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.