I got a request to give the answers to the video questions in the various lessons from the Class. There aren’t necessarily “right” answers to the open-ended questions that I asked. However, some of you expressed a little confusion about what I was trying to illustrate. The least I can do is show you what I hoped you would get out of the exercises. So here goes:
Week One - Greg Giraldo.
Basically I just wanted you to start the class by watching an hour of standup by a true master. You can’t get better than Giraldo. Everything that makes up great comedy is on display here. A strong point of view; an energetic, compelling, and precise performance; clear, engaging writing: “Midlife Vices” is a tour de force.
I also wanted you to take a focused look at the performance side of comedy. People often focus only on the content of a standup special, as if only WHAT the perormer was saying counted, and not HOW they said it. I wanted you to pay attention to all the movements and facial expressions that help create an effective standup act.
This is the first time I gave you the list of questions I had you answer after this and every other video. I wanted a basic way to get you thinking about what each individual comic brought to the table. The questions are a simple framework for understanding one comedian’s approach. I feel they cover the essential facets that make up a comedian’s style.
Week Two - Anthony Jeselnik and James Adomian
First, I wanted you to see how different comics can be from each other and still achieve greatness. Previous works on standup bothered me in that they seemed to suggest there was a right way or best way to do it. From the outset, I wanted to choose people that would show this was clearly false without me having to come out and say it.
For the Jeselnik video, I wanted you to see the setup/punch structure in its most basic form. I wanted you to see the “setup=expectation, Punchline=surprising fulfillment of that expectation” formula in an easy-to-identify state. You can’t get a much clearer (or funnier) example of the classic joke form than in Anthony’s work.
I also wanted you to see a dead-pan comedy style to contrast with Greg Giraldo’s emotive style. I wanted you to see that both were equally valid options while understanding their differences.
As for James Adomian, I wanted you to be able to recognize those same essential structural elements when they are not as naked as they are in Anthony’s work. You spotted them when they were out in the open. Now let’s see if you can spot them when they are cleverly hidden in a conversational style.
Week Three - Patton Oswalt, Louis C.K., Dan Mintz
Patton Oswalt’s bit was there to show you how to play multiple characters in the same bit, yet make it clear who is speaking at all times. I also wanted you to see how many tools you have to use to make each character have a clear, discernible, emotional point of view. If you don’t do this effectively, a bit like this will be impossible to follow for the audience.
The Louis example is there to pound home the same lesson.
The Dan Mintz video is there to show another dead-pan comedian. I wanted you to see that this doesn’t mean Dan’s stage character doesn’t have any emotional point of view at all. He’s not a robot. Rather, Dan approaches each joke with a mixture of slight confusion and insecurity. It IS an emotional stance, just not one that changes depending on the sentence, as with Louis or Patton. I wanted you to see how this is a careful choice for the act, not just a default “no emotion” setting.
I also wanted to show how some of the laughs Dan gets aren’t simply from the cleverness of his writing, but from the disconnect between what his character is saying, and the odd way he seems to feel about it.
Week Four - Jim Gaffigan and Kyle Kinane
The idea here was to show how a long chunk on the same topic needs both a premise for the entire piece, and individual premise for each bit that piece contains. Not only must the setup for the whole bit be clear, the setups for each sub-premise of that bit must also be clear.
A friend of mine had long bits that were not working consistently. I realized it was because he was not clearly marking out what his bit was about at the top. He also was not wrapping up each smaller premise as he introduced it. He’d introduce three ideas and then pay them off later, out of order. The audience got lost. They couldn’t follow his confusing word-maze. Showing these two bits was intended to make sure your longer pieces did not fail in the same way.
Week Five - Marc Maron and Nikki Glaser
The Maron story is here for two reasons. One, to show that a long story needs the same elements as the long bits from the previous week. It needs a clear setup for the whole story at the top. Then each individual part of the story needs it’s own setup. In the case of Maron’s story, the setup is when he tells you that he is going to get a piece of advice that would stay with him his entire life. This is the hook to get the audience to listen to the end. This is “why they are listening.” He then pays it off at the end with “Hang in there, man!” Good advice, but surprising, and from an even more surprising source.
I wanted you to see that you can’t just start telling a story and expect the audience to follow along simply because you are the comedian and you are talking. Just like with a joke, you must tell them why they are listening and then pay that off in laughs. You have to do that with everything that you write. That is the unspoken social contract that allows standup to succeed.
The second reason to watch the Maron story (aside from the fact that it is hilarious) is to examine his use of the stool. I wanted you to see that when you pull the amount of movement in your act down to a smaller amount than usual, smaller gestures become more powerful. Sitting down lowers the energy onstage and gets the audience used to less. This makes each little thing, like a facial expression, or a change in tone, carry more power than it would when the comedian is also running around up there.
With the baseline level of stimulus set lower, the mere act of standing up, as Marc does later in the story, becomes powerful. I wanted to show how you can play with the audience’s expectations of your energy output for comedic effect.
Nikki’s set is there to drive in the point I made that week about getting laughs from topics that make the audience emotionally uneasy. Every one of her bits in this set is a great example of this.
Week Six - John Mulaney and Dave Chappelle
These videos illustrate how performance elements enhance a comic’s words.
Dave Chappelle inhabits the characters of his friend and the cop so well, I wanted you to take a close look at his acting techniques. See how carefully he imbues his characters with unique speech patterns and facial expressions. They really seem like entirely separate people.
John Mulaney is a master of vocal inflection. He plays the instrument of his affected Mathew Broderick/old time radio guy voice like a master musician. He uses every possible nuance of pacing, timing and volume to slam his punchlines home. His physical motions in the “doctor’s office” bit are also a thing of beauty. He does great act-outs that enhance, but never eclipse, the words of his piece.
Week Seven - Bernie Mac and Maria Bamford
Bernie Mac’s set is one of comedy’s all time highlights. It’s the standup equivalent of Jordan’s shot against the Jazz or Ali knocking out Joe Frazier. The techniques he uses to win back the hostile audience are numerous. Opening with “I ain’t scared of you motherfuckers!” and then turning it into a mantra that punctuates his jokes. He sets up a rhythm with “kick that shit,” the DJ’s music, “cut the motherfucker,” a joke, and then the increasingly jubilant “I ain’t scared of you motherfuckers” to build a crescendo of laughs as the crowd falls under his spell. What begins as a challenge becomes a victory shout with each repetition. If you want to see a comedian battle from behind to a crushing, career-making triumph, watch this.
If nothing else, it drives home these lessons: the audience wants confidence. The audience wants competence. The audience wants showmanship, and they do not want your apologies.
Maria’s set is also a masterpiece. It’s an illustration of just how little set up you need when your characters are so perfectly realized that the audience needs no extra words to indentify and understand them. Maria puts forth so much information from her voices and faces that she needs almost no set up lines to differentiate one character from the other. And I can’t think of a set in which a comic got that many laughs without using words in that short a time.
Week Eight - Nick Vatterott and Jon Dore
I have never seen anyone do what Nick Vaterott does in this set. Specifically, get laughs with seemingly nonsensical absurdist bits at the beginning of his set, and then get bigger laughs when he explains what each joke was from his giant setlist.
This bit, and Jon Dore’s tape recorder bit are there to illustrate that comedy can truly be anything you want it to be. As long as you set up an expectation and fulfill it in a surprising manner, you can do that literally any way you please. I wanted you to appreciate just how much freedom you have as a comedian. I never want you to abandon an idea because you think it is too weird. If you think something is funny, try it. Whatever it is.
I also wanted to show you two bits that put a lie to the “never use props!” cliche. “Props are hack!” people will say. I defy you to tell me that either of these bits are hackneyed in any way. People dismiss entire traditions of performance just because certain ways of presenting them have become old hat. “Impressions are hack!” “Guitar comedy is hack!” “One liners are hack!” Anything can be written off by a narrow mind that can’t conceive of a fresh way to present something.
But as Jon and Nick show here in brilliant bits that use props, and as Tenacious D did for guitars, and James Adomian did for impressions, anything can be revived if the comedian brings a fresh, personal perspective to the task. The only thing that is always hack is a lack of original thinking.
Week Ten - Zach Galifinakis
"Live at the Purple Onion" is a career-making blitz of comedy. I chose it to show you just how many ways Zach makes his audience laugh. Witness the speed at which he switches from style to style, all the while maintaining a consistent off-center stage persona. I wanted to show you how someone goes from dead-pan one liners at a piano, to crowd work, to a prop bit, with no regard for segue-ways or explanations, and carries the entire audience with him. I wanted you to see just how many approaches to comedy you can cram into the same performance and still succeed.
Week Eleven - Jay Larson
This clip serves a similar function for the set up of a comedy story as James Adomian’s clip did for set up/punch structure.
The Marc Maron story is an example of a comedian clearly spelling out the premise for his story and then paying it off at the end.
Jay gives you no such clear-cut verbiage. But HE STILL SETS UP WHY YOU SHOULD LISTEN. Almost as if he knows he is not doing it entirely by the book, he starts with a question, “What do you do when you get a call from a number you don’t recognize?”
I can already hear some of you say, “I thought you said not to ask them things if you don’t want to hear their answers.” He DOES want to hear them. He even repeats them back to the crowd to acknowledge what regular people do in this situation. “Hang up. Let it go to voice mail.” Then… “Not me!” He’s different. There’s the hook! There’s where he sets the expectation. The audience is going to find out why he is different. Then a tease. Just four words. Dripping with promise.
"Opportunity. Potential! Who knows where it will go?" Observe how excited he is as he says these things. Then we are in. You can tell the audience has bought in to the story on the applause break he gets when he answers the man on the phone. The guy has asked a question of “Bruce."
"Nothing much, man!" says Jay. That’s NOT something the audience would ever do, and now they have to know the answer to the question Jay asked just moments before: “Who knows where it will go?" And now he is going to tell them.
You don’t have to be painstakingly obvious in everything you say. The setup for your story need not be something you can see from space. Yet even if it is disguised as everyday speech, it still has to be there. I will say this until I am blue in the face, but all comedy has the elements of a set expectation and a surprising fulfillment of that expectation. There are no exceptions. The Jay Larson story is there to show this is true even when it looks like it isn’t.
He also sells the absolute shit out of that story with his voice, movements, and facial expressions. It’s a careful, precise, yet balls-out performance. His joy is infectious. It is a great example of a comedian telling a story they have told a thousand times, but still imbuing it with the excitement and vitality necessary to drive it home.
That’s it. Let me know if you still have questions and I will be happy to answer them.