The Art Of Standup
Like all forms of entertainment, standup is born out of the union of art and commerce. Sometimes you're up there saying whatever feels good to you. Sometimes you're just trying to get enough laughs so they'll book you again.
It occurs to me that I've focused mostly on the commerce side of standup since I've moved to LA, probably because like most people out here I'm trying to figure out how to make bigger money with my comedy. In that spirit, I've written columns about how to adjust your standup to become media-friendly, how to enlist help to make your product better, how to succeed as a standup in the city, etc. All very practical stuff, all very real if you want to make cash.
But I also wonder at times what this perspective does to comedy in general, and my comedy in particular. What if I could go through life just saying what I thought was funny, not worrying about the money, the bookers, the producers, the audiences in Illinois vs. the audiences in LA, whether I'm offending the old bat in the front row or whether the table of truckers is getting my references. Or, horror of horrors, whether the comics in the back of the room think I'm good?
Would that get me farther in the long run?
Would I create something original and new and different?
Would it feel better to do it this way?
Or would it be constant crushing failure, the stalling out of my career, the end of my own belief that I can do this stuff pretty well?
I guess what I'm asking is this: what would happen if we stopped seeing standup as a job, or as something kind of ordinary that really almost anyone can do given time and experience, or as a backdoor into bigger things like being a draw or working in the media.
What if we started treating standup like an art form?
To answer that we need to see what we gain and what we give up by turning up the art in our little branch of comedy. And while I don't think I can lay all of that out here in this ramble of a column, I'll at least take a run through some of the ideas and see where it ends up.
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First up, I've heard a lot of comics deride the idea that standup is art.
They usually opt instead for the easy claims that they do this for the money, it's easier than working at Sears, and that standup is pretty much a cookie-cutter form where you give ignorant people ignorant jokes and everyone goes home happy. At best they'll say comedy is a craft, and you'll learn it over time by doing it, just like any carpenter learns woodworking or any journalist learns to write crime stories.
The problem with this perspective is that it gives away the type of motivation that comes with seeing yourself as an artist. Art has some heft to it, some dignity, some importance. If you dedicate yourself to being an artist then you've made a choice you can defend as something you really wanted and that was worthwhile, not just that you're doing what you do as a dodge or because it was easy.
Art is hard. It requires sacrifices, and it takes time, sometimes a lifetime, to learn it well. It also has higher rewards, often different than money or acclaim. It has soul reward. You know when you do art well; you know it even if no one else does. And that knowledge is satisfying. It has to be satisfying.
It seems to me that most people who don't want to see themselves as artists don't really understand the different ways to conceive of an artist. The idea of artist varies widely across time and culture, and somewhere within the variety of conceptions you might find an idea of artist that would be comfortable for you. Maybe if I run through some different ideas about artists that can be applied to standup it might help clarify your choices.
The first idea is that an artist is someone who is obsessed with expression. An artist is someone who can't stop putting what is inside his or her brain out into the world. It's not that they even craft it or care about who hears it; they just can't stop expressing.
Which fits pretty well with comics. You can't shut a real comic up. If you're a comic at your core you can't stop yourself from making retorts, quips, jokes. Comedy spills out of your mouth whether you want it to or not, whether it helps you or not, whether it fits in the moment or not. Its j'ust there.
So if you want to adopt this variation of self as artist, you would tell people that you can't stop being a comic. You have no choice. It controls you, and that's just the way it is. For some reason you are addicted to talking in a comic voice. There you go.
The second idea is the artist who wants more than just to express. It's the idea that you have some ability to create reactions in audiences, even control and shape audiences toward what you want them to feel, think, or do. You can make them like you, like what you do. Even love you and what you do.
This is a more problematic idea of artist. "Popular" artists, like say Norman Rockwell, eventually get stripped of the artist label all together, at least by other artists who think that person has sold out and become the audience's dancing monkey.
Standup always runs this risk. A comic is defined by the audience's reaction. Without an audience to agree that you're funny, well, you're not funny.
Good standup artists learn their way around the problem of the audiences love, however. They learn that only certain audiences like what they do. Instead of changing to fit the audience, or trying the even more difficult feat of changing the audience (teaching them why they should laugh), they simply limit their audience and say it's good enough that these people like what they do. I can't worry about the others.
In this conception you're lucky if the audience that likes you is big enough to make you a living; if they aren't, you can't. Oh, well. Die poor, as the story goes.
The third strong conception of the artist is someone who is dedicated to a "form" of art. A form-conscious artist doesn't really care so much about expressing or getting reaction, but about perfecting what works within a specific art. They care about all the rules, the techniques, the ideas that have come before them. They seek out training, they constantly learn. And if they get to where they master the form they might start trying to add to it, evolve it.
Some standups are like this. They're so concerned with the micro moments in their shows that you'll see them do a killer set and then later they'll only talk about how they blew that one line, or why they can't get a certain joke to work. These are the comics who spend hours every day working on their acts, even if they're only making small advances or cleaning up a tiny tag or a certain vocal expression. It can be an effective form of artistry, but it can also be pretty unrewarding at times. Perfectionism usually is.
The fourth conception is the artist who is intensely concerned with the society in which she exists. Here the artist creates what captures the common spirit. They critique the way people live, even go out and say how things should be. All their art is designed to comment upon society, even when it seems like the art is innocent.
You can see this strain in standup. In fact, this is the one area where most standups really see standups as artists. Comics like Pryor, Bruce, Carlin, Bill Hicks are able to rage about society and get away with it, and that seems like art to other comics. The standup artist is willing to take chances, to not be liked, and to say real things to live audiences.
Fifth, you can see the artist as a psycho, as a brain gone off in a different direction than most of the world. The psychotic as artist is someone who doesn't care about result, or form, or reaction or society. They just constantly put out strange product because they can't stop their brains from doing it.
And yes, there are plenty of near-psycho comics that allow comedy to rule them rather than the other way around. They actually live and think in a comic frame. That's why you're never sure just how crazy they actually are, and whether you should lock your door in the condo that night.
The sixth idea of artist is the one that comics find distasteful:the pseudo-artist, the effete snob poser low talent who believes he is an artist but who can't actually walk the walk.
Standups who hate posers? Well, yeah. It's like a basic revulsion. And there are plenty of standups, even working standups, who aren't really standups, but drape themselves in the sham of it and make truly artistic standups recoil from being grouped in there with the hacks who act like gods. Because anyone can see themselves as an artist, and claim the role, often the people who might be "true" artists turn away from the label of artist entirely.
The seventh notion is artist as rebel. We often see the role of the artist as someone who always bucks the system, questions and attacks the status quo, breaks every social boundary and destroys every accepted rule.
Plenty of comics have adopted this idea. Unfortunately, again, this is a pretty limited idea of the artist, and with this as your only characteristic you might have a lot of cool road stories circulating about you, but it's doubtful you're bringing enough to stage to really make yourself stand out from all the other "wild" comics out there.
The last three ideas of an artist are perhaps the strongest, at least in terms of classical conceptions of the artist. The first is the artist as truth-purveyor. An artist is someone who cannot under any circumstances handle inauthenticity. They can't abide sham.
It's this vein of standup that will keep you from doing well in the media. You go from being on stage and "telling it like it is" to selling Hormel chili on a commercial. It's hard to bring these together.
The comic as a truth teller is probably the closest thing to what society would allow as a comic artist. If you can mold the truth into humor, you're on your way. Maybe not to fame or fortune, but to the claim that you're an artist.
The next idea is one I've mentioned in other columns that I think can hurt standups, but which is beautiful when it's true. This is the artist as naturally funny, an organic artist that just develops their ability without any direct supervision or training. Like the aboriginal runner who wins the Olympics in his first race, this idea is that you are what you are, and you should follow it without worrying about what others want from you. Listen to your inner voice and go with it.
Again, beautiful when it works, but it doesn't work that often. Most people aren't organic artists. They develop with direction. Even the greatest painters had years and years of training. Thinking of yourself as organic is often just a way of justifying being lazy instead of working on what you need in order to be good. You just lay around and wait for some inner-talent to click on, and if it hasn't happened yet, you just have to wait a little longer.
The final idea is the artist as super talent. In this conception the only people who are truly artists are those who are specially gifted, the very best at what they do. True artists only come along a few to a generation. Everyone else is a craftsman doing the best he can to make the limited talent he was given work at its maximum. Everyone else basically works within the grooves the gifted have carved out.
The truly gifted artists have reservoirs of ability that never run dry. They are masters with language, with connecting to audiences, with generating material on the spot, with performing every nuance and emotion just perfectly.
Wouldn't that be nice? That you didn't even have to put out much effort, it was just there for you whenever you needed it? And nearly everything you say is better than everything everyone else says put together.
Yeah, it would be. But no, most of us aren't that. We can't do those things.
What we can do is take on other conceptions of ourselves as artists and see where they will take us. I like thinking of myself as an artist. A comic artist. One that gets laughs when the audience is right, can hone jokes until they're razor sharp. I like thinking that what I do is hard, and that it takes time and real effort to learn to do it well. I even like thinking that I was born with some amount of comic talent, that it was just hardwired into my brain for some unknown reason.
Maybe it would help if we all saw ourselves this way, or at least some variation therein. Maybe it would make standup a more prestigious form, give it some different spin that would bring in more varied talent instead of so often being a haven for those who can't handle day jobs or who don't really want to work their asses off to get good at this stuff.
Or maybe not. Maybe we're better off keeping art out of standup. Maybe it would corrupt this weird little community we've created out of the rabble of society.
I can't really say. But since I need to finish this ramble and get back to work, I'll say in the end that even though I spend a lot of time intellectualizing comedy, I know that when I actually do comedy I have to turn the intellectualizing off, get into the moment, and see what happens. At a certain point all of the thinking and planning and wanting and plotting out a career falls away, and it's you in the spotlight, letting the moment play out, seeing where it goes. It's you writing humor and putting it out there into the world and seeing how it fares. It's you doing this stuff.
And, if you're lucky, it's you getting that feeling, maybe only for a single great night or for one perfect flash during your set, that hey, maybe this is art after all.
Even if you are working a strip club.