Comic Insights, by Franklyn Ajaye

The Art of Stand-Up Comedy

What does “The Jazzcomedian” have in store for his readers?

Something a little longer than average for books in this field. That’s 289 pages, broken down into 3 parts. Nearly 50 pages in Part I, around 200 in Part II, and about 30 in Part III. Which makes it 1/5, 4/5, plus about those last 30 or so pages crammed into the fractional pie.

Which means maths isn’t my strong point (or any point at all).

Part I is author giving tips and advice on the steps to becoming a comedian.

What immediately comes across is that Ajaye is inclusive. Only a few pages into this section, he gives advice on what to do if you’ve never been funny around people, or if you’ve never told a joke.

This moves on with writing material.

There’s no specific way to write lines, or anything like formulas, but there’s advice on how to generate material and how to put it in order. There’s a small story of how he learned this from Bob Newhart, followed by a short example of how to use that process.

Next is a part about creative block and a reminder to let the mind work on material while you’re doing other things. There’s a short and important bit about remembering to record material for later use and keeping the correct equipment handy.

- When following his advice, don’t use audio tapes in 2021. They’re a whole world of pain. No matter how smart your phone, trying to force a tape inside will invalidate your warranty. -

Ajaye moves on to the performance side and reminds you to be prepared. He gives you a time frame for preparation before you get on stage. He also gives a very good suggestion on how to work on your timing before you even get behind the mic. This also lets you build in side jokes and ad libs, before any live show.

There’s a bit about nervousness and how to approach it. Then quite a familiar bit on hecklers, while Ajaye’s advice when and after bombing, and his example on performance evaluation, are handy to have a look at and use yourself.

Part I ends with 4 ½ pages to television talk shows.

This has a bit about being on a panel and the differences between television audiences versus nightclub audiences. The 2 pages on that offers insight which is valuable for anyone approaching this level.

On to Part II, the interviews.

The names are instantly recognisable; from George Carlin & Ellen DeGeneres, through Jay Leno, Chris Rock & Jerry Seinfeld. Apart from the others mentioned, basically every popular American comedian from this period — and earlier — was interviewed.

Two missing I would have liked included, were Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks.

But you can’t have everything.

The book was published in 2002, while the interviews themselves span from the late 80s, to late 90s. The longest is with Richard Lewis, which comes in two parts; first interviewed back in 1987, with an added second part conducted in 1996.

Starting off with Louie Anderson, end with Jonathan Winters, with those two, and the fifteen in between, being asked a range of questions.

That’s 22 people in total (no it’s not; my maths again).

Each of the 17 comedians get a full page photo, with a half to full page, and maybe even a page and a bit, of a bio.

Turning to the questions, you’ll see lots of similar ones cropping up, which is understandable.

Topics discussed are things like life on the road, each star’s influences, philosophies in comedy, when did the performer start, and any ambitions they may have. Answers to these are usually personal, which doesn’t offer much help to you, the reader.

There are some junk questions and answers here and there, some laughs to be had, but the interviews are mainly serious. The interviewed sometimes get quite personal, which although can be interesting to read, may not be applicable.

So is there anything good here?

Because the things discussed all relate to stand-up, you’ll find lots of hints, reminders and good practices to follow. The importance of recording shows, how to deal with bombing, the need for work ethic etc.

There was more particular advice in back to back interviews with George Carlin and Ellen DeGeneres. These two were more helpful because they contained more specific advice.

They weren’t the only ones, either.

Richard Jeni’s thoughts on being influenced by other comedians and his approach to long nights. There’s Richard Lewis’ staggering output, a couple of things on offer from Paul Reiser, a question to Chris Rock and his two sentence answer.

Other things which caught my eye.

Roseanne, and the importance of being good in all areas for top notch performances. Jerry Seinfeld on forcing himself to be disciplined to get down to write. Garry Shandling’s honesty and pain while he spent years bombing, while remaining undeterred to get better. George Wallace with his determination and work ethic, and preparation is key mindset.

It’s basically sifting out each person’s personal feelings and information, while getting to more helpful bits of advice. Provided you’re committed to ploughing through the book, then you’re a stupid farmer.

That said, maybe the time on each person’s philosophy isn’t a waste. You might enjoy it. It adds to the feeling that anyone, if sufficiently intelligent, determined, and focused, can succeed.

Which rules out the majority of politicians. Having said that, their creation of certain policies can trump even the greatest comedy.

Known as the “Jazz Comedian”. Or is it “The Jazzcomedian”. Maybe even “The Jazz Comedian”. Am I supposed to place that full stop inside the .”? What about the ?. Getting his moniker right has been a struggle for me (among other things).

Other things of interest in the Comic Insights book were some of the comedians’ influences outside of comedy.

Chris Rock and Jonathan Winters. Rock talks about learning deliberately from orators like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and JFK. Jonathan Winters pinpoints the writing of a particular couple of novelists — O. Henry and James Thurber — to helping him develop his improvisational style.

Meanwhile, Richard Jeni mentions the importance of education. A well read guy, where the addition of a conch sound effect to his act, was an indirect influence from his favourite book, Lord of the Flies.

After you read several of the interviews, you’ll also notice the different styles for getting the comedy down.

Some comedians are very writing orientated. They need to write about everything before the performance. There are those in between who jot down ideas, try them out on stage, develop from there.

Others basically rely on total recall.

It’s another reminder that all types are suited to stand up.

After all that and approximately 200 pages, it’s on to a short and final part III, searching for talent.

Here you’ll find four more interviews to read through. These are a bit different, because these relate to people in the industry, not performers (although they may have been before).

There also aren’t photos of them like there are for the comedians, so these people must have been quite shy, or very ugly. Maybe the old cameras they used back then ran out of film. Who knows? (or cares).

Interviewed are Budd Friedman and Jamie Masada, both club owners. Then there’s a talent agent, Irvin Arthur, before the book concludes with a few questions and answers with Buddy Morra, a personal manager.

Budd Friedman talks about the difficulties in finding an original voice and changes in the industry, particular to the time this was written.

More interestingly, he mentions David Brenner, who apparently made himself good, only through sheer hard work. Not just Brenner, but Chris Rock, who apparently wasn’t very promising initially, then after a year or two, had turned himself into “a terrific comedian”.

Inspirational to hear two names become well renowned through discipline.

Friedman continues with something about being given a show. That if you’re in a position to be offered one, stick to your personality, don’t let the show control you, or it will be the end of you.

Jamie Masada gets a paltry 3 ½ pages. He speaks of coming from Israel and the difference between their stand-up and how it’s done in America. He believes — based on his research — that comedians aren’t neurotic, and instead have a higher IQ than average.

Another bit of inspiration is he’s seen comedians bomb for two or three years, but have the drive, timing, and other skills to pull them through.

Talent agent Irvin Arthur saw lots of names come and go, which gave him a feel for who was going to shine and who wasn’t. He didn’t feel Joan Rivers would make it, then says her perseverance pulled her through.

He talks of the importance of delivery over material and of getting good by having a strong work ethic. There’s a discussion of the agent/management/client relationship.

Buddy Mora insists on the importance of having a point of view and a recognisable attitude. He even thinks that performers’ material is nearly incidental. There’s some of his experience of working with clients and difficulties that can bring, as well as the emotional connection that could form between manager and client.

A blank page follows.

Turn over again and you get a full page photo of the author. Opposite that is a half page bio showing some impressive credentials.

Verdict

A medium to long book that has plenty of common sense advice spread throughout. You’ll find things in here which will definitely give you ideas to try, both from a practical and material standpoint.

If you’re happy to read through some mini biographies and less satisfying things to find those ideas, this is a book to definitely consider reading.

Recommended for:

Readers who are prepared to spend time to find helpful information.

People interested in American comedians, particularly the big ones of the 90s and early 00s

Not for:

People wanting specific advice.

Anyone not interested in concise works

Other thoughts

A bit of practical to apply, with lots of ideas for consideration, and various things to think about.

Some typos, a repeated sentence fragment from a few lines before, but nothing terrible.

This book has the feel of being written by a comedian, or at least someone who arranges things. While the interviews are done in alphabetical order, and not by date conducted, you’ll see some rolling between and on to certain topics.

From Sinbad’s one, at the end of it, there’s mention of the time he spent at college, then shortly into the interview of the next person, George Wallace, they talk about college again.

You’ll see Chris Rock answer about specific orators. That blends into the following interview with Roseanne, where she quickly mentions her delivery formed from her time being a preacher.

Length

289 pages, but shorter than that suggests.

The line spaces between questions and answers, several blank pages, and full page photos of each person interviewed, means it reads about 50 fewer pages overall.

Quicker readers will be done in a day or two.

For the slower, dedicated type, this might be a week or two to get through.

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