Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Get up, stand-up.

"So a sheriff walks into a bar..."

I’m taking a stand-up comedy class. No, really, I am. Yes, me. And just what are you implying anyways?

I’m not doing it because I want to be a comic, though. Oh god no. I am far too chicken to pursue that line of work. I’m doing it to shake up my writing life, and I highly recommend it to you prose writers out there.

First off, the feedback is immediate. You share your writing (your jokes) with an audience, and you find out in seconds if it’s any good or not. It’s like the antidote to the molasses pace of traditional publishing where it can take eight months just to get rejected from lit journals. (I’m talking to you McSweeney’s.)

Secondly, writing stand-up is the opposite of writing prose. The best jokes have a minimum amount of setup and there’s no time for dreamy exposition. You just get to the point. This flexes the writing muscle in a new way, which, for me at least, is inspiring and reenergizing after being bogged down by subtext and metaphors for so many years. 

Thirdly, it’s all about imagery — about painting a picture as clear as you can for your audience. Which is what prose should be about too. When I’m writing prose, however, I sometimes forget that it’s meant for an audience, mostly because I’ve never had more than a handful of readers. But with comedy, if you don’t have an audience then you’re not really doing, well, anything. You can’t call yourself a comic if you’re writing jokes that never get told to a living, breathing audience. It’s the performance that’s key, and because of it, you have to think of your audience even more than you think of yourself. But since performance isn’t necessary for fiction writing, you can call yourself a writer if you write a book that never gets read. It can be a narcissistic, vacuum tube of a project for your eyes only. This separation from the audience in the literary world makes it easier to get lost in your head when you write, and that can lead to connection problems with your readers... if you ever get them. You get it, and so you think that’s enough. Thankfully, comedy has reminded me that it isn’t.

Fourthly, doing stand-up is a total kick in the balls, metaphorically speaking. And us writers need to get our balls kicked once in a while to make sure we stay tough. There’s no gentle hand-holding in comedy. If you suck, the audience will tell you. In the class format, the teacher will tell you that you suck, too, but she'll also tell you how to suck less. I never thought "funny" was a learned skill, but it is. There’s a structure to jokes that's imperative, and that makes subjectivity almost irrelevant. Meaning, if it's a well-told joke, it should get a laugh. But in literature, we writers use the subjectivity excuse like it's going out of style. "Oh he didn't like it because it's a book about women." Or "She didn't like it because she likes commercial fiction, not literary." The truth is, if you tell a story well, most people will probably like it, all genre-preferences aside. The subjectivity excuse hampers my improvement as a writer, so I appreciate that comedy doesn't give me this easy out.

Interestingly enough, writing jokes has made me miss writing prose. As I mentioned earlier, being released from exposition and dialogue did feel freeing, but now — four weeks into this stand-up class — I often find myself longing for the metaphor, the layers, the subtext, all the stuff I’m not able to use in comedy… at least not unless I become good at it. (Like everything else, I bet when you’ve mastered the rules of the joke, then you can break them.)

If you’re in Toronto, I highly recommend checking out this class. You just might find a new calling… or at least be drawn back to your old calling in a new way. You can also watch this excellent short doc on the instructor, the hilarious Dawn Whitwell.

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