Why *This is My Art* is Utter Nonsense

art-and-businessI 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.

*A side-note:

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:

  1. Re-write the material, or…
  2. 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.

Testing Your Jokes Against Late Night

 

Tonight Show-Jimmy Fallon

 

“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.

1 Sure-Fire Way to Take Your Comedy To The Next Level

1

Polish. Usually this word is used to talk about fingernails, the shine on someone’s shoes or when’s someone’s from Poland—wait, that’s a different ‘Polish.’

But what about comedy?

There are loads of people that come to me weekly and ask how they can take their comedy to the next level. I have several workable and proven solutions. Not a single one can be deemed a fix-all for every comedian.

Each comedian has their own needs and an adjustment or a note is different for each one.

But I think there is one thing that could be painted on to each comedian’s act with a really broad brush…

Polish.

I see a ton of comedians that get up on stage night after night at the mics and they wander through their acts like an old guy pullin’ an oxygen tank in a Vegas casino. They have no direction, no specificity and no polish.

“What else, what else, uhm… let’s see… uhm crazy, man, shit’s crazy, man. I tell you…”

How are you supposed to give your material a fair shake if you don’t take the time to polish what you’re going to say to the audience. Even when you’re testing material in front of an audience, have some direction.

KNOW where you’re going from joke to joke… or story to story.

Sometimes just one glitch in the set up of the material will cause an audience to respond half-heartedly or worse, not respond at all.

What fixes that? Polish.

Here’s the simplest solution: Practice!

Sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many comedians don’t practice before they hit that stage.

When you write a new joke, do you practice saying that joke out loud? How many times? To whom?

  1. Say the joke out loud at least 25 times.
  2. Then say it to your friends.
  3. Then before you hit the stage, say the joke in the context and flow of your existing set at least 25 times. This will help secure the flow of the act both leading up to the new joke and following it.

Practicing will give you high odds of really giving that joke a fair shot when it lands in the ears of the audience.

I can’t emphasize this enough!

Before his first appearance on the Tonight Show, Jerry Seinfeld performed his Tonight Show set 100 times at clubs in front of audiences.

That’s right 100 times! The exact same set. How many of you have done that before a show or a competition?

He knew that he would be a little nervous on that sound stage in Burbank, California. But after rehearsing that same set 100 times in front of different audiences, he knew nothing would be able to shake him, aside from an Earthquake.

So do your homework and prepare. if you don’t you’ll wind up like that cliché comedian at the mics; unpolished and unpracticed, trying new jokes and boring the audience with…

Uhm… what else, what else…

If you dig it, Share it?

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Teaching Comedy in Russia

russia

Today is the day! I leave for Moscow to teach a master class in American-style comedy to 25 Russian actors who want to learn that brand of stand-up.

I’ve never seen Russian stand-up. In fact, I’ve never seen a Russian smile, so this will be interesting. Of course I’m joking about the smile. I know a lot of Russian-Americans and there are two things they know how to do: laugh and drink vodka!

I’m sure while I’m there, I will be doing plenty of both.

I’ll be there five days. Think about it five days of caviar, vodka and comedy. What could be better?

Flight & Weather

It’s a 10-hour flight to Munich, then a layover and 3 more hours to Moscow. I arrive at 11pm Tuesday night.

It’s gonna be like 90 degrees here today, and when I arrive in Moscow, the low will be 15. Bring on the vodka!

I’ll be updating several times daily, here on my facebook and twitter pages, so come join. Give me some feeback, give me shit give me your thoughts and prayers that my comedy translates well and doesn’t somehow wind up insulting an entire nation and put me in the gulags somewhere in Siberia! So if you don’t see an update, you know I’m rotting in a Russian prison.

Here we go!

Why Are You Yelling?

Too-Loud Comedian after comedian took the stage last night. Many in the line up, took the mic and proceeded to yell into it—in a 68-seat comedy room.

Really?!

This is a 68-seat comedy room. The acoustics are great. The distance from the foot of the stage to the back of the room cannot be more than 45-feet and you have a mic and a sound system.

Why are you YELLING?

I thought hard about whether or not to write about this. I mean: “Shit, I’m 50. If I talk about comics ‘yelling,’  am I just being an ornery douche?”

What made me do it? I thought about the other comics who hit that stage and didn’t yell. They told their stories and their jokes and they let their organic antagonism drive the emphasis in their voices when needed to drive a point home. They got great laughs.

The others just YELLED. Not only did they yell, they yelled with the mic against their faces.

Not sure where this comes from. Is it a need to hear yourself or is it just a simple misunderstanding about the nature of the sound equipment you are using? Or is it because you’re thinking, the joke isn’t funny, but if I yell it, the audience will have to think it’s funny.

Either way, there are some things you should know about volume.

First,—and this may seem elementary—the sound system is designed to amplify your voice. You don’t need to shout. Unless of course your persona is loud, (Lewis Black or Bobcat Goldthwait).

The Benign Violation Theory

When you shout into that microphone, the sound comes out of the speakers and its intensity is increased along with the volume. When it’s too loud for the room, the audience will actually back away from you and in some cases, mentally shut you off.

The psychology of it in relation to comedy, is called The Benign Violation Theory. When an audience feels violated (directly or indirectly) they turn away from a performer rather than engage with them.

It’s the complete opposite effect you want from your audience!

The classic mistake of a comedian or rapper or speaker is to substitute volume for the genuine emotion of frustration or enthusiasm.

Yelling into the mic doesn’t get the audience excited. It causes them to close down or worse, get angry.

Second, if you need volume to make your point, pull the mic away.

You’ve seen singers when they pull the mic away from their mouth. They do that because they know that when they project more, the volume increases and when the volume increases it can offend, or violate the audience’s sensitivities—or their eardrums, (not to mention peak the sound system and distort).

If, as a comedian or speaker, you need to increase your volume or yell to make a point or play a character, pull the mic away, you might find that the joke is actually good enough to stand on its own.

If the joke is not strong enough and you have to yell to make it seem stronger or funnier, consider looking at the root of the joke to figure out what you were trying to communicate. When you discover precisely what that is, try to look for an analogy (something that situation is like) to create recognition (a powerful laughter trigger), or see if there is some irony that you can point out in the material.

Often in irony you will find opposites (great for creating surprise), or hypocrisy.

And when you find hypocrisy you will find an audience that wants to laugh at the hypocrite to retaliate.

Take this line:

“Focus on the Family Founder, James Dobson said this gem the other day: ‘If we allow Gays to parent, they will raise gay children…’ We interrupt this comedy show to bring you a special bulletin: Straight parents have been raising Gay children for centuries.”

I use this line in my act. There is clear irony present in the line. Within that there is the hypocrisy of what this clown, Dobson, is saying. When the audience sees how ridiculous that Dobson’s statement is, they want to laugh in his face. So they do, and I DON’T HAVE TO YELL IT!

So for the sake of your act and the sake of our eardrums, practice your mic technique, then try to find the irony or analogy to drive the joke so the audience is laughing at the material not your volume.