The Uncomfortable Path of Finding Funny

On Chris Rock and how writing comedy onstage works.

Thoughts from comedian/writer Matt Ruby. Want more? Sign up here to get my newsletter.


I saw the Chris Rock set last week that the NY Post wrote about (Headline: “Chris Rock’s jokes about sexual harassment bomb”).

“Nobody was laughing. There were many boos and many women who were telling him he was a sexist pig. Two people got kicked out.”

The set was a failure if you measure by laughs. But that’s not what he was going for. He was testing out ideas. I disagreed with a lot of them. But I knew he wasn’t giving a lecture on gender issues. He was trying to find funny.

Actually, it was fascinating to see how he handled the tension. Any lesser comic would have bailed out of the topic. They would have tried to get the audience back. They’d go to some proven material. Rock did none of that. He stayed in that zone of discomfort. He wrestled with the audience. He touched a nerve and stayed there. He knew it wasn’t working (in the getting laughs sense) but he embraced that. He was there to do work and he was going to get it done. It wasn’t a show for the people in that room on that night. It was a show for a future audience — who may or may not hear anything that was said.

He even said something like this from the stage: “This is how writing works. There must be some writers in here. This is how it goes. You throw out a bunch of ideas and most of them suck but sometimes they hit.” To a novice, he had a poor set. But I watched it and thought, “This is something only a true master would do.”

Oh, and by the way: This was *the night before* he recorded his Netflix special. The night before and he’s out in a club trying 30mins of new material. Who does that!? He’s operating on a level that most comics (and certainly most gossip columnists) can barely comprehend.

Bottom line when it comes to a comic working out material: Judge the final product, not the work in progress. (And fwiw, I wrote this whole thing before the Times article about CK came out.)


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