Three comics, seven questions, asked monthly. This time out, we bother Rich Braun, Libbie Higgins and Chad Wallace.
What types of mindset are ideal for creating good comedic bits? Do you work best with deadlines? Do you writing under pressure? Or do you work more productively when life’s playing nice? Have you worked something that’s happened that day into a set?
Braun: For me, there are two parts to writing. The first is the idea, which tends to happen when I’m going about my daily business and something strikes me as funny, or irritating, or otherwise “off.” I usually put a note on my phone with as many punchlines as come to me in the moment. After that, it’s a matter of forcing myself to sit down and flesh the rest of the bit out. Inspiration can happen in any mood, but when I’m doing the work of writing, I kind of need to be happy and in a somewhat-confident mindset, which is less common than I would like.
Deadlines are rare for somebody at my level (I’m not doing that Netflix special any time soon), and I hate deadlines, but I have to admit they make me get the work done. The few times I’ve needed to have something ready for a specific date, it’s forced me to be productive.
There have been a few times when I’ve been able to take an event that’s happened that day or within the past few days and quickly create a bit out of it that I might try that evening, but those bits were far from polished.
Higgins: I feel like I create my best bits when I’m not trying to intentionally write a bit. When I’m just hanging with other funny people and we are riffing off each other or when I’m creating an online video, that’s when I can stop worry about the process of thinking of new bits or jokes. It’s the ideal way for me to come up with a bit because I’m not judging myself and what I’m coming up with. There really is no time for that when you’re just doing it improv style. I don’t do well under pressure. In fact, a strict deadline will make me completely shut down. I often will work something into my set that may have happened the same day, and they tend to get the bigger laughs.
Wallace: Having the mindset that any and everything around you is a potential bit. Just be in the moment. You could be at work, home, Taco Bell… if a conversation or situation makes you and another person laugh, something’s there. I think most comics will say there best jokes “write themselves”; they were lucky enough to either remember or write down what happened and shaped it into joke form once on stage. Deadlines, being on a showcase or the minutes before an open mic… those get my adrenaline pumping and the creativity going. The positive about working with deadline is a little pressure forces me to write more because good comedy comes from producing a ton of material and finding the good jokes. The negative is I’m tempted to try jokes that I just came up with minutes before a big show, which usually do horribly. When life’s playing nice I tend go have experiences so I can have stuff to talk about on stage. If something “funny” happens to me it ends up on social media instead on stage. Talking about something fresh to me comes off as ranting and I’m no Louis Black or Bill Burr, I’ll leave that to the experts.
Similarly, describe your experiences with open mics and how important (or not) they are in how you shape a set, or incorporate new material?
Braun: Open mics are huge. Repetition is huge. It’s like practicing a golf swing at the driving range. It might be boring or painful doing the same jokes to the same roomful of comics every night for several weeks, but it’s the only way I know to hammer out a bit.
I usually have a different goal for each mic, depending where it is or what I’m working on. I use certain mics to work on stuff that’s unfinished and raw, because it’s a great chance to be on stage saying those words out loud and looking for the rhythm of a joke. Even if the audience doesn’t laugh or isn’t listening, there’s value in working through the bit with a mic in my hand and lights in my eyes.
Like a lot of comics, I use the mics at Funny Bone, Helium, and Laugh Lounge to do stronger bits that I’m at least 80% happy with. That’s partially because there’s an audience that’s there for a comedy show and you get some real world experience with a bit, and partially because I want to do well in front of people who book the clubs.
Higgins: Open mics are an important and necessary part of my process. I need to see how people will react to stuff that I think will work. I will think that something is hilarious, only to find out that the jokes needs tons of revision and tons of time in front of an audience. The most important part of an open mic, for me, is to be on stage and feel all the really uncomfortable feelings that I get while I’m onstage. I have some very serious stage fright. I need the repetition of going on stage while feeling anxious and scared and then realizing that I survived it.
Wallace: I’ve been fortunate to have the privilege to run the open mic at the Heavy Anchor (The Comedy Shipwreck). Having that stage time every week allows me to not only work on jokes but allows me to have a stage presence that you have to learn from experience. Testing material with multiple crowds is very important in order for it to work on any given night. At one point, St. Louis had an open mic on every night of the week and that was when I had the most growth as a comic.
Do your sets involve topical humor, i.e. based on the news, politics, current events or “now” pop culture? Or do you enjoy working with more evergreen types of material?
Braun: I mostly stay away from political or topical humor, which is a shame because if there’s one thing the world needs, it’s another middle aged white guy giving his opinions on hot button issues!
But I don’t write political jokes because it’s so hard to do it in an original fashion. How many more ways are there to make fun of Donald Trump?
Comedy has to have a point of view, and it’s hard to find a unique take on topical issues. I love comics who can do political humor and do it well- the ones who can find that joke that’s not already been done 100 times and make you laugh regardless of whether you agree with them. I just lack that ability, so I stay away from it.
I tend to stick to stuff about my self, my family, relationships, things that I’ve experienced, or things that I think are odd in the world. There’s always some element of me in there.
Higgins: I will throw a current events joke in the mix every once in a while, but I stay the heck out of politics. We get enough of that nonsense on social media. Sometimes I will drop a quick bit in if it’s something that happened very recently, but it’s not planned and will just be off the top of my head.
Wallace: I’m a mixture of both. I have some jokes that are about family and relationships which never get old but I’ll change tags to reflect what’s trending. I admire comics that can joke about current events. I hope to be one of those comics one day.
Any recollections of your first set? Went smoothly? Better left in the past? What stands out weeks, months, years later?
Braun: My first set was a success in that I lived through it, even though I wasn’t funny and I had to force the words out of my mouth.
The thing that really stands out in my mind from that first mic was that certain comics made it a point to be helpful and encouraging. Specifically, Chad Wallace, Cameron Keys, and that night’s host, Ryan Dalton. I’m eternally grateful to them.
Higgins: My first four-minute set was at an open mic. It’s been about four years since that dreadful night. I had been attending mics for months, just to watch, trying to size up the scene and get my nerve up. I worked and worked on my four minutes for quite a few weeks. I thought my jokes were top-notch hilarious work. I quickly discovered that I knew nothing about writing jokes or delivering them I’ll never forget the awkward and uncomfortable laughs I got that night. I am cringing and breaking out in hives just reliving that moment.
Wallace: My first set was at the Westport Funny Bone open mic and I didn’t bomb! I got some solid laughs and left feeling accomplished. What stood out was the preparation. I put a weeks worth of writing into that set and it set the tone that you have to work hard to get a quality finished product.
If given the choice, would you prefer to: deliver a technically solid, polished, rehearsed, all-cylinders-firing set to a middling-into-it audience; or would rather offer up a loose, spontaneous, messy, circus-wire performance to an appreciative audience?
Braun: I want them laughing. I’m all about audience approval, so in the moment I’ll take the messy set to an audience that loves it.
When I listen back to the set the next day, I hate myself because even though they were laughing, I might have messed up a punchline or rambled too much on a setup, or some other technical thing that irritates me. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m bound to hate my performance no matter what, so at least let them laugh.
Higgins: My brain tells me that the safer choice would be to have a very solid, polished set. My anxiety definitely would choose a well-rehearsed, polished set, as well. But my heart would choose a loose, improv, tons of crowd work kind of set. My favorite ,and some of my best sets, are those that include spontaneous interactions with audience members and reactions to things happening in the room. That kind of set can be terrifying because of the unknown, but can be the most rewarding for me.
Wallace: First starting out, I was that well-rehearsed, stick-to-the-script, word-for-word guy, but as I became more comfortable on stage the looser my sets became. You never know what type of crowd you’ll get, so it pays to be able to adapt to the crowd.
The set’s over. People are milling around the room. What’s the best way to compliment a performer’s set? What’s the best comment that you’ve heard of late, whether it be a compliment or a smart observation? How much do you wanna hear from patrons, as opposed to other performers?
Braun: The best compliment to me is always, “You were really funny.” If they mention something specific that struck a chord with them personally, even better.
Higgins: Even though it’s often hard to hear compliments and I often feel very awkward while on the receiving end of one, I still need that validation at times. I think a good way to compliment someone on their set is to tell them one thing that you really liked about it. Or tell them which joke made them pee pee in their pantaloons. The best comment I’ve heard recently was from Christine Compas. She said, “When you are just being your authentic self on stage that’s when you really shine.” It was such a beautiful compliment because isn’t that what we all want?
Wallace: Best compliments are the simple ones: “I had a good time.” “You’re funny.”or the ultimate ” I laughed so hard I farted. Best comment of late was “You told the absolute truth” I did a set about being single and he related with every viewpoint I had. I don’t mind hearing from patrons because they’re our customers and their feedback gives me the opportunity to get better connecting with the audience.
When are your next, planned public performances?
Braun: I’ll be at Kool Beanz in Granite City, IL on July 7, and in The Legacy Room at Reinhardt Circle in Jefferson City on July 14; I’m doing History Schmistory on July 22; and on July 31, I’m headlining at Jackson Street BrewCo in Perryville, MO.
Higgins: July 5 at 8 pm Helium/ Funniest Person Semi-Finals; July 7 & 14, at 10pm, Improv Shop for an improvised kids show not for kids; July 25, Funny Bone Showcase.
Wallace: Each and every Monday, I host “The Comedy Shipwreck open mic” at the Heavy Anchor at 10 pm. On Friday, July 13, I have the Nothing Special About 43 birthday show at Heavy Anchor, feat. Chris Cyr, Christine Compas, Tony Gardiner and JC Sibala.