Comedy 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. But 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.
Let’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.
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.
A 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?
I’m Irish and American Indian…
I come from a large family…
I’ve been married a total of 19 years…
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…
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!”
I come from a large family… four Moms, Five Dads…
I’ve been married a total of 19 years… it would be nice if it wasn’t split between three wives.
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.
“Bossypants,” by the always funny, Tina Fey is a must read if you’re into comedy writing, humor writing or you just want to be entertained by a sharp-witted, super-intelligent and smokin’ hot comedy writer. What makes Tina Fey so special?
Well, she was not only the best thing to happen to Saturday Night Live since the days of Dan Akroid, Bill Murray, John Belushi, etc., She is the only one to leave SNL and start her own show, “30-Rock.” Where she stands toe-to-toe with a practically all-male cast and not only kills it as a writer, but also has us captivated with her genuineness as an actress.
Not only that, while in the midst of writing 30-Rock, doing guest appearances on SNL, raising her child and a multitude of other endeavors, she’s also found the time to write books. But do yourself a favor and visit the N.Y. Times review before you buy, but pick up the book. You’ll enjoy every page. BossypantsSatire Books)
One of the things we are asked to do as comedians, from time to time, is radio interviews. When we are on the road working in a club, if the club owner has a relationship with the local radio station, the comedian, (usually the headliner), will be required to do some kind of promotion on the radio. The radio interview can be a “call-in, ” or it an “in-studio’” interview. In my 25 years touring the country as a professional comedian, I’ve done countless radio interviews. My favorite are “in-studio.” In studio interviews give the comedian a chance to meet face-to-face with the D.J. so you can get acquainted. I’ve been asked many times about radio interviews, so I’ve put together a list of 10 sure-fire radio-interview tips for the comedian:
Strut Your Material. You are there to sell you! And since you’re a comedian, you need to be funny. The radio audience, who is usually driving in the car or getting ready for work, wants—I should say NEEDS—to know you’re funny. If you do segments of your act that you know get laughs, then you increase the odds that those listeners will come see your show. Some comedians, believe it or not just start talking about their lives without any punchlines or any funny. From a radio listeners point of view, that is BORING. Think about a movie trailer. That trailer better have something good in it or you’re not going to see the movie. Tease them with portions of your act and choose those portions of your act that brand you.
Know how much time you have. One of the things you should know is how much time you have for your segment. Just like doing a set in a brand new club or for a showcase, always know how much “air time” you are going to be given. This will help you prepare your material for the segment. If you don’t know how much, you might be getting ready to hit them with your punchline just as the engineer hits them with a commercial.
Know the Station I.D. There’s nothing more embarrassing than going on the radio and not knowing what radio station you’re on. HINT: write it down on a piece of paper and have it in front of you the entire segment. Better yet, write it at the top of set list you are using to guide you through your segment. You’d be amazed at how many comedians forget what radio station they are on and they wind up embarrassing themselves, the D.J., the club owner, and the program director. It may not seem like a big thing, but if the president of the station is listening and you blow the station ID, it’s not going to go over well. Besides, knowing the station I.D. shows that you are a professional.
Prepare Your Questions. Depending on how much time you have, offer the D.J. a sheet of 4 to 10 questions to ask you that will cue you to do the comedy bits you want to feature. Most D.J.’s will thank you for this. In fact, in my years of doing this I’ve never had a D.J. who didn’t appreciate the questions. They might have other questions they want to ask you that are factual, or based on your bio, but the list will help you present the bits that will get the callers asking for tickets.
Own Your Time. One of the biggest factors to remember on the radio is that despite the fact that it’s their radio station. It’s YOUR segment. Take your space and do your thing. For those minutes that you are on the air, it is your show, so do it. Have you ever listened to Robin Williams on the radio or seen him on a talk show. Hosts love to have him on because they know that those minutes are going to be some of the most entertaining of the evening. When that “On The Air” light goes on, I turn on. I play, I joke, I’ll even make fun of the D.J., but in the same way I would make fun of my best friend. It creates an energy if you take over the show. The results are fantastic. No fewer than 3 times, I’ve been approached after a radio segment I’ve done and I’ve been offered a job as on air talent.
Create A Radio Set List. Too many comedians hit the airwaves unprepared. Don’t get caught in that trap. Prepare a set list (which should go with the questions you give the D.J.), Take a look at your act and write a short radio set list that will highlight the segments of your act you want people to hear. Don’t worry about them hearing it on the radio AND THEN hearing it at the show. Audiences love this. They feel like they are a part of something special. If you make a set list, you only have to do it once in while. Save it on your smartphone to use whenever you need it. Of course remember to update it as your act changes.
Be Your Own Laugh Track. Occasionally when you’re doing radio, you get a D.J. that just won’t give you any energy. He doesn’t laugh at your bits and he’s just not a fun guy. When this happens, take over and laugh at your own bits. Perceive what the radio listener is hearing and have fun. There’s an old saying in comedy and entertainment. “The audience is in whatever state the performer is in.” This holds true on radio too! Have fun. Giggle, laugh, play take jabs at the D.J. if that what it takes and if that fits in your persona or style and represents the comedian you are promoting that night.
Avoid Jokes That Are Visual. This might seem so simple that it’s stupid, but again you’d be surprised at the number of comedians that get on the air, forget to prep and the next thing you know they’re launching into a bit that ends with a visual punchline. On the radio it will end with dead air. That’s why it’s important to prepare your set and know what you’re going to do before the light goes on.
Do Something Local. When you’re doing local radio, take the time to look at the local newspaper (in print or online), to find out what’s going on? Sometimes, just a jokes about the size of the town of something about the local events that are being pimped in the newspaper can get a great response. The audience will totally appreciate the fact that you took the time to take an interest in where they live, even if it was just to make jokes about it.
Offer Free Tickets. Make sure to ask whether or not the station is giving a select amount of comps to callers. This is an essential part of selling the interest in the show. Take control and make mention of it before the D.J. does. Say something like, “Oh Yeah! Before I go I want to offer some free tickets to the show to the first few callers!” It personalizes the show and makes you look like a rock star!
So these are my 10 tips. I’m sure there’s more. Feel free to leave a comment and keep the discussion going with your own input, or suggestions from your own experience.