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.
Eater presents our newest video series We Love Food, in which a group of comedians tackles the weird, wild, and wacky food world news of the past month, from the overturning of the soda ban to Michael Wolff's anti-restaurant rant.
Vooza’s CEO, ahem, offers up an unhealthy dose of founder philosophy and explains why he’s anti-schedule, prefers email, thinks code is like poetry, and takes inspiration from chefs. He also reveals the secret to work-life balance and the key question to ask during job interviews. More at Vooza.com.
I keep thinking about a rock show I went to last month. It was Ty Segall and it was the first show I've been to in years that actually had a mosh pit and crowdsurfing. (No, I didn't mosh. It's bad for my arthritis.)
But I kept thinking there was a weird vibe at the show – in a good way. Finally, it occurred to me this was the first concert I've been to in years where no one was holding up a goddamn phone or camera trying to capture the moment.
Instead, the threat of violence took over. Maslow's hierarchy of needs in full effect! If you're worried about getting kicked in the head by a combat boot, you stop caring about your Instagram feed. And the whole show was better for it. The crowd was actually PRESENT.
See, we all keep taking photos and shooting videos in order to prove to others that we are experiencing something. But because we keep taking photos and shooting videos, we never TRULY experience that thing.
I want more gorilla mind and less Gorilla Glass. Lately, I've been wishing there were mosh pits everywhere I go. Maybe then people would actually pay some attention.
A reader wrote in with a question on monologue writing:
When it comes to monologue jokes for late night, I've heard other good comics say there are two (or maybe three?) different formulas that are used, and every monologue joke fits within this basic format (I want to say Jeselnik said it on a podcast, but not 100%). Anyway, when I write my normal bits I'm not conscious of structure / formula, and I'm not sure what these monologue "formulas" are... do you know?
amendment: I actually do understand one of the formulas, is to take a headline, read it back, and then just add a punchline to the end of it. So, not sure what the other one or two formulas are.
Easy question. The main formula:
Late night monologue joke = (1/2 base of celebrity × height of news story) × pi / Kim Kardashian
Actually, I know zilch about monologue jokes so passed along the email to a few guys who work at late night shows. Most didn't want to answer on the record. But I will say they bristled at the question ("it's not really like we have a Mad Libs for every story") and mentioned it's not as simple as it sounds because you have to write for your host's voice/preferences.
But David Angelo, funny standup and former writer for Fallon, was willing to tackle the question (kinda). He argues the jokes are formulaic and predictable because the public is those things.
I'll say anything but I don't really get what the question is.
Obviously there's a lot of formula. You want all the formulas? Just...uh...watch a monologue. They aren't exactly hidden. Phrases that get repeated: "Or, as X calls it..." Different hosts might lean on some more than others. There's like 10 in common use. Then there's non-formula jokes which might account for <50% of the monologue but are 99% of the work.
I will say this though - the formulas are used because the audience needs them. It's not because writers are lazy. The audience just reacts to them without needing to do any joke math. I can come up with a genius joke on a topic and - guess what - the formula one will get the bigger laugh. So, if anyone has a problem with joke formulas, take it up with the creeps you hang out with, not me!
I posed some followup q's:
Re: "The audience just reacts to them without needing to do any joke math." Are TV audiences dumber than comedy club audiences? Why are the formulas necessary on TV but not at clubs? How does having to generate so much material every night force you into using formulas (or whatever ya call 'em)? Or does it?
-Are TV audiences dumber than comedy club audiences?
I'm the wrong guy to ask here because I think they're all aggressively incompetent. On a micro level, it obviously depends on the club and the tv show. But a TV audience generally has more distractions.
-Why are the formulas necessary on TV but not at clubs?
Have you been to a comedy club? Have you seen the genre of comedy called "iPhone autocorrect jokes?"
How does having to generate so much material every night force you into using formulas (or whatever ya call 'em)?
Eh, it's like I said - mostly for the benefit of the crowd. But, also worth noting, is that the news is THE SAME ALL THE TIME. Same holidays, same crimes, same stupid celebrities, same events. It's all the same. You got two sentences to write something that's (A) funny and (B) makes sense. "The B has to 'be' there." That's a phrase from my new comedy workshop seminar I just invented. Want a joke on China? guess what, child labor and eating dogs. Does China have other references? Sure - but are you going to be the guy who mentions "The Long March" to 1 million households under the assumption they know it? Probably not.
If anyone else in the know wants to chime in, leave a comment.
Chris Rock & David Spade interviewed by Howard Stern. Howard asks them if they use writers for their standup. Interesting answer from Rock where he talks about how he writes two hours of material and then brings in five guys to watch him work for a week in Florida and offer up tags. He uses comics he knows and new guys too: "Sometimes I'll see a new guy on Comedy Central or something and I'll go, 'Let me see what that guy's got.'" That'd be some call to get.
At 56:10, he talks about working out new material in small clubs and going to Hannibal's show at Knitting Factory. He says, "You can manage a little place on just attitude. 300 people, I can just kinda bullshit my way through this. Experience will kick in."
HOT SOUP on Wed (3/20) has a super lineup. And ya also get 1/2-off drinks.
Wyatt Cenac (The Daily Show)
Ryan Hamilton (Conan)
Dan Soder (Conan)
Mike Drucker (Jimmy Fallon writer)
RSVP to confirm your spot:
If you RSVP with 4 or more people, everyone in your group will get a FREE DRINK at the show!
Doors: 8pm - Seating: 8:30pm - Show: 9pm
9 Avenue A (between First and Second Street)
FREE - RSVP: FREECOMEDYWEDNESDAYS@gmail.com
Produced by Mark Normand, Matt Ruby, Gary Vider, and Sachi Ezura. (Can't make it? Our next show after this one is at Ella on Wednesday, April 3 at 8:30pm.)
I've got a bunch of cool upcoming shows too. Check it out...
March 16 - Underbelly @ The Creek
March 17 - Hannibal Show @ Knitting Factory
March 19 - Late Show Standup Showcase @ Caroline's
March 20 - March Madness (Final 8) @ Caroline's
March 22 - BE Show @ St. Vitus
March 23 - Laughing Devil
March 24 - Creaghead & Company @ Union Hall
March 25 - Sack Magic @ Legion Bar
And at the end of March, I'm headed down to ATL for the Laughing Skull fest and then will be doing a couple of shows in Athens afterwards. (That's B-52s Athens, not Socrates Athens.) Full show details here.
When judging comics, there's lots of talk about being "authentic" onstage. But what's that really mean? Can you be fake and authentic at the same time? Isn't that what being a great performer is all about? Is there anything "authentic" about doing the same set every night but pretending it's stream of consciousness?
And I know we shouldn't talk about "authenticity" here, because (a) that subject tends to derail everything else, and (b) we're now supposed to pretend like it doesn't matter. But it DOES matter, and I think critics who refuse to worry about authenticity are actively ignoring something profound. The problem is that people misapply the term. Authenticity is not about literal honesty. If an artist says, "I'm a fake person who makes fake art as an extension of my fake experience within a fake world," I view that artist as deeply real. And I'm not arguing that this is how David Bowie thought about himself, because I have no idea how he thought about himself. But it's how I thought of him. I think he was way more authentic than most rock musicians.
Sometimes the mask is more real than actual reality. Ya see this occasionally with a comic who's doing a character. The fake version somehow feels more real than when the same guy talks about his actual life.
Author George Saunders mentions something kinda similar in the preface to CivilWarLand, his book of short stories:
I set foot in my first theme park in 1969. It was Six Flags over Texas, outside Dallas. I loved it so thoroughly that, all the way back to Chicago in the car, I conspired with my sister to build a scale model of it.
Well, that never happened. But I still remember the baffled joy I felt on leaving the place, thinking: Wow, someone did this, someone made all this, some grown-up sat down and designed the little Mexican back alleys and cowboy boardwalks, the fake bird sounds.
In a sense, these stories were that scale model, much delayed.
But also, while working on “The Wavemaker Falters,” I noticed something: if I put a theme park in a story, my prose improved, the faux-Hemingway element having been disallowed by the setting. Placing a story in a theme park became a way of ensuring that the story would lurch over into the realm of the comic, which meant I would be able to finish it, and it would not collapse under the conceptual/thematic weight I tended to put on a so-called realist story.
Reality has conceptual/thematic weight, but fakery can be light as a feather.
I'm about a year and a half in and have an audition-type set for a local booker who could help me get to a lot of different, new stages...
I'm wondering about structuring it, a 6 minute set. The advice I most often hear is start with your second best and close with your best, then basically alternate by perceived strength of the jokes: 2,4,6,8,10,9,7,5,3,1
I can't really do that. My best two jokes are both about a minute and a half long. They both work well and get 3-4 good laughs. Problem is my 2nd best joke is about Hitler and includes an impression and I just can't open with it.
Is it suicide to open with your best joke? Are you bound to be a let down for the rest of the set? I've done it before (to get attention from the getgo) and it felt a little flat until the close. I could open with my more mediocre stuff that can come off as persona building and then close super strong with my two best, but wonder if this risks losing the audience/booker's attention before I get to the real meat?
My response (as always, take any advice I give with an ocean of salt):
i think you're overthinking it. i never heard of that alternating thing before. but yeah, you wanna open and close strong. and i wouldn't open with a hitler impression or whatever. heh.
it is not suicide to open with your best joke. it builds confidence in the crowd (and in you). also good: if the opener joke explains who you are or your p.o.v. of the world or makes you seem self-effacing. all those things help get a crowd on your site.
if you're not feeling ready to be seen, you could always tell the booker that. he might be impressed that you wanna wait a lil' bit to get more material together.
overall, i wouldn't sweat it too much. oh, one other thing you can do: watch late night sets to see how people structure those if you really wanna suss out if there's a "formula" that works.
I'm wondering if you've opened a show before with what you felt was your best material and if you found it had any significant positive or negative effect on how the rest of your act went? I mean, I realize this can be a pretty subjective thing and to get a sound read would probably necessitate a good number of reps with it - basically, I realize that it's kind of a silly question.
What's in the back of my mind as I wonder about this is the Talking Funny show on HBO (Gervais, Seinfeld, Rock, and CK were talkin about being comics) and CK mentioned how he would start to open with his closing material in an effort to strengthen the rest of his shit (it's in the first 10 minutes of the show.) Just raise stakes and put the onus on more. Maybe this applies only to a certain level? The 5-minute-set level guys should just focus on working on X plus Y and not bother worrying about higher mathematics? Like, focus on crawling to get on your feet before you begin to worry about a sprint or jumping hurdles?
I've never found a negative consequence to opening a set strongly. If you can kill up top, do it. If you can kill at the end, do it. If you have to choose between just one of those, I'd choose to end strong.
Re: CK, he does that to make his material better. That can be a good idea if that's your goal. When you're trying to improve a set, you do different things than when you're showcasing. When it's time to showcase or record or "be your best," then you should prob close with your strongest (or close) material.
One other thing I'd add: Think about how your jokes flow into one another. If you can go from one bit to another naturally, do it. It gives your set an organic flow instead of joke-reset-joke-reset-etc.
We recently rebooted the podcast so each episode features just one guest. Easier to consume. Right now, there are interviews up with Donald Glover, Yannis Pappas, Michael Che, Ali Wong, Erik Bergstrom, & Jermaine Fowler. Juicy stuff. Hosted by Mark Normand & me. Produced by Marcus Parks for Cave Comedy Radio. More on the way too.
My uncles were all funny. My dad wasn’t funny, but my uncles were all funny. Now I go back and I like him better than them, they were manipulative funny. [AST, 2006]
Manipulative funny is an interesting frame. My interpretation of that in the standup world: Bait and switch/misdirection vs. an IDEA that's actually funny.
When you write from your gut and let the stuff stay flawed and don’t let anybody tell you to make it better, it can end up looking like nothing else. [Pitchfork, 2010]
Leaving the rough edges in makes it more, not less, beautiful. Wabi sabi!
Well, I think “likability” is an overused word. I don’t watch people ‘cause I like them; I watch them because they’re compelling. Sympathetic is a little different … Likable just thins you out. Working to make a character likable is what kills most TV shows. [Vulture, 2010]
Sympathetic vs. likable is an interesting split. Lets you move away from the whole "trying too hard" thing.