I’m curious about the writing process of others — comedians, authors, musicians. Similar to finding their voice and persona on-stage, a comic has to find a writing process that best suits them. I have read that stand-ups like George Carlin and Mike Birbiglia were and are able to type out every word of their brilliant sets. Some of my peers do the same, writing on their laptops, and find this method effective. Conversely, I have heard Bill Burr say of Patrice O’Neal that not once did he ever see Patrice use a notepad. Whatever works.
I heard an interview with Dave Chappelle and Maya Angelou where they discussed their respective processes. Dr. Angelou said that she wakes up at 5:30am, takes a walk, then returns to her room, bare of anything on the walls, and writes by hand. Chappelle replied that the primary difference between her process and his is the absence of people. “I need the people so bad,” Chappelle said. “I can’t write in a vacuum.” The difference is seismic. Stand-up, unlike short stories or novels, is formed with the audience. Their reaction shapes and hones the bits and, oftentimes, inspires it in the moment.
I found Chappelle’s comments really insightful and relatable. Growing up, I was always comfortable writing on my computer — either school or creative work. Stand-up is different, though. Starting out, I would struggle to type out bits or flesh out ideas in front of a screen. Further, when I would try to perform that typed material, I found myself not feeling or being engaged with the words. Delivering typed material, I felt like I was giving a prepared lecture, reciting the awkward script that I had written, rather than being present, doing stand-up.
I prefer to write ideas by hand. I fill notebooks, writing bullet-points and partially-formed, dumb thoughts. I’ll take one idea and tree-branch multiple possible angles and directions. I’ll talk out that material on-stage, attempting to find which, if any, angles are worth focusing. I don’t have any material written word-for-word in any notebook. I have audio of every set, which I find useful — even if I don’t listen to all of them.
I watched a clip online of Paul Simon singing a half-written song on Dick Cavett’s show, asking Cavett for advice. The song was “Still Crazy After All These Years.” The video is fascinating, hearing Paul Simon talk about writing music. Simon was less concerned with the lyrics and more focused on the music itself. The focus is on the flow of the material, rather than simply the words. Simon discusses selecting different chords, establishing a pattern, and the need to subvert that pattern to please the listeners’ ears.
These approaches are basic in comedy writing, as well. The clip is so fun to watch, because viewers are seeing Simon do on national television what so many stand-ups do when they’re crafting material every night: he talks it out.
Experimenting with different writing processes is valuable, because a shift in writing approach can change the end product. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose loss of vision forced him to switch to a typewriter in his later years, discovered a change in his writing style. A friend observed that Nietzsche’s prose had become more terse and tight since he began physically punching keys. Nietzsche agreed, replying, “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”
I want to clarify that I haven’t read Nietzsche’s work. I just read that piece about him. I’m not that smart. I just like to hear how smart people write.
Dan Perlman is a stand-up comedian from New York. Follow him on Twitter @danjperlman.