Last year, in an interview on David Letterman’s Netflix talk show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, the retired late-night talk show host asked JAY-Z to define “flow.” In response, Hov told Letterman that he should already know what flow is since he’s a comedian. As a stand-up comic and lifelong rap fan, I immediately knew what Jay meant.
Drake and Jerry Seinfeld have nothing in common other than being Jewish and not knowing what the deal is with airline food, but when Jay talks about Snoop Dogg’s impossibly smooth delivery or the way Eminem rides a beat to where his words are a layer of percussion, the parallels between comedy and rap become obvious.
Rappers, like comics, only have their words to express themselves. Painting a vivid picture with only your words is an art form. The way Biggie creates a short film in your head with “Gimme The Loot,” concocting lucid scenes of armed robbery, is the same way Richard Pryor makes you feel like you’re by his side when he recalls the time he shot his car with a pistol in a fit of drunken rage.
An economy of words is crucial in a language-based art form. When rapping, one extra word can seemingly jumble up a whole bar, and one extra syllable can create a choppy flow that stains a verse. When a comic is on stage, one additional word or syllable has the potential to fuck up the rhythm of what could have been a perfect punchline.
When Mitch Hedberg drops a Hedbergian one-liner like “I used to do drugs. I still do… but I used to, too,” it’s the perfect amount of words. Any extra word would make that joke a tiny bit less funny. In “Unconditional Love,” when 2Pac rides the beat at a perfect pace and says, “My mission is to be more than just a rap musician / The elevation of today’s generation if I can make ‘em listen,” he employs the perfect word economy. One extra word would cause this verbal house of cards to crumble and rob the listener of its emotional power.
When words are your only currency, you need to be meticulous with how you are spending them. The best MC’s and best comics are hyper-aware of this reality, a trait that, in part, makes them masters at their craft.
Also, I’m the first person in the history to compare 2Pac to Mitch Hedberg, and if I don’t get a Nobel Prize for this piece of elite journalism, I’m gonna be fucking furious.
When Kevin Hart weaves yarn about getting permission to curse out his teacher as an elementary school student, the energy of the bit slowly bubbles up. When he finally yells at his teacher, the energy climaxes into an almost musical level of goofy rage, punctuated by his friends freaking out (in measured spurts) in the background. Now, imagine a Tech N9ne verse where the veteran rapper slowly builds intensity and then torpedoes his vocal into a neck-snapping, double-time chopper to make your head spin.
As Jay told Letterman, albeit in a much more concise and probably less pretentious way, rhythm is an essential part of rap and comedy. When you watch Chris Rock on stage, there’s something musical about his performance. It’s present in the way he aggressively paces the stage like a rockstar and the way he repeats himself and emphasizes certain words, constructing a roller coaster of vocal intensity like a fire and brimstone preacher.
In what’s possibly the best example of this approach, Rock has a bit in his 2004 HBO special “Never Scared” where he muses on the hypocrisy that white privilege is built on. He compares the criminal actions of powerful white men to the trivial actions of innocent black men, then punctuates each example with “But it’s all right, ‘cause it’s all white.” The explanations are verses, and the punchlines are the hook. It goes back and forth with an oddly catchy cadence.
If you were to take the audio of a comic telling a story and speed it up to the point of incoherence, the track would contain multiple levels—the silence, the little laughs along the way, the big laughs at the big punchlines, the applause breaks. The track would go up and down and up and down in an almost musical fashion.
Mitch Hedberg has carved his legacy as the affable people’s champ of stand-up with brilliant one-liners, but he also maintains a particular rhythm to his delivery—one that is a crucial ingredient to his act. Hedberg emphasizes odd parts of words and sentences, sounding like a stoned-out Christopher Walken. If you’re quoting a Hedberg joke, it’s impossible not to do it in his voice; otherwise, it’s not complete. Anthony Jeselnik is similar, speaking in a certain cadence and an aggressive deliberation that matches the harshness of his cartoonishly dark material, like if Mitch Hedberg was possessed by the devil.
Whether it’s Andrew Dice Clay’s spewing the XXX nursery rhymes that made him the first comic to pack out Madison Square Garden, George Carlin switching between patiently slow and rapid-fire ranting when pontificating about the oddity of the English language itself, or Katt Williams’ rhythmic pimp-preacher delivery, flow and cadence are essential to performing stand-up and can make or break a bit.
Some of the best MC’s use jokes and measured comedic timing as a tool when they need it. On “The Story Of O.J.,” a standout selection from JAY-Z’s last album, 4:44, the rap mogul begins his first verse by rolling his eyes at an infamous O.J. Simpson quote.
“O.J. like ‘I’m not black, I’m O.J. …….okay,” Jay raps. The pause between the quote and the dry and irritated “...okay” response is pitch-perfect, like a gymnast nailing a landing. It’s a genuine laugh-out-loud moment on an otherwise salient song about racial inequality.
The most obvious example of rappers practicing humor is battle rap, where laughter and “OOOOOHHH!” reactions accompany the best bars. When I interviewed battle rap legend Kid Twist earlier this year about his film Bodied, he stressed the significance of humor in hip-hop and how all the best rappers know to land a joke.
To date, Donald Glover is the only man on Earth who has mastered both. But I won’t be the least bit surprised if Jim Gaffigan drops a fire mixtape.