I’m a monologuist. I’m also a standup comedian. Sometimes when I’m fretting about my standup, my theatre friends will cheerfully suggest I just retrofit one of my comic monologues into my standup act. After all, my monologues are hilarious!
But it doesn’t work. They’re different art forms. And they differ in very specific ways.
On the surface, they look the same: one person on a stage, talking to the audience or to imaginary figures, and the audience (hopefully) enrapt and periodically laughing. But while the final product may seem similar, the approaches used in their constructions are almost diametrically opposed.
All time-based arts require us to come up with a strategy to compel the audience’s attention from minute one to minute end. In a monologue, this is usually done through narrative.
A monologue, like all narrative arts, is held aloft in the minds of the audience through tension, usually created by questions. Audiences are presented with mysteries to solve – “What’s going on? Who’s that person? What’s going to happen next? Who killed the cook? etc.” – and when the audience discovers the answers to those questions, they feel satisfied. Ideally, one big question is presented at the beginning of the monologue (in dramaturgical circles, this is called the dramatic question), and when that big, driving question is answered, the monologue is over. Questions create tension, which is a good thing. Audiences lean forward in anticipation; we use words like ‘taut’ and ‘suspenseful’ to describe this quality of the narrative. Even comedies, which we might not usually associate with cliffhanger-style narrative, make use of this suspense; often the biggest laughs are borne of this tension, or its release.
This desirable tension is created almost exclusively through the narrative. The audience doesn’t start out tense; before the curtain rises, the audience is often calm and chatting breezily with itself. When the story gets going, the tension gets whipped up through questions (assuming it’s a successful monologue), the audience leans forward, laughs are generated as tension is heightened or released, perceptions shift, the audience makes discoveries (often along with the main character who may or may not be on a journey), mysteries are resolved, the house lights come up, and everyone goes home satisfied.
Standup comedy works in exactly the opposite way.
When a standup comic hits the stage, the audience is already a little tense. They have a question planted in their mind before the comic opens her mouth: “Is this person going to make me laugh?” Audiences want comics to do well, and they’re nervous they’re going to watch somebody die a slow, laugh-free death. Watching a comedian is like watching a tightrope walker. We don’t want them to fall, and we’re worried they might.
This kind of tension, which I’ll call survivor tension, is qualitatively different from narrative tension. It’s not enjoyable for the audience. Its presence in mass quantities is a sign things are going badly. When audiences are nervous, they can’t laugh. When they’re worried for the performer, they can’t relax into the jokes. It takes them out of the performance and stifles their natural reactions.
Survivor tension corrodes standup comedy.
It cannot be completely eradicated, except perhaps through alcohol. A sober audience is always going to have a soupçon of survivor tension bubbling in the back of their minds. If an overweight comic looks short of breath; if a comic stumbles, or pauses too long; if the audience has any cause to think the comic might fall off the tightrope, the survivor tension roars up. Ironically, the audience’s worry that the comic will fail makes it harder for the comic to succeed.
On the other hand, survivor tension is also responsible for the giddy feeling audiences can have when they see a comic successfully walk across the tightrope. It’s thrilling. They made it!
So successfully executing a standup set, like performing a comic monologue, becomes a game in managing audience tension. But in standup, the comic aims to reduce tension at every turn. Jerry Seinfeld says that a comic’s job is “to quell fear.” Where the monologuist plants questions in the audience’s mind to ratchet up tension, the comedian swiftly answers any and every possible question that might cross an audience’s mind as quickly as possible.
For example, a comedian may start a set by making a joke about his looks. At the beginning of a set, all the audience knows about a comic is what he looks like. If the comedian is overweight, or underweight, or looks like a stretched-out Martin Short, acknowledging this fact up front reassures the audience that he, too, knows he looks that way. He knows what they’re thinking. They can relax.
Relaxing the audience makes the comic’s job easier for two reasons. First, it lowers the temperature on the pot of simmering survivor tension, reassuring the audience they’re going to be taken care of by a performer who knows what he’s doing. Secondly, it amplifies the surprise of the punchline, resulting in a more forceful laugh.
If narrative is about creating tension, and standup is about reducing tension, how do standups tell stories in their acts?
Sometimes, they don’t bother. Judy Carter, in her comprehensive standup comedy workshops and books, says that “stories don’t work on stage.” Funny stories that work at parties, when performed as standup, often fall flat. Carter has found this to be true in spite of many highly successful comedians who are known for their storytelling, like Bill Cosby.
Yet Bill Cosby doesn’t tell a story in the same way traditional storytellers would. He structures his stories in such a way that reduces as much mystery – and therefore tension – as possible. In his masterwork, Himself, Cosby tells a series of stories about life with his children. Take his story about his child drinking his soda even after he told her not to:
In this section, Cosby doesn’t structure his story in a traditional narrative form. A traditional narrative might conclude the story with the line that “all children have brain damage,” rather than beginning with it. That’s the natural conclusion of that story, the discovery the protagonist father makes about his children when confronted by their behavior. Instead, Cosby takes the discovery, what might be considered the moral of the story, and puts it at the top as a kind of thesis statement. The story then functions as evidence to support his argument. The character of Cosby is not making any new discoveries during the course of the show; we are not watching a character change in the way we do when watching a narrative. Cosby is instead making assertions, opining, and using stories to prove his points. The structure of his rhetoric has more in common with an argumentative essay than with a narrative monologue.
In classic joke parlance, this “thesis statement” is the premise of the joke. Clarity of premise is essential to effective standup comedy. Patton Oswalt has said a comedian has to be so clear, he can be understood by a room full of drunk people. Clarity is the key to effective premises, whereas in a narrative monologue, a performer can afford to begin with a little mystery, planting questions in the minds of the audience to be resolved later. In standup, an audience is wary of long, winding narrative journeys and needs to know where it’s going before it will follow; in a monologue, the journey is the whole point.
Not all of Cosby’s stories in Himself follow the classic joke structure of premise -> punchline. Take his story about cooking breakfast for his children, informally known as the chocolate cake bit:
This bit is remarkable in its adherence to classical narrative form. The bit is structured as a traditional story: it’s told in chronological order, there’s a protagonist who makes discoveries, it resolves in a return to the status quo. It’s an episode of a sit-com waiting to happen. How does Cosby get away with it in his standup special?
To begin with, Cosby does not start his act with this story. He delivers the “chocolate cake” bit well into the show. Also, in 1982 when this special was filmed, Cosby had been a huge star for twenty years. We can safely assume that much of the audience was already familiar with Cosby’s comic persona. For those that might be unfamiliar with his act, Cosby starts his special, not with narrative, but with a conventionally structured joke. First, he acknowledges the reality of the moment by commenting on the wild applause that greets his entrance:
You can’t yell like that, for crying out loud. Today’s Thursday. You gotta wait till Friday. It’s always strange. I’ve had a lot of people work for me. And I’ve found out, it’s a funny thing, you give them Saturday and Sunday off, and they work so hard to get to those two days. And those are the two days they totally destroy themselves. I mean, you know, you think to yourself, My goodness, I really pounded these people and worked them to death, and they get to Friday and they say “Yay!” and then they come in Monday, they say “sigh…Boy, am I glad to be back here! I’m no good on my own! I was given two whole days and I just went crazy!”
This is a conventionally structured comic bit. The first half contains the premise, which is presented rhetorically as a thesis: it contains an observation, a truth, or a point of view (“…and those are the two days they totally destroy themselves.”). The second half of the bit serves as evidence proving the thesis. Here, Cosby illustrates the truth of his argument using what Judy Carter calls an “act-out,” where the comic creates characters and acts out their reactions or behaviors.
From there, he pivots into another conventionally structured bit about drugs. So in the opening moments of his special, Cosby 1.) acknowledges the reality of the moment; 2.) tells two strong classically structured bits, thereby reassuring the audience that he can manage this tightrope easily. He doesn’t get into longer narratives like the chocolate cake story until much later in his special.
It’s also worth noting how much silence greets the beginning of the chocolate cake bit. The laughs don’t start coming until well into the story. Cosby is such a master comedian that he can afford these long silences; his audience trusts him by this point in the show (and his career), and they can tolerate a little mystery. If an unknown comic were to start her act with a story like the chocolate cake bit, she would have a much harder time. The silence would quickly curdle into survivor tension. An unknown comic, or a comic at the beginning of a set, needs to establish her bona fides as a comedian by opening with strong, well-crafted comic bits that get laughs quickly in order to reduce tension and set the stage for success. Only after she has established herself can she afford to experiment with traditional narrative structures.
This kind of rhetorical dexterity shows why Cosby is a master of the form. It also illustrates how these different strategies can be deployed at different times for different purposes. Narrative tension can be incorporated into a standup set, but only if the performer understands how audiences will respond and why, so that he can maximize its effectiveness.
(I realized I wrote a whole essay about standup comedy without making a single joke. Monkey fart. Monkey fart. You’re welcome.)