That time I got mistaken for a stand up comedian

Hello, Internet, today is Tuesday, April 5, and last Friday, I did a somewhat impromptu variety performance called Don’t Panic! where a bunch of artists put together some material on a theme and then perform song, storytelling or stand up, as they prefer.

The theme was “tell us about a time when you were embarrassed.” And not being a comedian or a songwriter, I figured I’d tell a story.

And then I looked at the lineup and realized that everyone else was a stand up comedian.

So I figured the story had to be funny. So that I wouldn’t confuse everyone in the room when I got up and wasn’t funny… I had to be at least a little funny.

Anyway, that bit was pretty successful, actually. There was certainly a different rhythm to my set than to all the others, but people laughed. And after the show, a young woman came up to me, congratulated me, expressed her desire to do stand up and asked me for advice about how to develop her skills. And while I was trying to remember all of the stand up open mics I know of in town (in the end… 1 of them) while simultaneously not making this woman feel foolish by correcting her about the nature of my performance, I started to think: what’s the difference, anyway?

I still regularly struggle with the line between storytelling and theatre, especially because I practice both art forms and because my work in one informs the other. Actors often make good storytellers. I have worked with a storytelling company that did multi-teller performances that were quite meticulously planned out and rehearsed. Certainly there was no director and the story was built cooperatively, but those features aren’t exclusive of theatre.

My current defining line between storytelling and theatre is that: 1) a storyteller is a narrator who tells the story with some distance, whether as a third person narrator or as first person where some time has passed, whereas an actor embodies a character in the now and experiences the story as we watch; and 2) a storyteller develops the piece with room for improvisation, whether it’s the order of the telling of major plot points, or simply changes in wording, whereas theatre is performed word for word. Of course, this definition is imperfect: plenty of theatre has room for improvisation, and if a character in a play is delivering a monologue that is mostly exposition about past events, would that, then, be storytelling? I am, right now, developing a show that is storytelling-based, but I expect it to be closer to theatre in its final form… is it one, or the other? Both?

It’s not a simple line. And of course it isn’t – art is a constantly changing, evolving thing and lines are blurred all the time.

So, with that in mind, what’s the difference between stand up and storytelling? Since Friday night, I’ve come to the (imperfect) conclusion that stand up is a variety of storytelling. Stand up comedians’ work is based on brutal honesty and exposure of their own vulnerabilities. Some stand up artists create artificial circumstances or characters (as do most storytellers) but in order to succeed, they expose their figurative soft bits, and then we laugh at them. They often tell whole stories in only a few words and then move on. And their goal is to hear laughter in the audience… it’s a failure if we’re not laughing.

Storytelling doesn’t always require this kind of personal vulnerability, although most of the best tellers I’ve seen connect emotionally with their characters.  But there’s a huge spectrum of content and style in storytelling… not all stories are funny. Some tellers specialize in stories for children, some specifically tell stories not for children. There are folk tales and recitations and personal family stories, ghost stories, crime stories, adventure stories… and the list goes on. Being the generalist that I am, I have told stories in most of those categories, but I’ve never considered myself a comedian.

I suppose the point of all this is that the lines are artificial. We use the definitions to describe a performance, but as the people who build these performances, if we find the lines blurry, is that not an extraordinary gift? To have access to as broad a spectrum of work as possible?