I love Moleskine notebooks! And as the holidays pass, more and more of my family members are hip to how often I use them, and so “Santa” sprinkles these delightful leather chunks down my chimney. Oh, my precious elastic-bound children. I fill you with my dreams despite your controversial Chinese labor camp origins!
I bumbled into stand-up comedy via a bunch of different performance backgrounds, but one thing that translated the most directly was solo performance. I did short one man shows in college and later at an awesome venue in Chicago called The Live Bait Theater. I wrote out an entire script, word for word, and performed it such as I wrote it. If I would “riff” it sent chills down my spine. Good chills! Don’t get me wrong. I was also a vet of the Improv Olympic, but I felt the rush of talking directly to the theatrical audience, fresh from their cars where they had just listened to “The Best of Prairie Home Companion.”
Now, in stand-up, deviating from the script is all a part of evolving what I do. I did not realize it right away, but it was good that when I moved from theatrical writing to stand-up I downsized from large notebooks to the pocket-sized Moleskine. There’s only a certain amount of writing I SHOULD have been doing.
Not everyone likes to “write” their stand-up. Much as some people don’t learn as well in a traditional school setting (because they’re “visual learners” or are “scared of guns”) some stand-ups prefer to just talk their ideas out as opposed to write everything down. I’ve tried a strict diet of that kind of writing. But I end up forgetting a lot. That is a natural flaw of mine that creates intense hulk rage. I mean, who can remember what they just said in front of strangers? Especially those good parts, when the lovely hormones kick in and beg your brain to take a vacation. If you remember every good thing you said onstage and don’t need to write them down, good for you. You are a creepy alien, also.
Then again, when I do sit down for a crack at the old write-em-ups, the act of writing in a notebook is only cathartic for a small window of time. Free-writing especially. Free writing means using an idea as a jumping board and then writing without stopping to flesh out the idea. It takes very few moments before my mind is miles ahead of my pen and I begin to physically squirm with frustration.
I don’t think you worry about getting every word on the page into your performed set. If it’s a one liner, a joke where you’ve carefully worked out the economy of language, I can of course see how important each word is. So I have begun a conversion into bulleted lists. Outlines. Basic skeletons to hang my vocal meat upon. The trick is then getting of stage and writing in a series of arrows and notes to indicate the important things I did right and don’t wish to forget. Because while I am a total control freak my memory is garbage, and if I don’t properly pat myself on the back on paper it is as if my brain grows back vacant brain cells where the memory once lay.
So a typical joke looks on paper like:
And I try to keep it nice and clean until I say it onstage. Then I walk off stage, grab Mr. Moleskine, and draw maps all over it like I’m trapped in the Swan Station with blacklight paints.
Is this the best way to write stand-up? For me, now, yes. I had to work backwards and overdo things first before loosening up. Then I came back to over-managing my words in a new way, because it became a sick and delightful comfort to me. But I think whoever you are, you should try working against your brain’s grain for a while. It might keep you from leaving out what your weaknesses allow.