Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

10 Dec 2005, 8:36 a.m.

HOWTO Write Hackish Standup, Part II

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2005 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Leonard suggested that I follow up my bare-bones standup comedy writing HOWTO with an example. I'll start with some really unsuitable observations and anecdotes, explain why they are unsuitable for the easy procedure I'd outlined, and then take some more suitable ones and develop them into a routine.

Unsuitable observation: The character of Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man is an archetypal Trickster God. Yes, this is true, and I think it is amusing to consider bringing other common gods from polytheistic systems into early twentieth-century River City, Iowa. But observational humor at its easiest immediately connects with the audience. You can't count on most audience members having seen The Music Man and most certainly won't know what the Trickster God archetype is.

Unsuitable anecdote: When I was the stage manager for Heather Gold's one-woman show, I Look Like An Egg But I Identify As A Cookie, various people were in charge of getting the ingredients for the on-stage baking from Heather's house to the venue. One day, when it was Heather's responsibility, she showed up early for the show (which was great) but, as we discovered about 45 minutes to showtime, without the ingredients.

I immediately dispatched a friend of Heather's to go to the nearest convenience stores. When she came back I hurriedly poured and measured everything on the stage, which had no curtain. People had already begun to take their seats. So they witnessed me warming the ice-cold butter by setting it atop the toaster oven and hitting the Toast button. And they watched me take a meat hammer to the block of brown sugar that was masquerading as granite, and then use the spiky side of said meat hammer to grate three quarters of a cup of sugar off the rock and into the little clear bowl. I joked with the audience, announcing that this was not part of the performance but sort of a Hints from Heloise prelude.

This may or may not have been the performance in which we ran out of vanilla extract, I asked the chefs at the hotel restaurant for help, they gave me two whole vanilla beans, and I had to slit and scrape them in a manner I'd only seen done on TV cooking shows.

Anyway, this anecdote is like the observation above; it takes too much setup because audience members won't know what the Egg/Cookie show was. And the ending isn't very funny to people other than me; it may be a "you had to be there" story. I could exaggerate how difficult the brown sugar was to grate, or lie and make jokes about the trouble I had with each single ingredient, or cruelly mock Heather and her friend for imagined incompetences, but I think that's far too much trouble to take for far too little payoff.

A more suitable anecdote: When I was at UC Berkeley, I was (I believe) the only Sumana on campus, so I thought it would be easy to get But I couldn't because it was already taken by Stacy Umana.

I think this is much more suitable. It's short. Most people in comedy audiences are familiar with email addresses, in particular the username tradition of "first letter of first name and all of last name," and with the mild frustration of not getting the username you want. And people are unfamiliar enough with my first name, and with the last name "Umana," that the incongruity is instantly obvious.

More suitable observation: A popular mockmeat brand, Morningstar, shares its name with Satan, who was Lucifer or "the morning star" before falling from grace.

Like the Music Man/Trickster God analogy, this note is an observation about some bit of religious trivia connecting with pop culture (I say food is pop culture). But it's more accessible. Now, accessibility isn't everything, and if you're as practiced and amazing as Greg Proops or Patton Oswalt, then you can throw in Milton and the photoelectric effect and it works and you've reached a higher plane. But for the first-timer at the open mic, accessibility makes timing and high punchline frequency a heck of a lot easier, because you get through the setup that much faster.

So here is how I might pathetically spin out those premises:

When I was at Berkeley, I wanted my name for my email address. sumana@uclink. And I thought that would be fine because I was the only Sumana on campus. But I couldn't, because there was a Stacy Umana.

People did not use to have this problem. Can you imagine some guy, scratching out [pantomime] name after name on his kid's birth certificate?

"Dammit, there's already a John Smith?"

"Okay, I've got it. John Smith 1111111111."

And the stupidest thing to put in there is the year. I mean, come on. You're going to have that email address for more than a year! When I see crazydaisy98@aol, should I think that you've been on AOL for seven years, or that there are 97 other crazydaisies on AOL?

Names are so useless. I mean, there's this brand of mockmeat, soy bacon and stuff, called Morningstar -- which is another name for Lucifer, for Satan.

So, because I'm a vegetarian, I have to eat Satanburgers?

But I guess this proves that those Christian groups really don't care about the devil. I could open Satan's Used Cars and they wouldn't boycott me unless I hired gay people.

But just imagine how Satan feels!

The strongest and mightiest adversary of God, and all he gets is vegans?

Plus, you know he can't get the email address he wants, because some twelve-year-old goth kid took it.

darklord@hotmail, taken. Damn!

Now, that's the set before iteration through practice to make the thing not suck. But you get the idea. Only a few sentences between punchlines, the punch word as the last word of the punchline, exaggerated-yet-logical extrapolations from the incongruity dressed up with opinion ("stupid") and Satan. Definitely get Satan in there.