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Martial Arts and Comedy: An Issue of Style

September 6, 2010


I was thinking the other day how stand-up is kind of similar to the martial arts, in the sense that there are so many different styles. Much like

Bruce Lee

was a master of his own style, Jeet Kune Do, could we not also say that

Steven Wright

is a master of the one-liner? Or that

Jerry Seinfeld

is a master of the observational style? Or that

Carlos Mencia

is a master of thievery?

That’s a burn, folks!

Burn baby burn.

Aside from the self-congratulating nature of comparing people who tell a bunch of jokes to bad-ass fighters who can kick faces, it’s a real topic that is rarely discussed in any depth. Most books on stand-up I’ve read just dismiss the issue of style as “something that just comes with experience.” I’m not really a fan of this point of view because it relegates style to something almost pre-ordained, out of our control, like eye colour or height.

While I think that a comic’s personality is the driving force behind what style they move towards, I think there’s an aspect of nurture as well. Putting this into practice in my own stand-up has been occasionally very painful – I’m absolutely terrible at one-liners, but for awhile I forced myself to write ‘em every day, and performed them (mostly to groans), just to see if it was for me.

I suppose you could look at that as wasting time – why work at a skill set you aren’t very good at when you could be nurturing the style that comes natural to you? I have a couple of responses to that:

-The best martial artists (fighters in MMA know this) are proficient at several styles of combat, not just the one that works best for them. As a result, they are more flexible. They become proficient not just at one way of fighting, but understanding how fighting works. (For some reason when they square off it often seems like a killer make-out session is about to go down).

Simply put, a broader understanding of comedy can only enrich your ability to be funny. For example, thanks to my clumsy attempts at one-liners, I’ve learned a lot about trimming premises to the bone. It wasn’t until I had to fit everything into one sentence that I realized how sloppy my premises were.

-Another good reason is you might be able to pull something useful from the style you are failing miserably at. I would like to discuss this more in a post of its own about thoughts on the one-liner as a diagnostic tool to read an audience.

-It’s challenging. It seems that in every walk of life, the people who have risen to the top of their game haven’t been content to coast. They are constantly pushing themselves out of the comfort zone:

You never know what kind of audience you’ll have, or what style will work best. Doesn’t it make sense to be familiar with your options so that you can work any crowd? I’ll let the amazing Zach Galifianakis wrap things up with a great example of how a master comedian can adapt their style to any situation, regardless of the leanings of their style. Your thoughts and comments, of course, are greatly appreciated.

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