How Developing Habits Makes You A Better Comedy Writer

image 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?

PRACTICE

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.

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

 

image

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.