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I wrote a new joke last week. I did it on stage and it killed. It makes me happy when that happens.
When I first started doing comedy, at an open mike night at the Comedy Works in Philadelphia, I went onstage wearing an eight-foot crayon suit. I wrote five minutes of crayon jokes. ("We were so poor when we were little, there were 64 of us in one box.") I went on dead last at about 1 AM. The suit was rather odd. It got me noticed. Because of my stage fright, I don't think I could have gotten onstage any other way.
The next weeek, I got a much better spot. The week after that, I opened the show. Not because I was so good or anything, it was just the novelty of this giant, dorky crayon doing the most insipid jokes about being a crayon was a good way of throwing the crowd into a good mood or throwing them off-balance. I was alternative before alternative was alternative.
I did the crayon thing for ten straight Wednesdays. On my eleventh Wednesday, the first open mike of the new year, I went up dressed as a normal human being and did five almost totally new minutes (out of necessity, as only one or two jokes weren't crayon-related). This means that, in those ten weeks, I wrote five new minutes of material. This means that had I continued on this torrid pace, I would have written 25 minutes of material in the space of a year.
Of course no one can keep up that torrid pace. If someone tells you he does, he's lying. Why would he lie like that? To make himself feel good...to make others feel bad...who knows?
Listening to other comics talk about their experiences, this is a pretty common pattern. You write like a madman in the first year or two and then the pace slows to a trickle. There's even a hackneyed saying that bolsters this contention: You write your first half-hour in your first year...or something like that. Is that half-hour any good? Some of it is, some of it isn't. The material changes, you change. Some of the jokes survive, in an altered form, most of them whither away because they aren't appropriate for your act.
Some of them mysteriously cease to elicit laughs anymore! One of the great mysteries of standup comedy: Sometimes a joke will stop getting laughs! You poke at it and massage it and change your delivery or shift its place in the order and...nothing!
So you write new jokes. And you hang on to the old ones in hopes of somehow reviving them or twisting them or grafting them onto others.
One of my theories as to why the pace of a comic's writing winds down to a trickle is that our standards change, as do our requirements. When we first start out, our standards are high. Then they get higher! It becomes harder and harder to "top ourselves!" Once we write the joke that elicits applause from an entire room full of people, we embark on a quest to write one hundred just like it. And our requirements change. What might have been an appropriate joke early on is viewed as inappropriate now because our persona has evolved, our tone has been changed or been refined.
And then a number of other factors influence the material. Questions like "Clean or dirty?" and "One-liners or story-telling?" "Lowest common denominator or oddball?" Early on we choose a path and focus on it. It's a means of survival, a way to simplify our task. The occasional comic will possess the discipline to have two radically different sets that are appropriate for any occasion. For the most part, we make our decision and we stick with it and we find a style and a pace that suits us.
It pains me to hear comics tell other comics how to approach writing. With rare exceptions (SHECKY! columnist Dan French comes to mind) comics who comment on the work ethic of other comics tend to be unnecessarily harsh. They disparage other comics who are perceived as less than prolific. It's stupid and cruel.
It's a curious form of macho posturing. Curious because, after all, we're not talking about bench presses here, we're talking about art. "Can you believe it?" says Comic In The Back Of The Room # 1, "He's still doing that lion tamer bit?! I saw him do that in 1991 on Evening at the Improv!" C.I.T.B.O.T.R. #2 says, "It's time he got a new act!" For some reason writing five new minutes a week is viewed as virtuous. No matter that the new material elicits a less-than-thunderous response. It's not about response, you Philistine! No matter that the comic never takes the time to make the joke "work" (Translation: No matter that the comic never takes the time to re-write the joke in a way that will be understandable to the largest number of people.) It's all about the process! And the glory that comes from being known as a "writing machine." Anything less is slovenly, unprofessional.
Other artists don't really have this pressure. Certain novelists and painters are often referred to, in admiring and reverent tones, as "prolific." But it's usually because they have enourmous bank accounts. The real reverence is reserved for writers like Joseph Heller, who, if I'm not mistaken, wrote exactly three novels his whole life.
Painters are allowed to take their sweet old time creating masterpieces, no such luxury is afforded the jokesmith.
One of the reasons often cited for turning material over at a regular rate is that the crowds that come to see you at comedy clubs will think less of you if they see you do the same material more than once. Hey, fellas, do the math. I'm not doing arenas here, I'm playing comedy clubs or one-nighters that pack in anywhere from 100 to 400 people. I could return to, say, the Buffalo Funny Bone once every nine months for the next ten years and never see the same audience member twice. If I happen to be "a draw," then maybe there'll be a five per cent overlap. Then we must ask what if there's a 20 per cent overlap, what then? Won't those people feel cheated if they see me up there doing the same act over and over? Not necessarily.
I was a regular opener and feature act at the Comedy Factory Outlet in Philly back in 1983-87. There were times when I would appear there once every three weeks! Yet I would be regularly accosted by "fans" who would say "I seen you three times, man, and you are funnier than shit every time!" (Sure, they were drunk and, sure, "funnier than shit" is a dubious compliment at best, but the point is that, even after repeated watchings, I "held up.")
Admittedly, I was turning over the material at a greater rate than I currently am now. And I had the luxury of doing extremely local material, but the core of my act remained the same. And people enjoyed seeing it.
If I stretch my brain, I can still remember what it feels like to be a comedy fan. I can still remember the thoughts going through my head when I watched the first two or three shows I saw before I tried being a standup comic myself. The first comic I ever saw do the same material twice was Mike Eagan. (I was stunned. They do the same material every time! and then, minutes later...of course they do, you moron!) I have to say I enjoyed watching it more the second time! I found it fascinating! Of course! They write a joke, then they refine it and get it down and really whack us over the head with it! I coulda kicked myself! I was like so many other people in that I thought funny people improvised their acts on stage!
One of the first live comedy shows I saw featured Tom Wilson. I wasn't a comic yet. I saw him at the Comedy Works in Philly. Wilson was a local boy who eventually fled for the Left Coast and became one of Mitzi's boys at the Comedy Store (and eventually co-starred in all of the "Back To The Future" movies as "Biff"). (Author's note: After some recent back and forth with Mr. Wilson himself via email, he made it clear that clarification on this point was in order-- Wilson wanted it known that he was never "one of Mitzi's boys." The term, as I understood it, was not a pejorative one, merely an inidcation that Wilson became a regular at the world famous Comedy Store in Hollywood. However, it has been brought to my attention that the term had considerable... weight... among those who were around the scene at that time. We apologize for any misunderstanding.) On one of his trips back to the Works, he came in on the Wednesday open mike, did a set and hung out briefly with some of us pathetic open mikers. I spoke to him afterward and noted that a lot of the set that we just witnessed was exactly the same as that which I had seen two years earlier. What gives?
He used some sort of an analogy about a carpenter. A carpenter and a house and hammers and nails or something. Anyway, it got me to stop badgering him. And it stuck with me for many years. The general message was this: Build an act and work on it and shape it and mold it and refine it. Don't be so concerned about re-buidling your act from the ground up every so often, according to some arbitrary timetable.
I learned to relax and write at my own pace. I would advise comics everywhere to shut out the jabbering from those who might tell you how to go about crafting an act. I write a real corker only rarely. And if it fits into my act, as it currently exists, it's a bonus. But that's the way it goes and I'm comfortable with it.
Be very suspicious of comics who say "I write new material every day!" This is horse manure. (I write new material every other day...and most of it sucks big-time! The vast majority of it is unusable. I wouldn't inflict it on an audience.) These writing machines (the ones who write new material every day) will tell you that they can't go to the buffet because they have set aside two hours of every day for the express purpose of writing. (Translation: I am far more disciplined than you. I am willing to make the big sacrifices.) Listen carefully to this guy's material next time he's on stage. You'll be able to hear the clatter of the keyboard as he spews out one "disciplined" joke after another. His jokes are often the product of nifty "writing exercises" that are designed to "conquer that blank sheet of paper!" The fact that the exercise involves a blank sheet of paper should tip you off! Me I'd rather go to the goddamn buffet--maybe I'll write the ulitmate buffet joke!
Maybe I'm just asking comics to cut other comics a break. Live and
let live. We all have a unique approach to writing. We do whatever
works for us. Knock off the macho stuff. Throw off the tyranny of
those who would have you read Gene Perret books. Find your inspiration
wherever you can.
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