“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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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!
Comedians often wonder why some of their jokes are not getting a laugh. If you’ve ever wondered this, read on. One of the reasons could be that it is not believable.
Comedians hear that they should tell the truth. That the truth is what’s funny. I think that pigeon-holes a comedian. I think it’s more accurate to say that your jokes or stories should be plausible. Even if they are a bit absurd.
As audiences, we love to be fooled, but we hate to be made fools of. Whether it’s a magic trick or a good joke, we’re fooled just a little. We experience surprise or a bit of amazement so we smile, laugh, applaud.
But, as audiences, when we’re made fools of we will turn. In comedy it is usually manifested as a groan or silence. In some cases you can actually watch an audience fold their arms, silently rejecting the performer’s recklessness in underestimating our intelligence.
I’ve seen comedians affect this behavior from audiences and stand in wonder as to why the audience would do such a thing. “I know this is funny! This is a funny idea!” “Come on! What’s wrong with the audience?” “How could they NOT get this?!”
You know the drill.
Storytelling Has Rules
As comedians, we’ve all done a joke and expected a laugh and the joke resulted in anything but laughter.
There are a lot of reasons that this happens. One of the most common reasons is the lack of understanding that comedy is heightened reality.
Plausibility in a story or joke is essential.
But before I go into it, allow me to argue that whether you perform one and two-liner jokes, or stories, it’s all the same. “A joke, (according to Sid Caesar) is a story with a curlicue.”
So if a joke is a story then it must have some kind of story structure and adhere to certain set of rules.
Sorry to break the news to some of you, there are rules in story telling and joke telling.
Fiction writers often argue that since they are the authors they can write anything since they are the creators. That is true. You CAN write anything you want, but if it does not follow certain rules, the reader or listener will immediately reject it.
Building Plausibility into Your Story
Stories, like jokes, have to adhere to a certain set rules. One of those rules is that the story or scenario has to be plausible. Another rule is that there should be some kind of point of view.
In trying to understand this concept, one of my students showed me an example of comedian, Rory Skovel on Comedy Central’s “The Half-Hour.” (3 1/2 minutes)
He was wondering how it is plausible that Rory had ‘stolen’ seven grandmothers. And if that concept didn’t violate the rule plausibility and wander into complete absurdity.
In my humble observation I give you this:
Rory’s persona is kinda like that of a sociopath. It’s quirky and off-center. He looks like he could’ve been one of those kids who was at risk of shooting up a high school so stealing and hoarding grandmothers doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility for his persona.
Also, in the structure of the storytelling, he adds, “…old people in wheelchairs, rarely turn around to see who’s pushing them.” This statement gives credence to how the main character in the story achieves his goal.
As outrageous as the story may be, the act of stealing grandmothers and keeping them in your basement is certainly plausible. It’s physically possible and given the main character’s persona in the story, it seems like plausible behavior.
Implausibility comes with Impossibility
That being said, if the storyteller sprung some concept on the audience that wasn’t introduced in the setup, then we might reject it. For example, in Rory’s story, he wheels the grandmother out to his van…
If he didn’t introduce the van and he just said something like, “…then I transport them to my basement using my magical telepathic transporting powers… ” or something like that, it would be completely implausible or unbelievable.
As a result the audience would think the comedian–by thinking that we would fall for such nonsense–are playing us for fools and we would reject the joke.
That being said, if the comedian built into the story that this was a dream or that he was in a world where those powers could be attained through submitting 5 cereal boxtops and a self-addressed stamped envelope, then we might allow it, because the given circumstances of the story, the telepathic powers would be plausible.
So the next time you tell a joke or a story and the audience doesn’t buy it. Maybe it is because it’s not considered plausible.
In order for ever story to be complete the writer has to address the maxim of the five W’s: Who? What? Where? Why? When? and How? — Okay, 5 W’s and an H! 🙂
If any one of those elements is NOT plausible (given the circumstances that were explained to us in the set up and the character), then the audience might not buy the concept and may reject it by responding to our joke with silence.
Would love to hear your thoughts. Have you ever had a story or joke that didn’t work?
Looking to add more laughs into your act? Sometimes just applying some deliberate writing you can use mechanics to add some quick laughs as you advance the routine.
According to Lorne Michaels, creator of Saturday Night Live, one of the crucial things an audience looks for in a comedian who first steps on stage is confidence.
Confidence is a two-way street; you as the performer have to have confidence in yourself for the audience to have confidence in your ability to make them laugh.
Immediate Laughs Build Confidence Fast
One way to build confidence in your act is to have a quick laugh within the first 10-15 seconds of taking the stage.
Economy is key. Challenge yourself to a game of how fast you can get to the joke. How many words before you can get the audience to laugh?
We built a laugh into Eugenia Kuzmina’s act by using her the emcee’s intro as a set up. The emcee says, “Ladies and gentlemen, coming to the stage now is a fashion model who wants to be a comedian. Please welcome Eugenia Kuzmina.
Eugenia enters the stage doing the fashion model’s scissored gate like she’s on a fashion runway. She walks to each end of the stage and poses just like she’s on the runway. Then approaches the mic, sighs, and then says, “I’m so hungry.”
So she gets a big laugh with as little as three words. Most of the time the audience begins giggling on her entrance, which helps to build the laugh on the line.
Years ago I did a show at a casino/resort in Nevada that had a fire the week before that threatened the cancellation of the show. That news was in the paper (remember newspapers?). It was also on the news.
When I was introduced, I walked on stage with a fire extinguisher, set it down next to me and… before I said anything, the audience laughed, then broke into applause.
Problem with that is if I want to rely on that gimmick to get laughs, before I come to town I would have to arrange for the venue to have a fire.
Applying the Maxim of the 5 w’s to Add Laughs
The good news is that many times the jokes are already sitting there in your existing act. You just need to use put on your comedy tool belt.
Using one of my students recent intros, watch how we took introduction and added 3 more quick laughs, giving her 7 laughs in the first 30 seconds.
Here is the intro to a set written by Laura Breech, one of my students:
“So I moved here recently and decided to check out the LA dating scene, so I dusted off that online profile…again. I’ve been on a few dates, and I don’t get why things never go anywhere. I’m doing all the things you’re supposed to on a first date: I’m getting dressed up, I’m making polite conversation, I’m swallowing…Hahah, JK, that doesn’t happen. Not on a first date! I’m a spitter. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but dude, I live in LA now. I’ve gotta count calories…”
It’s a good opening and has three laughs, but I took a look at the draft and thought there was a possibility to add a few more laughs.
I looked at each sentence and utilized the maxim of the 5 W’s (Who? What? Where? Why? When? And How?).
This was the result:
“So recently, I moved to L.A. for the same reason as most people; just to make absolutely certain that I’ll never be able to afford a home. And recently I decided to get into extreme sports; you know, the LA dating scene… so I dusted off that online profile… again. I’ve been on a few dates–okay, seventeen of them–(ahem)… and I don’t get why things never go anywhere. I’m doing all the things you’re supposed to on a first date: I’m getting dressed up, I’m making polite conversation, I’m swallowing…Ha!, Just kidding, that doesn’t happen. Not on a first date! I’m a spitter. Dude! I live in LA now. I gotta count calories…”
So just by asking questions like Why did I move to L.A.? and How is the “L.A. dating scene” different from other dating scenes? “What do I mean by a ‘few’ dates?, We were able to add about 3 more laughs to this opening for a total of 7 laughs in the first 30 seconds.
That averages out to a laugh every 4.2 seconds. That’s a great start and executed properly that opening will assuredly demonstrate ability and give that audience a hypodermic filled with confidence.
Go Even Further
But, wait, there’s more! Just because that’s the opening bit she performed at her show, it doesn’t mean we can’t evolve the piece even further.
The first thing that pops into my mind is that Laura compared L.A. dating to extreme sports. That tells us that there are two dissimilar ideas converging and that we can do a listing technique to generate some associative jokes to flesh this piece out even more.
So go ahead. Take your existing material and develop it further just by utilizing the comedic tools you have at your disposal and build that confidence in your comedy with more laughs.
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A booker contacts you and wants you to do a show. Then they say something like,
“Oh and I want a clean comedy show…”
What does a booker mean when they say they want a ‘clean’ comedy show?
It really depends. I’ve heard things from bookers that were like, “You’ve got to be able to do it in front of your grandmother…”
You don’t know my grandmother! What if my grandmother was like this:
Esther Hersh as Gangster Granny on The Ben Show from Jerry Corley on Vimeo.
If my grandmother was like “Gangsta Granny,” then I could probably get away with anything and my act wouldn’t be clean at all.
The important thing to remember is that the responsibility falls on you to clarify what that individual booker means by “clean.” Because in the end, if you fail to reach that booker’s definition of clean, he/she is probably not going to have you back or worse, won’t pay you for the show you did (read till the end).
So ask them specifically what they mean by clean. You might say, “Do you mean PG clean or G-rated clean?”
Ask who the audience is.
In some audience’s you can do jokes about sex other audiences you can’t. And there’s a way to do sex jokes clean and not so clean.
The general guideline with doing sex jokes in a clean (network TV) environment is that the jokes can’t be graphic. You can say “we were having sex,” but the moment you mention anything that brings to mind a specific image of genitalia or bodily fluids, positions, etc., then the material is no longer clean.
When doing comedy for network TV, the network will has a department called ‘Standards & Practices.’ It’s a bunch of lawyers who work for a network who decide whether or not the content is suitable for the network’s viewer. They will determine what’s ‘clean.’
Here are a couple of examples from Brian Kiley, the head monologue writer for Conan O’Brien who has done more than a dozen spots on late night TV. Many of his jokes are about sex. But they are considered clean enough for network.
“My brother is not the brightest guy in the world. He had heart surgery recently and he said to the doctor, “Doc, when can I have sex?” And the doctor said, “When you can walk up a flight of stairs, you can have sex.” And my brother said, “Why? Who’s up there?”
“When my wife and I were first married, she would yell out the name of her old boyfriend. The Weird thing is, his name was also brian… so she would yell out, “Brian. Not you… the OTHER Brian.”
So you could see that in these jokes, Kiley gets away with doing these on The Late Show with David Letterman. Even the one about his father needing to turn in sperm sample. But in the context of the joke the sperm sample was a medical procedure, not a sexual situation, so it passes the test.
But here’s where the definition of ‘clean’ gets tricky. What if you were doing an event at a high school in front of students, parents and administrators? Could you do the sperm joke or the sex jokes? I guess it depends on what school right?
So when it comes to doing clean, context has a lot to do with it.
There is no absolute definition for clean. Here’s something you should never do…
I was on the road with this comedian from Salt Lake City and we got a call from a booker in the middle of the week to do a corporate show for a bunch of gold miners. It was a dinner and everyone was well dressed. The pay was $1000 for the headliner and $500 for the feature act.
When we got to the event this huge dude in a tuxedo comes up to us–There’s something scary about a huge dude in a tuxedo. Like, first of all, what tuxedo company rents shirts with a 22-inch neck?
Anyway, he says to us, “We need this show to be clean because the wives are here.”
The comedian I was working with was told by some other comedian that when they want it clean all you have to do is ask the audience, “Do you want the clean stuff or the dirty stuff?”
So He got up onstage and said, “Do you want the clean stuff or the dirty stuff?” And one guy yelled out “Dirty!” So he said, “How do you make Martha Stewart scream? You f*ck her in the ass and wipe your dick on her drapes.”
That was his opening joke. Yeesh!
I looked over and the huge dude in the tuxedo popped a vein and said to me, “get him off the goddam stage.” So I had to go up on the stage and tell him he was done. Then spent the next 5 minutes making fun of him to recover, and then had to honor the contract and fulfill the 90-minute obligation.
Needless to say, that comedian didn’t get paid.
Whether you decide to work clean or not is up to you. You don’t have to pick one over the other. You can work clean for certain events and work blue for others.
From George Carlin to Louis C.K. to Amy Schumer, even though they are known for being blue, they each clean it up when they do network TV.
But if you know how to work clean and still get laughs then the simple truth is that you’re going to work more.
But if you’re going to work clean, find out exactly what they mean by it.
‘Clean’ might mean different things to different bookers, but there’s one thing that is for sure: When the booker says “Your show needs to be clean,” you don’t make it “dirty.”