The last few weeks have given rise to innovative forms of Internet comedy: live-streamed variety shows, a renaissance of front-facing-camera character bits, and, last month, on YouTube, a Zoom table read by the cast of the Netflix show “Big Mouth.” The laughs are a godsend but can sometimes have a better-than-nothing quality, especially when it comes to standup. A notable exception is “Tip Your Waitstaff,” the recurring joke-running sessions hosted by Mike Birbiglia on Instagram Live, where he and another comic bounce new material off of each other in real time.
“Tip Your Waitstaff” ’s premise is simple: Birbiglia and the day’s guest each select a regional comedy club whose waitstaff will receive donations from viewers and then spend a half hour running jokes. Joke running, also called joke bouncing, is an established part of standup comedy that is almost never acknowledged publicly, let alone dissected and mythologized in the manner of joke writing, crowd work, or bombing. “It’s the step before you bring something onstage,” Birbiglia explained to The New Yorker. Comedians often run or bounce jokes on the sidelines of clubs or over the phone, testing the potential of jokey premises, vague ideas, and personal anecdotes. It’s a trusting process, exposing at once how comics talk to each other about their craft and think about jokes at their dimmest stage.
The comedian John Mulaney brought a list of jokes in a Word document during his session. The comedians Roy Wood, Jr., and Jacqueline Novak had notebooks. Ali Siddiq had scraps of paper. Birbiglia had his written out on colorful index cards pinned to the corkboard behind his office desk. He is a prolific joke-bouncer and joke-writer: for each of his four hour-long specials—his most recent, “The New One,” premièred late last year—he estimates that he generates five additional hours of material. Novak recalled how Birbiglia taught her to bounce jokes to help her build confidence. “He started reading me all these ideas—half-baked, not even half-baked,” she said.
For punchline-heavy comics like Mulaney, who worked at “Saturday Night Live” early in his career and said, of standup comedy, “I don’t like to be technical about it, but there should be a joke, like, every second,” the sessions took on a one-upping quality. Other comics took the time to ruminate. The comedian Maria Bamford spent her session unspooling one long tale about a disastrous visit to the Harvard Lampoon. During Novak’s session, after a lengthy run about pizza and burgers, she attempted a physical bit about addition and subtraction. Addition: march confidently forward. Subtraction: totter over. She sat down again and picked up her phone. Birbiglia gave her an empty look.
“Do you have more on pizza?” he asked.
It was such a flat rejection that Novak gave an incredulous laugh. “If I seem a little deflated, it’s because I’m still recovering from Mike’s absolute silence to my math stuff,” she joked.
“I like the math stuff!” he protested. “It’s just a thinker.”
Joke running is conversational, but it flows according to a format: comics delineate turns to avoid confusion about who can lay claim to which lines. “There’s an etiquette,” Novak said. As far as content is concerned, anything goes. The results aren’t always elegant, or even funny, but the process can jar perspective, and riffing on controversial topics helps expose the “potholes,” as Wood put it. “It’s the most productive way of joke writing,” Mulaney told me.
During his session, Mulaney ran jokes with a straight face. “I hope my expressionless adding of details and pitching of tags comes across as my delight,” he said. He brought a list of “front halves” or setups—“promising rookies,” he explained.
“I have a small bit, it’s like half a joke,” he began. “Has anyone ever opened an orphanage and thought, Let’s make this nice?”
“I like that!” Birbiglia said.
“The other day I was watching an ad for heartburn medication,” Birbiglia said, starting his turn. “All I could think was, that pizza looks so good. I’ve gotta get some of that heartburn-medication-brand pizza!”
“ ’Cuz the cheese really pulls,” Mulaney tried, solemnly.
“Maybe some Robitussin dipping sauce,” Birbiglia said.
“I want to go to the concert in the antidepression commercial!” Mulaney replied. “The first part is always the same, too,” he said. He got up from his desk and stared moodily out the window at the street. He turned back to his smartphone screen. “It’s, like, what’s in the yard that you, in a good mood, would go do?”
Credit to The New Yorker.