A good comedian needs to get acquainted with the reaction shot.
What do I mean by that? Well, if you’ve ever watched “Friends” or the BBC’s “Coupling,” you will get to see truly masterful work on the part of the actors (and the directors and editors), in capturing the reaction shot. The reaction shot is the look on the actor’s face in response to a line that is said to them. Great sitcoms will get a full half of their laughs (if not more) from the reaction shot. It’s classic. It is a great lesson for comedians to watch and learn from these pros.
A comedian really needs lessons in how to use his own reaction shot. When you say a line, make a statement, or hit a punch line, go ahead and show us how you feel about it by responding to it. It becomes its own tag. It’s a subtle act-out to the joke.
Jay Leno uses the shrug and blows out an exasperated ‘raspberry’ to indicate that he’s being sarcastic. Jackie Gleason, Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams use the ‘slow-burn’ and the ‘take.’ Dave Chappelle uses his own version of the take and will sometimes give us a dead-pan. Seth Meyers from Saturday Night Live will also do his version of a dead-pan or a take right into the camera, sometimes daring the the audience to laugh. It’s almost like he’s saying in his head, “C’mon people wait for it, wait for it—(then they laugh) “there it is!”
It’s their reaction to a line and it not only makes the bit come alive, it also gives it a second or third laugh-point from one joke.
We’re taught all our lives that every thing is in the lines. We hear things like “learn your lines,” or “tell me how you feel about it,” or “what do you have to say about it.” We learn that comedians get up to the mic and they talk. While all of that is true, we also need to react. A full ninety percent of communication with human beings is non-verbal and we have to remember to show the audience how we feel about something. Not just tell them.
There are a lot of sayings I remember from the greats, that stick with me to guide me and motivate me during my journey in comedy. I thought I’d share some with you while telling you a story in this comedy lesson that may help you learn to avoid not being invited back.
Spencer Tracy once said, “Be nice to everyone on the way up, because you meet those same people on the way down.” No place is this more true than in show business. Every business has their fair share of heady, selfish, temperamental people but show business tends to get more than its fair share. And it’s in this business where your attitude can get you in big trouble and that’s what this edition of comedy lessons is focused on.
One of my favorite sayings is actually from a club booker in Vegas: he said, “Jerry, I’m-a break your legs…” Kidding! The booker is Tony Camacho and he books Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club at The Tropicana Hotel. He said, “Be remembered NOT for what you do off-stage. Be remembered for what you do on-stage.”
Coming up in this business I learned to always be nicer than expected, earlier than expected and more prepared than expected and I try to convey that to my students in my comedy courses. Clubs have rules and if you don’t respect the rules you can do yourself and your fellow comedians a disservice.
One of those rules in comedy is to “mind the light.” In most comedy clubs, you are given a certain amount of time to perform on stage. At many of the clubs in L.A. it’s 5-7 minutes, sometimes you can get longer, but most clubs you get 5-7. Clubs have a system to let the performer know when their time is up. Usually there is a light set up somewhere in the showroom that will be turned on when you have 1 minute left in your set. After that, the light flashes and that basically means ‘get the hell off the stage.’
Minding your light shows that you are a professional. It shows that you know how to put together a 5-7 minute set, execute it, and get off the stage on time. Subsequently, it shows a T.V. talent coordinator that you know how to craft a tight set and wrap it up on time and in television, time is crucial.
My class recently had a showcase at the Comedy Store in the main room and one of my comedy students decided he would ‘run the light.’ This essentially means he planned to intentionally go over his time to try to get more time on the stage and thus a longer set on video. He bragged about it back stage and then took the stage. At six minutes his light came on and right then he started a bit that was at least 3 minutes long if not longer. At seven minutes the light started to flash and he ignored it, continuing his set.
The show producer cued music stopping this comedian in his tracks. (Music being played is the equivalent of the ‘hook’). The comedian said, “good night” and left the stage. But running the light wasn’t bad enough for this comic, he then bitched and moaned about it backstage while other comedians were trying to get into the right frame of mind to prepare themselves for their sets. Then he stormed out from the backstage area to the back of the showroom and started yelling at the producer, “That’s f**king bullshit. That’s so unprofessional!”
The comedian not only was incredibly unprofessional himself and intentionally ignored the light, he then started blaming everyone else! The guy has zero introspection a sure-fire personality flaw that will ultimately lead to failure…unless you’re Christian Bale.
This is one of the fastest ways to not be asked back by a club producer or booker. Despite the fact that this comedian was told numerous times to mind the light in the past, he thought he’d disrespect the club, the booker and his fellow comedians. The audience heard his yells of protest, too, as he marched to the back of the showroom.
So what’s the comedy lesson? He’ll definitely be remembered, not for what he did on-stage, but for what he did off-stage, and probably won’t—at least by that booker—be invited back.
What’s this video have to do with getting an audition or an agent as a comedian or actor? Good question! The answer is simple: Many actors and comedians don’t get work because they give up trying way too soon. If they are lucky enough to get a booker or an agent on the phone, they get one “NO!” and they give up.
You Need Persistence
A comedian or actor—whether you’re trying to get representation from an agent, get seen by a casting director or get get booked by a club booker, needs persistence, “polite” persistence. We hear someone say “no,” or at best nobody returns our calls or emails and we give up. We get that familiar lump in the pit of our stomachs, that feeling of rejection and we stop calling. Most of us don’t like that feeling, because…well, it doesn’t feel good! So we give up. I mean why revisit that feeling right?
Well you have to keep calling and keeping in touch because it’s your job. Many times, even after you meet an agent or casting director and they see that you are good, they simply forget who you are. It’s a simple as that. They are not attacking you personally they just don’t think about you, because they are incapable…because few humans have the capacity to truly multi-task.
Take an actress for example. My student Kim Hopkins is a fine actress. She attends casting workshops and consistently gets the highest ratings in her reviews from casting directors. They literally gush over her. A manager she’s been trying to get to represent her can’t understand why she’s not getting called in.
“Why aren’t they calling you in for these auditions?”
It all comes down to multi-tasking.
Although our brains are bad with multi-tasking, they are excellent with focusing on one task at a time. So when Kim does the workshop, the casting director may love her and think she’s the bee’s knees. But when that casting director goes back to work and has a thousand submissions for a job Kim might be perfect for, Kim is not even close to being in their thoughts, simply because it’s impossible! The brain doesn’t operate that way.
This is Where The Manager Comes In
If the manager was doing their job, they would give a call to the casting director and remind them that Kim was in their workshop. That simple reminder that operates what’s known as bottom-up brain function (something that gets our attention like a phone ringing), could be the trick to getting Kim into the brain of the casting director. Does that make sense?
If I was a manager and I knew an actress was going to the workshops and getting great reviews with casting directors that were consistently working, I would represent that actress in a flash, because she just made my job a thousand times easier! All I have to do is submit, then make a phone call to remind the casting director about the actress.
How Does This Affect You As a Comedian or Actor?
So how does this affect you as a comedian or actor? Well, you have to keep calling every three weeks or so. Keep them posted on what you’re doing via Facebook, your website, twitter. Visit them often at casting workshops. Drop by a club to do a guest set. Make sure you keep reminding them who your are, stay polite and persistent, and never let the lack of return phone calls get you down. It’s nothing personal, they just can’t multi-task.
Conan Writer Deon Cole talks about Conan’s tattoos…or the lack thereof, and how he wrote a joke that didn’t make the cut…
Deon talks about how he became a writer on "The Conan O’Brien Show." It’s an interesting story and revealed a side of Deon that I’ve seen before, liked and I’m glad to see he still embodies it. I have enormous respect for Deon. He can get on CNN and talk about a joke that didn’t make the cut. Talk about keepin’ it real, huh? We spend so much time trying to show how good we are, because we have fragile egos and Deon just lays it out for all of us. What does that teach me as a writer and comedian? It teaches me that candor is cool.
When you’re honest with the audience they love you for it. Relate it back to the Ricky Gervais video in my previous post: Rick said that "comedy is about empathy…I want to see someone who stumbles and falls and brushes himself off…" Important lessons. How do you apply this lesson? Time and time again I am asked what if I bomb? What if the audience doesn’t like you. If you’re just trying to get from point A to point B and encountering obstacles along the way, we will like you. We will root for you. In other words, let us see you stumble. Let us see you get back up, because we will root for you the whole way!
Here’s another in my series on How To Be A Famous Comedian. (Disclaimer: if you’re in it to be famous, you’re in it for all the wrong reasons…you need to be in it because it’s in YOU–wait is that a Gatorade commercial? However, one of the ways to learn how to be a famous comedian is to learn from the comedians who are already famous so here’s an interesting clip from Ricky Gervais, one of my favorites)
In my classes I teach that the comedian has to be liked. You never put yourself above the audience. As the audience, we want to root for you. When you stand up there and you think you’re “all that,” you’re not going to get any respect from the audience and you’re certainly not going to get any respect from Ricky Gervais.
Take this approach into consideration when you’re writing your comedy material. When you pump yourself up for any reason, knock yourself down a peg. When I talk about my time playing soccer I say this: “When I was 20 I played professional soccer–for a short period of time, as it was a game of skill–“ Then I go on to tell this story of how I played on an all Latino team and was the only white guy. But boosting myself up by saying I played professional soccer, may sound like bragging to the audience, so I follow it immediately by “for a short period of time, as it was a game of skill.” It knocks me back down a peg.
Stand up comedy is not about being prettier, sexier or smarter than the audience, it’s about stumbling…and getting back up. It’s one of the oldest formulas in comedy…I’m just trying to get from point A to point B and I keep running into obstacles. Here’s the irony: the more you stumble and get back up, the more the audience roots for you to win. I hope you enjoy the clip from Ricky Gervais. Take a look at my other blog posts, there’s a lot of information about comedy and if you liked this video, please leave a comment below. Stay funny!