Standup Comedy Nerd Out: Writing Off Stage

Andy Sandford

A lot of comedians consider stand up comedy to be an art form. Other comics scoff at the term “art form.” I am pretty ambivalent about the whole thing myself. Seems like semantics to me. I don’t think it is that important that the general public consider stand up to be lumped in with “art” because a lot of the arts take themselves way too seriously. Also, it seems like many comics who consider themselves artists approach stand up with a vague sort of anti-analysis, let-the-jokes-grow-organically mantra. I can’t get on board with the idea that you can get really good at something by only thinking about it while you’re doing it. 

I don’t want to come off wrong here: I am not some kind of comedy-by-numbers guy, but I am a huge proponent of using your time off-stage to make your time on stage more productive.

From what i can tell, newer comics like to take the term “writing on stage” too literally. It is a waste of time to make yourself pull a premise out of your ass in the hopes that the pressure to say *something* will somehow bring out the comedic genius in you. It can happen, but usually doesn’t. Having only a topic in mind and no angle will most likely lead to a pedestrian premise. Obviously if you are thinking out loud, then the first thing you say will be the first thing you thought of, which is probably the first thing most people would think of. You don’t need an audience to decide what you’re trying to say. Writing on stage is kinda pointless without a blueprint. If you are on your back from the get-go, trying to make a point that you yourself just realized you’re making; then you are going to be far from concise and the audience will be struggling to understand you as much as you’re struggling to be understood. Lazy comics convince themselves that their creative process doesn’t involve anything stressful. 

One lazy mindset that a ton of comics fall into is this notion that joke writing should never be “forced.” they don’t “sit down and write at a certain time,” and instead, “write it down when it comes to them.” People hate hearing that this is bullshit. I understand it is easy to believe this is a process, because even if you don’t really put in an effort, something will hit you over the head every so often. But acting like that is your “process” is like a swimmer training for the olympics by treading water here and there. Writing is a muscle, it has to be worked out often. If you only write when something comes to you, you can only make it as good as your flabby writing muscle allows. Sitting down to write does not mean writing jokes about things that don’t matter to you. When you sit yourself down for a good hour and really mine your brain for premises, or go over premises you’ve jotted down and figure out what angles you can take; you realize you’ve just been skimming the curd and neglecting the cheese.

I realize this could come off as me criticizing the way other people approach stand up just because it isn’t my way; that’s not my intention.  I’m just pointing out the path of least resistance doesn’t go very far. It took me a couple years to realize i needed to make myself sit down every day and vet everything I can. It helped me immensely, and i don’t think I’m unique in that regard.

Why The Internet Is Not Your Friend But Rather Your Shitty Co-Worker You Don’t Respect

  • The internet loves to talk shit about people
  • It loves to corner you on Monday and tell you why The Walking Dead is “Best. Show. Ever.”
  • It loves showing you pictures of cats.
  • It thinks mustaches are funny.
  • It loves to talk about its “socially liberal; fiscally conservative” views.
  • It’s not really a “reader”
  • It will say something sarcastic followed by “- said no one ever!”
  • It blogs 
  • It takes itself very very seriously.
  • Desperately wants you to think it’s smart and cool.

David Letterman: The Last Grownup In Comedy

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Excerpt from New York Magazine Article (Peter W. Kaplan, Sept. 2009)

Somehow, without anyone looking, David Letterman has superseded the usual TV categories of comic, or talk-show host, or broadcaster. He paces the stage at night worrying about the Afghan-election recount and generally free-associating about the flies and vultures flapping around in his head. His nightly broadcast from Broadway has become a weird and great American entity unto itself, a blurred throwback, an amalgam of the tradition he came from: Johnny Carson, Edward Murrow, Jack Paar. And the most middle-American of talk-show hosts has become the most New York–centric.

He is also an increasingly interesting human being who has absorbed, not evaded, events and recorded, not denied, human experience.

Craggy, bewildered, irascible Dave, with his gray crew cut, designer suits, and white socks—a nightly mind-blowing image in HDTV—has become a persona, a distinctive agglomeration of character traits, even more than his idol Johnny Carson, much more like Carson’s own idol, Jack Benny. His monologues are indifferent as one-liners and jokes, but the character who delivers them is one memorable American. He can reel off dozens of Obama jokes and McCain jokes and Paris Hilton jokes, but it is when Letterman begins to invert and mutter, when his personal neuroses and raw wounds are inflamed by the assaults of everyday life—and whose aren’t?—that is when he becomes something more than a good comedian and something like the scarred protagonist of his own comic novel—a bewildered, gutty mid-lifer at the crash intersection of American culture.

In 1895, Mark Twain, another dapper crabapple discoursing on politics and society, prepared a worldwide lecture tour that he began in New York City—actually using inmates at Randalls Island House of Refuge as his warm-up audience. A little like Letterman complaining about Oprah and Obama, in a modern nod to the coming new century, he planned to put up photos of all the celebrities who had decided not to show at his first lecture: General Sherman, General Lee, Gladstone, and Disraeli. “Every one of these illustrious men was sorry, and sent regrets; even lamentations.”

Then the speech went: “As soon as a man recognizes that he has drifted into age, he gets reminiscent. He wants to talk and talk; and not about the present or the future, but about his old times. For there is where the pathos of his life lies—and the charm of it.”

David Letterman has hit the part of life where he wants to talk and talk. But he seems to be still speaking of the present and the future. He is 62 and has chosen not to drift but to floor it, a boy of autumn, Huck Finn in September, the last American codger, the crabby voice of American reason, heedless, uncompromising, and driven. Long may he chortle.

Life Update

I would like to apologize to my friends and family who I will never see again.

I am currently driving behind a Prius with a Korn bumper sticker so naturally I have to follow this person for the rest of their natural life and binge watch what I can only assume is the the most fascinating spiritual journey in the history of man. 

I’m sure you all understand.

Love, 

Bill