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Elastic Banded Bits


I love Moleskine notebooks! And as the holidays pass, more and more of my family members are hip to how often I use them, and so “Santa” sprinkles these delightful leather chunks down my chimney. Oh, my precious elastic-bound children. I fill you with my dreams despite your controversial Chinese labor camp origins!

I bumbled into stand-up comedy via a bunch of different performance backgrounds, but one thing that translated the most directly was solo performance. I did short one man shows in college and later at an awesome venue in Chicago called The Live Bait Theater. I wrote out an entire script, word for word, and performed it such as I wrote it. If I would “riff” it sent chills down my spine. Good chills! Don’t get me wrong. I was also a vet of the Improv Olympic, but I felt the rush of talking directly to the theatrical audience, fresh from their cars where they had just listened to “The Best of Prairie Home Companion.”

Now, in stand-up, deviating from the script is all a part of evolving what I do. I did not realize it right away, but it was good that when I moved from theatrical writing to stand-up I downsized from large notebooks to the pocket-sized Moleskine. There’s only a certain amount of writing I SHOULD have been doing.

Not everyone likes to “write” their stand-up. Much as some people don’t learn as well in a traditional school setting (because they’re “visual learners” or are “scared of guns”) some stand-ups prefer to just talk their ideas out as opposed to write everything down. I’ve tried a strict diet of that kind of writing. But I end up forgetting a lot. That is a natural flaw of mine that creates intense hulk rage. I mean, who can remember what they just said in front of strangers? Especially those good parts, when the lovely hormones kick in and beg your brain to take a vacation. If you remember every good thing you said onstage and don’t need to write them down, good for you. You are a creepy alien, also.

Then again, when I do sit down for a crack at the old write-em-ups, the act of writing in a notebook is only cathartic for a small window of time. Free-writing especially. Free writing means using an idea as a jumping board and then writing without stopping to flesh out the idea. It takes very few moments before my mind is miles ahead of my pen and I begin to physically squirm with frustration.

I don’t think you worry about getting every word on the page into your performed set. If it’s a one liner, a joke where you’ve carefully worked out the economy of language, I can of course see how important each word is. So I have begun a conversion into bulleted lists. Outlines. Basic skeletons to hang my vocal meat upon. The trick is then getting of stage and writing in a series of arrows and notes to indicate the important things I did right and don’t wish to forget. Because while I am a total control freak my memory is garbage, and if I don’t properly pat myself on the back on paper it is as if my brain grows back vacant brain cells where the memory once lay.

So a typical joke looks on paper like:


And I try to keep it nice and clean until I say it onstage. Then I walk off stage, grab Mr. Moleskine, and draw maps all over it like I’m trapped in the Swan Station with blacklight paints.

Is this the best way to write stand-up? For me, now, yes. I had to work backwards and overdo things first before loosening up. Then I came back to over-managing my words in a new way, because it became a sick and delightful comfort to me. But I think whoever you are, you should try working against your brain’s grain for a while. It might keep you from leaving out what your weaknesses allow.

Image: Moleskine

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  1. Thanks for these posts. You inspired me to bust out my old Moleskine again to try writing some material. I’ve done stand up a couple of times, all in sort of a shitty enviornment, and to middling (at best) success, but I’ve been wanting to try again for a while. Having a resource like your posts make that first step back towards getting on stage again a lot less intimidating, so, yeah, thank you.

  2. Nick Cowan says:

    Moleskine good. I was overjoyed about a year ago when I came across the small ones. It was to the point with the small spiral bounds where I’d have to leave the first few and last pages blank because they’d fall apart for sure.

    Nice post. I’m a budding writer of sorts, but this is an interesting bit to keep in the back of my teeny little mind.

  3. Matt says:

    If you want to see crazy a moleskine notebook, check out the one these guys made, that looks exactly like a large moleskine from the outside, but is actually an iPad case. Hipster overload.

  4. Dan Telfer says:

    High five!

    Actually, there was a small chunk I cut out where I basically went crazy for how indestructible the elastic bands were, and this was a little more of a fluff piece on Moleskines. But yes, the idea of the Comedy Nerdist articles is to delve into the comedy creative process so I backed off a little bit.

    Part of what I took away from one man shows is that the audience will always have a sincere draw towards the autobiographical. It’s not necessarily “better” but it’s a special kind of compelling. I made this more about my process for that reason too, because in the end I like writing and performing about what is real to me and not just reviewing things. I feel lucky to get to write here and I’d rather pursue something with more potential to be interesting.

  5. rich c says:

    Here’s my Moleskine secret…custom moleskine goodness:
    I believe you can do just about any book, but I did that one for my bestest friend’s birthday. You can do custom art (not cheap, but not bad if you do a bunch) or just text (pretty cheap, and a nice Clarendon-ish looking font) and they apparently don’t censor. My inscription was:
    Earl of Douchebaggery
    And not only did they not censor, they even hand-wrote a note complimenting me on it. Nice, because it wasn’t THAT good. Anyway, makes for a relatively cheap custom gift for your closest Moleskine nerdlings…

  6. G says:

    I love that Dan is on the nerdist!!! it’s my two most favorite nerd entities combining to form a more perfect union. high five!

  7. Ryan Kladar says:

    Haha I actually was hoping for a moleskine article too but I still really enjoyed this one. I constantly change the medium on which I try to record my life so this was quite interesting.

    And on another note, after reading this here thread o’ comments I realized that one of the major reasons I come check out this site daily (other than that damn Swedish Chef vid. Gets me every time) is because you, Chris, and the other writers always comment back on your posts. Which is obviously awesome. Sorta makes me feel like you actually exist. :] Shrimpee shrimpee shrimpee…

  8. my-name-here says:

    btw… you should get a car nerdist. Well, maybe not. I know I would enjoy it however.

  9. my-name-here says:

    I know, but I just saw the title and was thrown off by the contents. I need to start looking at who writes things before i start reading them.

    Also, is it odd that I got a little burst of nerd excitement when I noticed you responded to me?

    Yes… yes it is.

  10. Catie says:

    Moleskins are amazing!! I didn’t realize how much I used them until last week when I attempted to compile all of my notes from grad school onto my computer. (These are my fun summer activities…) Now I have a Moleskin Mountain in the middle of my room. It dominates the landscape, and I think it’ll prove to be a man-magnet. Or at least a tribute to my thousands of hours dedicated to book learnin’.

  11. rqt says:

    wait, so this isn’t a website about the paper industry?

  12. Chris Hardwick says:

    my-name: this is the point of Dan’s column. He teaches stand-up writing at Second City, so he blogs about his process to try to help up and coming comedy writers…

  13. my-name-here says:

    I was sad this was more about your comedy writing and less about awesome Moleskine notebooks. =[

  14. Dan Telfer says:

    I haven’t seen the super tiny one in person yet. Sounds kinda awesome though. It’s sometimes the only thing I bring to shows besides my phone, wallet, and keys and it would be nice to fit it in my pants better.

  15. Chris Hardwick says:

    I LOVE my Moleskine. They even make super tiny ones now.