Who Writes Your Stuff?
Iíve been curious/bothered about something for awhile now, so Iíd like to bring it up this month to see if I can an answer my own curiosity and put a salve on my own irritation.
Itís this: why donít standups look for help? Either in making their acts better, or improving their skills? Why is standup such a one-man band?
I ask because Iíve seen hundreds of standups who were likable, or energetic, or had an interesting look, or a decent sense of humor, but they couldnít write or they couldnít really take over the stage or they didnít know the difference between a great bit and a bit that got great laughs. And I just canít help watching them and thinking "Why donít they get somebody to help them?"
See, I write for other standups.
Iím not talking about giving out a line or two, or a tag as someone comes off stage. Iíve written as much as forty-five minutes for people, and just given them the material. Told them to take it, and if they make money then someday they can pay me whatever they want, either in cash or by doing something for me in return. I have no idea whether they will or not. And in the end it doesnít matter. I like writing material, itís something I can do with almost no real effort, and most of it I would never be able to use anyway. So take it and go.
Mostly I do this for young talent, people I see who are naturally gifted, but who donít have the experience I have in working the road. It seems a natural to me, to hook up someone whoís great at performing with someone whoís experienced at writing the type of scripts that will work well with real audiences who want to see professional level acts.
It most often starts when I see someone on stage that I like. Someone who has a character or an energy that gets my mind jumping with material. I sit down and take what theyíre already doing and expand it, reword it, add in new material and a pile of punches. Then I take them on road gigs and help them develop new premises, offering exact wording on their scripts and writing bit after bit for them for as long as I stay interested and as long as they seem cool with what I offer. Itís kind of a co-writing process, but realistically itís me telling them what works and having final edit on their stuff.
And it usually works. One of the comics Iíve helped just got a six figure development deal, another was cast on a FOX show for this year, and a third is headlining most of his road shows and has "heat" after appearing at this yearís Montreal New Faces. All with less than two years in the business.
Iím not sure that they wouldnít have gotten where they did on their own. All were really talented. I am saying they wouldnít have gotten there that fast. And not in the shape they were in. If they had done the road, learned it all on their own, they would have had acts that were nowhere near as clean, clever, developed, and non-hack. Not even close.
You would think this would be, as they say, "all good."
But hereís the problem. A lot of standups seem to resent this process. They look down on acts that donít write their own stuff, and Iíve been given a hard time for writing for people who arenít at the level they seem to be because theyíre using material written by a headlining act. In fact, a standup comic with a writer or a performance coach or a director is such a pariah, even the people I write for donít go out of their way to say they had help. Not because theyíre ungenerous, but because it lowers them in the eyes of their peers.
And I want to know why. Why is the standup community so stuck on valorizing the guy who can do it all on his own?
Name one other major form of entertainment where one person does everything. No one in TV writes, acts, directs, produces, edits, and scores. No one in film. No one in music. Standups refusing to make what they do a collaborative act would be like Elvis insisting on only singing songs he wrote.
More often than not things become great when multiple great people work on them together. Thatís just the nature of public entertainment. Itís so complex and varied that it requires a crew of great people to make it truly work.
But in standup weíre enamored with the idea of the natural genius artist funny man who can do it all. We push that idea at everyone who tries this stuff, and they swallow it hook, line and sinker. To the point that they can go their entire careers and never do a damn thing thatís quality and still never seek out help.
I know there are standups who seem like they can do it all. Rich Jeni, when he was really into it, could do every single thing on a standup stage so well he looked like he invented the art. But how many Rich Jeniís are there? And how many good comedians who could have had great careers have lost out trying to be Rich Jeni?
And if you want to get really into it, Jeni could probably do it all on his own, but in reality he drew upon many other comics while he was out there night after night putting in the year that he used to hone his next special. I know guys who gave or sold bits to Jeni, or helped him with tags and reworks. So even though Jeni might have been able to do it on his own, he probably did none of it totally on his own.
I think part of the reason why standup has chosen the "go it alone" mentality is because this is such a blue-collar entertainment form. The road is totally a community of worker acts with worker values, and workers just keep plugging through on their own, never relying on the type of professional resources you see in less blue-collar entertainment, like television or film. Standups donít use coaches the way actors all use coaches. Standups donít use directors, although even people who do one-person shows have directors.
And of course standups would never use writers, even though all the big standups who do more than one TV special have writers.
Popular conception is that doing the road develops a comic. In some ways thatís true. You learn a lot of confidence and adaptability by doing different stages all over the country. Unfortunately, you also learn to be almost totally "unhelpable." Itís so frustrating to me to see a comic whoís been working for awhile and who, in my estimation, could really improve with help. Itís frustrating because comics become so tunnel-visioned on their own acts that they canít see other possibilities. When you try to discuss their acts or get them thinking about different options or god forbid offer an idea or a suggestion, they close up or patronize you or change the subject.
Itís an iconoclastic, self-absorbed mentality that keeps them repeating the same mistakes and stops them from learning from people who could take them in directions they canít see while being inside their own acts, their own heads, their own narrowly focused conceptions of what standup and comic performance are all about. God, it chaps my ass when I give someone a good line and they just look at me like I spit on the floor.
Another reason why standups donít seek help is there is an "artist strain mixed" into standup. Because standup is done in live, intimate settings, and is always open to audience interruption, it feels more like an art than something that is totally produced, like TV. And as an art form standup is plagued by many of the same ideas that apply to other art forms--the great narrative of the solo artist struggling through her own process of creation in order to speak "truth," reveal themselves and their emotions, communicate who they are to the great mass audience out there.
The mix of blue-collarness and artisticness is finalized, I think, by the amateurishness of standup. In comparison to other public forms like theater, television, film, even radio, standup is wickedly amateur, in elements as wide-ranging as the way standups lay around all day instead of working on their acts, the way they dress and comport themselves at clubs, the pay they get and the respect they fail to get from other fields of professional entertainment. Donít get me wrong, I like laying around hotels as much as anybody, but I can feel my professionalism eking away as I thumb the remote hour after hour. In fact, working the road erodes your discipline so badly that I eventually cut my road work down to almost nil because it wreaked such havoc on my writing habits.
The problem with allowing ourselves to be amateurish is that it lessens standup as a public form of entertainment. Our unwillingness to see ourselves as true professionals--getting better and better every day through conscious effort--has helped keep standup from becoming as strong a public form as it may have become when it boomed back in the 80ís. Most standup shows and most standups are mediocre. And theyíre mediocre because standups canít do all the things--writing, editing, acting, energy, stage presence, dress, promotion, character--that are necessary to do really great standup. And they wonít seek out help because the comic community looks down on people who do that.
For standup to regain its "glory" we need shows that completely amaze audiences. When audiences are stunned by how good something is then the form grows, money for it grows, demand for it grows. Instead weíve given audiences mediocre shows that donít create a thirst to see more. Weíve given audiences standup that never reaches its full potential because itís a one-man band scrambling to cover all the necessities instead of a completely produced studio CD put together by a collection of people you never even see.
So, my point: maybe itís time for standup to grow up.
Standups need to get past the idea that what they do is completely singular and the accomplishment is all their own. They need to seek out writers, coaches, directors, teachers, producers. They need for their acts to become team efforts, polished, constantly fed, constantly made better by people who know how to make them better.
A lot of comics have learned this lesson on the business side. The road has gotten so that you canít get into a lot of clubs unless you have a business agent or manager or owner who can do trade-offs with bookers and cut through all the phone-calling bullshit and make a quick deal. A comic with a good manager knows she can get into clubs because the manager can make a phone call. The comic without a manager knows the process of traveling, showcasing, calling, calling, calling, will as often as not result in nothing more than a higher phone bill and wasted time.
If weíve learned the value of business managers, why not learn the value of bringing on writers, directors, and performance coaches for your act?
I know the objections. You canít find anyone good who would actually help, because most people who teach comedy or write jokes are idiots taking money from the inexperienced. It costs money to bring other people in, and thereís not that much money in standup as it is.
As far as the money goes, not reinvesting some of what you earn into your act is just ridiculous. The better your show the more money you make. The better you are the better chance you have of moving into the golden stratosphere of media. Not wanting to pay coaches or directors or writers--which may mean just paying them in good will and future trade-offs, as in my case--is just stupid. There are always ways to pay if youíre really motivated to get better.
And as far as finding someone who can truly help you, well, carp all you want about the details, but the truth is that even if itís hard to find good help, you still need to get out and look. Standups should be trading off recommendations for acting coaches, directors, writers. The best way to find good people is to create a verbal network that evaluates the people who help standups. I still canít believe the standup community, even as fractured and independent contract as it is, doesnít do this.
Finally, I know this: without seeking and finding help most standups wonít get where they at least say they want to get. Theyíll continue on the same paths, afraid of what other comics will say about them, afraid of admitting they have weaknesses, and secretly hoping some light bulb will click in their brain and magically make them good at something they have never, ever been good at up to this point in their lives on their own. And all these partially talented acts will lose out because they waste so much time and energy trying to write when theyíre not writers, trying to be edgy or smart or socially insightful when theyíre none of the above, trying to do characters when they donít know how to do characters, and trying, as always, to do it all on their own.