Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Topics, Hacks, and Parallel Thoughts

We just had our first anniversary of the Short Bus Comics show, and there are always photos going up on the image site, as well as the Short Bus site. The show has a stable of some pretty funny people, and many of us play other gigs, too. In a town like Vegas, everyone gets to meet everyone and you get to know the open mikers as well as the headliners who visit smaller venues to try out material.

The biggest issue anyone in comedy ever seems to struggle with is: What do I talk about? For some this question is based on the concept that there are too many topics. But there are others who simply can't figure out the right stream of thought that works with not only who they are, but their voice, their look, their attitude, and their audience. The fact is, if you can talk to anyone about something with passion it will be a great topic for you.

The second issue is "Is this Hack?" which should be asked immediately after that question of topic. Why? If you've heard it a million times before, "MJ and kids" "priests and kids" "airplane food" etc etc etc.. then so has each member of your audience and every comic on the stage before and after you. You can probably sit in a circle with 10 comedians and you can each come up with 50 premises that end in the phrase "Michael Jackson". You can probably name at least 10 comedians who don't write their own material, but instead recite jokes that come from books that are older than Vaudeville. For them Abe Lincoln is topical.

Hack material is the stuff that everyone knows the punchlines to and those who aren't comedians generally repeat in office parties. It's that stuff that we get sent via the never-ending chain of email humor. Some comedians do nothing but hack material, but do it in such a way that the humor is the spoof of the hackiness of it all. It doesn't mean that the comedian is bad, but it does mean that the material isn't the best. Why use hack material if there are so many topics to play upon? Why repeat street jokes if there are new events every day in the paper? Why think that no one in the audience has heard that one about customer service and computers? Everyone has. Move on to something that's smart, wise, and YOU.

This brings up the third point. Parallel thought is a paralyzing tool for comedians afraid to do material that someone else may be doing. New comics and those who haven't had a lot of stage time, (not always the same thing), seem to be so afraid of talking about something that another comedian talks about that s/he'll stop using really good writing. That's just silly.

In Las Vegas, for instance, we have a few dozen casinos, a few million tourists, and a majority of the locals have had run-ins with both. To not speak of tourists, casinos, gambling, or anything else related to Sin City means avoiding a treasure trove of stories and jokes. Yet, I've been to stages where new comics are so afraid they've "taken someone else's joke" that they don't even try the material that's unique to them. My view of the tourist is entirely different from that of someone who works dealing cards, or serving food. Another person's view may be different from mine when I spend time in a wheelchair or when I try to park in the few disabled spots. Perspective changes the topics from one person to the next. You can run on the same track, and never step on another foot.

Parallel thought is also what gets experienced comics irked at new comics. The idea that a comedian who has five years stage time is supposed to be the ONLY person talking about Topic X, (let's say Billy Mays), is just silly. Other people share experiences, and other people share memories. If a room of comics all did a punchline on Billy Mays Oxy-products, chances are it will be a different one for each person. To get pissed off at a new comic's use of "oxy-moron", is unrealistic and frankly, idiotic. It's like expecting no one else on stage to talk about relationships, illnesses, politicians, news stories, eating habits, travel, and the thousands of other shared experiences we have every day. Human conditions are not owned by any one comedian. Sorry.

One of the best run and most successful tour shows at the moment is Kiki Melendez' Hot Tamales tour. She has gathered a group of primarily Latina comedians, added a few others and each voice is completely her own, (and his own for the case of the token male who may grace the stage). Some women talk about parenting, others about dating, others about careers, and still others- well- Jessica Kirson- about idiots in general. (I love JK.) If the comics on the tour were given a restriction, "You can't talk about X because Ms. Thang over there talks about X" then the show would be really dull. Kiki's life has entirely different experiences than Amy Anderson's life, and even if they both speak of womanly worlds- the world is from their own perspectives.

But, there are those who don't want to write on topics that inspire any passion. There are those who think that telling one of those jokes from the store bought joke books is a great way to be a comic. There are those who will go to youtube or other sites and learn a comedian's act line for line. These are the people who irk not only seasoned pros, but newbies, too. Comedy works when it is true to the person doing the talking. Bad comedians are those who take the talent of timing, and use it in refining another person's words. The audience may laugh, but no other comic will respect you, and worse, club owners will look at you as a hack.

If you find yourself stuck and unable to think of topics that are true to you, take a voice recorder, (use your phone, or computer if you want), and just talk about your day, your family, your job, your school, or anything that inspires you to just babble. Maybe you're pissed off at driving in rush hour. Maybe you are dating way too many nuts. Maybe your pets cost more than your car. Do you really spend that much time looking at the food in your house and then going to the drive-thru? Everyone has something that is funny if it's not forced. Forcing funny is never funny. Knowing topics can help create great routines, and knowing the difference between hack and good writing is the difference between comedy and wasting time on stage. Parallel thought is forgivable, but line-for-line, word-for-word theft is just not, no matter how long you've been on stage or who you are. If you can't write, you can't do comedy. Try political speech writing? Wait, that's comedy.