Does All Comedy Need to be Based in Truth? [Video]

There seems to be a misconception out there when it comes to theories behind developing and writing comedy.

One of the most popularly espoused by many comedy instructors is: your comedy must be true.

NOT SO!

I’m not sure how this particular theory got so out of control. I say, “out of control” because I’ve heard from dozens of confused students of comedy on this very matter. So many, in fact, I feel that it’s time to address in on the blog.

So let me be clear: All comedy does not need to be true.

In other words, you can make stuff up!

To be fair, some of the people who have advocated this ‘truth’ misnomer may just be repeating something they’ve heard from other people. Or they are misinterpreting or misunderstanding what “true” is or what it means with regard to developing comedy or developing stories.

Bottom line is that if you only use what’s true, you are seriously limiting yourself and your material. There’s so much available if you use your imagination.

If you allow yourself to get stuck on only what’s true, you’ll deny your creative mind the ability to develop a whole field of new material; sketches, act-outs, and solid ponderable or observational creative material (Jerry Seinfeld-style)

However, truth is a good starting point…

For example, I wrote a bit a long time ago on how people in Texas say “Y’all.”

That is true.

Once I had that tid-bit of information, I wanted to write a funny routine about it, (I’m a comedian so ‘funny’ is usually how I like to write… I try anyway).

One of the most effective ways to write comedy, is to take a character trait of a person and put him or her in a situation that is opposite to their persona and/or character traits. It creates a situation that resolves with an unexpected result. Which creates surprise, thus laughter.

Got it?

So all I needed to do is come up with a character that the audience would never expect to use the phrase “Y’all.”

I thought British Royalty. That’s a good idea, but the odds of meeting British royalty in Texas are slim and improbable—Brits don’t understand Texan accents—so I thought further. Then I came up with the idea of using an austere French person.

Where would I find an austere French person in Texas?

A French restaurant in Dallas!

You can probably feel the presence of the incongruous relationship between those two elements (French person/Texas), already, and the idea is giving you a bit of a tickle.

So once I had the character and the situation. I had to create the story and the act-out.

So the bit goes like this:

“I was out of the country recently, I was in Texas. You ever notice that everyone says, “Y’all” in Texas. Everyone! You can go to other parts of the country and you’ll have pockets of the population that say “y’all,” but everyone in Texas says, “Y’all.” Like, one time, I was in a very expensive French restaurant in Dallas—which is a joke in itself—I was at the top of this hotel. Very French restaurant; the waiter was also very French. He had the little French mustache, the towel over his arm, the body odor. He comes up to our table and he’s like, “Good afternoon, Mademoiselle, Monsieur… Welcome to Café Lu Bonne… what can I get for Y’all.” I was like, “You just blew the atmosphere there ‘Pierre.

He turns around, he’s got a faded Copenhagen circle on the back of his Tuxedo pants… That’ll teach me for eating at a restaurant called, “Chateu de Big-Ass Barbecue.”

This bit is intended to be performed and not written, but it’s a bit that works any time, any where I am performing; clubs, corporates, parties, one-niters. It’s a no-fail joke.

Take a quick look at the video of that joke:

Jerry Corley at Wiseguys Comedy Club in Salt Lake City

Here’s the thing: IT NEVER HAPPENED! The entire scenario is a made-up story.

Bottom line is that comedy doesn’t have to be true to be funny and effective.

Here’s the caveat: comedy has to be believable and probable. If this was written outside the realm of believability, then the audience would not ‘buy it’ and the joke would fail.

The thing to remember is that comedy is heightened reality not complete absurdity. As audiences we love to be fooled, but we hate to be made fools of…

Make sense?

One of the other fallible pieces of information that students get subjected to is “don’t tell stories.”  NOT TRUE!

Notice the above joke. Is it a story or a joke?

It’s both. It is a story with seven laugh points, (in orange). It’s a bit that lasts about a minute, but includes seven laughs along the way.

Seven laughs in a minute. Considering that most clubs like the Improv, Comedy Store, Laugh Factory, etcetera, look for comedians to have a laugh every 18-20 seconds, seven in a minute doubles that. It’s a solid bit.

What do we gain from this?

Stories are fine, just as long as you have laugh points along the way!

What say you?

Why Did They “Boo” Bill Maher on Letterman?

Bill Maher Gets ‘Boo’d’ on Letterman

 

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One of my students sent me an email that asked if I could do an analysis on this video of Bill Maher getting “Boo’d” on Letterman.

I love walking through these things. It gives us a chance to understand the fickle behavior of an audience.

Bill Maher is no stranger to controversial material. Remember he got canned by ABC in 2002 when he was doing ‘Politically Incorrect.’

I’m a huge fan of Bill Maher. I love his take on most things and even when I might disagree with him on some things, I still give props for the not only the courage to say what he says, but also the way he organizes his thoughts and researches what he talks about.

Comedy Central has Bill Maher ranked 38 among the best stand up comics of all time.

So when I heard that Bill was boo’d on Letterman. I was quick to review the video.

Let’s look at it together and try to figure out why they “boo’d”

After reviewing the clip, I don’t think they “boo’d” him as much as they “ooo’ed” him.

We have to consider the nature of  the audience dynamic in today’s political environment. The immediate perception from most audiences is that every joke is an attack.

“Not as bad as being a minority in Florida…”

This particular line is layered.

The audience has an immediate reaction to the surface of it: ‘not as bad as being a minority in Florida.’ I believe that they perceived the comment initially as a general negative attack on minorities. This happens in the first second after the comment, which results in the “Ooh.”

Remember the comment was a play on the previous sentence when he uses the term ‘minority owner.’

When Maher said ‘minority owner.’  His comic brain saw an opportunity to do a double-entendre play on the word ‘minority.’

Given a few seconds to ponder and process, the audience then sorts it out in their heads as to what Maher meant exactly by that comment:

‘Is he just making fun of minorities or is he doing a play on the word ‘minority?’

I believe his intention was that Trayvon being a young, black man, got a bad deal in Florida. Also, since Zimmerman is also a minority and living in Florida, he could be saying that both of them have been or will be treated poorly.

Problem was, his intention of the joke was misunderstood, because it had a vagueness to it. It lacked specificity. So the audience did what all overtly politically correct audiences do, they reacted that the joke was an attack on minorities, so they “ooo’ed.”

You’ll notice that once some people had a moment to process the underlying meaning of the joke or what the intended target was (Florida, the jury, unfairness of the process, etc.), there was a smattering of applause indicating that they ‘got’ it.

Assessment

So what do we learn from this? Sometimes, being specific is crucial for the audience to understand the immediate meaning of the joke so that we get the audience to respond the way we intended them to.

Immediacy is not necessary for all styles of jokes, but  jokes that have a perceived meaning that could be taken as racist, sexist, or an attack on anomalic sensitivity (person with a wheelchair in the room, dwarf or little person), while on T.V. with limited time to explain, specificity is crucial. 

Possible Solution

What if Bill clarified the joke by saying, “Better than being a minority in a Florida court these days.” Or “With the raw deal Trayvon got, it’s better than being a minority in Florida these days.”

With that simple clarification, he could’ve turned the “ooh” into an applause.

But with a live audience, you never know.

NOTE: How sensitive can an audience be?

I remember a friend of mine was appearing on The Tonight Show. Previous to his appearance, the band had a musical featured on the piano who was a ‘midget,’ (or little person–just to stay P.C.). While my friend was in the greenroom prepping for his set, the midget was playing the piano. The audience loved the midget. Then my friend comes on for his set, unaware that the pianist tearing it up on the piano was a midget. The comedian opened with two midget jokes…

He couldn’t recover from there and wasn’t invited back to Tonight.

Have you ever had any situations where you stepped in it? Let us know!

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Patton Oswalt: “I stole a Joke. Not consciously.”

patton-oswaltIn a recent blog post about joke-thieving, I posted that Howie Mandel allegedly caught a comedian named Greg Wilson “stealing” a joke on America’s Got Talent.

It generated a lot of comments; some agreeing, some disagreeing with my post, some attacked, some complimented. Some people sent private emails to avoid getting into it in the comment thread.

The piece was written in a heightened way to draw attention to a dilemma we always face as writers and comedians; intellectual property theft.

Whether it’s a joke or a movie script or a television pilot idea, I’ve experienced it personally at several levels. And I expect to experience it more.

But the questions remain:

What do you do about it when it happens to you?

How do you keep from doing it yourself?

Who cares if I use someone else’s material?

I think the best advice I got on joke-stealing is from Jay Leno. He said, “Just write faster than everyone else and your reputation will precede you.”

He also says to people that accuse him of stealing a joke, “You keep it. I’ll write more.” Great advice. I highly recommend not only following it, but making it your code.

My Irish temper sometimes impedes my ability to make sound and reasonable decisions in a lot of situations. It can especially get in the way when someone steals a joke.

Temper can manifest itself in many ways. It once manifested in the Comedy Store parking lot with another comedian’s bloody head bouncing off the hood of a Trans Am.

Some of you might be saying, “Oh my God, Jerry! I can’t believe you would do such a thing to a Trans Am!”

Why not? It was the nineties and Trans Ams were so previous decade!

Despite the fact that I’m no longer the guy who reacts like that, I still like to defer to people who are smarter when it comes to trying to sort out an answer to a popular problem…

Patton Oswalt is smart, funny involved and completely dedicated to the business of comedy. I follow his tweets (when I can) and read his “Spew.

I think it’s always a good idea to follow people who are smarter than you, funnier than you and ultimately more successful than you so that you can continue your journey to be the best you can be.

One of the suggestions he gives in his “Closed Letter To Myself about Thievery, Heckling and Rape Jokes,” is to let the joke thief steal. Eventually he’ll reach that point of no return, where the thief will—with the help of other comedians’ material—reach the level of network T.V. as a performer or a writer, then crash and burn because they didn’t get to that level by developing their own creativity.

Because at that level when it’s all on them to ‘create,’ their creative well is a dust bowl. They become the reason for their own demise.

So take some time (it’s a long piece so grab some coffee), and give Patton’s article a read. I think he’s got a better solution to understanding the thievery dilemma than I.

I mean, unless you really hate Trans Ams.

Inspiring Your Creative Muse with a Regular Routine

the-thinker Having trouble getting inspiration for material?

Of all the questions I get from the writers and comedians I work with, by far the most common relates to inspiration.

“I haven’t ‘felt’ like writing.” or “Sometimes I feel it and sometimes I don’t.”

Do you fit into this category? Do you have trouble finding the inspiration to write?

When is the last time you wrote something and felt satisfied? When is the last time you wrote something fulfilling?

When is the last time you wrote something at all?

It happens to all of us. There were times that I would go weeks without writing a new joke. It felt miserable.

One day I purchased a book called “The Writer’s Way,” and it was part of my all-out plan to never have writers’ block again. And you know what?

It worked!

One of the things I learned in that book and from reading about guys like George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld is to write everyday. EVERYDAY. Non-negotiable.

Whether I write a paragraph or a joke or two. I make time every day to sit down and write something. Anything.

Some writers wait for an inspiration to hit them. Other writers summon their muse by developing a regular routine to work by thereby following the philosophy of:

[gn_quote style="1"]A Routine for writing, creates a routine for inspiration.[/gn_quote]

But it’s up to you. First you have to start with a decision to do it, then you need to plan your day, your week and set up a specific time (an appointment with yourself) that you block out in your daily calendar that is designated for your writing time and then STICK to that routine.

You’ll be amazed that when you stick to the routine, your inspiration will find it’s way to you.

It’s like working both sides of the creative equation.

Sometimes inspiration just happens and other times you have to coax it along by doing cliche exercises or writing 50 random lines from the news, ad-copy or editorials.

Here’s a great article on creativity. I read it and it inspired me to write this blog post.

Maybe it will help you to set up your own regular writing routine and get more creative!

Do you have certain techniques you use to get yourself inspired? Share them in the comments section!