Comics: See the bigger picture

John Fleming offers some forestry management advice...

Around now – just three weeks before the Edinburgh Fringe starts – there is a glut of desperate stand-up comics performing Fringe preview shows in London.

Well, they are not so much preview shows – more often a desperate cobbling-together of last-minute ideas, trying them out in front of an audience and seeing what may or may not work. One already excellent comic I saw recently was performing 18 dry-runs of material and still not totally secure in what his Edinburgh show would contain.

I’ve seen four of these Edinburgh ‘previews’ recently: two by very experienced performers; two from less experienced comics. All four had almost entirely good material but, even with the best material, over the course of an hour, the pace sagged slightly in places – the comedians meandered because they hadn’t totally nailed-down the best structure to make their shows work.

That is fine. That is what try-outs are for. The comedians had and have no real problem beyond the natural in-built self-doubt and insecurity without which they would not be comedians in the first place. It does seem to me that the greater the neuroses, the better the comedian.

I am not a performer, but inexperienced ignorance has never stopped me giving advice. I have edited most of my life – scripts, books and, in particular, video. I think stand-up comics could get some help from the movie industry.

When comics have problems structuring their hour-long shows, they worry because the details don’t work. They get mesmerised by the details. It is a near-definitive situation of not seeing the creative wood for the trees.

They are mesmerised by the complexity of their own show’s structure and they would benefit from thinking of what, in the movie business, is called The Elevator Pitch. The theory is that if you have a movie idea which you want to sell and you accidentally get into a lift (which our Colonials call an elevator) with a studio executive, you have to pitch your entire movie idea to him (or her) by the time the lift/elevator gets to the next floor, the doors open and he/she gets out.

The conventional wisdom is that you have to pitch your idea in 10 or 12 words.

When comedians are structuring a one hour live comedy show, they will not get anywhere fast if they are mesmerised by the complexity of the structure. If you try to think How do I fit joke A next to routine F and do I put H or C in there before I use my ‘banker’ punchline X? it is like trying to put together a Jigsaw made of pasta.

But, if you can explain to yourself in 12 words or less the single central concept of your show, then it concentrates your mind. Every part of the show has to be made to be relevant to that 12-word raison d’etre.

If a section of the show cannot be made to be relevant to that one central idea, then cut it out, no matter how funny. If the choice is between getting some good laughs for three minutes with that one section but screwing up the overall pace and narrative cohesion of the hour-long show, then dump that three-minute section immediately.

If it really is THAT good, it can be used some other time. By using it here you are slowing, skewing or de-railing the overall show.

If you try to build an hour-long show looking from the details outwards, you get mesmerised by the trees and cannot see the over-all shape of the wood.

If, however, you look from the outside inwards and constantly have the overall shape of the wood in mind, then you can plant the trees within that overall shape. It is a tad easier on the creative brain.

I am also reminded of a schoolboy teaser: How far can a rabbit run into a wood?

Answer: Halfway… After that, it’s running OUT of the wood.

Which is another way of saying…

If you create a narrative comedy show – and, at one hour in length there needs to be a linear narrative to avoid the audience getting flummoxed – you need to be aware of one legendary but vital cliché.

You need a beginning, a middle and an end.

The rabbit-running-into-a-wood analogy means that you have to know the central core towards which you are running and – unlike the war in Afghanistan but like sex – you should have an exit strategy and know where your final climax is.

Published: 13 Jul 2011

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