After eight months on the road and twenty years in comedy, I’m asked two things the most often. How do you write material and how do you refine it? To answer that, I have to go back to the arrogance of my first show. That was 1991. The now late Jerry Weisberg owned Fun Seeker’s Comedy Club in Scottsdale, Arizona. I took a $40 class to get on stage. Now, I had no intention of listening to Jerry’s advice about what would or wouldn’t work at his club. I just wanted to prove, to a man who had ironically been in the industry for ten years, why what I was right and his advice on comedy was all wrong.
I had already performed at a high school talent assembly, so I must know everything.
I bombed that night. For those who don’t know what bombing is like, it’s like taking a job as a janitor. Then, when you’re finished mopping, the floor is a bigger mess than it was when you started. Of course, that’s when most young comics blame the mop.
The source of good comedy is hard to pin down. In the past, interviewers like Larry Wilde have suggested that all comedians came from minority groups or poor backgrounds. If isn’t true, those comedians surely felt unloved as children. The number of Jewish comics that came out of the Catskills makes Wilde’s theory sound wise. But 2010 is a different era. The Comedy Boom of the early 1980s has opened the field of stand-up comedy to everyone and every subject. At first, I patterned myself as a hybrid of Steven Wright and Bill Cosby. I was afraid of getting no laughs. So, like Wright, I didn’t laugh at my jokes. That way, if my jokes failed, I wouldn’t look psychotic. Being young, I wanted to talk about my family. After all, that’s what my life centered on at the time. What do you expect? I was still living at home and attending ASU. Because I was also occasionally opening for ASU’s sketch troupe the Farce Side, I looked for topics young people could relate to. That’s marketing 101. However, my family life was also a little tumultuous. So I couldn’t exude the, “I come from a nice normal family like you,” that you’d expect from Cosby.
So, how did I find material? At first, I patterned myself after the comics I idolized. That pattern became a bunch of one-liners about by family, an exact hybrid of the comedy I most admired. The comics I admired all had two things in common. They were quick. But additionally, their comedy always came from an honest place. Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and George Carlin all spoke out of truth. They all had a personal connection to their material. The narratives that drew me in because I could also relate to their subject matter.
Now, back to my question, how do comedians find material? A comedian’s material comes from personal experience. If you’re living with your parents, you’ll talk about that. If you just got married, you’ll talk about that. In fact, if you just got married and you don’t have material about it, you’re not paying enough attention to your own life. I just came back from the gym where I noticed safety instructions on the weight machines. This prompted me to ask, “If you need instructions, should you be lifting heavy things?”
The best source for new comedy is current events, no matter how you want to define current events. The source could be current events in your family life. It could be current events in the news. For Bob Newhart, current events meant those events in American History that Newhart was interested in at the time.
The reason most young comics don’t discuss politics is that politics is not interesting to young people. When politics affects your life, you become more likely to explore it. It’s not that way for everyone. Jimmy Dore started talking about politics and religion almost immediately. The difference is that Dore was shaped by rebelling against religion in his youth. We’re compelled to talk about those things that are personal and affecting us right now. So, if I went to Catholic School, I’m sure I’d have a much stronger opinion about the subject. Most comics don’t look for humor when they write new bits. The humor simply comes from the way they tend to look at the things they that interest them.
That’s why the best comics can write about almost anything.
The answer to, “What should a comic talk about on stage?” is simple. Ask yourself, “What subjects are the most interesting to you right now?” In all likelihood, the reason that those subjects are compelling is that there’s already something ironic, frustrating or funny about them to you. Now, just identify what those funny or frustrating elements are.
That’s easy because they will usually reveal themselves the first time you share them out loud.
If you’re wondering when a columnist like Mike Royko or a stand-up comic like George Carlin would have run out of material, the answer is never. Even if they lived forever, neither one would have run dry. That’s the brilliance of making your comedy personal. As long as he had any interest in life, something would have made Royko pick up his poison pen. Something would have made Carlin pick up microphone and ask, “Can you believe this?” Moreover, as long you have a life, there will be something interesting, compelling, funny and worth sharing.