Comedian Lesson: When I tell my students that you can write comedy about anything, I mean that. There are ways–I believe–to talk about anything using humor…
One of my students recently asked if you could write comedy material about family members dying. I said, “Yes!” In fact it’s healing and cathartic and it gives you an opportunity to do more than just jokes. It gives you an chance to be human.
Here’s a 2 minute segment of me doing a bit about my mother dying. Notice how I talk about the incident and talk around it at the same time, using elements that are a part of the story to convey the struggle of being a comedian going through sadness following the death of my mother.
The key is to just starting writing the truth and being honest. Within that you will find the turns, and begin to recognize the places where you can insert double-entendre humor, word, play, incongruity, recognition and surprise. And once you do, you will be able to write comedy, not only about death, but about anything.
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.
Here’s another entry into my blog on How to be a funny girl. Why would I bother writing about something like this? Because this business is hungry for funny women! In my opinion there are not enough funny women in comedy. I’ve seen a trend toward an increasing amount recently, but overall there are still not enough funny girls.
In my workshops, I’ve had more women attending lately. I think it’s awesome for a funny girl to hit the stage and make us all laugh. Why? Because ,you begin to learn that women have a different perspective on life and you get to hear them pour out their souls on stage and make it funny.
One of my favorite funny women is Paula Poundstone. She knows how to be a funny girl. She shared her struggles (joking about her suicide attempt), and she shared her quirky observations, (why you have to eat Pop Tarts in two’s).
Most funny girls are either funny and clean or they are edgy and blue. It’s fun when you can get a funny girl that can combine both.
On this blog I’m going to share one of my new favorite funny girls, this funny girl does just that. This girl knows how to be funny. She’s one of my students at The Stand Up Comedy Clinic. Her name is Pauline Yasuda and she’s one funny girl. During my 8 week course she would bring in a new 5-7 minute act almost every week. We would tweak them with suggestions and heighten the laugh points by clarifying the imagery. But other than a couple of word suggestions and enhancing certain associations in the material, the humor was already present.
But don’t take my word for it. Watch the video for yourself and leave a comment if you think Pauline knows how to be a funny girl.
What do I mean by “comedian-actor?” Well in my years as an actor/comedian I’ve never seen the acting business be so competitive as it is today. My actor friends are constantly complaining—and rightly so—that they’re not working as much as they used to. Nobody is really. There are valid reasons for that: more reality television, less scripted, would be one reason. But another reason is competition.
Think about it, years ago we used to be submitted to jobs by our agents who used a messenger to drop off headshots and resumes at casting offices. We were usually up against anywhere from 100 to 600 other actors for one job.
Now, everything is done electronically. Submissions are done with the click of a mouse and we now find ourselves competing with 1200 to 1600 submissions and more. How do you stand out? One suggestion: Don’t just stand out, Stand Up!
That’s right. I studied acting for many years both in New York and L.A. My father was a successful character actor for 60 years and I learned that you could be out of work for a stretch. That was why I originally started doing stand up. So I could work when I “wasn’t working.”
I found that doing comedy kept me busy and also kept me on the radars of casting directors I had built relationships with…
Why? Because, for the most part, industry decision-makers revere comedians. They have enormous respect for what we do, partly because they fear doing it themselves. When a casting director, creative director or rep sees you doing comedy and having a good set, they equate that laughter to laughter coming from an audience in a movie theatre or a living room. It’s quite powerful…as Dick Cook, former Chairman of Disney said, “Funny is money.”
I’ve had several actors take my course and wind up getting some great traction in their careers. Several have booked jobs or gotten agents. One of my favorite stories is Michelle Gomez (above). She took my class, I helped her develop a 10-minute comedy routine that she performed at the Comedy Store. She had a lot of industry attend and she wound up booking 2 pilots. And in the year prior, she couldn’t get arrested!
After she booked the pilots she sent an email to me that said, “Jerry, thank you for single-handedly restoring my confidence…” That is a lovely compliment, yes?
What’s my point? Stand Up Comedy is an excellent showcase for an actor. It shows that you have confidence and poise and shows that you can deliver the goods and get laughs…and after all, funny is money, right?
So you sit down to write comedy and what happens? Nothing! Now what?
I teach a lot of techniques so that people can learn how to write comedy. Most of what I focus on is writing comedy for a stand up act.
However, the same techniques are used in blog writing, script writing or any other writing, because the fundamentals of comedy and the goals, (getting people to laugh), remain the same.
The difference is the style. Stand up is more conversational. It’s about persona and empathy. In other words, as a stand up comedian, the audience has to like you. They want to root for you, while you share your struggles and life situations and observations. Also, as a stand up we have to connect with you and one of the best ways to do that is to share with your audience, you emotional point of view. If we don’t know how you feel, then it’s harder to connect.
Therefore, one of the best things you can do as a stand up is to focus on stuff you give a damn about. George Carlin once told me, “Take the shit that drives you absolutely crazy and make it funny…” That’s great advice, because if you, as the stand up comedian don’t give a damn about the material, the audience won’t either.
Here’s the key: Start with something you care about, that gets your blood up. Not something that is funny. The funny comes after you’re talking about what you care about–get it? DON’T SIT DOWN TO WRITE SOMETHING FUNNY!
But enough on that, let’s get to how to come up with the jokes. One of the techniques I use I call “1-2-3 Jokes“. It’s based on the most common comedy formula used in comedy today; incongruity. It’s putting a square peg into a round hole.
Whenever I use 1-2-3 Jokes, I can come up with subject matter to start writing about. I was talking today to a friend about relationships and break ups. Whenever I talk about a topic that is primal, (and relationships certainly is), I come up with analogies. My friend Rob Rose, was talking about break-ups that tend to go on forever and I said,
“…breaking up with crazy chicks is a lot like buying a smartphone on credit…you’re still paying for it long after it’s functionality is obsolete. You’re still stuck with 3g technology, but you want to move up to 4g. And why not? It’s faster! It comes with a touch scream.
…and if I sat down and made lists of everything ‘smartphone’ and everything ‘relationships’ or ‘breakups,’ there’s probably another 10-20 jokes sitting there…
Analogies are almost instant jokes. Why? Because, by their nature they are incongruous. Incongruity causes surprise, and surprise is the number one element that triggers human laughter, which is our goal when we’re learning how to write comedy, So next time you’re looking for something funny, just use an analogy.