Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Personal Stuff: When comedy hits close to home

Every comedian... well, every good comedian goes through stages in their comedy. The type of comedian you are when you first start out is bound to change the longer you stay in comedy.

You have to admit, it's pretty daunting to get on stage and talk endlessly about random subjects that your audience may or may not relate to. The process of getting on stage, hearing your own voice (personally, I hate the sound of my own voice), feeling comfortable enough to speak to strangers, and hoping to stir up laughter is not easy. But once you get past that, well, I want to say that the journey is over--but it isn't.

I see comedy in three stages--"The three stages to becoming great":

Novice: (2 - 5 years of regular time on stage) You know what you sound like. You're comfortable with commenting on that outer sphere of life (your job, politics, standing in line at Starbucks). This stage is basically the observational part of life you take part in, but aren't super-invested in--emotionally speaking.

Comedian: (5 - 7 years of regular stage time) At this point, you've probably made comedy a career (in that you're getting paid for it). This is a difficult stage because many people who have been in it for this long, don't recognize that they still have more "growing" to do. And by growing, that means they can change and still mature into themselves. They can, but will they? Whenever there's changing to do, there's always an investment in time of humbling yourself enough to learn again---making mistakes, a lowering of the pride and ego, and realization that you are a flawed individual in your craft. I mean, think about it. You've been at your job 5-7 years and you think you have all the kinks worked out, so much that it's become routine. But if someone were to come to your place of work and point out that you still have some changing to do, then you would have some stages of emotional growth to go through probably resembling the K├╝bler-Ross model "stages of grief": Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, etc.

Master:(10 years + of stage time) This is the point every one wants to reach, where you can joke about truth. More particularly, your truth--the stuff you only talk to a therapist about: When your wife left you, that car accident you got into, terminal illness, etc. The stuff that you experienced first hand and it wasn't easy. but you can still joke about it. This stage is so distinct, few people ever reach it. It's a scary place once you've arrived. You risk alienating your audience with your personal story, because for the first time, perhaps they don't relate.

Clear example: Richard Pryor jokes about setting his hair on fire while trying to freebase cocaine. If that's not personal, I don't know what is. Listen to the routine below:

The time and years on stage aren't hard and fast rules. I only give an amount of time to give you, the reader, a vague idea. What's important is the maturity level--the emotional level that the comedian can reach. And believe me, it's a reach! After all, people say men and women mature at differing rates. Women seem to pick up on this faster and earlier than men do. Also, if you start doing stand-up comedy in your late teens and early 20s, you're bound to change perspective in your thirties. And that change is probably going to be a drastic one. Your comedy follows your life. That makes sense because in comedy you're taking cues from your own life, and only when it smacks you upside the head, do you perhaps pay attention and write down a premise on the back of a napkin while at the local diner. Just be sure to not to lose the napkin!

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Zathyn Priest said...

'Daunting' would be an understatement, there's not a chance this side of the universe anyone would get me on stage in front of an audience! I think comedy would be one of the most difficult area of the arts and I admire anyone who can do it.


Jenny Wynter said...

Hey there, wicked blog! So glad I've stumbled across it!

I really hope that I NEVER get to a point where I feel like I can't learn any more or keep growing. I think that's part of what I love about stand-up, the challenge of always stretching and striving to be better.

Great to meet you, in cyberspace at least. :-)

mikster said...

No doubt a person's perspective on comedy changes as the older they get. Things I find funny now weren't quite as funny 20 years ago, or as accepted.

Steven K said...

I'm actually getting over a small case of bronchitis (I'd like to think it wasn't from the biking), but I suppose I may have not been doing as much shivering as I should have at some point there.

I've thought about trying stand-up from time to time, but feel at the end of the day my life is just too "normal." Therefore, that last and final stage you speak of in the blog you posted on the growth of a comedian, that, I would never make it there. The personal life is just too straight laced.

karooch (from Scraps of Mind) said...

Whilst I always thought that doing comedy would be a nerve wracking experience I never realised the levels of complexity of it. Thank Lucy. I appreciate the insight. said...


This is a very important post. I've always been aware of the connection between comedy and tragedy. Shakespeare's work was a lot about that. I'm aware that, physiologically, laughter and crying are very similar. In sex, the line between pleasure and pain can be blurry. I think comedy is not as separate from pain as many people would have us believe.

I remember listening to a radio interview a little while back with a man who had, I believe, multiple sclerosis. He was a comedian and worked that into his routine. He discovered that some people were offended because they thought he was trying to make fun of people with MS, not realizing he himself had MS.

Divinyl said...

It's something I certainly wouldn't be brave enough to do! I can barely do karaoke (even with beverages to assist) without my knees trembling so much that I fall over! And that doesn't require laughter! :o)