In Death by Microphone, local Brit and barbecue blogger Gavin Cleaver attends stand-up comedy classes at the Dallas Comedy House and reports back for our amusement and education. Check back next week to revel further in his failure.
After last week's disaster, morale was low on the Good Ship Cleaver. The crew was close to mutiny, but the galleon ploughed on nonetheless, pushing deeper into the choppy waters of public humiliation. Additionally, with no spare time before this week's session to write any meaningful material, the outlook was grimmer than Dallas in the rain. Worse than the outlook for liberal ideals in the current Texas legislature session.
So I did what any of you would do. I took the story I can most consistently rely on to get a laugh in bar situations, I added some act-outs (because remember, act-outs are funny and your jokes generally are not) and I hoped for the best, without rehearsal. The story, predictably, is the story of my efforts to order even the most basic of food and drink in Waffle House, while drunk or hungover and thus at my least tolerant. It's a tale of how I gallantly struggle to overcome cultural and language barriers, or just a series of cheap shots at the Texan drawl, depending on how you interpret it.
Previously on Death by Microphone: Episode 1: Our Token Brit is Taking a Stand-Up Class at Dallas Comedy House for Your Amusement Episode 2: I Just Took My First Stand-Up Comedy Class and I Already Want to Sabotage It Episode 3: How to Suck Less in a Few Easy Steps: What I Learned at Stand-Up Comedy Class
This week we actually got given a sheet with a step-by-step guide to writing a joke. From circling a negative word, to tightening up the set-up, to advice on developing a contrary point of view to better support your punchline, we now literally possess a foolproof one-page guide to being funny. There is now absolutely no excuse.
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Dean's big thing this week was tightening up material. When you're up in front of people, the tendency can be to ramble a bit, partially out of nerves, partially out of wanting everyone to understand exactly what you're saying. If you look at your routine, though, there are almost always things you can cut out of it, sentences you can compress, bits that render other bits unnecessary. It's all about getting to the joke. If you take the audience off on a big rambling story, they're going to get bored. They want to laugh. That's what they're there to do. Plus, they're probably drunk, so they will care even less.
Basically, the distance from beginning of routine to first punchline should be 30 words or fewer. This is based on the idea that people normally speak at about two words per second, and you want to average four laughs a minute. Old-school comedians used to swear by this metric. It sounds pretty intimidating, but if you can throw out a punchline and then start "tagging" it (multiple jokes springing from the same punchline), it's easily achievable.
Anyway, I am pleased to report that, despite the lack of rehearsal and the rambling inherent in having no time to tighten up a tale to the required standards, this story got a far better reception. I think its success largely hinges on my attempt at a Texas accent, and the sheer commitment I put into sounding like Foghorn Leghorn, whose accent remains my first real connection with the American South. It carries on into a terrible afternoon at the Carrollton DPS, before spinning wildly out of control with no discernible end joke. Nevertheless, compared to the previous week it is a vast improvement, and I realize that simply making jokes about being British in Texas is a) what the audience wants (and you should never try and second-guess what the audience is expecting) and b) much easier than the previous week's routine on how much I hate pandas. I mean, I really hate pandas. They're shit. But I wasn't as committed to that story as I am to the one about how awful it is to be British in Waffle House, and that's what matters.
Every joke, in that sense, is a confessional, because if you don't have the emotional attachment to the subject nature of the joke, you're going to find it incredibly difficult to make an audience care about it either. And that's today's take-home lesson, folks.