Big Idea Comedy Vs. Small Idea Comedy

For lack of better terms, I tend to look at comedy in two very broad terms, that can be elaborated on later.  Big ideas and small ideas.

Big idea comedy, at least in the way that I think of it, are premises that try to tackle the big issues in our society.  Poverty, inequality, women’s issues, race, are what I would call Big ideas.  These are things that people have an idea about, but may not have thought of them in a comedic way.  I think a lot of comedians start out writing material with these ideas in mind. Why?  Because it can be easier to grasp for both the comedian and the audience.  We have been confronted with most of these ideas, so there is not much set up required.  As soon as you start going into the bit, everyone more or less has an understanding of the topic at hand.  This does not mean it is easy. On the contrary, big idea comedy writing is usually the hardest to write effectively.  There is a reason they are ideas that still linger in our society, and there are many different ways to fail an idea you are trying to get out to the audience.  I have sat at hundreds of open mics where the person wants to say something witty about these issues, but instead comes off as offensive or tone deaf.  If that is the idea then, to make it seem as though you have no idea what is going on, then exaggeration is your friend.

Newer comedians tend to want to go  after these topics for another reason, they have seen their favorite comedians knock these topics out of the park.  The problem is that we tend to not see the work that is involved with crafting a joke so it seems easy when in actuality it is quite difficult.  So, how would I advise a new comedian to go after these big ideas?  I wouldn’t.  I would tell them to go after things that others can’t duplicate (this is where small idea comedy comes in).  If they really want to though, I would tell them that saying the same thing that every comedian in the world is already saying is not a good way to differentiate yourself from the masses.  That is why blue collar comedy is what it is.  It says something completely different from what hundreds of other comedians are saying.

Small idea comedy may sound like the opposite, and you would be partly right.  Small ideas, as I am writing them, are things that are happening to you directly.  It is not as big as race relations, but it can be, just as long as it is happening to you.  This seems to be how a lot of comedians progress as they get more comfortable with the way they write. They start off talking about really heavy ideas, and then they look within their own lives to find humor.  To a lot of newer comedians, this seems daunting.  You may be young and thing the things that are happening to you directly would not be funny, but have you sat down and thought about it?  Have you taken time to assess situations in your life that could be funny?  When you start thinking about comedy differently, you start to realize that you can find a lot of good material in smaller ideas.  How does going out in public make you feel?  Do you hate your in-laws?  These are things that do not affect the lives of many, but can still be funny.

How can you get to these small ideas and write effective material about them?  First, think about the things that bother you.  The things that make you laugh.  These are things that a lot of other people may find weird enough to laugh at.  Some of the greatest comedians ever made their names from looking within and being able to articulate it in ways that made others laugh.  What is great about this material is because it is more personal, it is harder for others to duplicate.  This is the material that audiences will remember you for.  Do you have funny stories?  That is small idea comedy!

I hope I was able to get these idea across in an effective manner.  If not please let me know in the comments.  While you are at it, go here to pick up the new book from my friend Andrew Oullette.  Thanks!

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You Are Not Owed Anything

This may seem harsh, but I will keep it short so it stings a little less:  You are not owed anything in comedy.  There.  If that surprised you, or got your heart rate up, that means you are the perfect person for this blog post.

I think what happens is we take what we know from other industries, and assume it should work that way in comedy.  Longevity does not equal experience.  Experience does not equal ability.  Ability does not equal employ-ability… None of these things mean you are a shoe in for certain things.  This isn’t like working down at the docks, where if you were there for five years you get promoted.  You don’t get promoted in comedy just because you have been going to open mics steadily for five years.  If that were the case a lot of people would have HBO specials.  When someone tells me that they have been doing comedy for x number of years, it means nothing because you can get on stage once, never get on again for 10 years, and still call yourself a comedian.  Have you been writing?  Have you been performing?  These are the things that I think are more important than just how many years you have called yourself a comedian.

Just because you have been on showcases a bunch of times doesn’t mean you should be featuring at a club.  I see it time and time again.  Someone has been getting spots on shows, and now they think they are ready to feature.  Getting on stage is good experience, but that doesn’t mean you have the ability to perform for 20-30 minutes.  Ask a comedian that has been doing it for about six months to a year how much time they have, and most will overestimate.  Why?  Because open mics and such may give them  the impression that they have a lot of material that works.  That is not the case.  Once you get in front of a paying, attentive crowd, they are not going to let things slide because “everyone is just working on stuff”.  Get honest with yourself.  Do you have 20 quality minutes, or 10 decent minutes and 10 minutes of bonus ramblings.  Getting honest with yourself will help you not burn yourself when you are trying to get work.

So, you have been doing it for a while and have the chops.  You feel you have what it takes to start working.  What’s this though?  No one wants to work with you?  You can’t get booked anywhere even though you are funnier than all the other comedians that get booked?  Have you ever thought that maybe you’re an asshole?  Close you eyes (later, not now), and think of all your interactions with other comedians. Is it you and a bunch of probably skinny white dudes running through a meadow?  Or, is it a bunch of arguments and Facebook post telling comedians to eat a dick?  If it’s the latter, than that is your answer to why you are not getting booked.  You can not expect to be a piece of shit, AND be booked.  It may seem like the world of comedy is this large expansive network, but it is much smaller than that.  There are only so many comedy bookers and the odds that they have dealt with someone that has dealt with you is probable at the least.  If you have a great set, a set that makes bras fall off and guys get tramp stamps, but you can’t be worked with than people will just leave you off of shows.  There is a limit to this though.  If you are in the upper levels of comedy, like the Tom Seguras, and Phillip Kopczynskis  of the world, then you may be able to get away with not being the coolest person to work with, because you are putting asses in seats.  If, however, you are trying to get booked on your local show, and you are a total asshat, then why would anyone put up with that, no matter how funny you are.

Just remember that just because someone was doing it for 6 years and got on SNL doesn’t mean that is the trajectory for you.  Things happen to people differently.  I know comedians that started after me and are all over the country.  That doesn’t mean I deserve to be there as well.  That means that they may have had more connections, or were more personable to people, so they could network easier.  Maybe their material isn’t 80% dick jokes.  You have to be honest and look within when things are not going the way they should.

 

Don’t Get Comfortable!

In twelve years of stand-up comedy, I have seen comedians on every level just peter out and get complacent.  It is actually really sad to see someone who may have the potential to grow into something more, just stall out.  This will not be for those of you who consider comedy a hobby.  If comedy is something you do because you want to work out some issues or because you thought it would be fun and then you did it a couple of times there is nothing wrong with that.  This is strictly for those that aim for bigger things, but just stopped growing along the way.  Ok.  Here we go.

Why some people get stuck in one spot in their career and never seem to go anywhere else?  Many reasons.  The biggest I have seen is they don’t write!  I don’t know how many comedians I see while performing that are still doing jokes that you know they wrote about 20 years ago.  Bill Clinton impression?  Monica Lewinsky?  Really?  They get work still in bars and lower level rooms because those people just want comedy, not anything to move the needle.  They don’t get work at bigger rooms because they haven’t changed their act since the Clinton administration.  I don’t feel bad for these people at all!  You have one job, make people laugh!  If you can’t update your material to make the most amount of people in the room laugh then you can’t be helped.

Some people get comfortable because they can’t physically get any further because they get in their own way.  The comic that drinks or abuses drugs and can’t get much work because they are a liability. This is sad as hell.  I have seen some great comedians get destroyed by alcohol and drugs.  They write, and can perform great…when they are not wasted.  I can’t speak much on this because I do not drink or use any drugs.  I have just observed comedians that were on top of their game be reduced to hosting bar shows forever because it gets them enough money to buy a burger and a free tab.

If you don’t fall into those above categories then there may still be hope!  One of the best ways to combat just falling into a rut is to write and perform. Writing isn’t enough because that is only one step in the process of stand-up comedy.  I see comedians that I have worked with for years that have sworn off open mics for whatever reason, and yet they are still doing the same material from years ago. We should always strive to write the best material we can, and there is no end to that!  You may think that the material you have now is perfect, but I guarantee you that if you keep writing you will come up with even better material.   I try to never stop writing because I feel that I have not broken the code on the joke that will never not work.  I am always looking for that joke, and then once I find it, I want to see if I can get enough of them to have a perfect performance. So, that means getting up and perfecting the jokes that come out of my mouth.  Only getting up can do that for me, hence why I am at open mics.

You should not think of your act as a painting.  You should think of it like a less murdery Frankenstein monster. You should always look to add and do more to create the biggest baddest abomination you can.

 

 

 

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Comedic Styles: The Clean Comedian

We will continue our series on comedic styles with the clean comedian.  Some would probably say this isn’t a style, but I think it is.  Being a clean comedian or telling “clean” material is about more than just not cursing.  A lot of people associate this type of comedy (or they used to) with the boring comedian that tells jokes in front of a conference room full of people.  That stigma has changed in recent years because of comedians like Brain Regan and the fact that writing clean comedy is the fastest way to get on network TV, which leads to possibly getting booked in comedy clubs. So without further ado… let’s get into it!

Pros:

The ability to perform anywhere.  No one has ever kicked a “clean” comedian off the lineup (unless they are just not good).  You have the ability to perform in all group settings, so if there is a mixed aged audience (like with children) you will not worry anyone with your presence.

The ability to quickly advance.  If you are a clean comedian, you have that ability to work as a host much sooner because you won’t turn the crowd as quickly as someone that may be little more coarse. This is great if you are trying to get into clubs.

The ability to make more money as a corporate comedian or maybe on cruise ships.  There is so much money out there for a comedian that works clean!  If you can show promoters that you have quality clean material, you can book these gigs that my not be on the radar of people looking to get into clubs, but pays way better.

Cons:

Bar shows can be hard.  A rowdy bar may not pay attention to the clean guy if he doesn’t have a couple of jokes that can get their faces out of their beer.

Depending on you joke writing talent, writing clean material can be harder.  Not saying that curse words or dicks are essential to making a joke, you may not be digging deep enough into you mind to find material that can work out as clean.

I think every comedian should have a clean set.  Whether that means pulling curses and the more lewd details out of your existing jokes, or writing an entirely new set of jokes just for those cases, I think if you are trying to get work as a comedian, you should be as flexible as possible when it comes to your content.  When I am booking a corporate show, it is much harder to suggest comedians that I know are funny, but can’t do solid clean time.  If you don’t care about paying your rent with comedy then that is cool.  I don’t want you to sacrifice your beliefs just for money, but isn’t it cool to be able to get paid doing something you love?

What A Major Club Will Do For Your Local Scene

The Spokane Comedy Club (SCC) has been operating in town for almost a year, and in that year, it has transformed comedy in the area.

One of the biggest ways that SCC changed the area was just in the visibility of comedy.  Before SCC, a very small number knew about the clubs that came before it.  For years I would have people ask me where I perform, and when I told them that there was a comedy club in town, they would have a shocked look on their face, as if I told them that I am actually a little person standing on another little person’s shoulders.  It was frustrating because all of your attempts to get comedy in the area to be recognized seemed to be for naught.  The clubs before SCC just didn’t do a good job at advertising.  Just putting a sign up in front of a bar saying comedy doesn’t work as well as it did before.

Having a big club in town means you will have more people trying to become comedians.  People see the club, and then think this is their way to stardom. This is always a good thing because usually those are the more vocal people that will get word out that comedy is going on.  This leads to more packed open mic line ups, but it means they will get their family and friends and co workers to come see them.  This works out like a grass roots advertising campaign.

A weird thing happened to the scene about 9 months after the club came to town, a lot of the more seasoned comedians stopped coming around.  It was weird because, here we are with a club that is being packed, and the people that stuck it out in shady open mic dens are no longer to be found.  I hypothesized that it was because the talent level of what the new club wanted discouraged these comedians to a point that they no longer come out.  That is quite sad because this is what all those empty shows were all about!  You are about to be rewarded now, and you stop coming around.  It is heartbreaking.

If there is one negative to having a major club hit our scene, it has to be with independent shows.  Before the club came to be, there were a lot of independent shows around the town.  Eight months after the club?  80% of those shows disappeared.  I think what happened was all of these comedians that were putting on these shows thought that they would be working the club, when that didn’t happen for a lot of them, it left a hole in independent shows.  Don’t get me wrong, there are guys that were still producing shows when the bottom fell out, but not at the level that is was before the club came to town.

The club has given me, personally, a lot more exposure.  I get to perform a lot more private shows for a lot more money because people have seen me at the club.  I also get chances to perform with some really big names in comedy because of them and that increases my chances of working with them in the future. Having a club of this nature in the area did good things for me as a comedian, and I think for the whole of the Spokane area.  This area has so many people, and the fact that no one was serving them top notch comedy was almost a crime.  Now that the club is approaching one year, I think it will do better things for our scene.

Comedy And The Modern Market

The world keeps turning, but the world of comedy doesn’t seem to spin at the same speed.  As an industry, we are really behind the times in a lot of ways.  Let’s talk about some of them.

Pay: This may be where the comedy industry as a whole has fell way behind.  Right now, the going rate on the west coast of the United States for one nighters (just one show) is $100 for a feature and $200 for a headliner.  That has been the amount of pay for about 25 years!  What other profession has been this stagnant?  Hell, teachers have gotten more raises, and no one like to pay teachers.  The reason it is this way is because comedians just accept it as such.  Whenever someone does say something, 2,000 comedians come out of the wood work and agree to the old price.  You can’t fix what most don’t see as a problem.

Venue Responsibility: It has been this way since I started, but if a place wants to do comedy and they are not willing to invest anything in it (just throwing up flyers in your bathroom is not going to cut it) then you have to decide if it is worth it.  If you are just trying to line your pockets, then you don’t care if four people show up to a bar show if you already have your money, but they may never do another show again.

Merchandising: Selling items after shows has become more than just a way to supplement your gas budget.  Years ago, you would sell a cd or a shirt, but now comedians are selling everything from pens to bumper stickers.  This makes it easier for a comedian to go to any venue in the country because then they will be able to make a decent amount of money.  That doesn’t mean the pay shouldn’t be raised though.

Social Media: No longer do you just walk into town and do a show.  You can announce your arrival weeks in advance.  This can generate buzz, and in the future, when you do return, you can build a following that can help you make even more money.

These are just some of the things that can help the comedian in the modern market.  What is important is to keep looking for ways to get noticed by more people. More people that know you exist means more potential people that will show up to a show.