So here’s the deal.
I’ve been doing comedy for about two years now (actually writing comedy for three years, performing it for two) and the bit that I personally think is my best is one that I like to call “Racist Superheroes.”
Now unfortunately, I don’t perform in venues often where I can get good video, so I don’t have a good recording of this bit yet (though there are plenty of others you can watch — and besides, I can’t give away the whole store, otherwise you have no incentive to come out and see me live).
However, I haven’t done much writing about my comedy yet, and recently a friend was asking me about how I come up with my routines. Given that I’m scheduled to give a talk on this very subject at the Faith & Culture Writer’s Conference in a few weeks, I figured this post would be a good way to get the juices flowing and give you an insider view on what my creative process looks like.
Now, I would remind anyone reading this that although I’ve been performing for a long time (as a speaker and musician), I’m still relatively new to comedy as a performer. If I give off the impression that I’m some kind of seasoned veteran, I apologize. I can only speak or write from my experiences as a comic, and given the number of stand-up comics in our nation, it goes without saying that the experiences and techniques of stand-up comedy are as varied as the people themselves, which means that while there may be things that you can learn or attempt to mimic from my comedic journey (or in horror, back slowly away from), that ever-present internet abbreviation is especially axiomatic — YMMV (your mileage may vary).
The weirdest thing about my comedic journey, I think, is that one of my best set of jokes was, perhaps, the first one I ever wrote. It was a joke about Zipcar, which I was using at the time, and it turned into a whole bit about Zipcar and the shared economy, one that pivoted darkly because of a NY Times piece I’d just read about the rise of shared guns. I think the bit works, in part, because it traffics in subconsicous racial coding about how black men are prone to violence while at the same time grounding them in actual economic trends and common corporate marketing cliches. You can find it in the comedy section of the site.
Anyway, I wrote it because Zipcar was on my mind (at the time my wife and I were using Zipcar and public transportation exclusively, we did not own a car) and because it was just beginning to be a popular, trendy topic (this was before Car2Go, Uber and Lyft were grabbing headlines). And when I took my first comedy class from my man Alex Falcone, it was one of the first set of jokes I told, and they went over big. I had to do some tweaking on my timing and arranging the jokes into the proper order, but it was my first full five minutes of funny.
And one of the things you learn as a comic is, when it comes to performing for paying customers or people you want to really impress, you always want to go with the bits that you know work. Established bits that you know are funny and that you can execute in your sleep, even if you’re starting to get tired of them, are almost always your best bet. In the same way that an NBA basketball coach isn’t going to start using a different playbook on the first day of the playoffs, a comic would never try out new material in front of a high-stakes crowd, because it’s really risky. You don’t know if it’s really funny until you do it in front of a crowd, and in comedy, like life, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. The time for experimentation and new material is at a smaller stakes show, or, if you’re still just starting out like me, classes or open mic events.
So when it came for me to participate in Portland’s Funniest Person Contest at Helium Comedy last spring, I already knew months in advance which five minutes I would use to perform.
But the day of the competition, something interesting happened.
Did I say interesting? I meant tragic.
At Reynolds High School right here in Portland, teenager with a gun shot and killed a student before turning the gun on himself. And just like that, my set went out the window.
I didn’t know either of the young men who were killed so I didn’t have any particularly sentimental connection to the story, but they say that “comedy = tragedy + time” and I knew that not enough time would pass before my chance to get onstage that evening, and the wound would be too fresh in the collective memory of the audience for me to joke about guns.
So at 10AM that morning (I was grateful to have the day off!) I sat down at my computer and started fresh.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier had just been released, and it was on my mind because I’d seen it twice and loved it. So I took the beginning of a joke about Cap that was bouncing around my brain and turned it into a pretty funny five minutes. I didn’t end up advancing in the competition, but I was close. Several people who were in attendance, including a couple folks who were other comics performing in the competition (but on different nights) told me flat out, I was robbed. And that night, I felt good. I knew that whatever else happened, I know that I got onstage at Helium Comedy Club, and I killed.
(I know, I know… still a bad choice of words. But it’s what people say.)
In retrospect, it probably worked for the best, because jokes about race, while certainly not the only comedic weapon at my disposal, tend to resonate the most. They are the most meaningful and have the highest stakes, which is why, to be honest, I didn’t necessarily want to “go there” during a competition. I didn’t wanna be pigeonholed as Just Another Black Comic Who Jokes About Race. But stand-up is a very confessional form, and if I’m going to get up there and talk about what matters to me, it would be disingenuous not to talk about race.
Hopefully one of these days I’ll be able to get some decent footage of that routine, but until then, just remember — if you’re a comic, sometimes breaking the rules can pay off.