How do I Get on Stage and be Funny When Everything Hurts?

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Got a call from a young comedian today. Didn’t recognize the number, but I took the call anyway.

He said, “Thanks for taking my call. I really need some advice…”

I sighed to myself and thought… I knew I shouldn’t have answered the phone…

Then I heard his voice crack a little.

Dude was hurting.  He went on to tell me what was up. He said, “I have a show tonight. My girlfriend just broke up with me and I’m fu**ing crushed. She won’t even talk to me. What do I do?”

I thought to myself, Did you call the right number? I’m a joke writer!

Then he said, “How do I go on stage and be funny when everything hurts?”

I like to help people. I thrive in it, but when he said that, I could feel myself like, I don’t know–jump–to the occasion.

I didn’t know whether the comedian in me was feeling heroic or schadenfreude;  some kind of sadistic enjoyment that someone else was suffering.

So I took a breath and just let words come out of my mouth. I’m sure it was rambling–like these blog posts the three of you endure from me!

I said, “I’m sorry you’re going through such pain. Don’t fight it. You’re human. Embrace it.

“Allow yourself to wallow in it and experience it, but when that spotlight turns on and they call your name… it’s showtime… got it?!

“Because feeling overwhelmed by emotion is only one part of being human. Another part being able to turn on your own light, shift your emotion and give them a show, even if it’s on a fucking dime.

Because being a performer is not what we do, it’s who we are.” 

I know that might sound cliche or trite to the point of sounding ingenuous, but nothing could be truer.

When I first started in this business, one of my life changing moments occurred when I heard a joke by Rodney Dangerfield (now, you have to imagine his voice saying this joke for the best effect).

He said, “Comedy is in my blood; too bad it’s not in my material!”

And though I laughed at the punchline, it was the set up that I really felt to my bones. I thought comedy is in my blood.  And that was the moment I decided to do it for the rest of my life.

And in the rest of your life, you are going to experience ups and downs, breakups and deaths, but that doesn’t change who you are.

That light still goes on at eight o’clock and that audience has paid good money to laugh. So for that five minutes, thirty minutes or an hour, you have to bring it and bring it hard.

My talk seemed to help this young man on the phone, because his voice changed. He became animated.

“You’re right!” He said. His voice cracked again, but this time for a different reason; he was excited.

“Thank you for taking my call and thank you for the advice, man. Really!”

We hung up the phone. (Okay, didn’t really ‘hang up’ the phone. I pressed a button…)

But, if I didn’t say it on the phone, I’ll say it here: ‘Thank YOU, young comedian!’

After that call, I felt I was supposed to feel proud of myself and, I don’t know–maybe heroic?

But in that precise moment, my eyes filled with tears and I realized, that call was as much for him as it was for me.

In short, we’re human. Allow yourself to feel, to go through the ups and downs of life. But when that light goes on, give them a show and be unstoppable!

After all, being a comedian or a performer is not what you do; it’s who you are.

Stop Overthinking the Joke. Sometimes It’s Just ‘Funny’

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If there was a big yellow caution sign for anyone in the comedy world it should be “Watch for Big Head”

One of my most notorious weaknesses in comedy is trying to be too clever.

I’ve spent nearly thirty years, not only as a comedian and comedy writer, but also as a comedy scientist; figuring out what makes something funny and how to bottle it so it can be reproduced at will.

Sometimes I’ll write a joke and think to myself, ‘that’s too simple… that’s not going to get a big laugh,’ only to try the joke on stage and get not just a great laugh, but an applause break.

I wrote a joke the other day and opened with it that night at the Comedy Store:

“The republicans are consulting with Caitlyn Jenner on how to best deal with Donald Trump. You know, since she’s now the expert on how to quickly eliminate a dick.”

The joke got a crisp laugh, then solid applause followed… and just earlier I was in my ‘big head’ I wondering whether that would even get a good laugh.

It’s Easy to Get Too Clever

The more experience we have in comedy, the easier it is to get too clever; to get stuck in analysis of the joke.

Most solid comedy is about simple associations, recognition and release of tension. Because Caitlyn Jenner, Donald Trump and the presidential race are all politically charged and issues that are now, it’s more likely to create tension and provide for solid release. And since release is the one of the top triggers for applause, it worked.

But because I was in my ‘big head,’ I second guessed myself.

If it Sounds Funny, Do It!

Sometimes, we have to remember to get out of our own way and write what we think is funny. Does it sound funny? Does it feel funny? Then do it.

Emmy Award-winning writer, Gene Perret said, “Sometimes the joke doesn’t need to be categorized. Sometimes it defies explanation, it’s just funny.

He goes on to say,

“Steven Wright, one of the most inventive comedy writers of all time, has a line that defies categorizing, that reads:

“When I was a kid we had a sandbox in our back yard that was filled with quicksand. I was an only child… eventually.”

Kathleen Madigan had a line in her act during the time when the book Final Exit, a controversial book on how to commit suicide, was first published. She talked about being in a bookstore checkout line behind a customer who was buying it.

“The guy was about to pay $19.95 for a book on how to commit suicide. I said, ‘Hey man, I’ll stab you in the head for five dollars.'”

Mr. Perret makes a good point. Although each of these jokes has a definite reason that they would trigger laughs, they don’t necessarily fit into any category. They are just funny.

I like explaining and understanding ‘why’ something is funny. It’s my life’s work. But sometimes you don’t need an explanation, sometimes funny is just funny.

So resist the temptation of getting into over analysis of the joke, if it feels funny, just do it.

In other words, watch out for ‘big head.’