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 complainingâ€”and rightly soâ€”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.
Chris Rubeiz came to The Stand Up Comedy Clinic as a talented actor and a writer who had done some improv and had some acting jobs. He had also written and shot some sketches and shorts. But he had never done stand up and always wanted to.
In the first couple of weeks Chris struggled with material. His act was all about taking a sh*t at work:(not in the office but in the restroom), all while his boss was in the other stall. Could be funny, but I let him know the limitations of having an all ‘scat’ set.
Well Chris did what few people do:he really went to work. In 8 short weeks, Chris wrote and developed a brand new 7-minute comedy set that had teeth and and definite laugh points and best of all structure. I emphasized that it is the structure in your comedy that will set you apart from other comedians and it will give you definite, crisp laugh points.
After he performed his culmination set in The Belly Room at the world famous Comedy Store, he was asked back to perform in the Main Room. Now I’m under no illusions as to why he was asked to return. Despite the fact that his set was solid, he brought a bunch of people to the club that night and the booker wanted him to repeat that feat and bring more to the Mainroom. After all, it is a “bringer” show.
I try not to knock another man’s hustle and I get the game. I didn’t come up through the trenches of comedy participating in bringer shows and I have no qualms sharing my feelings about them.
In my classes I teach at my comedy studio, I try to be as transparent as possible about what a bringer show is and how it works. I want my students to have no illusions about this businessâ€”both the positives and negatives. I suggest to my students to use the ‘bringers’ to their advantage and only participate when they can benefit from them. (I.E.: If an agent is coming or a manager or casting director, or if there is a chance to get a great tape).
So Chris called and asked my advice. He said he wanted to try the Mainroom once and the booker had told him that an agent was going to be present. I’m not going to mention his name, but I know the booker and he has a good reputation and is a very talented comedian himself, (that should narrow down the choices, huh?). The gig fit the criteria we discussed so Chris did the Mainroom.
Low and behold, the booker once again exceeded his reputation and the agent was in the room. Chris brought his people, rocked his set and the agent asked him for a meeting. Chris signed with Jamie Ferrar of JFA this week.
Navigating this business requires good instincts and a thoughtful approach. Chris is one of those guys who is not only creative and talented but also a thinker. He approached this with thought and good instincts and it paid off. His talent, work ethic and drive will continue to take him down the road of success and I’m glad to be a part of it! Congratulations Chris! Jamie is getting the better end of the deal.
Before I begin, it’s important to reiterate that “How To Be A Famous Comedian” is a series in my comedy blog dedicated, not to show how to be a famous comedian, but to show the path to getting work, which includes learning the craft of humor writing and comedy performance along with the trials and tribulations of the business that surround this art form. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you’re goal is only to learn how to be a famous comedian, you’ll have much better luck getting press by knocking over a string of 7-11’s, than doing stand up comedy. Comedy requires hard work, persistence and a bit of luck, but with the right combination of having a firm grasp on writing comedy, developing your comedy performance skills, as well as navigating the business, you can make a pretty darn good living pursuing a career in an incredible art form.
Wow! I am always amazed at where I find information that teaches me lessons that I can continue to apply as I move through this amazing business. I was reading an article on the rise and fall of the Dana Carvey Show, a show that was cancelled after like 3 episodes, (It taped 5). You might ask yourself how does this teach anything? It failed! And how does it apply to the theme of “How To Be A Famous Comedian?”
As comedians or we have to remember that show business is two words and we have to emphasize both words. Writing great material and learning to master performance are key skills, but the famous comedian (and Dana Carvey certainly fits that bill), also knows how to navigate the business. Do they make mistakes? Sure! This article helps us all learn from the mistakes that were made in getting The Dana Carvey Show on the air and why a show that could have survived, died a certain death. It also teaches us about the people involved and we get to hear their thoughts. It makes it a more human process and helps to light the fire in all of us.
We spend a good portion of our careers thinking that the executives and the stars are above us. So far that they are out of reach. Reading articles like this one will help to assure you that everyone started somewhere. Did you know that Steven Colbert was Steve Carell’s understudy at Second City? Did you know that Saturday Night Live often holds auditions for their show in the Summer?
This information is important to read. You get to see that some of the famous comedians that did make it also went through periods where they didn’t make it. They got passed on for roles. You get to understand that it happens to everyone. That’s all part of how to be a famous comedian. Try then fail. Back to work. Try then fail again. Back to work. Try, then succeed.
When you read the article, make notes. Learn from the article. Learn the names. These are important people to be familiar with. You should do this with every article you read. It will help in your journey to learn how to be a famous comedian. Or have fun and success trying.
Being able to produce material on a consistent basis is one of the keys to succeeding in comedy. Whether you are a writer, or want to be a standup comic, you must be able to write material that has structure.
I’ve been asked time and time again to give a demo on how to write comedy. Since joke writing is the building block of comedy writing, as a whole, I am going to demonstrate it here.
The key to writing jokes from scratch is NOT to think of something funny, but to think of ANYTHING and make it funny.
This how to write comedy video is around 47 minutes. It shows the recommended prep necessary to take on the task of writing and some background information to get you ready. Also be warned, this is NOT for kids. There is some NC-17 stuff here.
When you are writing comedy you never, and I mean NEVER edit yourself in the first draft. You always save that for the second or third pass on the the material. So if you are sensitive to language (most of it written) and you are limited on time: then DON’T WATCH THE VIDEO!
If you want to REALLY see the joke writing process and learn one of the fundamental steps in learning how to write comedy, then grab your notebook, a cup of coffee and enjoy!
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NOTE: THIS IS ONLY ONE METHOD ON HOW TO WRITE COMEDY: