Wednesday 29 July 2009

How to measure a great comedian

There are many times that I wish to express my opinions in text regarding a certain style, technique or even performer but I find myself hesistant to do so. This is not due to a lack of conviction or a fear of reprisal but, rather, because of the slippery nature of the beast that is comedy. The question is, how can one make a valid appraisal of anything in stand-up when it seems implicit that it is all completely subjective? Is there any one criteria that can be used to measure the merits of a comedian or the techniques they use?

It would be valuable to consider a few possible candidates, namely originality, conviction, laughter and popularity.

Originality - Most particularly among comedians, originality is a most frequently used yardstick. This method of measure is also frequently used by reviewers, the general public and makes an appearance on the score-cards at every comedy competition. The problem with originality is it is both situational and non-qualitative. What seems original in one room in one town may appear completely derivative in another and by the time we find something that is completely original in all domains we are most likely to discover that it's obscurity should probably be maintained for the benefit of crowds everywhere. This brings up the obvious fact that originality can come in the broadest measures of quality - some is inspiring and hilarious while a large measure of originality could better be labeled as oblivous self-indulgence.

Conviction - This beast is worthy of consideration but can be dispatched swiftly in our current survey. Conviction both subtle and bombastic can provide the firmest and most genuine footing for a comedic performance but even more than originality it is a breeding ground for the most arrogant and empty of performances as well.

Laughter - Well, this is the one, isn't it? This is what so many people claim is the ultimate arbiter of stand-up. But it's not, and for too many reasons to be covered adequately here but I will take a stab at a few. To begin with, laughter is only one point on the spectrum of enjoyment and amusement that an audience can experience. On a laugh per minute scale the highest scores would be usually be made by impressionists, high energy prop acts, shock comics and the like, none of whom are destined to end up in any kind of pantheon of comedy. Acts such as Bill Cosby, Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks would be labeled as mediocre on a good day. Also, one has to consider where are we and who is doing the laughing? Certain acts are unbeatable on their own turf in terms of sheer laugh volume but the show doesn't translate past the county line. In addition laughter is a nervous condition that can be induced by many things that don't rank as great humour; shock and the artless violation of taboos are just two such examples.

Popularity Is the customer always right? In short... no. There are many ways to acheive a measure of success in show business and while talent is among them it certainly is far from the only way. If a 3rd rate comedian gets a small but memorable part in a hit movie, they become a headline act overnight. In fact a celebrity with no stage experience or material at all can hire a writer and instantly become a bigger draw than a talented and experienced (and original) comedian.

So what is the answer? Well, the easy answer is that a good comedian provides a balanced mix of all the above factors as well as a few others. There is, I feel, more to it than that. I think there are certain more nebulous criteria that define a truly great comedian and I will leave those for a later date...... I don't want to go over my time.

Sunday 26 July 2009

the new stand-ups


My apologies for a protracted absence. I will be digging into a series of articles on stand-up and some on humor theory - stay tuned. In the meantime I am interested in finding out who people think the best new stand-up comedian of the past five years is? Please to put a link to video if possible and give some specific reasons for your choice - "they're funny" doesn't count.

'til soon

Wednesday 27 May 2009

How to begin to promote your act

You've been doing comedy for a few years and have managed to put together a half hour set that seems to succeed more frequently than it fails but how can you get further ahead and move past working at the same venues over and over again? Obviously the answers depend on a few things including what style you are working with and what type of venues you want to play but there are some basics that are useful for almost everyone.

1 - good headshots -- b/w and color --- digital, though a few hardcopy are a good idea as well

2 - a one-page - something with a little bit of design flair that lists the best places you've played, positive quotes about your act, companies you've worked for, and any respected and/or celebrity comedians you may have worked with ---- credits, basically.

3 - an online presence of some kind is useful but not absolutely essential beyond one good Youtube clip

4 - video - film a 1/2 hour set at the best venue you can get --- you don't need to mess around with multi-camera set-ups etc. just get a good venue with a good crowd. You'll want a copy of the full length set for comedy club agents and then edit out the highlights and have a separate demo of them for the others - put the best one or two on youtube. Do as clean a set as is comfortable for you as it gives you more flexibility - unless, of course, edge is the essence of your act.

For the local agents/clubs try to drop them off in person and have a coffee with the agent/owner involved - get to know them a little - having a reference/introduction from another comedian always makes things much easier. Lists of agents and clubs across the country are easily available online, send both hardcopy and e-mail to the ones that you think will fit you best. Also, make sure you have a showcase set that you can perform for any agents, managers, festival co-ordinators etc. - a five minute set that can easily be shortened or lengthened and emphasizes originality.

I hope this is helpful let me know if you have any questions ...

thanks Chris

Monday 27 April 2009

How to get on stage for the first time

When people take my stand-up workshops they often talk about what a great fear they have about doing stand-up. The fear of public speaking and stage-fright in general are broad subjects but in terms of bridging that initial gap and actually putting yourself on stage I would like to provide something of a roadmap to anyone who is interested. The first key to this process is demystifying it; break it down into a few tangible elements. There are three main areas that you can put time and effort into that will ease you into your first stand-up performance that much more comfortably: construction, delivery and situation.

1 – Construction --- Put together your material in advance – you will probably be doing a five minute set so put together the right amount of material and really get to know it. I say get to know it rather than memorize it because the process of word for word memorization can tie people up. If you have a style like Steven Wright you will have to do quite a bit of memorization but most styles are more flexible. In the time immediately before you go on stage refer a list of the subjects you are going to talk about( eg: drinking, Christmas, dieting, Mexico) rather than a total script. Putting together material is too broad a subject for me to cover in detail here but remember:

a - you should be doing material because you think it’s funny, not just because you think a crowd might laugh at it.

b – to go through and edit your material several times – go through it sentence by sentence and determine "is this part essential to understanding the bit?" and " is it funny?" If it is neither…. Get rid of it! Keep things trim.

Once you have put together some material, edited out the non-essential parts and feel you can remember it all you are on the way.

2 – Delivery --- In comedy, how you say things can sometimes be more important than what you are actually saying. Try to take note of what things define the way you speak and what people find amusing. You can work on delivery in casual conversations. If you have a subject you want to do some comedy on, talk with people about it – not necessarily as “a comedy piece” but just as a normal topic of conversation. Get comfortable on the topic, how you like to speak about it and what seems to amuse people. If you are inclined to doing voices, acting things out, telling stories, using facial expressions etc. pay attention to yourself when you are doing them and remember that you will probably have license to really use them on stage. So figure out some of the characteristics that you have and start getting control of them.

3 – Situation --- Take control of the situation that comedy takes place in so it doesn’t take control of you. In a general sense, you should seize any opportunity you have that involves standing up and speaking to a group of people, if there is a microphone and lights involved, even better. This doesn’t have to involve any comedy at all, it is more about being comfortable in front of a group of people, holding their attention, using a microphone, having lights on you etc. etc. In the specific, you should go and see some live comedy shows, figure out which venue you might be able to perform in and get to know it. Get to know the people who organize the comedy show, get to know what type of crowds go there, meet some of the comedians, get to know how they perform and ask their advice, most are happy to give it.

Know what you are going to do, how you are going to do it and the situation that you will be in – it’s that simple. If you pay attention to these things you’ll be far more comfortable on that stage when you finally get there – and, I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about the process in the meantime – good luck and….. enjoy!!

Saturday 11 April 2009

Which audience is the most important?

When you are onstage performing there are various audiences to consider. Here are the main ones you have to deal with on a regular basis.

1 - The crowd
2 - Yourself
3 - The owner/manager
4 - The other comedians
5 - The objective third eye

So, who is the most important of these 5? Who should you play to and cater to? As with so many things in stand-up there is no one answer. Many people would reflexively say "the crowd" that's what you are there to do; keep that crowd happy. To my thinking this idea is incorrect at the most fundamental level. A good comedian should predicate their act not on what they think the crowd wants but on making the most of their own approach to comedy. You shouldn't try and find things you think a crowd will like, you should work on what you think is funny and then figure out how to make it work with your crowds. Aside from the root-level problem the crowd is problematic as the ultimate arbiter because one has to play many different types of crowds - sometimes to keep a bunch of small town drunks happy requires that you degrade your own performance and if you do that on a regular basis inevitably your act will suffer over the long haul.

Playing entirely for yourself also has certain dangers. It is certainly a brave approach and can lead to a more confident and experimental style but treading the line between that and becoming a self-rightous and self-indulgent comic must be done with great caution. It is important to assert yourself and your own style and sometimes that will mean swimming against the current but to make a habit of depriving your act of empathy will serve only to poison your act and yourself. Play to yourself, but don't make a habit of doing it at the expense of your crowd, or you become a risk for any booker to hire

The bookers, agents and other comedians are the very specific audience at the back of the rom and it's tough to ignore them. Sometimes, you don't want to ignore them. In a showcase situation, be aware of what they want to see and try to show them the side of you that fits the bill - another situation where just going for laughs won't always serve you well. When it comes to this particular set of viewers, you can usually score some extra points with a few occasional lines which are designed to please them without alienating the crowd too much - it's fairly easy to do. "Playing to the back of the room" can be fun in bursts but unless you are a well-established headline act it's inadvisable to completely direct your show that way: it's easy for the rebel to become the causeless martyr.

My personal favourite is the third eye. That independant, objective third eye. Imagine that the show you are doing is being recorded and watched far in the future by a wise unbiased judge who is able to simply see how well (or badly) you have constructed and peformed your comedy. How does it stack up in the big picture? Did you lose the crowd part-way through but ultimately deliver a well crafted performance that was a step forward in your own creative evolution? This sounds so perfect, but pandering to perfection can damage your realities. You can entertain that third eye but have the crowd and the bar owner completely turned off, so you have to weigh your options. In the end, it's a mixture of all these audiences that should motivate you and hopefully attempting to achieve a balance is an enjoyable process.

Friday 3 April 2009

The Comedy Addicts

Comedy is the only profession I know where the work is the easiest part of the job. I don't know any comedians who don't truly enjoy the time they spend on stage. Even the beginners who experience paralysing fear still get more positive than negative from their time behind the microphone. Comedians are quite simply addicted to performing, that is why most major cities have venues with comedy shows where comedians, both amateur and professional, jockey for the glittering prize of being allowed to work without pay beyond a free drink or two. Some are working on new material but others are wearing down old material smoother than river rock. Some are trying to fill a social void, and others are leaving behind frustrated spouses and unfulfilled commitments.

The venues involved in this wholesale giveaway of comedy talent are typically nothing you would expect a performer to covet: sports bars with a hundred flickering televisions or coffee shops where the crowds and the Columbian are equally lukewarm and thin. To be fair there are also well run, ambitious little gigs that boast a heart of regulars and a great space to do seven minutes without the constraints that money gigs can bring. Regardless of the quality of the venue, as long as the management has no complaints and some patient soul remains willing to donate their time and effort into organization the gig will continue. Sometimes long after it should have been allowed to die with dignity.

It is a peculiar mixture of ego, art and adrenaline that keeps the comedian's enthusiasm unbridled and while the public demand for live stand-up will ebb and flow, nothing will, it seems, diminish the supply or the needs of the stand-up comedy addicts.

Friday 20 March 2009

The book: A place for your comedy material to live

Interestingly enough, writing stand-up comedy involves actually putting pen to paper or, at least, fingers to keyboard. Typing out your material does have certain advantages in terms of organization and editing but using the pen at some point near it's inception is often pretty much essential to capture the idea while it’s still moving. It’s also a good idea to have your material somewhere nearby when you are working so you can refresh your memory, plan your setlist etc. which is generally better done on paper. It is possible to get by with notes written on scraps of paper that you transfer to a book later on but that transfer is key as scraps get lost and often provide an insufficient writing space. Bottom line: GET A BOOK!

To a certain degree the type of book that you use is a matter of personal preference. I tend to use a book that is a few steps up from the average scratch pad or notebook. Something with a hard durable cover that can stand up well to the abuse dished out by the many environments it will likely travel to. It is my experience that if you have a comedy book that you like by itself as “a book” - it not only gives a little more importance to what you put in it but makes it less likely to be thrown away by someone because it looked like a cheap notebook full of scribble. Tiny notebooks are useful because they are back pocket portable, but they are also harder to write in and easier to lose.

Inside your comedy book is your domain – write however you want to write: doodle, draw pictures, write clearly or scribble, as long as you can read it later and get a clear idea of the idea you originally had. Try to ensure that when you come up with an idea you capture enough of it to put the idea across later – few things are more frustrating than seeing a random word or phrase and having no idea what you were thinking of at the time-

I am not the most organizational person but I try to put my new ideas and material in the front of my book and a list of buzzwords for the contents in the back. Having a couple of setlists in the back isn’t a bad idea either if you’re inclined to use setlists.

One of the reasons to buy a good quality book is that you’ll be keeping them around for a while. Try to take a look back at the old ones once in a while to refresh your memory- ideas can get altered, reduced or forgotten. Sometimes, ideas that initially seemed weak can be spun into something great further down the line, used as throwaways, or connected with material written later down the road. Remember to write down your name and contact information in the front of your book preceded by “If found, please return to” – it can save you a lot of hassle one day.

Even though it is a book for comedy material, that doesn’t mean that everything in it has to be comedy material. Material is formed from all types of ideas, observations and attitudes; they don’t all start as actual comedy so fill your book with all kinds of things. Things you find unusual, interesting, character sketches, events, put them all in and see what they eventually turn into. Even if they never make it into they show you still have a large number of things that are interesting to you by definition.