Posts Tagged ‘Stand Up Comedy’

Comedian Kathy Griffin is back in the news. A few days ago she posed with a mock severed head of Donald Trump covered with fake blood.

From Griffin, this isn’t terribly surprising; on a New Year’s Eve several years ago I channel surfed to CNN’s live Times Square broadcast just in time to see Griffin direct a hoary stand-up putdown to a heckler (this is paraphrased, but close): “Hey! I’m trying to work! I wouldn’t come to your workplace and knock the cocks out of your mouth!”

Once the photo hit the ‘net, the denunciations thundered down from all sides: from CNN (which axed her from their New Years’ Eve broadcast), to 37-year-old spoiled brat Chelsea Clinton, to Trump himself. The reasons for the outrage were what you’d expect: the photo was vulgar, tasteless, “over the line,” disrespectful of the presidency, and disrespectful of Trump as a human being.

My reaction was a bit different: This seems like a stupid thing to post; it seems like she’s doing Trump and his minions a favor. What’s the point? Is there one?

Then I wondered about the context. What was it? Well, it turns out that Griffin was doing a photo shoot, and posed with the mock severed head as a comment on Trump’s disgusting, misogynistic remarks about Fox News host Megyn Kelly: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

But that’s still not a good enough reason to pose for that photo, even if Griffin had made the context obvious. That, at best, would have made the photo an expression of anger and contempt.

Why isn’t that sufficient justification for shooting and posting it? If Griffin was just an Internet troll, fine, whatever. But Griffin is a well known comedian, and if a comedian is going to use a shocking image it should at least be funny, and ideally be both funny and thought provoking.

Many of the best comedians — in days past, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, and currently Dave Chappelle, Louis CK, Bill Maher, Jim Jeffries, and Doug Stanhope — routinely “cross the line,” routinely use vulgar, deliberately offensive language and imagery; others, notably Steven Colbert, Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee, and Seth Myers, use shocking language and imagery occasionally.

(If you want your comedy to lull you to sleep, comedy that stirs up no disturbing thoughts whatsoever, you’ll always have your Jerry Seinfelds, Jay Lenos, Jeff Foxworthys, and Bill Cosbys, comics with either nothing to say or who drastically pull their punches.)

What sets the work of Carlin, Hicks, Jeffries, et al. apart from the Griffin photo? Their use of shock and vulgarity is oftentimes funny and almost always thought provoking.

The Griffin-Trump photo is neither.

It isn’t funny, it doesn’t make a point, and it allowed the Whiner in Chief to whine — and this time with some justification. Kathy Griffin did Donald Trump a favor.

In the end, the only funny line (that I’ve seen) about the matter was delivered by an anonymous TMZ headline writer: “Kathy Griffin Beheads President Trump: I Support Gore.”

We just put up our 1,000th post —  this  is number 1,003 — a few days ago. We’re now looking through everything we’ve posted, and are putting up “best of” lists in our most popular categories.

This is the third of our first-1,000 “best of” lists. We’ve already posted the Science Fiction “best of” and the Addictions “best of” lists, and will shortly be putting up other “best ofs” in several other categories, including Anarchism, Atheism, Economics, Humor, Music, Politics, Religion, Science, and Skepticism.

Best Interviews

Comedian Eric WongEric Wong is responsible for the very popular humor blog, Notes from a Narcissist, which not incidentally is our favorite humor blog. Eric appears regularly on San Francisco comedy stages, and you can find a link to one of his stand-up routines here.

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S&P: Why did you decide to start doing standup, and how long have you been doing it?

EW: I always wanted to do stand-up, but always had excuses not to try it. My father was a huge comedy fan, so I was exposed to a lot of it at a young age. When I was in middle school I used to fall asleep to Jerry Seinfeld’s “I’m Telling You For The Last Time.” The decision to start came after quitting a terrible job and being unemployed for a few months trying to figure out what to do with an English degree. I have been doing stand-up for a little over two years, which isn’t very long at all, but I grew up doing theater, improv and music so performance has been in my life for a while.

S&P: How did you start? Open mikes?

EW: I wrote an experimental novella during the aforementioned bout of unemployment called “The Book of Dave.” In it, one of the characters writes out a stand-up bit for a shy friend to try. I wanted to make sure that the material would actually work as a piece of stand-up, so I went to an open mic and tried it. The bit went over really well, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

S&P: What do you like and what do you dislike about doing open mikes?

EW: It’s one of those things where the things you dislike are the things that you really should appreciate and value the most. It is easy to complain about an inattentive audience in a bar on a Tuesday, but really that is just a perfect situation to test how capitaving you can be as a performer. When you first start out, you play the hardest rooms imaginable. If you can thrive in an environment where all the odds are stacked against you, then by the time you do a real show, you’ll know how to handle yourself better.

S&P: What do you like best about doing standup?

EW: Making people laugh. The joke writing process in general is very rewarding, but there’s nothing quite like changing the way people think about a certain subject and having them be happy about it.

S&P: What else?

Being around other comics. It’s weird finally finding your “tribe” after a quarter century of feeling isolated. Also, I feel very comfortable on stage. It gives me a feeling of being at home.

S&P: What do you like least about it?

When a bombing comic lashes out at an audience for not laughing at their material.

S&P: What else do you dislike?

EW: This is just my personality, but I wish there was more of a structure to the stand-up landscape. Everyone is kind of out on their own, doing their own thing and at the end of the day there is no right or wrong way. It can be very chaotic, confusing and discouraging for a career path that is entirely self-driven. It’s also very free and liberating, which is good,
but being able to see, understand and appreciate that every day isn’t always easy.

S&P: How do you handle it when you bomb?

EW: I will wallow in self-pity for a few days, overthink every aspect of the performance, freak out about my entire existence, and then learn something. You have to be a Saiyan. Get stronger everytime you almost die.

S&P: How do you handle hecklers?

EW: Most of the time I just ignore it, or talk over them. If it gets really bad, I have a specific joke that works, but in general I don’t like being confrontational with the audience. You want to be on their side. Unless everyone hates a particular heckler, and the feeling is palpable throughout the room, you don’t want to risk derailing yourself to try to teach some
stranger an arbitrary lesson. Also, San Francisco has a lot of really smart, funny people. I’ve been at shows where crowd members outsmart the comics. You don’t want to be that guy.

S&P: What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever witnessed doing standup?

EW: There’s a comedian named Joe Bates in Chicago, who is a great stand-up in his own right, but from time to time does a set dressed as a robot.

S&P: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen doing standup?

EW: There’s this comedian named Joe Bates…

S&P: What advice would you have for anyone thinking about doing standup?

EW: Do it. The thing I hear most often is “What if I bomb?” You’re going to. It’s not the end of the world. No one cares. No one will remember a lackluster set from a first-timer. No one will be sitting around their office seven years from now saying, “Oh my gosh, I saw this terrible open mic comedian nearly a decade ago. Let me pull up the video I secretly took of him on YouTube and laugh at him with all of my friends! Hey Marsha, look at this guy! Isn’t he an asshole?? I’m so glad I can remember their first and last name after all these years!” That person doesn’t exist. Even if they do and that’s how they spend their time, they’re way more pathetic than you, and their opinion shouldn’t affect you. You’re chasing your dreams. You’re trying new things. You clearly have more going on for you than that imaginary mean Quizno’s employee.

EW: Also, don’t take stand-up classes. Just go do it. If you need to take a class to be funny, you’re probably not cut out for it. I think the idea of the “comedy college degree” in a higher education institution is ridiculous. Open mics are free. Beer is a cheaper, quicker, and more effective confidence booster than a graduate degree. Getting a degree in comedy will disappoint your parents. If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford college in this day and age *and *that serious about pursuing stand-up, take the tens of thousands of dollars you would be spending on tuitition, and use that to travel to different cities to actually do comedy.

S&P: Who are some of your favorite comics, and why?

EW: My favorite comedian is Emo Philips, just for his writing. But as far as today’s rising unknowns, one of my favorite comedians is a guy named Elvis Muljic. He travels around the country in a van, goes into bars, coffee shops, yoga studios, Hooters, really anywhere and just does these little spontaneous pop-up shows. Right now, I think he is in a waffle house in Atlanta.

S&P: You write for both “Notes from a Narcissist” and your standup act. What’s different about writing comedy that’s meant to be read versus writing comedy that’s meant to be performed in front of an audience?

EW: Very little. There are tweaks you make here and there. I’d say that with live performance, I probably add one or two lines in the set-up, just to establish the premise and cleanse the mental pallate from the last joke. Maybe during a show, I’ll do a little act-out to solidify everything. But when you write, you’re trying to develop a concept. If the
idea is good enough, it shouldn’t matter what form you put it in.

S&P: Do you just write when inspiration strikes, or do you have some sort of writing routine? If so, what is it?

I write everyday, but I don’t hold myself to any strict regimen. There are just guiding principles. Just “show up” and put in a few hours. I give myself permission to write terribly. My thinking is if you want to produce great writing, there has to be a large volume of awful writing to define that greatness. One thing I’ll do before trying to write a joke is write a
page or two of “I” sentences. This produces a bunch of whiny, self-absorbed nonsense and I can get it out of my system.

S&P: All of your recent posts have been short, essentially jokes. You used to write longer pieces for your blog? Is there any reason you stopped doing that?

EW: At the start, the blog was just supposed to be a diary. I posted very infrequently, and mostly did it because a self-help book I read suggested positive affirmations. This was around the same time I started doing stand-up. Then one day I took my dog to the vet and had a really weird, kinda bad experience. I got all riled up and planned out an insane Yelp
review. By the time I wrote it out and had fun with writing some jokes in it, I cooled off and realized that this wasn’t worth damaging the reputation of a local business. Instead of posting it on Yelp, I put it up on my blog. It got a good response from people and I realized that it was a good place to test out new material. I just never bothered to reformat
everything, or delete the old posts because the self-help book was trying to get me to accept all aspects of myself, and I’m very lazy. This I accept.

The overall shortening of length was also informed by a weird documentary about stand-up. It said the “industry standard” suggests that a headlining comedian should be getting laughs every 6-12 seconds, or twenty-five words. There are computer programs that will analyze a comedian’s set and tell you what percentage of time has laughter present. Headliners are supposed to score above thirty percent. I’m pretty sure all these measures were made during the 80’s comedy boom while consuming lots and lots of cocaine.
Regardless, I wanted to practice writing by those metrics, and became enamoured with the challenge of word economy. Really puts that minor in poetry to use.

In addition to that, I find the process of writing a joke more fun than writing a long personal story. It’s more of a logic game, and for me, it’s a great form of escapism. With a story, you have to convince people to care about who you are, which means you have to believe that you are someone worth caring about. I know “narcissist” is in the title of my blog, but I just don’t take myself that seriously. You don’t need to allocate brain space for my life story. I’d rather you memorize facts about science instead.

S&P: What advice would you have for new bloggers?

EW: Don’t take advice from people. Just be yourself and do exactly what you want. Don’t rob yourself of the learning opportunities inherent in errors. Embrace mistakes and grow from them.

“Let’s pretend for a moment that God exists.”

–Comedian Bob Goldthwait, in his stand-up special, “You Don’t Look the Same Either,”  on losing an audience during a performance in Utah

Cover for Stage Fright:40 Stars Tell You How You Can Beat America's #1 Fear

(Excerpted from Stage Fright: 40 Stars Tell You How They Beat America’s #1 Fear, by Mick Berry and Michael Edelstein, PhD. The book includes interviews with Jason Alexander, Maya Angelous, David Brenner, Olympia Dukakis, Melissa Etheridge, Ron Paul, and over 30 others.)

Larry “Bubbles” Brown is a San Francisco-based comedian. In first grade, while watching clouds at recess, he realized we are all going to die. He then lied in under the swings until the teachers brought him back to class and sent him home with a note.
His stand up career began at the Holy City Zoo in San Francisco in l98l, and he rode the comedy boom of the ‘80s. He explains it crashed because “anything in life you like will be taken away from you.” Brown stayed at it because “you can’t beat working half an hour a night.”

He has appeared on over 25 TV shows (three times on David Letterman), in the movie Kiterunner, in numerous clubs in California and Las Vegas, and frequently opens for Dana Carvey and Dave Attell. He holds the record for the longest gap (over 20 years) between appearances on Letterman.

He hopes to start a vegetarian minimalist pessimist movement. His philosophy of life: “Expect the worst and you will never be disappointed.”

MB: How long have you been performing?

LBB: Since March 3rd, 1981. It was a Tuesday. Absolutely true.

MB: What were the circumstances?

LBB: I always wanted to do stand-up, but I never thought I could. Then I heard about open mikes. So I started to hang out at The Punchline and the Holy City Zoo. I think I watched the open mikes for about a year. Then I finally put a few minutes of material together and I went up on March 3rd. The rest is history. A toboggan of failure.

MB: Tell me about the first time you were anxious or nervous on stage. What were the circumstances?

LBB: I just remember the first few months I did stand-up—I had a day job then—and I remember being so nervous about going on that night that I didn’t eat for the whole day. Then I came home after I did my set and ate like five pounds of food at midnight.

MB: So how did you feel? Can you elaborate on that?

LBB: I just remember feeling anxious until I did the set, then after I did it, it was a real relief.

MB: How anxious?

LBB: Not being able to eat. And I’d be thinking, “I’m going to be doing this for five minutes in twelve hours.” That’s all I could think about the whole day. In fact, I used to walk up to the Holy City Zoo on days I wasn’t performing, and I’d be nervous just being in the area.

MB: So what were you telling yourself? What were your thoughts?

LBB: Just “Please don’t bomb.” That was the big thing.

MB: So what was so bad about bombing? What were you telling yourself about that?

LBB: It’s like it is today. Although the first few times I went on stage I did pretty well. I don’t think I bombed until I got six weeks into it, and I remember how traumatic that was.

MB: What were your thoughts then?

LBB: Well, when you’re standing up in front of a bunch of people who are staring at you in silence, you look like a complete dork. And my humor tends to be somewhat personal, so I take that as a real personal rejection.

MB: How did your nervousness change as you continued to perform?

LBB: It just lessened. The more you do it, the more you get confidence.

MB: What were the circumstances when it lessened?

LBB: I don’t remember. I just remember before the end of the year [1981] I was actually able to have a meal before I went on stage. And keep it down.

MB: So how did you feel then?

LBB: It got to be kind of a good nervous. That was when the comedy boom was starting, so it was an exciting place to be around.

MB: So what were you telling yourself? What were your thoughts then?

LBB: After I started doing well, I thought, “Wow. It’s so cool to get paid to do a gig.” And after three years, I got to where I could quit the day job, and I actually made a living doing comedy.

MB: So were there any thoughts you were telling yourself that made you feel more excited than nauseous?

LBB: No, I think it was just doing it for a few months and getting over that initial horror of going on stage.

MB: Did you feel different?

LBB: When you do well, you feel pretty good. But when you bomb, you hate the world.

MB: So you hated the world. Did you ever get to where you weren’t hating the world?

LBB: No. I still hate the world to this day.

MB: [Laughs] Now come on.

LBB: These days, whether I bomb or kill, I still hate the world.

MB: Do you get nervous when you perform now?

LBB: No, it’s like bombing is just really uncomfortable. You can’t wait to get off stage. But it doesn’t have the same effect it did twenty years ago. Same with killing too.

MB: So rather than being horrible . . .

LBB: It doesn’t mean anything. All you can hope for is to meet a hot chick after the show.

MB: So before it felt horrible?

LBB: Before, it was like a life or death matter. Like, “I gotta kill or die.” Now, it’s just, “I do what I do. If they don’t like me, screw ‘em; if they like me, great.”

MB: What’s different about your attitude now?

LBB: I guess I have the attitude “I don’t care,” which is supposed to be good. If I bomb, I think, “It wasn’t my night.” I forget about it in five minutes. Whereas in the old days, if I bombed I’d think about it for a week.

MB: What’s the worst case of stage fright you’ve ever had?

LBB: When I did Letterman, I was so wired up I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was so nervous, and I had dark rings under my eyes, because I hadn’t slept in thirty-eight hours. And they changed my set around. Fortunately, I got bumped. That may have been the worst. They brought me back a month later. Of course I took a Valium the night before and slept like a log.

MB: So under those circumstances where you didn’t get any sleep, and they rearranged your set, how did you feel then?

LBB: It was awful. I was dead tired, but I was so wired I couldn’t sleep. And I thought about bombing on national TV. It would’ve been horrific.

MB: So what were your thoughts about that?

LBB: Sheer panic.

MB: What were your thoughts connected to the sheer panic?

LBB: [Laughs] That maybe I could fake my way through it.

MB: But if you bombed on national television, what would that have meant to you?

LBB: I would have quit the business at that point; it would’ve been so humiliating. Back then, a lot of comics did bomb on Letterman. They didn’t have the audience miked, and I saw a lot of guys go down hard. I literally would have quit comedy.

MB: When don’t you get nervous now?

LBB: I rarely get nervous now. If there’s an audition for something that’s big, I get a little antsy.

MB: But aside from that you don’t get nervous?

LBB: No. I feel numb. I just go in and do it. I’m like a factory worker. Plop those jokes in and get out.

MB: What are your thoughts around that?

LBB: I just hope I can keep doing this. It’s a tough way to make a living, but I don’t want to do anything else.

MB: In considering your own nervousness, what role do your thoughts, beliefs or attitudes about yourself play in it?

LBB: Hmmm. I don’t know. The only thing that I think about nervousness now—and I’ve thought this ever since I first went on stage—is that I’ve never been able to remember all of my material. And that must come from nerves. I cannot go up and do everything I intend to do. I always go up and leave stuff out. And it’s always been very frustrating.

MB: So what role do you think your thoughts play in that?

LBB: A self-sabotaging role. They say a lot of performers have it [stage fright]. They don’t want success or something. I don’t remember all of my stuff, and I don’t always do the best editing. I’m going down like the Hindenburg.

MB: What advice on stage fright would you have for other performers?

LBB: Take lots of drugs.

MB: [Laughs] And aside from that?

LBB: Just keep doing it. It’ll get better with time. You’ll get used to it. It’s like hitting a baseball—just keep doing it and it won’t be as hard. You just get tougher. The more you do it, the tougher you get. You get rid of the stage nerves. It’s like anything. Like jumping out of a plane. I’m sure it’s terrifying the first time, but after ten times you might get to where you like it.

MB: As people become more seasoned, what do you think they’re thinking that helps them not be as nervous?

LBB: They might realize, “This is a great way to make a living; it’s fun. So why be nervous?” Although I think you need a little nervousness to give you a certain amount of energy.

MB: Is there any last thing you can mention that’s been really helpful to you in dealing with nervousness on stage?

LBB: I remember what Mike Pritchard told me when I was really upset one night. He said, “You’re in a small room. Maybe thirty people in there. Outside of that room, no one knows who you are or what you did. It doesn’t matter.” That made a lot of sense.

MB: What were you thinking to yourself before he told you that?

LBB: I was just thinking, “God, I suck. The world hates me.” And hell, the world hadn’t even seen me.

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