I hope you all enjoyed my bit of Last Comic Standing obsessing the last time I posted. As your “Comedy Nerdist” I thought it would be lame to just talk about the show. Nerds can do better. I wanted to take something interesting and pick it apart, gutted-clock style. But that wasn’t really enough for me. The last post was just observations, and I have actually met Myq Kaplan, the comedian so picked apart, when he’s passed through Chicago. And I knew that like me he is a nerd who enjoys how things work.
When I was first telling him about my wanting to write the first piece he was game to chat, but was on a bit of a press blackout. Now that voting is done with, he very generously agreed to talk with me about his riffing on the show, some interesting insight into Last Comic Standing, and improvising within stand-up as a challenge. I hope you will all enjoy reading the discussion as much as I enjoyed provoking it!
Dan: So, I have relatively limited TV experience, but I have had to type all my jokes out word for word to run by the Standards and Practices department at a network. Your riffs that you did- was there any level of screening them outside of the editing room?
Myq: Good question. My transcripts did not include in-the-moment things, because most of those were genuinely created in the moment or moments leading up to the moment. In the semi-final round, when the sets were edited, the beginning of my set was edited out, but I had received positive feedback from the judges on it… also edited out… as well as several of the producers and higher-ups on the show.
That gave me a reasonable amount of confidence that if I were to do such things again, I would not run into much trouble, provided I maintained the spirit of what Standards and Practices would aim to accomplish. Obviously, if anyone said anything unplanned that was not fit for broadcast, it would either be edited or bleeped, so I was prepared for anything like that to happen as well, depending on circumstances.
Dan: So, since you’d done TV before, and since this had “competition stakes,” did finding this niche/loophole give you confidence that say, another nerd comedian who has anxiety issues might not find in this kind of situation?
Myq: Talking about yourself? Nerd! I mean, another good question, nerd. Fellow nerd. This niche has always made me feel comfortable. Whether in competition or not. Also, I usually do well with managing anxiety. My anxiety normally manifests itself, oddly enough, AFTER my performance. I generally try to keep in mind that, ultimately, nothing is of the utmost importance. We are all going to be dead someday.
So, whatever happens before then, it’s all bonus. I mean, don’t get me wrong, my nerves have been wracked variously throughout the past several weeks. What I strive for and what I accomplish are not always in exact harmony. But… To get back to the question, I do find that this niche is comforting to me, even though it’s a matter of creating something new as quickly and effectively and interestingly as possible. Which is not necessarily the ideal approach to a high-stakes competition.
Dan: Much of my anxiety also manifests afterwards, when adrenaline drains away. But when I had to put that set together for S&P I would have loved to think “you know what, I’ll transition into these with something loose and semi-improvised at the top.” It would have been freeing, more so than I ever expected from stand-up on TV. So did you plan on specifically writing off of people who went before you? Or has everything about the show been fair game?
Myq: I didn’t really make any specific plans. The first time I did it was a part of a long show, and the person who went before me happened to tell some jokes that lent themselves fairly simply to the process. So it’s always a combination of very quick planning, trusting yourself, and luck. Most of the time, it can be risky to go too far back in the memory of a show, because the reference has to be clear in the minds of the audience. So, the preceding comic does seem to provide the best logistical potential. But if something memorable had happened before that, certainly it would be fair game.
Dan: Have you ever tried improvising half-way through a set? More than just a one-phrase callback, like talking to the audience or riffing off of something and writing almost entirely on your feet?
Myq: I definitely do. One thing, in my most recent set on the show, one of the things I called back to happened in the middle of one of my jokes… Which isn’t the same thing as what you’re asking, other than the chronology… It doesn’t always have to be at the top of a set. But if a set is planned… as TV sets often are… it makes sense to do one, and then go on with the act proper, as planned.
Obviously going off book has its advantages, but its potential disadvantages include having to get back ON book. When I’m performing regular shows in general, my ideal situation is to be loose, and riff and add new things to planned stuff or create whole new stuff whenever possible. Whether it’s based on stuff happening in the room, interacting with the audience, or just thinking of new things about my own material. Especially when I’m workshopping newer stuff. Rarely are my jokes written on the page exactly as they end up in the act. It’s always a collaborative process with my brain, the audience, my digital recorder, my brain again, my notebook, another audience, and an infinite loop of these.
Dan: Have you gotten much longer, headlining sets before Last Comic Standing? Have you already thought about the doors that might open because of that? I know NYC and Chicago city limits have this in common: lots of places to experiment, not a lot of stage time per night. Do you think/hope that LCS will let you do more long sets, perhaps go on the road more, and give you more time to experiement? Are you already at that point?
Myq: I did comedy in Boston for about six years before moving to NYC. It was a great place to develop, it had plenty of showcases and open mic spots for people starting out, and for more experienced folks to work out new material. It also had its own plentiful world of roadwork what with Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and other areas of Massachusetts all being within a reasonable driving distance. So, before I came to New York, I never felt like I was at a loss for places to perform, either shorter or longer sets. Especially because a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to start performing regularly at colleges.
So, I might have been opening for big headliners coming through Boston a few years back, but then I was going on the road and doing an hour at colleges as well. Which gave me a variety of experience, and the chance to work on my long set, as well as be more open and loose and have the chance to experiment more, when an audience was up for it and circumstances allowed. And since moving to NYC, that general idea has been maintained.
In the city, most of the spots are anywhere from 5 to maybe 20 minutes… with exceptions, but generally speaking, I’d say most sets would fall somewhere in the middle of that range… but I have still been going on the road, both to colleges and, starting in this calendar year, to a lot more clubs on the road. I would say in my ideal month, I might go out of town to do two weeks headlining some clubs, and then have two weeks doing sets in NYC, with some colleges and/or other gigs thrown into the mix. I still go back up to Boston whenever possible as well. There are a few clubs there that I consider my home in comedy still, and I love going back, whether to do a set and try to make a good new tape, or just to work out a bunch of new stuff in front of crowds that I know will be receptive. Though obviously I have opportunities like that down here as well.
In short, I have been doing longer sets on the road for the past few years, specifically in clubs most recently in larger volume this year, but certainly Last Comic Standing will give me the opportunity to do even more. And for more people who know and care who I am, which is even better.
Dan: I definitely think your visibility has exploded, and I hope you get to enjoy some of the perks. One thing you brought up earlier that is something I am fascinated with is “getting back ON book.” That is indeed a tough one, and even though I love improvising I’m never sure what to do with that part. They often want more loose stuff at that point. This is my last question, but what do you think it is that makes audience love both prepared and spontaneous material, but makes that gear shift so clunky?
Myq: Hmmm. Then I will make it the best! Or at least good. Or we’ll see.
I’m opening the answer with riffing. Let’s see if I can get back on track with the actual answer, in a reasonable way that you, the audience, will enjoy as much as this. Maybe if you don’t enjoy this, that will be easy.
I saw Paul F. Tompkins at Comix a year or two ago, and he was doing, as he does regularly now, about 15 minutes of riffing up top, followed by the drudgery of his material. I’m paraphrasing his assessment thereof… He made a big hilarious deal out of having to eventually get to the prepared stuff, and most of the people were eating it up, because he is such a strong in-the-moment guy, as I am sure you know. It was, however, Saturday night, and there were some people there who were just there for “comedy” and not him specifically, and at one point a lady responded vocally to his saying he would have to get to his material, with her agreement that that would be a good idea. As though she felt her time was being wasted. Like, this guy hasn’t even started the show yet? He’s been on for ten minutes! Get serious, funny-maker!
So, one thing is clear, or maybe not one thing, and maybe not clear, but here is a thing: people like different things. Even fans of the same comedian might love different aspects of them. Some people hate riffing. Some people hate material. Some comedians have a natural flow of going back and forth between the two. Todd Barry is great at this I think.
Honestly, it seems like two different muscles are being exercised. Riffing is basically a kind of improv. And standup is essentially the opposite. When done well, they’re both enjoyable comedy, but they’re not always a natural fit for one another. I believe that improvised stuff resonates with people more because it’s guaranteed to have that “this is happening RIGHT NOW!” quality. Which is the same sort of thing that great standup material can do as well, when you’re not thinking or caring about the fact that someone honed this act for months or years. So, ideally, it doesn’t HAVE to be clunky. When an audience is good, I think even planned material can have an electric vibe to it, maybe with the occasional new tag added in the moment. And sometimes riffing can lead a comedian naturally into a bit to MAKE that bit seem improvised as well, and keep riding the wave of the “in the moment” excitement. Sometimes that wave can prove too large to follow with material. But sometimes not. Hopefully mosttimes. But that’s not a word. But who cares about what words are? People listening to them or reading them? Sure, maybe.
Just coming out of this thought-out answer with some non-thought-out riffery. To give us some cyclical closure, or lack thereof.
Dan: Ha. Well I like ending on that. Thank you sir.