On a recent flight I watched a documentary titled I Am Comic, directed by Jordan Brady. Through interviews with comedians such as Sarah Silverman, Tim Allen, Jeanne Garofolo and Lewis Black, the movie explores the what, how and why of stand-up.
I found a lot of parallels in the movie between stand-up and slam poetry. Similar techniques are used to develop, practice and refine material. The performers have similar motivations and similar hang-ups.
Jeff Foxworthy says that everyone has the ideas that comics use to build their material. For most people, these ideas just pass through their heads and are then lost. Comics catch these ideas, polish them and then show them to an audience. The best laughs come when the audience clicks with the idea, saying 'yeah, I thought that'.
The best performance poems are built similarly around familiar ideas in unfamiliar settings. Poets know when they have 'clicked' with an audience, although in this case it is not always humourous.
Roseanne Barr talks of the greatest jokes being a mix of the profane and the funny. Sarah Silverman finds she gets the best laughs when something is 'funnier than it is heartbreaking, and it is heartbreaking'. When we, as an audience, develop a strong emotional response to something it tends to cross emotions: we are just as likely to weep as we are to laugh. Some of the best performances straddle these lines, mixing humour with sadness and shock. This applies to poetry just as it does to comedy.
The narrator of the movie is Rich Shydner. A successful stand-up from the 80s and 90s, he is made out to be past his prime. Part of the movie shows Rich getting the itch to perform again, as he sees other comedians on stage. He eventually tries some new material at an open mic, to mixed responses.
The movie finishes with the news that Rich has gone back to performing. As a result, he is now off the anti-depressants he had to take when he first gave up stand-up.
Performance as an addiction is something I can relate to.
If you get a chance, see this movie. I really enjoyed it and I think it tells us about more than just comedy performance.