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:
Write down 50 facts about me; just facts.
Sometimes I will get the facts from answering questions on a personality profile quiz.
Select 10-25 of those facts that seem to antagonize or inspire me most.
Put each of those lines on a page and try to utilize 3 primary comedy structures:
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.”).
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.”).
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.”).
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.
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!
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:
Make note of the Talent Coordinator at Conan, (Put him into your contact database)
Read attentively and look at the suggestions of what they look for at Conan
Run over to TeamCoco’s page on YouTube and study the comedians and their Late Night sets.
Notice their structure and their pacing. (Late Night pacing is a lot slower than you might imagine; bigger pauses)
Start putting together your own idea of what your 4.5 minutes will look like.
Be sure to keep in mind that on Late Night, that first joke is crucial. Gotta be tight.
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.
Being in the business of entertainment; being a comedian a writer, an actor, exposes you to more than your fair share, I believe.
Some of us are more affected by rejection than others. We take rejection as ostracism and we can do damage to ourselves and our careers if we take it too deeply to heart. I don’t know about you but I know some people who have given up after too much rejection.
The problem is sometimes too much is only once.
But the good news is I think we can learn to smash through rejection and overcome it.
In order to help overcome rejection, it would first help to have a handle on what it is so that it doesn’t seem so ominous and out of our ability to control it.
Understanding the Science of Rejection
Psychologists say that the fear of rejection is hard-wired into our brains and was established as some sort of survival mechanism.
Not to dwell too much on the primaeval science of rejection and the fear of it but for the sake of understanding and overcoming it, here it goes:
Back in the day when we were hunter-gatherers, we relied on tribes to survive. If you were rejected by the tribe it meant ostracism, which meant you would lose access to the fire, the food, etc. Which would lead to your ultimate demise.
Therefore the rejection mechanism is sort of an “early warning system” according to Psychologist and author, Guy Winch, Ph.D. When our behavior might get us ostracised we feel rejection and that feeling is supposed to trigger us to change our behavior so we stop being rejected.
To top it all off we humans are social animals, so the rejection can really be harmful. So much so Winch has actually labeled rejection as a psychological “injury.”
He’s not too far off considering that rejection affects the same brain regions and neurotransmitters as does physical pain. Which explains why during a break up you can actually feel physically ill, get a headache, collapse.
Also during rejection, our brain produces natural painkillers; Opioids, that can help us cope with the pain and continue on… or like me, make me sleep.
How Not to Let Rejection Get the Best of You
I was fortunate to have very supportive parents. They encouraged me to get up and face the day, despite rejection. I grew up in an actors’ family and got to see my Dad go to auditions, not get the part and not let it affect his tenacity, and belief in himself. I was able to witness him bounce back the very next day and book two out of three auditions.
So when it came time for me to audition, I didn’t allow the rejection part of it to knock my self-worth. And without conjuring up visuals of Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley and “Affirmations,” the popular sketch on Saturday Night Live back in the day, I would tell myself that I’m good enough and that the reason I didn’t get the part is not that I couldn’t act, but because I just wasn’t the right match.
Psychologists have a similar approach. They say you can prepare for rejection better by identifying the qualities you believe you bring into this world. Write them down.
Hell, write them down several times! Own them and know them. That way when you do receive some rejection, you can walk away from it a little stung, but with your head held high, ready to tackle the next challenge.
You should really take a moment–right now– and write down five to ten values you bring to this world! No really. Right now!
When it comes to rejection, I like to simply say to myself, “No is not an answer and it’s unacceptable.” Of course this is when dealing with the industry of show business, (getting a script approved or getting an audition), and not when I’m with a woman trying to get to third base! And why am I still trying to get to third base with my wife? When you’re married, isn’t third base where you start?
But wait, we were being serious in this blog post, Dude!
You are ‘Perfect’
I think psychologists have a point when they say you should write down your valuable traits. I believe it’s something that will help you deal with rejection.
I tell my students and myself that they are ‘perfect.’ I’ve said it so much to myself that I inherently believe it.
Now before you get weird on me on that, let me explain…
What I say is, you must believe you are perfect in all your flaws. I encourage my students to own that of themselves.
I honestly believe that about myself and I have a ton of baggage. There are stores in the mall that wish they had as much Samsonite as I do. I have skeletons and massive failures. But I believe that has made me who I am and I’m pretty freakin’ happy with that because I am constantly trying to learn from my mistakes, sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t.
But that’s okay, because if I take the time to assess and evaluate, I can probably learn.
Your biggest mistakes are your greatest lessons. So when you do screw up and you do fail and you are rejected, you learn valuable lessons and if you walk away from that rejection focusing on what you learned rather than focusing on the rejection and self-talking yourself into depression, you’ll do much better with rejection and succeed more often.
Yes, focus on what you learned, move on, continue believing in yourself. Psychologist have determined that rejection is real. It exists, but how deeply we let it affect us is up to us.
We Can Cower or We Can Conquer.
The reason I wrote this blog post is that I’ve seen people–friends of mine–give up their dreams because they were rejected… even once. Then when they hit middle age, they shoulder this huge burden of regret.
When I first auditioned for the Improv, I was rejected three times by co-owner Mark Lonow. If I let that rejection get me down I might never have continued. But on my third rejection from Lonow, I looked him in the eye and said, “You’re not the only way into the Improv, Mark.”
I don’t recommend ever saying that, by the way! I did it because I was hurt (one of the side effects of rejection) and I stupidly lashed out.
But the very next day, I went into the Improv, waited three and a half hours to see Bud Friedman. When I finally saw him, I introduced myself and begged him to let me audition for him.
He said, “Come down tonight and do twelve minutes.”
I thanked him and came back that night with my twelve.
When I was up on stage, after six minutes, out of the corner of my eye, I could see Bud Friedman walk out of the showroom.
My heart sank.
When I finished my act, audience members high-fived me. I heard compliments. I was confused. Why did Bud walk out of the room?
I went up to the bar and waited for Bud. When he finally showed up, these are his exact words: “Very nice set, Mr. Corley. I tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to start you in Vegas and go from there… Oh, and I want you to do the show.”
“What show is that, Bud?”
“A&E’s ‘An Evening at the Improv,’ of course.”
On the night of the taping of the show, I was in makeup sitting in a chair right next to Bud… as I looked into the mirror, creeping up to me was Mark Lonow, the co-owner, who rejected me three times before.
He leaned into my ear and said in this disdain-filled voice, “How’d you slip through the cracks?”
Bud Friedman looked at him in the mirror and said, “Mark, the last time I checked, my name is first on the Marquis.”
I did the show that night and had a really solid set and after that set, my first T.V. set, my career changed. I haven’t stopped working since.
I share this with you because rejection is a part of this business. We must learn to cope with it and not let it get us down.
And just like the picture way up at the beginning of this post, when we encounter the obstacle of rejection when can either give up, go around or break right through.
There are few things I love more than this business. One of those things is the artists who journey through it. If this blog post gave you some inspiration, drop me a comment. I would love to hear your thoughts and your obstacles and how you overcame them.
I would also like to share with you the article that inspired this post. It is a post that shows original rejection letters to famous people. The post is very appropriately titled:
Take a look at this quick video with Jerry Seinfeld on Jimmy Fallon talking about “The worst I ever bombed, then read about my worse bomb ever and then go ahead and share your worse bomb ever!
Have you ever bombed?
I think all of us who’ve ever done stand-up comedy have bombed at one time or another.
Whether you have bombed or not doesn’t mean anything. What you do with that experience defines your character.
I remember the worst time I ever bombed. Sadly, it was voluntary. Well, the bombing wasn’t voluntary, meaning it was unpaid. It was very early in my career. (Here is where we see the wavy lines on the screen and the weird “time-travel” music).
My best friend, Adam had a band that played jazz and funk at restaurants and bars around L.A. and I used to do the breaks. So whenever the band took a break, I would get up and do ten or fifteen minutes while the band rested.
One of the worst gigs you can do is when nobody expects comedy and this is usually the case when there’s a band playing. But it was a mic, you know? To top it off, I didn’t have to fight 20 other comics for a spot to do 5 to 7 minutes.
We were at this place called “The Rusty Pelican” a seafood and steakhouse in Calabasas, California, right next to a Porsche dealership. The band ended their set and I went up to do comedy and nobody was really listening.
“Sharks Smelling Blood”
These three preppy guys saw that I wasn’t doing well and they were like sharks smelling blood. I think I actually heard them say, “Look, that dude is bombing, let’s go fuck with him.”
They came right up the the front of the stage and just kept saying the worst stuff.
When one of them ran out of breath, the other one started. It was tag team heckling and I wasn’t allowed to tap out.
I wound up saying something like. “Well, this isn’t going to work,” and I just said, “At least you can enjoy the music.”
I stumbled off stage, then I remembered I was recording the set. I turned around, grabbed my recorder and said to the audience, “Can’t forget this. It’s my black box. It recorded everything that led up to the crash.”
I think it’s like the only laugh I got.
Some comedians, when they relive their bombing stories, talk about all their friends being at the event: “Oh my God it was the most humiliating thing I have ever experienced! I mean, my friends and family were there!” They came up to me afterward and said, “That was brave,” or “At least you had good stage presence…” Or worse, after an experience like that some comedians never step on stage again!
At the Rusty Pelican I didn’t have comments afterwards from my friends, because my friends who were there were so embarrassed, they left before the set was over.
So I went to the bar, grabbed a beer, went to a dark corner and sank as deep as I could into a booth. I was going to just sit there and get drunk. Then, half-way into my beer I sat up and thought, that is never going to happen to me again!
Don’t get me wrong the thought was preceded with how I could break the beer bottle on the table and disfigure the bastards who heckled me.
But I thought it through and realized there is no way I would do that because if I did I would probably never be invited to play the band’s break again, I would probably go to jail and the most important reason: I’m way too much of a wimp!
In retrospect, for me, it was the worst experience and the best experience wrapped up into one, because I didn’t finish that beer. I went home, took that recorder, listened to every line those guys said, wrote them down and then wrote like thirty comebacks.
That exercise led me to come up with a bunch of responses that I could use any time whether I was being heckled or just not getting laughs!
One memorable line I wrote and can still use today is: “I don’t blame you guys for acting out. You’re probably still healing, trying to find a way to embarrass someone else the way you did your mother, when she popped you out of her vagina.”
That One Gig Is Not that Important
One thing we have to learn EARLY in our careers is this: That one gig that seems so important at that moment, isn’t. It’s just one gig.
Whether we bomb because it was a heckler issue or because we just had a horrible set, no matter where we are, at whatever level, it’s just ONE GIG!
We have to learn that everything isn’t riding on that one gig, because when you look back you will realize how insignificant that one gig really was, in terms of humiliation, because the humiliation is short-lived.
We take our biggest leaps from our biggest mistakes, but only if we embrace them, find solutions to the problems and apply the solutions.
That’s when you come out on the other side, sharper, smarter and faster. That’s what I did with the lesson from my worst bomb ever. And all I can say is I wish those guys would heckle me at a show today!
That gig at the Rusty Pelican was significant to me. It made me realize that I needed more tools to deal with hecklers. But as far as humiliation goes? I’m still here, working and making a living in comedy. The Rusty Pelican in Calabasas? They went out of business 15 years ago!
It’s been over six years since George Carlin died of heart failure at 71 in Santa Monica, CA.
George was widely regarded as one of the most important and influential stand-up comedians of all time. He’s listed in Comedy Central’s list of Top 100 Comics at number 2, just behind the great Richard Pryor, but just ahead of the trailblazing Lenny Bruce who paved the road for comedians all over the country to be able to speak freely and test the boundaries of obscenity.
But George Carlin’s fame is nearly unmatched as a comedian. Arguably, his bit “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” is one of his most memorable. It was funny on several levels. It challenged the status quo and pushed the boundaries of decency laws in the U.S. in 1972.
In comedy terms that bit would be described as “word-play,” “the witty exploitation of the meanings and ambiguities of words.”
But at the Summerfest in Milwaukee in 1972 that bit would be described as obscenity and would get Carlin thrown in jail. That bit not only got Carlin arrested but also got WBAI, an FM radio station in New York City, cited by the FCC for broadcasting “obscene” material.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision. Evidently, the nursery rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” doesn’t hold true in a court so powerful that calls itself “Supreme.”
So what are those words? “Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that’ll infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.”
Those are the words that are so disgusting that a man got thrown in jail, radio station fined and the Supreme Court to issue a ruling that gave the FCC the broader right to decide what was “indecent,” and what can and can’t be broadcast on the public airwaves, words that are so profoundly offensive that those very same words are printed on the transcript of the court ruling and stored where? The Supreme Court.
Here’s Carlin with the Seven:
This piece is a classic and every student of comedy should know about it. But my point in this post isn’t just about “The Seven Words,” it about word-play and the power that word-play still has in comedy.
Some of the younger comedians, don’t believe in word-play they will give you some sciolistic nonsense about word-play being “hack.”
That couldn’t be farther from the truth! Word-play can result in puns, but not always. If you approach word-play the way George Carlin did, you can find the paradox in certain words: “You can prick your finger, but you can’t finger your prick,” is one of Carlin’s old standards.
Hack? Well I guess it depends on the listener’s point of view. But that joke has been around for more than 40 years. It’s memorable and it has a shelf-life.
It it used a lot in script writing too. Arrested Development was a super popular show for many years and the writers employed word-play as one of their primary tools for getting a laugh.
Let’s look at one of Carlin’s last HBO specials. He opens using a word-play bit and gets a rousing ovation. What a way to open!
Here’s a transcript from that performance:
George Carlin’s Modern Man
I’m a modern man, a man for the millennium. Digital and smoke free. A diversified multi-cultural, post-modern deconstruction that is anatomically and ecologically incorrect.
I’ve been up linked and downloaded, I’ve been inputted and outsourced, I know the upside of downsizing, I know the downside of upgrading. I’m a high-tech low-life. A cutting edge, state-of-the-art bi-coastal multi-tasker and I can give you a gigabyte in a nanosecond! I’m new wave, but I’m old school and my inner child is outward bound.
I’m a hot-wired, heat seeking, warm-hearted cool customer, voice activated and bio-degradable. I interface with my database, my database is in cyberspace, so I’m interactive, I’m hyperactive and from time to time I’m radioactive. Behind the eight ball, ahead of the curve, ridin the wave, dodgin the bullet and pushin the envelope. I’m on-point, on-task, on-message and off drugs.
I’ve got no need for coke and speed. I’ve got no urge to binge and purge. I’m in-the-moment, on-the-edge, over-the-top and under-the-radar. A high-concept, low-profile, medium-range ballistic missionary. A street-wise smart bomb. A top-gun bottom feeder. I wear power ties, I tell power lies, I take power naps and run victory laps. I’m a totally ongoing big-foot, slam-dunk, rainmaker with a pro-active outreach. A raging workaholic. A working rageaholic. Out of rehab and in denial!
I’ve got a personal trainer, a personal shopper, a personal assistant and a personal agenda. You can’t shut me up. You can’t dumb me down because I’m tireless and I’m wireless, I’m an alpha male on beta-blockers. I’m a non-believer and an over-achiever, laid-back but fashion-forward. Up-front, down-home, low-rent, high-maintenance. Super-sized, long-lasting, high-definition, fast-acting, oven-ready and built-to-last! I’m a hands-on, foot-loose, knee-jerk head case pretty maturely post-traumatic and I’ve got a love-child that sends me hate mail.
But, I’m feeling, I’m caring, I’m healing, I’m sharing– a supportive, bonding, nurturing primary care-giver. My output is down, but my income is up. I took a short position on the long bond and my revenue stream has its own cash-flow. I read junk mail, I eat junk food, I buy junk bonds and I watch trash sports! I’m gender specific, capital intensive, user-friendly and lactose intolerant. I like rough sex.
I like tough love. I use the “F” word in my emails and the software on my hard-drive is hardcore–no soft porn. I bought a microwave at a mini-mall; I bought a mini-van at a mega-store. I eat fast-food in the slow lane. I’m toll-free, bite-sized, ready-to-wear and I come in all sizes. A fully-equipped, factory-authorized, hospital-tested, clinically-proven, scientifically- formulated medical miracle.
I’ve been pre-wash, pre-cooked, pre-heated, pre-screened, pre-approved, pre-packaged, post-dated, freeze-dried, double-wrapped, vacuum-packed and, I have an unlimited broadband capacity. I’m a rude dude, but I’m the real deal. Lean and mean! Cocked, locked and ready-to-rock. Rough, tough and hard to bluff. I take it slow, I go with the flow, I ride with the tide. I’ve got glide in my stride. Drivin and movin, sailin and spinin, jiving and groovin, wailin and winnin. I don’t snooze, so I don’t lose. I keep the pedal to the metal and the rubber on the road. I party hearty and lunch time is crunch time. I’m hangin in, there ain’t no doubt and I’m hangin tough, over and out!”