The concept of standup I am totally down with. There you are, a clown, standing in front of a live audience, trying to make them laugh. If they laugh, you’re funny. If they do not laugh, your funny needs some work. It is the ideal feedback loop for a performer.
And a great standup comedian, I mean, a really great standup comedian, is so so good and so three-dimensional, that even if she gets famous and does shitty movies or shitty tv shows, any shitty piece of shit she’s in you still love her, because she is so HERSELF.
(Hilarious that I used a female pronoun in the above paragraph. How many female standups with extensive tv/film careers can we come up with? Ellen DeGeneres, Roseanne Barr… anyway. I’ll get back to all that woman stuff soon.)
When they’re good, they’re pretty much good forever. I was watching Louie CK’s show the other day. I don’t really like it, but I love him. He is so himself, and even though he is clearly an actor, he has built a powerhouse performable persona for himself. It can have different names and say different lines and have every different character motivation under the sun, but we will believe it and like it. Every time.
So in terms of this Business We Call Show, in terms of creating any kind of persona that you want people to laugh at, it would seem that standup comedy would be the perfect vehicle for creation, giving a performer that three-dimensionality I’ve mentioned before.
Except for all the reasons why it isn’t. Except for why the culture of standup could totally fuck you.
Here’s something I’m troubled by: loads of comedians take improv and sketch classes. They have a teacher, a coach, a director. But the culture of standup is different. There are standup classes here and there, but not entire schools built around it like there are for improv and sketch. The audience is your only teacher, the standup world says. If they laugh, great. If not, go fuck yourself.
It’s a hard and scary world, when you put it like that. Yes, of course it’s the right idea that the audience is your primary teacher. But if a standup comedian isn’t sure why an audience is laughing, or why they’re not laughing, then he is just beating his head with a failure stick over and over again. He may get his laughs eventually if he stays with it and grows a horrible lizard skin of self-protection, but he’ll get laughs a whole helluva lot faster, easier and without all those lizardy scales with feedback. And by feedback I don’t just mean laugh-related grunts. I mean helpful words from an outside observer.
Another thing that troubles me about standup culture is that I’ve seen so many developing comedians focus primarily on their jokes, and not on who they are on stage. Great comedians have figured out some crucial things about how to make the audience root for them from the get-go. Not-great comedians have not figured that out, and no amount of brilliant joke-writing is going to change that.
It doesn’t matter what you SAY. You can tell us about your fucked-up childhood, and even though it’s fabulous material, we won’t care, unless we care about you, in that instinctual way we can’t put a finger on. You have to do that to us, first, before we hear two words about that childhood of yours.
It’s real nice to be able to say funny things. It’s better to be funny before you even open your mouth.