Comedy Class | Don’t Use ‘I’ or ‘Me’?

commercial_4Got an email from someone and I thought it would be best addressed in my comedy-blog. Read on:

"I have a question which has been messing with me when writing my premise or setup. i find myself trying to produce material before wednesday which are the best nights in florida for open mics. my issue is not coming up with an idea its just getting it across so before i saw your blogs i went and got a book on comedy " The Comedy Bible" which states when writing your premise you need to have a topic + attitude which i understand that concept but it also states that when starting out a joke or building the premise you never want to use I or me. i saw your blog for the 1-2-3-joke about your poker app and in your premise you start off with I. i just want to know is that a myth as well? should i throw away that idea of when writing my premise not to include I or me?"

Great question! First of all, let me get this straight: there are rarely definitives in life like "never" and "always."

Maybe some exceptions could be

  • "Never perform fire eating tricks after drinking One-Fifty-One."
  • "Never joke about bombs in the security line at the airport and expect to board your flight," or
  • "Never use the "N-word" as a white comedian while performing at a fund-raising benefit for Malcom X."

Those might be a few things that could fit in the "never" category. But when it comes to comedy theory there are few "nevers."

I’ve never heard the rule "never use ‘I’ or ‘me’," however. And I’m glad I haven’t because I do it all the time. My comedy is about my life and it would be hard to discuss my life without using those pronouns. There are no rules to that effect as far as I’m concerned.

In fact, if you watch Louis C.K., he talks about ‘I’ and ‘me’ quite often. Same with Lewis Black, John Stewart, Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby… the list goes on.

I don’t know what Judy Carter was thinking or maybe she meant something different. But remember she named the book The Comedy Bible. It was named after a book that is so filled with distortions, contradictions and falsehoods, even the churches pick and choose what parts of it to believe!

The two things that I think are valuable in that book is that humor should come from an emotional foundation and it’s nice to have a comedy buddy.

In the end think about this: Tom Dreesen, one of the most successful comedians of his time said that comedy is 90 percent surprise. If your material has surprise, incongruity, recognition or benign retaliation, odds are it has the elements to get a laugh.

Finally, in the end, whether or not the joke contains ‘I’ or ‘me’ if the audience laughs, it’s a keeper.

Comedian Lessons | Give The Joke A Chance!

raise-your-handOne of my classes just had their graduation showcase at the world-famous Comedy Store. A student-comedian was not happy with his set. Some of the jokes worked and others didn’t. He was wondering whether the material was funny or whether he was just getting pity laughs while running the material in class.

He was ready to toss out some really good material just because they didn’t get laughs that night.

Comedian Lesson:

Never throw out material that you believe in if it doesn’t get a laugh on one given night.

Everyone has had a night where even the “tried and true” material is not resonating with the audience. Always give a bit at least 3-4 attempts in front of different audiences before you determine that it’s not working.

There could be a multitude of reasons that joke or comedy bit doesn’t work;

  • The room could be too hot
  • The drinks are taking a long time
  • The waiter or waitress seems rude
  • The dynamic of the room is not immediately conducive to laughter
  • The audience is not empathizing with you
  • The audience doesn’t know you yet to trust you

… then list can go on and on.

Comedy is a process and you learn how an audience feels and with experience you develop the ability to better read an audience’s mood, then you make adjustments in your act to reflect their mood. I never blame the audience for my set not working. I believe that it’s my job to figure it out and get them to respond. Most of the time it’s successful, sometimes…not so much!

If I see that an audience is fickle; they are not giving love right away, I will either hit them with solid surprise and structure at the opening rather than an esoteric story-based routine. Once I get them to give me 2-3 solid laughs, I can try to lay out a more story-based routine. Sometimes I’ll just talk to them and ask them a question like, “Is this the support group for back-pain sufferers?” Then why are you guys groaning at everything?” “Is this one of those overly politically correct crowds?” Then I have a routine about political correctness that almost always does well. Once I’ve earned their trust and their laughter, now I can test the new stuff.

Jay Leno use to say, “Start with the ‘tried and true’, then put some new stuff in the middle, then end with the tried and true.” It’s good advice that could keep you from throwing away good material by overreacting to just one audience and it’s a good comedian lesson.

3 Key Mistakes in Writing Jokes

I got an email from a person interested in doing stand up comedy and he saw my How To Write Comedy video online. In the video I take a headline right from Yahoo News and I write 15 jokes in about 30 minutes using what I call the listing technique.

The gentleman understood the concept but was having a hard time when it came time to write the material on his own from scratch. Sound familiar? So he emailed me a few questions including the line he was working with. The line was:

“Hand Sanitizer: The new vodka for teens”

Now that’s a headline!

One definition of a joke is “The convergence of two or more clearly identifiable ideas coming together.” It’s incongruity; comedy 101. You may already know this, but the incongruity comedy structure is probably the most common structure used in commercially accepted comedy today. It basically means you are imposing the characteristics of one thing onto another thing which normally does not possess those characteristics.

That headline does present us with two clearly identifiable ideas that are converging: Hand Sanitizer and drinking teenagers. But the problem with that headline is that it is a headline. It may work as a written piece of material but it doesn’t work for stand up because there is no conversation happening. In other words you would never talk this way so how would you present this to an audience?

Mistake #1:

When working with headlines. You must go beyond the headline to find the statement of fact that clearly defines to the reader or audience what we are talking about. The line must contain all the information we need to convey what is going on to the reader or listener. These are the facts. That’s why it’s called the straight line.

Mistake #2:

The line must be conversational. Many times people are trying to write jokes from the news or the headlines we forget to be conversational. The key to making someone laugh is surprise. If you sound like you are just telling someone a story and they are not expecting a twist that turns into a joke, then the joke is more effective.

Johnny Carson stood on that star on the Tonight Show for 30 years and we knew he was there to do his monologue. But he would start each joke in a conversational tone which made it sound like he was just sharing something he read or heard today. “Oh! I heard this today…” So if we used that concept for this joke premise it might sound like: “Oh I heard this today…apparently, in an effort to get drunk, some teens are now drinking hand sanitizer.”

Do you see how that changed the tone of the headline and made it a bit more conversational? Remember it’s still stand up comedy so the structure of having the important word as close to the end of the sentence is still crucial.

So now you have a clear set up with all the information necessary to converge the ideas and get to the comedy and one way to get to the comedy here is to list all the ideas we can think about regarding hand sanitizer, alcohol and teens. This leads me to…

Mistake #3:

Most comedians do not take the time to do the lists so that they can find the jokes.

Because I’ve been doing this so long, I do a lot of the lists in my head, but when I get stuck I will make a thorough list to find the incongruities of the contrasting elements: hand sanitizer and drinking. These jokes came out of the top of my head… Please keep in mind that these are all first draft jokes. They still could use some refining:

“Oh I heard this today…apparently, in an effort to get drunk, some teens are now drinking hand sanitizer.”

1. The good news is it has spurned new high school party games like “spin the Purell…” Sure you might still have to kiss the ugly chick, but you can be assured that she’ll be germ-free…

2. Kids are no longer doing shots they’re doing squirts. (or pumps)

3. Experts knew they were on to something when store shelves were stocked with hand sanitizers with names like Absolut, Grey Goose and Smirnoff.

or a version of the ‘spin the Purell joke:

4. Now kids are able to get filthy drunk, yet be completely germ free.

These 3 or 4 jokes rolled out of my head in seconds, just listing in my head. If I actually sat down and listed, I could probably turn out another 10-20 jokes or more.

Using the listing technique take that headline and let me know if you come up with any! Leave a comment below!

Comedian Lessons | Record Every Set

audio recorderHere’s the thing: Comedy is a live endeavor. You get up in front of a different audience each and every night you perform. Even if you’re doing the same material, the audience is different, the club may be different and the night is different so the dynamics change. Therefore, it is essential that you capture each and every performance by recording it either with the use of audio (digital recorder) or video.

With the availability of Flip cams and video recorders on iPhones, Droids and other smartphones, there’s almost no reason not to be able to video record each set that you do. Sometimes there are restrictions at certain clubs and if that’s the case there should be no reason not to audio record every set.

Each set we do as comedians on stage gives us an opportunity to learn something new. We can try a new joke, make a discovery on stage involving a new inspiration we got while telling a joke, or respond to a heckler or other live moment in the audience. The recorder is also essential if you have a bad set. That’s right! You want to review those bad sets too!

We learn most from our mistakes and when we record a bad set, that recorder is like a black box on an airplane that goes down. The recorder has everything that led up to the crash and you can learn a lot from it. Sure it hurts to watch or listen to a bad set, but if you’re listening to the bad set you’ll discover new things. I used to hate to listen to a bad set.

But you know what? Now I rarely if ever have a bad set. How did that happen? By constantly working on my sets by listening to them constantly and eliminating mistakes.

We all hate to listen to ourselves at first, because our voices sound so “weird” on a recorder.

They do, don’t they?

But that’s how our voice sounds to other people. We hear our voices differently because we hear our voices through our Eustachian tubes and it filters our vocal nuances. If you keep listening to your voice on a recorder you’ll actually start to hear it the way other people hear it whenever you speak. So get used to it an record yourself!

When you do a set, take the audio recorder with you on the stage, take it out of your pocket and set it right on the stool on the stage. Doesn’t matter if they audience sees it. I remember when I used to watch Jerry Seinfeld workout at the clubs. He would bring his recorder up onstage with him and set it on the stool. I would think to myself, “Wow, he’s constantly working on it, isn’t he?”

Jerry Seinfeld is financially the most successful comedian of all time.

Comedian Lesson:

Learn from the best and bring your recorder on stage. Always!

 

Best Audio Recorders:

Here are some recorders that I recommend. Personally I use the Sony, but I’ve also owned Olympus. Both solid products. I like to stay in a medium to higher end product, because if I’m recording a set and it goes really well, the recording could actually be used to create a CD that I can use as a demo or sell at a show… If you have other recommendations, please share them in the comments section. If you want to do the same, splurge a little and go for the Sony.

Busting The Top 3 Comedy Myths

mythbusters2In the 25 years that I’ve been a professional comedian, I’ve faced a lot of so-called myths that have spread around the comedy circles. It’s amazing that no matter how much you work to diffuse those myths or prove those myths wrong, new comedians seem to continue to nurture and spread tired, hugely over-told and wildly understood myths. I’m using this particular post to point them out and bust them. So that they don’t continue to stifle up-and-comers. Here they are:

1. Don’t laugh at your own jokes.

One of my students was performing her act on stage and despite the fact that she’s an attractive girl, she wore this “scowl” throughout her act. It’s wasn’t a result of her point of view or her emotional approach to the joke, it was just a scowl. At the end of her set I said, “You should smile more. It opens up your face and shows you’re having a good time.”

She said, “ I don’t want to because a comic friend of mine said I shouldn’t laugh at my own jokes.”

That particular rule of thumb is so misunderstood. There’s a difference between enjoying the material and “laughing at your own jokes.” I think that rule is better applied to those comedians who laugh because the joke doesn’t get laughs. The comedian who laughs to say “hey look at me I’m funny…” is what that rule of thumb is better suited for. But you can laugh and enjoy and giggle and play all you want.

If you want to see someone who blasts that rule to smithereens, watch Craig Ferguson work. He has a great time is always laughing at himself.

Here’s a bit of theater science: “The audience is in whatever state the performer is in.” So if you’re having a good time, the audience has no choice but to have a good time.

2. Prop Comics & Guitar Comics are all hacks.

Gotta put this bitch to bed once an for all. There are a lot of comedians that think that just because they prefer to be monologists, that anyone who uses an instrument or a prop is a hack. That’s NOT necessarily true. Guitar and prop comics are simply adding an additional dynamic to the overall show. Those who waste time calling them “hacks” are either naïve or jealous.

A good guitar comic is probably booking more festivals and New Years’ shows at a substantially higher dollar rate than a monologist, because the music can take the audience to another level of participation.

If you are using props, impressions or a guitar, you better be good and the jokes better be solid and interesting, original and funny. There is a tendency for a prop comic, an impressionist or a guitar comic to use their props or instruments to get easy laughs. If you do this, you’re going to wind up being classified as a “hacky” comic. But then again if you were a strict monologist and your material wasn’t interesting intelligent, original or funny, wouldn’t you be considered “hacky” anyway?

carrot top

People make fun of Carrot Top because he’s a prop comic. Why would any comedian waste time and energy bashing someone who’s doing what he loves and making a living. Bash all you want. Carrot Top has his own theater in Vegas and is one of the highest earning comedians alive today. Instead of bashing Carrot Top, comedians should ask themselves, “What can I learn from his success?”

I might not be a big fan of prop comedy, but I’m a fan of Scott Thompson, (Carrot Top).

3. “I Gotta Follow That?”

I hear a lot of comedians wait to go on stage and someone really good just finishes and they say something like, “You mean, I gotta follow that?!”

Here’s what I learned over the years in this business. The audience wants to enjoy every comedian. They really want to hear a unique and different point of view. I learned a long time ago that you’re not “following” any body. You’re just “next.”

This lesson was taught to me in a very unique way. I was a fiery and fast feature comedian back in the day, hungry to step up to the headliner position. I was writing my ass off and rehearsing and touring 35 weeks a year. I wanted to headline. So when I took the stage I poured it on. I would always give the best shows I could.

I was in Sacramento working at a club called Laughs Unlimited and it was the first night of the week and I was working with the lovely Diane Nichols. Diane had been on The Tonight Show with Johnny and Jay. I wanted to blow the doors off the place to prove that even though she was on network T.V., she couldn’t follow this gun slinger.

I went on stage and right out of the gate I was hitting all my jokes. Everything worked. I was on fire. I wrapped up and she came on stage. In an exhausted forty-something voice she said, “Wow, ladies and gentleman how ‘bout a hand for Jerry Corley…what a ball of energy huh? (Big pause)… I wish I had that kind of energy…”

The audience laughed hard. She didn’t miss a beat. She wasn’t worried about following me… she wasn’t even thinking about me. She was doing her thing and since the audience is in whatever state the performer is in, they were right there with her too.

I learned a BIG LESSON that night.

That came back to me later in my career too. I was headlining at a resort in Nevada and this guitar comic I admire, Huck Flynn, was booked as a feature. I thought the booker must have screwed up because he was rocking rooms as a headliner before I even started in comedy. But here I was having to follow him… did he take it easy on me? No way! He got on stage and blew the doors off the place. The audience loved him.

Now it was my turn. I remembered that lesson I learned from Diane Nichols… I got on stage nice and easy and I said, “Wow, ladies and gentleman, how ‘bout a hand for Huck Flynn…he can really play with that guitar, huh? (Big pause)… I’m not even that good playing with myself…”

They forgot about Huck and they were now with me, because I stayed true to me and my groove… because I wasn’t following anybody, I was just next.