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Cast A Wide Net: Improving Stand-Up Comedy Through Diversity Part 2

April 5, 2011

Hi, welcome to part 2 of this week’s article on casting a wide net in order to improve in stand-up comedy (part 1 found here). Yesterday we looked at the differences between these two basic approaches to life:

The Specialist: One who dedicates most of their focus to one or two main pursuits, and becomes incredibly skilled at those specific tasks

The Generalist: One who tries their hand at a large variety of interests, reaching an elite level of skill at none.

As I said yesterday, I’m a generalist at heart, so I wanted to talk about how this attitude can be applied in a conscious way to stand-up comedy.

Every book I’ve read on stand-up likens a comic’s style to wine; it gets better with age, and simply can’t be rushed.  I call shenanigans on that.  Just like people who say funny can’t be learned, I think this myth is propagated by people who have been in the biz a long time and want to reassure themselves that it was all worthwhile.  Forget it, I’m not buying.  Not with comics like Eddie Murphy and Demetri Martin discovering a distinct and amazing style very early in their careers.

Don’t get me wrong – I do think that time is an important aspect of maturing as a performer.  But time is only an idea, a way for us to measure events.  So I would suggest that what these books are really trying to say, is that a unique style takes work, not time.  You can easily cram more and more work into a shorter time.

So that’s the thesis of this week’s post.  What are some conscious choices we an make to optimize our time offstage and speed up the maturing process.  So without further ado, here are five suggestions for strategies to maximize your life experiences onstage and off.

Diversity in your personal life

1) People

Outside of the audition room for Buddy Cop 2: Buddy Harder

We seek out and appreciate people who are similar to us, but consider that this might just be the path of least resistance.  Sure, forming a bond with someone unlike you is more effort at first, but you will be rewarded with a whole lot of wisdom.  Just seeing how they look at the world might inspire and illuminate you.  How do you meet people outside of your comfort zone?  See number 2.

2) Hobbies

You call that a fish, bub?  I caught this one by singing Beatles tunes and pointing to my stomach.

Peace peace peace peace.

You could call me a hobby whore, because I love to pick up and drop hobbies like they’re going out of style.  I can remember a year in university when I decided to memorize every World War II airplane and visit all the aviation museums in Ontario and Quebec.  Why?  I have no God damn idea, I was just into it.  And one day I woke up and said, “Planes are whack,” and that was that.

This is an important thing: hobbies are not like books that you have to finish.  Once I recognized this fact, I made peace with the way my mind will become passionately interested (then disinterested) in a hobby.  And those experiences will resurface.  I just finished writing a sketch last week involving an ocarina player in a rock band.  The idea definitely sprung from a hobby I picked up while travelling in Japan of playing the ocarina.

Be aware that your enthusiasm may prove embarrassing at a later point, especially if you are dumb enough to start a Youtube account:

The point is, people will laugh at your weird hobbies, or say you’re wasting time.  But who cares?  Is watching Dexter and Sucker Punch really a better use?  Screw it, just have fun.

3) New Experiences

It’s important to just leave the house, and be mindful of your surroundings.  Sometimes when I’m out doing errands I’m in a bit of a fugue state, just trying to complete my tasks.  But if I take a minute and observe my surroundings, I have always been rewarded with something funny or inspiring.

Perhaps a kid on a leash that inspires a bit about lazy parenting, or two homeless people fighting politely over a panhandling spot might yield some comedy goodness.   Go out into the world and be mindful of what you see.  There are premises everywhere, waiting patiently for you to notice.

4) Exposure to Different Art

I feel like this is a good example of why you don’t always have

to write down ideas for paintings in the middle of the night.

Don’t be afraid to explore art that you suck at.  Like anyone, I enjoy a good TV show or film, but every once and awhile I like to hit the theatre for a play, or a spoken word poetry reading.  I like open mikes and karaoke nights, how no one is polished and I can see singers in different stages of development.

I’ll just say this, if you haven’t ever seen Cirque Du Soleil,

get off your ass right now and go see those acrobats.

I find I go through phases with what kind of art floats my boat, and that’s fine.  One week I might be really into Westerns, another week Huckleberry Finn.  Last week I was loving Breaking Bad, this week it’s Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  Who cares?  If your mind is interested at this moment in time it probably has something to teach you.

One of my favourite things in life is how some days I just wake up and go.  What do you want, brain?  Oh, you want to listen to old radio dramas and watch break dancing videos on the internet?  Brain wants, brain gets.

If you’re looking for a random topic to get started on, check out this article on street art.

5) Random Situations

Make sure you take some time to be out in the world without a specific purpose.  For me this happens when I walk to sets in the evening.  I usually don’t have a route in mind and just wander, following my gut.  Wandering like has yielded some great experiences.

For example, once while wandering with my friend Shane, we were having a coffee on a patio and a naked woman walked by all calm and casual.  Then a gaggle of bike cops came zipping by, shouting for her to get dressed.  Hilarious, weird, and totally unexpected.  Never would have seen it if we’d turned right instead of left.

Diversity as an Artist

1) Book Different Types of Shows

Some people do great at alt-comedy rooms, others at pot rooms.  Still others can only shine in the organized club environment.  I say, whatever you’re best at, don’t get trapped there.  Aside from weakening yourself as a comic becuse you’re too specialiazed for a certain type of crowd, you are also missing out on a whole chunk of comics to watch perform, and experiences to be had at those different venues.  One show I try to do every once in awhile in Toronto is called Gong the Show.  You’ve got to survive onstage for 90 seconds without getting booed off.  Totally scary to me, way out of my comfort zone.  But doing Gong has taught me a lot about getting to the meat of a premise quickly and efficiently.

2) Trying out other forms of comedy

Look how much fun these people are having.

Well at least the woman riding a man is anyway.

Feel free to try out improv or sketch, the spiritual cousins of stand-up comedy.  Many of the Second City branches offer cheap drop in classes once a week, and in Toronto we also have the Impatient Theatre Company, which offers affordable classes.  Consider trying your hand at different comedy writing.  Why not create your own top ten list for Letterman?  Why not write a spec script for a sitcom you enjoy?  When I’m riding the subway I listen to podcasts and accent tutorials for different parts of the world.  Aside from being fun and teaching me about language, the accents come in handy for act outs and sketch work.

3) New Material Challenges

We are always looking for the path of least resistance.  For this reason, if we’re not careful, stand-up material becomes homogenous quickly.  For this reason I try to challenge myself every so often to take a new approach.

There was a period where I was really into writing one liners, and that taught me how to edit down a joke real slim.  Since I don’t really write blue material, I tried a raunchy phase, where I talked about all the stuff I’d normally find too embarrassing.

While I wasn’t great at any of these approaches, I do believe they helped me to grow.  For example, even though I don’t like blue material much, doing it taught me some valuable audience interactions skills to navigate edgy topics that are permanent skills.

4) Working with People Who Think Differently

Try to engage with other artists who don’t see the world in the same way you do.  It’s refreshing, and just hearing them talk about their lives, you might learn some new perspectives.

5) Studying the Greats

Some people are afraid to listen to famous comics because they might accidentally absorb that comic’s style.  I think that this is an unavoidable part of being a noob.  I know when I was just getting started I sounded like some lame cross between Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, two of my faves.  But I grew out of it.  I say, as long as you’re not stealing material, just let your style develop.  In the meantime, listen and watch all the stand-up comedy you can.  It will only help you.


Well, that’s it for this week – I tried to really dig into this topic because the blog’s been sporadic lately.  I’d love to hear if you have any comments.

I’ll leave you off with some clips of the guy from Project Grizzly testing his shitty bear-proof suit.  Last week The Sketchersons had Todd Glass as a host on Sunday Night Live.  While trying to think of a sketch for him, a scene about a talk show called “Bear Attack!” just fell out of my head.  Inspiration comes from odd places indeed.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2011 3:28 pm

    Great post, dude. But I especially love that bear video at the end!

  2. April 8, 2011 6:18 am

    “Some people do great at alt-comedy rooms, others at pot rooms.”

    What’s a “pot room”? Is that some kind of crazy Canadian thing where the whole audience is smoking weed? Because frankly, that seems like cheating.

    • April 8, 2011 1:17 pm

      I think California has them too – anyplace where pot is allowed for medical purposes they spring up, there’s a few in Toronto. Actually you’d think it would be an easier crowd, but it depends on your material. If you do a lot of story-based material or complicated set-ups you can fall on your face pretty fast.

  3. Michael Mailing permalink
    April 11, 2011 4:32 pm

    The bear suits a killer!I’ve had a few drunken nights where a suit like that would have come in handy!Paralized from the hair down,a staggering fall down fuck in the ass!Great stuff buddy!

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