top of page
  • Writer's pictureRicky

Two Styles of Comedy

This week, I got to headline back-to-back shows for the biggest English-speaking comedy club in Barcelona, which means I got to try out eleven minutes of new stand-up material on being Iraqi-American on an audience of mostly tourists.

(It went great!)

I also went to several improv workshops and really got to know folks in the local stand-up and improv scene. I made a lot of friends at The Comedy Club, and hope to be back soon.

(It was so much fun!)

And that’s the interesting difference between stand-up and improv to me:

These two different styles of comedy have two different notions of success.

  • So stand-up went great. I did really well.

  • Improv was so much fun. We had some really engaging scenes.

I started out doing comedic storytelling in 2023 towards the end of writing my dissertation. I was just trying to get out of my house and my brain a little bit more.

Comedic storytelling and stand-up are basically the same thing, except in stand-up if you don’t get a laugh every 15 seconds your “bomb timer” starts ticking.

A stand-up set is basically a rant you’ve memorized.

When you’re up there, it’s just you and a microphone. You have your rant, mostly in your brain with maybe a few notes in your notebook or phone. And then you throw yourself into performing or reproducing that rant, noting that this extra detail worked this time, and that word really should have stayed in to set up a joke two minutes later.

I’d been writing a dissertation chapter every month, so my brain was already on rant-construction mode. Stand-up just encouraged me to prioritize Laughs over Truth.

2 reasons philosophers are well-equipped to try stand-up:

1. Here’s the critical feedback you asked for!

Philosophers get Revise & Resubmits (R&Rs) all the time. When your paper is very good but the reviewers want you to incorporate their critical feedback before publishing it, they give you a chance to Revise your paper & Resubmit it for consideration.

This is basically a chance to think things over a bit more, rearticulate the points they found most confusing or confused, include the relevant literature they’re worried about that may or may not have been written by them, and so on.

If you like R&Rs, you’ll love stand-up. As you stick around a comedy scene for a while, you start to see comedians rework the same five minutes for weeks and months, pruning and prodding their material to get better laughs. Jokes might disappear from one of their sets only to reappear weeks later in another where they finally ‘click’.

Sometimes these tiny changes make a huge difference, sometimes not. But making a difference = how hard the audience laughs. Talk about clear critical feedback!

By keeping the changes that do get bigger laughs, good comedians enact a sort of Darwinian selection process that makes their bits better over time.

2. I lost my stage fright a long time ago by talking to nerds.

We give 10-60 minute talks all the time with the help of PowerPoint. In stand-up, you only have to fill 5-10, and while crowd work is welcome, Q&A’s not an expectation.

A Q&A session can feel like a battleground. I have spent so much time communicating ideas and arguments to other people whose job is to be ruthlessly critical about them. The worst thing that can happen—getting aggressively heckled by someone who may or may not have a devastating point—has already happened to me multiple times during Q&A.

And…it was totally fine! And that was at work!

Guess I’ll keep going.

The voice in my head is basically always running anyway, so when I write it up formally it’s called a philosophy paper and when I include jokes and memorize it it’s called a stand-up bit.

How do you think I write a blog post every week?

But in the past six months, I’ve started doing way more improv. And it’s been a nice shift.

2 reasons philosophers should try improv:

1. You can’t really bomb in improv.

Success+failure aren’t individual to you, they’re shared by everyone. And even more crucially, success+failure aren’t the focus.

Improv focuses more on process than results.

Improv doesn’t have the same combative or competitive framing where every single word you say and action you do gets scrutinized and perfected. Because improv is disposable, you have more freedom to explore. And because improv is cooperative, it’s no longer me by myself out there anymore; it’s now us working and exploring together.

To be clear, the job of “Yes And” isn’t to make you agree with your scene partner—conflict is often way more interesting—but to accept their contribution into the world you’re building together and to “try to make your partner look good” by buying into working with it together.

2. Improv is much more like play than work.

Even so, improv isn’t totally foreign to philosophers. (Sick burn I know.)

In Q&A, philosophers get cattle prodded into going on mostly-impromptu rants off of audience suggestions. Some Q&As end up feeling more combative, others more cooperative. Even so, some philosophers are so afraid of criticism if they say something a tiny bit wrong they actually print out and read their papers word-for-word when they’re invited to give talks!

Now jump-cut to improv, where we embrace the fact we don’t have all the answers and try to have fun with it together!

While stand-up can really feed into the philosopher’s rant-producing error-detection mode, improv encourages us to listen to our scene partners. And I think that makes a huge difference.

The Greeks thought we laugh at others because we feel superior to them. On this sort of view, comedy is just a form of punching down or ridiculing others, which does kinda look like assholish behavior. Maybe comedy can be useful for purging certain emotions, but given their view of it, the Greeks still thought there was something ethically fishy about comedy.

A fair amount of comedy does work this way, and that attitude might seem a bit more plausible in the context of stand-up. But it’s so unlike my experiences in improv that I think Plato should swing by his local improv jam. Sometimes it’s nice to escape Debate Mode.

Honestly I think most grown-ups could benefit from just playing again. I’m gonna try to include more improv exercises in the next class I teach.

After all, not everything we do in life has to be as precise or perfected as a Q&A or R&R. Why so serious?

Tl;dr go outside philosophers.

Related Posts

See All


Sign up for more philosophy in your life!

Thanks for subscribing!

bottom of page