Comedy Lessons is a series in my comedy blog that deals with individual solutions to problems that arise in the pursuit of a career in stand up comedy or comedy writing. These comedy lessons are a direct response to situations that have happened to myself while performing live or to my colleagues or students and what lessons can be derived from those particular situations. Make sense? Here we go!
One of the important comedy lessons a comedian should learn is about Hecklers. This subject, in itself, should be a multi-part series, because of the variety of conditions that cause a heckler to heckle in the first place and the multitude of ways in which a comedian can respond.
First of all a heckler is any person who calls out something in the middle of a comedian’s show. Why does a heckler do this?
I’ve put together three reasons:
- To engage
- To endorse
- To embarrass
1. To Engage: Most hecklers, in my experience aren’t trying to ruin the show. They want to be involved. They want to engage with you. Most really think they are helping you. Almost all hecklers who have called out something in my show come up to me at the end of the show and say something like, “see, I was just trying to help you…and it worked, huh?”
You want to say, “No Jethro. It didn’t help. If I was seeking help on where to get a new water heater for my double-wide, I would call on you. If I was looking for advice on the nearest crack house, you’d be the first guy I’d go to. If I needed a “how-to” guide to get on the fast-track to gum-disease, I’d already have you on speed dial.”
But I don’t say that because, secretly, I’m appreciative. Any heckler gives me a chance to hone my skills at ad-lib, to be quick on my feet. When a heckler pipes up, I have to realize that I am in the middle of one of the most challenging comedy lessons available. It’s comedy without a net. I’m flying high and I do or die on my own. It’s comedy “Survivor.” And it’s an absolute rush.
2. To Endorse: Some hecklers are in it to espouse their brilliance…or yours! They’ll say something like, “Yeah, I did that!” or “Dude that was f**cking wrong…funny, but wrong! This kind of just adds to the show. It makes it more like it’s you and a pack of your pals having a good time drinking beer together and that’s okay.
3. To Embarrass: Then there comes the occasional heckler that wants to embarrass. He or she is usually drunk, is seeking negative attention or they are nervous. What? Nervous? Yes! There is psychology in comedy that states, “The audience is in whatever state the performer is in…” and we’re not talking geography. What this means is, if the performer is nervous, then the audience is nervous, they don’t know they are nervous, they just feel deeply uncomfortable. They deal with this by calling out something to deal with their discomfort. Picture a good-ole boy sitting watching your show, you’re nervous-he’s nervous. This makes him uncomfortable so he shouts out, “YOU SUCK!” Other people laugh because it was surprising but it helped them feel better as well. Now the good-ole boy feels better and he gets some negative attention.
The comedy lesson to learn here is that hecklers are unavoidable. You can write an prepare some heckle lines to deal with certain situations. Like if someone is with a group of people and says something, I might respond, “So what’s going on there? (Referring to his table). Are these all your friends, or are you the only one in the trailer park who has a car? Because I’ve seen your house and I love what you’ve done with the Michelins.”
I have a bunch of standard heckle lines that I’ve written and used over the years. Some are pretty cutting.
A biker who was sitting in front row at a comedy show wanting to engage, continuously. He was with a very sexy biker chick in a low cut top and he kept referring to her as his “old-lady.” Finally he said something that was kinda mean. Now, because he was directly mean to me, I now have Carte Blanche from the audience to slay him. After the audience groaned at what he said I thought for a moment, then said, “You know, Harley Davidson patented the sound of their motorcycles? The sound has a patent!”
At this point the audience was curious…what’s Harley Davidson owning a patent on a sound have to do with anything?
Then I said, “I wonder who owns the queef. Because I f**cked your wife last night, and I think I owe some royalties.”
That resulted in laughs, followed by a solid applause break and a thumbs up from the biker.
Hecklers are one of the biggest, on the job, comedy lessons you can get for free. In a nutshell, I try to treat my hecklers like my closest friends. Because, if you think about it, most of the heckles sound like something your friends might say to you when you’re hanging out. If you can deal with them with a smile and a clever retort, you can keep the energy of the room at the mood and level for which they hired you—Fun and FUNNY!
**Need some help coming up with some heckle lines? Go to my Comedy Lessons Page and sign up for a Skype Lesson with me and I’ll help you one-on-one!**
I was at the Comedy Store last night. I was talking to a young comedian about crafting a joke and the importance of writing everyday and this other comedian butts in and says, “I don’t give a damn about any of that, I just want to know how to be a famous comedian!”
What this comedian didn’t realize was that I just saw him do about an 10-minute set and not only did he run the light, (went way over his time), disrespecting the audience, the booker and his fellow comics, he also did a whole 2-minute bit about not putting kids on “time-out” but putting them on “knock-out,” (a bit that’s more worn out than a Vegas hooker on New Year’s Eve). When he said “I just want to know how to be a famous comedian,” I remember thinking to myself, not with that act!
I’ve been doing comedy for 25 years. I’ve written for Jay Leno for 8 years. So I try my best not to be negative when I’m around other comedians. I’m honest, just not negative. The truth is there is no direct answer to the quest of “how to be a famous comedian,” but there are guidelines.
Write, write and write some more!
One of the crucial keys to making it in this industry is originality. That’s one thing bookers look for when scouting for talent. They also look for how well you craft a joke. Most stand up comedy on late night talk shows is about well-crafted jokes and routines, not about big act-outs. The only way to develop that is by writing and writing a lot. Most comedians, I’ve noticed don’t actually write a lot. They wait for something funny to happen to them and they write it down or record it somehow. That’s a good way to get material, mind you, but it’s only one way. When you learn the fundamentals of comedy including joke structure and technique, then you can make something funny, rather than wait for something to be funny.
A comedian should be spending several hours every day writing. Most don’t. One of the problems is that most comedians and wanna-be comedians equate comedy with frivolity and they treat their profession frivolously. That’s one way NOT to be a famous comedian.
Stage Time is King!
Once you have a well-crafted act (I have a lot of posts on techniques) of 5-7 minutes, then it’s time to hit the stage. Writing is great for the crafting of the material and really sharpening your sense of humor, but nothing beats getting on the stage. A comedian who is looking for notoriety, (whether they are trying to get famous or not), should be hitting the open-mics at least 3 times a week. If you can’t commit to that, you might want to consider a different line of work. You have to develop your act, your timing and your comfort level on stage so you can learn to be yourself while standing in front of complete strangers and the only way to do that is stage time. Sure, open-mics can be grueling. The audience is usually notoriously comedian-heavy and sometimes they can feel unrewarding. But the mere consistent appearance and mic-work will eventually payoff. If you’re doing good work, you’ll gain respect and reach at least some level of fame with the other comedians.
When I was doing the open mics, I was up at least 4 nights a week, at least and sometimes several times in one night. I gained a reputation as a good writer. There’s a nice feeling that accompanies walking into a room and having people talk about you—in a good way! I was always nice to everyone too and if I heard another comedian do a joke and thought of a tag for the joke I would always write it down and offer it to the comic as a suggestion.
Some of the best advice I got from Jay Leno. He said “write faster than everybody else and your reputation will precede you.” It was true. I was “famous” within certain circles for being a really good writer and comedian.
Develop your act and hit the road!
Once you’ve written and honed an act of between 15-30 minutes of solid material, (“solid” meaning a laugh point every 18-20 seconds), then it’s time to hit the road and develop it. When you start working night after night, you really start to develop as a comedian. The beauty of the road is that you’re out there working on comedy 24 hours a day. You write during the day and perform at night. By the end of 4 months on the road, you should have the makings for about an hour of material. When you feel completely secure in your material. It’s time to start submitting yourself to T.V. talent coordinators. Some bookers take DVD’s, some like to see links on the internet and YouTube.
You can contact the bookers by getting the “Hollywood Creative Directory.” It lists all the shows that are on the air and their staffs. Be sure to check out the style of comedian that gets booked on each show. Fallon is different from Kimmel and Ferguson is different from Leno. Once you feel you fit a certain show. Send a DVD right to the booker with a note that says “I’m a regular watcher of your show and I think my act fits with what you do. Please take a look.” Be sure that your name and contact info is on the DVD and the cover of the DVD as they often they get separated.
There is no certainty of success only the joy of the work!
Other than working hard on both parts of the word show-business there are no rules or guarantees to success. My Dad, who was a successful character actor, once said to me, “You have to get into this business for the right reasons. If you get into it to be famous, get out now, because odds are that’s not going to happen. If you get into because it’s who you are and you stay true to being the best you can be and doing the best work possible, you will reach such a great personal level of success and gratification that the idea of how to be a famous comedian won’t be as important as being the best comedian you can be.
What 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.
By Jerry Corley | Founder – The Stand Up Comedy Clinic
Strange 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!
By Jerry Corley | Founder – The Stand Up Comedy Clinic
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.
Keep checking back I’ll have more on this later.