On Writing with Bob Phillips and Steve Lind
One of the best tools a comedian has is their friends. I can’t think of anything more important than having a tight group who you can bounce ideas off of and get honest feedback from. Honesty is the key in that. I’m lucky enough to have Bob Phillips and Steve Lind around. The three of us get together, help each other punch up our material and most importantly tell each other when things aren’t working. The last time we got together, I picked their brains about the writing process.
Mike: How do you guys come up with your premises? Will you wait for something to happen or can you sit down and force yourself to write?
Steve: I used to force myself to sit down and write. Now I wait for a premise to happen.
Mike: So now everything comes from real life?
Steve: All my stuff comes from real life pretty much.
Bob: More and more is coming from real life.
Mike: Bob, but you’re more of an observational comic.
Steve: But isn’t that real life?
Mike: Well, yeah, but abstract observational I guess I mean. Not really abstract, but more pop culture.
Bob: Yeah, but that’s real life though. It’s just not my personal life. Lately I’ve been trying to find the things, and let them come, that make me feel strongly one way or another and find out why. I’m angry about something, why does that make me angry? Okay, where’s the funny in that? Okay, do other people feel that way and think of this as odd or weird?
Mike: When we get together and write, it’s always fun, but what’s the thing you guys get most out of this?
Mike: The three of us have incredibly different styles.
Bob: What I always get out of this a tighter joke and punchier tags. I write kind of flabby and this helps me trim it down.
Steve: Sometimes we fail to see the joke we even think we were writing and never get to the punchline we intended to begin with. Then someone says that and you’re like, “That’s kind of what I meant, but I guess I never said it.”
Bob: Yeah and somebody else crystalizes the thought for you in a way you weren’t thinking and it becomes a better joke.
Mike: I know for me, I tend to overwrite things and Steve is particularly good at editing it down and helping me get to the funny part.
Bob: Steve is excellent at that. One of the things I get from you is a more expansive look at the joke. Even though I tend to write kind of wordy, you’ll flesh out the idea and give me different angles to look at and Steve helps me pair it down. So I get sort of the best of both worlds there.
Steve: You find forks in the road. That’s the part I enjoy. I get a little idea in my head and pigeon hole myself in that.
Bob: That’s one of the problems I have in writing. I forget to look this way or that way.
Mike: Is there a thing you see newer people missing in their writing? For me, and maybe because this is my preference, but I think a lot of times they miss that thing that Bob was talking about and that’s the emotion behind a premise. How and why do you feel that way about that topic? You had to have felt something about this because you decided to craft a joke about it, but I don’t know what that emotion is!
Bob: They’re just writing the funny and not the emotional truth. I think I’m seeing that in some of the newer people and the same could be said of me not too long ago. It’s only recently where I’m starting to hook the emotional with what I find is funny.
Mike: For me personally, my joke about the blind guy climbing Mt. Everest billboard always felt weird until I added the part about it making me feel lazy and bad about myself because I can see, but I haven’t accomplished nearly as much. Before I was just attacking the guy.
Bob: And that makes that a better joke because the audience gets it. They see that you’re not just beating up a poor blind guy like a Bernstein fucker! You have an endearing emotional aspect to it and they’re going to go along with you.
Mike: I put it back on myself. Steve, doesn’t it bother you since you’re so good at editing when you see someone on stage that’s wordy and they only end up with like two jokes after five minutes of yammering?
Steve: No, because when I first started my career I had comics tell me that I had good punchlines, but you have to get to them. Okay. It pissed me off at first, but it did make me look at stuff. There were a couple times when I did shows that were really limited number of minutes. I want to do five or six jokes, how do I get them in inside this time frame? How do I do this? It really took something like that. The only thing that bothers me about a lot of people is they refuse to even try. You suggest stuff to them and they won’t even try it. I’m not trying to put you down. I’m trying to make you a better comedian.
Mike: My rule is that I’ll try most suggestions three times.
Bob: You’re much ballsier than me.
Mike: Well, I go to open mic shows, Mister Three Open Mics!
Bob: Well, it’s not because I think I’m above them. I just didn’t like them. So I didn’t do them.
Steve: I didn’t like the Minor Leagues so I just joined the Majors! They were really annoying and time consuming! And the food sucked at Triple A. How did you do that?
Mike: Here’s what I told the group at Laff Tracks when I spoke there. Bob has been a professional public speaker for probably 20 years so it’s not like he didn’t know how to address a group. Plus, you study so many kinds of comedy. Like, you’re the guy who introduced me to Todd Barry.
Bob: Yeah, I had that advantage. I was older than most people when I started.
Steve: He didn’t nod at me when he said that, did he? “Most people”, except for Steve Lind with his cane and his dog.
Bob: How old were you when you started?
Steve: Almost 40.
Bob: I was 42.
Mike: What made you guys start?
Steve: My wife made me take classes because she was sick of me saying, “I think I can do that!”
Mike: Same for me.
Bob: I don’t have a wife! I was like you guys and like so many other people where I just saw a lot of comedians and knew I could do that. I’m going to have to work at it, but that’s something I wanted to do. When I got divorced I had more time to try it.
Mike: Now, we all tend to write really long bits. How do you guys practice those before you take them to the stage?
Steve: I don’t know if I have really long bits.
Mike: Like the shirt bit and the 50% off bit. How did you perfect those?
Steve: In my comedy class, I was taught to memorize a list joke by doing four lines and then another. Then I’d pick a point and just try to go from there. It took me days. And then it grew.
Mike: How many did you have to get to in order to get an applause break?
Mike: This new grocery store bit, since it has so many parts, will you read it over and over again?
Bob: I don’t read it. I’ll write it out once and try to put it in my head and try to memorize the bullet points in my head. If I try to go back to a written piece and memorize the way it is, I’ll undoubtedly fuck it up on stage. So I just try to get a voice for it.
Mike: I love watching Steve do new material in an open mic because he’ll trudge through five new minutes come hell or high water! You commit to it and that’s made me do the Steve Lind thing. Bob, open mics are shows.
Bob: They scare me!
Steve: It’s tough doing open mics at places that book you.
Bob: How awful is that to eat shit in front of Mark Ridley?
Mike: I don’t like doing new material at the Castle.
Steve: I did about seven minutes there. At about the six minute mark I don’t know if I even got a laugh. And I said, “You know, I never thought it was going to go this well.” And the place went nuts! I got off stage and Ridley said, “That was hysterical!” Corey Hall said, “I never saw anyone eat shit for so long and then get an applause break!”
Mike: Do you have a favorite comedian?
Bob: Yeah. Brian Regan.
Steve: The same.
Bob: Which is weird because Steve is very Brian Regan-esque, but I’m completely different. You write clever and clean and it’s difficult for me to do that.
Mike: When I started and my tastes weren’t refined yet and I hadn’t really become a student of comedy, I wanted to be somewhere between Bill Hicks and Ellen Degeneres! And I know that’s ridiculous.
Bob: Wow! Well everyone is pretty much between those two!
Mike: And as my tastes became more refined I love Pardo, Maron and Kashian. I think I do a bit of a blend of all three of those.
Steve: You love Pardo that much?
Bob: I know why you like Maron. You put a premium on people being honest. Maybe honest isn’t the right word.
Mike: Bare. Open.
Bob: Open. You put a higher premium on that than I do and he’s very good at that. I want to see honesty in comedy. I don’t want to see just jokes.
Mike: You both helped me out a lot when I was teaching that one class. What advice would you give to newer comics?
Bob: Follow Mike Bobbitt around and join his cult! Join the Cult of Bobbitt!
Steve: Be yourself and stop asking the audience a question to lead into a joke. Nine times out of ten you’re not going to get the answer you’re looking for. The faster you can get to who you really are, the faster audiences will like and believe what you’re saying.
Mike: I think when you say “be yourself”, when you think of someone like Jeff Scheen, all of his jokes are weird and abstract, but that’s Jeff Scheen. Obviously he’s not really killing people like he seems to in a lot of his jokes, but that’s who he is…or at least his sense of humor.
I can’t thank Bob and Steve enough for both sitting down with me for this conversation and for their ongoing friendship and guidance. The amazing thing about comedy is that it brings such different people together. I can’t imagine another world where I would’ve crossed paths with two such amazing guys.