A friend of mine recommended I watch this the other day.
It’s a four way discussion broadcast on HBO, between Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Louis CK. (If you’re not familiar with the latter can I recommend this talkshow clip where he talks with fantastic indignation about how easily – and quickly – people allow their feelings about technology to be reduced from awe-inspiring wonder to jaded dismissiveness.)
Some people might think analysing comedy ruins it. It could be weird, especially if critics see things that aren’t there. I read once that John Lydon compared writing about music to dancing about architecture, as if to capture the futility of recreating one artform within another. One too many review he disagreed with, I reckon.
But this clip (and the others that follow it) is not only very funny, it also features four highly intelligent, self-aware craftsmen discussing what they do, and how they do it.
There’s a moment where they’re discussing whether they think people come to see the comedians themselves, or their act. It’s not a distinction I’d have thought of – but once again it’s something we’re more used to in music, where we’re often interested in the artefact, not the art. As per my Retromania musings the other day, reunion tours etc are all the rage – but you don’t comedians touring their most famous material, for example. Except if they were once in Monty Python, of course.
But on the rare occasion where I’ve sat among an audience of people who already know the material as well as Beach Boy fans know Pet Sounds – well, it has been pretty tiresome. Shouting out punchlines is obviously reprehensible, but I somehow find those cheers of recognition (yeah, my favourite bit is here!) somehow even more irksome.
Perhaps it’s because comedy should at least feel like it’s in the moment. Timing is everything, so if you’re expecting it, you don’t get the full thing.
But what was illuminating in the HBO chat was where Jerry Seinfeld differed from the others. He believes that people are there to see his act. He does change it – but gradually, incrementally. Bit by bit, so it goes unnoticed, like digging a prison break tunnel.
The others saw a definitive end to the life of a show: it’s written, it’s performed, it’s done. The point at which Seinfeld thinks a show has become the act is the point where Chris Rock would wave it goodbye. Louis CK, though was most interesting. He says he “throws away” most of his act at least once a year. The shows has a “fruit-like” cycle to it: it ripens, then it goes rotten. To cling on to material past its use-by date just wouldn’t work.
I was fascinated by this need to consistently test himself. Perhaps when you do bigger shows, and no longer have to win people over, then maybe a certain type of comedian worries about becoming complacent. Maybe they miss the danger, or maybe they just feel their best work/performances feed as much from tension and uncertainty as they do from confidence and familiarity with your material.
Louis went further, talking about switching his whole act around. He’d do his last 10 minutes first, “just to fuck with myself”. He’d force himself to work ‘lesser’ material harder – to find out if it could be improved if the context was changed.
How brave is that?
Now I think of stand-up comedy as pretty brave. Your own personality, or a version of it, out there in judgement of the world, ready for its own judgement of you back. And you have to be funny. My god, that seems hard.
But I can absolutely identify with the two different factions present in the comedy camp. I think we meet people in all fields who sit either side of this divide. Seinfeld’s approach – the well-rehearsed, proven, we-do-this-and-we’re-great-at-it type -seems the safer, but maybe that’s unfair when it comes to a performance-based skill
If we look at service-based skills though, then surely it’s the Louis CK approach that has to win out?
In the marketing/advertising sphere, I reckon we all know people – and agencies – who fit the Seinfeld mold, and I’m willing to bet they’re not that inspiring. In fact, I would guess they don’t even do that well. In a world where we’re all having to improvise, all the time (see John’s spot-on comments about dexterity in a world where everything we do is new), then we have no choice but to act like Louis CK.
If we don’t throw out stuff we’ve been doing for years, people will look elsewhere.
If we don’t set ourselves the challenge to be make our OK stuff good, and our good stuff brilliant, then someone else will, and it becomes even harder to do.
If we don’t have an insatiable, unquenchable thirst for fresh insights and ideas, and feel an imperative to put them to good use, then surely we’re in the wrong job.
Now, I’m not saying that everything more than a year old is useless. That would be silly, and iconoclasm for its own sake. But questioning everything we inherit is pretty much a default position, and something to celebrate.
So, what sort of person are you? A Seinfeld or a CK? And, perhaps even more pertinently, what sort of agency do you work in?