I’m Funny around my Friends, but…

Funny around friends, but
Are you funny around your friends? Do you make your friends laugh in everyday situations, but then you try to put it on the page and it just doesn’t sound like you or the idea that you thought was funny is no longer funny?

It’s like your natural ability to be funny is being killed by the writing.

This is a common complaint with people and there are a lot of things that are going on that cause that to happen.

In this post, I’m going to discuss the main reason as to why we’re funny in person and it gets lost on the page and what you can do to keep your natural funny growing while learning to develop the funny in your writing.

If you’re one of those people who’s naturally funny in the moment with your friends, you should understand that the way you developed that (most likely) is through exposure. I’ve yet to meet a so-called naturally funny person who wasn’t exposed to comedy at a younger age.

My writing partner, Rob Rose, is probably the fastest, funniest guy I’ve ever worked with. He’s so quick when we’re at parties or social gatherings I just stand back and let him do his thing. But Rob wasn’t “born” with this. Rob used to hide in his room (because of an abusive step-father) and watch comedy shows. He watched all the greats. Their structure and timing were immaculate. Because of his constant exposure, he began to repeat jokes and use some stuff in his own dialogue. Eventually, he started to recognize the patterns that created the laugh. By coincidence, in conversation, he would recognize more opportunities to use those patterns with his own words.

When I met Rob he was already a funny guy. He was part of a 2-man comedy team that just messed around at an open mic in Sacramento.

A couple of years later, he started going on the road with me as a solo act. His first night on stage, he bombed… horribly. What do I mean by that? He was only able to do about a minute and a half. He was supposed to do thirty!

He thought that just because he was such a funny guy, he could go up on stage and wing it. But being funny in person doesn’t always equate to being funny within a certain time frame on stage and on cue.

In stand-up comedy, you have to get them early and you’re expected to get a laugh every 18-20 seconds (minimum), on average. Rob didn’t get a laugh in the first 90 seconds… started sweating said, “Good night!” and ran off the stage.

We had a contract to provide a 90-minute show. So I had to go up and do 90-minutes. Lol!

Looking back on it, Rob laughs about that night. It’s still embarrassing, but he laughs about it.

After that night Rob and I spent the entire next day going over his act. I turned on a video camera, (It was one of those camcorders that had the VHS tape in it), and had Rob come into the room like it was a stage and do his act, by reading it off the page.

Every time he messed it up, he would go back out of the room and we’d start the tape over. He would come back and start his set like he was actually starting his act.

Yep, just like two grown-ass men playing pretend!

Eventually, Rob got it. We took the tape and put it in Rob’s VCR player in his hotel room.

He listened to it over and over.

He’s so good in the moment and on the fly that I said, “If you ever feel stuck, just go to your strength,” (being in the moment).

That night Rob crushed it so hard that people were asking for his autograph after the show.

The key is, we played to his strength which is being in the moment.

Before I forget, one crucial point: We went over Rob’s act orally, then I wrote down every joke/story. The reason I wrote it down was because when Rob actually wrote his jokes, he had a tendency to “overwrite” them. He would overwrite them to the point where they were no longer funny.

Rob eventually fixed that. But only through a lot of practice writing jokes and writing dialogue.

Comedy has a certain structure. Rob spent his childhood learning that structure orally to that structure and it worked when he was in the moment.

In essence, when Rob was learning orally, he was using different regions of the brain to access his funny mechanism. But that’s not all…

Throughout our entire school careers, when we are taught to write, we are brainwashed (in a sense) to write in prose. We’re taught creative writing, but usually with a focus on using correct grammar, punctuation, etc. And it’s usually dull when read aloud.

Try this take even an exciting book of fiction and try reading it aloud. It will “sound” like a book.

Stand-up, on the other hand, is a conversation, (usually one-sided). We’re expected to be present like we would be at a party with our friends.

Problem is we’ve spent years learning to write NOT the way we speak. We speak in broken sentences, in slang, with contractions, etc.

It’s amazing to watch someone who’s developing their skill at writing. They could crack a great joke right in front of you. And the moment you ask them to write it down, they fall back on their learning of writing in school, trying to use correct punctuation, grammar, etc., and they over write the joke.

That can kill the joke.

It’s not just common in stand-up, but also in script writing. It’s hard to find someone who can write great dialogue. Why? Because dialogue is

Why? Because dialogue is conversation.

There are many different ways to correct this. It takes time to learn how to write the way you talk. Too many to cover in this blog post.

However, you can start by learning to record your jokes with your friends. By first recognizing that they’re laughing at what you’re saying, then getting it on the recorder on your iPhone or Android device. Then transcribing the joke exactly as you said it without falling back into your grade school lessons and writing the way you were taught, but writing the way you speak.

If you practice this often, you will soon learn to write the way you talk.

Another way to do it is to write your jokes like you’re writing a Facebook post, a text or an email. When we’re doing that we have a tendency to write like we’re talking to a specific person.

If  you’re funny in person, but lose the funny when you put it on the page, focus on your strength of being funny in the moment with your friends.

Practice your joke writing during the day but when you hit the stage focus on your strength

Eventually, your writing will match your personality.

3 Ways a Comedian can Cope with Criticism

coping with criticism

Comedians are a vulnerable bunch. If pleasing the audience isn’t hard enough, many times we comedians also have to cope with criticism even after we get off the stage.

Sometimes we hear it from club owners or managers. Sometimes we hear it from other comedians and sometimes from an audience member who just watched you and decided that their experience in telemarketing gives them the credentials to bestow on you their expert tips on how you can kill it at your next gig.

“You were crushing it up until that last joke. Just didn’t seem to fit.”
“You’d be funnier if you had fewer F-bombs.”
“You shouldn’t do political material, it makes people uncomfortable.”
“Jokes about rape are inappropriate.”

The list of critique can go on and on.

But before I go off on that, Let’s be clear that there’s a difference between criticism and a note.

Criticism is just when someone offers a critique of what you said or did. A note is also a form of critique, but it also offers a suggestion on what you could possibly do to correct it.

When you’ve been doing this a long time you’ve probably learned how to hit the “off” switch to most of that. But when you’re a new comedian in the business, the criticism can be dejecting and the notes can be overwhelming.

New comedians face this a lot. They’ll have a bunch of people telling them what they need to do to improve a joke or their act.

How do you sort through all of the noise and do what’s right? How do you even know what is right?

Here are some tips for dealing with, understanding and coping with criticism.

  1. Most criticism doesn’t come from a bad place, so first don’t be an asshole about it. Be professional and listen gracefully (or passively). Say, “thank you,” and move on.
  2. There’s no way you can implement every note you receive from everyone into your comedy act. Choose a mentor in your comedic circle (maybe 2), and consider only that advice. It will, first of all, be a lot easier to sort through the notes and secondly if that person is reliable, odds are you’ll get to where you’re going a lot faster.
  3. Sometimes the tips can be something like, you went “too dirty” or “you drop too many F-bombs.” Here’s where it gets tricky. I think you should BE ABLE to work clean. You DON’t HAVE to work clean, but you should be able to. If a booker knows you can work clean it opens up a surprising amount of other opportunities. I’ve been on the road at a club, doing my act. My act can get dirty, but these bookers know that I can work clean. I’ve had club owners book me to do a corporate earlier in the evening, before the show, get back to the club and do the show. A corporate gig can pay me more than the entire week at that club. If I can’t work clean, guess what? I just missed out on a boat load of cash.

Here’s the tricky part. Dropping the f-bomb too much may be an indication that you don’t have any real content or jokes. It also can indicate that you’re lacking an authentic emotional point of view.

On the other hand, it might be what drives your comedic persona. You have to be willing to truly explore your craft and ask whether or not the f-bomb is absolutely necessary to you or if you are using it as a crutch.

If it is something that absolutely drives your persona. If it is inherently who you are, or who your character is then don’t change. Your path to success might be a little longer, but your audience will find you.

I have a student who is a female. She’s smart, she’s attractive, she’s from New York, she was raised by a tough father and she drops the F-bomb. But I also think it fits her persona and her character would be less defined if she didn’t.

She submitted for a comedy competition and the founder of the competition said to me that he likes her, but she uses the f-bomb too much. I told her this and you know what she said?

“That’s fucking ridiculous!”

And she was vehement about it! She went off on a tangent about how sick and tired she is of political correctness and this double standard that men have about women and their comedy.

And she has a point, because the very night that competition founder told me that she uses too many f-bombs, one of the comedians in his competition dropped 47 f-bombs in a 25 minute final round set. He placed third out of 40 in the competition.

So I approached the founder after the competition and said, “that dude used the f-bomb 47 times and he placed third. You need to reconsider whether my student really uses the f-bomb too much or whether you’re just a sexist.”

The following week my student wrote a 6-minute rant about the uses of the word “fuck.” It’s funny, it’s honest and it defines her. So I told her to tighten it, record it on video and submit it back to this comedy festival.

The point is you have to make choices. And if you’re going to make a choice about who you are, then make that choice and don’t apologize for it. In this business you have to learn to develop an unwavering confidence about yourself.

Because no matter what you do, some people will love you and some people will hate you.

And if you go in knowing that dropping the F-bomb limits where you can play and you make that decision anyway, that’s up to you. It’s not the safest choice, but if I wanted to get into this business to be safe, I would’ve been a fucking telemarketer.

The Most Powerful Tool for Your Joke Writing

comedy toolbox

Here is something I want to be sure you have at your disposal. It is what I would call the most powerful tool for your joke writing. It is something everyone who’s into writing comedy material should have in their toolbox.

Even if you’re naturally funny.

It is the incongruity listing sheet. This is what I use each time I want to write jokes using the incongruity technique by taking two dissimilar ideas and converging them. It helps you create associations between dissimilar ideas.

Read the following example then download the sheet at keep it handy. It is literally one of the most powerful ways to write jokes.

But first…

Understanding Incongruity in Comedy

Incongruity is when you have a setup that contains two or more dissimilar ideas. You turn it into a juxtaposition of two ideas and create jokes.

Not all joke setups are built with the two dissimilar or contrasting ideas present.

Example:

The news keeps showing us images of President Trump signing executive orders.

In that setup there’s isn’t a clear juxtaposition of contrasting elements present. No two contrasting ideas really stand out.

What I would do is take that image of the president signing the bill and list everything I see in the picture.

Without a doubt I would wind up listing “those black folders,” since they are so prominent in every photo.

Sometimes, if the obvious contrasting ideas are not there, I will remind myself to try to use an analogy.

One way to reshape the setup so that it does contain that obvious juxtaposition is by using analogy or “is like.”

The news keeps showing us images of President Trump signing these executive orders… he’s got those black folders. It’s like he’s holding up a menu; Insert an act out, like I’m at a restaurant ordering food: “… and the lady will have the Filet mignon, grilled asparagus and a ban on Muslims.”

And since we’ve created the menu (in a restaurant) as the second or contrasting element we could continue to tag the joke with something like,

“And when they’re done with that black folder at that signing table, do they just have the hostess wipe it off and use it for the next seating?”

When the Setup Already Contains a Second Idea

Sometimes the set up includes it’s own contrasting ideas, as in:

“The body of a 40-year-old woman was found in a processing plant for McDonald’s restaurants.”

In that statement, you clearly have two or more contrasting elements present in the setup; the body of a 40-year-old woman and McDonald’s. So you don’t have to use analogy as a device to create the contrasting element. You could just use your list and put McDonald’s in one column and Body of a 40-year-old woman in the other and look for ideas that could fit in the other column either literally or as a metaphor.

For example in the list for body of a 40-year-old woman, I would probably have the word “breasts.” Can “breasts” fit in the other column for McDonald’s?

Sure! They could use it as chicken breasts, right?

Where does McDonald’s use Chicken breasts? In Chicken sandwiches. Since McDonald’s always seems to be facing scrutiny on whether or not their sandwiches contain real meat, I could make the joke like this:

“The body of a 40-year-old woman was found in a processing plant for McDonald’s restaurants. A spokesman for McDonald’s put a positive spin on it saying ‘Now McDonald’s can claim that their chicken sandwich is made with REAL breasts… 40-year-old SAGGY breasts, but real breasts, nonetheless… would you like thighs with that?”

With that one setup and the toppers I added, I could get 3 to 4 laughs out of one joke idea. Booker look for a laugh every 18-20 seconds. You could easily hit that bullseye with one joke.

So you can see how powerful this particular technique is for writing comedy.

Try it yourself.

Download the worksheet for the listing technique, print it out and use it any time!

Hope this helps!

If you want to visit this concept more thoroughly, check out the 2-Day Comedy Writing Workshop in Vegas or my eBook “Breaking Comedy’s DNA.”

What to do When Jokes Hurt Personal Relationships?

When Jokes Hurt Personal Relationships
“My daughter is one of those science fiction buffs. I mean she is a HUGE fan of science fiction–what do they call these people? Oh, right, Christians.”

That’s a joke I do to lead into a bit I do on organized religion. It’s a solid lead in and it always gets a laugh. I did it on the night my daughter was at the club with her girlfriend. Her girlfriend laughed (she’s a self-proclaimed Atheist) and so did my daughter… kind of.

I spoke to my daughter afterward and she said that it bothered her that I did that joke.

So what’s a comedian to do when jokes hurt personal relationships?

It’s a common problem. One of the definitions of a joke is that a joke is a veiled attack. We are attacking something. Ex’s, the status quo, ourselves.

We’re often encouraged to write about what we know, but sometimes making fun of what we know can hurt feelings.

Sometimes it helps to talk to the the person–that’s if you care–and ask them if the joke hits too hard. If it does, then make a decision whether or not you’re going to continue to do the joke.

There are different schools of thought on this. George Carlin used to say, “Fuck them. I’ll say what I want to say… if someone’s feelings get hurt, so be it.”

It was easier for Carlin to say that because George Carlin rarely, if ever, talked about himself or his personal relationships. It was almost always external. Same with Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld.

What is it with bugs?

I do jokes about my ex’s. I didn’t bother to ask if it offends them, because I don’t really care. The jokes aren’t evil. They just express my feelings during the relationships and they also include facts.

“My Ex is like a funny car; alcohol fueled.”

My Ex has really bad mood swings… really bad. I called her the ‘Ice Princess,’ because I never knew what mood she would be in. When I used to come home from a gig at night, before I went in I would put my tongue on the door. If it stuck, I would stay at the neighbors.”

“My Ex, who cheated on me called me around Halloween… she was like, “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.”

Deciding Whether or not to Keep the Joke

I have a student who talks about her husband having a hard time getting aroused in the bedroom. “Unless he’s watching porn, he can’t get it up.” It really bothers her. She wanted a joke to respond to him.

Now as part of her act, after setting it up, she says…

“One time, me and my husband were at Disneyland at one of those ice cream kiosks… The guy said, “Would you like some soft serve.” I said, “No thanks. (points to her husband) I brought my own.”

She debated whether or not to keep the joke, because she was afraid that it would hurt his feelings. That’s an honest dilemma. It is a very personal thing and she’s still in a relationship with this man.

I used to go with the idea that if it makes someone sad, it’s no longer funny. But if you think that way then you might as well strike out a bunch of jokes, right?

So I just leave it to people I care about. If I don’t want to hurt their feelings then I don’t do the joke.

To clarify the point of this post. I’m talking mostly about jokes and stories that are targeted at an individual. When they are targeted at a concept… well, that’s another story.

Balancing Art with Life

Life is a scenario filled with risk to benefit ratios. In the end you have to make choices. If the joke is important to you as an artist who is expressing himself then do the joke, if you cannot risk the dilemma that results from hurting someone’s feelings who is close to you, choose another joke.

But this can become a slippery slope. There are those that will be determined to be offended about something and they will seek out the opportunity for that provocation. It’s impossible to make adjustments to please this kind of fanatic. If you try you’ll find yourself bending over backwards to do so and if you remain in that position, quite frankly, it is rather degrading.

Author Wayne Gerard Trotman said, “It’s impossible to be truly artistic without the risk of offending someone somewhere.”

With regard to the joke with my daughter, now I rephrase the joke so that it’s not my daughter but “some people.” My daughter still gets slightly upset that I compare religion to science fiction, but she’ll need to learn to live with that. The joke isn’t about her personally, it’s about religion.

In the end there are no right or wrong answers with this. Say what you want, but realize that one of the consequences could be that you hurt a relationship.

If you’re cool with that, so be it.

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Is Trump’s Election Changing Stand Up Comedy?

trump-make-america-hate-again

There’s an interesting article in the Rolling Stone on how the election of Donald Trump has somehow changed stand-up comedy.

The Trump voters—who during the campaign seemed quiet, almost a little embarrassed about admitting they were voting for Trump are now emboldened in post-election. They have no problem booing comedians, heckling them or threatening them now that their guy is going to be the president.

Some comedians, like Wanda Sykes, was booed when she called Trump an “orangutang,” and Amy Schumer had 200 people walk out of her show when she condescendingly questioned a Trump supporter after inviting her on the stage– I don’t know it was either that or the fact that the joke she used wasn’t hers… (did I say that out loud?)

It’s a bit of a quagmire considering that we’ve always been able to make fun of presidents and politicians, but this time it seems different. This was definitely the most hotly contested election in modern history.

Not to mention the republican candidate inciting violence against opposing voices by saying things like, “I wish somebody would punch them in the face.”

You would expect this kind of grandstanding and saber rattling from the North Korean president, Kim Jung Un, but not the future leader of the free world.

This kind of brazen talk, emboldened his supporters and gave them the green light to be aggressive so it’s no surprise that comedians are now more vulnerable than ever.

A comedian wants to stay edgy and current. Trump keeps making these missteps; either Tweeting about the Chinese or breaking 40 years of U.S. protocol and taking a phone call from the president of Taiwan… misspelling the word unprecedented (he spelled it “unpresidented”), a comedian might think that’s ripe for a joke.

But the political current might open a comedian up to heckles and some of them might get aggressive.

It seems some of these people think Trump’s election means they can openly use the “N-word, or grab a woman in the crotch” but if you dare call the president-elect something as obscene as “that guy from ‘The Apprentice’” and some heckler may likely yell “get off the stage!”

The Rolling Stone article implied that comedians need to change their game. I don’t necessarily agree. I think there has always been a way to talk about politics and religion.

One way is to not only make it funny, but make it funny with unassailable truths. Pick on both sides and understand (this is crucial), your audience.

George Carlin said, “While their mouths are open for laughter, insert some food for thought.”

All comedians and comedy writers should understand the simple M-A-P formula. The best ones already do. M-A-P simply means Material-Audience-Performer. The material should be right for the audience and right for the performer.

There’s a time to go hard and a time to tone down and there’s a time to realize when you’re a guest in someone else’s house.

I was working in Idaho—a pretty conservative state. The previous week, a comedian from L.A. was there doing anti-gun material. He was heckled and he said something like, “I come all the here from L.A. and you disrespect me?”

Are you kidding me? You are in their house. It is YOU who needs to respect them!

There wound up being a fight and the comedian got his ass kicked. I came to town the following week and mentioned the incident.

I said, “you see I think you can do anti-gun material, it just depends on how you say it.”

And a guy yelled out, “Yeah? Go ahead and try!”

I said, “You see, some comedians might look at that as some kind of rude outburst. I see it as us opening up a conversation. And why shouldn’t we? We both disagree on an issue thats important to both of us… my argument is that we spend more money regulating pornography, than we do regulating handguns and I don’t know about you, but I know of very few innocent victims who have been picked off by a misfired pecker.”

This got them laughing, because it was rather innocuous, but true. Now keep in mind, this was the same club that beat up the comedian the week before. But I’m not making it about I’m right—you’re wrong. I’m just making an observation.

See, I think my job as a comedian is to think of a heckler as my best friend. Most of the time hecklers heckle because they want to be included in the conversation. They also want to be heard.

During that time there was an incident where Federal agents had come to Idaho looking for a fringe militia group. It was a big deal in Idaho.

So I then said, “I mean, I’m not saying take away the guns. We need the guns here in Idaho, so we can hunt the Feds.”

This got them laughing.

And I said, “See. We can disagree on shit, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have a drink together laugh about. How boring would life be if we all agreed on everything? First of all there would be no makeup sex…”

As a personal aside, I think this election thing is like an NFL playoff game. The winners are basking in the glory of their teams win and they’re gloating. Eventually it will settle down.

That being said, there are going to be situations where hecklers are just being aggressive assholes. Like in the Rolling Stone article, comedian Feraz Ozel, who was raised Muslim was doing his set and someone yelled out, “Homeland Security is right outside!”

I suggested to one of my students (who might look like an intimidating terrorist to an ignorant audience member—despite the fact that his family is from India), that he prepare himself with heckle responses.

Prepare yourself. Which means sitting down and writing material to respond to potential heckles, starting with the one above, “Homeland Security is right outside.”

How would you respond to that?

I might respond by saying something like, “Yeah? You know what’s inside, Jethro? The Constitution.”

Or I might follow it with something like, “Trump said he was draining the swamp… he should of told us he was sending the scum to comedy clubs.”

Using the roast joke method to write material can give you some responses that you can keep in your arsenal. They should be smart and they should be tight.

Try to stick to the facts. Use Trump quotes or facts about Trump. Innuendo and opinion will just leave you open to more attacks.

I also think it is going to be crucial to comedians and club owners to remove patrons who are unruly. An outburst here and there is just the nature of the beast, but a patron spouting hate or getting aggressive should be dealt with promptly. And here’s why…

If a club deals with unruly patrons by removing them promptly, it has the short term impact on making the show enjoyable for everyone. But it has a long-term positive impact of making people feel like a comedy club is a safe place for entertainment.

Club owners must consider that for every 10-20 people in attendance there are 2-3 people who have never been to a comedy club. And if they don’t feel safe because the unruly patron was not dealt with, then they will most likely never come back again.

That’s not only bad for comedy, it’s bad for business.

But as a comedian, I think the point is that when you’re in a room that is going to lean conservative, then you’ve got to skew your material so you can still make your point, but you make your point while people are laughing. It’s not selling out. It’s making an adjustment (like you might doing network TV or a corporate), because you’re a professional.

Like George Carlin said, while their mouths are open for laughter, insert some food for thought.

I don’t have all the answers, I would love to hear your thoughts on this new world we work in!