Earlier this year you we learned that Jon Stewart wasn’t retiring. He was actually very busy. His next project found him landing at HBO where he signed a 4-year production deal.
But don’t expect to see Stewart’s face on the screen anytime soon.
In an interview this summer, Stewart said that he’s done doing television.
More specifically he meant that he was done appearing on television on a regular show. Being on TV 22 minutes a night, 5 nights a week is grueling. Stewart did it for 17 years, it’s easy to see how he could burn out.
But now he will be producing animated shorts that he hopes will hit the HBO screens by September.
HBO’s programming chief Casey Bloys said at the TCA’s that it will be an animated parody of a cable news network. These animated shorts “allows (Stewart) to comment on events in real time,” Bloys said.
Stewart is also slated to voice some characters.
Rumor has it it’s going to be “Onion-like.” Not sure what that means. But it might mean that the show is going to present exaggerated fake news in response to real news that’s happening in real time.
Jon Stewart led a revolution that changed the face of TV comedy. As a comedy writer, it would be wise to follow Stewart and keep up with what’s happening.
How Can You Prepare for This as a Writer?
Once again, the landscape for writers is continuing to expand, presenting more opportunities than ever before in history.
So How can you prepare for this as a writer?
I would suggest working your short-form current events jokes on a daily basis. Work your joke writing like you would work out at the gym. Set a schedule. Instead of arms and back day, why don’t you make it current events one and two-liner (monologue-style) jokes. Instead of ‘leg day’ why don’t you make that Seth Meyers ‘Weekend Update’ style day. Instead of cardio why not set that day to work short sketch.
Find out what’s on TV now. What’s hot. What gets people going and copy it in your practice so that you can be prepared for any opportunity.
Better yet, get your writing packets together, get them out there on a regular basis and make your own opportunity.
Because remember, “luck” is simply opportunity meets preparedness.
Keep your eyes open and your ears to the ground. Or better yet just keep your eyes on the internet.
Go get ’em!
Watching for opportunity to write for Late Night TV is sort of like following the NASDAQ or NYSE.
In the market, every time there’s movement in a company’s management, the stock fluctuates.
Fluctuation means opportunity.
When you pay attention, it could be life changing. If you purchased 2000 shares of Apple stock at this time in 2005, at $5.60, it would’ve cost you $11,200.
Today, even as Apple stock is down from its highs, that same stock would be worth $197,320.00
[Chart courtesy of Google Finance]
That’s a huge profit on your money.
Which is why stock market investors watch the market and study a company’s maneuvers with an eagle’s eye; for that opportunity to turn $11k into $200k.
When a good brand is having some bad luck it’s a great time to move in.
So what does that have to do with writing for Late Night TV?
The same thing that happens at Apple happens in Late Night TV all the time!
A writer interested in writing for Late Night TV, should be paying close attention to the movements that happen behind the scenes just like a market investor eyes the NYSE or the NASDAQ.
Because turning $11k into $200k over a period of 11 years is a sweet investment, but a job writing in Late Night TV can turn $0 into $200k in a year, because that’s the minimum salary for a staff writer working in Late Night.
So a writer should be paying close attention to the Late Night TV market, because drama is happening big time over at CBS.
A new showrunner coming to “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and rumors flying around that James Corden might be tapped to replace Colbert as host, add fuel to the fire that there is going to be huge movement in late night TV, especially at The Late Show.
Shows like this are always in flux. The average tenure of a Late Night writer is 2 years so the staffs are always somewhat fluid, but you know the network has real concerns when they bring aboard a new showrunner.
Those facts alone are something to pay attention to, but add to that the fact that Colbert’s ratings at The Late Show are less than promising and The Late Show not getting any Emmy nominations this year are a huge concern.
I mean, that hasn’t happened since 2003.
Consider that Colbert brought most of his writing staff from The Colbert Report to The Late Show. Some heads are bound to roll.
That means opportunity!
When the Audience Tunes in to Watch the Character
Interestingly enough, none of that surprises me. When CBS president, Les Moonves, gave the cold shoulder to Craig Ferguson and opted instead to offer the Late Show position to Colbert, I lambasted him.
I didn’t think that Colbert was a proper fit for the throne previously occupied by David Letterman.
He’s especially not a fit because the person that made The Colbert Report so successful was NOT Stephen Colbert, but his character; that buffoon conservative who was parodying a talk show host.
It was the character he played who was popular.
So when you move to The Late Show and decide that you’re not going bring the character with you, your fans probably won’t follow.
Because the audience is tuning in to see the character.
Imagine hearing this: Ladies and Gentleman, heeeere’s Dan Whitney! How would you respond? Probably not excited right?
But what if I said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, heeeere’s Larry the Cable Guy!” Those Larry the Cable Guy fans would go crazy… even though Larry the Cable Guy and Dan Whitney are the same person. Dan Whitney plays a character called Larry the Cable Guy. And it’s Larry the Cable Guy who we’ve tuned in to see.
But even if we choose a performer with a character that has the same name as the performer and that performer decides not to do the character we’ve grown to love, it usually ends up in failure or imminent career demise.
When Steve Martin took the podium at the New York Public library in front of a sold out audience, then lectured about his art collection, fans were bored to bits, to the point where the event goers were given refunds.
They did that because they paid to see Steve Martin, that “wild and crazy guy!,” not an art historian.
Usually known for his high energy, shirtless performances, glam rocker Billy Idol did a concert about a year ago where he sat on a stool and played acoustic guitar. The audience–his biggest fans–booed and heckled him.
I mean, come on, Billy, at least take your shirt off!
Or like when Jim Carrey decided he wanted to be taken as a serious dramatic actor–well, how many of you just furrowed your brows and said, “I’m sorry, who?”
The fact is, when you build a career based on a character and that character builds a frenzied fan base, then you decide that you don’t want to do that character anymore, chances are–or at least history shows–that your fans are not fans of you, they are fans of your character.
Moonves should’ve seen this coming, based on the trail of Hollywood road kill that lay before him.
Did I just go on a rant?
Late Night Writers Should See This as Opportunity
My point is this: Writers who want to get into Late Night TV should be paying close attention to what’s happening in behind the scenes in Late Night TV.
There’s amazing opportunities happening and right now anyone who’s interested should be preparing their writing packets and sending them into their favorite shows.
Why your “favorite” show and not just Colbert?
Because, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is going to probably fire some writers and replace them with other writers; some will no doubt, be from the staffs of existing shows.
Those shows will now also have openings that will need to be filled.
This creates opportunities all over the the Late Night landscape.
So, writers, get your packets written and take advantage of these incredible opportunities.
You never know, it could turn out to be your Apple.
Sign Me Up for Late Night TV Writing Industry Updates!
As a comedian, have you ever been asked to refine your point of view?
Have you ever wondered what your point of view is? Your persona? Your voice?
Or, like me, has a booker said to you, I’m looking for an “internal thru-line, a golden thread of continuity.”
I heard that one from Mark Lonow, former talent coordinator and co-owner of the Improv in L.A., (years ago) immediately after I did an audition that I thought I rocked.
It was disheartening because not only did I not get a spot at the Improv from him, I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about!
Two days later I said, “screw that!” I went right to Bud Friedman, (the founder of the Improv), pleaded for an audition and with the same act got booked in Vegas and on T.V.
What is a Point of View?
So what is a point of view? And what does a booker mean when he says he wants to see a stronger one?
A point of view is how you look at the world and the situations around you that you include in your comedy.
Basically answer the question: “Who are you?”
Can you say in a couple of sentences who you are?
Are you a cynic? Do you have a quirky way of looking at life? Do you like to pick out life’s minutia and point out those observations in a funny way? Are you a liberal? A conservative? Gun lover? Trump voter?
You’re point of view doesn’t have to be extreme.
Who Are You?
From scholar to buffoon, there are about 20 Major and distinctive comic masks, but each comedian can have only one. Download the 20 Comic Masks PDF Chart and see where you fit in!
Click to Download the PDF
Amy Schumer is known for her subversive feminism and addressing various social issues through a character who is seemingly promiscuous and a little ditsy.
Schumer has described herself as just someone who goes in and out of being an irreverent idiot. (Although I think, and her bank account surely reflects, that she’s more than that).
Bill Burr is a bit of an edgy devil’s advocate. He approaches his comedy by challenging the status quo from a strong male point of view to the point where he appears at times to be misogynistic. But Burr always says “It doesn’t make sense. Somebody explain it.” Then he explains it, usually using analogies while making us think, “Oh I never thought about it that way.”
Larry the Cable Guy (Dan Whitney), is a simple guy, a bit of a buffoon trying to figure out how things work.”
Whitney Cummings is a woman fed up with the bullshit of men and relationships, but still trying figure out how to make relationships work.
When I first started I was just trying to write funny jokes and stories. I did wordplay, paradox and observation like Carlin, but with a strong Seinfeldian voice.
So much so that Seinfeld himself mocked me at a club after I did a set! Lol.
I was getting laughs but I wasn’t sure who I was or how to find myself. Then I got some advice from the most unexpected source…
I met a mobster when I was waiting tables in New York. He was one of my favorite customers. I told him I didn’t know what to be when I was up on stage. He said, “Don’t listen to your heart, it feels too much. Don’t listen to your head, it thinks too much. Listen to your gut, cuz your gut never lies to you.”
Shortly after that, I met George Carlin. He said to me, “take the stuff that drives you absolutely fucking crazy and make it funny.”
That’s when my voice turned more toward a socio-political irreverent style that felt cathartic and real to me.
It felt ‘right’ in my gut, you know?
I loved to watch and read the news and call bullshit. I like to look at the inequalities and the hypocrisies in the world and point them out.
My act evolved toward a message of tolerance of race, gender and sexual preference, but not religion because in my comedic view religion is the reason societies have created a fictitious hierarchy and division in the first place.
Basically I make fun of everyone, but in a way that unites and makes our various idiosyncrasies fun.
How do you define yourself?
How do You Find Your Point of View?
One way to find your point of view or voice is to ask people what they see when they see you.
Another way is to ask yourself how you want people to see you or get in touch with who you are around your friends and start with that.
Another way is to develop a character, refine it and perform material based on that character’s point of view.
For several years, I created a pretty refined character named Charlie Stone. Charlie was a quirky, long-haired surfer-type character. He wasn’t a stoner, because he didn’t do drugs, but he had a stoner approach to his world view…
“This gal comes up to me and says, Dude: are you a Christian? I said, ‘No: I’m a Catho-Christi-Hinuistic-Musli-Morma-Jew: I don’t want to miss out on Heaven cuz of a technicality!'”
Charlie was an interesting experiment. I used to go out on the road and open for me, Jerry Corley as Charlie Stone.
Basically I would wear a wig and these blue-tinted glasses and do 30 minutes as Charlie Stone then change while the emcee was up, come back to the stage as Jerry Corley and do another hour.
The interesting part was that even though my act would do well and many times end in a standing ovation, everyone would come up to me after the show and say, “Where’s Charlie Stone?!”
What I learned from that was that Charlie Stone’s character was so refined that he was memorable.
I’m positive that if I brought Charlie back today, because of the strong, refined character, he would place or win in competitions and book some T.V.
Talent coordinators and bookers often confuse the difference between character, persona, voice and ‘point-of-view.’
But usually what occurs is that if a character is well-defined, the point of view tends to just fall into place within that character.
Some People Say it Takes 7 Years or More to Find Your Persona. Is That True?
One of the reasons it takes people a long time to find their persona or voice is that the first several years of their journey into comedy, they are just trying to figure out how to write a joke and create an act, you know? Make something funny.
As they begin to develop material they begin to realize that some material seems to resonate more with them than other material and they start to focus more on the material that they’re more connected to, which helps to shape their voice.
Bill Burr said he spent the first 5-7 years of his career doing one and two-liner comedy. Then when he started to go up on stage and riff on ideas is when he found more of his cynical voice.”
Anthony Jeselnik said that he started writing comedy by study Jack Handy’s “Deep Thoughts” from Saturday Night Live. He started writing those down then writing his own. “Then I was up on stage and did a joke that was dark and it got a great response. And I knew that’s where I was going.”
There’s no one way to find your point of view. Just keep cognizant of who you are and what you’re trying to say.
Remember that your character can evolve, develop and change. Allow yourself to explore it. Try different things. Listen to the audience and how they respond, adjust and refine.
And also always, always listen to your heart–wait… your gut.
Vengeance is Mine!
Nothing gets a person’s pulse up more than a great plot driven by revenge. I’ve noticed that the best comedians use this super effective theme in their jokes or stories.
That’s one of the reasons why jokes about ex’s who have cheated on us can be so effective…
My Ex, who cheated on me, called me on Halloween. She said, “Jerry, I don’t know what to pretend to be for Halloween.” I said, “Why don’t you just dress normally and pretend you’re in a committed relationship?”
When you set up an antagonist, the audience has an urge to root for the protagonist, or the hero, (to those of you unfamiliar with the term).
Listen to the Audio Version
The audience becomes emotionally invested in the protagonist ‘winning’ after being wronged.
As a result, the audience is excited and gives more at the punchline. They laugh harder and not only that, they are also compelled to applaud.
There are two reasons for this:
- Since the individuals in the audience have also had an experience with being betrayed or otherwise slighted, they empathize with the comedian’s dilemma and are automatically emotionally invested. Since they have a similar experience, they want to see how you resolve it. So, when you avenge the wrong that was done to you, the audience feels that they also win. So it’s a more personal experience for them, so they applaud the win.
- By it’s nature as a structure in storytelling, the theme of revenge contains the critical combination of tension & release. There is immediate conflict and resolution which gives the story that necessary rise and fall that any story contains if it is to have a good beginning, middle and end. The advantage is that our audiences are already groomed to applaud when a story resolves. (Think about songs, when they end the music resolves back to the tonic note in the key, resolving the tension). And when a song ends, the audience naturally wants to applaud.
To highlight this point, sing the end of the National Anthem or any country’s anthem. “… and the home of the brave…” That tension to resolution, urges the audience to applaud. Dropping that concept into your set, even in mini-doses, is almost like plug ‘n play applause breaks.
It’s a brilliant concept!
An Antagonist Makes the Revenge Delicious
You’ve heard the phrase “revenge is a dish best served cold?” In comedy, revenge must be served proportionally. Comedy revenge is usually not murder or real physical harm–let’s face it, you’re probably not going to get laughs if your girlfriend cheats on you and you stab her in the throat–it’s usually more like intellectual retribution…
… like when Rosanne Barr says,
“My mother says the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I think the best way to a man’s heart is straight through his chest.”
I refer to this structure in comedy as “benign retaliation.” Meaning the revenge does not physically harm the antagonist and is usually proportional to what they did to you and saying it in words metaphorically as a cliche reformation, is much more symbolism than literalism.
Although, once the audience is rooting for you as the protagonist, it’s impressive what you can get away with as far as retaliation is concerned: even in longer stories.
“My ex was horrible with spending. But she would always justify her overspending by sale-shopping. And she would always walk into the house with these shopping bagsâ€”you know the kind I’m talking about; those paper bags with the rope-like handles. They’re made out rope so you can use it later to climb out of debt…
…or hang yourself.
And I always knew when she overspent. She would always start out saying the same thing. Maybe you’ve heard this… She would come in and say, ” Oh my God! You have no idea how much money I saved us!”
This one month we were really strapped and I said, “We need to have a moratorium on non-essential spending.” She was like “Well, I need sandals, because it’s summer. They’re only 45 dollars.” So she went out to get sandals.
And I knew I was in trouble because when she returned she had the bags with the rope handles… and she was like, “You have no idea how much money I saved us: I got this leather jacketâ€”normally 350 dollarsâ€”it was only 150! I got this sweaterâ€”it’s cashmere and silkâ€”normally 150, marked down to 70! You have no idea how much money I saved us!
I said, “I thought you went to get sandals?”
She said, “Yeah, they were only 80 dollars.”
I said, “You said they were forty-five?”
She said, “Well, since I saved us so much money, I figured I would get some better sandals!”
I was pissed. A week later I was doing a gig in Malaysia. And these two Malaysian hookers approach me after at the bar after the show. They were beautiful and super seductive. They were trying to negotiate with me, you know. “200 dollars.” I’m like, “Ladies. I’m a family man. I don’t do that.” They don’t give up though. They kept trying for about 30 minutes. Finally they said, “Okayâ€”for youâ€”45 dollarsâ€”two of usâ€”all night.”
The next day I called my girlfriend. I said, “Oh My God, You have no idea how much money I saved us!”
That simple story gets a lot of laughs and at the end it alwaysâ€”well, almost alwaysâ€”gets an applause break.
In real life it’s not appropriate get even with your girlfriend’s spending, by implying that you slept with hookers, but in comedy… it’s on!
An Antagonist Enables You to be More Edgy
When you build that antagonist, the audience can let you go pretty edgy in your comeback. Remember that Halloween joke at the top? Here’s the way I originally wrote it and deliver it when I’m in comedy clubs:
“My Ex who cheated on me with her boss, called me on Halloween. She said, “Jerry, I don’t know what to be for Halloween.” I said, “Why don’t you just dress for work and when people ask who you are you can say, “Just shut up and fuck me.”
Revenge as a Literary Device
Since storytelling began, revenge has titillated readers and listeners. It compels people to listen and participate emotionally. If you can get your audience to do that (even for a short joke) you know have a real winner.
Being such a powerful theme in storytelling, comedy writers should familiarize themselves with the concept of revenge and really get an understanding for the passion in it that the audience feels.
Be Sure There is a Reason for the Retaliation
But keep in mind, that in comedy, the retaliation needs to be benign and who the antagonist is, needs to be clear to the audience. If it’s not it could be deadly to the joke.
I had an audition set in front of David Letterman’s talent coordinator. I had a pretty good set. Afterwards, he gave me a critique, he said, “I loved your stuff. But that one joke about your ex-wife. We don’t like attacks on women with no reason for them. It’s sexist.”
I realized that because I was cutting my set down for 4 minutes, I left out the part that she cheated on me, so the attack seemed to come out of nowhere. If the audience does not crave the revenge, then, quite frankly, the audience doesn’t know why to root for you and the risk is diminished laughter or no laugh at all.
Here’s the irony of that story. Two months later, the talent coordinator was fired by Late Night for an interview where he was accused of being sexist.
Take some time and build some benign retaliation into your stories.
Watch some of your favorite comedians and see how they use revenge or benign retaliation in their stories or shorter jokes.
What are some of your favorite benign retaliation stories?
I’m gonna call this blog post an open letter to comedy teachers.
This especially goes out to one comedy teacher in particular who refers to himself as “America’s Original Comedy Coach.” (Lol, right?)
Recently, I put a post on Facebook called “911 For Your Jokes.” It’s a step-by-step walkthrough of 5 different ways to take a single subject, and develop a comedy routine, a bit or stand-alone jokes.
In the case of this particular post, the subject was ‘Flight Attendant.’ (See it in action here).
I put out these ‘freebies’ so that comedians and comedy writers (both new and old), can get some ideas and inspiration on how to get the material going.
Because we’ve all run into writer’s block, right?
Listen to the Audio Version
So “America’s Original Comedy Coach” (sorry, can’t say that without giggling), posted a comment ridiculing the fact that I was demonstrating this.
I think his comment was, “Formula #1: Don’t use any of these formulas for comedy or you’ll wind up sounding exactly like everyone else.”
You guys who know me, know that I would never usually call someone out like this, but when you attempt to ridicule me in a public forum, It’s on, bitch! :-).
Here are 3 Big Reasons you should Develop Structure in your Comedy Writing…
#1: Writing Makes it Easier to Build Structure into your Material
So let’s examine that whole “sound like everyone else” statement for a moment.
If you watch Jim Gaffigan, Bill Burr, Daniel Tosh, Amy Schumer, Brian Kiley, Whitney Cummings, Kira Soltanovich, (or any number of comedians who are currently at the top of their game), and you deconstruct their acts, you will discover that they all utilize similar techniques in their comedy routines to get laughs.
Would you say that they all sound alike?
Didn’t think so… and you want to know the reason?
They are different people!
Those comedians each have different points of view, different experiences and different ways of expressing themselves.
But it is the structure within their sets that gets the laughs. Without that structure, guess what?
#2: Get More Laughs
Let’s take two distinctly different, but similar comedians. Anthony Jeselnik and Brian Kiley. Below is an example of a joke each of them do.
They are using a comedy structure called the “Paired Phrase.”
KILEY: My wife and I have been married for 20 years, but there’s still that tension between her Dad and I. He’s always giving me a look like, “I know you’re having sex with my daughter.” And I’m always giving him a look like… “Barely.”
JESELNIK: I went to my girlfriend’s parents’ house over the holidays. Her Dad didn’t let us sleep in the same room. He was giving me a look like, “I don’t trust you.” And I gave him a look like, “Trust me, man… I’m fucking your daughter.”
You hear the similarity?
It’s goal of the paired phrase (in this particular context) to create pattern disruption or an expected rhythm or ending and then shatter created expectation.
When that pattern is disrupted, (with Kiley, he used self-deprecation while Jeselnik uses ambivalence and a bit of shock value), you create surprise and if you’re familiar with the 9 psychological laughter triggers, you already know that surprise is one of the most effective.
But if you were to watch Jeselnik and Kiley back to back, you wouldn’t think they sounded alike because they have totally different personas.
Jeselnik is driven by ambivalence, (being discompassionate about things society believes you should be compassionate about), and Kiley is driven by a persona that is slightly put upon and confused about the way things are supposed to work.
Using the ‘Reverse’ to Create Surprise
Another way to create surprise with with a comedy structure called a ‘reverse.’ This construct also sets up an expectation, then shatters it. When a comedian or comedy writer knows this, writing comedy is much easier.
I mean think about it. All Jeselnik has to do is to come up with a situation that we call can relate to and solve them with something unexpected.
“I break up with the girls the way I take off a band-aid; slow and in the shower.”
Kiley does a similar thing with the reverse structure by shattering our expectation with situation we can all identify with:
“I’m surprised I got together with my wife at all because when I first met her she was soooo… pregnant.”
So to say that structure is wrong is denying your students the very tools that make people laugh.
#3: Comedy Writing Enables you to Make More Money
America’s Original Comedy Coach also ridiculed my effort to encourage comedians to develop their skills in writing comedy material.
This is where I was completely dumbfounded! WTF!? Why would you NOT encourage your students to develop all their skill sets?
That’s like telling a baseball player to work only on hitting the ball. You might do pretty well when you’re up at bat, but you’ll suck everywhere else.
And, while in baseball a hitter may be considered good when he gets a hit 1 out of 3 times, if you do that in the comedy world, a talent booker wouldn’t even want you as a pinch hitter!
If you neglect developing your skills at writing you’re doing yourself a serious disservice.
Also… and this is a BIG also… when you know how to write comedy material, you have just exponentially increased your potential to create revenue.
There are so many opportunities out there for people who can write funny.
Doing stand-up and getting good is great, but learning to develop your writing chops just adds another high-revenue-creating skill set.
So, America’s Original Comedy Coach, I would rethink what you’re teaching your students and while you’re at it, maybe rethink calling yourself “America’s Original Comedy Coach.”
Think about it, man; If you were America’s original airplane, America’s original automobile or America’s original computer, you’d be obsolete.