I’m not the first to make this observation, but comedians and musicians are, in many ways, kindred spirits. In their work, both comedians and musicians try to create expectations and, subsequently, resolve said expectations in unexpected yet gratifying ways. Both work in an art form that can only be experienced by their audience in a linear fashion. Both work in an art form so visceral yet ephemeral that their audience rarely understands what they do as work; people who go to see a comedy show can’t tell you if the comedian is good, only whether they laughed, just as the average person doesn’t think about how well written a song is, only whether they like it or not. Both have a highly developed respect for the importance of timing. Both seem to have an unfortunate tendency to mistake the therapeutic nature of what they do as a substitute for actual therapy (it is not, btw). I suppose it is because of these parallels to the musical mind that I find comedic minds so fascinating.
It is because of this fascination with the comedic mind that I am a regular listener to a podcast you may or may not be familiar with called WTF with Marc Maron. At the heart of the podcast are Mr. Maron’s amazing interviews with fellow comedians as well as the occasional musician or actor. The interviews tend to be so unguarded, personal, and revealing that it can almost feel like you are guiltily eavesdropping on an intimate conversation between two old friends or on some kind of therapy session. (For a great example, check out Marc’s two-part interview with Louis C.K., available here and here.) Really, if you’re a fan of quality radio, from Howard Stern to Fresh Air and This American Life, you should really check out the show, if you haven’t already.
At any rate, as I have listened to the show over time, there is one observation about comedian Chris Rock that keeps popping up, made by several of the comedian guests such as Aziz Ansari, as well as Maron himself, that I find particularly interesting and, in my opinion, very applicable to musical artists and songwriters alike.
STRIPPING DOWN STAND UP AND THE POWER OF A STRONG FOUNDATION
When the biggest comedians in the world—people like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock—are working on material for a special or for a new set, they will typically pop into a small comedy club like the Comedy Cellar in NYC (famously depicted in the opening of Louis C.K.’s show) on an off night and try some of their new material. The logic, as expressed by Jerry Seinfeld in his fantastic documentary Comedian, is that with a random audience like that, you get five minutes of good will because of who you are, and then the audience members start responding very honestly: if a joke isn’t funny, no one laughs.
What is particularly interesting about the way Chris Rock approaches this practice is that he completely eschews any sense of personality or delivery when trying out his new material. Rock, who has, perhaps, the most famously recognizable and highly developed sense of delivery and timing in comedy today, purposely tries out his new material by reading jokes flatly off cards, completely stripped of his world famous electric energy and comedic delivery. The idea? If a joke is stripped of everything but the words on the page and it still gets a laugh, then he is already starting off on solid footing; there is no confusion about whether it is the material or the delivery that is getting the laugh.
While much is often made of Rock’s singular voice, delivery, and ability to create a sense of unyielding momentum in his shows, it is clear from his approach to developing new material that he does not rely on the strength of his delivery or the pacing of his sets to get the laughs he’s aiming for. He knows that all the charm, stage presence and set planning in the world means nothing if he doesn’t have funny material to begin with.
So what can musical artists and songwriters learn from Chris Rock’s approach to developing new material? While the importance of production, performance, and arrangement should not be diminished, there is ultimately nothing more important than the song itself. If a song works when stripped to down to its basic essence—just a voice and a guitar, or a voice and a piano—it is far more likely to soar once all the other ingredients are added.
As an experiment, take the voice memo recorder on your phone or a handheld recorder and play your best song or songs through with nothing but a single harmonic instrument and your voice. Transfer the recording to the portable listening device of your choice, and then forget about it for a few hours, maybe even a day. Once a little bit of time has passed, throw the song on repeat, and go for a walk or do a somewhat mindless task that allows you to lose yourself in the music without overanalyzing it. After a couple listens, do you get the urge to fast forward through a part of the song? Do you start to focus more on the mindless, dull task at hand than you do the song? If so, there is probably some room for improvement in the underlying song and it might well be worth it to revisit and revise till the song stands up when stripped down.
Phil Dubnick | Mix Reel | Private Voice, Guitar, Songwriting and Music Theory Lessons
is a mix engineer, producer, songwriter, guitarist, vocalist, music educator and lover of mexican food.