Anyone who’s had semi-serious experience with stand-up comedy will tell you that it’s an art that can only be developed and refined in front of actual human beings.
So for many years, prominent stand-up comedians continued working out new material in the same way they did when they weren’t famous: They’d write jokes and test them in the low-stakes space of an open mike.
But technology is changing that. Well-known comedians who want to test out material in front of live audiences are facing a world where everyone has a quality video recording device — and the ability to instantly publish videos for everybody to see. It’s this reality that Chris Rock laments in a new interview with Vulture, in which he explains how it forces some sort of “self-censorship.”
“Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio,” Rock says. “But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive.
“Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like [expletive] Sammy the Bull, you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, ‘Oh, I went too far,’ and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.”
Weeks before the interview, Rock stopped by an open mike in New York and told the audience he was “there to work out stuff,” as host Aparna Nancherla recounted later. According to Nancherla (disclosure: she’s a friend of mine), Rock then “gets into one of his first bits. He gets out the setup and then suddenly addresses someone in the audience to put away their phone, because he can see them taping. Oh. No.”
“It gets worse,” Nancherla continued. “He goes back to start his joke again, momentarily thrown off, as he’s just there working on stuff. And then notices ANOTHER person taping him, a guy in the front row. It seems like the guy starts arguing with him a little, and then Chris gets fed up and walks offstage, barely over a minute or two after he got there.”
It’s potentially embarrassing for a famous comedian to have a still-rough bit posted online — and it can also affect a comedy star’s livelihood. In 2012, comedian Patton Oswalt got into a back-and-forth with an audience member whom he caught filming a bit that he was still working out. It resulted in a very public argument, as Oswalt continued to tear into the woman after she left.
“It’s the equivalent, to me, of sitting at a table in a coffee shop or library, writing the first draft of a short story, or screenplay or, were I a musician, song lyrics, and having someone walk by, snap the sheet away from my fingers, snap a pic with their camera, and then say, ‘Hey, I’m a fan of your stuff. I want the new thing you’re working on permanently on my phone now. I’m deciding when it’s ‘done,’” Oswalt wrote later.
He also said new jokes he was planning to use for a stand-up special had made their way to YouTube weeks before taping.
There’s a valid argument that anything said in public is open game for criticism, that you should have to stand by remarks you made before a small audience just as much as remarks you made for, literally, anyone to hear.
And YouTube means those jokes can take on a lives of their own, far removed from the confines of a comedy club or theater. After a Hannibal Buress bit about rape allegations against Bill Cosby went viral, Buress told an audience in St. Louis: “I was saying that [stuff] for the 600 people there, not for the Internet.”
He added: “That’s not how you help your career.”
The problem of phone recordings is most pronounced for already established comedians, as Rock explained to the New York Times in 2012: “The sad thing, with all this taping and stuff, no one’s going to do stand-up. And every big stand-up I talk to says: ‘How do I work out new material? Where can you go, if I have a half an idea and then it’s on the Internet next week?'”
Rock continued: “I’m just trying to figure out how I’m going to do it. ‘Cause the few times I’ve gotten onstage and thought about touring, immediately, stuff’s on the Internet, I’m getting calls, and I’m like, this isn’t worth it.”
Instant publishing has democratized and broadened comedy. So many more people can consume stand-up now than when it was mostly confined to late-night television, comedy clubs or records.
And as in music, film and other mediums, technology and social media have given comedians new ways to find their audiences. A booker thinks you’re too young, or too weird, or whatever? Get thyself to the YouTube and post your musings there. Bo Burnham started as a 16-year-old on YouTube.
Podcasts have also helped boost the profiles of comics going through non-traditional channels. Then there’s Twitter, where comics can test jokes, and comedy writers have been discovered; Twitter helped a Midwest IT guy land a writing gig with “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”
“Twitter has democratized the process,” Meyers told Vulture. “We used to look at smaller samples, now you can look back and see what a person thought was funny for the past calendar year.”
Still, live performance requires practice, and that practice requires an audience. Could a draconian policy of no recording at open mikes be needed?
Dave Chappelle banned mobile phones at his Oddball Comedy Festival shows last year. Granted, they weren’t open mikes; but he’d had enough.
“I haven’t gone that far,” Rock told Vulture, “but I may have to, to get an act together for a tour.”
He added: “I swear I just had a conversation with the people at the Comedy Cellar about how we can make cellphones into cigarettes. If you would have told me years ago that they were going to get rid of smoking in comedy clubs, I would have thought you were crazy.”
As the audience for stand-up has widened, perhaps there is now a need to educate newcomers. Today’s lesson: Recording and publishing an open mike bit that’s not refined is rude.
“Not everything will work, but there has to be an implicit agreement to be there and be present for it,” Nancherla writes about Rock’s open mike experience. “Trying to record things on your phone is a part of the time we live in. Some of us are so mindlessly on our devices all day that you might not even consciously realize how much space they take up in your lives. Nobody experiences anything anymore just for the sake of experiencing it.
“You know what’s cool about live performance? You were there for it. You got to hear something that was just meant for you. Not for hits or views or clicks.”
Video-recording cellphones and instant publishing can be beautiful things. Technology, like any other tool, is only as good and helpful as the people who wield it.