Comedians have been talking about their partners ever since Henny Youngman asked the audience to take his wife, if they please, and probably before. But we never hear what these boyfriends, girlfriends, wives, husbands, etc., think about being joked about. That’s not to say all jokes about partners are inherently antagonistic — just that we never get to see the conversation of what the person without a microphone is comfortable with.
This is the subject of this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture Comedy’s podcast about jokes and the people who write them. Stand-up comedian Max Silvestri and writer Leah Beckmann discuss a joke from Silvestri’s recent episode of Netflix’s The Comedy Lineup, in which he tells Beckmann’s story of taking mushrooms in an Upstate New York cabin with her friends and eventually describing their buttholes to each other.
So then you hear a version of that thing, and then what goes in your head? Were you like … how does it then go … walk me through the steps of hearing that and then digesting it and being like ‘I need to go onstage with it.’
Max Silvestri: This story happened in 2014 and I was still hosting Big Terrific weekly in New York then. It was the tail-end. I actually found, about an hour ago, the voice memo of the first set list I had that had “mushrooms” on it. It was about a month after this and it was more about me wanting to do mushrooms more. There was like a joke about having had some bad experiences with mushrooms. Then there was the detail of being jealous — not just of Leah’s experience, but she has these friends that are so open about sharing that. The quick version I told was that it was beautiful out and they were mostly naked all weekend and describing each other’s bodies like, “You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful.” But the original idea I had was I don’t have a group of guy friends where I could do that. It was more of an act out about a bunch of bros having a weekend like that. The joke was the first time I was exploring the area of not feeling comfortable in groups of guy friends.
But Big Terrific had a very feminine crowd in general, and they responded to Leah’s part of the story so strongly that to then take them away from it made them mad. Women would come up to me about it. Nudity and openness is a cherished thing among certain straight females more so than among certain straight men, so I just started noticing what they like about this joke is not my lie, it’s the true parts. I started to reframe around Leah’s story.
Leah Beckmann: Just on the periphery of this process, it is the thing I think that women connect to most in the set. I have people ask me about it all the time. A really funny side effect has been people asking other friends of mine if they were the friends in it. Women really connect with it because, if you’re lucky, you have those types of female friendships. It’s not even about the nudity, honestly — it’s about getting away and just being like fucking loose for the weekend.
It became clear, Max, your job was to capture the essence of the story.
MS: There was no taking liberties with it. That said, it was kind of like someone adapting a novel and not rereading it after they started working it. The bit is Leah’s story, but it never occurred to me to fact-check elements along the way. I am not doing anything purposefully deceitful, but I am taking the story and trying to figure out why I am telling the story. It’s one thing to be like “My girlfriend had a really funny weekend,” but it was trying to fit it into this certain point of view of that chuck of my act that was developing about a jealousy of and celebration of something I was very much on the outside of.
What was it like when you saw it the first time, Leah?
LB: I thought it was so fucking funny. That’s the other thing. We are aware people. We were laughing at ourselves as we were doing it. We were crying laughing. But then hearing someone else talk about it back to you, but also watching other people laugh, it just makes it like having a little secret. Like I couldn’t believe this is me and my friends and now everybody’s hearing it, but also no one knows me and this is a story that happened to a stranger. But it’s not a stranger.
You were happy the story was out there.
LB: I was kind of proud of it too. It’s sort of like, Yeah, I am freaking fun, and so are my friends and we love each other and that’s cool. No part of me was ever embarrassed or weirded out. It was something I’d tell anyone. I just don’t have shame about any parts of these stories. I think drugs are fun and cool, I think friendship is great, I think being naked rules. There’s no part of me that’s like, no.
Now that you write for TV comedies, Leah, is there an understanding that your stories are your stories?
LB: We need both of our lawyers.
MS: This is one of the last stories that I asked for from Leah before Leah became a TV comedy writer. My large problem is — and why Leah is such a wonderful partner and resource — is that her stories in life are better and more interesting than mine.
LB: That’s not true!
MS: Specifically as I have gotten older, I have formed a lot of the better habits, in trying to be a specific type of person, and they are not conducive to having the types of stories that feed long set-piece storytelling comedy. My life is more controlled. I hang out less with people I don’t like. I get myself less into situations that I am uncomfortable in. It’s hard for stand-up. Not that Leah is uncontrolled, but Leah has a ton of friends and is open to new situations.
LB: I just had my first TV writing job this year, which was on Champions — R.I.P. One of the writers in the room, who I loved, was talking about how he was hired out of college right away and immediately went into a writers room and is now 40. He was like, “I get in my car and go to work everyday and the sky is blue because it’s L.A., so I’m relying on you newcomers to come in and tell the stories because I don’t have any.”
MS: You can’t write episodes about where to install your Tesla supercharger in your home.
LB: I started a little late in TV. Most people come up through the writer’s assistant or whatever, and I worked in media for a long time, and I’m just a little bit self-conscious of being 30 and this is my first job in that world. I was just sort of like “Oh, I’ve lived, goddamnit! I’m not a Simpsons Harvard grad.”
The idea of truth in comedy is talked about a lot. Do you feel like it is just part of your life? Like, to pursue comedy is to be truthful, which means your life is fair game. Transparency is implied?
LB: Life is art, baby.
MS: And I think I really disagree. I feel like there are certain people — I disagree personally — that are like, “Look, my life is my comedy. If you are on this ride together, this is going to be part of a grist in the mill.”
LB: These are our wedding vows.
MS: “You can object or we can talk about it, but my hands are tied. I’m a creator.” I think that is stupid and lazy and chauvinistic and I feel like it’s hand-in-hand with people who have an attitude of like, “Well, to be an artist requires me to be rude a lot.” Or “I have to be a narcissist” or “I’m sorry, I need to go on my own and like cheat a little bit because life is about experiences and why won’t you let my muse travel through me?” All of that is a horrible excuse for bad behavior in the parallel but not necessary the pursuit of art.
I would always be selective and thoughtful about what in my personal life I include, and it’s just as important to me that Leah or my friends or family feel onboard with what I’m doing. I’m never going to be like, “What can I say, hon? The bit is crushing. So, like, my hands are tied.” Who cares? I’ll write another funny bit. Rob Delaney, a long time ago — and he’s not the first person to say it — but [he was] talking about not really caring when people steal and cut and paste his retweets. He was like, “I’ll just write more. They can’t. Too bad for them. They have to do that.” That’s sort of my attitude about, “Oh, this amazing truthful thing happened.” If it makes anybody I love feel weird, just write a different thing.
LB: Yeah, it’s some real F. Scott Fitzgerald bullshit to be like “I must! For my art!”
MS: You got into this field because you wanted to not be boring and follow rules, and you think that that extends to all elements of your relationships or respect for other people and they don’t go hand-in-hand. I think it’s very very easy to create art without being a shithead.