Below is an experiment in trying to deconstruct the narrative structure of a comedy special. This was not easy! But it was really fun, and I'd like to do it again. The diagram below probably represents ten or so minutes of Birbiglia's entire show, "Thank God for Jokes" (on Netflix now—or, in the past, depending on when you read this).
Looking back at my diagram now, enough time having passed that I don't remember the show's content as clearly, I wish I'd written down more so that I could really follow the narrative thrusts. Maybe I'll brush up on actual sentence diagramming, too, which I haven't studied since tenth grade. (Thanks, Ms. Hirsch!) Mostly I became fascinated by the twists and turns comedians make, how they digress mid-story, digress again, and wind up back on the main thread. Or they leave the story, but its theme returns as a punchline, book-ending the show.
I think it's marvelous. And I'm positive that the nesting-doll structure must light up something in our brains and contribute to the pleasure we feel watching a good stand-up routine. Otherwise it would just be a crutch for the comedian—and maybe it is, maybe it's all about the bread crumbs. But mapping them out helps me see into how the special works, how an hour and half of laughter is produced. Is it made up of five interconnected stories? Twenty-five unrelated jokes? I'd like to perform more of these autopsies in the future — I'll keep the lab coat nearby.