By S. Lee Manning:
Ever watch a stand-up comedian? Did you think that he/she/they was doing it on the fly, making it up spontaneously?
|Me, during a recent performance.
I am here to disabuse you of that notion. Every stand-up act is carefully crafted, rewritten, honed and practiced to give the audience that final illusion of a person winging it on stage.
And, for any writer who’s ever thought of writing comedy, it may be useful to know not only how writing stand-up is different from writing novels, but to give some insight into how the process works.
I feel fully qualified to do this. After all, I took one six-week course, and have performed stand-up a total of four times. (Saturday night will be my fifth.)
So here is the wisdom I’ve gleaned from my – um, three months – as a comic.
The obvious first – length.
The biggest difference between writing novels and writing stand-up, of course, is the length of the piece and the length of time to create it.
I tend to go way too long when I write a novel, and then I have to cut back. Which I do, even if I weep during the process. My average length is between 120,000 and 130,000 words, that I tend wind up cutting back to somewhere in the vicinity of 100,000 words.
The first novel I ever wrote was 250,000 words. Ah, but I was young and foolish – and had read Tolstoy and Dickens. When I was finally offered a contract for that novel, I had it down to 83,000 words.
I’m still writing novels – thrillers – with what I hope is witty dialogue. I’m about a quarter of the way through a new thriller. But stand-up provides a nice break. It gets me away from my desk, and I can find out immediately if I’ve written something that sucks.
My average comedy set is about 3 pages. Never checked the word count. You don’t go by word count for stand-up. You go by time. When you do a set on stage, you’re told how much time you’re allowed. The average open mic is from three minutes to five minutes, (and if you think that’s short, try standing in front of 100 people for five minutes.) But it is bad form to go over your time. If you’re given three minutes, that’s it, end of set. Not three and a half minutes. Not three minutes ten seconds. Three minutes.
So I write a few pages, and then stand in front of a mirror and pretend to be talking to an audience – with a stop watch going. I have a three minute set, a five minute set, and an eight minute set, which I can drag out longer with dramatic pauses and overblown gestures.
The rule is to try out new material at open mics. If you are fortunate enough to be offered a set at a performance where people actually pay money to see you, it had better be material you’ve honed, polished, and practiced.
I can only speak to my personal three-month experience.
I’m not so much into shock jokes – or sex jokes – or just one liners. I tend to like stories. I like to take something that was painful or scary or transformative – and find the humor in it.
My first draft of my stand-up was long and involved, and I explained way too much. Nathan, who led the class, informed me that it was a good story, but it was more like something for the Moth Hour than a stand-up. (If you aren’t familiar with the Moth Hour, you’re probably not a dedicated NPR listener. Goggle it.) To explain, it was a personal story with humor mixed in – but the emphasis was more on the personal than on the humor.
In stand-up, you don’t want to go more than a few lines without a joke.
So, instead of having a lot of background leading up to the joke, trim it down to the essential. It’s an art that is more like poetry than novel writing. Every word, every phrase has to be weighed and calculated.
And what makes something funny? I’m not getting into that here.
So here’s how I boiled a painful story down to a set. I have a three minute routine where I joke about having had a bilateral mastectomy ten years ago. What I did in the first draft: explain how I had a biopsy, how I then had a lumpectomy and then had to decide about radiation – and then after the recommendation of a bi-lateral mastectomy, also decided not to have reconstruction.
I filled in all the details, and it took ten minutes. It might have engaged listeners because it was personal and painful– but it wasn’t funny.
So I cut out much of it and tried to zoom to the essential – with a joke every few lines. Here’s how my final version went.
So the doctor told me I had stage zero breast cancer. I went yay, I have no breast cancer. No, he said, you have breast cancer, it’s stage zero.
So apparently zero doesn’t mean zero. Don’t doctors have to pass math to get into medical school?
So we went over various treatment options, and what the chances of recurrence were, 15 percent for this, ten percent for that, and I asked – “What if we just cut the fuckers off?”
(Sorry if anyone’s offended by the language. Comics tend to be more foul mouthed than the average person.)
He said, “Zero to one percent.”
I like the number zero. A lot of people don’t. It’s one of those glass half full/half empty kind of things. Some people look at zero and think, I got nothing. I have zero money. Zero prospects. But then, there’s the optimistic way to look at zero.
I have zero bears breaking into my house this week.
Zero aliens popping out of my head.
Zero cases of Ebola in my state.
So, assuming the odds really were zero to one percent for recurrence, bingo.
Then the doctor wanted to talk reconstruction. I asked what it would feel like. He said, “Soft and pliable, a lot like what you’ve got now.”
I said, “Na ah. I don’t care what it’ll feel like from your
side. What’ll it feel like from my
Then he gave me what he thought was his winning argument: “A woman doesn’t feel like a woman without her breasts.”
(Dramatic pause. I often get gasps here.)
Really? So what does she feel like? A hippo? A horse? An itty bitty kitty cat. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t feel like a man, unless she already did, which would make her a him, unless she is non-binary, which would make her a they, all of which is great and I support it and goes to show that you don’t need a stinking pair of breasts to feel like a woman.
(I’ve gotten cheers on this line as well as laughs.)
The final test for a stand-up routine is how it sounds. Because writing it down doesn’t always tell you the rhythm – the intonation to use – gestures – etc. But that’s what open mics are for – assuming you can’t coerce a close friend or a significant other to sit through your routine. I’ve been lucky: my husband has been a willing listener/collaborator – although he does have his limits. Ten times is more than enough for him.
Now, not everyone will find your stuff funny. Some people will just sit there and stare at you. Everyone who has ever done stand-up has the experience of an audience that just won’t laugh. Sometimes people are looking for a particular kind of humor. Sometimes they’re offended by your language. Sometimes people who’ve had a similar experience don’t appreciate jokes about something so painful to them personally– although after one of the times I did my breast cancer set – I exchanged hugs with another survivor – who was also a comic and who loved my routine.
This is again where writing comedy is like writing a novel. Not everyone responds to the same thing. Some people may love what you do. Some people may hate it. But if you get a good response from enough people, you know you’re on the right path. And you keep going – which is the key to success in any endeavor.
If you’re ever in Burlington, Vermont, catch the show at the Vermont Comedy Club. Wednesday night is open mic. I might be there.