Service of Humor II

August 9th, 2012

Categories: Actors, Humor, Speaking, Specialists

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I heard Carmen Lynch [above] at Carolines on Broadway a few weeks ago. I thought hers was the best standup of four we heard at this year’s New York Women in Communications Foundation “Ladies Who Laugh!” fundraiser at one of the city’s best comedy clubs. I don’t know any comedians. What a treat that she agreed to answer some questions!

I was intrigued by a comedian who writes and performs material for her sets in Spain, where her mother’s from, as well as for US audiences, and for tough New York City ears, where she’s headquartered, as well as Virginia viewers, where she’s from, and other places too. My father was French and there were times we didn’t “get” each other’s humor.  I might be doubled over in giggles and he’d stare at me without a smile, which would make me laugh even more [and annoy him].  Conversely, he’d be struck by something that went right over my head.

Not to get too serious, performers, writers,  agency and sales people will recognize her challenges and appreciate her approach and reactions. If you give presentations, check out her discussion of performing for audiences who stare back.

What kind of humor would an American audience find funny that a Spanish one wouldn’t? (Or vice versa).

This is a great question but there’s no easy answer. When I did a comedy tour in Spain this past February, I was pretty happy (and a little surprised) that most of my jokes, after translating them into Spanish, worked. I was worried that I’d lose the joke in the translation, or that they just wouldn’t get me.

But most did work, and as expected, some didn’t. I do a joke about calling my sponsored child in Bolivia “my daughter” (that’s not the entire joke but that’s the gist of it) and it never got a strong laugh. I tried it in a few different cities in Spain and it wasn’t going anywhere so I dropped it.

But you learn that it’s nothing personal. I didn’t notice nearly as much sarcasm in comedy out there as we have here, either. So the “simpler” jokes (for lack of a better word) worked best.

The stand-up scene in Spain is much newer than it is here in the US. We have so many comedians here and comedy has been around for so long that jokes here just feel a little more specific. We have to push a little harder with our humor to be noticed.

Are there some topics that would tickle both American and Spanish funny bones?

carmenlynchperformI think universal topics work anywhere, like dating, having kids, recently married, etc. Also, if you have a particular attribute that the audience can see (being tall, balding, bright red hair) then most audiences will probably relate to you in some way, even if they don’t have that exact attribute.

What about Virginia vs. NYC audiences?

Comedy is different everywhere – not just in different states but different venues. Funny is funny, but there are differences anywhere you go – even performing in Manhattan vs. Brooklyn. It can also depend on whether you’re performing at a club vs. a bar, for older crowds vs. younger ones, smaller crowds vs. larger crowds.

I love New York audiences because they’re open-minded and you can pretty much say anything. Everyone in the audience (here in NY) grew up in a different place, so people are very open to different types of comedy.

You can get a completely different reaction to something in a small town which is fine too, because as a comic it’s best to get used to all audiences.

What subjects do you favor/find funny and have these changed over the years?

When I first started standup I got most of my material from obvious topics (“write about what you know”)….like being tall or having a Spanish mother.

I might talk a little more about what’s going on in my life now. Hopefully I’ve become a little more self-aware so I might dive into more psychological stuff or what I heard someone say on the train and analyze that.

I still get material from visiting my family in Spain (or talking to my nieces – what kids say is always funny).

Instead of leaving a topic after getting a joke or two, I try to stay with it and see what else I can pull from it. Sometimes there’s nothing else and sometimes you can go a little deeper. A lot of times it just depends on what’s going on in my life at that time.

As you write your own material where do you come up with the best?

It can happen anywhere. I might force myself to sit at Starbucks and something will occur to me that I think has potential, or I’ll be on the train on the way to a show and it just hits me there. Sometimes as I’m falling asleep I’ll think of something funny and I’ll have to get up because I know I won’t remember it the next day.

Everyone has their own method.

I usually carry a little notebook but now with technology the way it is, you can just write a new joke idea into your phone or record it. Sometimes I’ll come up with a great punchline but I have no set up, so I keep the joke idea until I can find a good home for it.

Who are some of your comedy favorites?

Dave Attell, Louis CK, Todd Barry, Bill Burr, Nick Griffin, Judy Gold, Wendy Liebman. There are others but those come to mind now.

What do you do to wake up an audience that stares back at you and doesn’t laugh?

Sometimes you can’t do anything. It doesn’t mean they’re not enjoying the show – they might just not want to laugh (and stand out) if no one else is laughing.

Sometimes you just have to call them on it. I don’t want to insult them for not laughing, but I might just tease them a little to see what I can do to get them to wake up. It’s very strange to watch a quiet audience and after the show they’ll tell you how much fun they had or how much they enjoyed you.

Sometimes they will hate you. It happens. (Then I spend the rest of my time on stage wondering where I lost them.) I think it’s best to stay in the present, finish your set and know that it happens- you just can’t make every single audience laugh hysterically every single time. Hopefully if it’s a weak show you didn’t invite anyone you know.

Have you been surprised by the energetic, happy reaction to your standup from a group or audience?

Absolutely. Just like I’ve been surprised by a negative reaction by a certain group.  You never know how anyone is going to react to you, so it’s best not to make any assumptions. You might go up after someone who bombs and the audience loves you, or the comic ahead of you killed and you totally lose them.

Sometimes I can tell just by the look on their faces when I reach the stage that it’s not going to be good. But I try to let that go because a lot of times it’s that assumption that will be the cause of the reaction I get.

I might do a show in one venue and kill and go to a different venue in the same city and they think I’m just awful. But that’s why being a comic is so fun — every show is different.

How long have you been doing standup?

For 10 years. I stopped after 5 years because I was tired of it. I burned out, and I wasn’t sure if I was doing it because I’d started something and just didn’t know what else to do, and that scared me. I wanted to make sure I was doing it because I loved it.

About a year later I realized I did want to pursue it, long term, and that if I was going to do it I was going to do it 100%.

You are from Virginia and started out as an actress and when you came to NYC you decided to try stand up. How did your parents react? Did you do something before acting? What was your major?

I graduated from The College of William & Mary with a psychology degree. I changed my major so many times that by the time I had to pick a major, I’d taken so many psychology classes I just went with that.

Then I worked at a bank after college and took a few acting classes in Virginia. I moved to NY because I wanted to pursue acting.

My parents weren’t thrilled but hoped that whatever day job I picked up to pay the rent in NY would lead to some major career. I never once thought I’d pursue stand up comedy, but once I was up in NY and saw how big the comedy scene was, I decided to try it. I still wasn’t thinking I’d be a comedian – I just thought I might write for one.

I knew I was shy and I just couldn’t imagine bombing on stage – I’ve always been easily embarrassed. I took a 3-day “comedy course” at the Learning Annex, where we had to perform for 5 minutes at a club. I told the teacher I wouldn’t, but the day of the performance I tried it for 2 1/2 minutes (that’s all the material I had prepared) and I knew then that I was going to pursue comedy. For the next 7-8 years my parents tried to get me to go to grad school but were unsuccessful. They gave up trying just a few years ago.

You can see Carmen in person at the Improv Boston for a CD taping on October 2nd , or check out her web series, AptC3.com, and on this Comedy TV clip.

Who are some of your favorite comedians? Do you have questions for Carmen?

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4 Responses to “Service of Humor II”

  1. Lucrezia Said:

    I’m a bad person for this question, since I become impatient with these routines after the first few lines. If pressed to the wall, my vote goes to Bill Maher, but for one half hour…..tops!

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    You hit on a question I should have asked Carmen: What’s the ideal length of time for a standup routine?

    The answer would no doubt partly be “it depends on whether or not you like the comedian!” Obviously, if you don’t, five minutes is too long!

  3. Hester Craddock Said:

    My vote goes for Billy Crystal. I’ve never seen anyone better, and unlike so much humor today, his is neither tasteless, nor cruel, nor vulgar.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Hester,

    I ADORE Billy Crystal. Saw him in 700 Sundays. He’s also an incredible actor.

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