The Key To Comedy

Key to comedyOne of the most common questions I get as a stand up comedian, writer and now coach is: What is the key to comedy?

And although there are too many variables for me to even suggest that I have all the answers when it comes to comedy, I can give you the key. That’s right I can give you the key to comedy.

The key is SURPRISE.

If we break comedy down; I mean, really break comedy down into parts, then we can start to design solutions. So let’s do that briefly in this blog post.

I guess we can all agree that for comedy to be comedy, we need to get the audience to laugh, right? So that’s our problem. We need to make people laugh.

So let’s find a solution…

Somebody has to be laughing in order for someone to say that something is comedic or humorous. Now that we know that, we need to know what causes people to laugh.

According to several psychologists, the number one element that triggers human laughter is surprise.

Create surprise and do it well and the audience almost has no choice but to laugh.

Imagine that power as a comedian; to put the audience in the position where they have no choice but to laugh!

Now that we have that psychological element in place we are part of the way through solving our problem. The next question is how to we pull that trigger?

We create surprise in our writing or our dialogue, conversation, speech or script.

There are several ways to create surprise in comedy. I’m going to share with you the simplest and one of the most commonly used strategies to create surprise:

  • Double Entendre
Double Entendre means “two meanings.” Those of us in comedy are blessed that the English language provides us with multiple meanings of words. We can use a word in a sentence to imply one meaning then use the comedic interpretation to create comedy. To look at it in its simplest form: if you have a friend that turns everything into a sexual connotation, then you’ve probably seen the double-entendre formula used in comedy. It could be used in scene writing too.
A basketball coach is at a press conference after his team lost in a blow out;
PRESS: Coach how do you feel about the execution of the offense?
COACH: I’m all for it.
In this example, the coach used the comedic interpretation of the word “execution.” While the journalist meant how do you think the offense played?  The coach went for the surprise meaning of “kill.”
Because the expected of the word execution was so strong in the context in which it was being used, when the coach played the comedic meaning, he created a level of surprise that would lead just about any crowd to a laugh. Couple that with the fact that the losing coach is normally NOT in a good mood. He is not expected to be funny.

Surprise also occurs when something happens that is unexpected, right? So do or say something unexpected and you have an increased possibility of creating a laugh.

Here’s another example of using surprise:

When I was in the grocery store, the check out girl said to me, “Did you find everything you were looking for?” The word “everything” really stood out for me. What did she mean when she said “everything?” Her intended meaning was probably did I find everything I was shopping for.

What is my comedic meaning of everything? The meaning of life, a soul-mate, eternal love, etc.

I went with that interpretation. So, when she asked “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.”

That got big laugh with her.

Word play makes up the majority of all comedy out there. But the comedian has to be careful not to overuse it. It’s easy to get “punny” if you use it incorrectly. And you’ll wind up getting groans.

Then that key to comedy will just wind up breaking off in the lock.

Tom Hanks Drops An “F Bomb” on G.M.A.

tom hanksWell, I’ve been saying it for years… ‘Good Morning America and Elizabeth Vargas could use a good F*ck."

That would definitely help with the ratings! And what better person to deliver it than the always lovable, Tom Hanks. Yep, ‘THE’ Tom Hanks. The one that all of America adores.

He was making an appearance to pimp his new movie ‘Cloud Atlas,’ where he plays like 75 characters, (Awesome trailer, by the way).

Host Elizabeth Vargas asked him to do one of the characters from the movie.

Tom actually warned that it is mostly "swear words," but Tom is a man of action–and evidently fatigue–because he lit into the accent and within seven words BAM! The F-Bomb drops right dead center in the middle of G.M.A.’s morning broadcast!

All I have to say is that the entire Eastern time zone (viewing it live), needed one less cup of coffee to launch their day.

T.M.Z. and all subsequent broadcast points got the feed with the offending word bleeped out. (Watch the UNEDITED VERSION below).

And it even feels weird calling the word ‘offending.’ Tom Hanks can make anything sound charming.

Comedians deal with this dilemma all the time. On radio, on T.V., we’re asked to give the audience a slice of our act and once in a great while, there could be a slip-up.

Normally, I know exactly what I’m going to do when I appear on radio or T.V. I actually outline techniques for radio interviews for comedians. But I remember it happened to me while we were live on the radio. It was actually a comment about President Bush and I was in Arkansas. Who do you think got hecklers at the show that night?! Smile

What do you do when you slip like that? You do exactly what Tom Hanks did. With charm and shock, apologize to the people who were listening and be sincere. Watch and learn because Tom Hanks teaches a valuable lesson.

America will forgive Tom Hanks and if you handle it right, the listeners or viewers will forgive you too.

Watch the video here:

Comedy Class | Getting Your Time Cut

 

flappersWe had our combined showcase this Thursday at Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank, for our Beginning/Advanced comedy class.

The bill was filled with 18 comedians ready to hit the stage to showcase. That’s a lot of comedians for one show, but to top it off we had to complete the show in a timely manner, because we had to clear the mainroom to let it get set for the late show.

Talk about pressure! Mix in with that the fact that I had a baby-sitter fall through and had to miss the show and you’ve got a tough beginning to an evening that had its obstacles.

Then the comedians, many of them doing a showcase for the very first time arrived to the club to discover that their time had been cut back from seven minutes to six. It can be stressful for a comedian to have to suddenly cut their time, especially for a newbie.

But the show went on and as I hear it (I can’t wait to get the video), and the show was great. Everyone did their best and had good sets. The show ended on time–for the most part… and, despite the stress of time-cuts, nobody died from a brain aneurism or anything like that.

Getting your time cut is commonplace in this business. I have a friend, Don Richardson, a professional comedian for 25 years, a regular at the Comedy Store. Don’s a real pro with real world experience who possesses a very good reputation…

One night he showed up at the Comedy Store for his scheduled 10pm set. As Don arrived at the Comedy Store he checked the list and there were 8 comedians that still needed to go on.  Just then, Andrew Dice Clay took the stage in the Original Room in a surprise appearance. Dice decided to do an hour and a half. By the time Dice finished, it was 11 o’clock and with the 8 comics still remaining.

Don knew he probably wasn’t going to get on that night.

I asked him how he felt about that. He said, “In this business, these things happen. You’ve got to learned to roll with the punches., It could be worse. I could be punching a clock. 

So there’s a great lesson to be learned here. That lesson is this: from the best laid scenarios to the worst planned events, comedians have to learn to be able to adjust to the show. A comedian is a rare person. They not only can make an audience of strangers laugh, they can do it under circumstances that are not always ideal.

We learn as comedians to take these things in stride. For some of you this may the first time something like this happened, but I assure you that if you continue in the comedy business it won’t be the last. Having your time cut short is a common thing to deal with in this business called show business. It’s so common, it becomes part of your craft.

You might be a solo act on stage as a comedian or a duo, or whatever, but in the total scheme you’ve got to be a utility man, you’ve got to be the guy or guys (and I say that not to leave out girls, but because of language limitation), who can roll with the punches and rise to the occasion under any circumstances.

On one hand as a comedy student, you prepared for a seven minute act. On the other hand you learned an advanced lesson and you’ve had real-world comedy experience, just like Don Richardson.

Have you encountered a similar situation? Or have a war story? Share it!

Comedy Class | Need A Laugh? Tell The Truth!

swear-inHmmm? What’s that you say? Tell the truth? Why do I need to waste my time telling the truth when I’m busy trying to be funny?

One of the best things about comedy is that almost anything goes, especially the truth.

My comedy students ask me: “what do I do when they’re not laughing?” My first response is, “Write better jokes!”  But when the joke or idea is pretty good and they’re still not laughing what do you do to get through the set? Your best bet is honesty… and when I say “honesty,” I mean honesty about exactly how you feel at that moment.

You know what? It almost never fails!

I’ve been teaching this little gem in my comedy classes from the beginning and only the best implement it. But when they do, it works. One of my students was having a trying set at the Comedy Store. He’s a natural so he didn’t think he needed to prepare thoroughly. He thought he could basically get on stage and “riff” it.

After the first couple of jokes didn’t resonate the way he hoped, you could actually see him go right into his head. He started to sweat. Then something snapped and he said to himself, “fuck it.”

He let out a sigh and said to the audience. “Man, this stuff was getting laughs in my head when I rehearsed it.” The audience let out a strong laugh. It was a laugh that came from release. The release of tension of them empathizing for a comedian who was bombing.

Then he said, “The last place I want to be right now is right here on this stage.” The audience laughed harder and then applauded. They applauded out of the fact that someone, anyone in their lives was being purely honest. This comedian, whom they didn’t know, just bared his soul in front of them. They rewarded him with applause.

After that, he was able to recover, get out of his head and finish his set.

Seventeen comedians and two drinks later a couple approached him after the show. They said, “You were our favorite.” He was like, “Why?” They said, “because you were so REAL.”

So the next time you feel the jokes aren’t clicking… Tell the truth!

IMPORTANT! Patton Oswalt Shatters the Myths of How To Succeed in Comedy

patton_oswalt1

Patton Oswalt is a comedian, an actor, a writer and a voice talent. He’s done all of what we comedians strive to do and more. Basically, Dude rocks!

He was recently keynote speaker at the 3rd annual Just For Laughs Comedy Conference in Montreal. In typical Patton Oswalt style he opened the speech with a bit of self-deprecation, (see, the best still use it!).

Here’s what’s interesting: instead of giving some kind of motivation speech to the troops, Patton read two open letters that he wrote; the first, to the comedians in the room and the second to the brass that runs this industry.

The result was a speech that was far more motivational than a speech that was intended to motivate.

In our classes, we talk about getting your content out, getting it seen and continuing to create more content. We talk about utilizing the internet to enhance your presence. So does Patton Oswalt and he knows a thing or two about this.

But I can’t do it justice by blathering on about it. Read them below. These will be more worth your time than anything else you read with regard to comedy this week!

Here’s Letter Number one:

 

Dear comedian in 2012:

How are you? I am good. In answer to your last letter, the mozzarella sticks at the Irvine Improv do taste weird. I’m taking your advice and sticking with the nachos.

Hey, ‘know what I was thinking the other day? Everything I know about succeeding as a comedian and ultimately as an artist is worthless now, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

I started doing comedy in the summer of 1988. That was a different time, wasn’t it? Joe Piscopo was president, Mary Lou Retton won the Cold War, and Andy Kindler turned 50

If I hadn’t popped that goddamn ‘P’, the Piscopo joke would’ve annihilated.

When I say everything I know about succeeding a comedian is worthless, I know what I’m talking about because everything I know became worthless twice in my lifetime.

The first time was the evening of May 22, 1992. I’d been doing standup almost four years at that point, and that was Johnny Carson’s last ever Tonight Show.

Up until that night, the way you made it in comedy was very clear, simple, straightforward. You went on Carson, you killed, you got called over to the couch, and the next day you had your sitcom and your mansion, and you’re made. Just ask Drew Carey and Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres. And Bill Clinton. That’s how you did it.

But now, Johnny was gone and he wasn’t coming back.

All the comedians I remember starting out with in D.C., all the older ones, told me over and over again ‘you gotta work clean, you gotta get your five minutes, and you gotta get on Carson.’ And it all comes down to that.

And in one night, all of them were wrong. And not just wrong, they were unmoored. They were drifting. A lot of these bulletproof comics I’d opened for, whose careers seemed pre-destined, a lot of them never recovered from that night. You’ll never hear their names. They had been sharks in a man-made pond and had been drained. They decided their time had passed.

Keep that in mind for later. They had decided their time had passed.

The second time everything I knew about comedy became worthless has been petty much every day for the last three years.

I know that’s not an exact date. Some other younger, not yet famous name in this room – you are going to pinpoint that date 20 years from now. But for now, every day for about the last few years will have to suffice.

I just want to give you a brief timeline of my career up to this point, when I knew it was all changing again. Listen to my words very carefully. Two words will come up again and again and they’re going to come back later along with that phrase “they decided” and people are going to carry me around the room.

I was lucky enough to get hired onto King of Queens in 1998. I had nine years on that show. Money, great cast, even better writers, a lot of fun. I bought a house. Then I was lucky enough to get cast as a lead voice in a Pixar movie in 2007. Acclaim, money, I got to meet a lot of my heroes. Then I was lucky enough to get cast on The United States of Tara on Showtime. I got to watch Toni Collette work. I got to perform Diablo Cody’s writing. After which, I was lucky enough to get cast in Young Adult, which is where I got to make out with Charlize Theron. I will use that as an icebreaker if i ever meet Christina Ricci.

I’ve been lucky enough to be given specials on HBO, Comedy Central, and Showtime. As well as I’ve been lucky enough to release records on major labels, and I was lucky they approached me to do it. And that led to me being lucky enough to get Grammy nominations.

I know that sounds like a huge ego-stroking credit dump. But if you listened very carefully, you would have heard two words over and over again: “lucky” and “given.” Those are two very very dangerous words for a comedian. Those two words can put you to sleep, especially once you get a taste of both being “lucky” and being “given.” The days about luck and being given are about to end. They’re about to go away.

Not totally. There are always comedians who will work hard and get noticed by agents and managers and record labels. There will always be an element of that. And they deserve their success. And there’s always going to be people who benefit from that.

What I mean is: Not being lucky and not being given are no longer going to define your career as a comedian and as an artist.

Remember what I said earlier about those bulletproof headliners who focused on their 5 minutes on the Tonight Show and when it ended they decided their opportunity was gone? They decided. Nobody decided that for them. They decided.

Now, look at my career up to this point. Luck, being given. Other people deciding for me.

In the middle of the TV shows and the albums and the specials, I took a big chunk of my money and invested it in a little tour called The Comedians of Comedy. I put it together with my friends, we did small clubs, stayed in shitty hotel rooms, packed ourselves in a tiny van and drove it around the country. The tour was filmed for a very low-budget documentary that I convinced Netflix to release. That became a low-budget show on Comedy Central that we all still own a part of, me and the comedians. That led to a low budget concert film that we put on DVD.

At the end of it, I was exhausted, I was in debt, and I wound up with a wider fanbase of the kind of people I always dreamed of having as fans. And I built that from the ground up, friends and people I respected and was a fan of.

And I realize now I need to combine both of the lessons I’ve learned.

I need to decide more career stuff for myself and make it happen for myself, and I need to stop waiting to luck out and be given. I need to unlearn those muscles.

I’m seeing this notion take form in a lot of my friends. A lot of you out there. You, for instance, the person I’m writing to. Your podcast is amazing. Your videos on your YouTube channel are getting better and better every single one that you make, just like when we did open mics, better and better every week. Your Twitter feed is hilarious.

Listen, I’m doing the Laugh Trench in Milwaukee next week. Is there any chance for an RT?

Your friend, Patton Oswalt

Letter number two:

Dear gatekeepers in broadcast and cable executive offices, focus groups, record labels, development departments, agencies and management companies:

Shalom.

Last month I turned in a script for a pilot I co-wrote with Phil Rosenthal who has had a share of luck and success I can only dream of. Thanks for the notes you gave me on the pilot script. I’m not going to be implementing any of them.

And no, I’m not going to call you “the enemy” or “the man.” I have zero right to say that based on the breaks I’ve gotten from you over the years. If I tried to strike a Che Guevara pose, you would be correct in pointing out that the dramatic underlighting on my face was being reflected up from my swimming pool.

I am as much to blame for my uneasiness and realization of late that I’m part of the problem, that I’m half asleep and more than half complacent.

And I’m still not going to implement your notes. And I’m quoting Phil Rosenthal on this, but he said after we read your notes – and I’m quoting him verbatim – “We’re living in a post-Louie world, and these notes are from a pre-According to Jim world.”

I just read a letter to my fellow comedians telling them what I’m about to tell you, but in a different way. Here it is.

You guys need to stop thinking like gatekeepers. You need to do it for the sake of your own survival.

Because all of us comedians after watching Louis CK revolutionize sitcoms and comedy recordings and live tours. And listening to "WTF With Marc Maron" and "Comedy Bang! Bang!" and watching the growth of the UCB Theatre on two coasts and seeing careers being made on Twitter and Youtube.

Our careers don’t hinge on somebody in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in our direction. There are no gates. They’re gone. The model for success as a comedian in the ’70s and ’80s? That was middle school. Remember, they’d hand you a worksheet, fill in the blanks on the worksheet, hand it in, you’ll get your little points.

And that doesn’t prepare you for college. College is the 21st century. Show up if you want to, there’s an essay, there’s a paper, and there’s a final. And you decide how well you do on them, and that’s it. And then after you’re done with that, you get even more autonomy whether you want it or not because you’re an adult now.

Comedians are getting more and more comfortable with the idea that if we’re not successful, it’s not because we haven’t gotten our foot in the door, or nobody’s given us a hand up. We can do that ourselves now. Every single day we can do more and more without you and depend on you less and less.

If we work with you in the future, it’s going to be because we like your product and your choices and your commitment to pushing boundaries and ability to protect the new and difficult.

Here’s the deal, and I think it’s a really good one.

I want you, all of the gatekeepers, to become fans. I want you to become true enthusiasts like me. I want you to become thrill-seekers. I want you to be as excited as I was when I first saw Maria Bamford’s stand-up, or attended The Paul F. Tompkins show, or listened to Sklarbro Country….

I want you to be as charged with hope as I am that we’re looking at the most top-heavy with talent young wave of comedians that this industry have ever had at any time in its history.

And since this new generation was born into post-modern anything, they are wilder and more fearless than anything you’ve ever dealt with. But remind yourselves: Youth isn’t king. Content is king. Lena Dunham’s 26-year-old voice is just as vital as Louis CK’s 42-year-old voice which is just as vital as Eddie Pepitone’s 50-something voice.

Age doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all about what you have to say and what you’re going to say. Please throw the old fucking model away.

Just the tiny sampling at this amazing festival…. I’m excited to not be the funniest person in the room. It makes me work harder and try to be better at what I do. So be as excited and grateful as I am.

And if in the opportunities you give me, you try to cram all this wildness and risk-taking back in to the crappy mimeographic worksheet form of middle school, we’re just going to walk away. We’re not going to work together. No harm no foul. We can just walk away.

You know why we can do that now? Because of these. (Oswalt holds up an iPhone)

In my hand right now I’m holding more filmmaking technology than Orsen Welles had when he filmed Citizen Kane.

I’m holding almost the same amount of cinematography, post-editing, sound editing, and broadcast capabilities as you have at your tv network.

In a couple of years it’s going to be fucking equal. I see what’s fucking coming. This isn’t a threat, this is an offer. We like to create. We’re the ones who love to make shit all the time. You’re the ones who like to discover it and patronize it support it and nurture it and broadcast it. Just get out of our way when we do it.

If you get out of our way and we fuckin’ get out and fall on our face, we won’t blame you like we did in the past. Because we won’t have taken any of your notes, so it’ll truly be on us.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the stuff uploaded to Youtube. There are sitcoms now on the internet, some of them are brilliant, some of them are “meh,” some of them fuckin suck. At about the same ratio that things are brilliant and “meh” and suck on your network.

If you think that we’re somehow going to turn on you later if what we do falls on its face, and blame you because we can’t take criticism? Let me tell you one thing: We have gone through years of open mics to get where we need to get. Criticism is nothing to us, and comment threads are fucking electrons.

Signed,

Patton Oswalt