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Modular Bits Part 2

September 28, 2010


Yesterday we talked about the importance and power of comedy that is “here and now,” whether it be current events or manufactured shared experiences within the confine of a show. But we really didn’t get into how to overcome the inherent impermanence that comes with this type of humour. That’s where today comes in. Shall we get going?

One solution I have experimented with is to write what I call “modular bits.” I am still in the early stages of this initiative, so they are mostly applied to one-liners, but the concept seems to apply to longer bits as well.

Take this one-liner I wrote for example:

“Canadian Road Construction is a lot like Paris Hilton: slow, and less attractive than you’d think after all that work.”

The joke is set up so that it doesn’t really matter who the butt is, as long as they are stupid and had plastic surgery. Lucky for us, in the world of pop culture there is no shortage of celebrities that fit the bill. In fact, the entire cast of “The Hills” is prime fodder:

In another couple of years when Paris and Heidi are old news, this joke can be modified by changing just the name to keep it current.

Another example:

“Oh man my neighbourhood is so disgusting, everybody just lets the garbage pile up on the sidewalk. Yesterday I had to step over Lindsay Lohan to get to work!”

Again, very easy to substitute another name of a trashy celebrity in there.

Another benefit of modular bits is they not only conquer the issue of expiry, but can adapt to age demographics as well. You can tailor the bit to pop culture references that will most likely hit with the generation of your audience that night. For an older crowd, you might substitute Joan Rivers for Paris Hilton, or notorious cheater Hugh Grant for Lindsay Lohan.

Here is a video of a set I did with a modular opening bit – the “One to Jonas Brothers” opening (from beginning to about a minute in).

As the Jonas Brothers’ popularity started to wane, I replaced them with Justin Bieber. When Bieber’s star eventually falls, he can be replaced by the next pop sensation. Conversely, what if I was at a political convention? It would be easy to insert the name of a politician from an opposing party with similar effect.

Some might argue that I’m trying too hard to hold on to material. They might say the solution is just to “write harder.”

“As jokes expire, simply replace them with new ones!!!” they might shout from a rooftop in the rain.

Easy lady, it’s just a blog.

To a certain extent, I agree. Creating an evolving body of new work is very important, and I am constantly trying out new material. But if I may offer a couple of thoughts on the matter:

-Only writing material about current events will not help build up an archive of A material for professional use. Presumably at some point in your stand-up career, someone will offer you money to perform, and they expect you to kill it. In this scenario, would you want to be working on a brand new five, or use five minutes that you’ve honed to such perfection that you are absolutely guaranteed to knock it out of the park?

-Since it is easier to get laughs from current event topics, you are neglecting the skill of developing unique observations on classic, but hack-trap premises like relationships, family, or work life. Arguably, it is finding angles on these ancient topics that help develop style and voice.

-Adopting a modular approach isn’t a huge paradigm shift in the writing process, and does not step on creativity in any way. In fact, I have found adding this layer of thought to the joke writing process to improve creativity. If you decide to approach current event jokes with a modular state of mind, you can easily stay true to your inner voice and write the jokes that work for you as a comic.

To clarify, I am not recommending that every joke should be approached in a modular way – you are not a robot and neither am I.

So by all means, follow your heart – if you feel strongly about a current event, explore it however you please. But a modular approach is something to think about, if like me you appreciate the immediacy of a current event joke, but want the time you spent polishing it to pay off as well.

As usual I am very interested to hear people’s thoughts on this, please shout back in the comments area if you’ve got something to say.

Let’s mosey on out of here with two clips involving the lovely and talented Kristen Schaal, the first of which is rooted heavily in pop culture, and the second which appears to be referencing an expired current event, but is really a cleverly disguised timeless bit:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2010 1:20 pm

    Personally, I prefer to save topical stuff for Twitter. Plus if someone references something topical on a show, I can say that topical tweet to make my act look fresh.

    • September 29, 2010 1:10 pm

      That’s a really interesting approach, Mo, thanks for chiming in. I have thought about using Twitter for one-liners, but your system using current event jokes is probably more productive.

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