In 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?
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.
If you’ve been keeping up, then you know how much I love to study comedy structure. I’ve broken comedy down into 12 major comedy structures that all the greats use. In fact, great or not, when an audience laughs, odds are they laugh because one or more of the 12 major structures are in play.
Let’s take a look at Marc Maron. He’s always made me laugh. He’s to the point, he’s truthful. If he didn’t step away from comedy for so long, I think he would be one of those comedians who could stand alongside Louis C.K.
After you watch this short clip, let’s look at the structures in play.
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Marin has kind of a throw-away, I-don’t-really-give-a-shit-if-you-laugh delivery. Notice that he still allows time for the audience to enjoy the humor. Each time the audience laughs, comedy structure is in play:
“…she texted me like fifty f**king times…”
Slight chuckle here. Isn’t this recognition? Haven’t we had someone like that in our lives or don’t we know someone like that?
“…I was showing people…she’s f**king crazy…look how f**king crazy she is…”
Another laugh at the act out. Again recognition is in play. Haven’t we all shown someone a stupid, whacky or crazy texts? But this is all a set up for the larger 3-way build-up (triple) play, because what’s next?
…then on the fifty-first text was a picture of her pussy…and I said, “Well, maybe…you know…I could…you know…”
It shattered our assumption because he laid out two early opinions building up to how crazy this chick was and there’s NO WAY I could get involved with this…
He totally misdirected us then POW! Shattered our prediction of where he was going.
Also he has recognition still in play because guys will let a lot of stuff go when sex is involved, right?
In addition, Marc’s delivery is so damn conversational and real, that we recognize that nuance in people.
But that’s not all, let’s listen to the next joke where he uses recognition again then incongruity:
“…but like two texts after that, the guy who was building a bookshelf for me, texted me a picture of the bookshelf and I was actually more excited about that…”
Recognition and surprise are in play here. When he says, the guy texted me a picture of the bookcase…(we wonder what he’s going to say, then)…I was actually more excited about that (surprise) and we recognize that place where sometimes there are more important things than sex. Hmmm…is that also ambivalence?
And here comes the incongruity:
“…there was a part of me that was thinking…you know, “I don’t have to be afraid to put things in there…” (things in a bookcase juxtapose with things in a p*ssy. One won’t give you a disease both they both relate) Clear incongruity.
“…and I know that will last…” Incongruity again juxtaposing relationships with the bookcase.
So there you have it. Marc Marin uses structure in his comedy too. When a laugh is present. Structure is present.
Feedback? Leave me some notes. Love to hear your interpretation!
After a terrific graduation showcase for one of my classes this week, I sent out an email congratulating everyone on a job well done.
One of my students sent me an email: “The compliments are nice, but when does it translate into a paid gig?”
That’s a great question and is one of the most burning questions comedians have who are starting out in this business.
The hard and fast reality is this: It NEVER “translates” into a paid gig! Let’s get this straight…
No one will ever walk up to you after you do a random showcase and offer you a job. If it does happen, then it will be a rare occasion indeed.
I have had students who have showcased and got approached by managers or agents and developed other key relationships at a showcase, but to have someone come up to you and offer you a job without you developing a relationship with them first, is very rare. Especially in L.A.
Does this mean you cannot convert what you’ve learned in a class into a paying career? Of course not. What it means is that YOU have to get out there and chase the work.
The student who asked me this question is a sweet, kind woman who has a funny act, but doesn’t hit the mics regularly.
She reminds me of the “Guy And The Lottery Ticket” joke:
“A man is sitting on the sidewalk in front of a liquor store that sells lottery tickets. Every day you can hear him praying, “Please God, let me win the lottery. Please God let me win the lottery… Then one day a priest sees him on the sidewalk, empty-handed, praying. The man catching the eye of the priest says, “Father, is there a God? I’ve been praying for weeks… how come God won’t let me win the lottery?” The priest puts his hand on the man’s shoulder and says, “First, my son… you have to buy a ticket.”
The only thing I know for sure is what has happened to me in my 25-year career as a stand up comedian: I was hitting the mics 3-6 times a week. I was meeting other comedians. I was developing relationships and building a reputation.
One of the first paid gigs I got was when I was doing an open mic in Chatsworth, CA. I’d done this open mic probably twenty-five times. I would arrive at the bar at sign-up time and stay till close, supporting the other comics. I developed a casual business relationship with the booker. He liked my style and was impressed that every time I hit that mic, I had new material and was getting consistent laughs. He commented on it and asked how much time I had. I said, “about an hour.”
He asked if I had video… and I had a couple of tapes in the backpack I carried with me wherever I went. I handed it to him. He was impressed that I had one on me. (I thought to myself Wow! Some of that “crazy” shit my Dad told me to do is paying off!) The booker took the video home to watch it. I was excited.
The very next week I went back to that open mic, my heart soaring with anticipation of getting a job. When I got there I found out that the booker who took my tape just went out on the road to do his “new” act. That man’s name was Carlos Mencia…
JUST KIDDING! It wasn’t Mencia…
But he did go out on the road for two weeks. I was disappointed that I would have to wait for him to return, but I was already going to that open mic for about six months so what was another two weeks? The very next day the booker called me and told me he liked the video and he had a gig for me in West Covina at a place called Lamp Post Pizza. It paid a hundred bucks and you got food and a couple of drink tickets. I thought to myself: “I’VE MADE IT!”
I did the show and did really well. I got my hundred bucks, but was too nervous to enjoy the free food. I came home and was so excited that I got paid for telling jokes! I basically got paid for doing something that used to get me into trouble back in school! Fuckin’ Eh!
I was so excited and jacked up from that experience, that I researched and called everyone I knew that did comedy. I found something called Comedy USA, a publication that culled and printed information for comedians, bookers and clubs. I called all of clubs listed. Ninety percent said “NO.” I called more. I got a Fed-Ex account, got my tape duplicated and sent it out to everyone I could. Slowly, I started to get work. Most of it was filling in for last minute cancelations and some of it was driving 5 to 6 hours to make fifty bucks, but it was a start.
I spent 5 days a week, making at least 10 calls per day for my career. I sent out tapes, traveled to clubs and auditioned in person whenever I could. Eventually one job turned in to several jobs. I did this all without an agent or manager, (Sometimes my wife called as my manager). Eventually I turned it into a career doing 40-45 weeks of work a year and more. But I chased it and I worked it. Every. Single. Day.
My point is this: YOU HAVE TO DO THE WORK! YOU have to hit the mics 3-6 times a week. YOU have to develop the act to where it’s nearly flawless and YOU have to chase the work to win this comedy lottery…
In the words of the Priest: “First, my son, you have to buy a ticket!”
So you sit down to write and nothing happens. Now what? What causes your creative process to shut down?
There’s almost nothing more frustrating than not being able to write… I was going to say there is nothing more frustrating, but off the top of my head I came up with three: two had to do with passive aggressive ex’s, and one had to do with a phone call to Bank of America…who said there’s nothing to write about?!
One of the keys to learning how to be a comedian, is learning how to write solid comedy consistently. But…
One of the biggest dilemmas we have when we write comedy is that we’re always trying to think of “funny” or “weird” things to write about. That’s not necessarily the best approach. In fact, it’s probably the main cause of your block. Your brain goes into overload trying to think of funny things. So what do you do about it?
Write the truth. Comedy derives from truth. It starts with a simple story about your life.
One of the ways I like to write is by just writing about an event or an idea. Just putting down the facts on paper (or in my case, the computer). My only goal is to tell the story. It’s usually best if the event pissed me off or otherwise triggered an emotion. That emotion is my motivation for writing the story, but it’s not always necessary. I can also write it simply from the point of observation. Ultimately the quirky, odd, weird, stupid things appear, because aren’t they out there in everyday life anyway? The only way to get to them often is to write.
Once I have the idea on the page, I can go back over the material, in a second pass, and start to identify 3 things:
These are only 3 techniques, in the dozen or so available to a comedy writer, but they are extremely effective and can help you take a regular story and turn it into a comedy bit.
Let’s quickly look at each of these:
Analogy is the process of comparing one thing to another in an imaginary or metaphorical way. If one definition of a joke is “the convergence of two or more clearly identifiable ideas,” then analogy helps you to impose a secondary idea into your story and introduce comedy. It’s “automatic incongruity” and incongruity creates SURPRISE. Once you become familiar with incongruity you’ll realize that it is one of the best ways to learn how to write comedy
Having sex with my ex was a lot like working on the bench press at the gym; I always had to wipe it down and three guys were just there before me.
You would normally not think of putting bench pressing and sex with your ex together, but that’s exactly what triggers the humor. They don’t normally fit and therefore they create incongruity and in this particular case, clear, visual imagery.
Word play is one of the easiest ways to create “plays” or “turns” in your stories. Almost all words in the English language have multiple meanings. You simply take the implied meaning and turn it into a more exaggerated meaning. Because you shatter the expected meaning, you create surprise and have a laugh point within your story.
I was checking out at the grocery story and the clerk said, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”
I said, “Well, I found the wine and the candles, but I couldn’t find a soul mate. You had Mahi-Mahi, but I’m not into twins.”
The simple play on the word “everything” changes the entire nature of the story. Without spinning the intended meaning of the word “everything,” the story would simply fall flat. Right?
The number one trigger for human laughter is SURPRISE. One of the quickest, most effective ways to get there is using a structure called a “REVERSE.” You simply change the reader’s or listener’s perception of where the story was going, by quickly pulling the rug out from under them.
I was holding my 9-month old daughter on my lap and she was grabbing at my chest hair. So I wrote down: “My 9-month old daughter loves to grab my chest hair.”
In that sentence we have a very definitive statement. In order to create surprise, we must change the definitive to an assumptive. One of the definitives in the statement is: it’s “my” chest hair. So I ask myself, what can I do to change that to an assumptive? So the statement becomes:
I have a 9-month old daughter. You know what she loves to play with? Chest hair…
So now it is assumed that it’s my chest hair. So let’s play it like that, then shatter the assumption so we have a joke:
I have a 9-month old daughter. You know what she loves to play with? Chest hair…she’ll really pull on it too. I finally had to say to my wife, (pointing at her chest) ‘You might want to get that stuff lasered.’ (You can also use “waxed,” but I found that there were better laughs with the word “lasered.”
So now that you have these techniques, you can apply them to turn your stories into comedy. Tomorrow I will show you a story that was submitted to me by a student and I will show you the process of how I turn it into something funny.
***Please feel free to leave comments. I would love to hear from you!!!***
Every once and I while I get an email from someone promoting their event, wondering whether my ‘readers’ will be interested. In most cases it’s a case of someone wanting to reach people for free. I have no problem with that. It’s creative and it means they are doing their job shamelessly promoting their event.
I do my best to vet the event, to make sure it’s not just some “bringer show,” that wants to exploit the students in my classes or my readers, have them bring all the students friends to “their” show and collect “their” door money. Those I DO NOT promote, because there is no mutual benefit for my readers or my students.
Once in a while I receive a great opportunity for up-and-comers to get exposure. I believe this is one of them.
Levity Entertainment is promoting an online comedy competition, where the winner will be able to appear before Levity talent agents for possible representation.
Who Is Levity?
Levity Entertainment is owned by Robert Hartman and Judy Marmel Brown. They are the majority owners of the “Improv” comedy clubs and they are vertically leveraged with a couple of other production companies responsible for specials that appear on HBO, Comedy Central and other channels. They are some pretty heavy hitters in the comedy arena and only positioned to become bigger sluggers. So, in a nutshell, they are GOOD TO KNOW!
Here’s the Deal
All you have to do is submit your stand up comedy video (no more than 5 minutes) and follow the instructions on the page.
Remember to please read all instructions, details and official rules before submitting! Then keep up with the project and maybe you might be luck enough to be chosen for this new comedy project. The great thing about this project is, no matter where you are from, Levity will fly out out to L.A. to be a part of this!
So what are you waiting for? Give it a shot and GOOD LUCK!