Joke Not Getting a Laugh? The Reason Might be that it’s Not Plausible

rory skovel comedy central

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?

Add More Laughs by Putting On Your Comedy Toolbelt

comedy_tool_belt

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.

Zero words.

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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What Do Comedy Bookers Mean When They Say They Want it ‘Clean?’

clean or dirty

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.”

3 Reasons Why Firing My Manager is the Best Thing I Did for My Comedy Career!

 phone firing my manager
In September of 1993 I was in the comedy condo of a comedy club in Dallas, TX. It was the morning after my third night there and the phone rang.
“Hello, it’s Jerry.”
“Jerry? It’s Harry:” Harry was a manager I had just signed with a few months before.
He saw me at a showcase at Igby’s in West L.A. on the same night that Ray Romano and Kevin James did their network showcase for NBC.
Harry had some big names in his stable and I thought it was a good move to work with him.That’s good news, my manager’s calling. Maybe he’s got some work for me…
“Hey Harry. Tell me some good news.”

“I just wanted to let you know that I get 20% of whatever work you’re doing, regardless of if I book it.”I know, right? I’m thinking to myself, this guy doesn’t even ask how the shows are going. He just gets right to the money. The money he thinks he’s entitled to.

For the last couple years, I had been methodically making phone calls and sending out videos. Since I already had an one-hour act under my belt, a full 60% of my day was dedicated to booking work and developing new contacts and 40% to writing material.

That work had paid off because I was booked for the rest of the year and the first 2 months of the following year. For this manager to call me and tell me he’s gonna get 20% of that just seemed ridiculous.

So I said, “I’m sorry, Harry. I don’t think I heard you right. Can you repeat that?”

“I just wanted to let you know that I get 20% of whatever work you’re doing, regardless of if I book it.”

I straightened up, took a breath and said, “Harry, I’ve always wanted to say this. (It was a throwback to the movies from the 40’s), ‘WE’RE THROUGH!'”

: and I hung up the phone.

About 10 seconds later, he called again. He said, “You have a problem with me making money?” I said, “I don’t have a problem with you making money, Harry. But I do have a problem with you trying to take money from me that you haven’t earned. I might as well give 20% to the homeless, because they’re doing as much for my career.”

I hung up and never heard from Harry again.

That phone call scared me. It scared me, but it also inspired me into truly lighting a fire under my ass and figuring out how to take my act and make real money.

I got to work and the next year I made nearly 3x as much as the previous year. I learned how to leverage my comedy and turn it into a product. I learned how to double, triple and even quadruple the amount of money I made per night, per show.

Then I learned how to tap into markets that were paying me more in one night than I was making in an entire week at a club.

Then I learned about something called “Idle Capacity…” (Hint: It adds a lot of money to your bank account)

Hanging up on my manager was scary but empowering, because when you do something like that your only choice is to go prove yourself.

Not only that, consider the opposite: This guy’s integrity was questionable so how do I expect that to reflect on me?

That phone call was life changing and it helped motivate me to really kick ass in this business and turn my comedy career into a comedy enterprise where I’M the BOSS and I can choose what gigs to take.

Being able to feel like you are in charge of your destiny rather than waiting for someone to call you or book you is more than just empowering, it’s life changing.
Don’t get me wrong, a great manager or agent is invaluable, but one who doesn’t do anything is shit.

You may have heard that I’m teaching a comedy success seminar next Saturday, August 6th, at my studio in Burbank, CA. It’s called “How to be the Richest Comedian Nobody’s Ever Heard Of.It’s going to be a powerful event with killer tools you can use to gain more leverage in your career and really get paid for your comedy.

Click the link and get in because at minimum it will light a fire under your ass. And if you actually apply the information and execute, it will change your career or your life.

20 Comic Masks – Which One are You?

20 comic masks

As a comedian, have you ever been asked to refine your point of view?

Have you ever wondered what your point of view is? Your persona? Your voice?

Or, like me, has a booker said to you, I’m looking for an “internal thru-line, a golden thread of continuity.”

WTF?!

I heard that one from Mark Lonow, former talent coordinator and co-owner of the Improv in L.A., (years ago) immediately after I did an audition that I thought I rocked.

It was disheartening because not only did I not get a spot at the Improv from him, I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about!

Two days later I said, “screw that!” I went right to Bud Friedman, (the founder of the Improv), pleaded for an audition and with the same act got booked in Vegas and on T.V.

What is a Point of View?

So what is a point of view? And what does a booker mean when he says he wants to see a stronger one?

A point of view is how you look at the world and the situations around you that you include in your comedy.

Basically answer the question: “Who are you?”

Can you say in a couple of sentences who you are?

Are you a cynic? Do you have a quirky way of looking at life? Do you like to pick out life’s minutia and point out those observations in a funny way? Are you a liberal? A conservative? Gun lover? Trump voter?

You’re point of view doesn’t have to be extreme.

Who Are You?

20_comic_maks_150x183From scholar to buffoon, there are about 20 Major and distinctive comic masks, but each comedian can have only one. Download the 20 Comic Masks PDF Chart and see where you fit in!

Click to Download the PDF

Amy Schumer is known for her subversive feminism and addressing various social issues through a character who is seemingly promiscuous and a little ditsy.

Schumer has described herself as just someone who goes in and out of being an irreverent idiot. (Although I think, and her bank account surely reflects, that she’s more than that).

Bill Burr is a bit of an edgy devil’s advocate. He approaches his comedy by challenging the status quo from a strong male point of view to the point where he appears at times to be misogynistic. But Burr always says “It doesn’t make sense. Somebody explain it.” Then he explains it, usually using analogies while making us think, “Oh I never thought about it that way.”

Larry the Cable Guy (Dan Whitney), is a simple guy, a bit of a buffoon trying to figure out how things work.”

Whitney Cummings is a woman fed up with the bullshit of men and relationships, but still trying figure out how to make relationships work.

When I first started I was just trying to write funny jokes and stories. I did wordplay, paradox and observation like Carlin, but with a strong Seinfeldian voice.

So much so that Seinfeld himself mocked me at a club after I did a set! Lol.

I was getting laughs but I wasn’t sure who I was or how to find myself. Then I got some advice from the most unexpected source…

I met a mobster when I was waiting tables in New York. He was one of my favorite customers. I told him I didn’t know what to be when I was up on stage. He said, “Don’t listen to your heart, it feels too much. Don’t listen to your head, it thinks too much. Listen to your gut, cuz your gut never lies to you.”

Shortly after that, I met George Carlin. He said to me, “take the stuff that drives you absolutely fucking crazy and make it funny.”

That’s when my voice turned more toward a socio-political irreverent style that felt cathartic and real to me.

It felt ‘right’ in my gut, you know?

I loved to watch and read the news and call bullshit. I like to look at the inequalities and the hypocrisies in the world and point them out.

My act evolved toward a message of tolerance of race, gender and sexual preference, but not religion because in my comedic view religion is the reason societies have created a fictitious hierarchy and division in the first place.

Basically I make fun of everyone, but in a way that unites and makes our various idiosyncrasies fun.

How do you define yourself?

How do You Find Your Point of View?

One way to find your point of view or voice is to ask people what they see when they see you.

Another way is to ask yourself how you want people to see you or get in touch with who you are around your friends and start with that.

Another way is to develop a character, refine it and perform material based on that character’s point of view.

For several years, I created a pretty refined character named Charlie Stone. Charlie was a quirky, long-haired surfer-type character. He wasn’t a stoner, because he didn’t do drugs, but he had a stoner approach to his world view…

“This gal comes up to me and says, Dude: are you a Christian? I said, ‘No: I’m a Catho-Christi-Hinuistic-Musli-Morma-Jew: I don’t want to miss out on Heaven cuz of a technicality!'”

Charlie was an interesting experiment. I used to go out on the road and open for me, Jerry Corley as Charlie Stone.

Basically I would wear a wig and these blue-tinted glasses and do 30 minutes as Charlie Stone then change while the emcee was up, come back to the stage as Jerry Corley and do another hour.

The interesting part was that even though my act would do well and many times end in a standing ovation, everyone would come up to me after the show and say, “Where’s Charlie Stone?!”

What I learned from that was that Charlie Stone’s character was so refined that he was memorable.

I’m positive that if I brought Charlie back today, because of the strong, refined character, he would place or win in competitions and book some T.V.

Talent coordinators and bookers often confuse the difference between character, persona, voice and ‘point-of-view.’

But usually what occurs is that if a character is well-defined, the point of view tends to just fall into place within that character.

Some People Say it Takes 7 Years or More to Find Your Persona. Is That True?

One of the reasons it takes people a long time to find their persona or voice is that the first several years of their journey into comedy, they are just trying to figure out how to write a joke and create an act, you know? Make something funny.

As they begin to develop material they begin to realize that some material seems to resonate more with them than other material and they start to focus more on the material that they’re more connected to, which helps to shape their voice.

Bill Burr said he spent the first 5-7 years of his career doing one and two-liner comedy. Then when he started to go up on stage and riff on ideas is when he found more of his cynical voice.”

Anthony Jeselnik said that he started writing comedy by study Jack Handy’s “Deep Thoughts” from Saturday Night Live. He started writing those down then writing his own. “Then I was up on stage and did a joke that was dark and it got a great response. And I knew that’s where I was going.”

There’s no one way to find your point of view. Just keep cognizant of who you are and what you’re trying to say.

Remember that your character can evolve, develop and change. Allow yourself to explore it. Try different things. Listen to the audience and how they respond, adjust and refine.

And also always, always listen to your heart–wait… your gut.