else in the crowd started yelling at her. And then this happened...
OK, maybe that last line wasn't so Ghandi-ish. But when faced with the Panthera Latina, you get El Tigre Ruby.
The two greatest runs I've witnessed in my life: Michael Jordan and Steve Jobs. I always loved how Jobs brought the soul of an artist to an arena that usually splits up "creatives" from "businessmen." He showed that it was possible to be both. I admired his showman style too. He was a real performer at those product introduction things.
Death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new...Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Oh, and one more thing: Jobs once said taking LSD was “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.” Neat to see someone like that open up about his use of psychedelics and the positive influence they can have.
Sunday: Hot Soup Hot Soup this Sunday (Oct 9) has a great lineup: Reggie Watts (Conan) Rich Fulcher (British comedy series The Mighty Boosh) Sean Patton (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) Hari Kondabolu (Comedy Central) Nick Turner (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) Lisa Delarios (Comedy Central)
Saturday: We're All Friends Here The comedy chat show with boundary issues is back again on Saturday (Oct 8). The lineup (with commentary from Mark): Andy Sandford (Don't Let him near a Baby) Amber Nelson (Might Live in the Woods) Jessimae Peluso (Breaking Bad is based on her)
Saturday, Oct 8 - 8:00pm FREE The Creek and The Cave (directions) 10-93 Jackson Avenue Long Island City, NY Just one stop from Manhattan and Brooklyn
"What goes into a comedy writing packet" (along with this followup post about writing on Norm MacDonald's sports show) were really popular posts here and still get tons of traffic. My deduction: A lot of people are curious about the world of packets but there are hardly any resources about 'em online. Perhaps someone ought to tackle that?
It's overflowing with funny ideas and he does a great job at matching the tone/voice of the show. Martin wound up as a sketch writer for the show and, in 2004, wrote this series for Slate on what that was like.
On the monologue side of things: Josh Comers, now a writer for Conan, started out writing monologue-ish jokes at his blog Jokes That Won't Matter Tomorrow. Josh hasn't updated it for a while but it's still worth a look if you're interested in getting into that area.
And over at The AV Club, John Mulaney discusses the difference between writing for the SNL audience and his standup audience.
In terms of stand-up, I still want things to be clear to the audience. I’m more comfortable with things in stand-up, because I get to take the responsibility for them, and the audience knows who it’s coming from, vs. you’re putting it in a sketch with actors. Sometimes your point of view comes across best when you’re saying it, vs. injecting your point of view into a scene where maybe that’s not what the audience likes. So yeah, you can be more direct. You get to do a lot more in sketch comedy, which is awesome. You can be silly, you can be clever, things can be more absurdist. Those things can be in stand-up as well. If you’re a conversational comic, like I think I am, you also have to sell it to an audience rather than just talking about it. Like, having a point.
There’s this comic named Ross Bennett who I knew from the Comedy Cellar. I was doing this club called the Stress Factory in New Jersey, and I had bombed terribly. Ross was there, and he said, “You’re very funny.” I said, “Thank you.” But he said, “These people have no time for your cleverness. You need to get to the point.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that. You will really capture someone’s attention if you’re saying something that they find interesting, or agree with. Or they at least understand what you’re saying, and what your point is. You can be clever with puns and do whatever the fuck you want, but to have a point that at least you believe in, that’s a strong thing. That’s the backbone of stand-up.
Paraprosdokian? Doesn't he own a diner in Astoria? Actually, turns out a paraprosdokian is defined as "a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect, sometimes producing an anticlimax."
Examples mentioned at Wikipedia:
"If I am reading this graph correctly — I'd be very surprised." —Stephen Colbert
"You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing—after they have tried everything else." —Winston Churchill
"If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be a bit surprised." —Dorothy Parker
"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it." —Groucho Marx