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!
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.
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.
From the time we are toddlers, we learn by watching and imitating. That’s how we learn to walk, to talk, to express ourselves.
Imitation is the ‘stem-cell’ of our learning ability.
So why not utilize this technique when learning how to be a comedian?
At first, it might seem like cheating, no?
And when I say, “imitate,” I don’t mean “copy.” I mean emulate.
Practice sounding like a certain comedian.
I mean, “but wait!” You might be saying. Stand-up is one of the last real “raw” performance-based art forms. Why would anyone want to imitate?
5 Reasons to Use Imitation or Emulation in your Comedy:
There are several reasons, when you are starting out, to use imitation and emulation develop. Here are a few:
- It can get you to sounding like a comedian faster.
- Imitation or emulation can help you discover new inspirations.
- It can help you find the inflection to make a joke, or bit, really resonate.
- It can help your brain to recognize the patterns and rhythms that get laughter from the audience
- It can help you get confident in your pauses and perfect your timing.
Once you start emulating the behaviors of a comedian, you begin to ‘walk in their shoes,’ and you begin to think like one. As a result, more jokes come to you off-handedly during the normal progress of your day and you start recognizing subjects and situations that are ripe for a comedy routine.
As a tool, imitation and emulation is used all the time in life.
Famous guitar players all say that they learned by playing the riffs of the greats, then from those techniques they branched off and developed their own style.
Johnny Carson said he copied Jack Benny to learn how to perfect his timing.
Jerry Seinfeld was clearly influenced by George Carlin.
Robin Williams seemed to take his moves directly from Jonathan Winters.
When you watch Bill Burr, can’t you see a bit of Dennis Leary?
I studied Carlin, Pryor, Cosby and Seinfeld, mostly. When I first started I was very “Seinfeldian.” In fact, I remember going on stage at the Laugh Factory in L.A. one night. Jerry Seinfeld was in the room. I did my set with my jokes, but my inflections and behaviors had a definite Seinfeld feel.
After my performance—which got a decent response, from the audience—I said hello to Seinfeld and he just sort of blew me off. I said to myself, “maybe I I should tone it down a little.”
After that experience, I was lucky enough to meet with George Carlin. He gave me the best insight to comedy;
He said: “Take the stuff that drives you crazy and make it funny!”
That’s when I started to really develop as a comedian.
But it was the study and emulation of my favorite comedians that got me moving in this industry. Within my first two years as a comedian, I developed an hour of material, nailed my first audition with the legendary Bud Friedman, (owner of the Improvisation) in Los Angeles and got booked in Vegas and got my first television booking as a comedian.
After that, I used that television tape to book gigs all over the country and I never looked back.
Stand-up is a Conversation
One of my students is an actress. She’s a really, really good actress. She started doing stand-up in July. Like a lot of actors, she was having trouble eliminating that fourth wall and making the material sound like it was stand-up, rather than an actor’s monologue.
The difference between stand-up and acting is that stand-up is a conversation. It’s hopefully a one-way conversation, but it is more like a conversation. It’s like you’re talking to your friends in your living room or better yet, at a bar.
This actress-comedian was having a difficult time breaking out of the monologue mode. Then she started studying comedians like Whitney Cummings and Amy Schumer. I mean really studying them.
She listened to them for hours! (I recommend that to anyone—take your favorite comedian and listen to them for hours).
She would even repeat their lines while she was in her apartment, trying to emulate their nuances and their voices.
In a matter of a week or two, her act went to the next level. By the time she had her next appearance, she was sounding more like a comedian. Her material was resonating more with the audience. They were responding to her faster and with harder, snappier laughter.
She was becoming a comedian. It was her own material, but she emulated to get the nuance of a comedian.
4 Weeks to Being A Better Writer
To some people this seems crazy…
I get it. The comedian’s nuance and rhythm my come naturally to you. If so, then this post is not for you.
Go do your thing and continue in your own growth and brilliance.
But to you comedians with some years of experience, I still recommend listening to the really good comedians.
When I had been doing comedy for about 8 years, I was on the road for four weeks straight. In my car I had one cassette (yes, I said “cassette!” Don’t judge!). It was Dennis Miller.
One thing about Dennis, is he used to use really colorful language in his material. The writing was clever. He used a lot of analogy, simile and metaphor to add texture to his stories. In my view it made the story worth listening to.
By the end of the tour, my comedy also had more compelling language. It was better written and it was getting better response. I kept it in my own voice, but that four weeks with Dennis Miller made me a far better writer!
This particular post is for beginners who are having a hard time getting out of the habit of sounding like they are reciting material and getting more in the habit of sounding like a comedian; like a conversationalist.
For you, if you are struggling with this concept. Try emulating or imitating. It might make you sound like a comedian faster.
Then again, you might already be emulating.
How do you start your day?
How do you end your day?
I bet that if you walk through the motions, step-by-step, you can pretty much rubber-stamp habits like preparing for bed or waking up to go to work.
Like, for me, going to bed might be mapped out in steps like this:
- Check the doors to make sure they are locked
- Turn out the porch light and the light in the Foyer
- Tell Fairchild (our Butler), that I will have tea in the library prior to turning in.
- Set the thermostat
- Get undressed
- Use the bathroom
- Brush my teeth, etc.
All of these—except for the smart-ass and fictitious ‘Butler’ comment—I don’t really have to think about.
I do them automatically, and I bet if you mapped out your morning or evening habits, you would probably be able to say you do them automatically too.
What about your morning commute to work? Do you have to think about it? Or is it automatic?
Unless you’re like some people I know who use a G.P.S. to get everywhere, all the time, (and you know who you are), your drive to work is probably automatic. You don’t have to think of the low-level details required to get there.
How does this happen? How to we train our brains to utilize ‘automaticity’ with certain tasks or behaviors?
That’s right, practice. The behavior of repetition. Repeating a task over and over will help you train your brain to do it automatically.
Without thinking about it.
That makes sense to most of us. But how do you change a habit or better yet, develop a solid habit?
Willpower is a Finite Resource
Relying on sheer willpower to develop a new habit is not necessarily a good idea. Willpower, according to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is a finite resource and it suffers depletion after use.
A study actually done on this phenomenon called “ego-depletion,” shows that after willpower is exerted in one area, it becomes harder for an individual to exert it in another.
Have you experienced this?
With the understanding of this new knowledge of “ego-depletion,” it would seem wise to slow down your habit changing and apply it in a more focused way.
If you’re like most people, you probably come up with more than one New Years resolution, right?
Then you try to apply these new behaviors all at once.
“I’m gonna go to the gym everyday…”
“I’m gonna eat more salads.”
“I’m gonna stop drinking, smoking and drugs.”
“I’m gonna write some clean comedy.”
That seems like a small list, but according to the behavior studies, most people have 10 or more resolutions and those who tried to implement and develop these habits all at once, would soon fail miserably at all of them.
Focus on One Task at a Time
One way to really ensure that you will have a high rate of success on developing a new habit is to focus developing only one at a time.
If you slow down and take one habit at a time and give it your complete focus and attention your odds of experiencing ‘ego-depletion’ are drastically reduced.
So if you want to “wake up earlier” or “write some clean comedy,” then try doing only one of those for a month. That’s right 30 days of only one habit.
Although some studies say it takes 60 days to fully develop a new habit, other studies say habits can be developed in 20 days and since we are focusing on one habit at a time, 30 days seems practical.
If you actually applied this and did it for a year, you could make a lot of changes in your comedy writing and in your life, overall.
Start ‘Habitualizing’ Right Now to be Funnier
Today or tomorrow, write down the 10-12 new habits you want to apply to your comedy or your life.
Choose which one is most important to you or most needed.
Then spend the next 30 days implementing it by writing it in your daily calendar and making it an appointment.
Really map it out!
Say for example I want to be funnier in my everyday life. I know through experience, that one of the easiest ways to be funnier is to utilize the Double-entendre comedy structure. Simply put, using the secondary meaning of a word to respond to a comment from someone. They say something with an intended meaning and you respond with the comedic meaning of the word or meaning of the phrase in its entirety.
If I decide that I’m going to sharpen that sense or strengthen that muscle in my comedy, I would practice with random sentences, then find a word in that sentence that could have multiple meanings.
Then I would write a few lines in response to the original line using the comedic interpretation of the word.
For example, if I was in the grocery store and the clerk said, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”
I might respond with, “Well, I found the wine and some candles, but I couldn’t find a soul-mate… you had Mahi-Mahi, but I’m not into twins…”
Or try to write another line in response to “Did you find everything you were looking for?”
“Everything? Can you tell me where I could find a hot chick who digs bald guys who jerk-off and eat hot pockets?”
If I did this every day for a month, with five random lines, without fail, I would be a sharper, faster, funnier writer in no time. Plus I would have a habit developed to do it everyday.
With 12 months in the year and 12 Major comedic joke structures, applying habits each month could make you one Hell of a writer in a year.
Get to Work
So what are you waiting for? Now that you have a process and an understanding, select those habits you want to change. Implement your focus and start changing the way you work, by developing new habits to become a better comedy writer.
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.
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.
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…
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?