INSIDE THE ART, CRAFT AND BUSINESS OF WRITING for Film, TV, Books, Stage, Print or Digital Media (with Particular Attention to Comedy)
“Anyone can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time and for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everyone’s power and that is not easy.” – Aristotle
A rant can be a great comedy (or drama) technique. It was pioneered – or at least first documented — (I think) by Lenny Bruce and subsequently practiced by other (usually) angry (often) young (almost always) men including Sam Kinison, Chris Rock, Dennis Miller, George Carlin, Lewis Black and Bill Hicks (who even has an album called “Rant in E Minor”).
Roseanne Barr and Sandra Bernhard have done some pretty great ranting, but it’s generally a harder form for women to pull off because, let’s face it, our culture by and large still likes its women nice and easy, not rough and angry.
I produced a show called Un-Cabaret that featured some impressive comedy rants by brilliant boys like Patton Oswalt, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Bobcat Goldthwait, Dana Gould, Taylor Negron, Andy Kindler and others. Some great female ranters also came into their own there, including Margaret Cho, Kathy Griffin and Beth Lapides.
A rant is a speech or text that is typically an attack on an idea, a person or an institution, and very often lacks proven claims. Lots of writers do it really well in print too: Burroughs, Hunter Thompson, Thomas Paine, etc. (again, predominantly angry men, although not always so young), but a rant is at its most viscerally effective when delivered personally and out loud because it’s harder for the audience to stop listening than for a reader to stop reading.
A rant is distinct from a ‘story’ (a narrative with beginning, middle and, hopefully, an end), a ‘skit’ (a little play or fragment that includes characters) or a ‘bit’ (a chunk of comedy that sticks on one topic but is usually more rationally structured and lacks the lacks the passion and sustained momentum of a rant). In some cases, rants are based on facts and concrete information, but the key ideas expressed are what the individual personally feels.
You can use a rant onstage to great effect in standup, solo shows or spoken word performances, in a screenplay, TV script or stage play (just ask David Mamet, patron saint of stage and screenplay ranters).
7 Elements of a Good Comedy Rant
1. A clear topic – If you aren’t clear what you’re talking about and you don’t define it clearly for the audience, don’t bother trying to get on a rant. Unless, like Rosanne Rossanadanna, your topic is based on mis-understanding. A big, important topic works best. I’ve heard wannabe ranters hurl their energy into topics like ‘pet clothes’ and peter out quickly. What’s the bigger topic? What are you really angry about?
2. Passion – I’ve seen a lot of comedians aim too low and throw passion at mis-guided or made-up topics like ‘clothes for pets’. Is that really what you’re so angry about? My advice: use your passion for the thing you’re actually worked up about.
3. Attitude – Try to go beyond ‘oh great’ or ‘really?’ to find the real attitude that underlies the emotion. A rant isn’t the place to mitigate your attitude. In fact, it’s the place to ‘maxigate’ it.
4. Point of View – Don’t lose sight of yourself and your particular situation. Why are you so worked up that you have to take this rant to the stage (or page, or internet)?
5. Rhythm – A rant is a great place to find your own personal rhythm because the passion and momentum help you transcend your ‘logical’ thinking, natural inhibitions and rational writing voice. If it rhymes too much, it’s a poem, but a few well-chosen couplets can be a beautiful thing. A good rant almost always uses rhythmic repetition of a word or phrase.
6. Momentum – A rant is a great place to practice fast-talking. Audiences love a rant because they know what ride they’re on and their only job is to try to keep up with you. Your job, of course, is to try to keep up with yourself and not get derailed by your own momentum. A good rant is like a visceral mental high-wire act on speed.
7. Dynamics – A lot of people get loud fast and stay loud through their whole rant. A great rant is like a roller coaster with highs and lows, sections where you speed up and slow down, get louder and softer. Then, just when we think it’s over… zoom, you’re off again. Hopefully with a new angle or twist to keep us interested.
Rants are a great way to milk more laughs from a word, phrase or topic. Also, remember that great onstage rants are often of the moment, so don’t be surprised if you try to re-create it and find yourself lacking the emotional juice that fueled you the first time. That’s why you recorded it the first time.
You did record it, right? Please tell me you recorded it.