"Life is a miracle. Death is inevitable. Everything else is hilarious." -- Stu Baker

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A New Frontier in Joke Writing - A Book Review of "Social Comedia"

I am still working on my research for definitions of stand up and a brief history of stand-up comedy, but I wanted to take a break and tell you about a book I recommend which was written by a comedian friend of mine from Seattle, Dartanion London. (Note: Each link in this blog entry is to a different one of each of his social media outlets.)

Social media has created new opportunities for humor to be expressed. The short form of Facebook and Twitter updates combined with a multitasking and distracted society call for a new approach. Though this short form actually owes to the old one-liner style of comedy, the immediate and ever present world of the internet delivers it us with ease and frequency. From our fingertips we can now have delivered a pie in the face.

With Social Comedia, Dartanion London has written a new kind of joke book. From his almost once-a-day delivery of slightly slanted observations of today's world on his social media profiles (Facebook and Twitter), he gives you something to think about -- although just for a second. Then another joke moves in.

This book may not grant all your comedy wishes. But hell, the damn thing has robots! Take it into the bathroom, take it one joke at a time, take two and call me in the morning. It'll keep you entertained for minutes at a stretch!

I've seen Dartanion's stand-up act a number of times live. Each time I was struck by his original approach. Leave no doubt, he is funny. But he pushes boundaries too, which is what I like to see in any comedian I follow. He has a background in sketch and improv and he takes this with him to the stage. He is intelligent, composed and unpredictable. He also has a quality I like to see in comics -- it's as if he doesn't really care if you laugh or not (even though you do). If you need comedic touchstones to help you get a handle on what he's like, I would suggest that Dartanion London is as if Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman had a love child -- with Aspberger Syndrome. Just take a look at the promotional video for his book below. It alone is worth the price you pay for the book.

Even my cat Oreo likes "Social Comedia"!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

History of Stand Up: The Prologue

In my last blog entry, I indicated I'm reading a lot of books on the history of Stand-Up. My intention was to write a "Brief History of Stand-Up". But as I made my way through the volumes of material on the subject I also encountered a problem; not everyone agrees on just what stand-up comedy is. So, as "First Things First" things go, I'm backing up once again and tackling this by asking several comic how they define Stand-Up.

Certainly, the dictionary offers a starting point: Merriam-Webster 2: performed in, performing in, or requiring a standing position; especially : of, relating to, performing, or being a monologue of jokes, gags, or satirical comments delivered usually while standing alone on a stage or in front of a camera (stand–up comedy) (stand-up comedian) . Wikipedia: Stand-up comedy is a style of comedy where a comedian performs for a live audience, usually speaking indirectly to them. It is usually performed by a comedian with the aid of a microphone, either hand-held or mounted. Google: "Stand Up Comedy" is a song by rock band U2. It is the seventh track on their 2009 album No Line on the Horizon.

It seems to me that each comic has a definition that relates to their particular style of comedy. That's why I decided to ask several comics -- famous and infamous -- and see who responds. I'll post these responses and a few more thoughts soon.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Getting Somewhere from Nowhere

I was never very good at "first things first". I always just sort of jumped in, got messy and tried to clean up afterwards. Maybe it's because I am somewhat ADD, but doing things in a linear fashion just doesn't appeal to me. I have seen people who approach tasks much more methodically and it just seems mostly boring to me. A lot of time is wasted where you could actually be getting messy and having fun.

Just so you know, I'm eventually going to get to a point here, so stay with me.

My finest example of how I can't do things in order is that I don't read product manuals. I push buttons and turn knobs until things work. The gamble is whether or not I can figure things out in less time than it would take to read the instructions. I usually figure it out. Besides, I don't know how many times in the past I did read the manual and things didn't work like they said they would. I remember I spent a couple of hours looking through the manual for a new cell phone to try to figure out how to set it to vibrate. After much searching, swearing, and more searching and swearing, I couldn't find it. I finally just started pushing buttons on the phone until I got it to do what I wanted. Later, I discovered that the manual for the phone calls vibrate: "Polite Mode". Screw you Verizon! Not calling it "vibrate" wasn't polite at all. It was pretty rude, actually.

Learning something the way someone thinks we should learn it doesn't always work. When we learn something new, we all come to the table with some background knowledge. So the problem with getting to a goal by way of advice or instruction from others is that the path is often presented as a "one size fits all" scenario. Plus, not only are we all different in terms of our past experience and basic abilities, we also each learn differently. Some people are visual learners, some learn better by listening. Some people learn by modeling and learn by trial and error. I seem to learn better in a barely controlled mashup. (That's right spellcheck. I said "mashup." Even you are learning something today.)

As with other performing arts, when learning comedy, some of us turn to teachers. In most areas of the country, there are a number of comics or former comics running stand up comedy classes. But some people take the position that you can't teach "funny". Aside from having some narrow, provincial, and mystical definition of what "funny" is, I think this is exclusionary nonsense. One person may come to the table with better abilities (most likely learned from others), but everyone can improve the abilities they have. I've found the most important factor in any art form that will make one unique and more likely successful is passion. If you're passionate about what you do, are persistent and are willing to take chances, you'll improve. If you don't have a passion for comedy, you're probably going to have trouble succeeding. Also, don't come see me perform ... please.

There is the problem of the perspective of the teacher. Many teachers make the mistake of teaching only from their own subjective experience. The comics in their classes tend to pick up on this perspective and a shared style develops. Instead of teaching the comic how to discover their own voice, they Inadvertently or deliberately teach their own style to their students. So, the problem of a foundation from one comic is compounded by this projection of all the teachers own misconceptions and limitations.

The best learning platform for stand up is just doing it. Go up a lot. Along with writing all you can, performing will be the most important thing you can do to get better. Performing will teach you 10,000 different subtleties to stand up. Writing will keep your mind working in fresh ways and give the audience something new to laugh at. But both writing and performing can be helped by some fresh perspective.

Lately, I've discovered a glaring hole in my haphazard approach to learning stand up. What is challenging to me is that this hole requires stepping back and learning something I probably should have learned before. I have to pay attention to "first things first". I'm talking about studying the history of stand up comedy. I'm talking about knowing how we got to where we are; about those that have gone before us and laid the groundwork -- or did groundbreaking things -- that shaped the art form so many of us are striving within and to whom we all owe some debt. It occurred to me that in order to get "somewhere fro nowhere" it might help to know how others did it. Plus, I'm learning from truly great comics and not from just one former comic trying to teach from some failed perspective.

So, I have about a dozen books I'm working through these days and I have to say I am fascinated. Lucky for me that I have a passion for it because I was going to do it anyway. As soon as I finish one book that I can't hardly put down, I pick up the next one and can't put it down either. From learning about theories that the art form emerged from court jesters and minstrels, through vaudeville and the borsht belt comics of the catskills, through the television era, the challenge of the 60's anti-establishment comics, the 70's revolution and revolt, the 80's explosion, the 90's crash, into today.

So, I'm sort of reading the product manual on stand up comedy. And I've somehow learned how to set things to vibrate. Soon, I'm going to consolidate some of this history in another blog entry. As with other blog entries I've made, if few people actually read it, it still gives me a place to put things together in some kind of linear fashion. God help me.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cheeseburger Update

This blog was originally started to chronicle my travels through stand up. I started it when the Cheeseburgers of Comedy Tour was forming. But when that didn’t come together like we planned, I stopped making entries here. My progress is pretty much recorded on my Facebook Twitter pages, but I find myself drawn back to this blog so I can make some comments that are longer than 140 characters.

I got an email the other day from someone who wanted to know whatever happened to that tour, so I decided to make a quick entry here to update that.

We only ended up booking three weeks for the tour. One of the weeks got cancelled because of logistic problems. Though three of had regular communication, we couldn’t all seem to get on the same page. We knew we wouldn’t make much money and would have trouble being booked because we weren’t well known, but I think things began to fall apart when we realized how much of a financial commitment it would actually take to get out there.

Three of us (me, Myke and Chet) did do two weeks – one in the Phoenix area where we performed for six straight nights. The other week, we went to The Comedy Club in Rochester for three nights which Chet booked for us. Both weeks were successful and exactly what we wanted to do for a six to eight week period for the tour. So, from all the effort we put out, we essentially accomplished about 25% of what we set out to do. We agreed that we might pick it up again later.

Chet, Myke and I still talk regularly. Myke and I perform together all the time. We will most likely do something with Chet again sometime I’m sure. Hallie is doing very well for himself and even put out a CD.

Though the experiment of three or four unknown comics crisscrossing the nation didn’t come to pass, three guys did go from one end to the other, so it wasn’t a complete failure.

Thanks for reading. More on me soon.