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DAN FRENCH has an M.A. in Rhetoric, and a Ph.D. in Media Studies, but don't let that fool you. And he still hasn't mailed us an 8 X 10.

Vist Dan's site, FunnyPlanet.com!
Dan French
Archived

The original "What Works"
"Tom Kenney"

"Inside the Box, Pt. II"
TV Development


"Whose Line is it Anyway?"
French's gag in a Quote-A-Crostic!


"Inside the Box, Pt. I"
TV Programming


"Your Showcase Set"
How to craft an L.A.-ready set


"The Clogged Drain of Comedy"
Who belongs on the stage? Comedy in L.A.


"Torture"
Why move to L.A.?


"Good Side/Bad Side"
What does comedy mean to a culture, post-911?


"Management"
What should a manager do?


"Standup on TV"
What does TV want?


"Cash for Words"
Writing for dollars


"Stoking the Joke Machine"
Writing for a living


"Screenwriting for Standup Comics"
Just what it says


"Random Realizations"
Wisdom born of experience


"P.O.V."
Casting Season in L.A.


"Ladies & Gentlemen: A Job"
Working at Best Damn Sports Show Period


"LA Freefall for All"
It happens to everyone: Freefall!


"Hollywood or Bust"
How to change to succeed in L.A.


"How Edgy"
Column #2


"How Hip"
Column #3


"Who Writes Your Stuff?"
Why don't comics ask for help?


"The Art of Standup"
What would we gain by "turning up the art"


"Christmas Wish List"
Holiday column


"Getting Exercised"
A writing exercise


"High Octane"
Road vs. L.A., Monologist vs. Performer


"Inside the Box, Pt. I"
Television Programmers


"Inside the Box, Pt. II"
Television Production and Development


"Castle Breached"
Working at Late Late Show, Network television gig!


"I Like LA"
The third of five columns on writing comedy for money


"Hollywod Carousel"
Between BDSSP and Late Late Show, what I learned




 

High Octane

Thereís a question about whether standup is predominantly a writerís art or a performerís art. Straight monologists put weight on words and content, and live or die by the quality of the jokes themselves. Performance-oriented comics lean on the way words are said, how jokes are punched up by all the behavioral and vocal tics and tricks around the material itself. Sometimes itís the writers that prevail, able to pour on enough insightful material, so well-worded that it charms the savage audience. Other times its all performers, those stage maniacs that are able to win the moment with mediocre material and leave the straight "give them the jokes" guys in the dust.

I have always been a writer, but Iím fascinated by really great performers. I remember watching Brian Regan do eight straight sets, and while he can definitely write, I laughed every single show because of him--his expressions, the way he moves, the character he brings to the jokes.

At one time I thought Brian was the pinnacle of performers, and he is, in his own slice of unique standup. But since Iíve moved to L.A. Iíve learned that the bar on performance can be raised infinitely higher than what you experience on the road. The top 10 per cent of comics out here are almost magical in what they can do on stage. If youíre thinking that your strength is performing, it might help to know what these guys do on stage, especially if you someday hope to get attention through standup and move into media acting, or even if you just want to add some real performance power to your standup show.

Iíll start with an example that might help clarify the difference between road performers and L.A. performers. A few Sundays ago I went with another comic to the Ha Ha Cafť on Lankershim in "the Valley" (the San Fernando Valley, which sits right on the other side of a mountain range from L.A., for those twelve comics still on the road who actually donít live here). It was a nice room, actually set up for standup, with a paying audience and everything. Weird in L.A..

My friend had just moved here from the road, and is known as a "high energy" comic, in the good sense of the word where he punctuates his bits with a lot of movement and vocal energy, vs. the bad sense of the word where a comic has no bits but just goofs his way through, getting his laughs by how much he mugs per minute.

About ten comics went up before him. By the time he got up, we had seen the M.C. leap into the air and do splits, another comic do about fifty voices during his set, another guy play a mandolin, and another guy come up in a motorcycle helmet and do a strip show, followed by a song he sung to a puppet. And most all of it was funny.

By the time my "high energy" buddy made it to the stage, his show had shriveled to the point where he seemed tame and controlled. He punctuated his bits with faces and movement, but he still seemed to be moving in slow motion.

That is the first difference Iíve seen between performing road comedy and doing L.A. comed--good energy vs. super-sustained energy. On the road you would kill yourself doing super-energy for an hour. But here, where sets are ten minutes or less, if you slow down during the set-ups or only bring your big energy every twenty seconds or so, your show deflates. Great L.A. performers bring constant energy, constant intensity, with no let up and no upper limit on how high the intensity can go. And not only that, they vary what they do so it isnít the same movement or facial punch every time.

Which brings up the second idea, that performance in L.A. is much more dense than elsewhere. By this I mean that the performance comics here do everything at all times. They do faces, body contortions, hand gestures, arm gestures, wild stage movement, extreme voice shifts, they dress for the part, they create unusual hairstyles. And itís all going on at once. On the road guys might do one or two performance elements and rely on that. We all know guys who cue every single laugh with the same face, or giggle, or "so anyway." Even Brian Regan is pretty limited to a few expressions and repetitive moments. Here the performers are doing fifty cueing devices all at the same time, they do different ones for different jokes, and itís all so thick with action that it just overpowers the audience when its done well.

Third, L.A. comics "act" their shows. By this I mean they never miss an opportunity to show that they can perform something, and perform it well. When they invoke a character they become that character. They do dialects, voices, body language, the whole deal. When they mention an emotion they act out that emotion so that you get to see someone angry or confused or in pain rather than just hear about it. When they talk about an activity they actually recreate it by acting the movements, so instead of hearing that they were walking down the street we get to see them walking down the street. It makes their shows much more visual, so much so that by the end of their performance youíve seen a range of people up there, and been to a range of locations.

Finally, perhaps the most powerful element that great performers bring on an L.A. stage is that they are always original "characters." They make sure you know they are not "normal" people. The person they are on stage is quirky, exaggerated, different, memorable. It doesnít even matter, really, if it is a likable character. It just needs to be an intense character, someone who stands out from ordinary life in some extreme way. The type of person that if you saw a huge crowd of people your attention would be riveted on this one strange guy because you want to watch and see what they will do. Even if you donít act or arenít high energy or extremely visual, if you are a potent character then you can be used by the media--see John Mendoza, Steven Wright, even Ellen DeGeneres when she first started on her sitcom, before she picked up the slapsticky, speedy delivery and facial expressions.

As always, thereís more to all of this than what Iíve laid out here, and in some ways itís almost impossible to really capture performance stuff by writing about it. But if youíre thinking about making performance your strength, and coming to L.A. so you can be yanked off the stage and put on commercials or a sitcom, know what youíre up against. People who hire comics to be in film, sitcoms, and commercials are asking questions about you while youíre up there. Do you have power on stage? Do you have a precise, even unique, sense of humor? Can you demonstrate that sense of humor in a visual way? Can you bring enough energy to the moment to overwhelm the sluggishness of the camera? Can you portray a range of emotions? Can you do voices? Are you a character yourself? Can you work with mediocre material? Do you stand out even when we put you in a room of other professional characters?

An L.A. show is designed to convince casting agents and producers in the room that you would rivet their audience, not just the audience in a live standup show. If you donít prove that in a spectacular way then you give people reasons not to hire you, you make them doubt that you can handle this or that little thing they need. And that doubt is what will send them away from the standup stage and back to searching through the ten million comic actors out here who are going to their little acting workshops every night and thinking "I should try standup."

See you next month.



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