What is Funny?

comedy_tragedyWhat is funny?

You really want to know what’s funny? How ‘bout some dumb-ass blogger trying to write an article entitled “What is Funny?!”

Funny is such a subjective term. How is anyone going to write about how to be funny? It’s almost like trying to definitively answer, “Who is God?” Or “What is Love?”

As a comedian of 25 years, a comedy writer for Jay Leno and The Tonight Show, comedy instructor and founder of The Stand Up Comedy Clinic, (a comedy workshop in Los Angeles), the question is posed to me, literally, every single day. So I thought I’d get serious about it for a minute and try to come up with a possible answer.

Please remember, this is just my theory and by no means a definitive answer. So keep the nasty comments to yourself. I’m still searching too! In other words, shut your conch! J

What is “funny?” You could ask that question in many different ways–“What is funny?” “What is funny?” “What is Funny?” Or even “What’s so funny, bitch?!…” and still come up with a blank stare. I’m not going to proclaim that I know what’s funny to everyone. Funny is very subjective. What is funny to one person is not necessary going to be funny to another. In a nutshell, we’re just guessing, the audience is the judge.

Here’s what I can do. I can analyze funny. In fact, let’s do it together. According to the dictionary, the number one definition of “Funny” is “to cause laughter or amusement.” Most people can agree on that. I was going to say “all people can agree on that, ” but people will find any reason not to agree—just watch the U.S. Congress.

So, for the purpose of this article, let’s all agree on the definition of “Funny;” that it causes laughter or amusement. In this case, since we are looking for laughs, let’s focus on laughter.

Because amusement is even more subjective. To some, the “Tilt-a-Whirl” at a carnival causes amusement. For me, it causes vomit. And here I think we can all agree that—and I’ve done a little research in this area—that vomiting is only amusing…if it’s not you.

Okay, back to what is funny?. How do we find funny? Well since we know that funny equals laughter we can start by looking at the science of laughter. When we do, we discover that according to experts on human behavior, the number one element that triggers human laughter is surprise.

Now by answering that, do you have any idea how far we’ve come now solving our initial question? It’s almost algebraic. It’s almost an “if-then” statement: What is funny is something that causes laughter. What causes laughter? Surprise, and if A=B and B=C, then A=C, then if Funny=Laughter and Surprise=Laughter, then Funny=Surprise! Got it?

Some people say that you can’t teach stand up comedy or for that matter teach somebody how to be funny. And while I do believe you are born with talent and you develop skill, I also know that if you have a reasonable amount of intelligence and a command of the English language you can learn the structures of how to manipulate words to take something seemingly mundane and turn it into something funny. I teach a comedy class in the Los Angeles area and I can teach just that to average, but amazing people and I’ve had tremendous results. How, you ask?

All it takes is a little surprise. Sid Caesar said, “Comedy is a story with a curlicue.” If you tell me a story and you give it a surprise ending, you have just written your first joke. Tell me something about yourself:

Comedian Tim Bidore used to open with this joke: “I come from a large family…four Moms, five Dads…” He just took something mundane, a cliché of everyday life and really just changed the ending. It’s a curlicue. It’s unexpected. Hence, it’s a surprise. Is it Funny? Let’s go back to the formula If Laughter=Funny, and Surprise=Laughter, then Surprise=Funny.

But we also understand the adage, the audience is the judge and in this case the audience still laughs at that line every time…and what is laughter equal to? FUNNY! Now we’re starting to get it!

Let’s look at it in another way…

How about when you go to the grocery store? When you check out, what does the clerk always say? “Did you find everything you were looking for?” Right? How do you usually respond? By saying, “Yes.” Because even if you didn’t find everything you were looking for, you just don’t want to deal with it.

What if you really took a moment, looked at that question and answered it in a unique way and surprising way?

First, look at the question: “Did you find everything you were looking for?” We know what he/she means when they ask that question. What they’re asking is: Did you find everything you were looking for while you were shopping today.

What if we blew it up a little? What if we took the meaning to the next level? “Did you find everything you’re looking for?” But this time we analyze it in a more “universal” sense, what do most people look for, not at the store, but in life; the meaning of life, or a soul mate, or love?

So what if we took one of those interpretations and responded to the question differently? Does it change? Let’s look:

Clerk: Did you find everything you were looking for?

Me: (Looking at the items on the conveyor) Well, I found some wine and some candlelight, but I couldn’t find my soulmate. You had Mahi-Mahi, but I’m just not into twins.

But then you realize that sometimes there might be someone that thinks you’re trying to relate women to fish. So you change it just to be silly:

Clerk: Did you find everything you were looking for?

Me: Well, I found the wine and the candles, but I couldn’t find my soul mate. So instead, I got Cheeze Whiz!”

Now you have something that’s clever and unique. It will get a laugh every time at the grocery store and since it’s impossible to hate someone who makes you laugh, the next time you go into that store, they’re going to have everything you’re looking for!

Of course this is only one way to create laughter. This method creates surprise by saying something unexpected by using a comedy formula called, Double Entendre. It’s French. The literal interpretation is: “Two meanings.”

In my comedy courses I’ve broken down ten major comedy formulas that are used in contemporary comedy today. These formulas are used, literally, by all the comedians working today. Bottom line is if they make you laugh they are using one of these formulas.

When you learn these formulas and learn how to properly apply them, you can learn to effectively create surprise and as we learned earlier, surprise is the number one element that triggers human laughter.

That’s it for now! Stay tuned for my next article: “Who is God…or is God Love?”

Jerry Corley’s Stand Up Comedy Clinic is an 8-week comedy class based in Los Angeles. Jerry teaches the fundamentals of comedy and humor writing and works hand-in-hand with students to help them create their own 5-7 minute stand-up act, which they perform in a Los Angeles Comedy Club.

How I Made 50 Bucks While Sitting On The Crapper

By Jerry Corley | Founder – The Stand Up Comedy Clinic

under the stallStrange title for a blog you say? Well, wait for my follow-up, “How I flushed 50-Bucks On The Way To Vegas, Just To Warm Up!”

I write this blog entry as a follow-up for my previous entry, which was “Shut Up and Write!” It was written to inspire and light a fire under the backsides of all of us—including myself—who get lazy and don’t write. I don’t know why we do it.

Some people say there’s no motivation to write when there’s no money. Well money shouldn’t be the only motivation. It’s nice to make a living in comedy; I’ve been doing it for over 20 years and I have to tell you that the feeling just can’t be fully quantified, to get paid what what you love doing.

 

I always write because I love it. Sometimes there’s money, but that’s not why I do it, but you never know. Hence, this story:

I was just sitting on the toilet the other day. I usually take my Droid in with me. I can check emails and respond to texts…My sister sends me a text:

“Two guys wearing ‘Children’s Musical Theatre Summer Camp’ shirts walk into a European Wax Center…(you finish the joke).”

I quickly texted these:

…One of them asks the clerk: “how much to remove the hair from my asshole?” The clerk looks at one of them then looks back at the one who spoke and says, “We would first need his permission.”

…One guy asks, “what makes this a European Wax Center?” The clerk says, “we wax you until you call America to bail you out again.”

…One guy says, “What makes this a European Wax Center?” The clerk says, “We wax everything; your arms, your legs, your back, your chest…everything. But we don’t touch your precious area…your armpits.”

…they each pay 300 dollars to get ‘the works.’ Upon leaving, one of them turns to the other and says, “So you think NOW we can pass as one of the children?”

…They both walk out of the wax center red and in pain. One says to the other, “That’s the last time I volunteer to do a rendition of “HAIR” on “Opposite” Day.

My sister then said, she was “wiped.” And I quickly texted, “What did one turd say to the other?” “Whew! I’m wiped!”

Viola! It was then that I realized that I had a client who loves to do adolescent shit humor. So I quickly texted that stupid turd joke to him. He loved it and deposited 50 bucks in my PayPal account. NO KIDDING!

So write for the fun, write for the passion. The money might just a happen as a result!

It would be wrong and inappropriate to button this with …and remember sometimes shit happens…okay, see? I told you it was wrong!

Biggest Mistakes Comedians Make When Writing Comedy

By Jerry Corley | Founder – The Stand Up Comedy Clinic

man-scratching-head-300x200Comedy writing is rewarding. There is no better feeling than writing a joke and getting an appreciative laugh. Okay, maybe there is a better feeling but that belongs in a different blog…besides, if I told my wife that the things she does don’t compare to joke writing, she might get offended. Winking smileBut I digress…

The dichotomy between the fun and the reward of getting the laugh versus the sometimes tedious and frustrating process of comedy writing,   is often misunderstood. Comedy writing is fun, but it’s also work. Most comedians and comedy writers forget about that. You have to put in the work to get the rewards. The more work you put in the bigger and better the rewards…usually.

It is like guitar playing. I play guitar as a hobby. The more I practice, the better I get. The better I get, the more I want to play. But when I stop practicing and just play the songs I already know, I stop getting better. Got it?

Sometimes the work might not produce material that works. But that’s the process. You have to learn to accept that sometimes the writing session comes up without truly rewarding material. You have to brush it off and return the next day. Everyone goes through that. The better you get, the fewer encounters you have with that kind of failure, but it does happen.

There are two major mistakes comedians and writers make when writing comedy.

  • Giving up too soon.
  • Trying to find something funny to write about.

Giving up too soon is very common with comedians and comedy writers. Recently I did a comedy writing seminar at the World Series of Comedy in Las Vegas, a week-long comedy conference/competition I recommend to all comedians. While at the seminar I asked the comedians how many of them spent a minimum of 3 hours a day writing material? Five comedians raised their hands—that’s out of eighty in attendance!

If you’re not spending a few hours a day writing, then get the hell out of the business. It’s cut-throat out there and if you’re not putting in the time on your comedy writing, then you’re not going to be able to compete in the stand up comedy business. Besides, if you treat yourself as a professional, the results will begin to start coming back to you in a more professional way. Dig in. Dig deep and get to work.

I learned this many years ago. I was touring with a guy who used to be the head writer on a comedy show. I wrote a joke about Congress that I was pretty proud of. I told it to him. He said, “dig deeper.” I wrote another one, he said, “dig deeper.” He kept repeating that until I had put 3 hours in on the joke. By the time I was done I had 30 lines for that one joke and the more I worked, the funnier they got.

Because of that one event, I started digging deep all the time. It wasn’t long before I got 30 lines in two hours, then an hour.

The Biggest Mistake We Can Make When Writing Comedy

The other big mistake comedians and  comedy writers make when writing comedy is they try to find something funny to write about. It’s uncanny. We’ll look at the newspaper and online stories and repeat like a mantra: “that’s not funny…that’s not funny…that’s not funny.” Until we conclude that there’s nothing funny in the news today. And that’s the biggest mistake we can make when writing comedy.

A joke in its simplest form is STRAIGHT LINE – PUNCHLINE. It’s not FUNNY LINE – PUNCHLINE. So the comedy writer must be vigilant in taking the straight line, the fact, the statement and writing it down. Isolate it in its most unfunny state, then, turn it funny by finding the double-entendre play, or doing a reverse, or doing a listing technique or an analogy play or apply 7 other comedy formulas to turn it into something funny. But always start with a straight line first.

Set a goal: When you sit down to write, just tell yourself you’re going to write 25 straight lines. For some of you that could be the most writing you’ve done in a while.

Keep checking back I’ll have more on this later.

Lessons New Comedians Learn From “Bringer Shows”

By Jerry Corley | Founder of The Stand Up Comedy Clinic

comedy-storeLet’s face it, one of the new realities in the comedy landscape in L.A. (and probably New York and San Francisco), is what is known as the “Bringer Show.” So we’re all on the same page, here’s the idea behind the bringer show: A bringer show ‘producer’ (usually a comedian), develops an arrangement with a local comedy club or bar, to produce comedy shows so that both the producer and venue make money.

Usually all the promotion of the show is up to the producer. On occasion, the venue will post a marquis or sign that bears the name of the show, but other than that all the promotional responsibility is on the producer. The producer, in turn, puts that responsibility on the comedian. How do they do this? By forcing the comedian to bring a minimum amount people (audience members) to the show as a requisite for getting stage time. That’s right. If you bring 10 people minimum, the producer will give you stage time. Of course those audience members have to pay a cover charge and are usually subject to a drink or “item” minimum. This assures that the venue sells product and makes money.  The producer usually takes the door or a percentage.

This is not a new concept. Music venues have been doing this with bands for over 30 years. Is this good for the comedy industry?

I am an old-school thinker with regard to shows and show business so initially the bringer concept and I didn’t get along at all. I’m not a big fan of “pay-to-play” schemes for artists—and let’s face it, when the artist is forced to bring the audience and have them pay a cover, plus a drink minimum—it’s “pay-to-play.”

In my opinion, this business model promotes a quantity over quality mentality and that has never worked out successfully in the long term for any business and I can go on about how this diluting mentality is having a long-term negative impact on the public’s perception of comedy, but that’s for another time. I want to focus on how this affects the comedian.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this show-producing mentality and a comedian needs to have a thorough understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of the “bringer show” concept, especially early in his career. If a comedian understands that he/she has been asked to work the venue based solely on the fact that they have brought enough people, then the comedian is one step ahead of the game.

The advantage to this is that the comedian can use the bringer show to get some stage time in a quality venue or invite some industry (casting director, agent, manager, etc.). They get to see you perform while you have a decent sized audience. You, as the performer must make sure you bring enough people,   however. If you don’t, you risk getting a lousy slot in the lineup (like last), or you risk not getting on stage at all. If you brought an agent and he/she had to wait and was forced to slog through mediocre talent before they got too see you, then their appetite for coming to see you in the future will be seriously diminished. But if done right, the bringer show can be very useful.

The disadvantage to the bringer show, (if I didn’t already reveal it), is that if the comedian doesn’t understand that most likely, the ONLY reason the producer is having you perform at his/her venue is because you ‘bring’ people, then you may suffer the impact of that harsh reality like the unexpected pass of a basketball to the face. The rejection or even rudeness in some instances from producers can be a major disappointment when the comedian fails to bring people. In addition, the subsequent lack of future bookings in their shows, due to the fact that you are no longer bringing people, may promote a setback in your confidence and in your motivation to write or perform comedy.

In this case, knowledge is power. If you already know that the only thing a bringer show producer wants from you is the money your people bring when they buy tickets and drinks, then you will be better prepared for the inevitable day when none of your friends is accepting the invitations to your shows and the producer stops booking you. 

A Solution?

Use the bringer show sparingly and use it to your advantage. Don’t take every bringer show offer. Politely turn down some of the gigs. I usually say, “Love to, but sorry, I’m booked on that date.” That way you don’t wear out the people you have in your life who come to see you and you can save those invitations for really important gigs. Also, don’t get offended when the bringer show producers stop calling you when only two people showed up at your last gig. But most importantly, DO NOT USE the bringer show as your only way to get stage time. Hit the open mics and hit them regularly and often. You’ll eventually find the ones that are worth it and the connections you’ll make can be invaluable.

How To Be a Better Comedian

By Jerry Corley | Founder – The Stand Up Comedy Clinic

Student Robert NarholzA young comedian came up to me the other day and asked, “how can be a better comedy writer…I mean, right now?”

My first thought was to give him the standard rhetoric about how it’s a process and it takes time, blah, blah, blah. But, instead, I watched his act and I got a sense of where he was in his comic “trajectory, ” for lack of a better term. It was as I thought, so I just told him, “You want to get better right now? Stop trying so hard. Stop trying to find “funny” things to talk about and start talking about what’s true.

Comedy in it’s most basic structure has a straight line and and punch line. The straight line (aka: setup) is crucial. It’s got to be believable. It must be a situation or a statement that sounds logical is recognizable to an audience. Once the straight line is clear, you can spin it with an unexpected result. But it’s best if it starts with something that is true.

In addition, I know a ton of comics—okay, one guy, but he weighs about two-thousand pounds—(see what I did there?). I know a lot of comics in all levels of their careers who have trouble coming up with material because they are always looking for something funny to write about. Talk about putting the pressure on yourself to write everyday! If you’re just looking for “funny things” to write about, then you’re going to find yourself creating your own writer’s block. Just write the truth then turn it into something funny.

You can start with yourself: What’s true about me?

  1. I’m Irish and American Indian…
  2. I come from a large family…
  3. I’ve been married a total of 19 years…
  4. I went to a very strict Catholic school…

On the surface these are just statements about my life. I’m not looking for “funny things” about my life, I’m just looking for statements that describe me. Nothing funny there right? But if you understand that comedy has structure and it’s in the surprise where the jokes come from you can apply the ten major comedy formulas to any of these statements and make them “funny.” Let’s do it… write jokes that is…

  1. I’m Irish and American Indian… so you know pretty much that I have V.I.P. seats waiting for me at any A.A. meeting. I walk into that meeting it’s like, “Hey ‘Running-Bear O’Reilly, ’ we have a chair for you in the front row!”
  2. I come from a large family… four Moms, Five Dads…
  3. I’ve been married a total of 19 years… it would be nice if it wasn’t split between three wives.
  4. I went to a very strict Catholic School… I had A.D.D…. Once!

Very simple straight lines can become very effective jokes. Of course it’s much easier once you understand the ten major comedy formulas and how to apply them. But the key is they didn’t come from trying to write about “funny things.” They came from just writing about what’s true.