A Guide for Comedians. Stories for Comedy Fans.
Original Improv -vs- Canned Goods (#13)
Like life, or most any job, no two days are the same. In comedy, as nice of a vision as it is, people do not just arrive, sit down, laugh, and go home. Additionally, every venue is physically and visually different. I sincerely believe that “working off the cuff,” is a gift, unique to the individual on stage. But even if your personal background, or set of intellectual skills, are not akin to this (always well received) spice, that you add to your material, why be predictable?
Canned Goods – common phrases, contrived observations, and heckler comebacks – STOCK as they are known in the industry – might be an accessible crutch to use, that gets laughs, however it is lazy comedy! It deprives your audience of a genuine experience. Thinking on your feet and responding from your humorous instincts (if you’re blessed to have them) is the true testament of a “funny person!” This transcends being a funny Comic. But can it be taught?
As I spoke of, in my first installment of this newsletter (My First Time), “riffing” on what was happening in the moment and noticing the enormous response it conjured up from the crowd, was like the comedy Gods shone a light of realization on me. Reflection has shown me that this skill was engrained in me by my environmental and family upbringing, long before the choice to make strangers laugh. So no, it CANNOT be taught! However, a shift in your perspective (“You – the Comedian”) can be imparted. What you do with it and how successful you are with it, is uncertain. But it’s better than being a hack!
Given the reputation that I now proudly have earned (though certainly humbly), and built, amongst my peers in the business, I often kick myself when I think back to how I let this nasty toned Booker (Hy Einhorn) dissuade me from following my calling. I was on a personal excursion at the well-known Mount Airy Lodge, circa 1990. When the Comedian finished his show, I approached him at the side of the stage, while he was packing up to “run down to NYC for a late-night spot.” A very common occurrence at the time, but also, an excuse that many Comedians use to, get out of Dodge. I inquired, “who booked you for this?” Armed with a name and number, I proceeded to call the (aforementioned) Booker and was asked, “well, what do you do?” Duh, I make people laugh! Innocently and honestly, I actually replied, “I am very good at improvising and working the crowd…like Don Rickles and Pudgy. He responded, as if I had cursed his first-born child – “how dare you compare yourself to those geniuses!” YES, how dare I know early on in my career what I had a natural knack for. The booking never happened. I never called him again. And unfortunately, I let him color my perception of what was innate to me as a performer, for many years to come. Stupid Joe!
The upside to the story is that I dove headfirst into writing my material…my act, thinking that this is what I needed to be great at. Thank you, bitter Hy Einhorn, as you forced me to become a double threat – a great writer, who could also work free-style. Egotistically, I may have been a triple threat, if I were to include the many female encounters, which being good at my craft garnished for me, in my younger years.
I am writing about my abilities, with confidence. If only, I could feel this same confidence (even after 32 years) before taking the stage. I face each varied venue (because seldomly are gigs at legit comedy clubs, where audiences are typically ready and willing to just swallow up your written material and find you brilliant) with the fear that I may have lost this talent for improvisation. I over prepare and do not trust that the gift will arrive when it’s needed. With exception to the nights where I am disconnected from being a Stand-Up, or the audience is simply not there to laugh, the magic happens! Words come to me in the moment, that are funnier than anything I could have ever slaved over in my writing. A “happening” has just occurred, and it cannot be repeated the next night. When I exhale, on the car ride home, as opposed to reveling in my success, I hate myself for having put myself through self-doubt - and the anxiety that accompanies that - ALL OVER AGAIN.
Some Comedians write good jokes about universal (or fictitious) premises. They are to be credited for that. It is a style. However, the ones that write from their gut and personalize it, from a perspective that is undeniably theirs and theirs alone, are not only more connected and endearing to the public, but historically, those are the Comics that I have admired and aspired to be like. Improvisation follows these same unwritten rules. To observe your surroundings or absorb a moment/audience member (whether they are willing participants or not), and jump from that artistic plane, into the unknown, hoping that your parachute will open (aka words will be handed to your lips from some mystical place in your mind) is the definition of originality! For one example of trillions, because every second of life…including life onstage, is different from the last, I’ve chosen this simple stock line:
A crowd member heckles you. It could be in any way shape or form, witty or rude, kind or mean, and so on. The Comeback (you respond with is): “Do I slap the dick out of your mouth when you’re working?” This WILL get a laugh! But why not embrace that moment, person, or distinctive party of individuals?
Take a millisecond to drink it in, instead of letting your feelings get hurt because they didn’t sit there with their hands folded, being enamored by your every uttering. Then, let YOU respond! Remember, you most likely got into this horrifying line of work because people found you funny, with no script or predetermined/preconceived outcomes. The results might surprise you, lest I mention, make that moment the thing that those people talk about for years to come. Believe me, that sort of genuine-real comedic behavior can be that powerful. It has happened to me. Things I’ve said that I do not remember saying, are repeated back to me all the time, by people I run into years after the fact. THEM: “We still call So & So Thirty-Five Cent!” ME: I just smile and say, “cool,” because I probably don’t remember them, the venue, or having been so influential in their lives. Look, if you do respond with full knee jerk emotion, versus humor fueled by emotion, forgive yourself and move on. You are, after all, human.
My Wisdom – Call it Opinion
Chances are if you are selling out arena’s, this advice may not apply to you. Then again, that fortunate minority are not reading this anyway. Let it be known, that when everyone is there purely to see you, your set will go easy and they will love your every joke, strong, weak, or indifferent. This does not exclude Comedians with a fan base from taking advantage of a moment and ad-libbing, making them an even larger hero to their fans. For us working comics, who find reason to go “off book,” allow me to advise. As I’ve said, this may not be rudimentary to your instincts, or perhaps you are just plain scared to open certain Pandora’s boxes. However, let me appeal to your perspectives, with a checklist:
The Heckler – Take “a beat,” don’t just immediately beat them up. Reacting from observational assessment, intelligence, and your life’s experiences, will bode a much funnier line for you, than pure emotion. We (Comedians) ALL want them to Shut Up, but that takes tact, and you want to avoid creating tension.
Your Surroundings - I am a bit obsessive (anal as they say) and therefore cannot help to take note of everything around me. What appears to be an incredible gift of humor to my audience, is simply me regurgitating what I’ve absorbed, that they themselves subconsciously noticed. So, make a few preshow mental notes about “the obvious” aesthetic. The venue, the common demographic of the crowd or town, any oddities…to infinity. You’ll be surprised, how verbally bringing to fruition what already exists, will bowl them over. That’s the easy part. The fun will come as you create comments (jokes) about it in real time on stage. You have just given them permission to laugh at themselves.\
Not All Improv is Improv at all – Formulating jokes on the latter, beforehand, and it appearing to be an ad-lib, is not cheating at all. This is not a test. Improv Troupes and the famed-brilliant Robin Williams do/did this. You are simply preparing a foundation for something brand new that has just entered your life’s journey and you are going to make it funny. Most will be throw-away, that only apply to that event. Some are portable keepers and can be taken with you to similar scenarios or gigs.
HAVE FUN WITH IT!
I just wrapped up an episodic documentary on the Grateful Dead - Long Strange Trip. Although not a huge fan, and certainly not a “Dead Head,” Garcia’s goal was always to just “have fun.” It showed in their brilliant music ability and the insane party that followed them everywhere. The LSD didn’t hurt, but I am NOT endorsing that!
In my world, it was Pat Cooper who once stopped me, while I tried to suck the comedic knowledge from his brain by saying, “Enjoy This!” WOW did that resonate with me before every show, for many-many years to follow. Nowadays, that state of mind finds me during my performance, in lieu of me finding it, before the performance. Either way, it’s the recipe for successful improvisation.