Levi MacDougall Builds It Backwards

Levi MacDougall comes up with jokes that are funny and thoughtful. Other jokes of his are thoughtful, then funny. Still more are both at the same time, but only if you turn them inside out.

He used to put on a weekly sketch comedy show that I would go to and laugh at — in a good way.

Now, when’s not performing stand-up, he’s writing for a TV show: Important Things with Demetri Martin.

Presumably, he does other, non-comedy related things.

Do you and your audiences agree on which of your material is funniest? Maybe 85% of the time they’re laughing at what I thought was funny, but how much they’ll laugh I find impossible to guess. The most interesting thing to me, though, is when people find a joke funny for a different reason than I did, or when they’re laughing at something that wasn’t part of the punchline. That’s exciting in a way because when it happens it feels like the audience and I are both discovering something.

Do you come up with jokes differently depending on whether or not they’re going to be delivered by you or told by an actor? The initial process is the same in that it starts with throwing a bunch of thoughts on paper and making sense of it later. The main difference in writing for someone else is the refining process. When I’m writing for myself there are no limitations. But the show has very specific limitations in that each episode has a theme. There’s enough leeway within that structure that I can usually fit any good idea I have into it, but it does turn into a riddle-solving sometimes. There’s more, “How can I make this work?” and a little less strictly joke writing. And for whatever reason, writing for the show, my writing tends to be more about volume. I’m just trying to come up with as many jokes as I can.

Do you tend to write the punchlines first? Pretty much. It’s rare that a joke falls into my head as a fully formed idea with a set-up and a punchline. Most of my jokes tends to start as a notion that I then need to contrive into a finished joke. A lot of the time I’m finding a way to make my weird ideas work within the standup set-up/punchline equation. I end up doing a lot of reverse engineering.

You work long days at the show. Are you still coming up with good ideas thirteen hours into your writing day? Working so long is kind of nice in a way because it reduces the pressure to be creative immediately. When you have the time to generate stuff, you’re eventually going to come up with things that you can use. One of the bggest problems I’ve had in the past is stopping before I give an idea a real chance. I’ve gotten better at writing anything that comes to me instead of cutting off ideas because I thought they were too stupid or annoying. That doesn’t mean all the material is better, but when I can just do enough work, something usable tends to come out.

How does the city where you live affect the jokes you write? Being in different cities definitely affected the comedy. The stakes have gotten higher in every city I’ve lived in. I can’t imagine starting in L.A. knowing that someone from NBC could be sitting in the audience. I was glad to start out in Calgary. There’s no sense that you’ll get discovered out there. I liked that. If you fail, it’s a whole new audience the week after. I think that’s a huge advantage. The ramifications of your jokes will go no futher than the show at which you tell them. I remember I was scared making the move to Toronto. I thought there’d be TV people in the audience all the time. But no one’s being discovered there either. I had a lot of freedom to develop naturally without wondering what other people who could affect my career might think. Hopefully I can fabricate that same feeling here in L.A. If I’d started out here I think I would’ve been distracted by idea that industry people who maybe had very different motives than I did for favoring certain stuff would be watching me. Sorry, do you hear something strange?

No. Maybe we have a bad connection. Are you in a convertible? A little roadster? It sounds like there’s some motion going on.

I wish. That would be awesome. I like the idea of you interviewing me while driving around in a convertible. Hey man, what ever you need to do to get into the right headspace. I can respect that.

What was the last creative thing you did? I saw a dog in the back of a cube van on the lot where I work and there was a sign nearby. I was entertained by the wording of the sign and I took a picture. About 11 minutes ago I put that picture up on my website.


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