What Writers Can Learn From Comedians
Last week I talked about what the prose people can learn from the TV people. If you missed it, you can find it here. Today let’s talk about what we can
steal learn from comedians.
When people assert that writing can’t be taught, I think what they’re talking about is Voice. We use Voice in a lot of ways when we discuss writing, so let me be as clear as I can be. For me, Voice includes but is not limited to the following:
- Prose style (including word choice, but also sentence length, the vernacular used in narration, etc.)
- Characterization (i.e., how character is expressed — are they vivid? Muted? Combo platter? Also, are they meant to be taken at their word, or are they unreliable or satirical?)
- Narrative distance (are we in the characters’ heads, are we looking down from 100 feet up, or sometimes a little of each? If we’re in the heads, especially in the third person, how much are we in there?)
- Narrative presence (hand-in-hand with the above: how much of the narrator herself is felt in the telling of the story?)
So can you teach this stuff? No, but you can help identify it. All that stuff above? Think of Voice as the weird, magical bindle you’ll use to carry it through a story.
Does that make sense? Stephen King, Henry James, and Zora Neale Hurston all use the same tools to tell their fiction. Same as you and me. What’s special, though, is that bindle, that unique fabric they use to carry all that stuff around in their books. Voice is that bindle.
But it’s a hard thing to identify in prose. Voice is like pornography: You know it when you see it. It’s also like pornography in that everything starts to look like it.
You know who uses voice constantly, though, in a way that’s easy to identify? Our friend, the standup comedian. To a comic, voice is everything. Think of Chris Rock and Mike Birbiglia and Maria Bamford. Each has a) a distinctive speaking voice; b) a distinctive way of putting things; and c) a distinctive point of view. All those things combine to make Voice, yet Voice comes across differently for each of those comics. But if you watch the most recent performances by those comics, you know what their voice is. If you listen to enough comedy, you start to notice situations in life and think, “That’s like a Maria Bamford bit,” or “That could be a Bob Newhart thing.”
Comedians will tell you it takes years for a comic to get good, and what they mean is it takes that long for a comic to find his or her voice.* If you think this is exaggeration, go look at a younger/newer comic. Their jokes might be funny, their timing good, their sense of control with the crowd might even be great. But if they don’t have that thing, that bindle that holds it all together, they just don’t feel right to you.
(*It takes years for a prose writer to find her voice, too. That’s why the media loves a brilliant young author, because it’s an anomaly. Most first books are published after 40. Don’t hate brilliant young authors, by the way. What are they supposed to do, not be brilliant?)
I think the best way to see how voice evolves is to look at a comic my kids can’t get enough of: Jim Gaffigan.
If you watch early Jim Gaffigan, he was an adept observational comic of the “Y’ever notice…” school. So he’d talk about Big Macs, for example. Several years into what was already a successful comedy career, Gaffigan got weirdly meta, using a technique of inserting an outside critical voice between his jokes. It was jarring and it changed who he was onstage. Now he’d talk about Big Macs, then immediately (while the audience is still laughing at the Big Mac joke) shit on himself, perhaps as another comedian would, for talking about Big Macs. Most recently, he’s developed this further, where he’s a) talking about Big Macs; b) cutting himself with that critical voice for talking about Big Macs; and then c) exploring what it means for us as a culture when we like McDonalds.
That’s Voice, guys, and it happens when a comic starts getting (ugh) “real.” You hear the “critical voice” in Jim Gaffigan’s act and you can imagine him imagining this is what other comedians are thinking about his comedy. It comes from a place of discomfort and self-doubt, and that’s pretty goddamn real for a guy talking about diapers and Big Macs.
So Gaffigan’s Voice comes from style, yes, but it’s also point of view, and it’s also how much of himself Gaffigan is willing to insert into the comedy. A lot of starting comedians I’ve seen are either trying to balance the whole jokes/timing/audience thing, or they’ve got too much of themselves in the act and they forgot to put in jokes. How different is that from the writer who basically writes a personal screed against the company that fucked her over but forgot to power this idea through compelling characters, vivid events, and thrilling prose?
Put it another way: the better a comedian gets, the harder it is to explain what’s so great about them. “Paul F. Tompkins got more personal with his act” does not remotely begin to scratch the surface of why that made him great. Look how long it took me to get to the bottom of Jim Gaffigan.
Watch this clip of Stewart Lee discussing the death of Princess Diana. Well — not her death, exactly, but what it brought out in his countrymen. It’s an 8-minute clip, but worth it, not least because it kills me every time yet I can’t possibly describe why it’s funny:
Now. Could anyone have written and performed a bit about the mourning of Princess Diana? Of course. Could anyone but Stewart Lee have done it the way he did? No. And you don’t even have to know who Stewart Lee is to know that, because his Voice is all over the thing. You know it when you see it.
So back to writing. (And comedians are writers, you’d better believe it, but here I mean prose.) What can we do to get our Voice across?
- Ask yourself: Am I in this enough? Not in a postmodern sense, like the narrator-doppelgängers in something by Philip Roth or Paul Auster. I mean: Are my concerns and sadnesses and excitements palpable in this work? If no, why the fuck not? Why did you write it? All the cool ideas in the world will simply not support a story if there’s no you in it.
- Then ask yourself: Am I staying out of my own way? This sounds contradictory, and it is. Welcome to the world of writing! You can write about things that concern you, but be careful to keep them true to the characters and situations. Think, in other words, of the dreaded Message Movie. Like this speech from the end of On Deadly Ground:
As Richard Bausch once said, if a character gives a speech, make damn sure you (the writer) don’t believe a word of it.
- (Related: Think of the Two Matt Damons. As co-writer/star of Good Will Hunting, he plays a guy struggling with who he thinks he is vs. who he really is. It gets a little emotionally heavy-handed, but it also feels like it comes from an honest place. As co-writer/star of Promised Land, he plays a guy struggling with who he thinks he is vs. who he really is, but with a corporate-environmental message strung across it like bunting. This is also heavy-handedness, but it’s one of hostile intent. It wants me to feel a certain way, or it will kill me. So it trades honesty for a cheap, desperate earnestness, and it ends up feeling empty. Personally, I’d rather risk someone thinking a story was sentimental vs. them thinking I was trying to make a point.)
- Know your characters as you would know yourself. Very important. You see a lot of writing advice that says you ought to know what your character eats for breakfast or what she wore to her prom. Those are great to know, but what’s more vital for Voice is understanding your character. Don’t worry about Would I do this? Worry about Do I know what it feels like to do something like this? Even better: Is there some part of me that knows that feeling even though I’d rather not admit it?
- The prose should be something only you would write. Think of M*A*S*H, where Radar’s reading a letter from his mom and Hawkeye’s laughing, and Radar says, “What? She writes like she talks.” That’s part of voice, kiddo. Why would you want to write like some generic narrator? It doesn’t have to be flat-out conversational, but it should feel like a conversation between the reader and your brain.
- OR: The prose should be true to the character. This goes for both first-person and close third-person narration. You’re in a character’s head, now write like only that character would think. Otherwise, again, why do it? No one wants to read a piece of fiction that’s been half-assed.
- Make sure there’s a point to it. Having a point is very different from making a point. I had a teacher in grad school who used to ask of every workshop story, “What of it?” Meaning: What does this add up to and why were we asked to consider it? If you can’t find the point to what you’re writing, how’s the reader going to find it? However: This is a thing you may not know in your first draft, and that’s okay. That’s why we have second drafts, and it’s why we have 20th drafts. But somewhere, between genesis and publication, you’re going to have to figure out it. Otherwise, you can’t in good conscience ask someone to spend their time reading it.
- Be truthful. This sums up all these other bullet points, and is ultimately the heart of Voice. The best way to stay truthful is to, as the hippie bumper sticker says, question reality. Warning: This involves risk. That Stewart Lee performance won’t be for everybody, but you can see him start from a place of honest questioning: Why, in this amazing outpouring of public grief for Princess Diana — in a country not known for its emotionalizing — did someone think to bring an inflatable E.T.? Then, instead of letting that be the joke and moving on, he actually takes the time to try and figure it out. It descends into a performance piece, because he needs to know. So he’s risking losing the audience, he’s risking the whole thing collapsing, but he’s good enough to know as long as he’s being truthful (and funny) about his subjects, it’ll work for the right people.
I spoke about contradictions a minute ago, and here’s a big one:
The more truthful you are, the more specific your work gets. The more specific your work gets, the more universal it is.
The more calculating you are, the more universal your work seems. The more universal it seems, the less universal it actually is.
This is well-known to comics and songwriters alike. Let it be known to prose writers as well. We have enough bland, faceless, corporate transactions in our lives. Never let art be one of them.
Do what only you can do, do it well, don’t worry about capturing huge nets full of readers. If you excite just a few with something they know is real, that excitement will grow and more of them will come. You cannot force this, you cannot fake it. And it still may not happen at all. You may always have just a few readers.
Are you good with this? Can you die tomorrow knowing three people loved what you did? For now, while you’re living, you have to always believe it will be more than three. That’s truly the Artist’s Way: constant fucking self-deception. But tuck this down in the back of your brain: Imagine one of those three people has a kid, or a niece or nephew. And when the kid turns nineteen, that third reader hands them a book — your book — and says, “I loved this. It spoke to me at a certain age. I think you’ll love it, too.” That’s what Voice buys you: immortality, at least among a certain string of weirdos.
Voice, faked, is spectacle. That’s a currency that may buy a lot this minute but it won’t be in use next year or a hundred years from now. Fake voice is stelo, the Esperanto money. Real Voice is gold, which as Glenn Beck has told us, never loses its value. It’s why we still read Dickens and Woolf and Cervantes and Shakespeare. It’s why you may not get half the references in a bit by The Credibility Gap, but it’s still funny.
P.S. I played Bill Cosby’s “Buck Buck” routine for my kids not long ago. That’s a track from 1967 describing events that might’ve taken place in 1947. My kids live in 2013. It killed.