torsdag 28 april 2022

My career as a stand-up comedian


Me, learning the secret secrets of stand-up. 
Here joking about transgressing boundaries and not knowing where the limits are.

Life is't fair - my career in stand-up has at this point been postponed by two years - but is now back on track because I recently started an evening course! I in fact signed up for an intensive week-long course two years ago and wrote a blog post about it in January 2020 ("Starting up my second career (in stand-up comedy)"). I listed several reasons to take that course, and the best reason is still this:

4) After modern capitalistic industrial society inevitably succumbs to the mounting pressure of the inescapable climate catastrophe, people will need to be cheered up now and then; a career in stand-up ("will entertain for food scraps!") will thus become an obvious fall-back option when it no longer is viable to be a researcher and a university teacher. Also, stand-up is more fun and less back-breaking than tilling the soil.

This prediction (again from January 2020) sadly didn't come play out due to Covid:

I expect that you can book my new show before or otherwise after the summer. To make the magic happen, do get in touch with my agent and then get in line.

The one-week intensive course I signed up to would have been possible to attend (in Feb 2020) but for the fact that it was cancelled due to insufficient interest. I therefore signed up for another course (March 2020), but it was cancelled due to the Covid outbreak. I'm not sure what to make out of this and I have in fact considered the possibility that higher powers don't want me to stand on the stage. It could be that I have set out on a dangerous path...

I went to my first class a week ago and I was hooked. I've taken several courses in improvisational theatre, but immediately recognized that it's stand-up and not improv that is my thing! We were asked to prepare 3-4 minutes of material for the first class. It didn't have to be particularly funny, but it should represent material we wanted to work on during the course. I talked for a few minutes (about exactly the topics I mentioned in my 2020 blog post) and then directly got feedback from the teacher that blew my mind away. It was on point and it cut through the crap; here's the set-up, the punchline should always be last (to build up tension) and a minimalist ethos should guide what comes between the set-up and the punchline. Take away all qualifications, explanations, detours and everything else that doesn't build towards the punchline. It's that simple, but it can still be a difficult lesson to learn for a researcher who is used to support every statement and slowly and methodically build up an argument. The logic of the argument might be unassailable - but as a joke it fails miserably.

Here's an example: I exchanged all my material between the first and the second class and one part of the new act was to enumerate a list of things that characterizes an incel. It was an instant and huge relief to realize that could say whatever I wanted (that builds towards the joke) instead of having to read the Wikipedia article and do an hour of additional desktop research in order to put together an itemized list ("according to Schmelzerpfeffer et al. (2021), "incels" are characterized according the principles that were laid out in..."). You can instead basically just make shit up ("Schmelzerpfeffer") and get away with it - as long as it builds towards a joke and it gets laughs. It could be that the more absurd, the better and it's the laugh that is the currency, but it's elusive and hard to get hold of for rookies like me (to get smiles are easier). 

Stand-up is anyway so much my thing that I will create brand new material for my third class (next week) and have also started to write new material also for my fourth class. Compared to most of my classmates, I'm probably insanely over-ambitious since I think about and work with my stand-up routine every single day, but I really feel I need to get the most out the class and out of the excellent feedback we get from the teacher, Malin Appeltofft. The other seven course participants joke about political correctness and woke culture, religious upbringing, social anxiety, defective boyfriends, being an immigrant from Germany, mental illness and riding trains.

When I explore a new topic I start by writing down ideas for jokes in a google document. Something I find stupid, fun, or weird is a good start, but exaggeration is your best friend and exploring ways to make it even more stupid, fun or weird is a fun activity in itself. Over the course of a few days I then add passages and jokes, change the order and fine-tune by adding, changing or subtracting sentences, formulations and individual words. To find the joke is a process that starts with some promising raw materials (an idea I have thought about, or a feeling that it's possible to find a joke in something that recently happened to me or that I read/heard about). I then have to do the equivalent of what a diamond cutter does to uncover, get at and refine the joke. And sometimes I fail to get the joke-in-waiting to fulfill its promises and it has to be shelved or discarded. 

Since I only have to talk for 3-4 minutes (which turns out to be around 400 words), I don't have any problems whatsoever to come up with jokes. The most boring part of the process is however to memorize the material verbatim. To have it all memorized and then work with the delivery (including pauses and gestures and trying out how to emphasize specific words) is much more fun, but I still have a lot to learn here. With little routine it is very hard to know in advance what an audience will understand/think/feel, and I can authoritatively say that after two classes I am not yet fully trained. 

But I could definitely imagine standing on the stage at a rookie club after the course ends. Or at that event you will organize next month. I do believe I could have a niche as dinner entertainment at scientific conferences (or departmental Christmas dinners etc.). I've attended more than my fair share of conferences and academic events and my assessment is that the competition isn't very fierce not to say nearly non-existent so this might be space I can monopolize!

This image used to be a placeholder at very the top of this blog post.
It was replaced after I thought to ask stand-up classmate (and citizen) to take of photo of me in class.


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