By Jerry Corley | Founder – The Stand Up Comedy Clinic
I just had a session with one of my private students at my studio. After he ran some of his material, I asked him what happened to some of the other bits he was working on last time we met. He said, “I’m getting bored with it.” Does that sound familiar? It does to me!
I remember writing material, working on it then after doing it on stage once or twice, getting bored with it, despite the fact that it was good and getting laughs. Worse, I would get a showcase for a spot in a club or a television show and I would abandon my trusted material because I thought it would be best if I wrote new material for the showcase.
Problem is when you do that, the material might be fresh, but it’s untested and when it’s untested and you’re in a higher tension situation like an audition, the new material sounds like just that, “new.” Therefore, you sound “new.” It doesn’t sound honed. It doesn’t tight, because you’re still working out the kinks and you don’t quite “own” it.
When you showcase, audition or make an important appearance at a club, you want your act to look effortless. You want it to look like it’s just coming out of your mouth for the first time even though it isn’t and that takes rehearsal, practice and stage time.
Anthony Hopkins reads a script two hundred times before he starts to work on it. That way the material is now a part of who he is. Does his work ever look stale? Does he ever look bored?
My father, Pat Corley, a character actor for almost sixty years said that it takes eight hours of rehearsal to “own” five minutes of material. You can memorize that material in far less time, but owning it, is a completely different story. It has to be a part of you.
Jay Leno said, whenever you’re working on new material, do the “tried and true” up front, slip some new material in the middle and close with the “tried and true.”
Rita Rudner adds a new joke or a new routine every week and in a year she has a whole new act.
Part of being a professional is learning to continue to make the material you’ve been doing sound fresh every night. That’s part of your craft.
I saw Kevin James, (star of “King of Queens, ” a hit show on network T.V. for many seasons), when he did his first showcase in L.A. for network executives. He did material I’d seen him do for years. But the networks guys were seeing for the first time. He killed. It resulted in a sitcom that made him a star.
To build an act, you must have material to build on. That material might be stuff you’ve done enough to get bored with, but the guy in the club drinking a beer, has probably heard it for the first time.
By Jerry Corley | Founder – The Stand Up Comedy Clinic
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.
By Jerry Corley – Founder of the Stand Up Comedy Clinic
I just got an email from someone who said, “The only way to learn stand up comedy is stage time.” That’s a common response, but is it really well thought out? I would have to say, “No.” If the comedian is like a surgeon and the audience are his patients, this comedian must have the stench of death following close behind.
Is it fair to make that comparison? After all, medicine is not comedy.
Think about it this way. It you were to compare being a comedian to piloting an airplane, how many of you would want to fly “Open-Mic Airlines?”
Comedy is an art form and stand up comedy is a performing art, as is music, acting, dancing, singing and magic. Sorry mimes, if I left you out. However, what some people forget is that the comedian, unless he’s just buying jokes or stealing them—why, Carlos Mencia, has your name has become synonymous with that theme?—then the comedian is also a writer.
Every single one of those art forms has a learning learning curve. Comedy, in its form, is most like magic. As magic is about misdirection and surprise, so is comedy. In fact, scientifically, the number one element that triggers human laughter is surprise. When the magician takes the ball into his hand waves the wand over it and says, “abracadabra, ” “presto-chango, ” “expelliarmus, ” (or whatever magicians are saying these days) and the magician opens his hand and the ball is gone, we smile, we giggle, because we have been surprised. But if a magician doesn’t learn the formula, if the ball doesn’t disappear and reappear or worse, if we see where the ball is going, then there is no surprise and there is no magic and the smiles and giggles will be replaced by groans and boos and hisses. Misdirection and surprise are part of the comedian’s fundamentals as well and must be learned before getting “stagetime, ” otherwise those same groans, boos and hisses—and worse, will follow the comedian.
Structurally, comedy is also about story telling and music. Most of us know that a good story and a good piece of music has a beginning, middle and end. Unfortunately, most comedians don’t know this or don’t know to put it in their acts…certainly they need this over at SNL. When you do build this in, you stand out. Audiences love resolution and they respond with applause. It’s as simple as a musical scale, if you sing: DO-RE-MI-FA-SO-LA-TI-, the audience is going to feel unresolved. They will feel like something is missing. However, if you sing, DO-RE-MI-FA-SO-LA-TI-DO, the audience will feel compelled to raise their hands in applause. Learn your fundamentals, your scales, your rudiments, then can you make beautiful music.
It’s the same thing in comedy. Stagetime is definitely the way to hone your skills of performing comedy, but if you learn what makes people laugh and you learn to identify surprise, irony, incongruity and recognition, then apply that to your performance before you get your “stagetime, ” you probably would’ve saved the audiences you’ve encountered a lot of misery you unwittingly injected into their hearts, their memories and their olfactories, because the potency of the stench of death you most certainly left behind would’ve been a lot less significant.
Here’s an age-old argument that never ends; Can you learn to be funny? You’ll get answers on both ends of the spectrum. What’s interesting is the people who DON’T believe you can learn to be funny are really negative. They’ll actually call me and leave a nasty voicemail about how you can’t teach anyone to be funny. Makes me laugh, because the truth is “funny” is learnable.
As infants, we learn what funny is. If you look at a baby and you say “ooooooooooh—BOO!” The baby, laughs! It’s uncanny “ooooooooh—BOO!” You’ve probably seen it a hundred times. It’s because the person doing the “performance” is creating an expectation with “ooooooooh.” In the babies little mind “ooooooooh” is going to go on an on. Then you shatter that expectation with a quick “BOO!” It’s the surprise that gets the laugh. Pretty simple concept and it doesn’t change when we get older either. Surprise is still the number element that triggers human laughter. So, I’m sorry naysayers, you can learn to be funny.
It’s as simple as sharpening your awareness of the opportunity to shatter the expectation and create the surprise. If you take any statement of piece of dialogue and you suddenly change the perception of what is being said or, say, change the perception of the meaning of a word, you’ll have surprise which will result in funny. “I’ve been losing my hair lately. It bugs me a little bit. Like in the mornings when my wife is running her fingers through my hair, but I already left for work.” That line gets a laugh every time because the audience has a perception of “running her fingers through my hair, ” once I let them get that picture in their heads, I throw in that the hair she’s running her fingers through is the hair left behind on the pillow after I went to work. Because their image was shattered, they laugh. Learn to identify the opportunity to spin what you say at the last minute and you will learn to be funny.
In comedy, that’s called a reverse. It’s classic, and if used properly, that formula will get a solid, triggered laugh from an audience every time. Well, unless the audience doesn’t speak the language you’re speaking, or they’re dead. And if you’re running your jokes by a dead audience, then you should see a shrink, or better yet, stop playing the Hollywood Improv.
The reverse is just one of the humor formulas you can learn in your journey to learning to be funny. It’s one that I teach in my comedy classes and seminars. It’s powerful, but it’s one of those formulas you want to avoid using in back-to-back jokes when doing a routine. Once you give up the formula your audience begins to anticipate the surprise. Then it’s no longer a surprise, is it?
Here’s a real-life scenario in which I used a formula to lighten the mood. My wife and I were expecting a baby. I came home from work late one night and she was laying on the couch. She said, “I’m having gas pains.” I said, “Babe, everyone is, it’s like $4.25 a gallon!” She laughed. The we discovered that those “gas pains” were coming 3 minutes apart.
That is called the double-entendre formula. Take the perceived meaning of the word and turn it into something that the listener didn’t expect. I’ll talk more about that in a future blog…you know, the blog that I write where you can’t teach someone the skills to learn to be funny…
Jerry Corley is the founder of the Stand Up Comedy Clinic. He teaches the science behind the art of comedy from his studio in Burbank, CA.
Attention all comics and comedy lovers in the 909: Fox Sports Bar and Lounge in Pamona is now doing a comedy show. Stand Up Comedy Clinic Students Christian Zaragoza and Ernie Ordonez, put their money where their mouth is (what money? the show is FREE!) and they organized and are producing a comedy show in Pamona. The Inland Empire needs a good room where comedians can work and they followed through by getting this started. One of the things I encourage my students to do is to perform whenever and wherever possible. Walt Whitman said: “Actors must act. Writers must write. Painters must paint.” Well comedians have double duty in that they must write and perform as much as possible. Christian and Ernie saw this as an opportunity to start a show.
What a great idea! As a comedian, you begin to understand the importance of networking, meeting as many other comedians as possible, because it’s not only your continued work ethic that will help you succeed, but it is in your relationships where your career thrives. Starting a successful comedy room is a great way to meet other comedians and help to nurture those relationships.
For more information or to get in touch with Chris or Ernie about future comedy shows in Pamona, Click the show flyer and ”friend” Chris on Facebook. If you develop that relationship, maybe you can make an appearance at the next comedy showcase in Pamona. Eventually, it may turn into a paid gig. And while you’re at it Tweet this article or post on your Facebook page and help these guys really develop this gig into something successful!
Good Luck you guys! I hope you have me on the next show, because I couldn’t do it this round.