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

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.


  1. Now I know where I got my learning style from.

    Have a lot of of your more traditional comedian contacts have researched the history of stand up?

  2. Not as many comics know as much about the history of comedy as they should. Including me.

    And ... you're a MUCH better writer than ! am.