Throwing out material is a frightening prospect for any entertainer. For some performers it can take years to compile a half-hour show. Especially in comedy, recycled material can feel reheated quickly; it ends careers of comedians who refuse to change their once popular, soon hackneyed material.
Today with successes like Louis C.K. and John Mulaney, it’s hard for comedians not to feel pressure to accumulate new material annually.
Some comedians could ride on catchphrases for a few years, but the idea of starting fresh and reinventing oneself has existed in comedy for half a century. Throwing out material is daunting, but it’s a technique to get better and learn about what you want as a performer. Here are four comedians who realized they needed to start from zero, from nothing, in order to improve.
George Carlin: From Imitator to Commentator
What Carlin’s material was: From the Hippy Dippy Weatherman to the Wonderful Wino routine, George Carlin parodied TV game shows and radio programs in the 1960s. He would mock popular culture and the entertainment industry, but he wasn’t blatantly proclaiming his disdain for it; he was doing it subtly through his routines.
Why he started over: George Carlin was growing tired of impressions and parody. He wanted to dig deeper. As the counterculture grew in the late ‘60s so did Carlin’s thoughts and opinions on society. He made the choice to throw out his old material and start over; he wanted to play for the youths, not the suits. From Richard Zoglin’s Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America: “It’s hard to overstate how courageous Carlin’s career reinvention was. He was turning his back on a successful stand-up career and trying to start all over again as…what? It was almost as if he were plotting a career path in reverse. His goal was to drop the Copa and the big rooms in Vegas and return to the coffeehouses and colleges, where he thought his natural audience was. The financial gamble was huge.”
Carlin’s new material: Carlin’s new, socially conscious material, critiquing government, America’s censorship on language, and how drug problems were just as “prevalent among the middle class, from coffee freaks at the office to housewives hooked on diet pills…” hit the right chord with young audiences across the country. These routines lost him a spot at the big clubs, but the payoff was a longer, more significant career that would influence comedians for the next 40 years.
Richard Pryor: From Pandering to Pryor
What Pryor’s material was: Throughout the 1960s, Pryor’s material was more Bill Cosby than Richard Pryor. His voice was almost non-existent. He made observations and tried to be a social commentator, focusing on jokes about off duty cabs and soda that comes out of the machine without a cup.
Why he started over: Where Carlin wanted to express himself through his rebellious views on society, Pryor wanted to be himself. A BBC Documentary called Pryor Night, discusses how Pryor was tired of “white bread humor,” how he felt he was pandering to the mainstream with bland jokes about nothing important or interesting. Pryor threw away his Cosby-like jokes and started fresh.
Pryor’s new material: His new material had an edge to it. He told stories about his drug use, the women he’d been with, and his childhood. Where Carlin had an arsenal of social criticism, Pryor developed his voice through his personal life and struggles. Starting from zero for Pryor was looking at his life and throwing it at audiences.
Steve Martin: From Magic to Mocking
What Martin’s original material was: One of Martin’s key focuses in his early work was the absence of a joke as the joke. He would present something as a magic act, make it anti-climactic, and then move on quickly and confidently to the next joke (as shown in the clip above with the “glove into dove trick”). These performances got him as far as being a television writer, but did not give him the breakthrough for which he hoped.
Why he started over: In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s Martin wasn’t getting the work he wanted. He was a writer for the Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour, but was not progressing as a performer. He saw a dead end in the audition process. “I resigned from television writing against the advice of my agent,” Martin said in his autobiography Born Standing Up. “Any line or idea with even a vague feeling of familiarity or provenance had to be expunged. There could be nothing that made the audience feel they weren’t seeing something utterly new.” Martin says the thought of starting over frightened him – he had to lose some of his best one-liners and therefore lose ten minutes of his act. “The thought of losing all this material was depressing. After several years of working up my weak twenty minutes, I was now starting from almost zero.”
Martin’s new material: Martin performed for years and made his material tighter. It became more physical. “The new physicality brought an unexpected element into the act: Precision. My routines wove the verbal with the physical and I found pleasure trying to bring them in line. Each spoken idea had to be physically expressed as well.” Martin said his act became a combination of smart and stupid.
Louis C.K.: From Absurdity to Personal Nightmares
Louis C.K.’s original material: Before he focused on how his children crushed his dreams and the dark nature of humanity, Louis C.K. was based in absurdist comed – he would make car noises and make up facts on stage – ‘”did you know chess boards used to be round?” This was his material throughout the ‘90s and early aughts. Though, like Martin, his shtick wasn’t advancing his career and he needed new material.
Why he started over: “I had been going in a circle that didn’t take me anywhere,” C.K. said in a speech honoring George Carlin. “I used to hear my act and go ‘this is shit and I hate it.’…I’d been doing the same hour of comedy for 15 years and it was shit, I promise you.” He listened to a CD of George Carlin discussing how Carlin workshopped comedy. “…The thing that blew me away about [Carlin] was that he just kept putting out specials. Every year there would be a new George Carlin special…and each one was deeper than the next.” C.K. decided to throw out his 15 years of material and start again, with nothing.
His new material: “When you’re done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs and you throw those away what do you got left? …you start thinking about your fears and your nightmares…” Louis C.K. started digging deeper into new territory. Similar to Carlin and Pryor, C.K. wanted to figure out what he wanted to say. By throwing his old material out, developing new material, and then throwing that away, he was able to uncover layers of himself and discover his voice – a man frustratingly learning how to be a father. He would call his daughter an asshole, get a reaction from the audience, and realize this was new territory for him.
Each of these comedians were able to find their voices by throwing away old material, by starting from zero. Whether it was being a social critic, a meta entertainer, a father, or just a person telling stories, each were successful because they reached a point in their career where what they had was not good enough and the only way to improve was to change, to reinvent themselves – to start from nothing and build their way back up in order to be better.
Ian Goldstein is a contributing writer to Splitsider.