The Art of the Joke
When you watch masterful stand-up comics perform, they seem just naturally hilarious. Don’t kid yourself. This is hard work—a craft like making anything else of value.
By DAVID MUNRO
Michelle Buteau started doing stand-up in New York City three days after 9/11. The NBC newsroom where she worked offered employees therapy. She chose comedy instead. photo courtesy of Mindy Tucker
It took six years for Caribbean-American comedian Michelle Buteau to make audiences laugh at her Dutch husband’s racist Christmas tradition. That may sound like a long time to a non-comic, but to people who make jokes their trade and preoccupation, it’s no shock at all.
There is a sacrificial aspect to a comic’s job—they take life’s arrows so the rest of us can rubberneck from a safe distance; if we can laugh at someone wearing an arrow through the head, maybe it won’t hurt as much when it pierces us.
The Daily Show’s Hasan Minhaj labored for weeks to coax humor from his paranoia of being racially profiled on airplanes. Jimmy Fallon favorite Nate Bargatze spent months wondering why a joke wasn’t landing until he realized he was letting truth get in the way of a good story. For New York headliner Yannis Pappas, adding one letter to one word was the difference between a maudlin breakup bit and a routine that ultimately anchored his first Comedy Central special.
“We all have our ways of processing grief,” quips the Brooklyn-born Pappas. That may sound like a wisecrack from a wise guy (and it is), but it’s also a pretty solid description of the art–and alchemy–of stand-up comedy. Turning messy reality into fine-tooled hilarity is every bit a craft; and while the good ones make it look artless, don’t be fooled: comics are craftspeople before they are anything else.
TRAGEDY PLUS TIME
“Stand-up specifically is one of those things where you’re constantly being humbled by the craft itself,” says Minhaj, a self-described word nerd. “No matter how big you get, you’re not bigger than the jokes or the craft.”
The truth of that statement blindsided Buteau, a comedy veteran, when she first tried to build a joke around her husband’s unsettling holiday ritual. “When I spent my first Christmas in Holland, I didn’t realize they have a Christmas character called ‘Zwarte Piet’ (Black Pete) that was in black face,” she recalls. “It was a struggle being in a group of people who were going to be my family, who aren’t racist, but who are defending this character who is basically Santa’s slave.”
Like many comics, Buteau wanted to use the pleasures of comedy to gull us into taking a fresh look at knotty problems, like racial prejudice. Unfortunately, “I ended up sounding like Reverend Al Sharpton on Sunday,” she says. “I had to sit with it a bit.” Eventually, the normally hyper-irreverent Buteau (she calls her European husband “vintage white”) realized that if she was going to get preachy about something, and make it funny, it had to cut even closer to home.
There is a sacrificial aspect to a comic’s job—they take life’s arrows so the rest of us can rubberneck from a safe distance; if we can laugh at someone wearing an arrow through the head, maybe it won’t hurt as much when it pierces us, too.
Practically speaking, this means it’s okay to talk about personal problems on stage as long as you’ve gotten over them off stage. Once Buteau got to this point with her in-laws’ holiday tradition, she went back to basics and just told the story. The joke came to life. Now that she could laugh at what happened, her audience could, too:
So I asked my man who is that? And he’s like, that’s Zwarte Piet. It translates to “Black Peter.” And I was like, uh huh. So how’d he get so dark? And he said it’s really funny, he has to jump down the chimney because Santa’s too fat. That’s how he got so dark and dirty. I was like, so why does he have an afro and look like Wesley Snipes?
PREMISES AND TAGS
“The premise of a joke is the stone,” says Hasan Minhaj. “You start chipping away, shaping thoughts, removing words, choosing better words. You see the joke in the stone, and it’s your job as a comic to reveal it.”
“Jokes come from three places,” explains Pappas, his Brooklyn accent lending street-smart authenticity to his thoughts. “An opinion about something, an observation of something, or an unreconciled pain from something.”
That “something” is known in the stand-up trade as a premise. A guy who doesn’t get any respect (Rodney Dangerfield). Words you can’t say on television (George Carlin). The difference between black people and “niggaz” (Chris Rock). Premises aren’t jokes. By themselves, they’re not even funny. But funny lurks inside them.
“The premise is the stone,” says Minhaj. “You start chipping away, shaping thoughts, removing words, choosing better words. You see the joke in the stone, and it’s your job as a comic to reveal it.”
Minhaj, an Indian-American Muslim, mines much of his comedy from being a child of immigrants raised on American pop culture. Making humorous parallels between such radically divergent worlds can take some sculpting.
“I have this joke about being afraid to speak to my mom in Urdu on a plane. Everybody’s looking at me, and I’m panicking and feeling persecuted. They think I’m Arabic! They think I’m a terrorist! Then a white guy with a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 gets on the plane [quick reminder: the phones that explode], and I flip out on him.”
With the set up and punchline roughed in, Minhaj could begin the finer work: adding tags. Tags are additional punchlines that keep a joke going. With a strong enough premise, tags can keep a joke rolling for quite a while.
I said, hey dude, get off the plane! And he goes, whoa whoa, just because a few Samsungs blow up doesn’t mean all of them blow up. And I’m like, I’m not saying every Samsung blows up. I’m just saying every time a cell phone blows up, it happens to be a Samsung.
“It was really fun to craft this joke. Just weeks and weeks of adding tags,” Minhaj recalls. “I had this perfect back and forth going. What are all the things that happen to me as a brown dude on an airplane? And how can I flip that with an analogy so everyone can understand the feeling of being guilty by suspicion?”
Minhaj’s brilliance in both his stand-up and his work as a Daily Show correspondent is that he can faithfully play both sides. Whether you’re a first-generation person of color or a white millennial with a tech fetish, he’s got you either way.
TOO MUCH INFORMATION
“There’s no other profession where you learn your craft by failing in public,” says Yannis Pappas. “And you know immediately if you’re doing it wrong, because there’s a bunch of people telling you so right to your face in real time.”
“Woodshedding” is a term used to describe the lonely work of learning a craft, putting in the hours, acquiring the tools, and eventually attaining mastery. The basic idea is that out in the woods no one can hear you suck.
Comedians don’t have woodsheds. Or rather, their woodsheds seat 100 people and have a two-drink minimum.
“There’s no other profession where you learn your craft by failing in public,” Pappas says. “No rehearsal, no training. It’s just go out there and do it. And you know immediately if you’re doing it wrong, because there’s a bunch of people telling you so right to your face in real time.”
Like Pappas and Buteau, Nate Bargatze did his stand-up apprenticeship in New York. Unlike them, he didn’t take a subway from Jersey or the Boroughs to get there. He is from Old Hickory, Tennessee.
“I always say starting in NYC is like dog years to everywhere else,” Bargatze says. “I went on stage every night for 8 years. It would take 16 years to get that much stage time anywhere else.” In the jokes-for-beers phase of a young comic’s career, when it’s all about finding your “voice,” Bargatze’s persona—that of a simple guy trapped in a needlessly complicated world (“I’m not going to learn another language, I’ve barely knocked this one out”)—more or less came to him naturally. It was how he really felt as a newcomer to the big city.
Bargatze credits his Southern accent for helping him slow down his delivery. But it still took the requisite ten thousand hours to dial in his true comic self.
“It’s the old saying of ‘do you say things funny or say funny things?’” Bargatze says. “I think in the beginning you are trying to say funny things. But then you change to where you are what is funny. Your character per se. When you get that, you’ve arrived because anything you say will be funny.”
Like his idol Jerry Seinfeld, Bargatze considers himself a storyteller who works in joke form. Since he’s not going to zing crowds with punchlines at a bump-stock clip, his story game has to be gem-cutter tight.
Several years ago, Bargatze was at McDonalds with two friends and one of them played a prank on the other that got out of hand. It’s a really funny story; when he told it, however, he could feel audiences getting bogged down. One night, he took a chance and assumed the title role.
Bargatze realized that telling the story vicariously robbed his fans of what they pay to see: his signature bemusement in a world that never adds up. “It went from a story I told randomly on stage to the closer for my special.”
To watch Bargatze make this joke work, click on his video.
NO PITY PARTIES
In 2014, Yannis Pappas sent a text to his ex-girlfriend, informing her that the plane he was on was going down. Only it wasn’t.
“Pathetic,” he confides with a laugh. “I was scared of the truth, that we were really through. But I had to know. So yeah, I went there.”
It’s the kind of romantically deranged act that is at once cringe-making and all too relatable for most members of the human species. In a raw, semi-present state, Pappas began sharing his breakup story with audiences.
“My girlfriend needs ‘space,’” Pappas would say sibilantly, playing the part of his ex. “And this is what space means, guys. It means, ‘I need you to help me break up with you.’’’
Funny, right? Comedy crowds didn’t think so either.
“It was so raw when I first told it,” Pappas recalls. “The emotions were spilling out on stage. I realized I was making it too personal. People weren’t laughing because they felt bad for me.”
So Pappas changed girlfriend to girlfriends, and it started to pop. Other heartbreak survivors (a.k.a. every person on Earth) could now find themselves in the joke.
Untethered from the joke’s traumatic baggage, Pappas regained the critical altitude necessary to smart-bomb his premise with a rush of new observations. Tags bloomed, and the breakup bit started growing into a “chunk”—a joke bundle built around a theme, akin to how sequences assemble around scenes in movies.
Around this time, Pappas submitted a tape to Comedy Central. Career milestones for stand-up comics go something like this: first laugh from an audience, first laugh from a paying audience, first laugh from a semi-sober (before 2am) paying audience, first time someone pays you to make an audience laugh, first time an audience pays to laugh at you personally, first time a late-night talk show pays you for five minutes of ad revenue-generating laughter, first Comedy Central Special.
He got the special. The bit killed. It’s the last time he ever told it. “It did its job,” he says.
Watch Pappas turn this humiliation into hilarity—in his video.
IT’S TRUE BECAUSE IT’S FUNNY
Like the modernists who painted with cadmium to render life in its most vibrant hues, comics work with a raw material that is every bit as volatile in its own way: the unvarnished truth.
“Truth is a male polar bear chasing down a baby polar bear and eating it if no food is around,” Pappas says. “Comics have no problem facing that.” As brutal as this sounds, people are clamoring for more dead baby polar bears, because comedy has never been in greater demand.
“There’s been such an evisceration of truth that people look to comedians to tell it like it is,” says Minhaj. “If you turn on the news, CNN is crazier than watching a Japanese game show. How do you out-crazy Alex Jones? The media, the government … they’re the new clowns, and we have to be the ones saying ‘Isn’t this nuts? Aren’t these people being insane?’”
It’s that extreme level of honesty that Bargatze admires most about the members of his profession. “Comedians are the most honest people I know. We are what you think but don’t say.”
Minhaj came to this realization early in his career thanks to a memorable conversation. At the time, he was still telling dating and Facebook jokes, just trying to be liked. “There was a former booker for Letterman doing showcases in San Francisco, and he said this thing to me. ‘Stand-up comedy should be if you had five minutes to share something with the world, what would it be?’ The more I do comedy, that really means a lot to me. You have this time on stage. Everybody’s listening. What do you have to say? It could be fart jokes or political stuff, but it has to mean something to you.”
DYING IS EASY. COMEDY IS HARD.
Comics have a word for cheaply made comedy: Hacky. It’s the easy, the trendy, the out of the box. To a serious comic, it’s cheating. If you think of a woodworker’s hands, you’ll understand why comics who spend years honing their craft call the stand-up life a grind.
“The love and obsession with writing, performing, and connecting with people is pure,” says Buteau. “But you give so much of yourself that sometimes there’s not much left by the time you get home.”
Whenever that time comes. It should be pointed out that interviewing comedians for an article like this one means calling them at an hour that most civilians (what comics call “normal people”) might only dial the cops or an ambulance.
So the question must be asked: is it worth all the callouses on a comedian’s soul to care so deeply about a joke? Especially when they see less-committed peers hacking it all the way to the bank?
“Sometimes it takes a while to break down horrible, ignorant subjects and make them funny,” Buteau says, reflecting on her in-laws’ blackface tradition. “Six years. Six years! It was so worth it though, when it finally reached an audience. So, so worth it.”
To see for yourself, click on the video of Buteau performing the whole joke.
David Munro is a writer and filmmaker whose latest project is “Stand Up Planet,” a semi-scripted documentary about a new generation of global comedians sparking change through humor. His debut feature film, Full Grown Men, won the Sundance Channel Audience Award.
Topics: Arts and Entertainment
Locations: New York, Tennessee