What is the 'Last 20 Minutes'?
Thank you for reading the first of what I hope will be many blog posts. My name is Drew Fralick, I am a comic and mental health counselor who has been living in Shanghai, China for the past ten years. Happy 2017 and hope you enjoy!
Psychotherapy and Comedy as mirroring art forms
I get asked a lot about what its like to be a counselor by day and comedian by night/weekend. Recently, I’ve been responding with a little joke: “The two are not that different, during the day I listen to other people’s problems and at night other people listen to my problems.” Despite what people may think, psychotherapy and stand-up comedy are both art forms that mirror each other in almost everyway. They say that comedic timing is one of the most difficult skills to learn, it is pure instinct. For counselors timing is also a skill that I doubt textbooks are able to teach. You sit with a client and you listen, and wait, and question, and listen more, all the while waiting for that ‘moment’ when a well placed hunch, insight or question could prove therapeutic for the client. While this is one similarity, there are many many more.
Is it a coincidence that 1 therapy session is about an hour and headlining a comedy show is about an hour? Not only are they approximately the same length, I see them as having a similar structure. One book that I have found helpful for understanding the structure of a therapy session is The Clinical Interview Using DSM-IV-TR Volume 1 by Othmer and Othmer. I believe comics can read this book to gain some inspiration when writing an hour long set. [DISCLAIMER: I am not encouraging comics to read this and become ‘open micer therapists’]. In this book it talks about the three stages of an hour session: opening, middle, and ending phases. Main tasks of these stages are outlined below.
In the opening phase the interviewer warms up the patient, establishes rapport, and prepares the patient for the main task of the interview
In the middle phase, they perform the bulk of the work; therefore it takes the longest time.
In the end phase the interviewer prepares the patient for closure. Therapist avoids highly emotional topics, summarizes for the patient what has been learned and provides an outlook for the future. 
 Taken from Othmer and Othmer (2002)
In a therapy hour, the opening stage is extremely important. Research has shown that the most important element for the success of therapy is the quality of the relationship shared between client and counselor. Not only is it important for clients to like their counselor, it is also crucial that there be a sense of the counselor’s expertise – in other words a belief that the counselor is able to do what they say they can do. Successes early on in the counseling process can reinforce the belief that the counselor knows what they’re talking about and pushes the momentum of therapy forward.
In the same way, a comic must prove to an audience that they have expertise as well – in other words they are able to make an audience laugh. In my experience audiences generally decide whether or not a comic has this ability in about 10 seconds to 2 minutes. [unless they know the comic e.g. a celebrity, or have previously seen the comic perform].
I see strong parallels between how Othmer and Othmer structure a therapeutic hour and how a comic would go about writing and performing a coherent hour. I would structure the comedy hour in the following way:
In the opening phase you are building trust with the audience. This is done in two ways: [a] audience believes that you are able to be funny [b] audience trusts you as a person – this is all about things like fitting with your stage persona, not being emotionally unstable onstage, audience feeling like you are in control of the room/show, etc.
In the middle phase you talk about who you are. Material for this phase is more difficult to write and more difficult to perform. However the payoff is that if this phase is done successfully audience members will feel they have connected with you on a deeper level. These people become fans.
In the closing phase you deliver a message. This is what could be called a ‘Life Philosophy’. Its not like the middle phase where you are like ‘heres who I am’, its beyond that. Its more like, ‘you know who I am already, but heres what I think about the world.’
Closing phase material is extremely difficult to write, practice and is not pallatible for many audience members or even fans. If you perform Closing phase material on an open mic or 15 minute weekend slot opening for someone else, you are about 95% guaranteed to bomb. [one time I opened for Jimmy Schubert with a 12 minute long bit about people’s indifference to human trafficking – one of the worst comedic decisions I have ever made. Not recommended]. Indeed, some people come to comedy shows just to laugh and don't want anything that is deeper or provoking. I think some comics would even disagree with me that this closing phase is important. However, comics who write and perform into this phase go beyond the realm of ‘entertainment’ and into the realm of ‘impact’.
Some of my favorite comics, including Bill Burr, Des Bishop and Ari Shaffir write and perform into this closing phase. They leave with you a little something to think about or be challenged by in addition to a great show.
What is The Last 20 Minutes?
If you ever come see me perform live [and I sincerely hope you will] you’ll notice a pattern to my hour. I try to structure my hour like Othmer: the first 20 minutes doing jokes, the middle 20 minutes introducing who I am and the last 20 minutes talking about something that is important to me. Examples of this are talking about things like mental illness, human trafficking, religion, death, etc. I don't think people feel too cheated by this format but for those who do we tell them absolutely zero refunds.
However, as I mentioned above opportunities to write and share ‘The Last 20 Minutes’ are far too few. So is this a comedy blog? Yes it is. Is it a mental health blog? Sometimes yes as well. But I hope it will be more than all that as well. I hope to share my Last 20 Minutes with you regularly.
I’ll be putting a new post out weekly. Every Saturday. Please share with your friends and family, and post to social media. Also check this website for my upcoming comedy shows!
Looking forward to sharing with you in the new year,