Andrew Clark is the director of Comedy: Writing and Performance at Humber College in Toronto.
By now, the Shane Gillis story has progressed to stories about the stories about the story. For those who haven’t heard, Mr. Gillis, a 31-year-old stand-up comedian, was recently announced as a new hire for Saturday Night Live, but shortly thereafter, a journalist revealed that Mr. Gillis, on his podcast, had engaged in racist, homophobic riffs, such as putting on a crude stereotypical Asian accent. Mr. Gillis offered an apology of sorts describing himself as “a comedian who pushes boundaries … I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said.” SNL still dropped him from the show.
The stand-up community was divided on his dismissal. The ability to provoke is held sacred by many comedians. To some, Mr. Gillis was being crucified for a joke. To others, he was reaping what he sowed.
The idea that a joke, a tweet or misstep could be fatal is daunting for those just starting out.
The challenge, when it comes to navigating the gap between comedy’s right to provoke and the dictates of the woke, lies in the fact that developing as a comedian is a very messy and very public process. Unlike writers, who hammer out their prose in private, comedians test out their first drafts on stage.
At the school where I work – which has turned out graduates including Nathan Fielder of the Comedy Central program Nathan For You, as well as Vance Banzo and Tim Blair of the sketch troupe Tallboyz, whose series just debuted on the CBC – a large part of the curriculum deals with learning out in the open.
Our first lesson is simple – don’t be afraid to fail. It’s when comedians are hit by panic that dodgy material can arise. Carol Leifer, a terrifically gifted stand-up and writer who has worked on such shows as Seinfeld (the character Elaine Benes was based on her), once told our students, “The bad shows you encounter, where everybody bombs, are the only way to get good. You have to suck to get good. You don’t realize it, but you learn from the bad.”
We do not tell students what they can or cannot say. The worst thing you can do is tell a comedian they can’t say something. They will immediately go out and say it. Most comedians go through what we call the potty-training phase. Initially, they lean into doing “edgy” stuff. It’s a safe choice – if the material doesn’t work, you can blame the audience for not being able to handle your truth.
The benefit of a classroom is that you can work on material before you go in front of an audience. You can ask, what’s the point of the joke? Students can get criticism from other students. Most comedians do not set out to perform comedy that puts down people because of their race, gender or sexuality. They may not even realize something they’ve written is unintentionally sending that message. In class, we can get down to what the comedian really wants to say. We can examine the difference, for instance, between material that is racist and demeans and material that is racial and deals with race. Our instructors are a little like boxing coaches. The students head out to open mic shows at night and return to their “corner” during the day for class.
When it comes to controversial material, ultimately, it’s the comedian’s decision. But we teach students to take responsibility for that decision. If you want to provoke, go ahead – just make sure you are making a point, a point that you believe in and one for which you are willing to pay a price.
It’s hard to see the point of Mr. Gillis’s “boundary pushing,” which amounted to having fun with a hack stereotype that people found offensive 40 years ago. What was his end game? Was he going to hone his material and take it on the road? Doubtful.
The flip side of being provocative is pandering and we encourage our students to avoid “clapter,” a term Seth Meyers coined more than 10 years ago. Comedians get “clapter” when they do material that isn’t particularly funny but appeals to the audience’s politics. Today, there are dozens of open mics in Toronto. They’re good places for neophytes to learn but they’re also clapter breeding grounds. The audiences don’t pay admission, the comics aren’t paid and most of the crowd are comedians. We advise students to work their material but avoid getting caught in the echo chamber. Clapter may feel good but it will stunt a comedian’s growth.
Perhaps the biggest misconception people make about comedy is that it’s solely about being funny. The reality is that, at the higher levels, funny is a given. It’s like hockey – there are no bad hockey players in the NHL, just levels of good. Anyone good enough to headline at Just for Laughs, the Comedy Store or Yuk Yuk’s is funny.
Two things separate good comedians from truly great ones: the ability to use silence, and complete authenticity.
In stand-up, silence is the equivalent of negative space in a painting. Onstage, it can be frightening – but great comedians use silence to their advantage. Norm Macdonald (who was critical of Mr. Gillis’s firing) is a master.
“The thing that used to drive the NBC people nuts was that he would do a story, and then just kind of hang there and stare,” SNL head writer Jim Downey, who worked with Mr. Macdonald on the material, told our students in 2015. “What we were saying was, ‘What you just heard was a joke. Whether you necessarily get it right now, or think about it on the way home, it’ll come to you.’ We wanted to give them time, whereas almost every other comic in that position would do the safe move of going immediately to the next thing, because they don’t want to hear silence.”
Authenticity means ironclad individuality. A comedian must create an act that is not only funny, but 100-per-cent them. Jerry Seinfeld put it best in a 1991 interview with Larry King. “You want to get anything out of your act that even sounds like anybody else. That’s when you get really good as a comedian. When everything you say sounds just like you, and it’s only funny when you say it. Other people can’t even do it. That’s the essence of stand-up comedy.”
On Sept. 28, when SNL starts its fall season, viewers will get to see the show’s other two new hires: Bowen Yang, who last season was a writer on SNL and is now the show’s first Asian cast member, and Chloe Fineman, a phenomenally talented performer who was a member of the legendary Los Angeles sketch comedy troupe the Groundlings. Will SNL tackle the Shane Gillis fallout? Should they? These are the kinds of topics likely we’ll be discussing on Monday morning in the classroom.
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