It’s been a while since my last blog post. For those of you who actually enjoy reading these, I’m sorry. I’ve been very busy these last few months.
For starters I was doing some travelling in Europe with my girlfriend. I had never been to Europe before, but in one week we managed to see Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. It was nice to get out of New York for a while and just relax. In Europe, I wasn’t a comedian. I was just a tourist trying to see everything I could. It was a nice break from my life and it let me get out of my own head for a few days, which in turn helped me to write several pages worth of new material that I’ll hopefully be able to make funny over the next few weeks. So far I have one new bit that has been working well, of the 7 or so that I wrote down. If I can get it up to snuff before my next show, I’ll try to get a new video of it.
Ignoring Salzburg to write airplane jokes.
A few week’s ago I had a great set at a show at Karma Lounge in NYC. My friends, Katie Haller and Dave Neale, run a monthly show on the first Friday of the month (if you’re ever in the area), and I had one of my best sets of the past 3 years of doing stand up. Luckily, they had a camera rolling and I was able to get a couple of clips out of the show.
But that’s not what I came to tell you about.
I came to talk to you about one of my favorite composers, Igor Stravinsky. I guess that this week is the 100th anniversary of the first performance of his most famous work, The Rite of Spring. Coincidentally, I also started reading his autobiography, which he wrote about mid-way through his long career in 1936.
Although I am only about 40 pages into the book, I already feel like I’m getting a sense of who Stravinsky really was, at least at that stage of his life and career. The first section of the book focuses on art, and what helped him to develop as an artist early in his career.
For starters, Stravinsky studied under the great Russian composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who was considered to be one of “The Five” greatest composers of Russia. When Stravinsky, the student, first met Rimsky-Korsakov, the master (who was the father of one of his classmates), he was advised to have his work and development supervised with private lessons. Rimsky-Korsakov did not immediately praise the young Stravinsky, but he did recognize his talent. Stravinsky says, in his autobiography, that although he was disappointed in Rimsky-Korsakov’s apparent lack of enthusiasm, he was comforted by the fact that he had encouraged him to continue studying composition, implying that he had the potential to become a great composer.
This section of the book could easily have been written by a great comedian. Not everyone who attempts to be a comedian has the talent to do comedy. Few people have the raw talent and potential to begin doing comedy, and fewer still take the time to hone their craft and develop themselves as an artist. As a young comedian, it’s easy to get an inflated ego. You have one good set and suddenly you’re runnin’ these streets, you’re the king of the mountain! But you’re not. You’re just some lucky kid who had a lucky set. It doesn’t mean that you’ve become a great comedian, but it does mean that you have the raw, base materials that are needed to build yourself as a comedian.
No comedian is just handed a career. Even comics like Bo Burnham or Aziz Ansari, who both found success very young, only got to where they are now because someone gave them a chance. Someone saw that they had the base materials and potential and literally took a chance by offering them a stage to develop that potential into something real.
Not everyone has this potential. If you’re an aspiring artist (musician, comedian, painter, whatever!) and someone gives you the chance to develop your craft, it’s up to you to take it. Feel encouraged by the fact that someone is recognizing your talent, but let that encouragement fuel your development. An artist can only improve by moving forward.
You can also feel encouraged by the fact that not everyone is cut out for what you are trying to accomplish. Stravinsky had Rimsky-Korsakov’s stamp of approval, but not everyone who brought a score to the master composer received the same response.
The story was told of a young doctor who came to show him his compositions and ask for advice. Having learned that he was a doctor, Rimsky-Korsakov said: “Excellent. Continue to practice medicine.”
Another important point that Stravinsky makes, is that an artist needs to learn technique first. An artist must work within some sort of framework and not just have (as Stravinsky puts it) a technique in the void. I had a music teacher in high school who used to say, “You have to learn the rules before you can break them.” Every avant-garde composer started out by learning scales, harmony, and basic composition skills. Only after mastering the basics could they move on to develop their art as they wanted.
The same rule can be applied to comedians. I think I’ve said this before, but I am amazed when I talk to a fellow aspiring comic who doesn’t listen to comedy. What?! How?!
How can you expect to learn how to do comedy without consulting the masters? How can you expect to understand how comedy works without studying (yes, studying!) Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Robert Klein, Rodney Dangerfield or any of the other true masters of comedy? As a beginning comedian in 2013, how can you expect to advance your art if you don’t watch what John Mulaney, Kyle Kinane, Hannibal Buress, or any of the other rising giants of comedy are doing?
I’m willing to bet that J.J. Abrams watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind before he made Star Trek. And I’m willing to bet that Cormac McCarthy was familiar with Hemmingway’s writing before he wrote Blood Meridian. The only way art can progress is if you study what’s been done, and then take it from there. Comedians who don’t study the old won’t be able to do anything new.
We’re lucky that Stravinsky’s art was music, as his work was some of the finest to come out of the 20th century.
Alexander Glazunov: The John Mulaney of turn of the century Russian music?
But I think that Stravinsky could have easily mastered the art of comedy. He had a real student mentality, and understood the importance of studying the old and new masters of music. Not only did he study the old masters, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, but he was also excited to hear new work from the younger composer, Alexander Glazunov.
I think that might be the most important trait for any artist: always be learning.
I always assume that I know nothing, which allows me to be open to suggestions and new lessons. Of course you never want to steal from another comedian, but I think it’s necessary to study what’s been done already. How can you be an original if you don’t know what’s been done already?
If this blog serves any purpose, it’s to record my own thoughts as I evolve my art. It’s like a diary that I’m willing to share with the public. Some things I can figure out on my own, some things I need to study a master in order to understand. I had opinions a year ago that are the complete opposite of how I think today, and I’m sure that my opinions about the craft of comedy will continue to change and evolve.
When you have that student mentality, the only thing that won’t change is that you’ll always be changing. And it is from that constant change that your art will evolve. Hopefully. Maybe. We’ll see what I think a year from now.