A current truism in the industry is that a set should avoid observational jokes (your observations about things, i.e. the Leno monologues) because in order to get a sitcom comedians have to put their lives into their material so that sitcom producers can see who the main characters of the sitcom are (the main people you hang out with) and where the locations of the sitcom is – (where you hang out.)
For this reason a set should be comprised of personal standup- stories about you life.
But what about Leno and Letterman and Conan and Jon Stewart and George Lopez and Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres – virtually all of the comedians who host their own shows. They do practically nothing but observational jokes about politics, pop culture and celebrities. They hardly do any personal jokes. It would seem that if you wanted a major TV show of your own, you’re better off avoiding autobiographical material and instead focusing on political and cultural observational standup.
But… what about SNL and MAD TV? The comics on those shows do a variety of characters and celebrity impersonations. So, it would make sense to create a set where you do a lot of characters.
But what about Borat? In this film (see it; it’s absolute proof that comedy can be in appalling taste and hilarious, and artistically satisfying all at the same time) Sasha Baron Cohen impersonates a Kazakhstani in search of America and true love.
Cohen is a master of character comedy, a form of comedy where the comedian creates and impersonates an outlandish character, who he/she pretends to be all the time. Andy Kaufman, Pee Wee Herman (Paul Ruben), Steve Martin when he did standup and Jose Jimenez (Bill Dana) are other examples of character comedians.
So it would make sense that, rather than create lots of characters, you should focus on creating just one.
Good, strategy… but that excludes all the other good strategies.
Confusing right? There are, however, several solid conclusions that can be drawn from the current state of comedy and that will apply to future states of comedy as well.
One is that it is useful to be aware of comedy trends. The industry is aware of these trends and most often make their decisions based on these trends – so you want to be aware of them, too.
Two is that it is important to understand what a trend is: It is an attempt to replicate success by imitating whatever is currently considered successful.
So, as an example when Seinfeld was the king of comedy , in the late 80’s and 90’s, comedians were advised to emulate his observational style. They were warned not to do stories about themselves. I remember sitting in on a class taught by an industry savvy standup teacher and watching this teacher interrupt a student who was working on an autobiographical piece of material with the admonition, “Stop. No one is interested in your stories.”
A few years later, the pendulum swung in the totally opposite direction. Ray Romano was now king and under his reign standups were advised to emulate him. Tell stories about you personal life – observational stuff isn’t personal enough. How can you get a sitcom when nobody knows who you are?
So what’s in today is out tomorrow.
This insight leads us to the third conclusion. You have a choice. Either you can keep adapting your act so it fits whatever the current trend is.
You can be aware of industry trends, but put your focus on following your own star, confident in the knowledge that trends come and go but genuine comic talent whatever shape or form it takes, always finds an audience and the larger and more honed the talent, the larger the audience.