Stand-Up Comedy is Performance Nonfiction

February 12, 2020 § 6 Comments


holly hagmanBy Holly Hagman

After a long day of work, extended by an hour or more of grading papers, making copies, and managing the homework center, I am often drained of all intellectual energy. The twenty-minute drive can feel like an eternity when accompanied by the repetitive sounds of New Jersey radio stations that are all playing the same music. Instead, I plug my phone into the auxiliary cable connected to my car’s speaker system, and I play the audio recordings of stand-up comics. As a student working towards an MFA in creative nonfiction, I am always enamored by someone who can turn the truth into a tale, highlighting the humor in the smallest moments of our lives. Their stories fill the stale space in the vehicle, and before I know it, I am pulling into the driveway. I sit in the car for a minute longer than usual, saddened that I will have to press pause. Luckily, most of these recordings originated as Netflix specials, so I can finish watching them when I go inside.

Recently, I wrote a paper for a graduate school project in which I examined the relationship between creative nonfiction and stand-up comedy, to which my professor originally responded, “stand-up isn’t writing.” When I received that feedback, I stared at my inbox absolutely stunned. Don’t stand-up comics spend hours endlessly scrawling notes down about their experiences to formulate their material? Don’t they work on determining the right vocabulary to drive home their points? Don’t they build upon the previously covered material in order to create a story arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end?

Comedians engage in all of the same processes that we nonfiction writers do; John Mulaney, in his special Kid Gorgeous, weaves a tale of hysterical woe when he discusses the unadulterated fear he felt in his eight-year-old heart hearing the “Stranger Danger” representative discuss kidnapping during assemblies. Iliza Shlesinger, in Elder Millennial, builds a narrative around the time in which she was born, citing both the ability to meet people via dating apps and recalling the invention of Sketchers as a brand. Jim Gaffigan constructs a punchline in Quality Time expressing that he went to a surprise birthday party for a dog because, “he needed the material.”

What stand-up comics do is no different from what nonfiction writers do: they create stories around the intricacies of the daily experience. They build concrete characters using detail, citing dialogue, and employing specific adjectives. Most importantly, utilizing a real experience, they take something individual and make it Relatable (also the name of Ellen DeGeneres’ most recent comedy special.)

The truth is that we are all storytellers. Writers of any genre are trying to tell a story, deliver a message, express a universal truth. The conditions under which we engage in this craft may vary, but the goal is ultimately the same. Stand-up comedy creates an avenue through which nonfiction writers can become performers, bringing the same magic to the stage that would traditionally only exist in ink.
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Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and a Master of Arts in Teaching. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairfield University where she is an assistant editor for the “Experiences of Disability” special issue of Brevity. For amusing teaching anecdotes, follow her on Twitter @MsHagmanELA

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