Myq Kaplan, a standup comedian, performs at Stand Up NY in New York City. One of Kaplan's jokes evolved over two months to finally make it onto late-night television.
Josh Haner, Dml - Nyt
Few seconds of laughs for 2 months of work
- Article by: JASON ZINOMAN
- New York Times
- May 21, 2012 - 1:10 PM
The night after Christmas, comedian Myq Kaplan did something most people would find terrifying. He told about 20 minutes of new jokes to a packed audience.
"You're supposed to lay down your coat for a lady; that was a thing," he said, speaking rapidly at the Broadway Comedy Club in New York City. "If there was a puddle, and a lady was like, 'I don't want to walk across a puddle,' well, let me put my jacket down, because the bottom of your shoe is more important than my whole jacket."
Despite earning a decent laugh, this was a work in progress: wordy and imprecise. An hour later at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, his fourth gig that night, he refined the joke, more patiently establishing the framework as a comparison between chivalry past and present, adding a crisper point of view.
"No one sees a guy with a dirty jacket and says, 'Gentleman,'" he said. "They're like, 'Homeless man.'" Louder laugh.
Kaplan saw potential, later describing the chivalry joke as his favorite new one. Walking backstage, he chatted with Louis C.K., whom he opened for earlier that year. Kaplan, 33, watched him try out raw material. Afterward, he said it was inspiring to see a comic at the top of his field working through new jokes in a basement theater around midnight.
"We all have to do this," he said.
The most underestimated quality of successful stand-up comedians is how hardworking they are, which became clear as the joke evolved over two months. Stand-up is the rare form that usually requires test driving in public.
Myq (pronounced Mike) Kaplan has since tried variations of his chivalry joke at about 80 performances. Almost every time, he tapes it, studies the results and jots down new ideas. That's the job, he said, one he can't imagine ever not doing.
The first week is arguably the most creative in the life of a joke. For Kaplan it's all about generating ideas. What could explain this jacket convention? Maybe, he speculated, jackets were once very cheap and, as he would later say onstage, "men wore seven coats out, hoping it wasn't an eight-puddle day." He also decided that the modern equivalent was leaving the toilet seat down.
All these ideas were transformed into jokes as the bit expanded. Setups shrank. Punch lines multiplied. The jacket over the puddle soon became one of several examples of chivalry that began with his pantomiming opening a door after asking the audience: "Does it detract from chivalry if, when opening a car door for a lady, I say, 'Chivaaalry!'" He dragged out the last word in the self-satisfied voice of a magician introducing his assistant. A coarse joke about chivalry during sex replaced the homeless-man line.
"It had a more powerful impact," Kaplan said.
By early January Kaplan's rhythm became more assured and moseying, lingering on pauses, finding extra laughs between punch lines. It didn't matter where he performed, chivalry always worked. The focus now was on getting the right laughs.
So Kaplan regrouped, cutting down chivalry jokes and focusing on one bit that he thought might be something "eventually": "I always leave clothes on the floor. My girlfriend was like, 'Why do you do that?' There's gross stuff under there. I am being chivalrous."
The joke was less about an outmoded convention than about a sendup of himself. His tone grew more sober, less playful.
With "Conan" in his sights, he sent the show a tape of developing jokes every week until February, when he received an invitation.
As is typical for television stand-up, his delivery on the show was slower than usual. His chivalry joke was sharpened into a skewed, punchy quip.
"I've never thrown my jacket down on a puddle or anything, but I do leave clothing all over my apartment floor," he said flatly. "Women come over and say, What's this? I say: Chivaaalry!"
Looking back at the joke's various incarnations, Kaplan said it was heartening to see improvement. Yet nothing was more fun than the first time.
"When you introduce a joke into the world, and the audience laughs," he said, "it's the most invigorating, thrilling thing."
Still, every night is a new audience, and partly to keep his show fresh, he keeps tinkering with the chivalry bit.
"No joke," he said, "is ever finished."
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