Standup Comedy Devices: The Biggest Traps in Writing & Performing Standup Comedy
I love pieces that break things down. Whenever I have an actor or a comedian or a psychologist or a philosopher on my podcast, I like the guest to be my Wikipedia entry for the topic that s/he knows. When I had a psychologist on, I asked her to demystify the field for me. If I want to understand the lay of the land, where do I begin? What are the different types, the categories, the approaches? I feel like I can do that in standup comedy.
I’m a standup comedy purist. I view standup as the last bastion of honesty in a society, a medium in which the artist can say whatever s/he feels like saying, and in a true capitalistic/democratic setup, these same ideas will be accepted or rejected by the majority. It’s a beautiful, and sometimes painful, thing.
As such, I have a fairly visceral reaction against devices. Now, according to Dictionary.com, a device can be many things, including “a thing made for a particular purpose” or “a crafty scheme; trick” or “a particular word pattern, figure of speech, combination of word sounds, etc., used in a literary work to evoke a desired effect or arouse a desired reaction in the reader: rhetorical devices.”
In the context of this post, I’m referring to the second two definitions. It’s anything that distracts the audience from the content of the actual joke.
Of course, only by pushing the boundaries of the medium can we discover new genres. Hell, most of Steve Martin’s act consisted of devices. And he’s one of the greatest ever to do it. But because no one had done a lot of what he had done before, it was original. In fact, there are only a few comedians of whom everyone else is derivative. I believe you can trace every working standup today back to one or more of the following pioneers, all of whom pushed society’s boundaries: Lenny Bruce (obscenity), Richard Pryor (empathy), George Carlin (iconoclasm), Bill Cosby (storytelling), Woody Allen (persona), Andy Kaufman (absurdity), Steve Martin (silliness), and Sam Kinison (anger). Even the ingenious Bill Hicks is really a Carlin + Kinison amalgamation. These giants are revolutionaries — they forged a new path. The rest of us are “evolutionaries” — we may, in our wildest dreams, perfect what they have invented.
Why am I writing this post? I’m compelled to. That’s the short answer. Beyond that, I don’t really know. Maybe it’s because I truly do love standup and want people to enjoy and understand it more and comprehend that it’s much more challenging for guys who just stand there and tell it. Maybe it’s because I’m sick of watching comics use so many devices. Maybe, as all advice is self-advice, it’s to scold myself for doing wedgie jokes and trying to light a fire under my own ass to write more Facebook jokes. Maybe it’s a lot less nobler reason, like I want to evince just how smart and clever I think I am. At any rate, again, I’m compelled to.
And I hope you find it useful the next time you’re watching standup and wondering how a comic might evaluate it. (It’s kind of like movie critics… what do they look for? I know they watch movies differently from how I do… but HOW? This is that “how” for a comic. Oh, and if you find this topic interesting and want a hilarious take on “how” hacks do it, check out The Hack’s Handbook by Andy Kindler.)
Also, it’s hard to write and perform great standup. As Abraham Lincoln once wrote, “Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.”
Net, it’s difficult to invent something new that also works.
A note: Devices are different from styles. I once discussed the nine genres of comedy and ranked in order what I thought were the hardest to easiest:
I’d purport that we laugh the hardest at things we’re not supposed to laugh at, hence the reason #5, #6, and #9 generate the most response. #5 contains things like racial jokes; #6 consists largely of dick jokes; #9 is watching a fat woman fall down a hole. Usually, they’re an “easy laugh.” Dumb stuff goes viral; smart stuff is a tough sell. The answer is obvious. I’m not saying that most people are dumb. They are, but that’s not what I’m saying. In America, my theory is that people are so overworked that when they come home at the end of a long day (or when they pull up YouTube at their desks), they don’t want to have to think. That’s why my life’s mission of “making as many people laugh (and think) as I can” emphasizes the “laugh” part and parenthesizes the “think” part. My JOB is to make people laugh. If I can also make them think, then that’s the proverbial icing on the cake. Comics, especially in LA and NY, lose sight of that fact. On a Friday night, people want to come to the comedy club, kick back, drink a few beers, and have a good time. In an ideal world, I’d make ’em laugh in the club and think on the way home.
That’s a long way of saying that I understand why people hack it up. They use devices to make people laugh because there’s an immediate gratification to it. There will always be a place for that. But, as Kanye asks, “Can we get much higher?” I think, with some work, we as comics can.
This is also the reason that “alt” comedy has risen the way it has. “Alt” or “alternative” comedy is anything that defies the notion of the standard setup/punch, generally characterized by irony and longer pieces such as rants. It tends to be fresh and personal. The downside is that it’s often too rambling. I’m also not 100% convinced that most alt comics truly understand what irony is. But that’s a different topic for a different day. (And here it is.)
Btw, comics who use devices are not necessarily bad comics. After all, as the quote goes, “comics say funny things; comedians say things funny.” There is something to be said for guys who get up there and bring it. They are performers first and writers second. They say things funny and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve always just been more impressed by a guy who can just stand there and talk.
If you’re a comic reading this, just think about this when you’re writing jokes… don’t think, “What’s funny about this?” Think instead, “What am I making fun of?” What’s the joke? If you’re not sure, then your joke needs work. Because even you don’t know what it’s about.
And even though it’d help to share some bits that illustrate things I don’t like, I’m obviously not going to list guys who do them — I’m not stupid. Besides, people only read that as jealousy or bitterness, which it usually is whenever a comic is directly impugning someone else’s style. Hey, if that’s yo’ thang, it’s yo’ thang. I find a lot of things funny; it’s but a few that really amaze me… easy to amuse, hard to impress.
Finally, I know I’ve provided a million disclaimers and you’re thinking, “GET TO IT ALREADY,” but I do want to say that just because a comedian does these things doesn’t mean I don’t respect what s/he does. Again, this is only intended to point out what devices are.
Whew. OK. I’m going to categorize it in three ways… and order within each one the ones I find to be the greatest transgressions.
- S/He Is A(n)…: I’m defining these devices as things that permeate a comic’s entire act. It’s not so much that s/he DOES these things but rather that s/he IS a certain thing.
- S/He Does… (-): These are things that a comic may do for certain parts of his/her act — and I consider them to be crutches.
- S/He Does (+): These are things that a comic may do for certain parts of his/her act — and I consider them to be merely enhancements. It’s likely to be a matter of opinion as to whether I categorize devices in the negative or positive column but I’ll do my best to explain my rationale.
Category 1: S/He Is A(n)…
- Hypnotist: I believe what these guys do takes talent. And I believe it’s real. I’ve seen it first-hand many times and it’s amazing what people will do under the influence. To those of you who don’t believe it, ask yourself this: Do you really think random audience members can act that well? At any rate, it’s certainly not pure standup.
- Ventriloquist: It’s a quirky talent. It can be funny. But, if you think about it, it’s pretty lame. It’s a grown man playing with dolls.
- Magician: I’ve seen some phenomenal ones. One guy stole the watch right off my wrist. Amazing. But no matter how many jokes you may tell, you’re different from a traditional standup comic. It’s a different — and respectable — genre. Well, not if you ask Patton Oswalt.
- Guitarist: I was originally going to write “instrumentalist,” but how many other instruments do people really use onstage? (I really do want to take drums up there for that rim shot sound effect someday, though.) I have some guitar comic friends whom I think rock. And they fall into two categories: 1.) guys who sing and 2.) guys who just use the strings as kind of a reset button between jokes. Re the latter… dude, that’s so easy, then. You don’t have to think about segues, which is one of the hardest aspects of standup. The jokes stand alone but ask yourself this: would they really be that funny without the guitar? If so, then why is s/he playing it?
- Impressionist: It’s a talent. If you’ve ever seen Kevin Spacey’s or Aries Spears’, you’ll about fall off your chair. But they’re not jokes.
- Foreigner: This is a sensitive one. And with any of the above, I’m not knocking it (OK, except ventriloquism. I mean, if you like that stuff (and millions do, given how much money Jeff Dunham has made), you’re just a… dummy. OH!) What I mean by “foreigner” is really anyone with a non-American accent. Why? Aren’t their jokes good? Yes, sometimes they’re hilarious. But there’s no getting around the fact that, subliminally, they are outsiders shining the light on us. There’s always an underlying, “Oh, you people in this country are so crazy!” This probably accounts for maybe 30% more hilarity (completely scientific, that). But it’s enough to carry them from obscurity to fame. And to some extent, we like to think by laughing with them (30% at them), we’re somehow expanding our horizons. “Look at me — I’m able to understand what this kooky guy is all about.” It’s kind of like when you see a freak on the street and it’s really just an opportunity to display how nice a guy you are because you don’t treat him differently due to the fact that you’re so open-minded.
- Character: This last one is tough, too. What I mean by this is someone with a point-of-view or cadence that generally serves as some kind of fourth wall unawareness as to what s/he is saying. These are characters that are not simply amplified versions of the comic (which most of us are) but rather when I don’t buy that’s how you really are in real life or you are playing a character you’ve designed to be blissfully oblivious to reality. One hallmark of a character is that you really can’t listen to him/her for more than about twenty minutes.
Category 2: S/He Does… (-)
- Voices: There really doesn’t seem to be an easier way to make audiences laugh than to do an accent. It’s the go-to for every ethnic comic. And even whites and blacks do it. (Blacks are not ethnic minorities in standup.) The difference between Voices as I’m mentioning them here vs. Impressions/Impersonations above is that the former implies non-famous people, as in, Margaret Cho doing her Mom or just about every Asian or Latino or Middle Eastern comedian doing his Dad.
- Stereotypes: These are default jokes that comics can always pull out… Asians can’t drive… blacks have big dicks… Indians eat curry… It’s fine if these are part of your setup (premise) but if they’re your punch line, there’s simply no weight of intellect behind them.
- Props: Need I expand? It stands alone… don’t think I need to… prop this one up any more.
- Swearing: I made the choice before I even started never to swear onstage. I keep my act PG-13 or what we in the Industry call “cable TV-clean.” I enjoy a lot of dirty and dark comedy. I’m certainly not bashing it. This applies more to budding comics… dude, tone down the cursing. If the joke isn’t funny without it, then the joke probably isn’t funny. Sometimes, you have to drop the F-bomb. It’d be difficult to do a joke about the acronym “WTF” without using that word; you can’t really substitute “screw.” But I’d say about 95% of the time (another scientific measurement, I’m sure), it’s a crutch.
- Yelling: Some comics scare the crowd into laughing. They punch so damn hard that people feel like they MUST laugh because HERE’S where the JOKE is. If you’re overemphasizing words to the point where people think you’re shouting (and you’re not ranting), then it feels grossly inorganic. I just think it’s a cover for insecurity. You know your jokes just aren’t that funny.
- Speed: Not to be confused with acceleration. (Timing is acceleration. Pacing is speed.) I can’t really think of any comics who use the lack of speed as a device. Even a comic like Steven Wright isn’t really that slow in his pacing; he’s just lethargic as part of his affect. And in his case, you totally buy that’s how he talks (because he does). There’s generally a correlation between volume and velocity. It’s hard to talk loud and keep a slow enough pace. My problem is with comics who seem to talk very, very fast as part of their schtick. They’re very clever at stringing together bundles of words but this often is smoke-and-mirrors for something that really wouldn’t be that funny if they slowed it down and talked like a normal person.
- Precision: This one is similar to “Speed,” in that we’re supposed to watch in awe at how you somehow do your act with such a rhythm to it that THAT is the joke. I’d include her comics who are overly referential. If an allusion to a particular movie or book is relevant, then by all means use it. But it’s very easy to tread into the overly topical (just shouting keywords like Monica Lewinsky”) or “Remember When…” comedy. The latter is particularly annoying. Yes, everyone recalls Lite Brite, Doc Brown’s DeLorean, and the mushrooms in Super Mario Bros. Get over it.
- Lists: Here are the top 10 reasons lists suck. Honestly, if you’re making a three-point argument, it’s cool. But if you’re just pulling a rewrite of Jeff Foxworthy, you’re probably not worthy and have already been… outfoxed. [Groan.]
- Pot Jokes: I’ve never understood comics who target marijuana smokers. Could there be an easier group of people to make laugh? Dude, they’re high. They’ll laugh at anything. I want to see a comic who tries to reach people on heroin. Junkies are dialed out.
- Dick Jokes: I gotta be careful with this one. It seems that every joke is ultimately a dick joke. And Bill Hicks described himself as “Chomsky with dick jokes.” I’m just a little tired of people talking about genitalia as if it’s just been discovered. Penises are gross. Vaginas are gross. We get it.
- Crowd Work: This is also a touchy subject because coming up with something truly original on your feet is a real talent (as opposed to a “skill,” which is acquired). The comics who are best at this (Russell Peters, Ian Bagg, me — ha) just seem to possess an innate ability to pull stuff up like it was written, especially when they seem to avert the traps in this list… something that wasn’t stereotypical or sexy in nature, for example. But because the crowd members are always more impressed by a theatrical event that seemed to occur right there, right then, due to their presence and is something no one else will see exactly like this ever again, this type of comedy is by definition easier. I know that every time I’ve thrown material into a response to an audience member so it looks like I just made it up, it always gets a much bigger laugh. This is the key reason that standup is more difficult than improv. (I had to lose this argument many times, claiming that improvising was harder, many times before I was persuaded). Not only are you up there by yourself vs. having team members to blame, the quality of the joke has to be much higher. Improv audiences are impressed that you came up with something. In standup, the audience is thinking, “You’ve had a ton of notice to decide what to do and this is what you’re telling us?” Crowd work is much easier than material.
- Pandering: I know a lot about this because I used to do a ton of it. It’s telling the audience what it wants to hear. Or by doing a joke with stated creative license. For example, I do a couple of gay jokes. It’s much more courageous to do them before I tell them my brother is gay. The braver order is for me to do “I trust gay people — they always have your back” and then do “My brother is gay — he just came out of the closet; we’ll, we’re Indian so he came out of the cupboard.” Similarly, “I love the chili here” when you go to Cincinnati is a surefire winner. Daniel Tosh opening his special in the Bay Area by informing the crowd that this is his third favorite city to do standup in (~”not bad — top ten”) takes balls. So does my friend Danny Cho, who does reverse pandering. I asked him what he meant by that. He goes, “I did a gig at Berkeley. I opened by asking, ‘What do Berkeley and Stanford students have in common? They both got into Berkeley.’” Wow. And now you want these people to like you? And that’s what it’s about — the crowd has to like you. But if you’re doing it by being obsequious, then it feels disingenuous. Stop kissing so much ass. Or trying to dazzle people with vocabulary words.
- Singing/Rapping/Dancing/Miming: Again, I want to tread delicately here. The beauty of standup is that it is an opportunity to showcase the talents and skills you may have. Maz Jobrani told me on my podcast that standup is essentially a medium for people who want to entertain who don’t have another expressive talent. Steve Martin said much the same thing in his amazing book, Born Standing Up. Maz expounded by saying that all he has to do is an impression of an opera singer or move his feet just a little for the crowd to clap and cheer. He says he couldn’t actually do a show where that was the focus. Now, some people can really do some pretty cool things. Russell Peters really can dance and DJ. If you got it, flaunt it. Nothing wrong with that. Just realize it’s less hilarious and more impressive.
- Irony: This warrants an entire blog post because it’s an expansive subject. (Again, here’s the post.) Suffice it to say that it grinds my goat when I see alt comics sing or do a pun and then make fun of the audience for laughing at it, as if they’re above that kind of joke… except for the fact that they just did that kind of joke and derived the benefit of it and then tried to squeeze out another laugh by commentating on it.
Category 3: S/He Does… (+)
- Stories: Bill Cosby is a fantastic raconteur. But generally, it’s much harder to fill a six-min set with setup/punch jokes than doing the same with two three-minute tales.
- Act-Outs: You can get a lot of mileage by tagging jokes with an act-out. It’s a great way to not just tell but to show us what you mean. Ricky Gervais does this masterfully. Check out 2:43 of this clip about going commando. I’m not saying not to do it; it certainly adds some oomph to the set. But some comics do it too much.
- Visuals: You can add another dimension to your performance by using things like Power Points or drawing boards. What’s the difference between this and props? I see this less of an end and more of a means… it’s just another medium to evince to the audience what you’re talking about. Demetri Martin does a great job with this and even explains in this clip why he’s drawing them. Steve Martin rocked at this, too — check out this clip of his fun balloon animals. Again, notice how these inanimate objects are not static; he brings them to life. But realize it takes some of the magic away from what standup is at its core — man and a mic. (I mean “man” as in “mankind,” so don’t say I left women out.)
- Dichotomies: Men do this; women do that. Whites do this; blacks do that. America does this; the rest of the world does that. There’s a fine line with this one because a lot of hacky comics employ this device — in fact, I’d dare say they all do. It’s one step up (or down?) from a list. The difference between the trite and the true is the insights behind the jokes. George Carlin and Chris Rock are the ultimate of using this in the right way. If Carlin’s “7 Words You Can’t Say on Television” was the definitive bit of the last generation, then Chris Rock’s “Ni**az vs. Black People” has to be it for this one. That’s dichotomizing on the highest level.
- One-Liners: Some of the best comics are one-liner types: Henny Youngman, Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg, MONROK. The only thing I’d say is that we don’t really learn much about their POV. It’s a device whereby the sum is oftentimes greater than the parts. Rattle off several in a row and they stand together. But how many would work if they had to stand on their own? Again, with the greats, they do. I’ve just seen a lot of guys do them and they’re fairly mediocre. Hell, I’ve written over 50 of them and I’d only say some of the 20 I do here are really that good. They’re deceptively difficult to construct. “Take my wife… please!” is harder than it looks.
- Wordplay: If satire is the highest form of comedy, then puns have to be the lowest. But again, I’m going to resist from putting this in the negative category simply for the reason that if you can pull off a pun or homophone or homonym or something of the sort without the audience hissing, then you’ve written a sufficiently impressive joke. You’ll know right away if it’s a winner or a groaner. And hopefully, your act will be more groan-up. Grown-up. Get it? Anyone? This thing on?
So, after having exposed as many tools of the trade that I could think of, what’s left?
Well, that’s where the gold is: CONCEPTS. IDEAS. INSIGHTS.
When we write comedy, we shouldn’t focus on what’s funny. We should start by looking at what is incongruent, that which stands out, that which is different, and especially that which is true. That’s the other meaning of “funny,” isn’t it? “I feel funny.” That means that you feel different from how you normally feel. If we see a grid of black dots on a wall and one of them is big and pink, then that one looks funny. It looks different. That’s where the good stuff is.
Who are some comics I think don’t use (m)any devices at all?
This isn’t intended as a be-all, end-all. I may leave some guys out here — these are just the ones that come to mind on a random Monday. The ones in this list are likely to be guys I come across often for whatever reason — in clips or in-person. And like I said, they’re not devoid of them. Chris Rock talks about how he has to punch harder than Ricky Gervais.
And Dave Chappelle is amazing but he obviously employs a unique cadence when he does standup — he doesn’t really talk like that all the time in real life. And almost all of these comics swear.
Having said that, here’s my list… and it’s no coincidence that, almost without exception, these are most of my favorites:
- Chris Rock
- George Carlin
- Eddie Murphy
- Dave Chappelle
- Louis CK
- Rodney Dangerfield
- Woody Allen
- Richard Pryor
- Ellen DeGeneres
- Jerry Seinfeld
- Kevin Nealon
- Sam Kinison
- Bill Burr
- Bill Hicks
- Daniel Tosh
- Patrice O’Neal
- Brian Regan
- Sebastian Maniscalco
- Patton Oswalt
- Tim Allen
- Ray Romano
- Orny Adams
- Hannibal Buress
- Myq Kaplan
- Hari Kondabolu
- Paul Varghese
- Azhar Usman
- Hasan Minhaj
- Pete Holmes
- Ian Edwards
- Brent Weinbach
- KT Tatara
- J. Scott Homan
- Danny Cho
- Dave Attell
- Don Friesen
- Doug Stanhope
- Dwayne Perkins
- Erin Jackson
- Isaac Witty
- Tom Simmons
- Kathleen Madigan
- Bonnie McFarlane
- Kevin Shea
- Roy Wood, Jr.
- Lachlan Patterson
- Michael Kosta
- Mike Armstrong
- Ryan Singer
- Steven Wright
- Thai Rivera
- Todd Barry
- Bill Maher
- David Cross
- Duncan Trussell
- Todd Glass
- Tom Foss
- Paul Kim
- Dennis Miller
- Tommy Johnagin
- Wendy Liebman
- Jerrod Carmichael
So, to all comics out there who aren’t only aspiring, I hope you find this piece inspiring. Just think of “device” as “de vice.” It’s a vice. And by virtue of that observation, you shouldn’t use them. Except to end a blog post.
Originally published at www.rajivsatyal.com on April 11, 2011.