Oh, stand-up comedy, you sultry minx. I’d always admired you from afar, watching your constantly growing harem of intrepid men and women perform in your name. Those whom you graced with your muse-like powers constantly amazed me, but I never even dared to hope to dream to imagine of even thinking of you as my mistress. Everything changed when one of your favored disciples appeared to train me in your mysterious ways, and I at last slowly stepped into your sphere of influence. Though I am yet a novice in your seductive ways, I consider myself unspeakably fortunate to even occasionally be in your cool embrace.
Taking a class in stand-up comedy last year was not part of my plan of college activities to pick up, which mostly consisted of low-risk, low-impact, dead-center-of-my-comfort-zone activities like writing, piano playing, and flossing. Of course, I was never very good about following plans or flossing, so the exact composition of my college extracurricula deviated significantly from the plan. The fact that I like the attention isn’t helping. As it turns out, stand-up is something of a rush for me. Some people skydive, some people surf — I stand on a stage in a leisurely rest state with a microphone in my hand.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I realized about stand-up is the difference between being funny in normal situations compared to being funny on a stage. Humor is, to a certain extent about defying expectation. As faux-profound as that sounds, the reasoning is pretty straightforward — things that happen according to expectation are, by definition, normal, and therefore probably unfunny. Said deviation from the norm could come from expecting something ordinary and getting something outrageous, or expecting something outrageous and getting something ordinary, but it needs to come from somewhere. In everyday life, expectations arise naturally, and a punchline is all that needs to be added to be funny — hence the widespread use of innuendo regarding what some female did or did not say. In stand-up, expectations must be set up beforehand. Generating the right surrounding structure for your punchline is a task that can be approached from multiple directions, a phrasing that might also be used to characterize someone’s mother. Similarly, telling a funny story to your friends and telling a funny story on stage are drastically different propositions. A story might seem funny compared to what you see from day to day, but on a stage in front of dozens of people expecting something particularly funny, that anecdote about your supposedly-hilarious ad-libs in your 3rd-grade school play just doesn’t have the same kick.
One of the most common things people ask me when they hear I do stand-up (in the absence of a proper comic around) is how one writes a joke. The crucial revelation, at least for me, was word association. In addition to revealing the strange and twisted directions the human mind is capable of going, word association collects all of the words in your head associated with the topic you want to write a joke about, which shrinks the mental haystack containing the comic needle significantly. It also conveniently eliminates any completely unrelated hay on the upcoming midterm or recently procrastinated pset. For instance, if you want to write a subtle punchline to work into your job interview for Apple, word association helps make sure that the words “Flash” and “antenna” remain tactfully absent.
Admittedly, although my introduction to the world of stand-up comedy has been cursory at best, I’m pleasantly surprised at how far a few basics can go. The next step in my stand-up education: how to hold the microphone the right distance from my face. That’s a mistake I refuse to make a third time.