How to Tell a Story
October 11, 2009 7:57 PM   Subscribe

How to Tell a Story. "The humorous story is strictly a work of art--high and delicate art-- and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story--understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print--was created in America, and has remained at home." That Itchy Chick | You Should Have Seen The Old Man

Brother Theodore

Christopher Walken's The Watch
posted by Mike Buechel (17 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
My grandfather knew how to tell a story. I wish I did. All I've figured out is that it's about the details. But there's much more to it than that.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 8:05 PM on October 11, 2009

a very interesting post...

but all I could think of was...Dave needs to be a bit more careful about those Itchy Chicks....
posted by HuronBob at 8:12 PM on October 11, 2009

That Twain fellow has a way with words. I predict big things in his future.
posted by Joey Michaels at 8:13 PM on October 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh, did he mention the Snarky Story?
posted by Joey Michaels at 8:14 PM on October 11, 2009

I love that Twain piece. Everyone should read it, but really good storyteller's (humorously inclined) sometimes pick it up intuitively, it's a folk art of sorts. I mean we all know someone who we just love to hear speak or tell a story just because of the way they tell it pretty much kills you from the first couple words onward....

(Wit is about the punchline. Anyone can do it. Okay for what it is, but what Twain is talking about is high-level chess compared to the linear predictable checkers-like structure of a Joke.)

Aside/ talking about what's funny is never funny. But Twain can write about the real funny and actually be funny. /
posted by Skygazer at 8:35 PM on October 11, 2009

I was in the studio audience for that second clip. I was there because a friend of mine was supposed to be on after him, with a short segment featuring some artwork she created of Dave and that she was to drag it out and they would talk about it. Brother Theodore's storytelling was so good, Dave let him run long, and my friend in the green room stayed put. Our team has been pretty anti-Brother Theodore since then.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:48 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh man, I used to stay up as a kid risking all sorts of hell for being up that late, hoping Brother Theodore would be on Letterman. Thanks for posting these links.
posted by Skygazer at 9:00 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I love this, and had somehow never come across that Twain piece before. Interesting in that he's describing really the Shaggy Dog story before it was known and respected as such. Also interesting in that I believe he's right about this being a quintessentially American way of storytelling (though it might owe something to Chaucer, and I'd argue that most of Voltaire's humor is in the tangents and sometimes exceedingly graphic and unnecessary details), but I'm remembering something from, of all places, Dave Barry's book about visiting Japan.

In one chapter he goes to visit a Japanese comedy club, and is basically bemused by the differences between stand-up in Japan and in the States. He knows he's not going to get past the language barrier, but says that in Japan, stand-ups don't tell jokes, but rather intimate, vaguely humorous stories that get more appreciation than laughs. What's interesting about that to me is that a lot of the best stand-ups in the States do the same thing.

Almost ten years ago I went to the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village on a Tuesday night with my friend because we both needed to go out that night, and the woman manning the door basically begged us to go in, waiving admission and even offering a free drink that we couldn't refuse (plus we were both freshmen at NYU and it was clear that she wasn't going to card us, so that was key.) There were only two other people in the audience when we walked in, which was unfortunate for the woman on stage, as she was doing a joke about "that chick from the anti-drug commercials" without realizing that one-half of her audience was, in fact, "that chick" (Rachel Leigh Cook), and also because that sucks generally to perform for that few. Eventually we were joined by what turned out to be Ron Jeremy's brother and the stripper he was dating (it was a very surreal night)

After seeing Colin Quinn, Darryl Hammond, Dave Attell and a few others, all emceed by Orlando Jones (it was a great time to be frequenting the Comedy Cellar) we were treated to two walk-ins. The first was Chris Rock, who was hosting the VMA's two days later and was testing out his material. This was way too small a crowd for it, and as much as I think Rock is one of the funniest men alive, he was reduced to quick one-liners here, instead of his normal free-flowing and acerbic style, and I don't remember laughing once. They were jokes, instead of stories or observations of his normal sort.

The second was Dave Chappelle, who just came in because he'd had a long couple of days and wanted to hang out and chat and not worry about shit for a while. Now the Comedy Cellar acts were usually fifteen minutes, thereabouts. Some folks used crowd work a lot - Todd Barry, Rich Vos and Jim Norton were particularly fond of it, and could do it brilliantly. Others didn't do it ever, like Colin Quinn, Dave Attell, and Jim Gaffigan. Chappelle just hung out with us, for over an hour, with no act and no rehearsed material, and his "crowd work" consisted of things such as setting the scene of whatever had happened recently and asking if we knew where he was talking about. He knew his audience, knew how small and close we all were, but entirely commanded the scene. And we were captivated through an hour basically devoid of jokes, listening to a frustrated, tired, and kind of sad man talking about his life.

I don't remember much by way of details of what he talked about, just that he mentioned how most of his friends were white by that point, and the story of getting high with one of them, looking for a party they were supposed to go to, and his white (high) friend walking up to the cops to ask for directions when Dave was scared shitless of them. He frequently punctuated his "act" with "I'm sorry, y'all. I just need to talk."

Chappelle was a masterful storyteller, a guy who knew he could walk into the most venerable comedy club in NY and just use the small audience as a free therapy session because we weren't about to leave. And he wasn't a huge name yet by that point, either. We knew who he was, but we'd seen a bunch of comics of equal or greater fame that night for free who were bringing us their A-game. He's the one I remember though.

Other great recent examples of this would include, of course, The Big Lebowski, a filmed story presumably about a man getting a replacement rug for his shitty house, but actually about the details of half-assed German nihilists, professional and amateur performance artists, the L.A. porn industry, Nubian cab drivers who love The Eagles, the importance of Creedance Clearwater Revival and a good white russian, divorced Jewish-convert Vietnam veterans, near-catatonic D-students, and of course a formidable bowling pederast. It's easy to imagine that the Coen Brothers had this all down pat before production, but they didn't. At their lecture at NUY, one of the first questions was about why we never got to see the showdown between The Dude's team and Jesus's, and their answer was that they wanted to, but by that point they "were just sick of shooting in bowling alleys."

On the other end of the (cinematic) spectrum would be Wonder Boys, which was a wonderful novel but really found it's own once torn away from the page and onto the screen, where screenwriter Steve Kloves (who has never quite managed the same trick with the Harry Potter series) took the arc of a lit teacher figuring out his life so that he could write competently again and told it by miring in details that had little if anything to do with his writing: a dead dog, an adulterous pregnancy, an attractive, talented and flirtatious student, another student, even more talented but a compulsive liar, a sometimes-gay-sometimes-not editor who sows chaos wherever he appears, a successful hack rival, a stolen coat that Marylin Monroe wore on her wedding day, and a dwarven man with a gorgeous, pregnant wife who jumps on the hood of his car. As Roger Ebert put it, "Because Grady is tired, depressed and continuously stoned on pot, these characters all have more or less equal importance. That is, when he's looking at them, they represent problems, and when they're absent, he can forget about them."

The other examples I'd mention are Achewood, the webcomic Chris Onstad writes with meticulous detail towards character and language, but with an intentional disregard towards what will happen next, and David Cross, at least in the Kansas City story found on the second half of Shut Up You Fucking Baby.

It starts at 4:00 here and continues here. It's certainly NSFW, but within 14 minutes he gives a wildly funny story that eschews any real "jokes," instead reveling in the stuff Twain writes about, the humor in the details and clever telling of the little moments. I don't know what Twain would've thought about it, but as a modern example, it's pitch-perfect for me.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:51 PM on October 11, 2009 [23 favorites]

says that in Japan, stand-ups don't tell jokes, but rather intimate, vaguely humorous stories that get more appreciation than laughs.

There are a handful of really awesome Japanese movies about comedians/storytellers. From what I can gather, the two major forms are Manzai and Rakugo. Manzai is a kind of double act. Filmmaker Takashi Kitano began his career doing this, and his film Kids Return features the story of a couple of schoolkids practicing to be Manzai.

Rakugo has a longer history is like a lot of the Japanese arts insofar as to learn it, you do an apprenticeship to a Master, and -- like a geisha -- start off by cleaning toilets and scrubbing floors.

Keep an eye out for A Hardest Night -- a hilarious film about the death of a Rakugo master and the response of his acolytes, and Talk, Talk, Talk -- about a young Rakugo wannabe who isn't very good at what he does.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:24 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I just spent an hour watching Brother Theodore clips on youtube. Food Sermon is absolutely hilarious. (Best comment/quote "But they won't come home....they can't come home....THEY HAVE NO LEGS......YOU tore them off and ATE them....REMEMBER!!!??????")
I've never heard of him before, so much thanks for the links. (This sorta stuff always reminds me theres so much random, eccentric goodness on youtube.)
posted by shinyshiny at 1:16 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Twain: This is art and fine and beautiful, and only a master can compass it; but a machine could tell the other story.

He seems to be correct.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:27 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think this one is brilliant as well: Jay Thomas' "Lone Ranger" Story (also on the Letterman Show)
posted by homodigitalis at 5:10 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

I really, really love Terry Bisson's "The Coon Suit" (google books, it's just a few pages)

He also wrote a few longish short stories about his physicist friend Wilson Wu and some peculiar events surround The Hole in Brooklyn and its link to the moon, collected in Numbers Don't Lie. Great stuff, digressive, silly storytelling.

Bears Discover Fire is pretty good too.
posted by cps at 6:35 AM on October 12, 2009

I've just gone to my bookshelf - I love this so much I am typing it out with my own fingers: it's about listening to someone telling a very long story, it's by the brilliant satirist Michael Frayn, and the title is "On The Receiving End."

"I see...I see...Yes, yes...I see...
Oh, really...? Is that so....?
I see..I see...! Good Lord....! Good God....!
No...! Heavens...Really....? No....!

You didn't....! Did you...? How fantastic...!
Of course...Oh, naturally...
Fantastic...! No...! Incredible...!
An albatross...! Blow me...!

This is an extract from my long poem, "The Rime of the Wedding-Guest." My intention is that it should be recited, or rather murmured, simultaneously with the recitation of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," as a sort of accompanying ostinato

extract from "The Original Michael Frayn" (1983, a selection of Michael Frayn's UK journalism.)

And a reminder from wiki:[Coleridge's] The Rime of the Ancient Mariner relates the events experienced by a mariner who has returned from a long sea voyage. The Mariner stops a man who is on the way to a wedding ceremony, and begins to recite a story. The Wedding-Guest's reaction turns from bemusement to impatience and fear to fascination as the Mariner's story progresses...
posted by Jody Tresidder at 8:07 AM on October 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

There's a pretty huge movement towards oral -- and frequently really, really funny -- storytelling here in New York. The Moth runs a number of story slams almost weekly in NYC, as well as in LA, and has has just started some in Detroit and Chicago. Their podcast is pretty solid, too.

Kevin Allison (formerly of The State) has started a show/podcast called Risk! that's a little more comedian-intensive.

This is all sort of a combo of stand-up and This American Life, in roughly 10 minutes or less, per story.

I find that comedians aren't always the best onstage storytellers, as standups are trained to go for laughs every 15 seconds or so. Improv comics tend to rely a little too heavily on their improv training, which can work as a team but is death in a structured narrative. Writers like me can get too attached to their darling prose and give a flatter delivery.

Moth slams, as well as other NYC storytelling shows, have become pretty much my whole life here. I've learned so much about structure, pacing, and story arcs from doing this stuff -- and it's really, really fun, too.

Here's stuff by some local greats:

Adam Wade (1, 2)

Jim O'Grady (1)

Juliet Wayne (excerpt)

And as a bit of relentless self-promotion, one of mine.
posted by chinese_fashion at 9:07 AM on October 12, 2009 [6 favorites]

As a hardcore Brother Theodore fan, I feel compelled to point out that there's an excellent new documentary about Theodore, "To My Great Chagrin", that I cannot more highly recommend. It clearly demonstrates that Theodore was a one-of-a-kind genius.
posted by dbiedny at 11:07 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

I just came across Gioia Timpanelli[flash video] from an old post of mine.
posted by tellurian at 5:16 PM on October 14, 2009

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