On the writing of stand-up comedy

Stand-up comedy is an amazing art form to me. The boiled-down, solitary nature of it. Getting up on a stage with nothing but a mic and a few minutes of material between you and an audience seems a very brave and dangerous way to perform. And I think it’s this riskiness and pureness that makes stand-up one of my favorite forms of entertainment.

I’ve fantasized about trying it myself. I think, with practice, I could develop some semblance of a stage presence (I haven’t always been so thoroughly an introvert; that facet of my personality has been carefully cultivated). But performance, that’s only the most outward facing part of what makes up an act. You need good material in order to pull it off. You have to not only act funny…you’ve got to think funny, too.

Now, I’ve tried my hand at writing material, but nothing seems to come. The way good comics appear to pull these funny stories and observations out of the air…it amazes me. I do know, after watching shows like Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedian, that it’s not a spontaneous thing. It takes a practiced and honed nose for what’s funny. And then it often takes many performances and run-throughs to chisel off the sharp corners and smooth the rough spots. Like any type of writing, funny stuff doesn’t just spring forth from the mind of a comedian and make it up to the stage in perfect hi-larious form.

For someone without Comedy Central on his TV (for several very good reasons), stand-up comedy’s been in on my radar quite a bit so far this summer. My bestest and only favorite reality show, Last Comic Standing has been fun to watch. And earlier this month, as every one has likely heard, George Carlin died.

I really enjoy Last Comic Standing because you not only get to see how the good stuff works, you get to compare and contrast the successful with the not-so-successful (and you close your eyes and think of England when the really stinky people get their few minutes). I’m looking forward to later in the season when we’ll get to see more than just a few quick cuts of each performer, but it’s amazing how much you get from a quick 30 second clip.

Jay Dixit from Psychology Today was given a much deeper look into the mind of a master comic with an interview he conducted with George Carlin on June 13th, 2008 (about 10 days before he died). This is a terrific interview. Dixit spends sometime talking about where Carlin came from, how he grew up and how that might have impacted what he developed into, and about his attitude toward the audience and people in general. But what was more interesting to me was the time that’s spent talking about the comic’s method of writing, collecting experiences and information, and how he organizes and uses that material to develop new material.

As always, I read this sort of thing and try to work it in to the type of work that I do. And I think I do a lot of the same things that Carlin does as far as keeping an eye out for something that’s funny or that has potential to be great material. But I tend not to keep it in a static physical form. I find it to ultimately be too limiting in its concreteness.

I let my subconscious take it in and run it through whatever idea laundering service it’s got set up. When at the keyboard, I trust my subconscious to feed me the material. Whatever’s bubbled to the surface at the time is what I have to work with. And sometimes it’s not even recognizable as the original source material. But it works. Except when I’m tired. When I’m tired, I show up at the door of my subconscious and the CLOSED sign is in the window.

George Carlin’s Last Interview

Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedian