Don’t Suck! The 9-minute Comedy Mastermind Session

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This could be the most important 9-minute comedy lesson of your life.

In the next 9 minutes you’re going to learn a lot! I mean a ton! I’m calling this article my 9-minute Comedy Mastermind Session.

When it comes to comedy writing and theory, my argument always focuses on structure.

“Structure is king!” I’ll usually say.

Getting to the point and getting the laugh with a strong point of view while saying something that actually means something is crucial but structure is where the laugh occurs… not just trying to be funny.

This next 9-minutes focuses on that.

Structure is really the keys to the car that drives comedy success. I’d argue that it’s not just important, it’s crucial!

Side-by-Side Comedian Comparison

In the next 9 minutes you’re going to look at two comedians.

Rob Delaney and Brian Kiley.

Delaney is your classic internet sensation comedian. His rise to notoriety came via Twitter where he had 1.26 million followers! But you’ll soon learn that Twitter comedy doesn’t necessarily interpret into stellar stand-up.

Brian Kiley is the head monologue writer for Conan O’Brien. Kiley is a master of structure and joke telling. But his joke telling style is so well finessed that it doesn’t seem like he’s us telling jokes.

Take a look at these two comedians as they appear on 2 different late night shows.
Structure vs. No structure. It’s Kiley with solid structure and Delaney with just telling a story and trying to be funny

You be the judge…

…and as always I would love to hear your comments.

Enjoy!

Rob Delaney

Let’s take a look at comedian Rob Delaney. He performed a set on Jimmy Kimmel Live. He wasn’t prepared, he lacked structure and he totally shits the bed…

Caution: You might have to will yourself to watch the entire 4.5 minutes. But it’s important that you do.

Brian Kiley

Now let’s watch 4.5 minutes of Brian Kiley. Brian is a master of joke structure. You don’t have to be like him or deliver your material in this more “joke” form, but you’ll easily see the difference between structured and unstructured material.

Conclusion

In my view, structure is king.

Brian Kiley’s set is far superior in it’s structure and it’s story-telling than Rob Delaney. In fact, rumor has it that Delaney tried to make sure that this didn’t get out. I get it.

I’m not posting this to slam Delaney as a comedian. I’ve been doing stand-up for nearly 30 years, I know how hard it is to get on T.V. So big props to him for just getting the spot. But when you get there you’ve got to have a structured set.

Your effectiveness is judged by laughs per minute. If you’re not getting laughs, the audience is tuning out.

A stand-up comedian’s time is also limited on late night TV shows. Comedian’s sets have been running around 4 minutes 30 seconds! I just watched comedian Dulce Sloan on Conan and she only had 3 minutes!

You gotta get to the jokes fast and keep them rolling! If you don’t you might wind up like Rob Delaney and totally shitting the bed.

Want to learn more about how to develop structure in your act? Take a stand-up class or get into my Weekend Comedy Writing Workshops.

Work Smarter – Don’t be Afraid of Mistakes. Learn from Them!

 Don't be afraid of mistakes; learn from them

Are you one of those people who is afraid of mistakes? Are you afraid to put something out there—either on stage or in a meeting or even on social media—for fear that you made a mistake and someone will call you out on it, thus making you the laughing stock of the world and eternally miserable?

This happens to all of us at some level.

I remember, early in my studying, being in an acting class. I really wanted to be an actor. My father had some fame as an actor and I wanted to be an actor too. I went to the classes and when I did something “wrong,” the teacher would try to give me notes.

I would always try to interrupt with something like a “Yeah, yeah, I know I did that,” or something similar. Instead of really listening to the note based on what the teacher saw in my performance, I would jump ahead because I didn’t really want to hear that I was flawed, that I made a mistake.

Fortunately I had a father who used to coach me as well. He saw that I would try to jump in and not truly listen to the note. He would wait for me to finish my objection. Then say, “Next time I give you a critique, instead of instantly jumping in I want you to try something. I want you to think of a follow-up question, based on what I said.”

Brilliant.

This approach served two purposes. It required me wait to actually hear the note. And…
It made me have to think of a follow-up question, so I was forced to listen deeply to the note, process what it meant to me and follow up, thus cementing the learning into my brain.

So therefore, it forced me to acknowledge my mistake, learn from it and figure out how to apply the mistake as a lesson, NOT as a mistake.

Does this make sense?

When we make mistakes and learn from them, we make huge leaps in our learning and through experience you learn that mistakes are actually positive things, not negative.

Instead of fearing mistakes, we should embrace them, ruminate in them and figure out possible solutions. I express that as a plural, because there’s normally never just one solution. There’s usually multiple.

It is key that you write down the mistake, what you learned from it and finally the possible solutions to correct the mistake in the future.

That’s why in the classes I teach, I encourage the students to provide their own suggestions and notes to their fellow students. It requires them to actively listen, process and trouble-shoot a possible solution. This helps them to become more knowledgeable as a comedy writer or comedian, in a faster time period.

When you teach you learn twice.

This type of fear of mistakes can paralyze us in so many ways. It creates a circle of repeated mistakes that cripple growth, stifle productivity and increase stress.

I have a friend. We get together once in awhile to write, go shopping or grab a bite.

She has this fear of mistakes and I see it constantly and repeatedly paralyze her productivity and infuse more stress into her life.

Now the following conversation may seem tedious, but I think it is essential so that you can really get the idea and maybe—just maybe—see similarities in your own behaviors.

About 6 months ago my friend called me and said, “Hey, let’s get together later and go shopping at the mall.”

I said, “What time?”
She said, “Oh late afternoon sometime. I have a lot to get done first.”
I said, “You should set some goals as to exactly what you need to get done and apply a time to it. When that timer is done get up and move on to the next–”
She interrupted, “—Yeah, yeah. I know. That’s a good idea.”
I said, “Okay. Just let me know when?”

At 5 o’clock we planned to get together to shop at the mall, eat and hang out. Since she’s always late, we wound up connecting at the mall at 5:30.
She was hungry, so we grabbed a bite to eat. Then it was time to shop!
As we started to hit the stores, we noticed that they were all starting to close.
She started stressing, “Why are they closing?!”
“Well, it’s Sunday. Most malls close early on Sundays.”

It was a mistake not to set your goals and not plan out the day… I’ve explained the acknowledge mistakes lesson to her that I learned from my father. I hoped that she would start to apply them… she struggles with that.

6 months later…

My friend texts me. Again, it was a Sunday morning.

“Hey, l’ve got to go back home for about a week. Wanna meet at the mall and go shopping?”
“Sure. What time?”

“I don’t know. Late afternoon. I’ve got a lot to get done first…”

I sighed…

Then 30 minutes later the text came in: “Hey, it’s Sunday. Let’s do early afternoon. In fact, I’ll meet you at three! The malls close early don’t they?”

Finally!

Now I just hope she shows up on time!

If you fear mistakes now—no matter what the level of your fear—by doing the above approach of acknowledging, processing and solving, you will eventually lose that fear.

At some point, that fear of mistakes becomes just a shrug, and you look forward to processing it, learning from it and solving it. Because, now you will realize how much time or money you saved, how your business or relationship improved and how above all you transformed in some way and became a better person in life… or at least a better person to go shopping with.

You learn so much from acknowledging your mistakes, rather than being afraid of mistakes.

In my experience, I realized that when I made mistake and acknowledged it, I wasn’t a laughing stock of the world and it didn’t make me eternally miserable.

Instead, it enabled me to eternally grow.

Why Are These College Kids So Damn PC?

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Today, I got an email from a student of mine:

“Jerry,
The lesson I learned tonight is that university students are PC to the point that it is unnatural. These are the people posting PC crap all over Facebook! At first I was confused about my inability to connect with the crowd. I felt it from my first joke (about marriage/children).

Oops!

Some of the other comedians were outright angry at the sensitivity of the audience. This was the first time any of us had performed at a college.

If comedy is indeed a “veiled attack”, then these 19 year olds don’t know comedy! But I got to thinking: If it is funny TO THEM, they will laugh. One guy got up and talked about how after eating chicken vindaloo, his “asshole was blistered”.

At the comedy rooms he never gets a huge laugh with that bit. But last night the crowd loved it. What the fuck? They seem to love descriptive vulgarity … so long as you only make fun of yourself.

Then he went on to say, “After the show I read an article in which Seinfeld says stay away from college campuses at all costs. However there is money to made at such places…

So how do we make this work?”

First, for all the brilliance that is Jerry Seinfeld, he is wrong on this. Jerry is old school and seems stuck in an era that–as far as the 18-24’s are concerned–doesn’t exist. And it seems the more interviews I watch, read or listen to with Seinfeld the more he’s turning into his stubborn old Jewish Dad on his show ‘Seinfeld.’

Due to Jerry’s celebrity, he will continue to be able to work no matter what, but if he doesn’t adjust, he runs the very real risk of becoming mainstream obsolete.

One of the things you learn as an artist, writer, musician, is that different generations have different perceptions of life, therefore their tastes for what’s considered acceptable, changes.

Change, Update or Become Obsolete

Political correctness is nothing new. I started to see this clearly about 23 years ago. Don Rickles did an appearance on Comic Relief in 1992. Rickles is the original ‘insult comic.’ But of course the crowd was filled with people who were at the event to support the benefit to raise money for the homeless and disenfranchised; a very ‘politically correct’ crowd, indeed.

Rickles spent his 7 minutes fighting several groans.

Rickles is a fast and funny comedian, but his inability to play that type of audience was evident.

Rickles showed how out of touch he was with an evolving society.  Trying to explain his insults by saying, “I love the ‘blacks;'” (in fact, candidly using a politically incorrect term to explain his act), exposed him as severely dated.

He reminded me of my grandmother when I brought my friend over to dinner. She referred to him as the ‘Colored boy.’ Which was totally weird because he was Puerto Rican. (Kidding).

Being out of touch made Rickles obsolete in the mainstream. He still plays Vegas, but mostly for the crowd that fits his age group and remembers Rickles for Rickles.

Don’t get me wrong, I hold Seinfeld and Rickles in extremely high esteem. I just want to call it how I see it.

Adjust, but don’t lose your voice or your edge!

George Carlin was able to continue to fill venues and remained a college favorite until he died. He kept his voice, kept his edge but also had something for everyone. Carlin was never only one voice.

I remember him saying. “You gotta put in some observation, some wordplay, some fluff. Fluff is important to remind everyone that although you think religion is bullshit, it’s still a comedy show, so lighten the fuck up.”

At some point Carlin also, said, “I don’t give a shit what the audience thinks…” The moment Carlin groomed his act to get on Late Night T.V. and did the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine for two years, I knew as far as that statement was concerned, Carlin had to eat those words. He adjusted and chose the material that was right for that audience.

In fact, we’re all full of shit if we don’t think we care what the audience thinks. Because, at the bottom line, isn’t that why we’re on stage in the first place? If we don’t get a laugh, we figure out the joke until we do. In essence, we all pander.

But I digress…

It’s About the Audience

Yes, the college kids are overtly PC, but it’s not “ruining” comedy. As a comedian/writer you should learn the acronym M-A-P, Material-Audience-Performer. The material has to suit the performer and suit that audience. When the audience changes, the material has to adjust.

I once played a corporate in Salt Lake City. The guy who hired me said that this was a very hip group and they like to make fun of everything, (famous last words, right?).

In my act, I started doing my Mormon section of my set list, (making fun of Mormons). The audience wasn’t laughing.

Evidently, the audience that likes to make fun of everything, did not like making fun of Mormons.

I needed to figure out why this audience wasn’t laughing or I was sunk.

A guy brought up a piece of paper and I read it. It said, “This crowd is mostly Mormon.”

So I looked at the audience, read the note out loud, took my set list out of my pocket and said, “That explains why that part of my act isn’t working.” And I tore up the set list.

The audience laughed at the candid remark, (because I made fun of myself), and I went back to my act, and instead, made jokes about Jehovah’s Witnesses.

They felt superior, loved it and laughed!

I adjusted my material to fit the audience, but if I took that experience and I said, “Wow whatever you do, avoid doing corporates at all costs,” because I’m unable to adjust to the crowd, I might as well get out of the business now.

Does this make sense?

My point is this: learn to work the crowd. Learn to adjust your material and shift gears so that the audience follows your trajectory.

In the email above, my student said “if comedy is, in fact a ‘veiled attack,’ then they don’t know comedy.” Allow me to talk about this briefly because comedy is a veiled attack; we’re attacking something. Even ourselves.  But the key is to attack UP. Attack above yourself.

  • If you’re white, don’t pick on minorities
  • If you’re male, don’t pick on women (without recourse)
  • If you’re female, male, hispanic, black or other… don’t pick on Special Olympics kids.

This is a shortened version of the attack philosophy and it’s only if you don’t have a valid reason, (IE: If you’re a male don’t pick on your wife or ex unless they cheated on you or did you wrong and you share this information with the audience; now you have reason to pick on them and the audience will actually crave for you to retaliate; simple story telling.).

One Solution: Lot’s of Self-Deprecation!

That being said, you should check out my deconstruction of Daniel Tosh. He’s loved by the college kids and he’s soooo NOT PC!

So why does his material work?

One reason is that he provides lot’s of self deprecation. The edgier the attack the more Tosh picks on himself. The reason he does this is to remind the audience that he really doesn’t take himself too seriously. This allows him to ‘step over the line’ then knock himself down a peg or two.

When you watch his act, you’ll see this pattern repeat. For those who are struggling with the idea that comedy have definite structure, it’s a great lesson. Tosh is masterful at this!

Second Solution: Double Down!

The second is when he does hit on something that’s politically incorrect, he doesn’t bail on it, he doubles down. He pokes at it and pokes at it until the audience (mostly 18-34 males) laugh out of the embarrassment that they shouldn’t be laughing at that joke.

They are also laughing at the ambivalence of Tosh; that Tosh doesn’t care that they didn’t laugh, (or instead, groaned), at the original joke. They audience recognizes that same ambivalence in themselves and since recognition is a top laugher trigger, they laugh.

Doubling down could be as simple as saying something like, “I’m going down this road with or without you people…” Or “Hey I’m twenty-one, this is the shit I talk about,” or “One day you’ll look back and laugh at this, like maybe the day when you actually become adults.”

The point is that all audiences have a degree of overt political correctness corrupting their ability to laugh openly at certain jokes from a comedian–

Be Unstoppable, Don’t Give up… Just figure it out!

Remember Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes? He ate it!
Did he say, “Avoid the Golden Globes at all costs?” No. He came back the very next year and had a great time making fun of the previous year’s performance!

College kids might be more PC than usual, but the object is to figure out what they laugh at, then figure out out of the stuff they laugh at what resonates with your persona, then approach your college set that way.

Go to a college show! See what the kids are relating to and write some stuff that fits your persona but also resonates with the crowd.

For the last two years. Comedian and former student, Tony Ming, produced some shows at Cal State University, Northridge.

He had five comedians doing sets for around a hundred and fifty college kids who were just starting their college careers. All of the comedians were our students…

I gotta tell you right now, none of our students bombed. That’s right, none. I’m not saying that to blow smoke up anyone’s ass. It’s just the plain truth. Each one went up on stage and had terrific sets with solid laughs every 18-20 seconds.

Their sets were all about their obstacles, and their struggles to figure stuff out.

The first year, Brian Kiley was headliner. Brian is the head monologue writer at Conan O’Brien. He performed for fifty-three minutes and  EVERY JOKE WORKED!

His jokes worked despite the fact that Brian doesn’t really have any dynamic change in his emotions. His jokes are just nearly perfect in their structure.

Fifty-three minutes in front of a PC college crowd. Rocked.

The following year, I was the headliner in that same room. This time there was an even larger audience. I actually struggled with a few jokes. In my head I was like, Wait a minute. This shit kills at the clubs. What’s up?  I then shifted gears, made fun of myself. Made it more interactive, (within my material), with me encountering or sharing similar obstacles with the kids in the crowd and the set went well.

Bottom line is, while still staying true to my style and my voice, I adjusted.

Because after all, this is show business. If the material doesn’t resonate with the purchaser, then, in order to survive, you have to adjust.

I learned a long time ago to approach my comedy as both an art and as a business. Most comedians miss this part of it.

Show Business is two words

Most comedians approach this business like,  “Screw the audience, this is about my art.”

To a certain extent it is, but… “Show-BUSINESS” is two words and ‘business’ is usually in all CAPS.

Every performer, must understand is the the “Golden Rule,” which is: “He with the gold, makes the rules,” and if the one with the gold wants it clean or very PC then you have to be able to adjust.

You might consider having several different types of sets:

  • A set for the clubs (Can get blue, (use profanity or graphic sexual situations), maybe edgy, or politically incorrect)
  • A set for Colleges (Extra sensitivity toward being clean and very politically correct).
  • A set for Cruises (Two 45 minute sets; one clean, one a little edgy for the midnight show).
  • A set for Corporates and Fund raisers, (clean and focusing on theme and interests that usually appeal to the business or industry you are performing for).
  • A set for Late Night, (A set on late night is 4-minutes, 30-seconds. It’s ‘T.V. Clean’)

It’s something to consider and take seriously, because those college kids will be out of college soon and be the primary audience members of the clubs and mainstream performance venues.

A comedian interested in having longevity should adjust when necessary or resolve to becoming obsolete.

The Best Way to Write a Comedy Act if You’re an Absolute Newbie

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Got an email from a kid, (I say, kid but for all I know the guy could’ve been fifty!), it said, “Hey Jerry I’m new in comedy. What’s the best way to start building a comedy set? Should I write it down first or just do stuff that my friends think is funny?”

This is a great question and one I receive a lot.

One of the benefits of people leaving me comments at the bottom of my blog posts and sending me emails is that I can then turn around and answer them on my comedy blog.

So how do you write a comedy act if you’re an absolute newbie?

The thing is that there’s no single answer to this question. Comedians work different ways.

I emphasize writing, because that’s how I started.

I studied other comedians then started taking the things that happened in my daily observations and wrote them down.

I didn’t begin performing until I had what I thought was an hour of material. I didn’t think you could start until you had an hour, because that was about the length of all the comedy albums I was listening to at the time.

Of course we know differently now. You can begin to perform in comedy if you have three to five minutes.

I started by doing observational, external material, because I wasn’t yet comfortable talking about myself.

Two things that stand out in my recollection:

1. When I was twelve I went to the Post Office with my father and there was a sign on the door,  it said, “NO DOGS ALLOWED, except seeing-eye dogs.”
I said to my father, “Dad, what’s a ‘seeing-eye’ dog?”
He said, “It’s a dog that helps blind people get around.”
I then said, “Then who’s this sign for?”

My Dad thought it was funny. I didn’t even think it was a joke. Years later I heard Garry Shandling do almost an exact version of that which I didn’t even think was a joke and he got big laughs.

But at that time I was playing soccer and music and didn’t have any interest in performing or writing comedy.

2. When I started studying comedy another Garry Shandling joke stood out. The joke was, “I just sold the house I live in. Got a great price for it too. Made the landlord mad as hell…”

The first Shandling joke just stuck out to me as simple observational humor, (which I now know is more than just a simple observation; it’s more paradoxical, possibly tipping into irony), which is more powerful than simple observation.

The second one is pure structure. It is a perfect reverse. Being armed with this information changed the way I went about creating my early comedy sets.

I still have my very first performance on VHS. I watch it and it’s okay, but the structure is sloppy and it just sounds unorganized. It was me telling stories and observations that weren’t economized and reduced to what I know a tight bit should sound like now.

There are three primary techniques I use when creating a comedy routine. The first way is to always write down things that are funny. Usually when I’m with a group of friends and something occurs that makes me and them laugh, I will write it down to possibly use later.

The other technique is to sit down and write jokes. I prefer this technique because I don’t have to wait for the coincidence of the moment with friends or a funny situation to just happen to ‘occur’ to me. I can just sit down and generate material.

I do this by utilizing about 23 different approaches, but for the sake of this blog post, I will just write about two approaches. Here they are…

They are simple called “Fifty Facts” and “Fifty Random Lines.” That’s where I will write down fifty facts about me. The procedure usually goes like this:

  1. Write down 50 facts about me; just facts.
  2. Sometimes I will get the facts from answering questions on a personality profile quiz.
  3. Select 10-25 of those facts that seem to antagonize or inspire me most.
  4. Put each of those lines on a page and try to utilize 3 primary comedy structures:
    1. Double-entendre  using the implied meaning of a word and turning it into the comedic meaning. (Ie: Came home from work the other night and I say to my wife. “How you doin’? She’s says, “Having some gas pains. I’m like, “Everyone is, it’s like four bucks a gallon again.”).
    2. Incongruity (finding and juxtaposing 2 or more contrasting ideas that are in the line ie: “I’m Irish and American Indian. You know what that means? I pretty much have VIP seats waiting for me at any AA meeting.”).
    3. Reverse (as in the Gary Shandling joke above. Ie: “You know what my baby loves to play with? Chest hair and she’ll yank on it too. Finally I had to say to my wife, ‘You know, you might want to get that shit lasered.”).
  5. After I have several jokes written, I go back and flesh the jokes out with tags, toppers and act-outs, to bring the jokes alive and get more laughs per minute from each.
  6. I will then repeat this process with the 50 Random Lines which are external facts, headlines, ad copy, statements from leaders, etc.

This is of course the simplified version and a lot more goes into it. But this is the beginning. After I have about five minutes (a page and a half at a 12 point Times New Roman font ), I then rehearse it out loud. When we say our material out loud, different creative parts of our brains are being accessed and new ideas will be inspired. I audio record all out loud rehearsals so I don’t miss anything. After I rehearse it 25 times all the way through, I then perform it on stage…

Remember I said I used three techniques? This is the third; performance.

When you’re on stage in front of an audience you, once again, have new sensations that are occurring and your brain is in somewhat of an altered state resulting in new impulses and ideas which will continue to help you to shape the act even more.

So in answer to the “Kid’s” question, you can use what works for you, but for me it’s a combination of writing jokes, recording coincidental observation and letting the act evolve in performance.

This is a simple approach I also look for paradoxical situations, comedic irony and one of my favorites, benign retaliation.  To really dig deep into all of the available laughter triggers and comedy structures dig into my eBook writing system, “Breaking Comedy’s DNA” and start to really break into comedy writing.

If you have any questions about getting your act started, leave me a comment below. Love to talk to you!

Conan O’Brien Just Could be a Stand-up’s Best Friend

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Doing your stand up on Late Night T.V. can be your big break as a comedian. Well, unless you’re Madonna doing stand-up on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

I won’t get into that face-plant into a steamy pile of dog food by-product. I think that gimmick–at least for me–dropped my opinion of Fallon’s show; certainly with regard to it’s appeal for comedians.

When Johnny Carson was still on the air. The Tonight Show was the pinnacle. If a comedian could get on the Tonight Show and get that nod from Johnny to sit on the couch, then you could almost write your own ticket.

Currently, for comedians and their futures, it seems that Late Night has lost that sizzle…

Or has it?

Here’s a great article over at Paste Magazine that gives you a glimpse, from the inside, of how Conan OBrien’s show has now become a “stand-up’s best friend.”

This little post is not to imply that none of the other shows give a comedian that extra boost on their resume, because they do, but Conan seems to be the only one of the Late Night hosts who has followed Carson in his avid support of stand-ups.

Letterman doesn’t have that many on, Fallon would rather have famous people on the show than give a new comedian a shot, James Cordon hasn’t been on the air enough to gauge his propensity and Kimmel–well, Kimmel does support stand-ups, in my view, and seems to give them the freedom to bring  a little more bite to Late Night, a little more edge than some of the others, but still doesn’t have as many stand-ups on his show as Conan.

But Conan, hands down, takes it win it comes to the real showcasing of new stand-ups. He’s even booked two stand-ups on one episode, more than once. Not as a double-booking, but as part of the production.

Who does that?

I think every comedian should groom their four-and-a-half minutes to get it prepared for Late Night. That should be a target goal.

Getting a set on T.V. is a game-changer.

When you get into the article you’ll discover how many comedians got other breaks in the business once they got their set on Conan.

But before you run over there to Paste to check out the article consider these suggestions:

  1. Make note of the Talent Coordinator at Conan, (Put him into your contact database)
  2. Read attentively and look at the suggestions of what they look for at Conan
  3. Run over to TeamCoco’s page on YouTube and study the comedians and their Late Night sets.
  4. Notice their structure and their pacing. (Late Night pacing is a lot slower than you might imagine; bigger pauses)
  5. Start putting together your own idea of what your 4.5 minutes will look like.
  6. Be sure to keep in mind that on Late Night, that first joke is crucial. Gotta be tight.
  7. Finally, realize that the sets use tight structure.

So set your goals and your target for Conan (or any Late Night show), and get to  work.

In the meantime, give a shout-out to comedian, Grant Pardee, (the article’s author), and follow him on Twitter @grantpardee.