The Lessons; In Life and in Comedy
The life and comedy lessons that I learned from the brief encounters I had with Robin Williams came flooding back to me since I got the news of his death.
It was 4:00PM Monday August 11th, and I was sitting at the computer writing jokes; ironically, only nineteen hours after we wrapped an Anti-Suicide Benefit Show at the Hollywood Improv to raise awareness for Depression and Suicide. That’s when I got the call from a friend and fellow comedian.
He simply said: “Robin Williams is Dead.”
There was that long silence that follows that kind of message. Longer than normal. That kind of silence that seems to stretch forever. The kind of silence that would make you really uncomfortable on stage.
I did what I usually do when I hear news that I can’t totally process emotionally; I went to jokes: “Leave it to Robin to do this right after the Anti-Suicide Benefit. Ha! If the benefit didn’t raise awareness, this sure will.”
Then I cried.
I didn’t plan it. I didn’t feel it coming on. It was just one of those things that happened spontaneously, you know?
I didn’t cry when Carlin died. That news seriously bummed me out, but I didn’t cry… and Carlin mentored me.
At first I refused to believe it. Like a lot of comedians, I had worked with Robin several times. I even drove him in a limousine every day for a couple of weeks early in my career, when I was cutting down my road work to try to save my marriage.
I remember Robin said to me, “Save your marriage? F*@k your marriage. Save your life!”
Then in a character voice, almost disgustedly, he said, “You’re a comedian. A chauffeur YOU ARE NOT!”
He said, “Yeah Bitterman, you missed the turn about a half-mile back!” Then he launched into a Dudley Moore laugh from the movie “Arthur.”
It was a good laugh. But, that sunk in deep. And later that week after I dropped him off at his jet, I quit the limo and went right back out on the road for good.
I worked with him a couple of times after that. We weren’t buddies. We didn’t call each other or anything. The time I spent with the man was minuscule in a chronological sense, but his impact is eternal. And each time I bumped into him or had the honor of working with him, he was always, ALWAYS kind.
That’s one of the things he taught me. That in this business, where sometimes people can be so back-stabbing, angry, resentful and use their success to try to diminish you, he was just Robin, all the time.
He taught me that synergy works better than enemy and that being kind to your fellow comedian, your fellow human doesn’t ever hurt your career. It always helps.
Robin Breathed Life Into Comedy
Robin’s career was, in a word, stellar. From the time he was picked up to do “Mork and Mindy,” he was off and running. He was a comedian, but a comedian who had goals beyond just doing stand-up. He started as a comedian in the Bay Area in the seventies, then went off to “study” at the The Julliard School of Drama in New York.
When he went back to the Bay Area, he was a different comedian. He was doing characters on stage. Characters were not new in comedy, Carlin did characters, but it was the way he was doing the characters; BIG, BOLD COMMITTED. He was blowing the doors off the clubs!
He was a pure entertainer. I know, he had a bit of a reputation for stealing jokes. Hell, he stole a couple of mine. But somehow that was different. He was “Robin.” He breathed life into comedy. I could always write new jokes.
He taught me the power of incongruous act-outs in comedy, (a version of solo-sketch comedy), that if you give the audience a clear premise: Like in this video, where he does his version of American soccer and South American soccer, then segues into American Football referees. The set up is clear cut. He sets up the characters, then just brings them to life.
You watch Robin Williams do comedy and you can’t help but feel a bit manic. Because, from the moment he takes the stage, that’s the way he performed and there’s a theory in theater science that the audience is in whatever state the performer is in. When you saw Robin perform, you had no choice but to leave that experience, charged up.
Depression and Suicide
Early reports coming in from the news is that his death was an apparent suicide. Now I think I understand why I cried when my friend called. The sheer dichotomy. In a weird way, Robin, who struggled with addiction and depression and was open about it, represented a certain hope for many.
I have never experienced addiction or depression. The closest I’ve been to that is drunk and tired.
Then it kind of hit me why Robin’s death made me cry when Carlin’s didn’t. Carlin died of so-called natural causes; a heart-related issue. Robin’s death was mired in a more profound tragedy. He died of something seemingly treatable, but obviously misunderstood.
There are close to 15 million people in the U.S. that suffer from depression. And if a man who had the resources to afford and access all the help he needed to deal with it can’t find a way out, what are the other 14 million nine-hundred and ninety-nine thousand going to do?
We need you back, Robin.
Today I’m going to Amazon to buy every Robin Williams comedy video I can get my hands on. Maybe Robin can still help play away the pain and give others hope.
Robin Williams affected us all in one way or another. For me, he was partly responsible for where I am today. One marriage down but still making a living doing comedy.
Save your life, indeed.
You’ll be missed.
Let’s get right to it!
I’ve been posting and blogging about comedy writing tools for several years now, giving you the best tools that I use to write comedy. I’m loving every minute of it!
In this post I’m sharing with you my 5 favorite writing tools online. It’s a combination of tools I’ve already posted, but you may have forgotten they were there or missed them because you didn’t see the post.
Look at them now because soon I am going to be locking them in the vault and only using them for online courses.
These tools work whether you are a one-and-two-liner comedian or whether you are a story-teller.
These tools work for coming up with jokes for Clubs , Corporate, Late Night, Sketches, Screenwriting, or novel writing.
The structure of comedy is as important to the laugh as hitting the right notes in the right key is important to the music.
In other words, without the structures, there is little or no laughter.
Every comedian who’s made you laugh from Jerry Seinfeld to Kevin Hart; from Jim Jefferies to Bill Burr; from Louis CK to Amy Schumer, they all utilize the structures I teach in my courses and in my eBook writing system. They all use them, even if they don’t know it!
George Carlin said to me, “I know 98-percent of the time that a joke is funny before I get it on stage.” I asked him how he knew and he said, “because I know they contain all the elements necessary for a joke to be funny.”
So here we go!
This was the second one I shared with the public when I first started writing my blog. It’s a simple method I use when I am staring at a blank page or computer screen saying, “I got nothin!” I just run this scenario through my head and I always wind up with something; usually about 5 minutes of new material! The good thing is I can use it starting from complete scratch!
2.How To Write Jokes [Video Tutorial]
This video tutorial was the first of its kind ever put on the internet. May still be the only one of its kind. Where I start with a simple headline from the news and I walk you through the procedure as you look at my computer screen. It’s like you’re looking over my shoulder while I write jokes and show you one of my processes for generating material. This technique has helped me to write thousands of jokes over the years.
Another first of its kind as far as the viewer being able to watch joke writing in a certain niche in a real-time environment. In this video I will take the corporate subject matter of “Title Insurance” and walk through my process as I basically write 10 minutes of Title Insurance jokes. Inspired from a phone call I received from National Title asking me how much I charge to perform at one of their events doing at least five minutes of Title Insurance humor. After I quoted them my fee I knew I better be able to write some title insurance jokes. So I start from scratch and write 10 minutes in less than an hour. Take a look at the process if you want to learn how to write comedy for corporate engagements. Definitely worth a look!
Most people I run into who are trying to write comedy, think that comedy writing is a mystery. They think it’s got to be really clever and difficult. Some of the best comedy is the simplest comedy. Much of it comes in the form of opposites. One of the easiest ways to get to the punch is NOT to think of something FUNNY but to think in opposites. This exercise gets you there fast. It may seem simple, but it’s powerful. I’ve used this in sketch writing, screenwriting and in stand-up. Always effective!
I love Bill Burr! He’s a terrific and expressive comedian, who loves to take the alternate point of view on popular social opinions. His technique is masterful, but when someone told me that Bill doesn’t use any comedy structure, I just had to show them not only that he does, but how he does and exactly where he uses it. Take a look at this Bill Burr video and then watch as line-by-line, you get to see where he places the key elements that trigger the laughs!
So there you have it
Five of my best tools for writing jokes. But here’s the thing: This barely scratches the surface of the tools I use on a regular basis to write jokes. In my classes and with my online courses, I teach 23 different approaches to writing comedy. Remember, there’s no single way to approaching comedy writing.
But these tools will give you a process to make it easier. I still use the old-school method of getting an inspiration and talking it out on stage until it develops into a solid routine, but I prefer to use the George Carlin method: write it funny so you know it’s funny before you take the stage!
I hope you enjoy this list of tools. Remember they won’t stay online long, so use them, share them with others and please feel free to leave a comment below and let me know how you’re doing!
Save This Article! Share it with Others!
Take a look at Emily Zemler’s article in Esquire on Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer and others on how and what they did before they became famous.
I always love reading about this stuff!
Most of us get acquainted with notable comedians only after they hit it big. The challenge and the mystery of their success can be so ominous and make us feel like we could never do it.
Early in our careers, every show seems so crucial. In the article Louis C.K. talks about his first time on stage and how he couldn’t fill five minutes and then didn’t do stand up for another two years!
He also talks about other failures.
This should instill in all of us how important the journey is. That not every or ANY show is a “do-or-die” moment, that mistakes can happen and they can be BIG. I mean how many of us even knew that C.K. made a movie, let alone a couple?
There Are No SINGLE Opportunities
Every career has its ups and downs. Some of us put so much faith in that ONE opportunity we had and blew.
There are no ‘single’ opportunities.
There is the journey of ups and downs. Some ‘downs’ feel catastrophic when they happen, but none except death can keep you down forever.
If I were you; which I’m not—Thank God—because I’ve seen the way you dress and that deep v-neck shirt does not look good on me—but if I were you, I would link that article, screenshot it, save it and use it for a reference each time you feel that you’ve failed or that your career is going nowhere.
Read the article, understand that the great ones failed too. Then get out, get up and do your funny.
And if they don’t laugh, rewrite, get up and do your funny again!
Great article Emily Zemler! Thanks for instilling hope in all comedians who are pounding it out.
P.S. This article was shared with me by Rick Olson; follow him on Facebook or Twitter . Dude’s always finding good stuff!
I was at party recently and I had the privilege of meeting another veteran comedian, a comedian who had reached a certain notable level of success.
We were talking about comedy and I had mentioned that one of my students—Sascha Knopf—was a finalist in the ‘CA’s Funniest Female’ Comedy Competition this year, and another student of mine—Pauline Yasuda—won it in 2013.
This comedian looked me dead in the eye and said, “I don’t believe in competitions. This is my art.”
“You’re falling into that trap, are you?”
And although I know what she was trying to say and I respect it; it’s a common trap that ‘artists’ fall into and it’s utter nonsense.
This Is Not Art School
I didn’t engage in a discussion with this comedian about the topic, but it’s an important lesson to address and should be part of Art School 101 for everyone whether you’re an actor, dancer, writer, painter or comedian.
It’s an especially important lesson if you’re in one of those arts where there is little—if any—formal training; like stand-up comedy.
That lesson is:
This is Show Business, not Art School.
There is a difference. In art school we can do whatever we want. We can paint, or sculpt or write and be as creative as we want, flavoring our art to our own tastes, express ourselves purely without regard to the world’s judgment.
If they think it’s bland or too spicy, ‘screw them’ because it is my art and beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in art school the beholder is you and a handful of other artists, but mostly you, because at Art School, you write the checks (or if you’re lucky, you are the offspring of parents with money, then it’s their check).
When you get into Show Business—which is two distinct words—read that again and let it sink in: Show-Business is two words. Each word should have equal weight, but they don’t. They call it a business because it is just that. If you don’t put butts in the seats or sell your art, nobody gives a damn.
In show-business, who is the ‘beholder?’
- Club bookers
- Talent Coordinators
- Casting Directors
- Listeners (if it’s radio)
- The network
- The Advertisers
- The audience
You are therefore beholden to those who make the decisions and write the checks. After all, comedy is not performed in a vacuum. You have to please those who are in charge and that includes the audience.
Don’t get me wrong, a strong developed point of view and character are essential to making you unique and brand-able, but you have to adjust when the ‘beholders’ demand it.
If you are such a powerful presence and your brand of art is generating ticket sales, filling arenas, generating a million followers on social media, the ‘beholders’ will acquiesce and will see the beauty in what you do, because they will see the revenue that you will generate.
But that’s only because they see that as good ‘business,’ because, really, most decision makers in this business don’t know what’s good or what’s funny.
Let me repeat that: Most decision makers in this business don’t know what’s good or what’s funny…
I mean c’mon! They released and distributed a remake of “The Three Stooges!”
Talk about being completely disconnected from the mass appeal of a comedy audience! (FYI Fox: Comedy Audiences have evolved beyond the hysteria from a ball-peen hammer to the head—if it was ever even hysterical in the first place).
That movie’s colossal failure underscores the concept that the audience is the final judge and they are a part of what makes up the essence of show business.
What’s that make us as comedians?
Comedians Are The Ultimate Panderers
Did that sting? Yeah, it hurt to write it too, but it’s true, so get over it.
Art? Yes, but not like in an painter who paints a picture and puts it out there. You either like it or you don’t.
In comedy we seek immediate gratification. That’s one reason we do this amazing art-form. But to get that gratification we have to adjust our subject matter and our jokes so we get laughs.
If we perform material and it doesn’t get laughs we immediately do two things:
- Re-write the material, or…
- Throw it away
We adjust to what the audience laughs at. You can be pure and and artist all you want, but you have to be aware of the audience and if they are laughing… and if they’re not, you make the adjustment.
Because if they are not laughing, you are not a comedian; you are a talker.
And in their comedy club or on their comedy show, a booker or a talent coordinator doesn’t want a talker.
Take a comedian like Bill Burr or throw back to Bill Hicks; you might think they just say (or said) anything they want, but that’s not true. They work their acts and edit and rewrite, keeping what works and throwing out what doesn’t.
Comedians adjust because we want laughs. Laughs get us noticed and laughs get us work. Because we’re not in it simply for the art. We’re in it because we not only love what we do but our goal is to make a living doing it.
It’s business and show-business is the game.
Comedy competitions are a part of the game.
There are few things, besides a personal reference from a legendary comic, that can help boost your notoriety faster than a strong finish at a notable comedy competition:
In short comedy competitions:
- Are solid resume boosters
- Get eyebrows raised
- Demonstrate a level of credibility
- Provide invaluable networking opportunities
- Give an opportunity to put out a press release
- Great ways to impress an agent or manager and snag representation
So, although being an artist is commendable and I work hard on my art, the end result is that this is show business and to ignore that fact and only focus on the art is, in my opinion, a naïve approach to the business.
“How do I know when my jokes are working?”
If you’ve been following my blog, by now you know that writing one and two liners is key to really making your story-telling pop.
If you aren’t aware of this, I’ll remind you.
Stories are great. I do stories, but with the clubs and television expecting a laugh every 18-20 seconds, you must be sure you include laugh-points all along the arc of that story. The best way to do this is to get really good at your one and two-liners, giving your story an opportunity to create a laugh after almost every one to three sentences.
If you don’t have laugh points in your stories, then you’re not doing comedy.
Keep in mind, there are some exceptions to this rule, but overall, if we’re in a comedy club, we want to laugh.
So How Do You Get Good at This?
You have to start to recognize opportunities for comedy ‘plays’ along your story’s journey. There are a vast array of techniques and structures to help you hit your laugh points, and if you’ve read and worked through my eBook, “Breaking Comedy’s DNA,” you’d know almost every one of those.
It’s amazing when you have the knowledge to trigger laugh in your story almost at will. That’s right “at will!”
Every logical grouping of words can be turned into something funny.
That being said, one of the best way to develop and laser sharpen your ability to do this is by working your one and two-liners.
And the best way of doing that is through current event, trivia and factoid humor.
Why? Because the first part of the joke is already written for you!
That’s right. Think about it; when you read a headline, a factoid or a piece of trivia, the headline is already written. All you have to do is come up with an ending!
Then you re-tool, tinker and tighten, add some misdirection, surprise or incongruity and ‘BAM!’ you have a joke.
- They are reopening the Washington Monument. The thing has been shut down for the last two years – just like Congress.
- Some NFL players criticized Michael Sam for kissing his boyfriend after getting drafted. He has to learn that NFL players are not supposed to be in gay relationships until after they’re in prison!
Both of these jokes utilize the ‘listing technique;’ the most powerful technique used in comedy today. One definition of a joke is ‘the convergence of two dissimilar ideas.’
In the Washington monument joke, all I did is take the first part of the joke: “They are reopening the Washington monument, which has been shut down for the last two years…” and I listed everything about Washington in one column, then everything about the Washington monument in another column. When I found similarities between the two (even in my imagination, because comedy is heightened reality), I finessed a joke from that idea.
I did the same thing with the Michael Sam joke. Here we have more than two dissimilar ideas converging.
Can you tell what those ideas are? NFL, PRISON, GAY RELATIONSHIPS, RELATIONSHIPS, ETC. *(See a more thorough example of this comedy writing tool here)*
In this case I would list everything I could think of utilizing all four ideas. Notice how I also used ‘relationships,’ not just ‘gay relationships?’
When we open up the idea of ‘gay relationships’ to relationships, I now have a possible idea for a slam on the NFL and all the cases of sexual assault. So that joke could be something like:
- Some NFL players criticized Michael Sam for kissing his boyfriend after getting drafted. See, Michael Sam doesn’t get it, in order to be accepted in the NFL you can’t do something gross like kiss another man, you gotta rape a chick.
Now you have an edgy joke. This joke might not be my voice. It certainly won’t fit on Late Night, but it could be suitable for ‘The Daily Show’ or Bill Maher. If not, I’m sure I could sell it to Chris Rock.
In essence, before I finish this blog post, I’ve already made 50 bucks!
How do you know it’s funny?
If you set a goal to write at least 10 of these jokes a day, then all you have to do is compare it against the Late Night shows jokes and see whose his funnier.
Sometimes it will be theirs. Sometimes Yours.
The more you do it, the better you get. Then you’ll more readily recognize the opportunities for these ‘plays’ in your stories and your stories will be funnier, more compelling and more worthy of the definition of comedy.