#WritingWednesday What Can We Learn from Standup?

The other day I began watching Pete Holmes' comedy special Faces and Sounds on HBO. Sometimes I will play something in the background as sound to mask other, the more distracting central air, refrigerator, and old house noises. Pete Holmes quickly had my full attention. His incredible facial reactions and self-deprecating humour won me over. Something that is unique about his special in this era of Chappelle, Silverman, Minaj, Maron, Hart, Schumer ... and that is how clean his comedy was. I love shock controversy, I love comedy, but sometimes it's refreshing to find laughter in something that doesn't require me to throw my relatives out of the room beforehand. 

Something He Said Stayed With Me:

"I'm a silly, silly fun boy, right?"

Well, that was so adorable I perked up and stopped working in order to listen.

"And one of the reasons is I've recalibrated my brain to reward me for the things I am doing, not the things I could be doing. And that's what I think you should do, that's one of the keys to happiness, love yourself for the things you are doing, not the things you could be doing [....] I don't mess with my joy quota [....] you gotta keep an eye on your joy quota"

This got me thinking about my own "joy quota." When do I intentionally gift myself moments of pleasure with intention and fully experiencing them in order to make a deposit into my joy account and truly allowing myself to laugh or feel joyful.

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I sat down and tried to come up with a few:

  • Getting silly with my husband and giggling until my face hurts
  • My father-in-law's deceptively outrageous sense of humour
  • Shuffling my bare feet through carpet
  • Listening to this guy's ridiculous laugh (at 1:08:48)
  • Sitting in a hot tub, or better yet, attending a traditional Korean bath/spa
  • Creating art with my hands
  • Stretching in bed following a rare, long, deep sleep
  • Reading for pleasure
  • Listening to the 2 Dope Queens podcast
  • Standup comedy by Aparna Nancherla and Issa Rae
  • Thomas Haden Church in Divorce
  • Stephen Merchant in Hello Ladies
  • Pete Holmes in Crashing
  • Eugene Levy, his son Dan Levy, and Catherine O'Hara in Schitt's Creek

I love looking at these photos because I don't often get to see myself in the midst of experiencing joy. Not a posed selfie representation, but being captured in the midst of a spontaneous reaction. It reminds me that the right people bring out the best in me.

 

Standup comedy has a lot to teach writers of all persuasions. Most comedians are writers first and foremost, sweating over the wording of each joke in preparation for bringing those jokes to the stage and utilising body language, pace, pauses, pitch, inflection, emphasis, and a range of public speaking skills to connect with the audience and create a performance.

Comedians train themselves to be observers and writers - both requiring attention to detail. They typically look to their own experiences and interactions as raw material. They listen closely to how people speak in real life and record dialogue to use later. They understand that simply changing the order that information is given or the order of words will change something from an anecdote to an act.

Comedians must also understand human behaviour. In observing the world around them, in crafting their jokes, and in connecting with their audiences their comedy is only as good as their ability to "get it". Is anything as immediate as the feedback one gets from a set in front of an audience? While I have never done a standup as a comedian, in the course of MCing I have written and performed sets designed to elicit laughter. It can really be hit or miss at times, a joke that I have been gloating over is met with silence in the room. Something I throw out there off the top of my head requires me to pause and wait for the laughter to die down. Even in the course of conversation, notice what seems to just "work."

Comedy is about understanding the mechanics of what makes something funny in that language, which also incorporates an understanding of cultural and contextual nuance. Moroccan-French Comedian Gad Elmaleh is a celebrity in Europe who played to sold-out arena shows. Growing up in Morroco, Elmaleh speaks Arabic, French, and Hebrew. He decided to create a career in America, in English, which meant starting over.

Elmaleh made a film "10 Minutes in America," documenting his experience. The film explores how comedy doesn't translate, it is much more than simply transferring each word into the new language, jokes must be crafted from the ground up.

Comedians Must Have Deep Knowledge of: 

  • Language - including puns, turns of phrase, and the mechanics of what makes something funny
  • Body language and facial expressions
  • Verbal gesticulations - a well-placed sound can put an audience in stitches
  • Cultural sensibilities - including cliches and stereotypes
  • Specific audience - the community, the venue, the night

Writing Practice

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A. Exercise 1:

This week, listen and/or watch some comedians and play close attention to their set-ups and wording. Better yet, compare a comedian telling the same joke during a different performance. Notice how the order of words are changed in order to become more effective jokes or how segues evolve to better introduce the new subject matter.

B. Exercise 2:

  1. Pick a short personal story that you like or have told to friends and family.
  2. Write it out, aiming for around 250 words.
  3. Now use 100 words to tell the story.
  4. Then tell it in 50 words.
  5. Now 25 words. 
  6. Write it using 140 characters.

Achieving a full stand-up routine is so difficult because a successful set is so condensed. Amateur comedians (and writers) often have extraneous detail that derails the joke, lowers the energy, or occludes the narrative. Learning to generate material and then filter and compress it is a powerful skill. Learning to be concise and to choose each word for its ability to convey meaning will transform your writing. 

C. Exercise 3:

Pick a story out of the newspaper and cast yourself in the story. For example, a government turns into a metaphor for a dysfunctional family, a silly local incident becomes something your cousin did, an episode involving a celebrity mirrors something you have done. Do not try to be funny, just go for 10.

 

Further Resources

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