Learning to write again – the world of standup comedy
It took years to reach a point where I believe my writing reflects ‘my voice’. There is a rhythm, and the words flow in a certain way. An attitude lives on the page.
It wasn’t always so. I’ve made all the rookie mistakes … joined peer groups and reacted to each and every suggestion (writing by committee), punkishly failed to break convention, edited as I write, failed to plan. I’ve done them all, and more.
Learning to work with a structural editor is tough. The bad ones rewrite. The good ones dig into pace and structure, and make scant reference to actual words. The end result must still sound like me. People buy my books. Not stories written by an editor.
This isn’t how things work in standup.
Stop telling stories
Being told to lose the self from my words is anathema to me. I’ve spent more than ten years finding ways to tell stories with the fewest words possible. Often, by the time I get up on stage in comedy class, what’s in my hands has been through hours of honing.
When my teacher crosses out words because I’m ‘telling a story’, I want to argue that this is what I do. I make money by telling stories.
Every comedy class handout stresses how standup needs to be about the person on stage. It has to stay true to the performer. Otherwise, the comic becomes a hack … what my teacher calls – with a roll of the eyes and ample derision – ‘another new act’.
As a group of students we are told to be themselves, not someone else. But the handful of words that survive a classroom edit no longer sound like me. I’m not allowed to tell stories.
It leaves me asking if standup is something I can do … at its very basic level.
The point my teacher labours is that standup relies on a choppy rhythm. The audience needs to read an act as comedy. My lines must form themselves into (short) setup and punch.
Nobody talks like that in real life, but authenticity is not the objective. Standup works like poetry. It has meter and rhyme. It’s choppy, choppy, choppy.
In TV and film, (first world) horror stories abound of scriptwriters who turn in work, only to have teams tear apart and reassemble perfect prose into lines they no longer recognise. The writer’s contribution amounts to little more than an occasional turn of phrase. A persistent idea now voiced by others. That’s what happens in comedy class. I become my own creative consultant.
Everything that passes muster – the dozen or so gags permitted airtime in my three-minute set – will have been through many iterations. I’ll have read the wordy mess out loud, cut each line that didn’t land with a laugh. I’ll have been told which words to lose and had my beautiful authentic-sounding sentences shredded. I’ll have read it again, and tried to get behind something that I no longer find funny. I nod again as more invited edits contradict previous cuts. My teacher reduces carefully crafted pictures into lifeless iambic pentameter.
I detest what remains, but at the same time find the process fascinating. There are times when I feel like giving up in frustration … and that reminds me of when I first learned how to write stories. The challenge this time is not to write for readers. It’s to get up on stage and breathe life into dead words. A different skill set.
What I fear most is sounding like a clone. Having thrown myself into things and hung around new comedy nights throughout this three-month process, I’ve developed an ear for performers who come from the same factory. Would I want to market the end result under my name when I don’t feel connected to what remains?
As a novelist, such an approach would get me nowhere. But in this new world of standup, it seems to be expected. A fellow student noted our education is like learning to drive. The rituals and rules exist to make us safe and competent drivers. It’s only after passing that we get to cross over our hands and develop our style.
I’m left having to ask if this is for me. I’ve enjoyed doing something different, and pushing myself to face a fear. The company along the way has been most agreeable, but it’s played havoc with my writing.
There remains one last hurdle. An audition to perform live at the course showcase. Right up until I added my name to the list, I was sure I wasn’t going to bother, but now …
It won’t sound like me. The words are not truly mine, but I might as well see this through.