being silly and being real: how writing comedy on the East and West coasts made me funnier

I’ve been thinking a lot about how my stand up has changed since I did comedy back in college on the West coast, so I wrote this thing about one of my old jokes that I ended up adapting after coming to New York City. Before I say anything else, I want to point out that my experience in comedy is limited. I did relatively minimal comedy before coming to New York and I’ve been here for just over half a year. So, in terms of the East/West differences I’m writing about, they only come from my limited personal experiences, which I suppose could have been different for anyone.

I went to college in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I fashioned together a ragtag (I don’t think that term actually means anything) group of students who wanted to do stand up comedy. I knew absolutely nothing about comedy at the time. We formed a bunch who got to perform at least once a week together at the campus coffee house or whatever other open mic or school event was going on. And at the time, once a week seemed like a lot.

The comics who I met at school were smart and silly. They wrote clever jokes and ridiculous ones, and that’s the vibe I got from the Bay in general. Accepting of the pensive and the weird; people in the Bay like different humor. San Francisco is different. A city best known for being super gay and super tech-y: two things that you probably wouldn’t naturally pair together in your mind. That weirdness came across in some of the comedy, too.

Honestly, I didn’t get to perform a ton in the city of San Francisco itself, but I did make the 40 minute drive to watch shows in SF pretty much every chance I could get. I’d schlep myself up the 101 in whoever’s car I had managed to borrow so that I could see some free “New Talent Showcase” at Cobb’s or The Punchline. I got to see my fair share of Bay Area comics. And the Bay likes “weird” stuff. One of the most successful young comics from the Bay is this young skinny guy with huge, frizzy hair who wears button-down t-shirts and a watch, writes jokes on his hands, and has a voice that sounds like a nerdy robot. Unfortunately, his name escapes me, but you get the point: weird.

While I was there, I did compete in a comedy competition with all the best amateur comedians in the Bay. So, I did get to see some good slices of the comedy scene. The guy who won that competition was the biggest, buffest gay dude I’ve ever seen in person…who talked about how incredibly gay he was for his whole 6-minute set. The guy who came in second was a fella who looked like he had just rolled out of his van after waking up from a nap, stumbling onto the stage in a ragged t-shirt with a beard and shaggy long hair.

At the time, I think my sense of humor matched the general comedy style of the Bay pretty well. I liked telling silly stuff that was, well…weird. To give you an idea of the jokes I was telling at the time, this was the best joke that I told at that competition. A joke that got me consistent, big laughs:

“How I used to shower is, well, first what I would do is I would wash my whole body off with soap. And then I would rinse that off with water. And then I would put shampoo my hair and then I’d rinse that out. And then I’d be done. But NOW what I do is first I’ll shampoo my hair, but I won’t rinse that out. And then I’ll wash my body with soap and I’ll rinse that off. And then I rinse out my hair. …I think it’s better.”

Yes, that joke actually did well for me. Really well.

But when I came to New York and I tried that joke out here…it. Did. Not. Do. Well. At all.

Yes, in general comics who come to NYC find that the caliber of comedy here is way higher. I completely agree. Those comics I saw getting paid spots hosting or doing New Talent Shows at Cobb’s would almost all get blown away by comics I know in NYC who struggle to get up at bar shows. And, I admit that my shower joke isn’t all that amazing of a joke. It’s an anti-joke. There’s no content there. It’s pretty simple.

BUT in the sense that a good joke gets laughs, it got laughs and so it was a good joke for me. In the Bay. At the time.

To me, one of the overwhelming challenges in New York is to earn people’s attention. No one will care about you until you impress them. No one will listen to you until you give them a reason to listen, which is almost a Catch-22. Before New York, I’d tell this one particular story that was punch-line-less for 2-3 minutes and then culminated in a huge punch line with several tags. In 90% of the rooms in New York, you cannot do that. If there’s no punch line 30 seconds in, people will stop listening to your entire set. You likely won’t win them back. There’s absolutely no patience or respect until it is earned. And that’s annoying, but it makes you a better writer.

I’m not saying that “punch line, punch line, punch line, punch line” is always better than “build up, build up, build up, punch line.” At all. I get the sense that most comics in New York think you can’t write unless your set is all punch lines, but I have a huge respect for comedians who can create what I see as a better quality laugh over a longer period of time.

I always argue with my comedian roommate about this. We went to see Mike Birbiglia together, who performs his sets as an off-broadway show. In a theater. He doesn’t get a laugh every 30 seconds. He tells a story with funny jokes intertwined. My roommate says that what Birbiglia does isn’t “real stand up comedy,” or something like that. At least to my roommate, Birbiglia isn’t as good as comedians who can write a punch line at least every 30 seconds.

WHOA! Just because he doesn’t write a punch line every 30 seconds doesn’t mean he couldn’t if he wanted to! Birbiglia can write an entire hour-long set about meeting his wife, stringing it into one coherent story that will make you feel all the feels. That is powerful. And it’s comedy. He makes all the important parts funny. You’re telling me he couldn’t write in a joke every couple beats if he wanted to?! I respect his style way more than being able to tell five thousand unrelated jokes in the span of an hour. To me, Birbiglia’s My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is one of the best comedy specials of all time…and it’s the antithesis of “punch line, punch line, punch line, punch line.”

What I meant by New York makes you “better” is that it helps you improve at seeing what isn’t a punch line, so that you could write a joke every other beat. If you wanted to. NYC helps you to learn what actually is a joke. Saying “my girlfriend is fat” is a premise, not a punch line. It’s also probably not a funny premise.

How you get people’s attention in New York is punch lines and performance. And then beyond that, from what I’ve noticed, people care much less about “silly” ideas nearly as much as in California. Which is unfortunate in a certain way, considering the type of jokes I like to tell. Comedians here care about whatever is honest and true and real. NYC comedians especially want you to tell a joke that only you could tell. Something that is so true to who you are that the joke IS you (wow, got pretty deep there). Thinking back to my shower joke, it’s not really any of those things, is it?

San Francisco was silly and they liked me being silly. New York is all about taking serious stuff and making that funny. Now, New York has this incredible reputation for being the pinnacle of stand up comedy…but does that mean their idea of what is funny is better? I don’t necessarily think so. If you like serious humor, fine. If you like silly humor, fine.

I don’t always agree with what’s funniest to NYC people, but I do think that being in a different environment like New York has definitely made me a better writer. Slowly but surely.

When I got to NYC and I watched my shower bit bomb a bunch of times, I decided I needed to change things up and try something new. I re-wrote the joke a few times and eventually, much later on, it became something totally different. And, I think, better.

Something I absolutely hate about comedy right now is when I hear the same joke formula over and over and over again at open mics and shows. You’ll hear a carbon copy of the same joke with different ingredients, as Mitch Hedberg would say. And comedians who are there listening will still laugh at the joke. It drives me absolutely crazy! It’s as if they were hearing the joke for the first time! They’ve heard it work before. How can they still think it’s funny?! To me it’s like Pavlov’s dogs: The formula is told and the laugh comes out. It’s nuts! YOU’RE A HUMAN NOT A MACHINE! Comics will rag on other comics all the time because they have a hacky joke premise, but I’ve never heard a comic remark on joke structure being hacky. Never. They’ll say “wow, poop joke: hacky” and then laugh hysterically at a cliché misdirection joke.

There’s one joke formula in particular that I find comics laugh at all the time, pretty much no matter what: a misdirection joke where you start out by saying something like, “Hey you know how when you…” and then you say something extremely un-relatable. I’ve heard it THOUSANDS of times. And it gets a laugh every. Single. Time. So I wanted to tell a joke about how stupid I think that is. That’s what my shower bit became:

“Hey, you know how when you’re in the shower and you’re washing your body and you’re shampooing your hair and you’re writing a joke in your head? And the joke you’re writing starts out super relatable, but then all of a sudden it takes an unexpected twist (that isn’t relatable at all) and that’s the funny part? …And then you get out of the shower and your roommate is there? And he starts fucking you? And you’re like, ‘Oh my god, this is just like that joke I was writing in the shower!’ You know what I’m talking about…”

Now whether or not you think that’s funny, I like that joke because it’s a hell of a lot smarter than my original shower joke. I use the joke structure that I’m making fun of in the joke itself to show you how dumb it is. It reflects my true, honest, and real feeling of “these types of jokes are kind of silly.” And it actually does do well here in NYC.

Both the original and this joke are funny to me and they’ve both gotten laughs on different sides of the country. I don’t think that the new version is better than the old version simply because it gets laughs in New York (which is the way a lot of comics think). But, I do think the new version is better.

I think it’s a better joke because it forced me to take a nugget of an idea and twist it into something that is probably funnier to more people. The old joke was for people who like weird, wacky humor with no purpose and the new version is for people who like that and also people who take stock in “real” premises. Experiencing multiple perspectives on comedy allows you to come up with better, smarter material. Being able to see what’s funnier to people to people in the Bay or in the city makes you a more well-rounded joke writer. I hear all the time how people have different senses of humor in the Midwest, and South too. Every little area or town or group of friends has a different sense of humor and you can’t win them all over. But, trying to make your humor more accessible can only help you.

Like a lot of comics, I have a horrible habit of being stubborn with my jokes. “I don’t care if you laugh, this is funny! I’m gonna keep telling it!” I used to view the idea of writing jokes so that more people laugh as pandering, but it’s not if you do it the right way. Rewriting that one joke has gotten me to start writing jokes about the serious, honest, true, and real stuff that NYC comics want to hear, while trying to still hold onto my own silly, weird perspective that made me write that dumb shower joke in the Bay. And I think that’s not pandering! I guess the trick is making everyone like you while still bringing something new. Easier said than done.

 

The featured image is the side of Tom’s Restaurant, images of which are used in the somewhat popular television series Seinfeld. It’s on the Upper West Side and I see it all the time when I’m tutoring students up there. If you liked this post, please like and share below! You can also follow the blog through Twitter, Facebook, or by joining my mailing list.

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