Reader Request: Standup Comedy

Patti Abbot asks, “What comics you like? What makes them good or bad? Who’s the best you’ve ever seen?”

What makes a comic good?

Timing, timing, timing!

Well, that’s the most important thing.  There are others.  A comic has to get up on stage, be completely confident in his material, and not be afraid to bomb.  In fact, that’s why a lot of material is worked on in bar shows.  There are people who go into bars and positively suck, turn around, and jump on stage at a comedy club and kill with the same set.  The best two that I’ve seen locally are Ryan Fohl and uber-geek Ray Price.

What makes them bad?  Disrespecting your audience for one.  I’ve seen two nationally known comedians get on stage and pitch tantrums because the audience didn’t respond.  Some believe that, because they went to New York, LA, Chicago, and San Francisco and stood in line at the clubs and paid their dues, their audiences are obligated to laugh at them.

Bull.  One well-known New York comic came to Go Bananas over the summer, referred to Blue Ash as a hick town (It’s where the upper middle class lives), moaned that the audience didn’t get his humor (We did.  He wasn’t funny.), and picked a fight with a patron.  In the comic’s defense on the last one, the guy was an idiot.  However, the fight started a steady stream of patrons leaving, telling people waiting for the 10:30 show to save their money.  Many of those people left.

I know the clubs want to see people who paid their dues in New York and LA, but New York and LA does not make comedians good.  It just makes them bookable.  At the end of the day, I’m likely to ask for my money back.

Now, who’s the best?

No question.  George Carlin.  You had to ask?

Got a Reader Request for me?  Comment below or send me an email at jamesrwinterATyahooDOTcom.

Writing Whiplash

On the heels of telling writers not to write about the process, I’m writing about the process.  It’s OK.  I’m not dodging writing.  I’m waiting for SQL Server 2005 to load on someone’s laptop.  Anyway, this is one of those times to talk about it.

I want to talk about the differences in writing I have to do these days.  Up until now, what I’ve written is primarily fiction or reviews.  Come up with an idea, and let it unfold as you tap away at the keyboard.  This causes various levels of frustration from writer to writer.  For some, it’s a drug that lets them blow off the rest of the world.  For others, it’s a struggle just to put out a measily 100 words, let alone the 500-1000 a day most novelists demand of themselves.

However, this is how most people write prose, both fiction and nonfiction.  Comedy is different.

In comedy, it is much harder to squeeze out an idea from a topic.  Once in awhile, a joke or a set will write itself.  Most of the time, a comedian has to sit down for half an hour, write out a list of topics, and ask some questions about each topic until the answers yield something interesting.  Then a punchline has to be squeezed out of what’s left.

90% of what you’ll write is going to get tossed.  Whereas Stephen King (among others) stated that you’ll cut 10-20% of your earlier drafts before a piece is ready.

It’s hard to shift gears for me.  For standup, I go in with absolutely no idea what I’m going to write.  When I write a short story, a novel, an essay, or even a blog post, I have some idea of where I’m going.  For instance, on the current WIP, I sat down and reread the last two scenes I wrote and said, “OK, we got a dead body with no ID waiting on fingerprints.  Who’s working on this? Who was in the last scene?”  Since I already have a vague idea of how this is going to end, I simply point in that direction and write about the next logical step in the story.  Writing jokes?

You have no idea what’s going to work.  And performing it for your friends and family is no help, particularly if they have to listen to you rehearse over and over and over…  You may think Ron White is hysterical, and I do.  It’s a sure bet his wife doesn’t.

Is that to say writing fiction or nonfiction is easier than writing standup?  Relatively speaking, yes.  If anyone who hasn’t written a line thinks writing a novel is easy, I suggest you sit down and try one.  You’ll find out on page 1 that it’s not.

I Got Bad News From A Long Time Ago

One thing I’ve learned is very difficult as a standup is dealing with tragedy or hard luck in your act.  If someone close to you dies or you go through a divorce or bankruptcy, it doesn’t matter how much time passes.  If this is the first time someone’s heard of it, they want… maybe need… to offer sympathy.

Divorce is not so hard to handle on stage.  Hell, Diane helped write half the divorce set.  My new lady thinks it’s the strongest part of my set.  And the audiences respond to those jokes more than some of the other material.

But death?

Recently, at the monthly show at Ft. Thomas, Kentucky’s Midway Cafe, comedian Mike Gunns hosted the end-of-show segment called “One for the Road,” where Gunns will free associate in whatever medicated haze he’s in that night until a comic or even a bar patron comes up to tell a joke.  This time, we seemed to be trending toward dead baby jokes.  (It’s as bad as you think, which made it a crowd hit.)  To be different, I went up and nailed Gunns with a zinger, to which Gunns said, “I guess that was a joke about me.  I’ll ask your mother next time I do her.”

Rude?  It was supposed to be.  Which prompted my next comment.

“My mother’s dead, you prick!”

“I know,” he said.  “Explains why she didn’t move.”

Cheap shot?  Yes, but I set it up for Gunns, and he knocked it down.  The crowd laughed, which is what both of us were going for.

A woman came up to me shortly afterward and said, “I’m so sorry.  You must be heartsick over what that nasty man said.”

“What nasty man?”

“That stoner up on the mic.”

“What did he say?”

“About your mother.”

“My mom died six years ago.  He knew that.”

“Then why did he say that?”

“Have you noticed the dead baby jokes we’ve been telling since the last set ended?”

She wasn’t happy with me.

True, she needed to notice that virtually every comedian up there was dropping an F bomb.  (‘Cept me, mainly because I was doing a PG-13 set I’d first trotted out the night before.)  At the same time, I’ve noticed people go straight to mourner mode when they learn both my parents are gone.  Never mind that I’ve been an orphan for four years now.

People also don’t seem to handle divorce well unless I’m at the mic and in my fedora.  “Oh, that’s too bad.”

“Dude, I’m almost engaged, and Diane’s flying to Australia to see her new man.  We’re soooo over it.”

I keep forgetting we didn’t tell anyone until January.

“Aren’t you moving a bit too fast?”

“Faster than what?”

“It was only a couple of months ago.”

“No, you found out a couple months ago.  We found out back in September.”

“But…  But…”

I just shrug.  I haven’t got time to be miserable about my own hard knocks.  Even if it’s for someone else’s benefit.

One guy who is really a master at this is Robert Schimmel.  I first noticed Schimmel when he started talking about his heart attack in his set.  Since that time, he’s amped it up a notch.  Some friends of mine went to see Schimmel at the Dayton Funnybone recently.  Schimmel now does a slide show…

About his cancer (“Here I am at my next-to-last chemo treatment.  I’m down to 145 pounds, almost my target weight.”*) and the death of his son, also from cancer.  You’d think the audience would be staring slack-jawed at him but no.  Schimmel talked about taking his son out of hospice (“What’s going to happen to him out there that’s not going to happen here?”) and letting him drive his car through the desert.  As his son hit every cactus and every rut, enjoying the only time in his life he would drive a car, Schimmel says, “I kept thinking ‘Why didn’t I rent a car for this?”

I wouldn’t wish Robert Schimmel’s woes on anyone, but this is his way of dealing with it.

The lesson here is don’t be afraid to laugh at tragedy.  Humor will rob it of its power faster than anything.

*Paraphrasing, though I hope he does this on HBO soon.