The Answers

A few weeks ago, HBO aired Talking Funny, a one-hour program in which Ricky Gervais had Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Louis CK on to discuss standup comedy.  It was brilliant.  I wrote out the questions asked in it here and then stated that I’d answer them for myself.  Here goes:

  1. How long does it take before a bit of yours is ready? A month, on average.  I have an unusually high hit rate, probably around 40%.  What I mean by a hit rate is (# Working Jokes) / (# Jokes Attempted).  I think most comics’ is around 15-20%.  What I write on paper tends to end up being funny onstage as it is.  Having said that, I’ve come up with my best stuff improvising.  C.K. mentioned there’s “almost a fruit-like cycle” to his jokes… they ripen and they’re good and then they’re rotten.  I’d submit that’s because he’s so prolific that he probably gets bored and wants to do something else.  I do pride myself on writing a lot but my oldest bits I’ve been doing from the start.  When they worked the 1st time out the gate.  Ha.
  2. When you go see a comedian, do you want to see his new stuff or his greatest hits?  Is comedy different from music in this way? Both.  As an average audience member, I’d say his greatest hits.  But as a comic, I want to see your latest.  It is different from music.  Most people want to hear “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
  3. How often do you refresh the act?  How old is your oldest bit? I’d love to write a new hour every year.  But it’s probably more like 20 new minutes a year.  My oldest bit is 9 years old.  I’ve been doing “Roll Call” that long.
  4. Is the crowd coming to see you or your act? You.  But you have to be funny.  You can’t just dick around.  That’s part of the beef I have with some huge comics.  They mess around and do a lot of low-brow crowd work.  I want to hear your insights.  80% of whatever comes out of most of our mouths the 1st time is mud, as it has been (closely) said.  For me, it dichotomizes based on whether I’m doing straight standup or hosting.  With the latter, I feel like people enjoy my in-the-moment, flowing, running commentary as much as my material.  In that case, then, I feel the balance is firmly swung in the direction of “me” vs. “my act.”  It also ensures each show I do is very different.
  5. Do you need a “thing”?  What’s your thing? Yes.  You need a hook, an angle.  I’m the Funny Indian.  Short and to the point.  (I’m that, too.)  More descriptively, I’m Your High-Brow, Fun-Size Comedian.  Those are my two things – I’m smart and small, like a computer chip.  I’m also a Social Nerd.  You can be a lot of things – just be able to define them.
  6. Do you worry about the business of comedy?  Does it ebb and flow? 1st question:  No.  2nd question:  Yes.  It’s definitely flowing right now.
  7. Why can certain white men say the N word on- and offstage? They have to be “down.”  They have to look like they know the black experience.  I’m a white Indian.  I couldn’t say it.  Russell Peters could.  Not sure if he does.  But he could.
  8. How important is it that the audience is onboard with your premise before getting to the punch line(s)? Critical.  There are three parts to a joke:  premise, punch line, and tags.  Tags are the little laughs you get after the big one (punch line).  Or hopefully, the big laughs after the even bigger 1st one.  Since my act tends to be a bit more intelligent, I need to explain myself a bit more.  When my jokes fail, it’s almost always because I lost them on the way up the hill.
  9. As a standup, against whom are you competing – other standups or other entertainers who are playing the same venues? Other standups.  I understood what Rock was saying – that you are competing against Led Zeppelin or whoever else just played there the night before.  But that’s only as far as ticket sales.  After that, you’re only being compared against other standups.  If people didn’t like you, yes, they spent their disposable income and their all-important one of two nights off for which they work so hard, but they won’t think, “We should’ve seen Zeppelin,” which they can’t anyway since they’re not together, Mr. Rock.  Ha.  They’ll think, “We should’ve saved our money to see another comedian.”  Or, to continue Rock’s analogy, “Sam Kinison.”
  10. Are you performing for the crowd or yourself? The artist performs for himself; the entertainer performs for the crowd.  I do both.  I start with what they’d expect – ethnic humor.  But I gradually move them to the things I really want to discuss, like religion and politics and dating.  The idea is to leave them subliminally with a key message of diversity – we’re all different and we’re all the same.  But this way, they get best of both worlds.  I’m Indian.  They want to hear the accent, even just once.  It’d be like watching a Pamela Anderson flick and seeing no boobs.
  11. Do you want to know the physical space very well or would you rather be surprised in the moment? I’m OK either way but I prefer to go to the venue to do the sound check and know where even the exit signs are, as Gervais indicated.  I want to be surprised by the people in the room – not the room itself.  Being outwitted by an inanimate object is just sad.
  12. Are you above the audience?  Is it important to be the underdog? Yes, I agree w/ Seinfeld.  By definition, you’re the only one speaking.  You are above the audience.  But is it important to be relatable?  Yes.  C.K. is the everyman.  If you’re smarter than the audience, just don’t be a dick about it.  Be aware and, preferably, self-deprecating about it.
  13. Is standup about controlling the situation? Yes.  Good standups are just good at getting large crowds of people to do what we want.  I’ve said, egotistically, that my comedy ability is a subset of my leadership ability.  I could get a crowd to cry.  To be mad.  To whip it into a frenzy.  I can scare ’em.  Don’t let comedians tell you ghost stories.  We’re the best and we’ll freak you out.  We’re just good at getting people to emote.
  14. Did you ever feel you were not funny or good at standup? No.  I see some guys and think, “I’m sorry, man, but I was NEVER that bad.”
  15. If you bombed the first time up, as most do, what made you go back? I killed the 1st time up.  Go Bananas Comedy Club staff members joked forever, “When are you gonna be as funny again as your 1st time?”  I bombed the next few times.  But it was because I saw early success that I went back.  Had I bombed, would I have gone back?  “The world may never know.”
  16. What was the very first bit you did when you really felt you had something? Roll Call.  People laughed at when I said, “That’s me,” and it was an unexpected laugh.  It taught me that what is funny isn’t up to us but up to them.
  17. Is it OK to do devices? I’m against them.  Read that link.  If you dare.
  18. Are there comedians who aren’t funny but are successful (e.g., sell out arenas)? No.  Kathy Griffin is not my cup of tea but I’d never say she’s not a good standup.  I’m just not in the target market.  It’d be like asking me what brand of tampon I like.  I’m not the audience.
  19. Can just anybody act well?  Can just anybody do standup well? Yes.  No.  Seinfeld is right.  I’ve said this forever.  A lot of people can just act.  Look at Mike Tyson.  No one can go to the Hollywood Improv at 10 pm and just kill.  Maybe once.  But no way consistently.
  20. Do you have bits that work not so much because you believe in them but because you’re good at standup? Yes.  A lot of my older stuff is like this.  I’ve matured and grown beyond bits like Roll Call.  I’m more interested in doing bits like YouTube Comments.  I feel like The Beatles.  I’m entering my Rubber Soul period.
  21. Is it up to the comedian or the audience to decide what’s funny? The audience.  If they laugh, it’s funny.  If they don’t, it’s not.
  22. Is it enough for you as a comedian to do bits that the audience finds funny or do you need to do bits that are hard for you to do? Having answered #21, I’d totally agree w/ Gervais that it’s on us to lift the conversation and take the audience where it didn’t necessarily want to go.  Though he’s not as experienced as the other three in the ways of standup, he outdid them on this point.  It is DEFINITELY possible to be funny without doing good bits.  Just being funny is not enough.  I was stunned the other comics didn’t understand this point.
  23. Can the audience members do what you do? Yes, but not as well.  Though some comics are so stupid that I think this is why they don’t let kids into comedy clubs.  Nine-year-olds would walk out of some of these lulus’ shows and think, “I could do that.”  And they could.
  24. What’s an ironic laugh? This is a subject near and dear to my heart and I’ve written before on this site that I intend to write a long post about this.  In short, I think a lot of comics think they know what irony is but have no clue.  They’re Alanis. (Here’s the post.)
  25. Is it important to simply make them laugh or do you need to leave them with something they can take home? The latter.  Remember that they came here on a Friday night after a long week and they want to laugh.  That’s our job.  But standup is the only bastion of honesty left in society.  We should say something.
  26. Do bits with swearing work because of the words or the emotions behind them? Both but mostly the words.  This is a big reason I don’t curse onstage.  It’s an easy laugh.  And a lot of people will tune you out just based on certain words.
  27. Are there easy laughs? YES.  YES.  YES.  C.K. is a genius but I wholly disagree w/ him that there aren’t easy laughs.  See my Devices post.  But basically, accents or dick jokes or hitting the F word really hard are ALL easier than doing what Gervais has done – reading Genesis aloud and getting laughs from that.  There are easy laughs.  No question.  C.K. should know this – he has bits across the board from the easy to the very difficult.
  28. What do comics fear and when before a show does fear start? I agree w/ Rock that we fear the audience not paying attention first.  And then not laughing second.  I start to get nervous a few hours before the show but there’s no rhyme or reason to my anxiety.  I’ve been extremely anxious for a seemingly insignificant show (though none is really insignificant or then why are you doing it, “it” being that particular show or even just standup in general?) and not nervous at all for a big one.
  29. Is there anything you cannot (or should not) joke about? No.  I don’t do jokes about people who can’t defend themselves but I’ve seen hilarious bits about the handicapped.  Those usually worked because the comic made the victim not the retarded people but rather the people around them.
  30. Is comedy the be-all, end-all or do you have a responsibility to not hurt people? If they laugh, it’s funny.  And it’s really simple – are you being good-natured or mean-spirited?  If the former, it’s fine.
  31. Do you have to be famous to do certain bits? I wouldn’t know.  Ha.  Yes, it helps.  Fame definitely makes this job easier.  You still have to be funny – people will only politely laugh for so long.  And the level of expectation is higher.  But the first 3 or 4 minutes during which you get a pass lend momentum to the entire set.  And you can cover touchier topics as people get to know your voice.  They also feel like they know you and that makes it more OK.
  32. Do you have to wait till later in the evening, once the audience gets to know you, to do certain bits? Yes.  See #31.  I do this.  I’ll cover my more controversial stuff later.  It may be more ballsy to do it out the gate but it’s not about the risk factor.  It’s about offending people so they tune you out.  My heart is focused not on, “I hope these people think I’m funny,” but rather, “I hope they have a good time.”  That’s the key.  And if you ease ’em into it, they’ll swallow what you have to say better.  You owe them that much – respect ’em enough to not think, “I don’t care what they think.”  Yeah, you do.  Or you’d be doing this at home in front of your mirror.
  33. How long do you wait before doing an encore? I don’t do them.  I have done them but they came as a surprise to me – now I do save a few bits just in case but, for the most part, I empty the tank.
  34. How long do you perform? An hour, on average.  But I’ve found the sweet spot is 51 or 52 minutes for everybody.  I’ve hosted shows that ran 5 hours and did a two-person show mostly based on my standup that ran over 1.5 hours but, in terms of pure standup, my longest was 80 minutes.  That included about 10 minutes of crowd work.  The rest was material.
  35. Who was the first funny person you met? My uncle.  And Ryan Price, a kid in 3rd grade with whom my friend Willie Slowik and I were friends.  They inspired me equally to be funny.
  36. Are your jokes written and performed to be jokes or do they come from a real place? Both but mostly a real place.  I used to open with, “I know I remind you of that guy from The Simpsons – Milhouse.”  It usually worked.  But it always felt forced.  I later discovered it was because people didn’t think that about me.  They thought that about my brother, Vikas, who even used Milhouse as his Facebook pic.  It wasn’t real for me.  So I dropped it.  Not out of principle.  (He didn’t mind.)  But because I just couldn’t get it to consistently work.
  37. When do people applaud instead of laugh? When they appreciate the cleverness of something but it was more of a cerebral reaction than guttural.
  38. Last but not least, “does he do the whistle?” Ha.  I hope he did.  Gotta see the special to get that one.


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