The Perils of Freshness

October 18, 2010

We live in a culture that gobbles up creative content.  There are millions of Americans devouring 500+ TV channels; 190,000 new books published each year; and countless websites.  There is a constant struggle to keep up with this demand.  How can anyone continuously produce content that is fresh and compelling?

Comedians run into a slightly different problem though.  How can we keep our content fresh if we never take the time to bake it in the first place?

If you couldn’t tell yet, I’m eating a cupcake as I write this.

The metaphor is apt though.  A comedian’s set of jokes needs to develop slowly in order to ensure its quality.  You can’t just write a brand new 20 minutes every month and think that it’s going to be Grade-A quality.  Jerry Seinfeld had the exact same act for years and years prior to getting his own sitcom.  He honed it down until it was sharp and polished.  This act is what turned heads at NBC.  As a comedian, you need to stick with a set of jokes and work with it until it becomes great.

However, in typical fashion, I don’t follow my own advice.  For the last 4 months, I’ve been churning out material.  I think I’ve probably written a good 30-45 minutes.  The operative word in that last sentence is “good.”  The jokes are there.  The perspective is there.  Even some of the flow is there.  But I have been switching my sets around and injecting new jokes when the older ones aren’t even that great.  So for the past few months, I’ve been serving the audience an undercooked pie.  It’s got a lot of different fillings, it smells nice, but the crust isn’t crispy.  A comedy audience wants a crispy crust.

I understand that societal pressure is what’s driving me to throw away good jokes that have only seen the light of the stage a few times.  I just don’t want people to see the same thing twice.  Sacrifice my jokes in the name of freshness.  I need to get over that though.  My act is not going to get any better at the rate I’m going.

Repetition is the key to a crisp, confident performance.  An audience’s perception of a comedian’s confidence is largely based on knowing the material inside and out.  I’ve gone on stage before unsure of myself.  I usually bring a list up to help remind me where to go.  I’ll meander through a list of new and untested jokes, stopping short on punchlines and not delivering set-ups properly.  The audience response is predictable: crickets.  My stumbling tells the audiences that I don’t really know what I’m talking about.  The whole point of stand-up comedy is to tell an audience what you think.  And if you don’t know what you think, then the audience will think that you don’t know what you think.  Then it gets confusing.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to spend some time with this new “good” 35-40 minutes.  I think by the time I’m done editing, I’ll have it down to “solid” 20-25 minutes. Repetition, repetition, and repetition.

But first, I think i’ll get a donut…

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