Seeing Comedy Get Made, and Made Better

In recent weeks, I've taken in several comedic performances that have demonstrated how hard it is to be funny and original. It isn't just comedy, but really all creative arts, that asks artists to make everything seem effortless, natural, and completely ironed out. "As an artist, if you succeed in making something fresh and new, it often looks easy: Warhol's soup cans, for instance," says Carlton Cuse in a New York Times article this weekend. "And when you make it fast, it seems even easier."

Staying with just the artform of comedy, I have discovered just how true Cuse's words of wisdom are. I attended a workshop of comedian Mike Birbiglia's latest material, which he's titled "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend." I caught a similar Birbiglia show several years ago when he was testing the waters for jokes for his off-Broadway show, "Sleepwalk With Me," and I'd seen him this past fall speak about the recently-released book version of his story. If "Sleepwalk" captured his struggles with insomnia, "Girlfriend" covers his pursuit of love. It's a heavier topic than his last, but Birbiglia doesn't hold back.

During his staging of "Girlfriend," it was obvious that Birbiglia was making mental notes about which jokes landed best with the audience, and what could use some more tinkering. I've been to similar events with other comedians who will earnestly say into the microphone that the joke needs a better final line. It was obvious that Birbiglia was taking in whatever reactions he could from the crowd, and performing a form of self-analysis while still engaging the audience with the next joke or part of the story. It's impressive how well comedians can multitask.

I commented after the show that Birbiglia had stacked too much good material at the end of the show, and that he'd be better off teasing the audience with the first part of his final story earlier on and returning to finish the tale as a closer. A review of a workshop a few weeks later indicated that Birbiglia has made this change: "the show starts with a car crash," which, at my workshop, didn't appear until toward the end. This small but worthy edit surely makes the show more compelling.

This past Monday, I saw actor Donald Glover perform about 15 minutes of very raw material that he stated would eventually go toward a standup special. Glover was the final comedian at the end of a long night at the show at Upright Citizens Brigade, highlighted by the always-hilarious Hannibal Buress. While some of Glover's jokes worked, I noticed how uncomfortable he seemed in front of the crowd. That comfort definitely comes with time. His short set ended a bit abruptly without a final, uproarious note; instead he just told the audience "that's my time," before walking off the stage.

I have no doubt that as Glover performs this material more, he'll make the necessary changes and smooth out the edges. It took Birbiglia years to get his first show in order, and now he's trying to do the same with his latest. These comedians' dedication and work is a testament to how difficult it must be to put together a one-man show, or even a one-hour special, where every word is carefully selected and positioned. The hardest work seems to take place off-stage, when comedians are forced to evaluate themselves to make necessary tweaks and improvements. On stage, it typically looks easy.

When I saw the Improvised Shakespeare Company earlier this month, I marveled at how easy this group of five actors could make the playwright's language and storytelling seem. The Chicago-based group, on tour in New York, brainstorms an entire fake Shakespearean play in the Bard's garb, using his style of words, and in keeping with the traditional drama. Not even the actors know what will happen next - or what their counterparts will say. It's the most incredible use of the improv form I've ever seen on the stage, and a performance that left me proud to have been an English major.

Since they're making up the show from scratch every time -- it starts with a crowd request for the title for their play -- these actors must be equipped with a strong repertoire of Shakespearean terms and stronghold on the plot twists that make the Bard's plays unique. Ordinarily, comedians don't require so much knowledge and background to perform, but these guys set a higher standard for comedy. They want to look smart while doing it.

With so many different styles and forms of comedy out there, you can never say definitively that one is better or harder than another. Still, we should recognize from how easily and effortlessly comedians and actors give their lines that they must have a mastery over their craft before they can show off their stuff. We can judge the comedy by the material that makes it to the stage, but we should also remember to credit the comedians for putting it all together so gracefully.