Strange how the brick wall has become a visual metonym for stand-up comedy. My grandfather was a bricklayer. He’d get up every morning at the crack of dawn, put on a pot of coffee, make his lunch, then go and build skyscrapers all day. Half a century later, I stand in front of brick walls every night telling jokes. My grandfather’s hands were huge and calloused, mine are small and covered in setlists. The only thing we have in common seems to be the bricks themselves.
Strangely, we comedians can learn a lot from bricks. They’re made from humble materials — clay and shale, available everywhere — but when combined in a kiln and fused together with high amounts of heat, they become hard and durable. They need no maintenance, they can be combined and recombined in myriad ways, and they provide structure, comfort, and aesthetic value.
Jokes, too, are made from humble materials: everyday human experience. They are forged over time in the kiln-like atmosphere of the open mic circuit under the blazing heat of the judgemental crowd, but once they’re ready, they can be used again and again for years on end, bringing joy to folks everywhere. Unfortunately, lots of jokes seem to leave the brickworks before their clay has actually become hard. Build a set out of too many of these, and the whole thing collapses, which is why the term “bombed” seems very appropriate.
I don’t see enough new comedians dedicated to brick making. It’s the basic skill of our industry, but comedians have a million excuses not to work on them, and then wonder why their sets didn’t go well. Some of them are adept at cranking out clay piles by the truckload. They’ll have a new set every night of equally mushy jokes, develop nothing, but hang out afterwards. Others have their three solid jokes that worked for them for years and won’t try anything new. You can’t build a building from either.
Respect for the kiln is what’s missing. The kiln takes time. Don’t do a new joke once, then toss it out if it doesn’t work. If you thought there was something funny there, work on it. Make it harder, able to withstand the heat of the audience’s judgement. Take out the useless bits. Put the funniest words towards the end. Increase the contrast between elements, exaggerate more, find the real conflict at the heart of the story. Go back the next night and try it again. Really listen to what’s being laughed at and what’s not. And don’t stop until you know it’s a good joke.
And then tell it in the basement of a skyscraper.
Paul Salamone is a stand-up comedian, writer and designer living in Berlin, Germany. Subscribe to his Newsletter for major announcements including new videos, big gigs, tours, and merch!