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Time Travel & Stage Time

September 20, 2010

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:

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2010 2:38 pm

    First of all, I love this blog. Second of all, yes that is spot on. Indeed, the people who go through two shows or mics a night are the ones who LOVE stand up; the only ones who SHOULD be doing stand-up. If you think stand-up is a fun back door to fame, you are in for a rude awakening.

    I will also add, in the vein of Patton Oswalt on Comedy and Everything Else, that you don’t want to repeat the same year. In other words don’t make the same mistakes for 20 years. Talk slower, speak with conviction, don’t just act like 20 years is some magic number. Be present, learn all you can.

    As for the whole dropping jokes issue there is only one thing: how do YOU feel about the joke? Some jokes I love so much I’ll work on them or keep them despite audience reaction. But if you don’t feel like you can stand by a joke, it might be because it IS crap. Some premises are terrible or worn. But if you drop it and you are compelled to do it again, there probably is something there.

    Also read my blog.

    • September 21, 2010 4:15 pm

      Thanks for the comment Mo, I’m glad you like the blog! Let me know if you have any topics you’d like to discuss in a guest post – and thanks for the link to yours, I’m an official subscriber.

  2. September 28, 2010 6:09 am

    Stand up comedy (or really alternative stand up comedy is what I do, or it does me), is similar to what I have been doing as a college educator. When I share my vulnerabilities with my students some of them took this as an invitation to “beat up on me”, because they resented the chaos it represented. Namely I had removed the hierarchical expectations of the typical teacher-student relationship. By emotionally sharing my experiences (in addition to, and interweaving it with what I was required to teach) most of my students also risked sharing their vulnerabilities, by writing, speaking. Because there is little time or opportunity to extend the comedy set and/or make it interactive like in a classroom, I am attempting to do a kind of visualization of interactivity with the audience when I do my sets. I offer my comedy as though it is an experience to be consumed. It is really a vicarious and/or virtual personality experience that I am offering. I am always hoping I can show how risking being emotionally vulnerable provides a supreme focus that allows me to BE in the present momment on stage, WITHOUT drama and or ego, which drama and/or ego would be distractions to being totally focussed.


  1. I’m a Hustla Baby: Making Luck in Stand-Up Part 1 « Premise PUNCH Tag – Joel Buxton's Stand-Up Comedy Blog
  2. Cast A Wide Net: Improving Stand-Up Comedy Through Diversity Part 2 « Premise PUNCH Tag – Joel Buxton's Stand-Up Comedy Blog
  3. Cast A Wide Net: Improving Stand-Up Comedy Through Diversity Part 1 « Premise PUNCH Tag – Joel Buxton's Stand-Up Comedy Blog

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