Comedy competitions are a great way to get your name out there, meet other comics and industry professionals and develop a thick, professional skin. By that I mean that you’ll develop a bullet-proof, confidence when it comes to auditions and higher-stakes performances. Here are some tips that may help you have a better grasp on how to handle these events:
• PREPARE A TIGHT TWO MINUTES: Most major competitions, including television’s “America’s Got Talent” and “Last Comic Standing,” give you two minutes to perform in the preliminary rounds. It doesn’t seem like a long time, but if you can write and perform a set that returns approximately 10 laughs in that time, you’ll be in the running. That breaks down to a laugh every 15 seconds or so. Don’t let that fool you. It doesn’t mean that you have to do a joke every 15 seconds, it means that in the overall two minutes, it’ll average out to that. The trick is that you structure your set so that you have tags and act-outs that follow your punch lines. With this structure one joke can generate two, three or four laughs, if not more sometimes. If you’re doing other commercial comedy competitions, sometimes you might have five minutes in the prelims. Know your time and know how to finish.
• BE UNIQUE: Do material that has a unique or original point of view. You are competing against a lot of comedians. Find out what others are doing and do something, ANYTHING different. I’ve sat in the judges seat numerous times. When you see the same stuff over and over it not only gets boring, it will have a negative impact on your score.
• M.A.P.: stands for MATERIAL-AUDIENCE-PERFORMER. Your material must suit the audience and the performer. Do material that defines YOU. Also groom your material to fit the competition. For example if you are competing for a broadcast television competition, you know that the material must be “television-clean.” Best way to determine this is to YouTube comedians who appear on the Tonight Show and other late night shows and make note of where they draw the line with their material. What’s acceptable innuendo, etc. It’s not only words that get cut by the censors, certain themes are also deemed inappropriate for broadcast T.V. For example if you think you’re clean and you end your set with “…so I went to my room and jerked off!” You’re not going to get on national T.V. and you probably will not make it through the preliminary rounds.
• BE PROFESSIONAL: seems like a pretty obvious tip. But you would be amazed at how many people behave unprofessionally at these events. From showing up drunk or high to arguing with event coordinators over trivial matters, these behaviors reflect on your professionalism and will definitely reflect on your ability to succeed in a competition. Sometimes competitions come with inconveniences (whether it’s waiting in long lines, cattle calls, dealing with disorganization, etc.) be as cordial as possible and be the guy/girl who can help with the situation rather than hinder it. The organizers discuss the event with each other and if your name comes up and you’re referred to as the “asshole who didn’t want to wait in line,” then guess who’s not moving to the quarters or the semis? Perception is everything. When people don’t know you by reputation all they have is the first impression you give them. You are performing from the moment you fill out that entry form and submit your video so do it as professionally as possible.
• BE SUPPORTIVE: You are not only involved in a competition to win it, you are also in it to meet and network with other professionals. If you are supportive and friendly, odds are you’ll walk away from the competition with some connections to other future gigs. So do yourself a favor and stay positive and helpful. Don’t walk around bitching about how they could’ve done something better. It’ll usually get around pretty quickly and you’ll be labeled uncooperative.
• SUBMIT QUALITY VIDEO: Back to first impressions. If the competition has you submitting video, submit the best quality you have. Make sure the sound level is good and you can be understood and make sure the video seems reasonably professional. Don’t submit something you shot in front of your fireplace. (Don’t laugh, it’s been done!). Submit something that has been preferably shot in front of a live audience (as opposed to a dead one!) and best reflects the professional image you want to put forth. Also don’t forget–or if you didn’t know–Apple’s iPad and iPhone don’t read flash video, so if you are hosting your own video you need to post it as a .mp4 so that it can be read and playable on those Apple products. If you need FREE video conversion software, visit my post here.
• FOLLOW THE RULES: All comedy competitions come with rules and terms. A polite piece of advice–READ THEM! It’s called the fine print. Know right off the bat what you’re getting into and what the terms are. You don’t want to get there and realize that you’re not prepared or that you didn’t meet the criteria. For example if they wanted a set to be 2 minutes only. Then you better keep to the time. I don’t care how funny you are, if you break the rules, the organizers will most likely disqualify you. Don’t lose on a technicality. Follow the rules.
• FIND OUT ABOUT THE LIGHT: If you don’t know about the light by now, read this. The light is how the comedy club organizers signal the performer that his/her time is up. Find out where the light is and what procedure they are following. Is the light a flashlight as they might use at Zanies in Chicago? Or is it a light that’s fixed near the back of the room, like at the Improv in Los Angeles? Or is it a picture or neon that illuminates, like at the Comedy Store in L.A.? Know what the light is and when they turn it on. Do they give you a minute light, 30-second light? You are much better knowing this information up front. You don’t what that on your mind when you are performing.
• HAVE FUN!: This is very important. When you do a competition, have a good time. It’s a long-shot that you are going to win. The more competitions you do, the more you improve, the higher your odds. So while you’re there, have a good time. You’ll enjoy it more. It will reflect in your professionalism and it leaves your mind in a better state to identify and create new material. Who knows? While your involved in the competition you might find yourself with a new comedy bit. Five new minutes on doing comedy competitions!
• SEND A “THANK YOU” TO THE ORGANIZERS – Always send a thank you note to the organizers of the comedy competitions. As trivial as this sounds, it’s always good to stay in their good graces. Most organizers for comedy competitions usually run clubs or maintain other booking responsibilities. If you send them a thank you note with a card that has your picture, you’re keeping your face in front of them. They’ll probably look at it and say, “that was cool.” It doesn’t always convert to work. But it’s better to be remembered as “cool,” because if you stay at it in this business, you will run into those people again.
I was asked recently if I would post who I thought were the top comedians of all time. At first I thought, “No problem!” Then as I began to put together my list I realized that it was an impossible task. There are so many great comedians. They are great for so many different reasons. I would just make the list anyway and post it, but it’s by no means an accurate list. I’ll also add an honorable mention. I have to because when I first scribbled my list, I lost it. Then I made a new list. I found the old list and they were different so this is by no means an official list. I would love to hear your thoughts, as comedy is an art and art is subjective. Everyone has different tastes. Feel free to contribute.
1. George Carlin
George was my Mentor. I grew up listening to George. I studied him and actually got to share a limo with him to the airport while in New York. He was both a socio-political comedian and an observational/word-play comedian. His “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television” is classic. He, in my view, was the best, but then again, he gave me the best advice. He said, “Take the shit that drives you absolutely crazy and make it funny!
Bill Cosby is, of course, on the list. Here’s another comedian I grew up listening to. Bill wasn’t just a stand up. He was also a sit-down. He was a story teller. His inflections and stories about family and human behavior were so familiar we laughed because we had experienced the “same thing.” in our homes. One of my favorites is “Kids Are Brain Damaged!”
3. Richard Pryor Richard Pryor was a favorite and yes, another one of the comedians I grew up listening too. My parents used to play his albums, alongside Carlin and Cosby. The language was never a big deal. My parents used to say, “If you have any questions about the words, just ask.” You could imagine the dinner table discussions that inspired. In general, human behavior sense, there are two types of performers: Givers and Takers. Pryor was a giver. He shared his pain, admitted his faults and pleaded with the audience to like him. And we did!
4. Lenny Bruce – What else could you say about Lenny Bruce. He took the bullet for all comedians. Some say he paved the way for just the comedians who use profanity in their routines. But Lenny was grander than that. He paved the way to allow “free speech” in entertainment. Even though his life was short (he lived to 41), his effort and love for the art form and to be able to speak freely in this country, allowed all who followed to do the same.
5. Bob Hope – People forget that when Bob Hope was 75, he was still at the top of his game. He continued to shoot television specials and tour the world. Hell, he ran NBC. When he wanted to do a special, he would call the head of N.B.C. and say, “Fred, we want this Sunday.” The head of N.B.C. would say, “Okay, Bob.” And reprogram the network’s entire Sunday evening lineup to accommodate Bob Hope. He was loved all over the world and gave millions to charities. He never did a re-run, EVER! He always wanted his material to be fresh. The only thing that would leave him off this list is that he didn’t write all his own material. He had a well-paid writing staff that was available 24/7.
6. Jerry Seinfeld – Some people would say, “What’s the deal with putting Jerry Seinfeld on the top 10 list?” That’s pure and simple, Jerry Seinfeld took observational material to a whole new level. So much so that he spawned a T.V. show that was nearly canceled in its first airing. It was entitled “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” The show was brought back as “Seinfeld.” It had a very successful run of 9 seasons. Jerry, decided to end the run, not the network. Then despite being set for 6 lifetimes, Jerry went back to doing stand up. Now that’s a comedian. Jerry is worth over 2 billion dollars. So when you ask why Jerry? I got 2 billion reasons. Here’s a clip of Jerry’s first appearance on H.B.O. He was doing the Smothers Brothers special.
7. Paula Poundstone – I had to get a female in here. I know there are a lot of funny gals out there, but Paula is one of my favorites. Who else can make fun of her suicide attempt and make it funny. She’s quirky and likeable. I always enjoy watching me some Paula Poundstone. I could have put in work-a-holics like Joan Rivers or Phyllis Diller, but, to me, they seemed more like volume contributors rather than substance contributors. Plus, Paula wrote all her own material. Paula is also one who is a “giver” in the Richard Pryor sense. She shares her pain and struggles. The best part of that is that she does it in a way that makes me laugh!
8. Bill Hicks One of the most honest comedians on the face of the planet. His honesty got him notoriety but also got him in trouble. He had limited options because of his honesty and I think that’s why he’s one of my favorites. He took on everything and basically to the “nth” degree took George Carlin’s saying, “Take the shit that drives you crazy and make it funny.” He is one of a kind in my book.
9. Steve Martin – Like Lenny Bruce, Steve Martin changed the face of comedy. But he went the other way. His zany antics and use of props took comedy to an entirely different place. He was unique and basically dressed the part. If comedy is incongruity then his white suit, coupled with ‘happy feet’ and the arrow through the head, at the time was legendary. I don’t know how it would play now. But Steve Martin left an impression on the art form.
10. Eddie Murphy – Okay, okay… I know many of you are wondering, “Where’s so-and-so? How can you put together this list and not mention Brian Regan, Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Jack Benny, Sam Kinnison, George Burns, Mitch Headburg, Ellen DeGenerous, Alan King and so many more? The only thing I can say is the list was not long enough and I put together a list that impacted my life. So Eddie Murphy makes the cut. His Delirious album was one of the funniest I’ve ever listened to, although I preferred Richard Pryor. Eddie sly persona was revealed through that goofy classic Eddie laugh that he carried into films…you know the good ones: Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, etc. Here’s one of my favorites: “Ice Cream”
So that’s it! Please feel free to add your own. Comedy is an amazing art form and I applaud all comedians who work hard in this business. I’m in awe of the struggle they go through to make it and the commitment it takes. To all the comedians out there: YOU ROCK!
So here’s your chance to get the best information available regarding joke writing, performance technique, act-shaping and how to know when your jokes are funny before you hit the stage. Even if you’re not into the performing part of comedy, this seminar is for you!
Jerry Corley, the pre-eminent comedy teacher in Los Angeles who spent 26 years on the road, wrote for The Tonight With Jay Leno for 8 years and who has been called a “genius” by his competitors, is coming to Las Vegas to teach a weekend comedy intensive.
Bring your notebooks and your digital voice recorders because this is the real deal. You will learn more in the two days you spend with Jerry than you’ll learn toiling on the road for years. You’ll cut to the chase and find out:
What triggers human laughter.
How to master the writing techniques to pull that trigger.
How to get multiple laughs out of one joke.
How to heighten your act to build applause breaks.
How to finesse your act to make it sound effortless.
How to write jokes about anything, even when you don’t feel funny.
What techniques to use to develop relationships and get work.
Find out why Jerry’s comedy students win competitions. Jerry’s student, J.C. Morgan, just won L.A.’s Funniest Comic award, (for the category of performers with less than 2 years experience).
So come down and check it out.
WHERE: Alexis Park Resort Hotel 375 East Harmon Avenue
Las Vegas, NV 89169 (702) 796-3322 WHEN: Saturday & Sunday April 9-10. 9am-5pm COST: $299.00 (ASK FOR THE “UNBELIEVABLE” DISCOUNT IN THE COMMENT BOX THEN SIGN UP FOR THE MAILING LIST AND YOU’LL GET $100 OFF!)
It’s gonna be a blast and you’ll be so excited about what you learned you’ll want to get right to work writing your new material. Guaranteed!
The masses love to watch movies. We watch movies to be taken to exotic places; places we’ve never seen or been to so that we may have that experience, if even for the 90 minutes that we are in the theater. It’s no different with a comedy act. Your comedy act is your story. And if the story is compelling and interesting and takes us to an exotic place than YOU will stand out from most comics out there who just try to be funny. Anyone can be funny, but it’s when you can take the audience on a journey with vivid images and show them something they haven’t seen before either from your unique point of view or your unique life experience.
I recently taught a seminar at the World Series Of Comedy in Las Vegas and I had the pleasure of meeting many talented comedians all trying to do the same thing; improve their act, sharpen their skills, make themselves better and more noticeable so they will work more. At breakfast I was talking to a comedian who was raised in the mean streets of Minnesota, in the hood. He began to tell me that he didn’t think the audience was interested in his life because it wasn’t exciting or flashy. He said he did “external” comedy rather than talk about himself because he didn’t think anyone would give a damn.
I asked him about his upbringing and the neighborhood that he was raised in and he began to tell me in vivid colors about what a shit hole it was. How he and his brother managed to get to school by playing make-believe. “Make believe we’re in the army and we have to avoid getting shot by the enemy.” Problem was the enemy drove in cars that had doors painted with the words, “To Protect and Serve.” He went on to tell me more about his single mom. “She was married, but the reason we called her ‘single mom’ is because that all the cash she ever had in her purse. A single.” He continued for about a half-hour. I was so compelled in the story that I didn’t eat my breakfast. While he was talking about his upbringing, I took notes and recited back to much of what he told me. He just realized that he had a 3 to 4 minute bit about his life and when he heard me say it he realized how exotic his life actually was.
I was watching a very talented comedian friend of mine perform some of her new material the other night. She performed a new joke she was particularly proud of and the result wasn’t what she expected. Yep, you guessed it—crickets! It’s the sound most comedians loathe, sometimes fear. The joke didn’t work.
She was frustrated and after her set she asked me if I knew why the joke didn’t work. I told her that she didn’t set it up properly, so the audience didn’t know what she was talking about. In this particular scenario, she was talking about how her father showed up to visit her wearing nothing but bubble wrap. So as he was walking you could hear, POP, POP, POP.
The idea of that happening is funny, but the audience couldn’t figure out why her Dad would show up to a visit wearing bubble wrap. It just seemed too absurd. I suggested to her that the audience needs more information. She said, “I’m not going to spoon feed them!” As comedians and humorists we walk a fine line. We know we need to keep it short in comedy (as Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit”), while at the same time we must give the audience enough information so they understand where we are going. In other words we have to have a clear set up so we can really PUNCH IT. Johnny Carson, who was the king of late night for 30 years always made sure that the setups in his jokes were crystal clear, so when he got to the punch line the audience knew exactly what he was talking about. In the scenario above the girl’s Dad was a paranoid schizophrenic.
If she delivered a solid set up to the audience by saying something like, “My father is a paranoid schizophrenic. Whenever he visits me, I never know what to expect, sometimes he’ll show up as a pirate, sometimes as Sherlock Holmes. He must’ve run out of ideas cuz’ last week he just showed up wearing nothing but bubble wrap. Maybe he still thought it was in the pirate theme since bubble wrap is essential in shipping…He was literally walking up my steps going, POP, POP, POP.”
In other words, the audience needs to know WHAT you are talking about before you can expect the punch line to connect with them. A friend of mine put it in a very succinct analogy, he said it’s like you have a hundred piece puzzle of a sailboat and you only put down the pieces that show the sky. There’s no way your audience is going to be able to tell it’s a sailboat because you didn’t show us enough pieces. It’s better to over do the set up and then cut back than to not give the audience enough information to make sense of it in the first place.
A good way to help yourself to make sure you’re giving the audience what they need is to do the “in a nutshell” test. Simply ask yourself, “In a nutshell, what am I trying to say?” This will get your head out of the story or the joke and help you to just say what it is you want to say and that’s when you can punch it!