So, tonight was my second-ever attempt at full-on standup comedy.
I've done some comic monologues in theatre before, and I've been hosting various shows at the Bovine the last several months, and it was actually the hosting that made me feel like I needed to try standup. Because I'm not really a good host. I'm reasonably effective at managing traffic onstage, communicating what needs to be communicated, and avoiding dead air, but I clearly have a lot to learn about just standing onstage and being entertaining.
And I don't mean being funny. That's Clown, and that's a different proposition entirely, although there's no reason a Clown couldn't host a show. At Dell'Arte we were given the assignment of stepping out onto a stage, in a red nose, and then commanded to be funny. And what you learn pretty quickly in that brutal situation is that it does no good to try to say funny things, or to do funny things. You have to be funny. It's a state of being, not of doing, and certainly not a state of saying.
But Standup, the way it's done in modern times, is mostly a verbal art. It's largely a status game that the comedian plays with the audience. From what I can tell, most comedians get their laughs from playing high status towards the audience and leading the audience through their material--often, in fact, cueing the audience to laugh at the appropriate times. I've heard many comedians say that their texts are often not really funny in and of themselves--but they get the audience to laugh by controlling the rhythm of the thoughts. Other standups play an equal, or "friend" status and get their laughs as a way of getting along with the audience--a sort of "we're all in this together, we all get the joke" kind of way.
Clowns, on the other hand, are there for the audience to laugh at, and it's only an experienced (and probably humbled) Clown who can laugh with the audience. Because the joke is always on the Clown themself.
As a side note, Bouffon is a style where, in contrast to the Clown, the Bouffon laughs at the audience, and tries to get the audience to laugh at themselves, although the jokes aren't always very comfortable. And this is something that happens a lot in modern standup. I think Bouffon is really the heart of the comic culture today--it's sardonic, ironic, and cynical, and can absolutely devolve into nihilism. And it's really, really popular right now. It's at the heart of The Simpsons and South Park, and I think it was Bill Hicks who made it common currency in standup. Daniel Tosh is a great current example.
A lot of comic seem to develop their material as self-deprecation, and they talk about how embarrassed they are for whatever reasons they have for being embarrassed in their lives. And that is moving in the direction of Clown. But still, they're mostly talking about it, not being it in the moment. And even rant comedians like Hicks aren't usually taking on Bouffon as a mask, or state of being. They're just adopting the Bouffon's high-status position toward the audience, and mocking the audience from their own point of view.
So, that was a long digression, but it gets back to what I was trying to do tonight, and what I'm trying to do with hosting. Eventually this will be important for Circo shows when I will be more or less a ringleader. Be entertaining. Don't steal the show, lead the audience through the experience. Throw focus when necessary. Think on your feet. Have material for when improv runs dry.
So tonight I went in with a maximum of three minutes about insomnia. The Bovine standup night is very explicitly a clean show, so no blue material is allowed, and for some reason, tonight, there were eight or ten kids in the audience. And two of them were clearly there with their grandmother. So I cut out about 45 seconds worth of material because it was all about pot. And while pot is now legal in Colorado, and kids are talking about it anyway, I didn't want to piss off the adults that brought them, since my set was pretty raw and shaky as it was. So I don't really know, but I think I cut my losses on that one.
The rest of the routine got a few laughs in the places I wanted them, and at one point I completely forgot where i was and pulled out my script. But the humiliation of that was better than the humiliation of dead air. The fact is, I wrote the routine this morning, and it just wasn't memorized.
I think a lot of comics really just know the outline of their material and they riff through it. And that's a place I'd love to get to. But I know other comics, like Seinfeld and Denis Leary, write things really carefully. Every word needs to be in its place. And I'm sympathetic to this, not just because I'm still mostly terrified by improv, but because to pop the laughs I want on the punchlines, the setup has to be pretty precise. The punchline, for that matter, has to be pretty tight too. I don't want to repeat words; I want the whole thing to have a flow, but the ideas need to develop in a particular way, and I like it if that development has a kind of economy and efficiency. So, for the two standup routines I've written, I find I get really Strunk-and-White about it. Which is weird for me.
Of course, this is all about this really weird discovery of a new kind of writing for me. When I first made the decision to work on standup as a craft, I sat down to write, and really had no idea where to start. I decided the best way was just to write down lists of things that I thought were funny, without worrying about why they were funny. And this turned into a really intense sort of freewriting exercise that was sometimes really arduous. But it generated a few sparks, and a couple of jokes. And then I was thinking about all this verbal/status stuff, and wondering if I should just try to adapt my clown work--essentially do a normally-dressed, talking version of Ferdinand, or really try to do Bouffon, and really act. And those are things I may try in the future. But I wanted to try out the standard, contemporary style of it's-just-me-out-here-talking that most standup consists of these days. And with all that, my head kind of exploded because from these points of view, the possibilities are just endless. I could do standup about anything, in any style I wanted. And that brings on a particular kind of paralysis for me.
It really seems to me like standup is simply a fusion of the arts of writing and talking. And that's all you have to do. Write to some extent, and then speak what you wrote. But what the hell am I supposed to write about? I have no idea. So I went back to my "funny" lists, and just started writing.
I discovered that my first coherent impulse is to rant. I've always liked Denis Leary and Lewis Black, and I've discovered (to my chagrin) that arrogant posturing, and intellectual lecturing, are among my habits, and are kind of a "zero" for me as a performer--that is, they're my starting place. So I started writing rants. I can say fairly at this point that I've written two full-on rants, and they both lack polish. One of them was my routine for my first standup outing, back in October. Tonight, for the thing about insomnia, I tried to dial back the rant a little and do the self-deprecation routine, although the rant vibe creeps in a little. Jim Gaffney said he thought it had a lot more articulate setup/punchline structure than my first one, which I'll take as a compliment, because I worked way harder on that aspect of this one. And I'll do the Insomnia material again soon, because I think it might have legs. It's worth memorizing and trying again, in any case.
What's not surprising is that I worked on the routine for probably four hours today, and might have gotten all of three minutes out of it. I'll need to spend another hour at least on just what is already written--it seems like the writing process and the rehearsal process get really mixed up for standups--and maybe the ratio of five hours to three minutes is actually a really lucky one. I could see it taking longer.
My understanding is that Seinfeld built his empire by having the iron-clad discipline of writing for a single hour every day. Maybe more than that, but certainly no less. And I don't know that I have an hour every day to devote to just writing standup right now, when I really need to be focused on Jonah and Ferdinand. But it will be interesting to see how it rolls out.
The Bovine is not a painful place to play. The silences there are just as deadly as they are anywhere, but the audience is not mean. So it's really been pretty easy, so far. It will get harder, I'm sure.
Finally, to end this messy post: my two favorite standups, growing up, were Steve Martin and Steven Wright. They were both so loopy and comfortable with nonsense. Martin might have been the closest thing to actual Clown that we've seen in standup in the last 40 years. I don't know how to try to work like either of them without just imitating them. And I'm jsut barely starting to realize that the rant position is the safe position, and there's almost certainly something more daring, more imaginative and more funny out there for me to do. So I'm writing this just to put that out there. How can I take on their playful spirits while still just being myself?