The Material

A Novel

About the Book

“A novel about an MFA program for stand-up comics better be damned funny, and The Material is definitely that. It’s also profound, deeply engrossing, dark, and generous, a great novel about humans making art right now.”—Sam Lipsyte, author of No One Left to Come Looking for You

“Brilliance is on display here.”—Percival Everett, author of James and The Trees

Can comedy be taught? Someone, at some point, seemed to think so. The Chicago Stand-Up MFA program has enrolled young comedians for nearly a decade.

Its teachers and students all know how bits work—in theory, at least. They know that there’s a line between sharp and cruel, that sad becomes funny at the right angle, that the worst is the best, the truth is the worst, and any moment of your life that isn’t a punch line will either get you to a punch line or force you to be one.

They’re all afraid to be one.

Artie may be too handsome for standup, Olivia too reluctant to examine her own life, and Phil too afraid to cause harm. Kruger may be too vanilla to command his students’ respect, Ashbee too detached. And then we have Dorothy—the only woman on the program’s faculty—who though preparing to launch a comeback tour can’t tell if she’s too abiding, too ambitious, or too ambivalent.

Whether a visiting professor—the high-profile, controversy-steeped comedian Manny Reinhardt—will do more to help or harm their cause remains to be seen. But he’s on his way. He’ll be arriving sooner than anyone thinks.

Riffing keenly across a diverse array of precision-cut perspectives, The Material examines life through the eyes of a reluctantly assembled ensemble, a band of outsiders bound together by the need to laugh and the longing to make others laugh even harder.
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Praise for The Material

“This novel is so smart. Camille Bordas has exposed the ‘material’ of stand-up by making stand-up her material. Writing comedy is difficult enough, but writing comedy bits that fail and comedy bits that succeed requires some brilliance. That brilliance is on display here.”—Percival Everett, author of James and The Trees

“Camille Bordas’s novel is wryly funny and painfully awkward, populated by an irresistible cast of overthinkers and second-guessers. It’s a deep and illuminating pleasure, full of insights about stand-up comedy, group dynamics, and the inner lives of artists.”—Tom Perrotta, author of Tracy Flick Can’t Win

“What begins as a clever conceit becomes an interrogation of sadness itself. Almost suspended in time, the novel elucidates the irreconcilability of learning and living, of performance and being.”—Rachel Cusk, author of Second Place

“Like the most brilliant comedy, The Material is not only very funny but also incisive and insightful. Reading it, I understood more acutely the thin line between the plausible and the absurd. Come for the laughs, stay for the observations so deadpan and accurate that you may be blinded by your own reflection.”—Ling Ma, author of Bliss Montage and Severance

“What makes the book work, first and foremost, is that it’s funny—fast and fizzy and dangerous in the way the best stand-up feels improvisatory without ever actually being improv . . . But beneath the laughs and digressions lies a surprisingly profound book about the costs and consolations of art. Does doing comedy make these people’s lives better? The question is moot, pointless. The last word of that question falls away, has to; the material and the life are the same thing.”—Kirkus, starred review
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Excerpt

The Material

1

On Wednesdays, three of them had to perform, in turn, a four-­to-­six-­minute routine that the whole class then proceeded to rip apart, joke by joke, beat by beat, until there wasn’t anything left and the budding comedians went home to consider other possible career paths. After searching the internet for what other jobs existed, though, after twenty minutes of this, they already had a joke about it begging to come out, a joke they thought would kill next time they went up for critique, one that played on how unfunny they’d been that last time, how they’d considered retraining, going into plumbing or whatever, counseling, but then realized how bad they would be at that, too (joke-­joke-­joke), and it would all be so meta, so self-­deprecating, no one would have a choice but to laugh and laugh, and just like that, they were at it again—­writing.

Except, of course, next workshop, they realized everyone else had gone for it as well, the modest bit, the apology, and their own critique of it was merciless: “It’s been a bit overdone,” they said, “this ‘I’m only good at telling jokes’ stuff.”

School was supposed to widen your horizons, leave you with the feeling that everything was yet to be invented, or reinvented, but after a semester in the comedy program most of the students felt the opposite, that jokes were in limited supply, and that they weren’t finding the ones that were left fast enough.

Their teachers could sympathize. Or at least Dorothy could. She remembered her fear at their age, whenever she wrote a joke, that somebody else was writing the exact same one (or the same one but better, or the same one but worse—­all options equally bad) and would tell it to an audience before hers was stage-­ready. She had pictured a race back then: comedians, scribbled-on napkins and Xerox-­warm paper sheets in hand, rushing to deliver their lines to a faceless man who collected all jokes and would soon whistle the end of the hunt. On good days, that fear of the whistle had kept Dorothy up and writing. On bad ones, it had turned into fantasy—­if only that whistle existed, she’d thought, if only someone could blow it now, what a relief it would be, to hear that it was all over, that she could stop trying.

“Were they funny in their application tapes?” Ben Kruger asked her, about their current students.

Kruger had only started teaching in the Stand-­Up MFA three months earlier. He wasn’t buying the students’ despair. He believed they were hazing him, that they were being deliberately unfunny to test his commitment as a mentor. It was an egotistical view—­no young comedian would ever risk looking bad in front of another, especially one as famous as Kruger—­but Kruger had spent more time talking to Hollywood people than comedians lately, and his paranoia was reaching new levels.

“Of course they were funny,” Dorothy said, trying to ignore the question’s subtext, Kruger’s implication that perhaps she and Ashbee were unable to recognize a good bit, raw talent, promising young people.

“So, what,” Kruger said, “they just start sucking when we admit them? They just come here and suck for a year?”

“They don’t suck. Dan is good. Olivia.”

“They don’t suck for a year,” Ashbee said. He’d just joined them in the conference room.

“When do they become good again?”

“End of their first semester,” Ashbee explained, like it was science. “Right around now, in fact. Soon they’ll start doing their impressions of us, and that will be rock bottom for them. You’ll see. They get good again after that.”

“Impressions?”

“It’s pretty embarrassing.”

“But you have to laugh a little,” Dorothy said. “Even when it’s not funny, you have to laugh at at least one thing when someone does an impression of you.”

“I don’t laugh,” Ashbee said. “You can’t start laughing when it’s not funny. That’s the worst thing you can do to a young comedian.”

The job of teaching comedy, Ashbee often said, consisted almost exclusively in sitting there, not laughing, while your students tried something. It could be painful, for all parties involved, but that was how they learned—­it was in your silence that they eventually heard something click.

“Well, I always laugh a little when they do me,” Dorothy said. “Maybe it’s a woman thing.”

The room was filling up, a particularly well-­attended faculty meeting, Ashbee noted. He remembered that pre-­winter-­break meetings tended to be, because of the cookies. The Victorianists always made cookies before Christmas.

The Stand-­Up MFA was attached to the English Department, which many English professors resented (comedians belonged in Performing Arts, if they belonged anywhere at all in academia, was the thought), but the resentment was civil. Ashbee liked that about academics, that it never went beyond whispers in the hallways, or petitions no one read.

“Should we make an announcement about the show tonight?” Kruger asked.

Their students were performing that evening in a traditional end-­of-­year battle against the Second City improv troupe.

“No one wants to go to that,” Dorothy said.

Theodore Sword, the current English Department chair, took his seat at the conference table and thanked everyone for coming.

“I know we’re all tired,” he said, “and some of you have class in an hour, so I will keep this brief.”

Kruger, on his notepad, jotted down the words “I’ll be brief: Part One, Section A, Subsection 1.” He was toying with the idea of a bit about academics, how convoluted they could make the simplest proposition. He crossed out the whole thing. “I’ll be brief,” he wrote on the next line. “I’ll be brief for three reasons—­” and felt more satisfied with that structure.

“I have news to share,” Sword said, for real this time, not under Kruger’s pen.

No one had expected news. It was the last week of the semester. Last-­week meetings were for self-­congratulation and snacks.

“I have news to share regarding Manny Reinhardt.”

Kruger stopped doodling. He looked at Dorothy, who looked at Ashbee. They hadn’t been warned that the meeting would be about Manny. For weeks, Manny had been scheduled to be their visiting professor of comedy in the spring, but a student association had raised concerns about the hire, and last Ashbee had heard from Sword, it was time to find a replacement.

“What about him?” someone asked, from Rhetoric. “Did he break anyone else’s nose?”

“There’s borderline behavior with women now, too,” said someone from Theory. “I read about it last night.”

The distinguished professor of medieval studies said she wasn’t at all surprised.

“You could always hear it in his jokes,” she said. “The guy hates women.”

The comedians remained silent. It bothered Dorothy, though, that “just listen to his jokes” comment. As if Manny had only ever written about women. To reduce Manny’s all-­encompassing misanthropy to simple misogyny was dishonest, Dorothy thought, or proof that even an overeducated English scholar could fall victim to partial readings, scanning someone’s work for the lines that fed their theory while ignoring those that questioned it. And how had the papers come to discuss Manny’s treatment of women? It had all started with Manny punching a guy at the Comic Strip, Thanksgiving weekend. The guy—­an up-­and-­coming comedian—­hadn’t pressed charges, but he’d posted photos online of his broken nose and swollen eye, gaining tens of thousands of followers in the process. He’d been honest, too, about having looked for it (he’d called Manny many names), and for a few days, it had seemed like the internet would sort it out, dividing itself between “boys will be boys” and “nothing ever justifies violence” factions until everyone got tired. But in the last week, bizarre stories had started to emerge. Three women had come forward with accusations of emotional misconduct. It appeared that Manny had slept with each of them at some point, once and only once, proposed marriage that same night, and never called again.

“I’m glad he won’t be coming here,” the person from Theory said. “My kids come do their homework in the teachers’ lounge sometimes.”

“Wait, what? Reinhardt’s a pedophile now?” Vivian Reeve said, from Creative Writing.

About the Author

Camille Bordas
Camille Bordas is the author of three prizewinning novels. The most recent, How to Behave in a Crowd, was the first she wrote in English. The earlier two, Partie Commune and Les Treize Desserts, were written in her native French. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. She has been named a Guggenheim Fellow. Born in France, raised in Mexico City and Paris, she currently lives in Chicago. More by Camille Bordas
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