Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Being hit on by a swinger couple

Got your attention, didn't I?   That title will make sense.  Keep reading.

I don’t go to comedy clubs anymore. I’ve had my fill of bad stand-ups doing their tired scatter shot routines. “Hey, don’t you just hate having to use condoms?” “What the fuck is up with CUP CAKE WARS this year?” “Ever try to get a taxicab in LA?” Ugh! Ten minutes of forced jokes and then when they run out of material, “You guys have been great. Thanks. Goodnight!” No payoff, no showmanship, nothing.

Yes, there are some good ones, but I’ll just wait until they become Louis C.K. or Patton Oswalt and watch ‘em on HBO.

A far better alternative is going to an intimate club to watch storytelling.

Last Saturday night I was a guest judge at a storytelling competition. TOP TALES. It’s held once a month in the show business capital of the world – Culver City, next door to an empanada place.

Six talented young people competed for a grand prize of… nothing. So you can understand why they trusted me with the awesome responsibility of passing judgment.

I guess storytelling has been a trend for a few years now. I’m a little behind the curve. My Saturday nights have been consumed with baseball and watching all that great primetime television the networks now offer.

Photos by Andy Goldberg
But I was very impressed. Not just with the performances (and all were terrific) but with the form. As opposed to a barrage of jokes, it was a pleasure to follow a story – in most cases true stories – that actually built to something. And they were very funny, but in a relaxed natural way. Laughs don’t always have to be “gags.” These came from keen observations, relatable behavior, wry asides, and all were organic to the stories. Stand up comics should take note.

Yes, I know – today’s style is snark, one-liners, ironies on top of ironies. TMZ with punch lines. But you’re putting a lot of unnecessary pressure on yourself when your act is only as good as your last joke.

Telling stories can benefit you in so many ways. Let’s face it, from the time Man first crawled out of the primordial ooze he liked hearing stories. “Let Sid tell you himself, but he lost his wallet in the ooze and had to go back in after it.” I think it’s implanted in our DNA. So you serve yourself and the audience well if you construct your act around narratives. And you get this bonus: you don’t need a joke every second if the audience is interested in your tale.

Like I said, most of the stories Saturday night were true. Two young women told losing their virginity stories but both were very different and their attitudes and deliveries were also different. One spent time with a swinger married couple who were both hitting on her (hence the title of this post.  I know you're disappointed that it wasn't about me, but how do you think I feel?). Comedy is in the specifics and the details of their stories (along with their reactions) made for two hilarious monologues.

Another advantage of storytelling – the audience gets to know you. Good comics will tell you you need a persona. Louis Black, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Steve Martin, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Richard Pryor (to name just a few) – they each have very identifiable comic personas. So how do you create that? And how do you convey that? A great way is through telling a story. Especially if the story is true (or true enough with some embellishments). I felt I got to know all six of these storytellers. In just five minutes.

Comics will also say it takes five to ten years to perfect your delivery. Storytelling can shortcut that process. Why? Because you’re not vomiting back jokes, you’re communicating. You’re talking to people and being (a version of) yourself. Maybe you’ve only done stand-up for eighteen months but you’ve been telling stories all your life. Tap into that. I’ve just saved you two years of open mic nights.

Anyway, you get the idea.  Storytelling can be wonderful tool.  I rely on it when doing play-by-play.  I don't discuss how I lost my virginity but stories about the players help make them seem more human and not just life-sized bobbleheads. 

I thought I’d end this with a pithy quote about storytelling but none of the ones I found online seemed to apply. So I figured, what the hell? Make up my own. I can be deep and philosophical like Socrates, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the like. So I leave you with this:

Story is the mom who gives comedy a ride because he can’t drive.

Thank you.  If that doesn't make my point I don't know what will. 

29 comments:

Murray said...

Couldn't agree more. Some of the "scattershot" comics can be funny, but when I hear one that is telling a connected story, a theme, a "Cosby", I'm busting a gut. And I remember that comedian's name. I still have friends, youngsters, who quote Cosby at me.

benson said...

Another master of the art of storytelling was the late Jean Shepherd. I remember a prof reading (from Playboy)his account of prom night and our class was spellbound. And his "Christmas Story" has become a modern day classic and staple.

Johnny Walker said...

I've always loved comedians who tell stories - especially ones that rang true. The power of drama is quite formidable. I've seen people ruin compelling drama because they thought they needed to insert jokes. Jokes are the icing; they turn a nice cake into a hugely enjoyable one. But icing without cake is quickly boring.

There's a great standup comedian called Reginald D Hunter. I've only seen him once, but I don't recall him telling jokes - he just talked honestly about things. It was utterly riveting.

Great call on the "TMZ with punchlines". So perfectly captures today's comedy.

Rock Golf said...

Not sure how many Americans are familiar with Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe, a hugely popular radio program in Canada where "hugely popular radio program" is not an oxymoron. Almost every episode contains a 15 minute story about the fictional Dave, his wife Morley and their two kids.

Do yourself a favor and find "Dave Cooks the Turkey" or "Christmas with the Turlingtons", preferably an audio version. And be prepared to laugh until your lungs ache.

Here's a headstart: http://castroller.com/podcasts/CbcRadioVinyl/1375687-VC%20December%2019th,%202009%20Christmas%20at%20the%20Turlingtons

ed.j. said...

Dammit, Rock. I was going to introduce him to Dave & Morley.

Good call on the Turkey story, although I can't find it in myself to forgive you for getting there first.

Here's an easier link to the main site of Vinyl Cafe:
http://www.cbc.ca/vinylcafe/home.php

PS. Vinyl is a lot harder to spell than it should be.
-=;)e

Jerry Krull said...

I love comedy of all kinds and really appreciate the comedians who use storytelling as the basis. Mike Birbiglia is becoming a fantastic storytelling comedian.

Ken, you'll love this story he tells about his being asked to speak at a Major League Baseball event. He uses a callback to earlier stories about his little league days and another about his brother being a mooch. But the story is funny throughout and keeps the audience engaged and builds to a natural funny ending.

Here's the link to his own YouTube channel where he has uploaded the story from his special:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MrKv0cJPzlc&feature=share&list=PL4BF1C8A8FDD2A4D1

Or just use the YoTube search for "Birbiglia Birbiglia Birbiglia part 12".

Carol said...

A friend of mine, Andrew, is involved in storytelling competitions in Philadelphia.

I am attaching a link to one of his winning entries, as it is both funny and touching, and I think you, and your readers, will appreciate it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mwCEjp5ECw&list=PL7B562CE4C2AB1EA7&feature=plcp&fb_source=message

yatesy said...

I do standup here in Philly and the surrounding areas. Sorytelling a fairly popular thing, outdrawing some standeup shows. I love doing the shows, and I'm finding my standup is evolving more towards stories as well. I ll his one about how I almost met Tom Hanks when I was in high school. You can check i out if you'd like:
http://vimeo.com/35650546

Rich D said...

I have to admit that I am not that familiar with storytelling as Ken is describing it here. It does sound similar to how some standups work, though. Alan Havey springs to mind. His standup is very long-form oriented. If you remember his old talk show on Comedy Central, NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, he usually had a segment where he just talked to the camera for about five to seven minutes, telling a story. Great stuff as I recall. (And sadly not much of it is on YouTube.)

Brian said...

I'm not familiar with the specific venue that Ken mentions here, but LA has a number of good storytelling venues. The Moth has regular events, and there's a monthly one in the Palisades as well -- www.sparkoffrose.com. Storytelling, when produced well, is great entertainment for all the reasons Ken mentioned.

benson said...

Another master storyteller that comes to mind is Garrison Keillor.

And a comedian who I think would qualify is John Pinette. Absolutely slays me. True story. Back in '92 (when he would've been one of the standups featured on MTV..I saw him open for Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine.

Ben Kubelsky said...

Sadly, most open mic judges seem to think storytelling is old-fashioned and hackneyed and too derivative of Cosby. They'd rather hear Kardashian jokes for 4 minutes.

XJill said...

As a Culver City-ite this sounds interesting, was it at a place that does this regularly?

vicernie said...

I'm another big fan of Stewart Mclean who has had his own show on CBC radio for 20(?) years and a fresh story every week. He was a regular guest on a show hosted by Peter Gzowski over 30 years ago and their most famous segment was when neither of them could speak for laughing on air for over five minutes; five minutes that had all of Canada in stiches.

Phillip B said...

There was a time when scattershot stand-ups were derided as the endless stream of guys named Schecky.

The classy practitioners were the monologists, going all the way back to Will Rogers and Jack Benny. Talk about providing a fully formed context...

I'm old enough to remember Dick Gregory as a jokey comedian doing a four minute set on "Playboy After Dark," but know he did a lot more. I figure the jokes get you in the door, and the ability to tell a story holds an audience over time...

Gary Mugford said...

Billy Connelly is the only guy I've bought tickets to, more than once. And he almost always has a story run through the middle of his show from start to almost finish. I say almost finish because he tends to go off on tangents before returning to the central story line. And when he finally DOES wrap up that story, we know we have come to the end of the comedy concert.

And isn't it most interesting that most of the jokes I remember aren't the one-liners you rant about, but the punch-lines to carefully contrived set-ups, that beggar in the re-telling. My versions always end up with, "You had to be there, he/she did it a lot better."

Speaking of rants, is Louis Black maybe Lewis Black?

Cap'n Bob said...

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Flip Wilson. Or Mort Sahl (sp?). There is a flip side to long stories, though. If the payoff isn't funny the listener feels gypped for wasting five minutes on a pointless story. With a Henny Youngman-type comic, if a joke bombs another one will come along 10 seconds later.
Personally, I like either kind as long as the quality is there.

Mike said...

Of course, the best tales are Ghost Stories.
So, just for you, turn off that TV, that radio, turn the light down low, pull your chair close to the fire and enjoy The Tale of the Grave Digger's House.

Somersby said...

Rock Golf ~ excellent suggestion. Been captivated by McLean's stories of Dave & Morley for years. The stories are so engaging, sweet -- and, yes, funny.

For you non-Canadians, you can access some of the material online at:
http://www.cbc.ca/vinylcafe/

Enjoy.

Matt said...

Isn't this all that Richard Pryor did?

James said...

I agree with most of your critique on today's stand up comedy, with one exception; American Comics can't/won't/Don't do irony. That is the preserve of the English and to a lesser extent the Australians.

D. McEwan said...

Brian said...
I'm not familiar with the specific venue that Ken mentions here


I believe this venue is Fanatic Salon in Culver City, a converted former hair salon (Hence the name, allowing them to leave up the hair salon sign just altered with deliberate obviousness) run by my dear friends Jeff Michalski and Jane Morris and their partners. Along with Story-telling nights, they have some terrific improv nights there. Lot's of ex-Second City folks (as Jeff & Jane are both ex-Second City) are to be found performing there. Jane's "All_Girl Improv" revue nights are not to be missed.

Kent Cross said...

I second the recommendation for The Moth. http://themoth.org. They have a podcast, a radio show on PBS, and hold occasional story slams at the Echoplex in LA. Videos of their stories can be found by searching for "The Moth Presents" on You Tube.

They're not always funny, but they're very memorable.

Kevin said...

Ken- What is the best way for an out of towner to get tickets to a tv sitcom taping? When do they film and how do you know where to go? I plan on seeing one whenever i can make it to LA.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the players have fun, but frankly, I don't really want to pay for "entertainment" that I could hear across a table if I offered to treat them to a free Hammy Scrammy at Denny's.

Anonymous said...

"Story is the mom who gives comedy a ride because he can’t drive. "

Plagiarism Alert!!

Can't remember the original title, but I'm positive Ken lifted this line from an old Neil Young song.

Back to the drawing board, Ken!!

Ken Levine said...

Yeah, right. Like I'm going to steal anything from Neil Young. You show me the Neil Young quote and verify it. Oh, and maybe identify yourself.

I don't like being accused of plagiarism, especially from anonymous snipers.

Pat Reeder said...

One of the many reasons why I never got into doing stand-up and gravitated toward writing is because when I was first starting out 25 years or so ago, the club managers kept pushing me to have at least five laughs per minute. I liked the more thoughtful comics who told stories and built up to bigger laughs (Cosby, Newhart, Danny Thomas, Flip Wilson, Lenny Bruce, Eddie Izzard, etc.), but the club owners made it clear that I had to be a hack one-liner machine or not get stage time. So I said to hell with it. Didn't like breathing cigarette smoke anyway.

XJill said...

Anonymous must not have read Ken's book to think he would steal from Neil Young of all people.

Thanks to D McEwan I now know that the place I drive past multiple times a day is NOT, in fact, a hair salon. Wow. #mindboggled