I recently posted an ad on Facebook promoting my comedy writing workshops. If you haven’t attended, these workshops are intense. You get powerful tools to write comedy on just about anything. But that’s not the point of this post.
When those ads run there’s a place you can leave comments, click “like” or “share.” When people click the ad they are taken to a page and invited to watch four writing tutorial videos.
The first video is on how to write 15-20 jokes on a single headline during breakfast.
What fascinated me was how quickly this ad was shared and liked. It received some really heart-warming comments like, “Amazing work, man!” and “Wow! Loved this video! When can I see the next one?” But again, that’s not exactly what this post is about.
The real fascination came from the skeptics. I try to avoid using the word “haters,” (it seems overused and a bit cliche), but the vitriol coming from the skeptics really urges you to lean toward the word “haters.”
The stuff that spilled into the comment box! People calling me a “hack” and “idiot,” or my favorite “aging comic.” Lol! Like you would take comedy advice from someone who hasn’t put in the time?
My mentor was George Carlin and when he mentored me 25 years ago, he was 8 years older than I am right now!
Imagine if I would’ve said, “Like I’m gonna take this advice from some aging comic!”
But instead of just discarding the ridiculous and under-examined claims from these skeptics, I decided to use them to address some misconceptions about writing your comedy.
One guy wrote, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, comedy comes from the depths of your soul.” Like that’s it. My first thought was ‘really?’
Comedy comes from the depths of your soul? That’s it? I just gotta get up on stage and talk about the depth of my soul and people are gonna laugh with me? Problem solved? Comedy gold, right?
Who needs any experience? Let’s just get up on stage and talk from the depths of our souls!
In the vast horizon of possibilities of where comedy can come from, why would anyone who’s taken any time to study this art make such a definitive and limiting statement?
Not only that, just look around! Jerry Seinfeld, “What is it with bugs?!” or “I don’t know if horses really know they’re racing. I think horses are sitting at the starting gate going, ‘I know there’s a bag of oats at the end of this and I wanna get there first.'”
Does that sound like it comes from the depths of Seinfeld’s soul?
Or take Anthony Jeselnik: “The best way to break up with a girl is like I take off a band-aid, slowly and in the shower.”
Depths of his soul? Or just a incongruous association joke about breaking up with a girl?
When you buy into the misconception that comedy only comes from the depths of our souls, you discount the silly, the ridiculous and the wildly insane.
Of course there are pieces the “depths of the soul” comment that make sense. It’s cathartic to talk about things that are deep and you have an emotional connection to. But how limiting is that statement?
It’s missing something, like, where the laugh comes from! So basically sometimes the idea can come from the depths of your soul but the comedy comes from the multiple stimuli that create laughter.
Maybe the initial idea comes from some place deep in your soul, but somewhere in the depth of your soul, some kind of laugh should occur, or guess what? It’s not comedy, it’s just sad or scary, or worse, creepy.
The relationship with my Ex is an example. It was a dark time. So the initial thoughts that inspired the material may have come from the depths of my soul, but the laughs have to be achieved through structure. In this case I use analogy and incongruous associations.
“My Ex was like a funny car; alcohol-fueled. She had the worst mood swings.
I called her the ‘Ice Princess.’ When I used to come home from a gig–before I went in the house– I would put my tongue on the front door. If it stuck, I stayed at the neighbor’s.”
One of the worst things that ever happened in my life was when my Mom was dying. The topic comes from the depths of my soul, but the laughs come from wildly exaggerating.
“Before my Mom died she had bouts of dementia. Which was a boon for me on my birthdays. She would always get me a birthday card with a hundred-dollar-bill in it. She’d be like, ‘Jerry, did I give you your birthday card?’ I be like, ‘No…’ I swear, if she was having a really bad day, I could net about a grand.”
The jokes are good. They get consistent laughs with audiences. The subject matter starts with something that may have come from the depths of my soul, but they have to engage the stimuli that triggers laughter, otherwise it’s just drivel.
In other words, the claim that comedy comes from the depths of your soul, can help us understand ONE of the possible places from which our comedy can be inspired. But stating that it’s the only place, misses the main point and it hides a vast horizon of other opportunities from our view.
Ever since the beginnings of the first attempts at comedy and comedy writing, there hasn’t been a single way to write or present comedy. There are only choices among an infinite palette of possibilities.
Ever go on a road trip with friends or family. You leave at a certain time and you expect to arrive at a certain time. So in your head you plan what happens when you get there.
If you’re going skiing, you know you’ll have time to stop at your favorite restaurant before you head up to the slopes.
If you’re camping you know you’ll have time to pitch the tent, get the fire going, cook some grub and crack a beer. But then…
Traffic stops. It doesn’t even move. There’s no off ramp. Other people are shutting off their cars. Truckers are getting out of their cabs. That’s never a good sign.
It’s a momentum killer.
That’s what happens when you stop taking action in your career.
When I started in show business, I was an actor. I had the fortunate experience of watching my Dad go through his career as an actor. There were ups and downs. Sometimes the downs were really down.
There were slow periods followed by an actor’s strike then a writer’s strike. My parents had to sell their house during that one.
Eventually my Dad hit the big job. A series regular on a show called “Murphy Brown.” Which was a top 10 show for many years. He was on that show for 10 years. The struggle paid off and he and my mom were set for life.
But the downs were brutal.
I said, “That’s not gonna happen to me.” Now it’s one thing to say that in a matter of wishful thinking and it’s another to take action. So right after I said, “That’s not gonna happen to me,” I said, “How can I make sure that doesn’t happen to me?”
In my 20’s I had flaming red hair. I was booking commercials like crazy. Then at some point, my hair started to recede. I wasn’t booking as many as before.
One of my casting directors, Sheila Manning, said, “We love you Jerry, but with that baby face and receding hairline, we just don’t know where to cast you.”
I was suffering the Ron Howard effect.
Some if you will be too young to understand this, but Ron Howard was an actor before he was a director and producer. He had–and still has–a baby face and is completely bald on top. It was hard to cast him with that look. He knew it, so he did a lateral move into directing.
I thank my lucky stars for Sheila Manning, her support and her honesty made me understand that it wasn’t my acting and that I had to figure out a solution to be able to make money without giving up on my creativity.
I thought was else can I do and still be in show business?
I saw an ad for a comedy class and I enrolled. I learned some joke writing concepts.
I eventually left the class because the teacher yelled at me for helping a fellow student.
I know, weird right?
Immediately I started to go to open mics, then I studied all the comedians who made me laugh. I mean really broke it down. I applied 4-8 hours per day to writing jokes and studying comedians.
Then went to 7-10 open mics a week. I noticed that all the comedians I liked had a definite structure to their material. I counted the amount of laughs they got per minute and what triggered the laugh.
I noticed that out of the 20 comedians I was studying, there were definite patterns.
I studied The Tonight Show and the monologue. Recorded the shows. I wrote down the monologue jokes word for word and studied them.
I again noticed repeating patterns in the writing.
I started to write the first parts of the jokes and write my own punchlines. (I never used them, but it was great practice).
Soon I was writing jokes right from the news. At first I struggled with them.
Then I figured the structure and subsequently a process to writing everyday.
The process was paramount!
The process became a system of steps that I applied each day to writing current event jokes. I got this idea when I was learning more about computers.
I figured since I was going to be working a lot with computers, I should know something about how they work. One of the earliest explanations I read was that a computer executes a series of steps automatically to power up and that those steps occur each and every time.
And the computer did this no matter who turned it on or what mood that person was in.
So I realized that if I could apply this process to my joke writing.
Sort of a step1-step 2-step 3=Joke.
Eventually, I started to write jokes on automatic and I was writing a lot of them. Sometimes I’d get really edgy with the jokes and I knew they weren’t right for The Tonight Show, but I went to the Comedy Store and I gave it to a comedian, l (can’t mention his name contractually), whose voice I thought it fit. He did the joke, it got a laugh; a really big laugh!
He said he would buy the joke from me.
I learned I could write more jokes and sell them to other comedians and other places that bought jokes.
Sometimes I would just give jokes away to other comedians I knew couldn’t afford to buy them. That only helped to enhance and spread my reputation as a good joke writer.
Greeting card companies, radio syndicates, other comedians. The more I wrote, the more I sold. Then through reputation people started calling me to write material for them.
I was still performing in the clubs at night. One day I got a call from Jay Leno. He had just started doing The Tonight Show.
He tested me right on the phone! Told me a headline from the news that morning and asked me what I would do on that?
Little did he know, I was up that morning writing my jokes and I just happened to write a joke on that exact headline he gave me!
I told him the joke. He laughed. Then hired me on the spot as a contributing writer to The Tonight Show.
Some people say it was “luck.” But really? What is luck? Luck is opportunity meets preparedness!
And that comes from getting busy and staying busy. Setting goals and going for them. Creating a process and a routine so you don’t have to wait for inspiration, instead you can create inspiration. Then taking action so you can avoid killing the momentum in your career.
If you’re good you will work, but you gotta get to work. You’ve got to take action.
If the powers that be made a decision to do a reality show about Late Night television hosts they might go with the name: “10 and Counting,” (at least for now), because that is the number of hosts that are currently on the tube in both cable and network.
Checking the picture above, (from Vanity Fair’s David Kamp; Photography by Sam Jones), they are as follows: Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien, Trevor Noah, James Corden, Jimmy Kimmel, John Oliver, Seth Meyers, Larry Wilmore, Jimmy Fallon, and Bill Maher.
Ten late night hosts. Who would’ve thought that day would come? I was going to make a lame joke about “10 Little Indians,” but these days, someone out there would read it as racist and I’d get put in front of the PC firing squad, or be labeled a racist, despite the fact that I’m Choctaw.
But that’s not the point of this post. The point is to provide you with the eye-opening realization that Late Night TV is not going anywhere. It’s here and it’s not just thriving; it’s EXPLODING.
The pay is $4000 a week, minimum for a staff writer on a network show. If you write a 2-min. sketch and it makes it to air, you get paid an additional $4K. So a good writer can make a great living in Late Night.
It’s seems like not a day goes by when another sketch or clip from one of the late night shows goes viral on the internet.
I can remember a day when Leno and Letterman were fighting over the hosting spot for The Tonight Show. If you don’t remember this, it was BIG. They even wrote a couple of books about it and did a movie.
At the time pundits thought that that battle was going to wind up fracturing the audience and other doomsday theories that teetered on the ultimate demise of Late Night T.V. as a viable entertainment format.
But it’s Hollywood. Those are the same end-of-the-world elite who said that the VCR was going to lead to the end of movie theaters, as the T.V. was going to lead to the end of radio and the radio was the end of live performances.
And, in case you didn’t know, the internet is leading to the end of it all.
But those who know the internet are keenly aware that it is just an additional way for everyone to get even more exposure.
The fact is Late Night T.V. is big and it’s continuing to grow. From the picture above you can see clearly that all the Late Night hosts are male. But that’s soon going to change as Chelsea Handler plans to launch her new Late Night show on Netflix sometime in 2016.
Not only that NBC is planning an all-comedy Video-on-Demand (VOD) portal called ‘Seeso,’ that is already developing original content. (Yeah, I know, what’s up with the name?).
But what does this mean for you? Opportunity!
The opportunity for writing in Late Night TV continues to explode. We’ve never had more movement in that industry. There are more shows. And more shows need more content. Who’s going to provide that content? Comedians and writers like you!
It’s time again to start thinking about putting your Late Night Writing packets together and start submitting.
Writing for the fickle and very specific format of Late Night television takes a unique skill set. Learning that skill set could set you up with one of the coveted jobs as a Late Night T.V. Comedy writer.
Why coveted? The pay is $4000 a week, minimum for a staff writer on a network show. If you write a 2-min. sketch and it makes it to air, you get paid an additional $4K. So a good writer can make a great living in Late Night.
And with 10 hosts and growing, there’s never been a better time than now to prepare.
Leave a comment below if Late Night TV Comedy Writing is something you’re coveting! And if it is, what is are the top 2 obstacles that are stopping you from going for it?
If there was a big yellow caution sign for anyone in the comedy world it should be “Watch for Big Head”
One of my most notorious weaknesses in comedy is trying to be too clever.
I’ve spent nearly thirty years, not only as a comedian and comedy writer, but also as a comedy scientist; figuring out what makes something funny and how to bottle it so it can be reproduced at will.
Sometimes I’ll write a joke and think to myself, ‘that’s too simple… that’s not going to get a big laugh,’ only to try the joke on stage and get not just a great laugh, but an applause break.
I wrote a joke the other day and opened with it that night at the Comedy Store:
“The republicans are consulting with Caitlyn Jenner on how to best deal with Donald Trump. You know, since she’s now the expert on how to quickly eliminate a dick.”
The joke got a crisp laugh, then solid applause followed… and just earlier I was in my ‘big head’ I wondering whether that would even get a good laugh.
It’s Easy to Get Too Clever
The more experience we have in comedy, the easier it is to get too clever; to get stuck in analysis of the joke.
Most solid comedy is about simple associations, recognition and release of tension. Because Caitlyn Jenner, Donald Trump and the presidential race are all politically charged and issues that are now, it’s more likely to create tension and provide for solid release. And since release is the one of the top triggers for applause, it worked.
But because I was in my ‘big head,’ I second guessed myself.
If it Sounds Funny, Do It!
Sometimes, we have to remember to get out of our own way and write what we think is funny. Does it sound funny? Does it feel funny? Then do it.
Emmy Award-winning writer, Gene Perret said, “Sometimes the joke doesn’t need to be categorized. Sometimes it defies explanation, it’s just funny.
He goes on to say,
“Steven Wright, one of the most inventive comedy writers of all time, has a line that defies categorizing, that reads:
“When I was a kid we had a sandbox in our back yard that was filled with quicksand. I was an only child… eventually.”
Kathleen Madigan had a line in her act during the time when the book Final Exit, a controversial book on how to commit suicide, was first published. She talked about being in a bookstore checkout line behind a customer who was buying it.
“The guy was about to pay $19.95 for a book on how to commit suicide. I said, ‘Hey man, I’ll stab you in the head for five dollars.'”
Mr. Perret makes a good point. Although each of these jokes has a definite reason that they would trigger laughs, they don’t necessarily fit into any category. They are just funny.
I like explaining and understanding ‘why’ something is funny. It’s my life’s work. But sometimes you don’t need an explanation, sometimes funny is just funny.
So resist the temptation of getting into over analysis of the joke, if it feels funny, just do it.
In other words, watch out for ‘big head.’
Got an email from a kid, (I say, kid but for all I know the guy could’ve been fifty!), it said, “Hey Jerry I’m new in comedy. What’s the best way to start building a comedy set? Should I write it down first or just do stuff that my friends think is funny?”
This is a great question and one I receive a lot.
One of the benefits of people leaving me comments at the bottom of my blog posts and sending me emails is that I can then turn around and answer them on my comedy blog.
So how do you write a comedy act if you’re an absolute newbie?
The thing is that there’s no single answer to this question. Comedians work different ways.
I emphasize writing, because that’s how I started.
I studied other comedians then started taking the things that happened in my daily observations and wrote them down.
I didn’t begin performing until I had what I thought was an hour of material. I didn’t think you could start until you had an hour, because that was about the length of all the comedy albums I was listening to at the time.
Of course we know differently now. You can begin to perform in comedy if you have three to five minutes.
I started by doing observational, external material, because I wasn’t yet comfortable talking about myself.
Two things that stand out in my recollection:
1. When I was twelve I went to the Post Office with my father and there was a sign on the door, it said, “NO DOGS ALLOWED, except seeing-eye dogs.”
I said to my father, “Dad, what’s a ‘seeing-eye’ dog?”
He said, “It’s a dog that helps blind people get around.”
I then said, “Then who’s this sign for?”
My Dad thought it was funny. I didn’t even think it was a joke. Years later I heard Garry Shandling do almost an exact version of that which I didn’t even think was a joke and he got big laughs.
But at that time I was playing soccer and music and didn’t have any interest in performing or writing comedy.
2. When I started studying comedy another Garry Shandling joke stood out. The joke was, “I just sold the house I live in. Got a great price for it too. Made the landlord mad as hell…”
The first Shandling joke just stuck out to me as simple observational humor, (which I now know is more than just a simple observation; it’s more paradoxical, possibly tipping into irony), which is more powerful than simple observation.
The second one is pure structure. It is a perfect reverse. Being armed with this information changed the way I went about creating my early comedy sets.
I still have my very first performance on VHS. I watch it and it’s okay, but the structure is sloppy and it just sounds unorganized. It was me telling stories and observations that weren’t economized and reduced to what I know a tight bit should sound like now.
There are three primary techniques I use when creating a comedy routine. The first way is to always write down things that are funny. Usually when I’m with a group of friends and something occurs that makes me and them laugh, I will write it down to possibly use later.
The other technique is to sit down and write jokes. I prefer this technique because I don’t have to wait for the coincidence of the moment with friends or a funny situation to just happen to ‘occur’ to me. I can just sit down and generate material.
I do this by utilizing about 23 different approaches, but for the sake of this blog post, I will just write about two approaches. Here they are…
They are simple called “Fifty Facts” and “Fifty Random Lines.” That’s where I will write down fifty facts about me. The procedure usually goes like this:
- Write down 50 facts about me; just facts.
- Sometimes I will get the facts from answering questions on a personality profile quiz.
- Select 10-25 of those facts that seem to antagonize or inspire me most.
- Put each of those lines on a page and try to utilize 3 primary comedy structures:
- Double-entendre using the implied meaning of a word and turning it into the comedic meaning. (Ie: Came home from work the other night and I say to my wife. “How you doin’? She’s says, “Having some gas pains. I’m like, “Everyone is, it’s like four bucks a gallon again.”).
- Incongruity (finding and juxtaposing 2 or more contrasting ideas that are in the line ie: “I’m Irish and American Indian. You know what that means? I pretty much have VIP seats waiting for me at any AA meeting.”).
- Reverse (as in the Gary Shandling joke above. Ie: “You know what my baby loves to play with? Chest hair and she’ll yank on it too. Finally I had to say to my wife, ‘You know, you might want to get that shit lasered.”).
- After I have several jokes written, I go back and flesh the jokes out with tags, toppers and act-outs, to bring the jokes alive and get more laughs per minute from each.
- I will then repeat this process with the 50 Random Lines which are external facts, headlines, ad copy, statements from leaders, etc.
This is of course the simplified version and a lot more goes into it. But this is the beginning. After I have about five minutes (a page and a half at a 12 point Times New Roman font ), I then rehearse it out loud. When we say our material out loud, different creative parts of our brains are being accessed and new ideas will be inspired. I audio record all out loud rehearsals so I don’t miss anything. After I rehearse it 25 times all the way through, I then perform it on stage…
Remember I said I used three techniques? This is the third; performance.
When you’re on stage in front of an audience you, once again, have new sensations that are occurring and your brain is in somewhat of an altered state resulting in new impulses and ideas which will continue to help you to shape the act even more.
So in answer to the “Kid’s” question, you can use what works for you, but for me it’s a combination of writing jokes, recording coincidental observation and letting the act evolve in performance.
This is a simple approach I also look for paradoxical situations, comedic irony and one of my favorites, benign retaliation. To really dig deep into all of the available laughter triggers and comedy structures dig into my eBook writing system, “Breaking Comedy’s DNA” and start to really break into comedy writing.
If you have any questions about getting your act started, leave me a comment below. Love to talk to you!