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Modular Bits Part 1

September 27, 2010

Happy Monday! Let’s start off today’s theory post with a quick definition:


mod•u•lar (m j -l r)
1. Of, relating to, or based on a module or modulus.
2. Designed with standardized units or dimensions, as for easy assembly and repair or flexible arrangement and use: modular furniture; modular homes.

Here’s something frustrating: The most powerful jokes in a comic’s arsenal are usually placed in the HERE and NOW. While a well crafted joke about your boss at work will get laughs, it probably won’t get that belly slappin’ hand clappin’ reaction. The audience doesn’t know your boss. They are taking your word for it that he or she even exists.  As a result, the boss will never feel quite “real.”  The more rooted a joke is in the moment, a spot in time that the audience is experiencing themselves, the more powerful it becomes.

This, to me, is in keeping with how humans perceive the world. To most people, a stranger who needs help in a faraway country is of less importance than a family member in duress.  We literally relate better to the latter situation.

It’s the same in film.  Good writers can convince us to root for the villain if we are allowed to get to know them.  Their situation is now relevant to us.  By tapping into this phenomenon, shows that rely on finding humour in current events like The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live get huge laughs. You read about a current event in the world, and BAM. That night you’re hearing a joke about it.

Let’s take it to a smaller scale. Consider the habit of comics who look unusual to start a set by acknowledging their appearance. The overweight comic might take the stage and say “I know what you’re thinking, and yes, I would like to super-size it.” Or the bald comedian might confide that “this club is so cheap they’re paying me in follicles.” These kinds of openings generate solid laughs because the topic is hanging in the air, the elephant in the room, so to speak.

The reaction is stronger, because it is keying into what the audience was JUST thinking about, their immediate first impression of you.

So if all of this is true, it’s safe to say all comics should exclusively focus on current event material, right?

Alas, we come to the tragedy of the situation:

(If I had an editor he or she would probably
say that this picture is in bad taste).

These topics that touch on shared experiences and current events have a brutally short shelf life. Jokes about the current Prime Minister become pointless when he leaves office. Witty observations about the G20 seem out of place just a week after the event. As time marches on, so must the act, or else risk that dreaded label that all comics fear: “irrelevant.”


(Here, my imaginary editor would probably encourage me to spend more time picking photos
in general, so as not to come off as a lazy bum).

The solution that I see most often employed to overcome this unfortunate shelf-life issue is to mix and match. By mixing current event jokes in with more “timeless material,” it’s possible to have that cake and eat it too. A quick jab about an event in the paper today can overcome its lack of polish by being propped up by a bit that’s had months to mature.

Good MCs demonstrate this tactic. Their job, aside from the mechanics of running a show, is to be in the moment. They must acknowledge the people in the room, the venue, and the performers. For example, it is common for an MC to take the stage after an act and say, “Donnie was talking about public washrooms – have you ever noticed…” and launch into their own material on the same subject. On a practical level, this flexibility serves the show because the MC is able to run with hot topics, and ignore threads that aren’t going over well.

They also spend a lot of time riffing with the audience, asking if anyone has a birthday, what’s your name, where are you from, etc. Skilled MCs will use this information later on, creating call-backs that are built for this specific audience and its members. They create their own current events within the confines of the show.  One of my favourite Toronto comedians Martha O’Neill will pick an audience member early in her set and find out their name.  Later, she will reference the name casually, as if she’s good friends with the person in the audience. This simulated conspiracy between someone who we know is a stranger to her comes off as hilarious.

Mixing and matching is a good solution, but it doesn’t really address the phenomenon of a joke expiring, only reduces the amount of material lost when it does. I find it so heart-breaking to build a solid bit about a current event. By the time I’ve got the wording just right and I’m really happy with it, I gotta move on. Is there a solution? MAYBE SO…

Join us tomorrow for Part 2 where we sink our teeth into the concept of modular bits.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Tim permalink
    September 27, 2010 11:14 am

    Great read Buxto!


  1. Modular Bits Part 2 « Premise PUNCH Tag – Joel Buxton's Stand-Up Comedy Blog
  2. Stand-Up Comedy Glossary « Premise PUNCH Tag – Joel Buxton's Stand-Up Comedy Blog

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