Time Travel & Stage Time
YOU: Whaaaaaaaat? Time travel? But this is a comedy blog! Buxton you crayzay!
ME: Why don’t you make like a tree and get outta here?
One piece of great advice someone gave me when I was just getting into stand-up was to avoid comparing your career progress to other comics. The reasoning was that in show business, there are far too many random variables to create any semblance of a fair and level playing field. A random show can have just the right person in the audience to further a comic’s career. As a result, a person who smashes watermelons with a hammer
can become an international sensation, while someone utterly brilliant
can labour in obscurity for over a decade before achieving notoriety.
It’s not hard to see how bitterness can creep in for a comic if the people around them “move up” while they stagnate. It must seem unfair to watch a younger act breeze past when you’ve been paying your dues for years.
But stand-up comedy isn’t like other career-based jobs, in the sense that seniority holds any weight. Albert said it best:
Time is relative. In stand-up, the only time that really matters is when you’ve got a group of people looking at you, and you are telling them jokes. Sure, you can work on writing, read up on theory, but nothing really substitutes for stage time. This is an interesting and unique foible of the art form. A guitarist doesn’t need to be onstage to improve on the guitar, he or she can practice for as many hours as they like in privacy. A unicyclist can pedal around their driveway for hours, and it all counts toward getting better.
In this way, prolific comics who do more shows are essentially time-travelling. They might have physically only been at stand up for a year, but if they’re out every night, hitting one or two stages at a go, they are speeding ahead of comics who get out less often.
I’ve heard stories of a young Eddie Murphy at the start of his career performing two hours a night! This would seem like a nightmarish amount of time to fill for most people when they’re getting started, but Murphy saw the opportunity to hop on the time machine. By the time he “broke out,” people were amazed at how such a young kid was so effing good at stand-up comedy. Some people are just born with it, they reasoned. While I’m sure Eddie Murphy had a lot of natural talent, there’s no mystery here. He was a grizzled, battle-worn stand-up comic in a young man’s body, that’s all.
I find this idea very inspiring, as I’ve always been the type to look for shortcuts. And I see time-travellin’ comics every day. It is rare for me to do a set in Toronto and not run into workhorses like John Hastings or Dave Merheje. Even comics that have lots of TV credits under their belt like Gavin Stephens are fixtures at open mikes, just constantly honing their craft.
I remember a conversation I had with a more experienced comic where I asked “ how do you know when to abandon a bit that isn’t working?” His answer surprised me. He said that you give up on it after you’ve tried it 50-100 times. This blew my mind. I had been giving my bits about 3 chances to hit and cutting them from my set if they didn’t deliver. His answer gave me perspective on a couple of things:
a) That I wasn’t giving my material even close to the time it needed to mature and settle, but also
b) The sheer number of shows this comic must be doing to afford such a generous development period. I mean, at that point, I had just passed the 100 show mark PERIOD.
They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any skill. Say you get out to two shows a week at 5 minutes each. You’re logging less than 9 hours a YEAR. Comics that get out there every night, several times a night, they’re the ones that are making like Marty McFly and Doc Brown.
And hey, if they achieve success faster because of it, don’t be jealous – we can too if we put in the time.
I’m very interested to hear people’s thoughts on this, leave a comment if you’ve got something to say.
Take us out of here, Doc: