Topic: The craft of comedy
On last week’s episode of Last Comic Standing, Natasha Leggero (one of the judges) said to Myq Kaplan (one of the contestants): “If this show was called Last Comedy Writer Standing, I think you’d win.”
That bugged me. It probably would have slipped right by me if that sentiment – the idea that comedy is equal parts writing and performing – wasn’t already bugging me. I don’t think that comedy is equal parts writing and performing…not in 2010. It’s more like 80-20 writing to performing.
Back in the day (and, obviously, I’m speculating…I wasn’t there), performing seemed to be a bigger part of being a comedian. A lot of comics from the old days had over-the-top on-stage personas. Don Rickles, Jerry Lewis, Phyllis Diller, Rodney Dangerfield, Steve Martin, Rita Rudner…they were all different on stage than they were in real life (and a few of them were/are also outstanding writers). That makes sense if you think about it; the job of a standup had fuzzier parameters back then. “Comedian” was wrapped up in the broader field of “entertainer”. Comics were often expected to also sing and dance. Singers incorporated comedy into their act. Everybody was also an actor. Jokes – like songs – were often written by one person and performed by someone else. It was all one big, mashed-up, taped-together, one-size-fits-all field called “entertainment”. So a big part of being a standup was being a performer.
Not anymore. Standups are, for the most part, standups. They work at colleges and in comedy clubs. They sometimes get writing gigs, which is essentially joke-telling in a different form. Honest-to-God acting gigs are rare…those usually go to actors. Most comics nowadays get on stage, talk, and then they’re pretty much the same person off stage as they were when they were on. Affected personalities are rare. When you do see a comic with a wacky, over-the-top persona, they usually don’t do well. Personally, I hate most character comedy – it strikes me as old-fashioned and lame.
When comics talk about comedy with each other, we mostly talk about jokes. When our sets are over, we review the jokes. We look for topics people haven’t talked about. We try to find funny ways to boil down a complex idea. We work on cadence. We wordsmith. We don’t talk much about performance…we write. Because that’s pretty much what comedy is: writing jokes.
But bookers…as well as TV producers, managers, agents, etc…hardly ever talk about jokes. They’re much more likely to talk about performance. They say things like “your smile lights up the room!”, “I just want to listen to you!”, or “your set didn’t pop.” Or – worst of all – “he/she’s got it.”
Here’s the thing: “it” buys you about 10-15 minutes in a comedy club. Personality comics do very well in small doses. They kill at festivals. It’s good to have one at an open mic to break up the two dozen 20-something-guys-in-hoodies in a row. But a comic can only skate by on his or her personality – his or her performance – for so long. The audience will give a goofy or charismatic comic a 10-15 minute honeymoon. But then they want substance. They want jokes. Because that’s pretty much what comedy is: jokes.
So why do bookers, TV producers, agents and the like constantly talk about performance? Maybe it’s because they have no idea what’s funny, so they don’t even bother trying to evaluate the quality of the jokes. But I think it’s mostly because those people are looking for actors. Acting is where the real money is. A moderately successful actor makes significantly more than a highly successful standup. If you’re an agent looking to rep a comic, you know that the big payday isn’t with writing gigs and shows at 300-seat comedy clubs. It’s with TV and movies. So they’re looking for actors…not comedians. And that’s why they overemphasize performance.
One of the questions on the Last Comic Standing questionnaire – in fact, just about the only question, other than three varieties of “have you ever done porn?” – is: “What would a sitcom starring you be about?” What fucking year was the person who wrote that question living in? Did the author of that question slip into a coma in 1991 and wake up hoping to cast the next Roseanne or Seinfeld or Grace Under Fire? How many sitcoms are there on TV in 2010…six? Eight? The only ones on NBC – the Thursday night ones – follow pretty much the same formula: first-rate writing staff behind the camera, established comic actors on-camera. No current sitcom follows the standup-driven, let’s-bring-that-guy’s-act-to-TV formula. And no show I can think of has since Everybody Loves Raymond went off the air.
Performing always has been and always will be part of standup. But let’s stop obsessing over it. Writing is the bigger part, writing is the more important part. The best comics nowadays – Patton Oswalt, Louis CK, Paul F. Tompkins, Bill Burr – are exceptional because their writing is exceptional. Performance is secondary.
***Disclaimer: everything I just wrote should be taken with a grain of salt. I have a dog in this fight: I am all writing, no performance. So that’s shaping my opinion.***