Nutshell: Stand-up comedians compete and cooperate for fame, riches, and prestige.
Characters: Standup comedians come from all walk of life, and performers could be involved with the Chuckle Hut at any stage in their career, from the eager young newbie to the bitter old veteran. Regardless of their past tragedies and their future ambitions, they all seek the sweet balsam of an audience’s approval.
- The Success: Your sitcom recently ended after a six-season run on a major network that won you solid ratings but critical scorn. You would happily have kept working on the show for another six years, but your co-stars en masse decided they’d accumulated enough wealth and wanted to retire. Now you’re back where you were a decade ago. The only difference is that your fellow comedians know you made more money last year than most of them made in their entire careers. You’ve always gone for the easy, nonthreatening laugh; it’s made you a punchline in the world of comedy nerds, and not the good kind.
- The Workaholic: You squeeze in a few sets at the Chuckle Hut to keep it fresh in between recording your weekly podcasts. You do three: one’s an interview, you and a peer; one’s current-events/pop-culture panel discussion, you and two or three other comedians; and in one you play a version of Dungeons & Dragons that’s basically just improv comedy. All three podcasts are live shows, with regular tours in distant cities, tickets and t-shirts available on your web site. Maybe you used to have a spouse; definitely you barely know your kids.
- The Bitter Old Pro: You’ve done a dozen pilots, but never got a sitcom. You never got a movie deal. You went on Carson dozens of fucking times but he never waved you over for a sit-down on the couch. You’ve spent decades on the standup circuit, watching as the people you took classes with or shared late-night drinks with got their own Comedy Central series or HBO specials. Comedy’s shifted under your feet several times, and you’ve rolled with it, but it hasn’t gotten you anything. Outside the tiny world of standup fans, no one’s heard of you. You’re pushing fifty, you have nothing for retirement, no family, and now all these kids are coming in with YouTube channels and apps and weird leftist social politics you can’t keep straight. But you keep going; maybe this is the year a pilot gets a series pickup.
- The Thief: Good artists borrow, great artists steal. Back in the olden days Jack Benny used to go to the Poconos and sit in on Borscht Belt acts with a notebook out, openly copying anything he thought was worthwhile. You can’t copyright an idea, and bits are ideas. Old routines by Carlin, Cosby, Pryor: these are dated, and they need to be reworked and presented fresh if they’re going to appeal to a new audience. Besides, you’re all steeped in one another’s material; who can say who had the first idea for a bit? There aren’t any new ideas, and that’s in the Bible. The reason you copy and paste funny tweets instead of retweeting their original author is because the severe space constraints don’t always allow proper attribution, and anyhow, it’s only 140 characters. You have plenty of explanations for what others decry as somehow bad behavior, and what you might lack in raw creativity, you more than make up for in terms of showmanship, panache, and aggressive self-promotion. Once you get a show, you’ll have a staff of writers anyway.
- The Up-and-Comer: Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you spent your childhood and teenage years obsessively studying the albums and shows of these people. Now they’re your peers. Your act is peppered with references to their acts from ten or twenty years ago, not because you’re trying to steal or copy from them, but because it’s part of the culture you grew up steeped in. You’ve more or less gotten the hang of not geeking out when you meet a former Mr. Show or Arrested Development cast member backstage. Now you just need to get the hang of not bombing, but the sooner you start the sooner you’ll be good, right?
- The Outsider: You don’t want your comedy to be all about how you aren’t a white guy, but that’s the only thing the media seems to have picked up about you. White guys are never expected to speak for their entire race and/or gender, but here we are. Every year you read that this year is the ‘year of the woman’ in comedy, but it’s all still a boy’s club. Guys headline and guys get the money and guys invite guys to shows, and God forbid SNL have more than one woman of color cast member per decade. And the only way to deal with it is to be funny and relaxed and nonthreatening, it’s play along or go home. Nobody wants to hire the angry black woman for their corporate retreat; the friendly black woman is a hard enough sell.
- The Addict: You know what’s great? Drinking. You know where you can drink on the job? Comedy clubs. You’ve played the party-animal drunk schtick your entire career, excepting a few months here and there where you tried to dry out and discovered bits about how you can’t drink any more aren’t as funny as bits about how shitfaced you got.
You need more than that? Okay. It’s a comedy club in LA, established in the 1970s. Generations of comics have come through there; there are several comics performing every night of the week. Most of them are more-or-less unknowns, but on any given night there’s a nonzero chance that some way-more-famous name will show up, crash the program, and do a two hour set (good luck if you’re the poor dick who has to follow that up).
There’s also touring. Stand-up touring has all the sordid elements of music tours without the glamour. Comedians show up in Bismarck or Boise and try to wring laughs from a crowd of any drunks. Sometimes they don’t even get a hotel room, instead they get put up in an apartment the local club owner rents for that purpose, nasty holes filled with that most foul of creature, fellow touring comics.
For the first session, the theme is This Better Be Funny.
- Everybody Bombs, Everybody — Being a comic means occasionally striking out.
- My New Podcast’s Name — Nobody knows how the brave new media landscape works, not even the people who are successfully making money at it.
- Why Do I Do This to Myself— What drives people to standup?
- Lifetime Ban Means Lifetime Ban — The world of comedy is tiny, incestuous, and everyone has a long memory.
- Cold Turkey — Some bad habits you either quit or you die, and sometimes quitting isn’t enough.
- Tickets Still Available — Money isn’t everything, but it’s useful if you want to buy stuff.
- Hello, I Have Cancer — Dramatic tragedy makes for the best material.
Tightening the Screws:
- Someone’s major breakdown onstage is captured by a cell phone and the video goes viral.
- A way-more-famous comedian’s scandal throws the whole industry under a microscope.
- Someone gets a cable special.
- A pilot was picked up but they need to recast.
- Someone’s up for the lead in a romcom.
- Someone’s tell-all book is full of lies and pictures of also lies.
- Two way-more-famous comedians feud; people are obliged to pick sides.
- A writer’s strike floods the scene with competition, both new talent and the way-more-famous.
Maron (IFC). Garfunkel and Oates (IFC). Funny People (2009). Punch Line (1988). In a World… (2013). Any stand-up album from the last ten years. Tig Notaro’s Live. Any of many, many podcasts.