Yesterday I listened to Charlie Kaufman’s Bafta podcast on screenwriting. You can listen to his talk here.
His talk is inspiring, lyrical and reassuringly laden with artistic integrity.
But what I took from it was Kaufman’s insistence that we shouldn’t be obsessed with being an expert in our craft. With being technically perfect.
Technical obsession produces work that is mechanical, sterile, samey, unoriginal, clinical. The main reason why this is the case is that cold theory crowds out you. You are what makes your art unique. You filter the world through your eyes, and your work must be an expression of this unique point of view. This is important in producing original artistic work, but is also an excellent marketing point: how can you stand out? Use your own factory of novelty: be yourself. Technical perfection often leads to dull work: your flaws are what makes you interesting. Flaws create difference and unpredictability, and therefore character and excitement. You don’t want perfection in people, or indeed anything.
It’s important to say that you need to know enough technical theory to allow the quality of your work to shine through: for example, if you have no clue about plot structure your screenplay will basically be unreadable. But the point is that you should focus on knowing enough technique, and then improvise around it. It is only a loose framework in which you should play, not your number one priority. Kaufman says craft should not come first, meaning should: the truth about the world you are trying to communicate. Write from the soul rather than according to a manual. You need to be willing to be naked.
In the world of stand-up you see a lot of people who aren’t willing to be naked. Whether it be because of fear, comedy course orthodoxy, or simply because they don’t know who they are and what they want to say yet. Having something to “say” isn’t necessarily to be political, but it is to have an authored point of view, a distinctive way of filtering reality, a unique perception. And this perception only comes from writing, writing, writing. Explore yourself and your ideas, don’t substitute inspiration and insight for structural excellence. The more authored your view the more watchable you are as a comic: people start to love you and not your jokes. They just want to find out more and more about how you see the world. They can develop a kind-of friendship with you because you are presenting a humanity to them, rather than a polished robotic act. This is the reason one liner comics often struggle to remain interesting for longer than 20 minutes: it gets samey, and you feel an emotional distance to them. Jimmy Carr is probably the exception, in my experience. But that is because he takes care to do a lot of crowd work in his show to break up the one-line jokes, and me get to know him through his interactions with real people. Otherwise it is just an 80 minute presentation of comedic equations.
I’ve struggled with this in my career, but I am getting better. And awareness is the first step to learning. I am now consciously incompetent. I’ve been criticised for not putting enough of me in my set, and for failing to develop momentum due to the fact that I have been known to flit from funny bit to funny bit without developing the emotional connection that comes from the audience getting to know you. When they like you, their good will sweeps you along and adds pace to the show, as laughs become consistent waves, a blowing wind, rather than short sharp claps of thunder. This is quite a tough thing to describe, but the type of laughter I am talking about is similar to the fits of giggles you might have when having drinks with a group of friends.
I’ve learnt that there may be a reason to keep things in which aren’t necessarily the funniest thing that could be in that space in your set or show. The key is this: don’t judge each moment of content on a consequentialist basis, but judge the piece’s impact holistically. It may make the piece unpredictable, varied, textured and uniquely you. This is an important realisation: people don’t judge your show, film (or whatever) like judges judge a boxing match: scoring it round by round, on a scene by scene basis, or joke by joke. They don’t remember specifics, but they do remember their emotional reaction to the whole experience. On this subject, I have just a read an AA Gill Review of Mark Hix’s new restaurant in the Sunday Times. Hix is a famous British chef but Gill marks him out for special praise because “Hix is one of the few people who realise that hospitality is the main ingredient in catering”. Gill’s point is that food is only one element in the whole dining out experience. If our general emotional response to the whole evening is that we’ve had a great time, the fact that the dessert was a bit crap is irrelevant. I’ve worked in pubs and restaurants where managers haven’t understood this, they think if the service is efficient and the beer is delicious then the customers will be happy. No: they just want to leave feeling like they’ve had a great time, and that is a more complex dynamic best understood looking at the totality of their experience.
I have had similar issues with a sitcom script I am developing with a funny writer/performer called Amy Hoggart. We have talking to a well-know production company about it, and the feedback we have received is that it is very funny, but not necessarily a great script. It is not a great script because it lacks a bit of warmth, and the characters perhaps lack some depth. This is because we took a consequentialist approach to the writing. The funniest line may not be the best line, because a good sitcom script has a broader range of qualifying criteria than simply “funny”.
In comedy films you are supposed to have a love plot for the main character/s. This is because it raises the stakes, they have more to lose, jeopardy increases and this improves the impact of the jokes. The love scenes aren’t funny, but they are essential to making the script work. The increased impact comes from the variety: we habituate to jokes and so mixing then up with something else makes the remaining gags funnier. And we also care about the characters if we get to know them, see their flaws, see them fail and then try again: which makes them funnier.
The idea of variety increasing impact of jokes reminds me of a debate in the world of cricket about what is the more entertaining format: Test cricket (which lasts 5 days), or 20/20 cricket (which lasts 2 hours). In 20/20 you get a binge of excitement: there are lots of 4s and 6s hit by the batsmen, run-outs, lots of wickets fall quickly. But is it more entertaining game than Test cricket which takes longer? I would argue no because it lacks the jeopardy of Test cricket: if you have invested 5 days into something you have more to lose, and the matches (and victories) are rarer. Further, because boundaries for the batsmen, and wickets for the bowlers, are harder to come by and rarer you value them more and they are more exciting: we do not habituate to them, there is a great anticipation for the next one, and it is a greater contrast against the relatively dull monotony of the rest of the match. Now, I am not saying your script (or stand-up set) should be dull and monotonous! But it should be varied. Richard Herring says he likes to keep the crap bits in his podcasts, because the good bits have more impact. Normality is boring, whatever the nature of it. If every line is a funny joke, then it feels samey and is (perversely) boring. This is, it should be noted, not possible in our 5 minute long comedy culture. This same phenomena is audible in modern music: the biggest difference between great music and pop pap is the variety within the songs, the assortments of breakdowns.
Tony Allen, regarded as the godfather of alternative comedy, has written one of the few good books about the art of stand-up. He says it is all about attitude and juxtaposition of attitude. You have to be a contradiction, a hypocrite, inconsistent, drenched in irony, infuriating. Your set needs paradoxes, light and shade, changes of pace, variety, texture. This allows work to feel authored, and emotionally compelling. It gives a feeling of momentum and movement because you are oscillating between different emotional charges. He writes that there should be a feel of risk: that this might get uncomfortable, that this could be a disaster. This adds jeopardy and also an alternative point on the emotional spectrum for the audience to enjoy. Your set should be a kaleidoscope. That is why the best comedies have love stories at their heart, and why the darkest dramas have comic moments. Audience interaction, breaking down the fourth wall is a great way to do this: risk adds weight to the laugh. A tool used brilliantly in the current West End sensation “One Man, Two Guvnors” where the performers obliterate the 4th wall interacting with the audience and getting them on stage in the play.
Allen writes that Lenny Bruce’s most important contribution to stand-up comedy has less to do with breaking taboos around choice of language and subject matter, and more to do with his be-bop jazz technique: improvising with attitude, jumping from light to shade and back again in all it’s different textures. “Lenny Bruce delivered his witty insights and opinions in a spectrum of personal voices all in close attendance, but none getting to solo for more than a few seconds.” This should be your ambition. He goes on to write: “What made Bill Hicks such a compelling performer was this ability to get the audience bristling, to deliberately unsettle them, and from there to proceed to make them laugh. The particular nature of that tension, and the quality of the focus that it creates, is unique to live stand-up comedy and Bill, like Keith Allen a few years before him, explored it thoroughly.” Both Hicks and Bruce had standard club routines that they would mix in with their riskier stuff, and would play the room carefully to win people back if they were losing them. The point is: they had a big range of gears they could go through, take themselves and their audience through a huge emotional range, whereas the standard club act is one paced.
Stewart Lee is probably the modern master at juxtaposing content and pace. He talks a lot about building and exploiting tension in the audience, then the laugh can feel like a release for them. In “How I Escaped My Certain Fate” he writes: “One of the exciting things about stand-up is the genuine possibility of failure...you want to lose them for a bit and then have to win them back”. He loves the feeling, audiences love the feeling, that you are teetering on the brink of losing a room. Safety is boring. He goes on to comment on his routine: “I was quite happy for it to die, as it opened up enormous possibilities for improvising around its failure...I really enjoy this aspect of stand-up-how failure creates opportunities to create subsequent victories-and increasingly I build pseudo-failures into the shows to give myself and the audience the thrill of a struggle.”
So, in short: don’t be a utilitarian. Be you.