Things stand-up comedy is NOT

9 Jul

So in my two years as a comedic performer, going to plenty of open mics and professional showcases, I’ve gotten a good idea of the panoply of different things stand-up comedy can be. It can be surrealist and silly, it can be biting and precise, it can be musical, it can be physical. Some things are laugh-out-loud hilarious, while other might prefer bits that make you more smile from their cleverness than just out-and-out guffaw.

However, in that same time, I’ve gotten an even clearer idea of what lots of people, especially people who try it for themselves for the first time, THINK stand-up comedy is, but it is clearly not. This kind of knowledge is very important, as it helps me to make sure my comedy never becomes any of these forms of non-comedy, so, for the benefit of anybody else, I will list these non-comedies below:

1. Stand-up comedy is NOT going to a party with your friends

Here’s what a lot of would-be comics really need to hear: Your friends laugh at you because they’re your friends. They like you. They know you. That’s why they crack up when you walk into a bar and shout “CAN A MUTHAFUCKA GET A DRINK?” in your “crazy kooky” voice, or giggle at all the stories you tell about poking old Fat Joe in the stomach and making him shart, because chances are they know old Fat Joe, too, and know about his spastic colon.

A typical comedy club audience is filled with people who are NOT YOUR FRIENDS. In fact, many people in a comedy club audience seem to be filled with a liquor-and-angst-fueled determination to HATE you. This is why your stories about old Fat Joe bombed when you took them from your friend’s basement to the stage. The familiarity is gone, and your oh-so-wacky life-of-the-party persona has no hold. Come up with a joke that doesn’t rely on your catchphrases that only your co-workers know if you want a laugh.

However, there are some people who cheat the system, and EVERYBODY has seen this guy: The guy who I guess has some charisma among his friends, or just surrounds himself with sycophantic ego-strokers, and goes to an open mic with 30 of his friends to a comedy club that seats 50. That way they can go on stage and just blather on, and his friends are so many that their laughter overshadows the rest of the audience who couldn’t give a shit and he thinks he’s KILLING. No. You’re not being a successful comedian. The only thing you’ve successfully done is convince your friends to pay for overpriced food and beer at a comedy club while listening to the same shit you say for free, as well as successfully wrap yourself in a little hamster ball of delusion that you are somehow a comedian. Still an impressive feat, it’s just not comedy.

2. Stand-up comedy is NOT group therapy

This one is a little harder for some people to grasp. Many great comedians make jokes about their dysfunctional families and relationships, and their other personal shortcomings.

Note the key phrase there: “make jokes about”

Simply TALKING about something /= Making a JOKE about it.

I went to an open mic once where a woman went on stage and started an apparent bit about how her father used to beat her. That in itself isn’t bad since it’s just the start. But then she went into all the different things he used to beat her, the bruises she’d get…NO PUNCHLINES. There wasn’t any joke about the unusual things he used to beat her like “he used a shoe, a belt, one time he used a stuffed animal and it still hurt!” Nothing! She just described what ACTUALLY HAPPENED. She thought this was FUNNY. Or, worse yet, she thought we were awful enough human beings to find this funny ourselves.

People laughed, though, but it wasn’t the laughter of “Oh, that was humorous!” This was the nervous laughter whose only purpose is to fill the CAVERNOUS, YAWNING, ABYSMAL VOID OF AWKWARD, PAINED SILENCE THAT WOULD OTHERWISE HAVE CONSUMED OUR SOULS. When she got done with her set, the audience applauded, maybe because they thought she was brave, or maybe because if they hit their hands together hard enough, the pain of their swelling palms would distract from the pain inside their brains from having witnessed that.

Whatever you may think about schadenfreude, pain in and of itself is not funny. Now if her father had all of a sudden gotten up on stage and started beating her for telling a bad comedy set, that would have been HILARIOUS.

Okay, I guess she was right, I AM an awful human being.

3. Stand-up comedy is NOT curse words

Again, this is another one some people find hard to understand when they see George Carlin, whose best known routine is about cursing. The thing is, Carlin didn’t just go up on stage and say “Shit piss cunt fuck cocksucker motherfucker tits… Thank you, good night!” He has a whole bit analyzing the words themselves, the context, and the hypocritical standard applied to them, and thus launched into an entire examination into human language and discourse, as Carlin was wont to do and brilliantly able to do.

At the same open mic as the above child abuse incident, there was another guy who went up on stage, and honestly I can’t remember anything he really said, that’s how bad and forgettable the set was, except I do remember how often he would punctuate his unfunny attempts at jokes with “BITCH!” He would put so much effort into that “BITCH!” with this determined, hopeful expression, like he was Ishmael thrashing in a sea of unfunny, and the word “BITCH!” was Queequeg’s coffin, saving him from drowning.

Cursing, in and of itself, is only funny when you’re twelve, and it something adults tell you not to do, and you giggle because you’re breaking the rules. If you ever actually grow up, you stop giggling because somebody said “cock.” There are plenty of bits that DO end up being punctuated with a curse word, especially one great one from a comedienne whose name escapes me, where she talks about some white woman next to her assuming the bass coming from her car is rap music, which leads her to roll down the window, sing along to the opera song she’s actually listening to, then end it with “BITCH!”

See, there, the “BITCH” is funny because it’s a one-word encapsulation of the feeling being expressed in the entire build-up to it.

Nobody eats a sundae made completely out of whipped creme (unless its your birthday at a really cheap family restaurant and they want to give you a “free dessert.” It happened to me.). Shit piss cunt fuck cocksucker motherfucker tits is whipped creme. You need a good heaping scoop of fudge ripple comedy to make that whipped creme worth eating.

4. Stand-up comedy is NOT being a dick to the audience.

Again, this goes under the file “other comedians do it, why can’t I?” file. Usually the answer to that question is ALWAYS “those comedians can do it in a way that’s actually funny.”

I was just at an open mic where the first person on stage went up, probably 18 years old or thereabouts, and clearly was failing at number 3. He thought he could just go on stage and say “so my dog is GAY FUCK COCK SHIT” without having any punchline and get a laugh. He did not get a single one. Not a one. None of the things he said were jokes, so there was no laughter, but he carried himself like he was king shit and obviously what he was saying was hilarious. The audience was like a funeral, except they were watching something even less funny.

Then he made the ultimate move of arrogance. He tried to mess with an audience member. Now, when you start doing that, you are telling the audience that you are witty enough and capable enough to deal with whatever the person is going to say in response, because they could say ANYTHING. This guy obviously was not, since he sounded like someone who couldn’t pass the entrance exam to Everest College (Florida-specific joke, sorry). So he started calling this older gentleman (about 60-ish) in the audience ugly, and then asked this guy “who are you?”

The guy responded “I’m your father.”

The audience laughed HARD at this, because what they saw was an unfunny douchebag get owned by an audience member. The audience member turned out to be an open mic-er himself who went on later, and the crowd was definitely laughing harder for him because of that.

The point is, you want the audience on your side (see number 1), unless your insults are funny. That means you can observe something about an audience member, and comment in a humorous way about it. Calling someone ugly isn’t humorous, it’s mean. Calling someone so ugly their face looks like if a scrotum had an asshole, while childish, especially since I just thought that up, is at least MARGINALLY funnier. At least that way, if the audience member retorts, you can say “don’t talk, don’t you know it’s not polite to fart in public?” Again, childish, but it’s some attempt at funny that some people might think is funny.

You can do LOTS of things and make them funny, but you have to be creative with it. That’s the real challenge that most people are simply ill-equipped to meet.

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