Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Day in the Life of a Standup Comic: Just Writing

One day when I was waiting for the subway, a young woman with an expensive camera introduced herself as a Columbia University graduate student in its photojournalism program and asked permission to take my picture. If it was a scam – and I always think everything’s a scam – it sounded like a good one so I said, yes. When my train came and we were about to part ways I gave her my business card hoping she’d send me one of the pictures but equally sure I’d never hear from her again. But she emailed me that night and asked if I would be the subject of her day-in-the-life class project. Again, I said, yes.

Part of me wanted to say no because honestly a day-in-the-life of yours truly isn’t that interesting, especially that particular day. I wasn’t dashing off to the airport. I had no auditions, podcasts, radio shows, or TV shoots. It wasn’t even laundry day. Sure, I had a show later that night but during the day I was just writing. But she said that was fine. So we met at a coffee shop in Harlem – since I wasn’t inviting a stranger to my home – and she spent most of the day photographing me with my nose in a book looking like I was doing nothing. Boring; or so I thought until I posted one of the pictures.

In the photo I’m working on my Set Book. (A comedian’s set book is like an athlete’s playbook; a singer’s songbook; a painter’s sketchbook).  My Set Book began as hand-written notes on index cards, then in marble notebooks, then on loose leaf, and today is a 200 plus-page Word document (with a 26-page table of contents) that when printed double-sided on three-hole punched paper goes to live in My Big Red Binder. A Samuel Taylor Coleridge quote on the cover says:

“People of humor are always in some degree people of genius.”

My Set Book contains the jokes I’m doing now (my set), new material I’m working on (grouped thematically to enhance pattern recognition), random ideas to be developed (alphabetized by key word), and old ideas that I’ve tired of, outgrown, are in need of rethinking, or – clutch the pearls – deleting. It all goes in the book and I periodically print it out because seeing it on paper is different than seeing it on a computer screen. I then edit, tweak, and write new material using different colored pens in red, blue, black, green, and purple ink. Because I went to Catholic School and can’t help myself, the red pen is for corrections. Blue and black are for notes and the longhand development of new ideas. Green indicates material to be moved and paired with other ideas. Purple is just because.

And in case you’re wondering, I like my pens like I like my men: big and bold. When I write it’s with a strong, heavy hand. I like making a physical impression on the paper. It’s like the real world manifestation of the force and weight of what I’m thinking. So no, a fine point pen just doesn’t do it for me. But I abstain from the writing versus typing debate. I am equally comfortable doing both. I guess that makes me ambi-technical. Why do I have to choose? Why does anybody? The only choice should be using whatever works best for you. And so through the magic of The Cloud my digital Set Book is always with me and yet, there are times when toting around My Big Red Binder and its retinue of pens feels right too.

I’m a big proponent of making technology serve the art. I record all my shows, sometimes video but always audio. Every one. Every time. Why? Why not? I didn’t name my iPhone Mama’s Little Tax Deduction for nothing. The note pad app is the cocktail napkin that will never be accidentally thrown away. Dictation is the butterfly net that captures the ephemeral notions born in my brain and later birthed into bits, blogs, books, whatever. They’ll let me know what they want to be when they grow up. When an idea presents itself all it wants from you, initially, is to say:
“Yes, I see you. Yes, I hear you. Yes, I got you, Boo.”
Then you feed and nurture it with your time and attention. Technology is just a tool to help you say yes. An idea should never be lost for want of pen and paper.

I used to feel self-conscious about my Set Book. Even though other comedians were often complimentary I suspected that I was being judged and maybe even mocked for my methods. Until one day I realized that I didn’t care. Everybody’s creative process is different. Mine has evolved over time. It works for me and that’s all that matters.

And so, it turns out that the photo of me doing nothing was actually something. If a picture is worth a thousand words then this one is worth 50,609 give or take. Silly me though, I only posted the picture because I had the crazy idea that I was looking kinda cute that day. (Just say, yes.)

The Urban Erma, the longest running column on, was created and written by stand-up comedian Leighann LordListen to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher Radio. Get her e-books on AMAZON

1 comment:

Sonia said...

I have to say ^5 (that is, high 5) on this! I don't remember when I started using pens on a regular basis, perhaps 7th-9th grade, but I do remember switching between blue and black for for my notes. I would choose 1-2 other colors as my "daily picks" - based on my mood - to emphasize certain points. Oh you should see the color array of Zebra pens plus a few Sharpies I carry in my bag! Of course, I have the standard red and green, but the collection also includes a lighter green, cornflower blue, purple, and (you KNOW I had to have these) a pen and Sharpie with light brown ink that reminds me of non-metallic GOLD! Yes, and the standard 4-color Sharpies come in handy when I'm managing events.