Comedian Lesson: When I tell my students that you can write comedy about anything, I mean that. There are ways–I believe–to talk about anything using humor…
One of my students recently asked if you could write comedy material about family members dying. I said, “Yes!” In fact it’s healing and cathartic and it gives you an opportunity to do more than just jokes. It gives you an chance to be human.
Here’s a 2 minute segment of me doing a bit about my mother dying. Notice how I talk about the incident and talk around it at the same time, using elements that are a part of the story to convey the struggle of being a comedian going through sadness following the death of my mother.
The key is to just starting writing the truth and being honest. Within that you will find the turns, and begin to recognize the places where you can insert double-entendre humor, word, play, incongruity, recognition and surprise. And once you do, you will be able to write comedy, not only about death, but about anything.
I know, I know…how can I say the “King of Television” was wrong, right? And what do I mean by that? Well, the King of Late Night said a long time ago (okay, 1979), that comedy is not a place for women “A woman is feminine, a woman is not abrasive, a woman is not a hustler… And the ones that try sometimes are a little aggressive for my taste. I’ll take it from a guy, but from women, sometimes it just doesn’t fit too well.” The power that Johnny wielded set in motion the scarcity of really aggressive funny and feminine female comedians which lasted for many years.
Well, Johnny Carson was wrong!
Women have been funny, but they were usually abrasive and not sexy. That has changed recently and to me it’s as big an event in the so-called women’s movement as a woman’s right to vote! Yes! It’s about time. I love seeing feminine, attractive women on stage who are not afraid of being funny and who are not afraid of letting it all hang out and calling it like it is.
These new smart, funny, sexy women are the face of female comedy today; Chelsea Handler, Whitney Cummings and Sarah Silverman, (just to name a few) are paving the new road to success in comedy for women. The industry has been hungry for this without even knowing it and it’s been taking off.
Just recently E! Television decided to re-sign Chelsea Handler’s “Chelsea Lately” show for two more years. That’s great news. Chelsea will also be executive producing and guest-starring in “Are You There, Chelsea?,” a new series on NBC, scheduled to premiere on January 11th, 2012.
Way to go, Chelsea! And way to go women in comedy. We need more! C’mon girls, get your funny on!
In this mini module of ‘Comedian Lessons,’ I’m simply going to lay out a simple technique that a lot of comedians—including myself—forget to do.
Have you ever been performing a gig and you’re just not getting the laughs you expect? I mean you’ve done this material before and it’s gotten great response, but tonight, nothing! Luke warm at best. There are probably at least a dozen reasons the audience isn’t giving you the love you expect. But in this comedian lesson we are going to focus on slowing down our pace.
I was performing at a Jewish Temple fundraiser at Beverly Hills High School years ago where a ton of top comedians were performing. I mean Norm Crosby was there Max Alexander, Danny Ganz (rated best Las Vegas Act 5 years straight…but now dead…). It was a 2-night gig and I was the 3rd comedian on the bill. Most of the audience was fairly well-to-do and had left middle age in the dust in like, 1980. To say they were old would be giving them a compliment.
They were still meandering into the auditorium after the second comedian had gotten on stage.
After most were seated, they brought me up and I figured I’d kick it into gear with some high energy delivery. I felt like I needed to shake up the place. My set was okay, the audience seemed to like me, but the laughs were in short supply. When I stepped off stage Norm Crosby (Google him kids ), told me that I have really great stuff, but I need to slow down. He said, “keep your energy up but slow down. The average age of this audience is deceased so you have to really take your time.”
The next night I stepped on stage. I started fast again (I was young and hard-headed), then I glanced to the wings and Norm Crosby was standing there mouthing “slow down!” I don’t know if you’ve done this, but when you’re already moving at a fast pace, it’s tough to slow down. I looked at Norm again and he sort of took an exaggerated deep breath—I figured that he was either coaching me to breathe or he was so exasperated with me that he was finding it hard to breathe!
I finally got the message. I took a deep breath and slowed down my pace…
Almost immediately, after the breath, the jokes started to get really solid laughs and I finished strong with some great applause. Afterward I received a ton of compliments from members of the audience. It was a simple matter of slowing down, which was counter to my instinct, which was telling me to give it to them hard and fast.
Reasons to slow down:
It gives the audience a chance to hear and understand you.
It gives the audience time to properly process your set up. So your punchline will be effective.
Going fast forces the audience to think too quickly and most audiences are there to relax. If they feel they are working too hard to understand you then you are going to lose them very quickly.
One mentor once said to me: Treat your audience like fourth graders, but in a good way. Slow down and make sure you see that they are getting what you’re saying. Then they will follow you to the punch and give you a solid laugh.
That was a great lesson for me as a comedian and I hope it helped you in this module of “Comedian Lessons.”
Comedy competitions are a great way to get your name out there, meet other comics and industry professionals and develop a thick, professional skin. By that I mean that you’ll develop a bullet-proof, confidence when it comes to auditions and higher-stakes performances. Here are some tips that may help you have a better grasp on how to handle these events:
• PREPARE A TIGHT TWO MINUTES: Most major competitions, including television’s “America’s Got Talent” and “Last Comic Standing,” give you two minutes to perform in the preliminary rounds. It doesn’t seem like a long time, but if you can write and perform a set that returns approximately 10 laughs in that time, you’ll be in the running. That breaks down to a laugh every 15 seconds or so. Don’t let that fool you. It doesn’t mean that you have to do a joke every 15 seconds, it means that in the overall two minutes, it’ll average out to that. The trick is that you structure your set so that you have tags and act-outs that follow your punch lines. With this structure one joke can generate two, three or four laughs, if not more sometimes. If you’re doing other commercial comedy competitions, sometimes you might have five minutes in the prelims. Know your time and know how to finish.
• BE UNIQUE: Do material that has a unique or original point of view. You are competing against a lot of comedians. Find out what others are doing and do something, ANYTHING different. I’ve sat in the judges seat numerous times. When you see the same stuff over and over it not only gets boring, it will have a negative impact on your score.
• M.A.P.: stands for MATERIAL-AUDIENCE-PERFORMER. Your material must suit the audience and the performer. Do material that defines YOU. Also groom your material to fit the competition. For example if you are competing for a broadcast television competition, you know that the material must be “television-clean.” Best way to determine this is to YouTube comedians who appear on the Tonight Show and other late night shows and make note of where they draw the line with their material. What’s acceptable innuendo, etc. It’s not only words that get cut by the censors, certain themes are also deemed inappropriate for broadcast T.V. For example if you think you’re clean and you end your set with “…so I went to my room and jerked off!” You’re not going to get on national T.V. and you probably will not make it through the preliminary rounds.
• BE PROFESSIONAL: seems like a pretty obvious tip. But you would be amazed at how many people behave unprofessionally at these events. From showing up drunk or high to arguing with event coordinators over trivial matters, these behaviors reflect on your professionalism and will definitely reflect on your ability to succeed in a competition. Sometimes competitions come with inconveniences (whether it’s waiting in long lines, cattle calls, dealing with disorganization, etc.) be as cordial as possible and be the guy/girl who can help with the situation rather than hinder it. The organizers discuss the event with each other and if your name comes up and you’re referred to as the “asshole who didn’t want to wait in line,” then guess who’s not moving to the quarters or the semis? Perception is everything. When people don’t know you by reputation all they have is the first impression you give them. You are performing from the moment you fill out that entry form and submit your video so do it as professionally as possible.
• BE SUPPORTIVE: You are not only involved in a competition to win it, you are also in it to meet and network with other professionals. If you are supportive and friendly, odds are you’ll walk away from the competition with some connections to other future gigs. So do yourself a favor and stay positive and helpful. Don’t walk around bitching about how they could’ve done something better. It’ll usually get around pretty quickly and you’ll be labeled uncooperative.
• SUBMIT QUALITY VIDEO: Back to first impressions. If the competition has you submitting video, submit the best quality you have. Make sure the sound level is good and you can be understood and make sure the video seems reasonably professional. Don’t submit something you shot in front of your fireplace. (Don’t laugh, it’s been done!). Submit something that has been preferably shot in front of a live audience (as opposed to a dead one!) and best reflects the professional image you want to put forth. Also don’t forget–or if you didn’t know–Apple’s iPad and iPhone don’t read flash video, so if you are hosting your own video you need to post it as a .mp4 so that it can be read and playable on those Apple products. If you need FREE video conversion software, visit my post here.
• FOLLOW THE RULES: All comedy competitions come with rules and terms. A polite piece of advice–READ THEM! It’s called the fine print. Know right off the bat what you’re getting into and what the terms are. You don’t want to get there and realize that you’re not prepared or that you didn’t meet the criteria. For example if they wanted a set to be 2 minutes only. Then you better keep to the time. I don’t care how funny you are, if you break the rules, the organizers will most likely disqualify you. Don’t lose on a technicality. Follow the rules.
• FIND OUT ABOUT THE LIGHT: If you don’t know about the light by now, read this. The light is how the comedy club organizers signal the performer that his/her time is up. Find out where the light is and what procedure they are following. Is the light a flashlight as they might use at Zanies in Chicago? Or is it a light that’s fixed near the back of the room, like at the Improv in Los Angeles? Or is it a picture or neon that illuminates, like at the Comedy Store in L.A.? Know what the light is and when they turn it on. Do they give you a minute light, 30-second light? You are much better knowing this information up front. You don’t what that on your mind when you are performing.
• HAVE FUN!: This is very important. When you do a competition, have a good time. It’s a long-shot that you are going to win. The more competitions you do, the more you improve, the higher your odds. So while you’re there, have a good time. You’ll enjoy it more. It will reflect in your professionalism and it leaves your mind in a better state to identify and create new material. Who knows? While your involved in the competition you might find yourself with a new comedy bit. Five new minutes on doing comedy competitions!
• SEND A “THANK YOU” TO THE ORGANIZERS – Always send a thank you note to the organizers of the comedy competitions. As trivial as this sounds, it’s always good to stay in their good graces. Most organizers for comedy competitions usually run clubs or maintain other booking responsibilities. If you send them a thank you note with a card that has your picture, you’re keeping your face in front of them. They’ll probably look at it and say, “that was cool.” It doesn’t always convert to work. But it’s better to be remembered as “cool,” because if you stay at it in this business, you will run into those people again.
A good comedian needs to get acquainted with the reaction shot.
What do I mean by that? Well, if you’ve ever watched “Friends” or the BBC’s “Coupling,” you will get to see truly masterful work on the part of the actors (and the directors and editors), in capturing the reaction shot. The reaction shot is the look on the actor’s face in response to a line that is said to them. Great sitcoms will get a full half of their laughs (if not more) from the reaction shot. It’s classic. It is a great lesson for comedians to watch and learn from these pros.
A comedian really needs lessons in how to use his own reaction shot. When you say a line, make a statement, or hit a punch line, go ahead and show us how you feel about it by responding to it. It becomes its own tag. It’s a subtle act-out to the joke.
Jay Leno uses the shrug and blows out an exasperated ‘raspberry’ to indicate that he’s being sarcastic. Jackie Gleason, Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams use the ‘slow-burn’ and the ‘take.’ Dave Chappelle uses his own version of the take and will sometimes give us a dead-pan. Seth Meyers from Saturday Night Live will also do his version of a dead-pan or a take right into the camera, sometimes daring the the audience to laugh. It’s almost like he’s saying in his head, “C’mon people wait for it, wait for it—(then they laugh) “there it is!”
It’s their reaction to a line and it not only makes the bit come alive, it also gives it a second or third laugh-point from one joke.
We’re taught all our lives that every thing is in the lines. We hear things like “learn your lines,” or “tell me how you feel about it,” or “what do you have to say about it.” We learn that comedians get up to the mic and they talk. While all of that is true, we also need to react. A full ninety percent of communication with human beings is non-verbal and we have to remember to show the audience how we feel about something. Not just tell them.