You ever watch other comedians come to the club or the open-mic time and time again with new material? Are you envious? You ever watch other comedians just seemingly come up with material on the spot that makes you say to yourself “Genius! I wish I thought of that!” You ever wonder how they did it? How they seem to be able to do it time and time again?” You ask yourself how do they learn how to write comedy so well?
Well there are reasons that some comedians are good at this and some are not. In one instance you might say that a particular comedian is a “natural,” or he was “born with a gift.” But odds are he or she wasn’t “born with it” at all. Very few babies pop out of their mother’s womb saying stuff like “You call that a birth canal? It’s more like trying to push an egg through a stir stick!” or “Hey, Mom! Shave that! Haven’t you heard of a ‘Brazillian?’”
In most instances people who seem to be “born with it” actually had early exposure to comedy either through video or audio when they were younger. If you, as a child are exposed on a regular basis to the rhythms of comedy you begin to identify with comedy more readily and apply it in your life.
Your personality definitely has something to do with it. But the comedian then takes the next step and makes a conscious decision to actually apply it in their life. A light switch goes off and they say, “Hey, I can get laughs with this!” They then begin to recognize what they are doing that gets them laughter and they begin to replicate it. Whether they know it or not, they are learning how to write comedy.
A really good comedian will also study other comedians then apply some of the nuances to their material, recognizing patterns that seem to be consistently effective and use those in their approach to comedy. They see a comedian make an observational joke, then they observe something with a similar nuance and apply it to their repertoire. As they get better at this, they may start writing this stuff down and then actually take the leap, build an act and start pursuing comedy. The more they do comedy the more they readily identify with the patterns and apply them more.
For example, since I was seven years old, I listened to George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby, constantly. They all do a lot of observational material. When I was twelve, I went to the Post Office with my father. There was a sign on the door that said, “NO DOGS ALLOWED, EXCEPT ‘SEEING-EYE DOGS’.” I said, “Dad, what’s a ‘seeing-eye’ dog,” (imagining a dog with one really big ‘seeing’ eye…).
He said, “It’s a dog that helps blind people get around…”
I looked at the sign, looked at him and said, “Then who’s this sign for?”
He thought that was really funny. A few years later, I heard comedian Gary Shandling do that same thing as a joke and get really big laughs. I thought to myself, “Wow, if I just collected a whole bunch of those ideas, I could get laughs too!”
It’s almost like a guitar player. You ask any famous guitar player, they’ll tell you how they learned a riff from another guitar player then developed a variation or multiple variations on that riff, until they had their own brand. The more riffs they learn, the more they developed their own version, soon they are the guitar player everyone is emulating.
What’s my point? The point is that a comedian learns to identify with patterns that get laughs. When those “patterns”—whether they are rhythmical patterns or recognition patterns—are part of what some of us in comedy refer to as “comedy structure” or “comedy formula.”
Some comedians, like Dave Chappelle, for example (one of my absolute favorites) develop an understanding of these rhythms by trial and error and experience. Chappelle has been doing stand up comedy since he was thirteen. He has learned what seems to work by developing and tuning his instinct. Jerry Seinfeld (another favorite of mine) also works almost totally on instinct. And when I say instinct, they apply formulas and patterns—not consciously knowing the formula—but because it ‘feels’ right.
In my twenty-five years as a comedian, comedy writer and diligent student of comedy, I have identified 11 major comedy formulas used in comedy today. I’ve learned to memorize them and put them into practice on a regular basis. Now when I write comedy they almost automatically come out and get applied to my stories. They also are a part of my conversation and thought process. Learning these formulas has helped me become a solid comedy writer, being able to write 60-120 jokes a day or more, because studying the formulas helped me really learn how to write comedy. I use these formulas on a daily basis to write comedy and in one of my other blog posts I demonstrate how I do this to write 15 jokes on one topic in thirty minutes.
Once you learn that comedy does have rhythms and patterns (formulas and structure) that do get consistent laughs and in fact are the reason all comedians trigger laughter from an audience, you will be a better comedian and comedy writer yourself. Learning the formulas early helps you to cut through the learning curve and instead of being a comedian that relies purely on their instinct, you can be the comedian who knows why a joke is funny and how to put it into your comedy whenever you want. Then you’ll be the comedian who knows not only how to be funny, but also, how to write comedy.
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.
There are a lot of sayings I remember from the greats, that stick with me to guide me and motivate me during my journey in comedy. I thought I’d share some with you while telling you a story in this comedy lesson that may help you learn to avoid not being invited back.
Spencer Tracy once said, “Be nice to everyone on the way up, because you meet those same people on the way down.” No place is this more true than in show business. Every business has their fair share of heady, selfish, temperamental people but show business tends to get more than its fair share. And it’s in this business where your attitude can get you in big trouble and that’s what this edition of comedy lessons is focused on.
One of my favorite sayings is actually from a club booker in Vegas: he said, “Jerry, I’m-a break your legs…” Kidding! The booker is Tony Camacho and he books Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club at The Tropicana Hotel. He said, “Be remembered NOT for what you do off-stage. Be remembered for what you do on-stage.”
Coming up in this business I learned to always be nicer than expected, earlier than expected and more prepared than expected and I try to convey that to my students in my comedy courses. Clubs have rules and if you don’t respect the rules you can do yourself and your fellow comedians a disservice.
One of those rules in comedy is to “mind the light.” In most comedy clubs, you are given a certain amount of time to perform on stage. At many of the clubs in L.A. it’s 5-7 minutes, sometimes you can get longer, but most clubs you get 5-7. Clubs have a system to let the performer know when their time is up. Usually there is a light set up somewhere in the showroom that will be turned on when you have 1 minute left in your set. After that, the light flashes and that basically means ‘get the hell off the stage.’
Minding your light shows that you are a professional. It shows that you know how to put together a 5-7 minute set, execute it, and get off the stage on time. Subsequently, it shows a T.V. talent coordinator that you know how to craft a tight set and wrap it up on time and in television, time is crucial.
My class recently had a showcase at the Comedy Store in the main room and one of my comedy students decided he would ‘run the light.’ This essentially means he planned to intentionally go over his time to try to get more time on the stage and thus a longer set on video. He bragged about it back stage and then took the stage. At six minutes his light came on and right then he started a bit that was at least 3 minutes long if not longer. At seven minutes the light started to flash and he ignored it, continuing his set.
The show producer cued music stopping this comedian in his tracks. (Music being played is the equivalent of the ‘hook’). The comedian said, “good night” and left the stage. But running the light wasn’t bad enough for this comic, he then bitched and moaned about it backstage while other comedians were trying to get into the right frame of mind to prepare themselves for their sets. Then he stormed out from the backstage area to the back of the showroom and started yelling at the producer, “That’s f**king bullshit. That’s so unprofessional!”
The comedian not only was incredibly unprofessional himself and intentionally ignored the light, he then started blaming everyone else! The guy has zero introspection a sure-fire personality flaw that will ultimately lead to failure…unless you’re Christian Bale.
This is one of the fastest ways to not be asked back by a club producer or booker. Despite the fact that this comedian was told numerous times to mind the light in the past, he thought he’d disrespect the club, the booker and his fellow comedians. The audience heard his yells of protest, too, as he marched to the back of the showroom.
So what’s the comedy lesson? He’ll definitely be remembered, not for what he did on-stage, but for what he did off-stage, and probably won’t—at least by that booker—be invited back.
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.
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!**