A favorite of comedy geeks, David Cross recently wrote the book I Drink for a Reason, a collection of funny essays. He has also gone on tour to support the book, giving fans outside of the coasts a chance to see him perform stand-up live for the first time in five years. (You can check out David Cross’s upcoming tour dates here.) I talked with David about the differences between writing a book and stand-up, why he turned off his Google alert and how his family life is off-limits on stage, at least for now.
What were the challenges you found in writing a funny book as opposed to writing a bit of stand-up or a comedy sketch?
Well, I guess the ideas don’t flow as naturally or prolifically when I’m sitting down to write because you’re writing in a vacuum. When I’m writing stand-up there’s such a give and take in the energy. Plus I’m talking out loud. I never talk out loud when I write.
It’s all my interior voice. Ideas, whether they’re good or bad, come easier to me when I’m talking on stage. That’s sort of the way I write on stage. I have the idea and I just sort of riff the idea until I’ve done the set a bunch of times. And I pick and choose what I say and then that becomes a bit.
I’ve never met somebody who sat down and just wrote jokes. So that genre doesn’t come easily to me. But it was nice to be able to have the idea written down on a piece of paper and be able to edit it there once it was done.
Like if you set up a bit of stand-up wrong, then you’re in that place and can’t go back and fix it.
Yeah, but then I can comment on that. “Oh I fucked that up” or whatever. It’s just so different because you’re communicating in a completely different way.
I just find it to be very hard. I’m amazed when I look at old National Lampoons with Michael O’Donoghue and Doug Kenney and how they’re able to make me laugh out loud. It’s very difficult. You rely on the readers’ sense of timing. You have to figure out how to get that comic pacing in their head.
Well, I probably do have the benefit, if people are familiar with my work, of assuming that the voice that you have when you’re reading it is my own. You can sort of hear my voice in it. I’d be interested to talk to somebody who liked reading humorous books, who’s not familiar with my work at all, to see what they thought of it. Because they wouldn’t have the benefit of knowing what cadence I use. And that’s another huge difference. You don’t have the benefit of pausing and gesticulation and intonations and cadence. There’s no performance to it.
You could put something in italic like Spy would.
That’s all you get.
Italics or bold.
You get an ellipse or all caps.
There you go. The typographic ability of stand-up in print.
Well, no one could say Russell Brand didn’t try.
Last Wednesday, he work-shopped some material for hosting MTV’s Video Music Awards at “The Green Room” on Bleeker Street. Brand had hosted the show last year as well, but the crowd didn’t know what to make of his jokes about the Jonas Brothers and their promise rings. It was enough of a debacle that Brand spent a fair amount of his first United States comedy special talking about it. Good fodder for one show, but I’m sure he’d rather talk about something else in a second U.S. special.
The first thing you would notice about the impromptu show was the female/male ratio of the crowd. It tipped about 80/20. Brand’s lusty persona has a hold that’s really rare in the comedy world. I can’t remember the last comedy show where the opposite sex from my own was so strongly represented.
Brand framed the evening for the audience, but first realized he was a bit hungry and bemoaned he left behind a banana backstage. No worries however, an audience banana is quickly produced and in between mouthfuls, Brand told us how he wanted this year’s stint as the VMA’s master of ceremonies to go much better, specifically a desire to avoid “death threats.” So he was gong to try his material out on us. We were heavily encouraged to raise our hands if we believe Brand was nearing territory which would make him a target for more than a joke.
Hand-raising was the least of the contribution Brand sought from the audience. The audience acted like a writer’s room at times for Brand, offering punch-up for bits. Sometimes it was just a word - don’t say “Fuck”, say “Nail.” A long diversion occurred about what word to use for asshole. (“Orifice” - not specific.)
But a few times it was a bit more. One in the crowd had a reaction to the tail end of the joke, and Brand immediately earnestly question that didn’t he have to have a third thing, citing comedy’s “rule of three.” It was a generous assumption that the audience would know what he was talking about.
Brand might have been too generous. Brand at one point elicited suggestion for a bizarre thing he could suggest Pink might do in her performance. A voice from behind me yelled, “Pink comes out and fucks Michael Jackson’s corpse.” Thankfully, lost in the din of other suggestions.
Another joke about P. Diddy and Jennifer Lopez elicited a response that it should be about P. Diddy’s current girlfriend. Russell Brand made a good observation that true for constructing all monologue jokes, stating that “a fact that nobody knows, it’s almost like it’s it’s not a fact.”
A variation of this is also a lesson for Brand, which, after watching his parts of the VMAs, I think he’s unfortunately had to learn twice. Brand’s obsessive sexual persona is great for his stand-up, but it’s still so unknown on these shores that people just wonder “why is this British guy is saying dirty stuff about our pop-stars?” If the jokes rely a bit on who you are, and you’re still relatively unknown, then no one is going to get your jokes. Brand knows this, he even said so much in that aforementioned first US special.
I think the VMAs are a terrible place to try and be funny anyway. Just like the Oscars, the audience is full of music folks taken a relatively meaningless awards far too seriously (see Kanye). The best reaction you’re going to manage is clapter - the clapping for a political point of agreement- not laughs. Brand’s best moment was when he referred to Britain having free healthcare, and it was more of a statement than a joke. (It was a popular line the night he was working out material as well. And wasn’t part of his initial monologue. No wonder he moved it up.)
And Brand’s talent is two fold, the second being something that’s could never be part of the VMAs but was part of the show I saw. He’s more than just a prancing pervert, but dares into metaphysical stream-of-consciousness, where he imagines that we’re all connected backwards to prior generations and each other by umbilical cords, suggesting that as a reason to cast a kinder eye at celebrity. His mind ventures in places that MTV just doesn’t cover unless it’s pretentiously shown in a rarely aired music video. I can’t imagine MTV offering the VMAs again, but if they do, hopefully, Brand won’t try and make the third time the charm.
Filed Under Stand-Up Comedy
One of Steve Martin’s early specials has made it to the web and it gives what is now a pretty rare look at his stand-up. If you were around at the time, your main image of Martin’s stand-up career is his performances for thousands in arenas. Well in the special “Steve Martin’s The Funnier Side of Eastern Canada”, there’s a segment of Martin performing a more intimate venue. You can see it in this clip, which starts at around 3 minutes in.
Wow, can you hear that? Unsweetened, distinct laughter on TV. Those were the days.
If you want to see the whole thing, I’ve put it together as a playlist that you can watch after the jump.
Judd Apatow’s upcoming film “Funny People” has a huge viral media blast going on, with a lot of it centered around Aziz Ansari‘s character in the film Raaaaaaaandy, who I always assumed was going to be a lot of what’s wrong with modern stand-up. The latest piece is this faux documentary of the character by Ansari and Jason Woliner, the director and 4th member of Human Giant. Let’s watch, unless you’re at work, because there’s some borderline NSFW stuff here:
Maybe it’s because I know Ansari’s own performing style well or I’m used alt comedians doing incredibly annoying characters as a bit, but I don’t see Raaaaaaaandy the way I’ve assumed I’m supposed to see him. So I don’t really think this is targeting any particular stand-up at all. Because the difficult thing about terrible comedy is that the characters, just like the perpetrators of bad comedy in real life, have to be absolutely sincere that what they do is funny. But, as Raaaaaaaandy might say, this video winks at me like a muthafucka. And Ansari’s just so naturally funny, he actually makes Raaaaaaaandy look like he has some nascent skills.
In the context of the film itself, this may very well play differently. And this isn’t to say, I’m not laughing my dick off at this. Because I am. Particularly at DJ Ol’ Youngin, who does come off completely committed to his shit here. Maybe it’s because I don’t know him outside of this vid is why I absolutely buy it.
The most annoying to me about Raaaaaaaandy is his name and how he spells the damn thing. It should be Rannnnnnnndy. 8ns not 8as!
Filed Under Stand-Up Comedy
I’m in Chicago for Just For Laughs, getting ready for another night of the ha-ha. But if you’re not here, the best place might just be your couch for Joe Rogan’s new hour special, “Talking Monkeys in Space.” Joe has been making his name as a stand-up in the last few years with his willingness to confront the ills of the business, particularly joke thievery. But more than a passionate defender of the art, Rogan is a great practitioner of it, weaving some philosophical insight into his jokes that bring him into territory few comics cover. This bit of evolution here is just a small part of something larger about human hubris in going places we shouldn’t be. Check it:
“Joe Rogan: Talking Monkeys in Space” airs tonight at Midnight on Spike.
With a pit-bull-like hold on their branding, TBS is adding a late night stand-up show entitled “The Very Funny Show”, all of which will be filmed at Zanies Chicago during the upcoming Just For Laughs Chicago. Tim Meadows, not typically known as a stand-up, will host the ten episode series, each episode featuring three comedians. Names include John Mulaney, Steve Byrne, Nick Thune, T.J. Miller and Matt Braunger. From the press release and Zanies website I’ve only been able to compile about 22 of the 30 comics that’ll appear (that list after the jump).
It’s been pretty obvious for a while that TBS won’t let Comedy Central own the stand-up game anymore. The question I’ve always been concerned about is that have network execs learned anything from the ridiculous ubiquity of stand-up on TV in the late 80s / early 90s, which pretty much killed the form for a while.
I think the performers are definitely sharper now, more seeing this as an art in itself rather than the sitcom stepping stone. And there’s a lot more diverse voices in that community, so there’s far less likelihood that every performers going to be seen as interchangeable. Plus content restrictions are far looser, leading to a lot more territory for a comic to cover. Although, that does suggest to me the airline food joke of this generation could end up being comics using the word “rape” in a bit.
But this is a little bit out of the hands of the comics themselves. Presentation is going to be a big part of whether stand-up on TV can avoid that again. As someone who looks as thumbnail of stand-up comedy videos every day, I can tell you that a lot of stand-up looks the same. That’s the beauty of it in many ways - one person and one mic. But there’s a lot that go inside that - audience reaction shots, close-ups, editing, angles, focus, etc. None of this should just be monkeyed with for the sake of making something look different. But I fear in a visual culture, that audience will judge stand-up harshly simply because it looks the same. Execs should look at how to present a comedic voice, not just throw a few performers on a stage and call it a day.
Zanies, the club where they’re shooting “The Very Funny Show”, doesn’t look too glitzed up judging from the web videos I’ve seen (never been myself, so I could be wrong). It seems like a nice departure, particularly if the lights can stay a little low. But a more interesting difference about “The Very Funny Show” that may create a break from the way stand-up is seen on Comedy Central is the fact that they’re charging for tickets. Comedy Central doesn’t do for that for either their Comedy Central Presents series or Live at Gotham. I think it always creates a different vibe when an audience pays money for a ticket – perhaps they’ll be more demanding, perhaps they’ll see the comics as more experienced hands. It’ll change the feel of the room a little, maybe enough that folks might notice at home. Let’s hope that’s a good change.
Filed Under Stand-Up Comedy
Every month Los Angeles’s Candor Entertainment holds a stand-up comedy event that’s “invite only.” I’ve been asked to come, but as I’m in New York, it’s a little difficult to check out.
Fortunately for me and the invite-less, clips from their shows have gone up on Hulu. Here’s an exclusive clip from the next set of stuff that’s to go live on Hulu on Tuesday, but is of course live now. It’s from Adam Ray. who I’ll forgive for the backwards baseball cap since he has a nicely tragic response for those who demand a joke from him upon discovering he’s a comic.