A material difference

Yet another reason you wouldn't be a better comedian if you had more time

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The material filter.

A lot of comedians say to me that if they had more time on stage then their act would have gone better. Usually I respond by telling them that if they can't get laughs in three minutes that they won't be funnier with more time. Which is actually not true. There is a decent chance they actually could get more laughs with more time. My dismissal is just easier than explaining the more nuanced reality, which is that even though they will get more laughs, it won't be for the reasons they think, and not in any way that will be very impressive to anyone. It almost certainly won't be interesting enough for me to want to bump them from open mike status to a performer with more stage time.

The reality is that with the right relationship with the audience, anything can be funny. Anything.

The clearest example of this is with crowd work. You can get on stage, and ask your audience questions like, "where y'all from?" Say one table of people responds, "We're all visiting from Northern California!" You can answer back with, "California? Wow, yeah, that place is nuts..."

And you could very well get a laugh.

It's a shitty, uninsightful, hack, predictable line, but I see lines like that get laughs from audiences all the time. With the right rapport with the audience, even a simple one word statement, like, "sure," or, "yeah," or a knowing sneer or a dismissive, "meh" can be funny. These kinds of interactions work because they're built out of the energy present in the room, derived from and about the people right then and there. It's just in the moment stuff, and, if done right, it's a perfectly valid way of getting laughs.

What it isn't, though, is good material. Take those same lines and do them the next night at the next show, and the audience just stares at you wondering why you thought it was funny.

The issue goes beyond just crowd work. Some comedians have a whole set of half baked premises and they can spend most of their acts taking the shotgun approach of pitching out idea after idea, hoping to discover which of them is going to resonate with this particular crowd tonight. It's like the comedian doesn't really know what's funny about their own act, so they're hoping the audience will tell them. In any case, it's random, and carries a high risk of maybe none of the ideas taking hold, and I've seen comedians go down in flames because they didn't have anything clear to say to the audience, and the audience lost respect for them. And I've seen the opposite, where they caught the audience in the right mood and one of their ideas really killed, which tricked the comedian into thinking the idea was good, but the next night... not so much.

There are lots of different ways in which comedians try and build towards being funny over the course of the time of a set, some more successful than others, but what they all have in common is that they establish a transient relationship in which weaker material gets laughs beyond what it would otherwise. The better the relationship with the audience, the less strong the material needs to be.

The time restriction I impose on new performers at my shows started out as just a way of protecting the audience from truly terrible acts. It's amazing how some people can make even three minutes feel like eternity. However, I've come to understand that the time restriction is a useful learning tool even for the comedians who are capable performers. At my shows, myself and all the other regularly performing comedians also continue to perform three minute sets. Each comedian has their own reasons, but for me I find that it helps for the reason outlined in this article, which is that it forces you to make your material stand on its own.

With only three minutes on stage, you just don't have the time to waffle about with the audience, hunting around for good feelings and the right vibe. You've got to be prepared, organized, and have something you really intend to say. Which is useful because if you can do material that doesn't rely on building a particular rapport with the audience, then imagine how good your set will be when you have solid material and then you couch it in a great relationship with the audience. Which I think should be reason enough to justify taking away the crutch of more stage time for new comedians.

But, still, in the long run, is developing material so important? Is a comedian who needs to build warm fuzzies with the audience so that weaker material can be made funny worse off than a comedian with tighter material? I've seen some comedians who have acts that are almost entirely crowd work, and they're getting laughs, so why should they alter their approach?

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At least one point to consider is that if your jokes need a particular rapport with the audience in order to work at all, then you are hindering your chances for exposure in the modern age. These days, odds are that you will need to be able to convey funniness via video or audio, delivered to your audience in countless media. When someone listens to you telling a joke on a podcast, and they hear the recorded audience laughter, they'll believe you were funny to those people, but that won't necessarily make the podcast listener feel the same thing the live audience felt. To make that person listening to you on a podcast think you're funny, you need material that isn't so reliant on them to be in your overly uniquely crafted state of mind in order to work.

Ultimately I think all comedy rests on making a connection with your audience, but it's a matter of degree. Relying too much on creating the right mood for your material to work is a lot like being friend-funny. To be stage funny, you may not need universal appeal, but you need broader appeal. And that requires material that goes beyond that one audience that happened to be at that one show that one time.

All the comedians I've seen who rely on crowd work are local comedians, by which I mean they're not going beyond work in small comedy clubs. So if you're content with that, then by all means continue. If you want to go beyond small clubs and comedy nights at a cafe, then you need to have the ability to create actual material. How are you going build the right vibe you need to be funny if you've got six minutes between commercials on a late night talk show? What are you going to offer when someone wants to quote you in a blog to promote you? Who would hire you to write for a TV show when you can't make a joke work without seven minutes of talking to an audience first?

When I tell comedians at my shows that there's no such thing as a comedian that's funny in ten minutes that can't be funny in three, what I really mean is that a comedian can be funnier with more time, but their material isn't. When it comes to booking comedians for more time, I want to see that they've got material, not just delivery. Then, when they get more time, if they bring more depth to their delivery, all the better.