Stand-Up Comedy Deflowering

by: Jason Waddell

It started with cracking inappropriate jokes about roofies on a blind date while playing Cards Against Humanity.

“Hey, you should do stand-up sometime!”

Apparently the cafe I was sitting in played host to regular open mic comedy nights. Later in the week, two other friends independently and unknowingly echoed the suggestion that I make a foray into the world of stand-up comedy, and ten days later I found myself standing on stage.

It went well for a first venture! I didn’t suffer any serious nerves, or make any sequencing errors or skip any segments. I even managed a couple laughs along the way, so my baseline expectations were already exceeded. The host of the open mic night sat down with me after the show.

“So, tonight you told seven minutes of jokes about shaving your balls, and from here you should boil that down to a good three minutes and start working on other topics. Keep doing that, and eventually you’ll have 15 or so really solid minutes, and places will start inviting you out to perform.”

It was good advice, and as I re-watched the film I realized how right he was. There was too much exposition, too much long-windedness and unnecessary detail that doesn’t heighten the comedy. One could easily cut a few minutes without even dropping any of the punchlines.

Having gone through the process once, I see sets like those produced by Louis CK in a whole new light. The joke density of his sets is absurd, and that comes from months and months of boiling down something raw into something tight and distilled.

Perhaps what most surprised me was the sheer time commitment involved. I spent days laboring over a very mediocre seven minutes which, with further work, may become a respectable three minutes.

It can be a difficult process, as, although I have a fairly refined taste in the type of comedy I enjoy, the quality of what I can produce is nowhere near that caliber. It reminds me of this famous Ira Glass quote.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
-Ira Glass

I don’t know how long I’ll stick with it, but I do know that, when I woke up this morning, my brain was already churning out new ideas. Better ideas than I had last week.

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