I record all my comedy sets obsessively. I’ve done over 340 sets and I’ve recorded all but a handful. A few days ago, I listened to my first set on a whim. It was, shall we say, “interesting”. I definitely sounded like one of those new comics I’ve heard so many of since then. But once in a while, a flash of brilliance peeked through which made me happy (although you might have had to have been me to know what they were, since most people don’t such direct insight into my brain).
I decided to come up to Vancouver for a while and because I have more time than income these days, I drove. It’s about a thousand miles in fifteen hours. Because I hate wasted time and doing just one thing at a time, I was trying to figure out what else I could do while I drive.
I think you see where I’m going with this. I decided I would take advantage of my obsessive recording of my sets and listen to them as I drove.
Any comic will tell you that listening to yourself is torture. It turns out though that after a few sets, you become numb, and it become a lot easier. All in all, I listened to show 17 (my first few shows were WAV files and iPod wouldn’t play them) to around show 102 in about fourteen hours. I heard a few jokes and tags I’d forgotten about and thought of a few new twists. I brought my voice recorder with me and made about 30 or 40 notes to self. And it actually helped the time go faster by keeping my brain occupied.
I reviewed my first year of comedy (I started in November 2004, although I suppose technically I did maybe three or four shows at UCLA in the early 90s that I am quite certain were terrible). A lot of these shows were simply awful. My set-ups were often too long. I was incoherent and rambly. There were premises with no punch lines. My diction was poor. My speech was peppered with useless “Ums” and way too many “So…” transitions.
My set-ups were filled with lies. For example, in my very first show, I had a set-up that talked about something that happened when I was married. But I’ve never been married, so when I listened, I just sounded like a lying idiot. I guess I couldn’t figure out any other way to set it up, but I mean, come on, that’s just lazy.
I was surprised how many jokes I still use were in these early eras, although many have been improved beyond recognition after going through quite a few iterations.
I also talked quite frankly about the shoulder surgery I went through in August of 2005, and it was really interesting to hear what I had to say both before and after the surgery. It was almost like I was doing it more for me than for anyone else.
Early on, I’d leave my voice recorder on a table when I went up, and I often ended up in the background. Once in a while someone sitting near my recorder would make a comment about a joke or something that I’d strain to evaluate. Or other comics would see the recorder and leave a cute message for me. I don’t know if they realized I wouldn’t hear it until 2008.
I would really strongly recommend recording all your shows. Bring the recorder up to stage with you, and just put it on the stool with any notes you might have. It might seem weird, but if you don’t make a big deal out of it, no one cares. You don’t have to listen to it, but if record all your shows, you at least have the option.
Near the end of my trip, I fast forwarded to listen to some sets I have done in the past few weeks. I was so relieved to hear how much better they are. I really have improved noticeably. I mean, this is no surprise; you would expect that practicing something several times a week years would yield improvement. But it was a relief to actually have some evidence.
I suppose I’ll review my second year of comedy on the drive back. Fourteen more hours of torturous self-realization. I can’t wait!