Friday, March 4, 2016

What’s Stand-Up Like?

Thinking about Jerry Seinfeld, starting with his show with Obama, has gotten me to think more generally about stand-up. It turns out that that’s something he’s been talking about a lot. To some extent I’ve been understanding his remarks about stand-up through music.

I don’t do stand-up, never have, and have no particular desire to give it a try. I’ve told jokes – more so when I was young than later – and I can be witty, but none of that is stand-up. But I have quite a bit of experience in performing music – various kinds of music, different kinds of venues, from small bars to outdoor gigs with thousands in the audience. So understand how musical performance works.

Right now I watching a clip on YouTube where Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais and Louis C.K. are talking about the craft and the business:

If you’re interested in the craft, it’s worth a listen.

For example, one of the things they talk about is ‘cheap laughs’ (the term they use) versus, well, ‘honest’ laughs (my term). So Gervais was saying how he’d be perfectly happy getting a cheap laugh in performance, but he’s not going to put it on the DVD. Seinfeld counters that, if it killed in performance, it’s yours, put it on the DVD.

I can relate to that. But that’s not where I’m going in this post. I’m curious about what it’s like starting out in stand-up, something they talk about here and there. The impression I’ve got is that even when they were starting out, they were doing their own material. And, if I’d have to guess, I’d guess that even at local open-mics where anyone could get up and do five minutes, they’re going to do their own material–even if they have no aspirations to making a living at this. That’s just how stand-up is.

But that’s not how music is. In some forms of music you are expected to perform other people’s material. That’s how classical music is. And a big chunk of jazz is like that. There’s an existing repertoire and you’re expected to perform it. You can even make a living performing that repertoire, or could at one time.

When I was living in upstate New York I spent five years or so in the Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band. We were a cover band, meaning that we played other people’s tunes. When I joined the group the core of our repertoire came from the Blues Brothers – which was, of course, a cover band. We had an original tune or three, but we were a cover band. Most local groups are cover bands. It’s easier for cover bands to get gigs in local clubs.

That’s just how that world is. I don’t know what the world of stand-up is like at the local level. But I can’t imagine that someone would get up a do a Seinfeld set, or a Chris Rock set, or that someone would stitch together a set of bits from a half dozen known performers. Maybe there are ‘life of the party’ types to do their versions of Rodney Dangerfield or George Carlin or, heaven forbid!, Richard Pryor, among friends and family, though even that strikes me as odd. But getting up before an audience of strangers and performing an act cobbled together from material performed by other comedians – that just doesn’t make any sense to me.

And yet it’s perfectly acceptable in the music world. It’s even expected in lots of situations – depending on the type of music and the level of performance. Why? 

Am I right about this difference between musical performance and stand-up? What’s the difference between stand-up and music that manifests itself in choice of material for performance?

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