Ride Slow, Homey: Timing and Stand-Up Comedy Part 1
Every comic has their personal list of pet peeves. There is one particular peeve I think we all have in common, which is when you finish up a set, and an audience member says:
“I’ve got a great joke you can use.”
They mean well, but their offer is insulting for the following reasons:
1) Offering to help write material implies that help is needed. You wouldn’t approach a baseball pitcher who threw a bad game and say, “Next time, sub me in at the bottom of the ninth and I’ll win it for you.”
2) Comics are, for the most part, very proud of generating their own material. In a related post about theft, we talked about how joke-stealing is relatively rare in stand-up. The reasoning is: “I have been busting my ass at this, facing rejection and honing my act, finding my style onstage. Why would I want to share the most satisfying part of it with someone who hasn’t?”
3) And here we get to the point of this week’s article. People who don’t do stand-up don’t realize that a joke is nothing without good delivery. And really, delivery is about timing.
In a previous post, I talked a little bit about how I was very material focused during my first year as a stand-up. I don’t regret my choices, but I found out the hard way, that material is only half the battle onstage.
However, the other side of the equation, that ubiquitous concept of “stage presence” is a lot harder to pin down. Should all comics bounce around onstage like Dane Cook? Should they move very little, almost mumbling their jokes like Steven Wright? Should they exude a safe, approachable demeanor like Bill Cosby? Or should they come off abrasive and angry like Lewis Black?
You see how it quickly becomes a pointless exercise to try and pin down concepts like stage presence. If I had to define it, I would probably say something like
“Stage presence is how you behave onstage once you have become an experienced comic.”
This may be an unsatisfying definition, but it has to be broad, because stage presence is what defines you, I dare say moreso than jokes. For example, when I’m at a show watching Toronto comics Nathan MacIntosh, Dave Merheje and Monty Scott, it almost doesn’t matter to me what topics they explore. Obviously they write great material, but it is THEM that I’m watching, not a bunch of gags. THEY are the funny. In the little gestures and foibles, and especially in their timing.
It’s no coincidence that the comics I just mentioned have been honing their craft for years to reach that level of honesty onstage. I didn’t know them when they were noobs, but I have to assume they went through a similar awkwardness that everyone does starting out, where no amount of pretending can hide that you feel nervous onstage and aren’t at ease.
Does this mean we should ignore stage presence, content that it will come in time? I don’t think so. While it’s impossible to rush comfort, there are a few areas of performance that can be monitored and improved in the meantime. And the easiest one to mechanically improve, in my opinion, is timing.
Timing is all about the rhythm of a performance. It is not just the places where you talk, but in between when you are silent. Timing can kill beautifully worded jokes, or raise up mediocre comedy to greatness. Pausing, and taking time onstage is one of the prime signals to the audience that you are in control and comfortable onstage.
Let’s look at a few examples of comics who know what time it is.
1) Jack Benny
Of the golden age comedians, Benny was legendary for his timing. Probably the most famous example of he could milk a pause is the “Money or Your Life” skit on his radioshow. Noah’s Comedy Palace has a a nice write-up about Benny with the skit for streaming at the bottom.
Much like jazz legend Miles Davis, Benny’s art was just as important for its pauses than for its content.
2) Steven Wright
Steven Wright has made a fine career slinging one liners, which is even more impressive in this day and age, where stand-up comedy seems to be leaning toward more personal, anecdotal material.
One liners are super difficult because you’re only as good as the last one. In a half hour set, dozens of those one liners have to be flying, and they won’t all hit. In fact, due to a one-liner’s needy vibe, people might even throw out a groan if you drop a particularly bad one.
When I went to see Steven perform a few months ago, having recently gone through a (disastrous) phase of writing and performing exclusively one-liners, I really started to understand how he makes it work. There is an underlying funniness to his stage persona – the pauses between jokes tell us when to laugh. Other comics that have done great work with one-liners by resting them on a foundation of strong persona are Mitch Hedberg, Rodney Dangerfield, and more recently, Demetri Martin.
3) Louis CK
I highly recommend you check out Louis CK’s new show on FX called “Louie.” It just got renewed for a second season and it’s been blowing me away because it’s just so honest and raw. In between scenes they play clips of his stand-up which are great examples of a master of his craft, completely comfortable onstage. Again, here is a guy who is in no rush. Here is a clip of a promo.
If you’re interested in timing, do yourself a favour and gobble this show up.
We’ll end there for today, come back tomorrow where we get practical with this whole timing thing. Take us out of here Kanye: