6/5/12 - it took ten years to get one hour of material

In today's excerpt - stand-up comedian Franklyn Ajaye interviews fellow stand-up comedian and Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher about the travails and techniques of stand-up comedy:

FA: You've always had substance to your act. Tell me a bit about how you started.

BM: I started in 1979 in New York. Catch a Rising Star was my main club. There were only three: Catch, The Improv, and The Comic Strip, and I worked them all. Catch was really my home, though, and it's the club that I was talking about in the novel I wrote about that time. I lined up on a Monday night like everybody else, and then spent that first awful year just trying to get on. I think the first year is just the hardest. If you can get through that, the rest is downhill.

FA: Did you bomb much the first year?

BM: Of course. I mean, how can you not bomb the first year? I don't know how anyone can get laughs even the fiftieth time. I don't know when was the first time I did a set where I actually got fifteen min­utes of decent laughs, and felt something like a comedian, but I'm sure it was at least a year into it.

FA: What were your writing methods like when you started?

BM: I remember back in New York when all the young comics used to have these discussions comparing techniques about writing, and I tried every trick to sort of write on purpose and it never happened. Eventually, I'd just keep little scraps of paper and jot down things I'd just say in conversation or think. As long as I was good about jotting it down, and I'm good about that, I'll go through things down the road and put it somewhere where it makes some sense and is funny. I'm pretty good at gathering notes. ...

FA: Is anger necessary for good comedy?

BM: No, but it is for mine. Everybody has a different style. As a fan, I'm going to go see The Cable Guy with Jim Carrey. There's no anger there. But he makes me laugh, and I'm glad he does. But for me as a comedian, there's gotta be an element of, "This is wrong, this is out of place, and I'm gonna shout about it." ...

FA: Have you ever been working clubs and found that a routine that was working suddenly stops working for no reason?

BM: Yeah, that's a funny phenomenon. The joke sorta like goes away. That's why I tape every set because sometimes it's just the delicacy of how you do it. You do it almost the exact same way, and it's a completely different result. It really depends on very, very minute things in there that either give the audience just enough informa­tion—or maybe too much information—before the punchline so that it's not a surprise. Whatever it is, it's still a mystery to me when a bit goes away. Also, I think an audience can sense when you're excited about it and it's new to you. Sometimes you're not think­ing about why it's funny anymore because that's gone away for you. You have to get back into what you loved about it to begin with, so that you're not just reciting words that you've said before. ...

FA: Do you move your routines around a lot in your act?

BM: Yes. I realized something this year when I was going out every weekend to do stand-up after working a full week here, and people were asking me why was I killing myself: This is really my hobby. I mean, what is a hobby? It's something you really enjoy working on after you get home from work, and this show is really my job. And it's also something that you do on the weekends. I'm work­ing toward December when I do this next HBO special, and I will have had basically a year to put together a whole new hour, and I think I'm right on schedule, but it is a lot of work putting the bits together. You get a rough outline, then it becomes clearer. Now I have so much of an outline that whatever new thing I get, I know generally where it's gonna go—I'll think this will go well in this section.

FA: You enjoy the structuring process?

BM: I really do. I really enjoy putting the puzzle together. And being able to put together an hour in a year is a great satisfaction because it took me ten years to get my first hour of material.


Franklyn Ajaye


Comic Insights:The Art of Stand-up Comedy


Silman-James Press


Copyright 2002 by Franklyn Ajaye


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