Richard Lewis talks about how he’ll bring up political ideas in his performances, but if the audience doesn’t enjoy it, he’ll change the subject. How do you decide when to move on, when to keep pressing, or when to soften it with other material? And, is it “selling out” or pandering if you do change the subject or soften it?
That answer is different from night to night. Everybody in the book, with very few exceptions, I think maybe Janeane [Garofalo] is an exception, says the bottom line is you have to get the laughs. Even Bill Maher says if you’re not getting the laughs, you’re not doing anything. You’re not going to change anybody’s mind, you’re not going to present a new idea, you’re not going to challenge an old idea. You’re not going to do anything you really want to do unless you get that laugh. So, it ultimately all has to boil down to “Is it funny?”
Then, there are the questions of “Is it not funny because the audience doesn’t agree? Is it not funny because the joke isn’t strong enough?” Those are the variables that you deal with on any given night. Any comic will tell you from night to night that something that killed the night before only did okay the night after. Those variables exist across the board in everything that we do. So, ultimately, that discussion has to happen in a nanosecond in the comic’s head constantly throughout any given performance.
I don’t think it’s selling out to have a good time with the audience. I do think, though, that we are three-dimensional people. The more well rounded you are, the more different areas you can go to and have a relationship with your audience. Maybe this audience isn’t into hearing twenty minutes of anti-religion stuff, but maybe they’ll hear ten minutes of it. So, the more well rounded you are, and the more expansive your scope is, the less that becomes an issue. The bigger a human being you are, the less that’s a problem.
In your work over the last few years, it seems like you’re often operating without prepared material. Do you enjoy doing that?
I go out there with no idea of what I’m going to say or do, no idea if I’m going to be funny. To be completely at the mercy at whatever talent and experience I have is an awesome feeling and a great, great place to be. I have the chance to do that every once in a while, by doing shows like [NPR’s] Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me!, by doing The Green Room. Stuff that’s not about prepared material, that’s about being the moment and being able to create jokes in front of people, for better or worse, with varying degrees of success. That is....that’s essentially jazz. I used to feel like I was doing pop music, and now I feel like I’m doing jazz. And, when you’re doing jazz, sometimes it’s genius, sometimes it’s a lot of noise, but when you’re doing pop music, it’s always the same.
So, you had no prep at all for The Green Room?
The only prep I had was putting people together that I knew would be fertile. Either based on what I know about them personally or their work. There were some topics I wanted to get to, but sometimes I didn’t even get to all of them.