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Thursday, June 12, 2014

What Is Long Form Comedy?

One of the attendees asked me last night why the comedy at The Business is different from other places. It's a question with a lot of answers. A lot of it depends on what you think comedy is before you come to the show. The short answer: it's long form comedy.

Long form comedy doesn't have a strict definition. If you Google it, you will find articles about long form improv. I don't have the time or patience to explain that as well. The term is so new that it doesn't show up in Internet searches. But if you say it to a comic, he or she will likely have a good idea of what you are talking about.

Long form comedy revolves around a concept, idea, or story, and the comic explores it onstage in front of people, unfolding it and twisting around, wringing the laughs out of it. Short form comedy is centered around a setup and a punchline. Long form often doesn't have one payoff punchline, but rather the laughs that happen along the way.

It's not a new idea. My favorite example is Bill Cosby's "To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With" from the album of the same name. It's one cut. It's 26 minutes, the ENTIRE SECOND SIDE of the record. It was recorded in 1968. Long form wasn't called that at the time, it was just called comedy. But as the storytelling has gone out of vogue in standup, the label does serve a purpose.

There are also plenty of headliners currently doing it. Patton Oswalt, Dana Gould, and Janeane Garofalo all have long bits that I would consider long form comedy. But none of these would consider themselves long form comics...just comics. They wouldn't consider themselves "alternative comedians" either, even though they were big in the alternative comedy scene. Does that make sense?

So what happened? If long form was around, where did it go? Why did it fall out of favor with comics? I think we'd have to go back to the eighties, right before the comedy boom happened. The comedy boom is also something comics talk about I don't want to get sidetracked with here.

There were a lot of years in which comics tried to hone a tight five to seven minutes that would work on television. Talk shows were the way to stardom. Then came the standup show glut of the eighties and nineties. With a few of these credits, you were a headliner, doing forty-five minutes on the strength of five minutes on a show.

There were a bunch of people who did comedy for the sake of getting into acting. They only needed as much standup as it took to get cast as the weird neighbor on a sitcom. From Freddie Prinze getting a hit sitcom deal off one appearance on The Tonight Show to Drew Carey getting his deal, there was also the possibility of not only being cast, but becoming the star of the next big show. The problem with this was there were a lot of people who didn't want to be comics, just wanted to be on television.

There's no room for this in long form comedy. If you don't like being on stage and making people laugh, you can't pull it off. If you don't genuinely like telling stories to strangers, there's nothing in it for you.

The problem is there are few places to do it. Once you're a feature act or headliner at a club, sure, you'll have time to work out long bits. But before then? Open mikes won't cut it. The crowds aren't ready for it, and you don't really have the time to do it.

Thus, the Business happened. Even comics who don't normally work this way jump at this chance to try it out. In our first year, I remember Reggie Steele telling a long story about his childhood that I've never heard since. It's been exciting for me as a comic to watch other comics take chances and go weird places with material. Hopefully, it's exciting for the audience as well.

--Bucky Sinister


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