Three Months: The Time It Took to Write a New Joke
That’s how long it took me to write a new joke. That’s how long it took me to get over the intimidation of performing stand up comedy in New York City, relax on stage and turn back into me.
“Find your best ten minutes and stick with it” is what everybody tells you. “Don’t mess around with new material in New York, do your best stuff”.
My first month in New York was a mad scramble of running from open mic to bar show, bar show back to open mic, all while trying to find my best ten minutes. Between sets I would run to a real-life comedy club to hang out for a half-hour.
On stage at New York Comedy Club, a real-life comedy club
Hang out is probably not the correct term. I was hanging out with the intention of meeting comedians, bookers, club owners or anyone who ever thought about being in the comedy business. I was there to work, but I had to look like I was there to hang out. Also it's a weird definition of “work” when really I was just sitting on a stool in a bar talking to people.
I was told that this is how you make it in NY. You hang out and somebody puts you on stage. It sounded insane but I was ready to do anything.
The open mics were awful. Zero audience members and 20 comedians waiting to go on stage. They would all be watching you but really going through their notes mentally as you race through your material to zero laughs.
And they are short. The best open mic I found gave each comedian 2-3 minutes on stage. It was only “the best” because there was a real audience watching the show, so you could tell if your jokes worked. These are things I have learned in New York. Two minutes of stage time with a captive audience is far 100 times better than 5 minutes with no audience.
Oh and non-comedians do them. By definition, anybody can do an open mic. My proudest open mic moment was riffing off of “material” that a homeless guy was doing on stage right before I went up. I don’t recall him having punch lines but I think his general theme was improving the subway.
So I did three or four of those and realized if I had to do one more I’d take my comedy career and throw it off a bridge. I swore off open mics and decided I would stick to bar shows.
The bar shows are a mixed bag. Some are fantastic. My favorite show so far was in Park Slope, Brooklyn at a barbecue restaurant. They had a DJ in the comedy room and were giving everyone in the audience free chicken. I was going on late in the show and the chicken was supposed to come out early but they kept having issues with the grill. Between every act the host would go up and say “Sorry guys, chicken is coming soon”.
On stage at The Lantern in Greenwich Village. Another real-life comedy club.
An hour went by, no chicken. The crowd was getting restless as they were promised free chicken. I’m pretty sure they came for the chicken and the comedy was the cherry on top.
“Hey honey, want to go eat some free chicken? I think people will be telling jokes too”.
Finally it was my turn to take the stage. As I was walking to the stage I zeroed in on the host and his introduction, so I could be ready to riff either way dependent upon how he brought me up.
“Up next to the stage, Turner Sparks AND FREE CHICKEN!”
The chicken was finally ready.
Servers came out from the back with plates and plates and plates of free chicken. Audience members dove over each other to get the chicken.
Dudes high fived in the back.
Realizing I could not compete with free chicken, I ran off the stage, grabbed a piece from the server and said “Everybody, its time for a chicken break”.
I spent the rest of my set with a drumstick in one hand and the mic in the other, gnawing off bites between jokes.
Oh and the DJ! He was the best. He doubled as a hype man and would accent my jokes with “OOHHHHH SHIT” or “RESPECT! RESPECT!”, after I talked about the price of soda water.
The crowd ended up being awesome and were perfectly capable of eating chicken, high fiving each-other and engaging in the show all at the same time.
It was the best show I have done in New York. But I didn’t get much writing done. When dealing with outlandish circumstances its best to stick with what works.
So I found my best ten minutes, and after a few weeks I got into a couple clubs. The New York Comedy Club and The Lantern both started booking me. They would say stuff like “hey just have fun up there” or “relax and enjoy the club” but really it goes into my brain as “if you screw this up you are out tomorrow”.
Out tomorrow meant back to open mics. Like I said, that is “throw your career off a bridge” land. I couldn’t go back.
I had to do my best 10 minutes.
Outside of the New York Comedy Club with comedians in arms Joe Schaefer and Andy Curtain.
The second month I did just that. No deviation. I found what 10 minutes worked and I pounded that into the pavement. And it was probably the right thing to do.
I started getting booked on bar shows all over the city and the clubs became more comfortable with me. I was doing pretty well.
The third month was spent doing those same ten minutes again, however now it wasn’t going so well. The clubs didn’t notice, and hopefully they don’t read this, but audiences weren’t buying the material as much. I was sick of it and they could tell. I had performed the same ten minutes over 100 times without a word of deviation.
I was getting worse. I couldn’t stand the material. Now if I had to go back to an open mic or do the same ten minutes again I would throw my career off a bridge.
It was time for a change.
Three days ago I decided to put all ten of those minutes on the shelf for a few months and start with brand new material. I tried a bunch of stuff out three nights ago and it was ok. I went home and worked on it, then did again two nights ago and it was better. Last night I did a set with all new ideas and it did well.
So that’s it. Three months. It took three months to write a new joke.
Oh also, one night a few weeks ago I was at New York Comedy Club watching a friend’s set and the club booker came running across the show room and over to me at the back table.
“Turner, the guy who was supposed to go on next isn’t here. Do you want to do his spot?”
“Cool, you are on in 30 seconds”.
So I guess hanging out does work.