Free-Writing, Louis CK, and the First Principles of Standup
Just put some words on the page. You have an open mic coming up tonight, and you damn well better have done at least some freewriting before you stand up there and deign to disperse the unstructured shenanigans of your thoughts upon the unwilling crowd of bitter comedians below. Two thoughts then: Louis CK doing hell rooms/bitter comedians, and the freewriting.
Freewriting is a little motor that powers me toward the direction of writing in my own voice. Or at least that’s what I would like it to be. And we have determined to do things more simply, with more writing than performing, and with more consideration than determination (it’s not enough to be a disciplined workhorse pushing your way through the human gruel of stand-up comedy - you have to know which direction you’re moving, otherwise you’re just wiggling in the trenchmud). Thinking about Ray Dalio/Tim Ferriss and the concept of deconstructing a craft so that you can discover First Principles - the core concepts of a thing which, when focused on, deliver the keys to the kingdom - What are the first principles of stand up?
Well first of all they are inscrutable, unknowable, and subject to the specific vagaries of an individual comedian. Taking that into consideration, here are the two parts of what I think is the First Principles of stand up. Think about it like a band. When you listen to a band, trying to determine if it’s the kind of music you like, the kind of music you would share with other people, the kind of music you would listen to while in the gym, or while having sex, or while in one mood or another, what are you listening for? Technique, and Sound.
Technique is obvious enough, and of differing levels of importance for differing genres of music. I expect more technique out of the London Philharmonic Orchestra than I do out of a local Punk band. But even so, it is important. Taking into consideration the genre, we all like to think we listen to music where the musicians have good technique. The jazz-listeners want good musicians. If you’re listening to Metallica, you want some guitarists who can shred. This may explain why the band Rush was so popular. But given the most technically perfect players in the world, there is no guarantee that a band will be successful, popular, or even good. That is the other element: Sound.
I don’t mean literal sound, phonic sound, the manipulation of air in waves of pressure. I mean a band’s sound, man. That is what a hundred thousand garage collectives have tried to cultivate since man first plugged a Fender into a Christmas-present amp. A sound, a vibe, a feeling, an energy. It’s the reason you listen to The Killers and not your cousin’s The Killers cover band. The real thing just has a sound! It’s something authentic! Something about how they do what they do in music, speaks to how you do what you do in life!
Why am I saying all this. There I go again, writing about comedy, trying to avoid writing actual comedy. All of this above is to say the same shit is true about comedians. It comes down to technique/skill, and VOICE. Most people can acknowledge that a comedian they don’t like is still a skilled professional. And some people know a comedian isn’t that good, but can’t help but love them anyway. The First Principles of Stand up are Skill, and Voice. But in this Thunderdome, only one can reign supreme, Brother! And it’s Voice.
Therefore, you have to focus all of your fucking energy on developing your voice. Skill will develop along the way, and a beginner comic can be studious, watch the greats, and acquire enough skill to get the job done within a matter of a few months. This will not make him/her good. Because Voice is the more important of the two, and Voice takes time to develop. It takes consideration, not just shoot-from-the-hip repetition at open mic after open mic. So focus on Voice.
What are you trying to say? What are your life experiences? What is the value of your perspective? What stories are yours to tell? In addition to this, what does it sound like when you launch into a story? How do you voice the archetypes and stock characters that we all know? How do you move from the secret steps of the setup to the explosive revelation of the punchlines? How do you transition?
All of these things, while honed by Skill, are answerable only by developing your Voice.
Which gets us to point number two: Louis CK and hell rooms. I’ll leave the political commentary about Louis aside for now, at the risk of my own moral conscience. But in preparing for his first SNL Host monologue, Louis went and found the worst open mic rooms he possibly could, speaking to bitter comedians and non-existent audiences. And if that environment is good enough for Louis, it sure as FUCK is good enough for me. Because you have to eat pressure for breakfast. You have to push through fear with focus and aplomb. That is the job of the comedian, managing fear, the risk of bearing your soul to an unsympathetic world. If it is good enough for Louis, it is sure as FUCK good enough for me.
And so the freewrite has passed to this critical and unimportant nexus. Now I pass from prescriptive drivel, the advice from a mind which is trying to give guidance to itself, into actually working on my material. It’s got to be about Voice. let’s dive in.
(Addendum: what followed the above was freewriting of material, which was performed about an hour later at my first open mic in several months. It went well. Lessons learned from my time in New York served me. Onwards.)