John Cantu doing the door at the Zoo John doing the door at the Holy City Zoo

Comics and Their Writers: Mistakes Newbies Make

by John Cantu ©

I just recently saw Jim Carrey's performance in Man in the Moon and what struck me most was that fact that Kaufman had a writer. Now, I know all comics use writers, but it never occurred to me that Kaufman would need a writer for his non-comedy material. Who needs a writer for his shtick such as "Sit on stage and eat an orange? Then leave." Or "Ask the club waitress for the menu, order a meal, eat it and then leave." (Two of his performances)

But that reminded me of a bit of exchange that occurred on another humor list I participate in

In response to something I wrote about Gene Perret (wherein I had mentioned that Perret had once been a partner with Slappy White), William B. Kaliher wrote: "Cantu, I never realized Slappy White had a writer - white or black."

Here are my remarks and I have elaborated on them for this essay.

I realized when I reviewed that post after it was sent that I might not have made my point clear. Perett wasn't WRITING for Slappy, Perett was PERFORMING with Slappy. They were a performing comedy team. And that was back when you didn't have the acceptance of inter-racial interaction to the degree you have today. That was definitely on the cutting edge to be half of a white-black comedy team.

And Perett told me another thing that might be instructive. At one time they were opening for Sammy Davis Jr. And the people would leave the show saying, "That Sammy Davis, oh what performer, oh what a showman. He put that show together just for us. And such a FANTASTIC ad-libber."

And Perett said, "Cantu, I heard him AD-LIB the same AD-LIBS, in the same place, every night for two weeks. He would come out and say, 'So what songs do you want to hear?' And then as the audience would toss out song titles, he'd reply, 'Okay.' 'Sure.' 'Yeah, gotta do that.' "

"Then he would the same show he always did. Who's gonna remember what songs were or were not shouted out an hour earlier? But by connecting with them at the beginning of the show they felt it was created especially for them"

And one more thing William, you wrote that you didn't know Slappy White had a writer. Common misperception - hacks need writers, but the really great comedians use only their own stuff.

All comics use writers - Woody Allen (and I'm talking about his brilliant standup act, not his movies that I can't understand half the time) had Morrie Brickman. Richard Pryor has (or at least had for the longest time) Paul Mooney. Don't know who Robin William uses, but my former some-time partner collaborator Tom Finnigan at one time was asked to submit material for consideration. Finnigan also wrote material for Jonathan Winters on some television specials. Carrie Snow, one of my regulars at my former comedy club the Holy City Zoo in San Francisco, went on to write for Roseanne (Tom Arnold was one of Roseanne's original writers). Chris Rock has Wanda Sykes. Former students of mine Karen Warner and Mike Iapoce have sold material to Dangerfield, and another former student, David Feldman writes for Denis Miller. . .

And the bleat "I do all my own stuff" goes on. As the late Jim Samuels used to say. "All the stuff I do is my own material. I have the receipts to prove it!"

I learned early in my career that ironically, new comics who need material the most are the hardest to approach about selling material to, and experienced comics, who you would think don't need writers since they have a body of good material, are the easiest. Because new comics are so insecure they think they have to PROVE they are funny by doing all their OWN material.

I thought the same way in the begining. If a writer approached me, I rejected them out of hand. But do people say, "David Letterman is not funny, his writers are?" Ever hear anyone say, "Lily Tomlin is not funny, her writer Jane Wagner is?"

Established comics have learned that whether they are starring in a sit-com written by staff writers; making a guest appearance at an awards show spouting lines written by Bruce Vilanch; or playing a movie character that was created by a writer and doing lines for that character also created by the writer, THEY, not the writer(s) get credit for it.

Mistakes newbies make:

While I'm on the theme of mistakes beginner make, let me get very local for a moment. And while this focuses primarily on the San Francisco Comedy Scene (which was the name that Frank Kidder, the founding grandfather of San Francisco comedy, used for his company name), I hope I can find a few points of wisdom to be more universally useful.

There is a bonafide new wave of comedy that has arisen here in San Franciso in the past year or so. I have just started to delve into it with my recent affiliation with the San Francisco Comedy School. I really get a kick out of seeing the comics hanging out in front of the venues after a performance. Boy does that ever bring back nostalgia of my Zoo days.

Now that I will start teaching for the SF Comedy College, I hang out mostly at the college's venues. But I have been to Ireland's 32nd Club, Java Source, and last Wednesday I saw Comic Fusion at the Tongue & Groove.

I get a kick out seeing the newbies, as they struggle with the basic theatrical choices and make discoveries about themselves and the art. That also beings back memories and I can see in them the same fears and frustrations I had in the beginning.

Here are a couple of common mistakes newbies make, in no particular order.

Giving WAY to much emphasis to the audience results on any given night. I talked to one comic after a show who I had enjoyed, and he said he had been feeling a little off since a few shows hadn't been going well. I asked, "How may times have you performed?"

"About 12 or 14."

I said, "Your first 100 times on stage don't count. It doesn't matter if you do good or bad because you are so new you really can't tell why the audience is laughing.

"You don't have enough experience to put any one performance into perspective. Were you really good OR was the audience really good? Were you really bad OR was the audience really bad?"

Another problem is an exaggerated emphasis on NEW material that no one has HEARD before. There are two aspects to this. I approached one comic about a line he had done and suggested he send it into a local columnist. And he declined saying, "Oh and if the columnist published it, I could never use it again!"

I wanted to say, "Hey when a comic goes on TV, what do you think he does. Get a joke book and pick out twenty jokes to do so he doesn't do any of his REAL material on TV?"

Getting your material quoted is marketing. You give them a sample so they come back for more. Ever seen a trailer for a movie? Do they show you a funny scene that's not in the movie because if it is in the movie and you have seen it in the trailer you won't laugh?

And here is another version of that. When a comic says, "Gee, I did this material last week and now some of the same people are here again." I want to say, "Do you think they listened to you AND do you think they heard everything you said AND do you think they memorized every joke?"

People come back to the same place to get more of what they got before. Imagine going to your favorite restaurant and finding out they had changed the menu so the chef didn't have to serve you the SAME meal you enjoyed the last time you were there.

If people didn't like to hear comedy bits again they wouldn't have reruns on TV or sell comedy CDs. Can you tell me you have never seen a comedian more than once or watched a rerun of a sitcom that you had seen before or watched a comedy movie for a second or third or fourth time?

Maybe your audience came because they liked what they heard and wanted to experience it again.

That's it bloodhounds, no graceful close to this essay.

NEXT: Getting Discovered in Five Minutes (Part 1)