Sunday, January 13, 2013

What We Can Learn From the Great Comic Storytellers

Comedians were a big part of my childhood. My cousin, the one that ate ketchup, introduced me to a lot of them at an early age. I'm not talking modern stand up comics, either. No, I'm talking classic comedians here like Abbott and Costello, Jerry Clower, and Bill Cosby. Okay, so my cousin really only introduced me to Jerry Clower, but that's significant for reasons I'll get to momentarily.

I grew up watching Abbott and Costello on Saturday mornings. It seems to me that "Who's on First" has always been a part of my life. In fact, when I was in high school, I had partner that I used to perform A&C skits with. "Who's on First" was, of course, our big number, but we had several others as well. It was a lot of fun. But I digress...

My wife and I have been introducing our kids to some of these great comedians recently. Well, Abbott and Costello have always been a thing because "Who's on First" is kind of part of my vocabulary, and I own several collections of their movies. But they hadn't been incredibly interested in my attempts to work in Bill Cosby and others in the past. Something clicked a couple of weeks ago, though, over dinner. I think my wife and I were talking about "the curse," and my younger son started asking questions about it, so we started talking about Cosby, and one thing lead to another which lead to me digging out my VHS (yes, you read that rightly) copy of Bill Cosby: Himself.

[I was about the age of my younger son, 11, when I saw Himself for the first time. It was a Saturday morning, and I was the only one up, and I laughed so hard at the bit about the dentist that I woke up the entire house, and my mom came running downstairs because she thought I was dying or something.]

Despite the protests of my daughter, who wanted to watch Buffy, we spent the evening watching Himself, and all three of them were rolling... well, I was going to say by the end of it, but that's not precisely accurate, because all three of them were rolling well before we got to the dentist. They've been quoting Cosby and singing "Dad is great! Give us the chocolate cake!" ever since then.

All of that lead to this:
"Chicken Heart" is possibly my very favorite Cosby routine, but it's not really a reference you can make and expect anyone to understand. Except, now, my kids, who keep talking about spreading jello on the floor.

So we've been listening to all of these old story-telling comedians, and it's also the start of a new quarter at school, which always means some new kids in my creative writing class, so we always spend the first few class periods going over the plot arc

 or, as they like to call it, the plot roller coaster (because of my son and the fact that I draw it that way). Probably because of the timing of the two things, I realized how these great stories these comedians used to tell follow the plot arc. It wasn't just guys standing up telling jokes and one-liners.

Let's look at "Chicken Heart." In the first 20 seconds, Cosby sets us up with the exposition: "I'm seven years old [there's our protagonist], and I'm standing up in my crib [and there's our setting]." Also, there's our hook. Seven years old and in a crib? What? It's really quite brilliant. And, then, he expands the exposition while moving into the rising action: "My parents are going out, see." And he just keeps layering and layering on the suspense about what's going on: the invisible black snakes, sneaking out of the crib, the radio. The jello. All the way to the climax, which I'm not going to say, because you should just listen to it. And after all of that, he brings it back down with some falling action and a bit of denouement: "For two years, anyone that would pass by our house..." It's just great story telling.

If you've never heard of Jerry Clower, you should look into him. My cousin had some of his records, and we used to listen to them when I was a kid. Let me just say: it's hard to find this stuff these days. The clip I wanted to include here by Clower is his "Coon Huntin' Story," but I couldn't find the whole thing anywhere. Clower tends more to end on the punchline and skip the falling action and resolution, which is the case in  the clip I am including (ignore the video and just listen to him talk (also, ignore the music crap at the end (I told you, this stuff is hard to find. I had to take what I could get.)), but in the "Coon Huntin' Story," he gives us the whole plot arc, which is why I wanted that one, but I couldn't find part 2. At any rate, this is another of my favorites by Clower, so listen and pay attention to how he sets up the story.

I think this stuff played a much more significant role in the way I learned to tell stories than I realized before now. I mean, I started out, when I was a kid, repeating these stories. It was only later that I found my own, but, when I did find my own, I told them in the same manner as these guys.

Which is the point: I think we can all look at the story telling techniques of these great comedians and learn a lot from them. Things I think we often forget in our fast-paced, modern lives. Even things we're told are unimportant by publishers and television, because they just want us to get right to "it" and skip the set up. Don't skip the set up. That's what makes everything else interesting.

Now, if I've caused anyone to get caught up listening to any of these guys... well, I'm not really sorry.


  1. That was one of Cosby's best routines. You're right, the greats were storytellers in the finest oral tradition. Getting you hooked, bringing you along and then BAM the reveal.

    I have never heard of Clower before. He's got good rhythm and timing.

  2. Comedians are better writers than most authors because they have to understand how people think and react. Even a one liner has a rise and fall, albeit a condensed one.

  3. Never thought about the similarities, but as Martin pointed out, comedians have to grab even faster with their stories.
    Cosby is one of the greats and still funny. I wonder if the Jello commercial gigs were a result of Chicken Heart?

  4. Have you ever listened to "The Aristocrats"? (There are I guess thousands of variations. I listened to the Gilbert Gottfried version.) Now there is comedic storytelling. But you don't want to listen to that with your kids around.

  5. I loved that routine. I haven't heard it in years, but Cosby's a great comedian AND story teller.

    Seriously, it takes a lot of storytelling skill to be a stand up comic, unless you're just one of those comics that does quick one liners. You have to be funny, but you also have to get people invested. You have to get people to see in their head what you see in your head. That's a real gift.

    Also, it's funny you mentioned the Coon Huntin' Story, because I was browsing Youtube about a week ago and just listened to that for the first time. I thought the same thing... what a great storyteller.

  6. Cosby is one of the greats for sure! It's been interesting to see him be so vocal about young black men (and so critical) in the last few years.

  7. I've never heard this Cosby bit before. I remember watching one of his comedy specials with the older kids, and they loved it, too.

    I think Ellen Degeneres is an underrated comedic storyteller; have you heard her stand-up?

  8. I just listened to all of "Chicken Heart."


  9. I did a similar sort of post after I went to the U2 concert a year and a half ago. The 360 tour was a very choreographed show, and I could see the plot arc in the way they presented it from rising action, to climax, to denouement. Apparently we can't ever turn our writer-brains off. :)

  10. I love both Cosby and Abbott and Costello! (Proves you don't have to be profane to be funny.) I never thought of them as storytellers. I guess that's also a part of what makes them great. You don't notice it. It's just too easy to listen along and laugh.

  11. I know your not a big podcast listener, but the nerdist is a podcast hosted by three comedians who discuss the craft of standup just the way we talk about story. They talk about the pacing, the need for small chuckles every x number of seconds and the need for theme or not, they take a very workmanlike approach to comedy. It is very interesting.

  12. VHS? I'll raise you a vinyl record, checked out from the library. This was how I first heard Bill Cosby, though I was a little young to remember.
    I love comedians who can tell a good story. Those are the people you want to keep watching

  13. Loved Bill Cosby, used to really like the Cosby family. I first heard him on the radio in the UK same as Bob Newhart with his button down mind stories which were hilarious.

  14. Anne: He is great. I wish I'd been able to see him perform live.

    Martin: Well, good comedians, maybe, but I'd say there are just as many bad comedians out there as there are bad authors, you just don't hear about them.

    Alex: Yeah, I've wondered that, too, actually.

    PT: I actually watched the documentary thing they did about that. It's pretty amusing.

    ABftS: Cosby gonna be speaking here in a couple of weeks. I need to check on tickets...

    Michael: Yeah, it's been interesting to get his views on things. He's made a lot of people unhappy.

    Briane: Yeah, back in the 90s when I used to watch a lot of stand up stuff, Ellen was one of the ones I watched. She had some funny stuff.

    L.G.: There's some other kind of brain?

    Nancy: That's true!

    Rusty: I'd put that on a list to listen to, but I know I won't get to it. I've been wanting to check out the Thrilling Adventure Hour for a week, now, and still haven't done that, and that's one I really -want- to check out.

    Winopants: I have some vinyl, but I don't know if I have any comedian vinyl.

  15. Jo: I used to watch the Bob Newhart show when I was a kid.

  16. Not talking about the show Andy, I never saw it as I lived in England at the time. We used to hear various stories from one or more records retailed as The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart. One of my favourites was the Driving Instructor and another about Walter Raleigh on the phone to the UK about his discoveries. Very funny.

  17. this is the link to The Driving Instructor

  18. I teach that graph to kids at school as well, as a rough guideline to follow for their stories.

    Loved Bill Cosby --- and still watch on youtube sometimes.

  19. my fav is old school robin williams...around the mork and mindy era. sorry...i didn't know i wasn't following you. but i am now!!

  20. Oh, I love Cosby! I got to attend one of his shows here in Colorado Springs, and it was such a delight. After all, how many of us grew up on Cosby? You're right, he captivates. He is such a natural born storyteller.

    I haven't heard of Clower, or don't think I have, but this was a good post. I think comedic storytellers have great skill at pulling the audience in and telling a story.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse

  21. Jo: I knew what you meant; I was just saying that my experience with Newhart is from his show and a few movies.

    Damyanti: Yeah, it's a good starting place. We spend a lot of time on exposition and rising action, because they always want to start right at the climax.

    Tammy: I used to watch Mork, but I haven't seen a lot of his stand up. I should look into that at some point.
    Welcome aboard!

    Shannon: Yes, he is! He's got a great voice and wonderful facial expressions.