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

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Edginess and Taking Risks

The last time I had a month break from school, I felt the freedom of not having so much schoolwork hanging over my head and I felt like I accomplished a lot with my comedy. This time Christmas is on its way and after this first week, I can already tell it’s going to be more difficult to keep focused on stand up. I have a list of things I’m going to focus on and I’ll get something done I’m sure, but I can already feel the next class coming up on the horizon. It will be my last class though, so the temporary feeling of freedom I have now will soon become more permanent.

I have a show this Saturday at a VFW in Coolidge. While this may not seem like the ideal environment for stand up, the guy who puts the show together has been successful at creating decent comedy events where the people come out to see a good comedy show. A couple comic friends of mine said they had a good time at the show when they did it because the crowd really seemed into it. So, I’m looking forward to it. I also get to headline, so I’m looking over my material to see if I am going to rearrange things a bit or stick with the one-hour format I’ve been working from for the past year. I do have some new material, but a lot of the new stuff I’ve been working on might be too edgy for this crowd. I can’t be too sure until I get there and survey the audience. Still my instincts tell me if I want to connect with them, I should steer clear of some of the stuff I’ve develop over the last year.

Part of the reason my most recent material is so edgy is because I’ve been writing and working things out in the context of the room I often work in, the Hidden House in Phoenix. Hidden House is a weekly show where most of the best comics in the area come out regularly. It’s a small room that has a capacity of only 50 or so people. The room is almost always packed (often over capacity) with a crowd of people who are there to see a good night of stand up. There is a fair amount of turnover in the audience but if you perform regularly, or even semi-regularly as I do, you need to come up with some new stuff to keep performing there or the crowd will tire of you somewhat. There is a small group of comics who produce the show and go up every week. Beyond that, there is a secondary lineup of the semi-regulars who fill out the experienced portion of the line up. But they also let newcomers and less experienced comics go up which gives a good perspective on how hard comedy really is and how good the good comics are. Sometimes, these newcomers surprise everyone and have a good set. This is more often the case than I like to admit because it sometimes makes me wonder how far I’ve really come when a comic can get up who has only done maybe 10 or 12 shows and do as well as, or better than, me. This is when I remind myself that comparisons with others are not really the best way to improve in comedy. When I compare myself with how I was when I first started, I know I am a lot better. That’s all that should really matter.

The edginess that seems to work at Hidden House is sometimes based in explicit language or topics. You can imagine that references to body parts and sexual acts get an easy laugh. Edgy material is not necessarily blue. However, it does tend to be surprising and it tests boundaries. Blue material often does this but these days, it is so common that unless you have an original approach to it, you’re not treading any new ground and you can come across looking like a hack.

Edginess is more than that. It’s more of an attitudinal thing. The best comics I observe there have a kind of detachment from the actual effect they expect from the room. That is not to say they don’t care about the room or if anyone laughs. To the contrary, they all know if they don’t get laughs there are essentially bombing. But many of the comics working material out know that you have to take chances to get better. You have to try new jokes or new ways to do old ones. You pick topics no one is talking about or you talk about old topics in new ways. To do that on a regular basis, the best comics seem one step removed from the whether a particular joke works in a particular moment. So this overall attitude of “OK. You didn’t like that, here’s something else”, prevails. They don’t crumble or get flustered. Perhaps another way of stating it is that these comics have confidence or that they come from experience. But these terms don’t quite describe this process of experimenting with the right orientation, this air of detachment to results.

One thing I’ve learned about comedy that has applications to life in general is that to improve at something, you have to be willing to take chances. This carries with it the fact that from time-to-time you will fail, otherwise, it wouldn’t really be considered a risk. This sets up an interesting combination of competing goals when doing comedy on any given night. While we all want to do well – to “slay” and “destroy” in the dramatic and violent vernacular of the comic (which I will discuss later) – we must also experiment and take chances. Since taking chances means we will sometimes fail, we weigh each night and measure our prepared material against the situation (the audience, venue, management. etc.) and make decisions about whether we are going to construct a set of so-called “A” material to create the best result we can, or are we going to mix in new stuff and see how it goes. Or, perhaps we even improv moments to see where they will go and see if we can create a one-of-a-kind memorable moment. Each comic comes to a decision on these variables each night whether they aware they of it or not.

For me, I need to feel I am growing in some way. I take each opportunity to perform seriously. I feel like I need to either perform my usual material better in some way, or find a new joke within the structure of a bit, or run some new material. One night I did a 10-minute set in front of an audience that had never seen me before. I chose a set of jokes I was completely comfortable with and was very familiar with. For me, it was a “safe” set. I got a good reaction but I wasn’t very happy when I got off stage. I felt like I phoned it in and was not really in the moment. I was performing for the crowd, but not interacting with them much. I was telling jokes and getting laughs but I was not really taking any risks. The set lacked the kind of spark I look forward to as an indication I am growing in some way. I decided that night that playing it safe was not the reason I got into stand up. You don't get up in front of group of people to try to make them laugh if you like to play it safe.

So, taking risks in style, performance or material is key to growth and perhaps why stand up can be so satisfying. It has been said that stand up comedy is the last soapbox. It is the last place one can get up in front of a group of people and say anything you want about any subject. Not only do you not have to be politically correct, you don’t even have to be correct. As long as you are getting laughs, you can keep talking. The very best comics in stand up history not only tested boundaries but also made us think. I believe the only way a comic gets to that point is to take risks.

A Passionate Set at Hidden House


  1. Sometimes comedians have a choice between being funny and being witty - equally valid choices.

  2. That's an interesting distinction. Isn't witty funny? For stand up, the test for strength is in whether or not people laugh (or at least react). However, wit can evoke an intellectual nod of acknowledgement which equates to silence. Still funny perhaps but it would make for a long night in a club.