Variety performers have to wear many hats: writer, editor, director, performer, prop maker, agent, publicist, social media manager, even costumer. In any other form of theater, each of these jobs would be done by different people with different skills, different training, and different temperaments, yet most of us to do all these things and more ourselves.
We don’t have to, but we do.
My first piece of advice, which you will ignore, is to hire people to do the things you’re not good at. My second piece of advice, which is the one I follow, is to ignore my first piece of advice.
So how can you be more effective at these jobs?
To be a good comedy writer, you need be able to surprise people and shatter their assumptions. You need to find unusual associations. You have to violate peoples’ expectations. To do this, you want to have the most open mind possible. You have to think different and differently.
You also have to have strong negative opinions. Most comedy comes from pain, both physical and psychic. Every joke has a butt, a person or thing that’s missing some vital piece of information. When you’re writing jokes, you’re constantly looking at someone’s butt. Often, it’s your own.
This is a very vulnerable way to go through the world. Most of the jokes you write will be crap. Comedy writing is a numbers game and the numbers are against you, but just like in poker, the few that hit can pay for all ones you fold.
You have to be willing to write down lots of jokes that you have little or no confidence in. You can never stop looking for new twists, new surprises, new absurdities. Your life becomes a constant search for ambiguity, hypocrisy, and incongruity.
A good comedy writer learns about everything. You should be an expert and an idiot on every subject you write about.
All good writers are wordsmiths. They care deeply about the difference between “and” and “so.” Many comedy writers have told me how they’ve spent hours, days, even weeks looking for just the right … um … word.
Writing can be lonely, and comedy writing can be downright anti-social. When you’re writing jokes, you can’t care about hurting people’s feelings. You shouldn’t be worrying about whether a joke is too dirty or racist or homophobic. All that comes later, when you’re wearing a different hat.
This is not because you’re trying to come up with cruel, filthy, race-baiting, gay jokes. It’s because censoring yourself while you’re writing leaves you with blank pages.
The first step in writing a hilarious show is filling pages with stuff that might be funny. The second step is finding the few things in those pages that are.
The skills and mindset to be a successful script editor are the opposite of what’s needed to be a good joke writer. You have to be ruthless and judgmental. You have to kill your darlings. The writer is happy when she comes up with a gag that works okay half the time for half the audience. (After all, most of her jokes die all the time for everyone.) A good editor cuts those marginal gags without a second thought.
Your editor decides whether a gag is too dirty or too cerebral. He’s the one who chooses which gags to try and which are not worth even one shot onstage. It’s the editor who decides whether a gag is too mean or offensive, the one who thinks about whether the target is inappropriate or if a new gag violates the truth of the character.
Editing is when you judge. Not before.
Editing is also when you hone your jokes. Cut unnecessary words. Simplify the sentence structures. End with the reveal. Replace duplicated words. Make your punches more active. Make your setups more organic.
Editing is more analytic than creative. This is one of the biggest differences between the writer and the editor, even when both are you.
When wearing the director’s beret, your job is to bring the writer’s vision to the stage and to make it work. The director is worried about whether the sight lines for a gag are right. Should the pause be longer or shorter? Are the harsher, dirtier jokes coming too early in the set?
The director watches the audience during the performance and decides what to change for the next show.
The director asks, “How is this playing and how could it play better?”
The director is a critic, cutting gags that even the editor thought were worth keeping.
The director is a scientist, experimenting with different word choices, word orders, and comic motivations to see which work better.
As the performer, you care about none of these things. For the performer, there is no next show. There were no previous shows. There’s only this audience and this moment. As a performer, your only job is to react honestly to what’s going on, to experience the emotional and mental changes underlying the jokes your writer has created, and to try not to drop so much.
The least interesting reason for a performer to do something onstage is “because it gets a laugh.” That’s why the writer wrote it. That’s the goal the editor had in mind when honing it. That’s what the director was thinking about while staging it. But you, the performer, aren’t motivated by any of that. You’re just living the implied truth of the gag.
You believe your setup with all your heart. You discover your punch as it happens.
Before the show, you rehearsed the gag. You memorized the words your writer typed in the tight, efficient order your editor re-wrote them. You absorbed your director’s notes from the last show and practiced those changes before this one.
But now, onstage, you’re not focused on any of that. You’re just chatting with or yelling at or apologizing to this audience, the individuals in front of you right now.
One of the big mistakes I sometimes make is to take my director onstage with me. While playing the losing, lower status member of my comedy team, I have stopped and given my partner notes. I don’t recommend this. It makes for a bad show and an even longer ride home.
Always use a push-stick when rip-cutting on a table saw. Trust me on this.
If you want good costumes, don’t do this, or this, or this:
Hats for the business side of the show
I’ve given you my best advice about many of the different hats you’ll have to wear to make your show better. There are also all the other jobs that you need to do on the business side of your show: agent, publicist, social media manager, cinematographer, video editor, lawyer, accountant, and more.
Writing about these is beyond the scope of this column, and I’m not qualified to give advice on any of them.
Very few variety acts have a single, exclusive agent. Most successful acts work with multiple agents and producers. (A producer is an agent who takes more than 20%.)
In most cases, and certainly when you’re starting out, you will have to be your own agent. I’m not an expert agent, but I have had experience on all three sides of the deal: performer, agent, and client. This is what I’ve learned:
Agent’s Rule #1:
Return every call, every email, every text and Facebook message immediately, even if your only answer is: “I don’t know.” Never let an inquiry go stale overnight. Clients hate it when they have to wait and wonder whether you received their messages.
Agent’s Rule #2:
Be the easiest option to book. Give the client whatever materials they ask for. Video, photos, rider, price including expenses … Get them whatever they need to close the deal, and get it to them NOW. Don’t worry if it’s not good enough. Worry about making it better for the next gig, but for this gig get it to them NOW.
Agent’s Rule #3:
That’s got to be a typo.
But when I’ve worked as a booker, my most important questions have always been: Is the act good enough for the gig? Do I trust them?
When selling your act, make sure the answer to both of these is, “YES!”
Publicist and social media manager
The personality traits and skills needed to be a successful publicist and social media manager are quite different from what’s needed to be a good comedy writer, performer, or director.
For example, I’m good at the last three and crap at the first two.
If you want to be better at marketing, Frank Miles suggests you check out Guerrilla Marketing by Jay and Jeannie Levinson.
Bill Hicks suggests you kill yourself.
Cinematographer and video editor
Final Cut Pro is buggy. Final Cut X sucks.
The one thing you never want to put on your head is a barrister’s wig. Even when you’re starting out, if you need legal help, get it from a real lawyer.
Being your own accountant is easy if you grew up Jewish. If it’s too late for that, find a Jew to help you. If you don’t know any Jews, you’re a bigot.
Hats that don’t fit
I’ll close this column with the advice you and I both ignored at its start: Hire people to do the things you’re not good at. There’s no reason to expect all these different hats to look good on one person.
Hire a publicist. Pay a costumer. Get ripped off by your agent. Trade beer for videotaping and weed for video editing.
You can also work with a director or comedy writer to help you be funnier. If you’re a variety act, I believe you’ll be better served by hiring a writer with a background in variety performance as opposed to just stand-up. There are now several of these to choose from: Thomas John, Michael Goudeau, Dan Holzman, Greg Dean, Dave Walbridge, or if you’re paying for dinner, me.
This month’s homework is to pay someone else to do some of your homework for you.