First Person: Stand-up Comic Cody Brotter
People who are not stand-up comics often wonder what compels someone to get up onstage with nothing but some tattered notecards and a microphone, subjecting themselves to judgement, hecklers, and the whims of a server trying to collect for the two-drink minimum during the comic’s awesome closing joke. Today’s guest post is a seasoned comic, though still in college. In fact, in the words of Ron Burgundy, he’s kind a big deal. We asked him to give us a little insight into his background and his process.
There’s nothing less funny than dissecting humor. (OK, one time it worked.) In fact, humor might be the least funny word ever. As E.B. White explained, “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.” So just a friendly warning to amphibian rights activists: I might end up killing a frog or two for the purposes of this piece.
I was born and raised in New York as the middle of three boys. That’s a lot of testosterone for one house. Growing up it was like a kosher sausage fest. Or, perhaps, a frat party at Brandeis. My father is a psychotherapist who also goes into assisted living homes to help elderly folks at risk of Alzheimer’s. My mother is a freelance literary editor who also goes into residential treatment centers to help at-risk children learn to read. Funny, right? Just wait…
When I was 12 years old, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I remember the exact night the word came in because it was the night HBO premiered “Robin Williams: Live on Broadway.” I found out it was on when I went downstairs in search of my older brother, to see how he was trying to pass the time without crawling out of his skin. He was watching that special. We laughed. So with years of EG treatments, constant chemo, multiple attempts at stem-cell transplants, and Thanksgivings spent wearing masks in New York Hospital, I probably took on that classic familial role of the comic reliever. I think most comedians’ moms probably have cancer. Maybe it’s a prerequisite to performing onstage.
In April of 2005 I evidently created a Microsoft Word document called “Jokes.doc,” which now consists of 8,980 words strung together in brutally unfunny ways. The desks in my dorm and my bedroom are stuffed with jokes carved into ancient post-its, notebooks, and ripped pages from middle school agenda books. Crumpled pages are marked with bullet points like:
- REAL WORLD/FRITOS
- JOHN MAYER
- GAY IS GOOD
Some of them are bruised with black and blue pen marks, crossing out CATDOG and adding CHRISTMAS or VALENTINE’S DAY depending on the month.
The formulation of my act can be a three-year adventure through open mic nights or it can be a quick scribble on a three-word sticky note. Sometimes I brainstorm, literally sitting with a notebook to write funny things to say. Sometimes I get hit with a storm in my brain, getting ideas when I’m not seeking them out. If a notebook’s not around, I’ll type into the Notes app on my iPhone. If I’m practicing or focusing on my delivery, I’ll leave myself messages on a walk to class. If I’m rehearsing, I’ll record on GarageBand and keep an eye on the timer. If I’m waiting to get onstage, I’ll pace around a stairwell with my beatsheet/cheatsheet.
My process is never the same. In fact, it doesn’t feel like a “process” at all. Sometimes it feels like putting together the pieces of a puzzle, filling and fitting in jokes that had never before seemed suitable for such smooth transitions, transforming them into the comedy version of a table-size cardboard Van Gogh: a jam-packed seven-minute set. Though most of the time, when I perform, I’ll be reacting to the crowd in ways I could never have predicted.
The same year in high school I wrote that Word doc, college kid Myq Kaplan won Boston University’s Funniest Student Competition. Seven years later, The New York Times tracked the trajectory of a Myq Kaplan bit. In the article, “A Stand-Up Joke is Born,” Jason Zinoman followed a joke about chivalry from the day after Christmas (at a Midtown comedy club) to the day after Valentine’s (on the set of CONAN). It doggedly ventured through cities, clubs, hostels, emails, and finally television—yet it’s still, as Kaplan says of all jokes, infinitely unfinished.
As a teenager, I would occasionally ask the audience if they thought Jesus was pretty pale for a Middle Easterner. At the first club I tried it out, prolonged laughter was followed by some guy yelling “Great call, dude!” At the second club, prolonged silence was followed by some guy yelling “What?” There was no third club. And not because the joke died—au contraire!—but because it found a funnier life.
A couple months before the Times published their Kaplan article, I too won the audience vote at BU’s Funniest Student Competition. In one “winning” round of the competition, I did this bit about the Jesus envy I experienced while dating one of His devout followers—and in the routine, I referred to Him as a “pale Middle Eastern hippie.” A week later, I talked about Jesus’ superlatives as both the palest Middle Easterner ever as well as the worst Jew ever. And the weeks after that wouldn’t even utter His name. But Lord knows what I’ll do next week.
Next week might be a different venue. It might be a different length of time. Next week there might be cameras and contracts that request or demand that I cross out JESUS from my crumpled sheet of paper. Next week a part of the joke might flow into one of my Huffington Post articles or fit perfectly as dialogue in one of my screenplays. Next week it might just be me, a mic, a stage, and seven college kids in the back of a HoJo. And then maybe, millions of hard-earned and lucky weeks down the line, it’s the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, and that Microsoft Word vomit has grown into a constantly evolving routine that airs for a few minutes on CONAN after a commercial break.
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