Holidays Can be Stressful or They Can be Comedy Gold, Your Choice!

Stay funny during the holidays

First of all Merry Christmas to everyone.  And those who don’t celebrate Christmas, Happy Hanukkah! And let’s not forget Kwaanza, Boxing Day, Winter Soltice, Pancha Ganapati, Yule, Yalda and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. Happy that to you too!

And the rest of you will probably burn in an eternal Hellfire.

Festive Huh?!

I try to include everyone because I’m a self-proclaimed Catho-Christi-Hinuistic-Musli-Morma-Jew. I am! I don’t want to miss out on Heaven because of a technicality!

I love the holidays, but every year we hear stories about how stressful the holidays can be.

Suicide rates go up, family arguments occur, anxiety and depression increases, crime increases and so do heart attacks.

That’s not fake news, those are facts and I know it sounds drastic, but as a comedian I say, “Comedy Gold, right?!”

This little blog post is just a friendly reminder that despite the chaos and heightened everything that trends significantly upward during the holiday season, remember that you are a jester and revel in it!

Keep your eyes out for funny nuances of family members. Remember that little squabbles that feel so stressful during the holidays can become hysterical bits of comedy for your stand-up, your columns or your tweets.

One way to be sure you’re keeping your sense of humor is to remember to keep your cynical glasses on. Every comic is a bit of a cynic. We look outside the situation to see the funny in the situation.

If you’ve followed this blog at all you know that I’m emphatic about looking toward the opposite of expected to find the funny. If the number one psychological human laughter trigger is surprise, then looking for the opposite of expected is almost a magical way to find the funny. Or a funny start to a bit.

One exercise that helps is to utilize a top 10 list as a punchline generator.

  • Top 10 Reasons you know it’s Christmas in Los Angeles, (or where you live)
  • Top 10 Reasons you know it’s the Holidays at your house.

I know a lot of people who are in mixed marriages or whose parents are two different religions. You could start with something like…

“My father was raised Catholic. My mother was raised Jewish…”

Then do a top 10 list related to how you know it’s the holidays at your house to generate joke ideas.

Remember the Top 10 exercise is not designed for you to create a Top 10 List for your act, per se. That was Letterman’s bag. It’s there for you to generate punchlines and joke ideas for you to finesse into stand-alone jokes or jokes to fit into an bit.

Whatever works for you, just remember that humor is everywhere and seeking it out during the holidays, may reduce the stress that can actually come from the holidays.

Making it your goal to find some funny will help you to actually keep your Happy Holidays, happy!

Trying to Write Jokes, but Feeling Stuck?

So you’re writing and you get a premise down on the page and then… it just doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Does this happen to you?

I was Skype-coaching with one of my students today and he said, I’ve been trying to write, but I keep feeling like I’m getting stuck.”

It can be super frustrating, especially when you’re just writing to put something, ANYTHING, on the page.

So how do you take that idea and make it into something?

First off, it’s important to understand WHAT you’re writing. Often you have an idea but you can’t figure out where to go with it.

Come up with an Angle

Sometimes it’s because you haven’t come up with an angle.

Writing comedy is much like journalism or script writing. You’re telling a story, but for the story to gain interest right at the setup, it must have an angle.

An angle in story writing is much like your opinion on the matter. It’s what starts to shape the premise. Without an angle there is no premise and without a premise, it’s usually not interesting.

Sometimes the angle is subtle. It’s stated in what’s called a topic statement or in script talk it’s often referred to as “theme stated.”

For example. I talk about having 5 kids. Then I say I have 5 kids from 3 different moms. Often, someone in the audience will emit an audible gasp, or a “Wow,” or “Ohhh…” That’s when I’ll laugh, point out and say, “There’s the judgement!”

I’ll follow that with a couple of tags. But it’s when I say, “I just couldn’t figure out relationships…” That’s when it becomes interesting to the audience. That’s something almost everyone can relate to. Also by saying “I just couldn’t figure out relationships…” Gives me an angle to approach the rest of the story.

Now I can talk about each relationship the curious craziness of my ex and my glaring failures.

Some times it’s easier to find the angle once you step out the idea…

I approach it like I’d approach writing a script from the seed of the idea. One of the first things you have to remember is a story isn’t a story without the Maxim of the 5 W’s being present.

Meaning Who? What? Where? Why? When? and How? Without answering all those questions, there’s going to be huge gaps.

In comedy, by answering those questions you start to clarify the imagery and enhance the idea by adding more specifics, more detail.

Sometimes the jokes are in the details

Sometimes the detail is what gets you to the jokes and the detail can change the direction of the joke, just like a screenplay or a story.

So my student said he went shopping for a washer/dryer with his wife. He was just looking at why he AND his wife need to go shopping for appliances. But as we stepped out the idea it began to shape up in a different way because he was inspired by a new angle.

We talked about the reasons why, answering one of the maxims. Then I asked “What?” As in what kind of washer did you wind up buying?
He said, “Samsung.”

To me, Samsung seemed like a weird answer. In my head I was thinking, Samsung doesn’t make washer/dryers!

Boom! That sparked an emotion. Which indicates a point of view or an angle. And that’s when when we started riffing on an idea that fleshed itself out to a decent first draft bit.

The premise started to flesh out like this:

My wife and I bought a Samsung washer/dryer combination. Yeah, Samsung is now making washer/dryers. (This is the angle)—->That’s not cool. There’s a time when a company starts making shit outside their specialty and you know they’re just starting to get out of control. <—- Like Samsung makes cellphones, computer screens, flat screens. I mean I have a Samsung phone. Now they’re doing Washer/Dryer combos? That’s great and all, but every time it goes into the spin cycle my phone drops a call. Samsung Washers just don’t make sense…

So that got it started. But I try to treat a premise like a wet towel and wring it out for everything I can find.

Use an analogy to open up the premise

Often in a premise it’s a good idea to find an analogy. An analogy will introduce a second element (a dissimilar idea). This gives you a chance to do a listing technique and come up with possible associative jokes. And since it’s comedy, we heighten the reality.

So you ask, “What’s it like?” Samsung, the smartphone manufacturer making cellphones is like… (Here I’m going to wildly exaggerate to see if the analogy works), so the bit continues…

…That’s like buying a Kotex Motorcycle. What would their slogan be? “Already comes with the girl riding it.” Come down and buy a new, 2017 Kotex V-Twin. We’ll make you a great deal. Swear to god, No strings attached.
Nothing handles like a Kotex Motorcycle. Accelerates fast, turns on a dime, and it can navigate in the tightest places. AND, you can tell when she needs an oil change because she gets really moody.

A good ‘first draft’ approach

Realize that this is just a first draft approach. I don’t even know if the jokes will stay in the set, but it’s a good effort, especially considering he felt like he was banging his head against the wall and his premises didn’t seem to be going anywhere at all.

So next time you feel like you’re stuck… start with an idea, step it out with the maxim of the 5-W’s, create an angle, drop in an analogy, look for the similarity between the dissimilar ideas and write the jokes.

It’s just one great way to keep yourself from banging your head against the wall.

The Most Powerful Tool for Your Joke Writing

comedy toolbox

Here is something I want to be sure you have at your disposal. It is what I would call the most powerful tool for your joke writing. It is something everyone who’s into writing comedy material should have in their toolbox.

Even if you’re naturally funny.

It is the incongruity listing sheet. This is what I use each time I want to write jokes using the incongruity technique by taking two dissimilar ideas and converging them. It helps you create associations between dissimilar ideas.

Read the following example then download the sheet at keep it handy. It is literally one of the most powerful ways to write jokes.

But first…

Understanding Incongruity in Comedy

Incongruity is when you have a setup that contains two or more dissimilar ideas. You turn it into a juxtaposition of two ideas and create jokes.

Not all joke setups are built with the two dissimilar or contrasting ideas present.


The news keeps showing us images of President Trump signing executive orders.

In that setup there’s isn’t a clear juxtaposition of contrasting elements present. No two contrasting ideas really stand out.

What I would do is take that image of the president signing the bill and list everything I see in the picture.

Without a doubt I would wind up listing “those black folders,” since they are so prominent in every photo.

Sometimes, if the obvious contrasting ideas are not there, I will remind myself to try to use an analogy.

One way to reshape the setup so that it does contain that obvious juxtaposition is by using analogy or “is like.”

The news keeps showing us images of President Trump signing these executive orders… he’s got those black folders. It’s like he’s holding up a menu; Insert an act out, like I’m at a restaurant ordering food: “… and the lady will have the Filet mignon, grilled asparagus and a ban on Muslims.”

And since we’ve created the menu (in a restaurant) as the second or contrasting element we could continue to tag the joke with something like,

“And when they’re done with that black folder at that signing table, do they just have the hostess wipe it off and use it for the next seating?”

When the Setup Already Contains a Second Idea

Sometimes the set up includes it’s own contrasting ideas, as in:

“The body of a 40-year-old woman was found in a processing plant for McDonald’s restaurants.”

In that statement, you clearly have two or more contrasting elements present in the setup; the body of a 40-year-old woman and McDonald’s. So you don’t have to use analogy as a device to create the contrasting element. You could just use your list and put McDonald’s in one column and Body of a 40-year-old woman in the other and look for ideas that could fit in the other column either literally or as a metaphor.

For example in the list for body of a 40-year-old woman, I would probably have the word “breasts.” Can “breasts” fit in the other column for McDonald’s?

Sure! They could use it as chicken breasts, right?

Where does McDonald’s use Chicken breasts? In Chicken sandwiches. Since McDonald’s always seems to be facing scrutiny on whether or not their sandwiches contain real meat, I could make the joke like this:

“The body of a 40-year-old woman was found in a processing plant for McDonald’s restaurants. A spokesman for McDonald’s put a positive spin on it saying ‘Now McDonald’s can claim that their chicken sandwich is made with REAL breasts… 40-year-old SAGGY breasts, but real breasts, nonetheless… would you like thighs with that?”

With that one setup and the toppers I added, I could get 3 to 4 laughs out of one joke idea. Booker look for a laugh every 18-20 seconds. You could easily hit that bullseye with one joke.

So you can see how powerful this particular technique is for writing comedy.

Try it yourself.

Download the worksheet for the listing technique, print it out and use it any time!

Hope this helps!

If you want to visit this concept more thoroughly, check out the 2-Day Comedy Writing Workshop in Vegas or my eBook “Breaking Comedy’s DNA.”

Comedians Get More Applause Using This One Powerful Technique

get more applause breaks in your comedy

Vengeance is Mine!

Nothing gets a person’s pulse up more than a great plot driven by revenge. I’ve noticed that the best comedians use this super effective theme in their jokes or stories.

That’s one of the reasons why jokes about ex’s who have cheated on us can be so effective…

My Ex, who cheated on me, called me on Halloween. She said, “Jerry, I don’t know what to pretend to be for Halloween.” I said, “Why don’t you just dress normally and pretend you’re in a committed relationship?”

When you set up an antagonist, the audience has an urge to root for the protagonist, or the hero, (to those of you unfamiliar with the term).

Listen to the Audio Version

The audience becomes emotionally invested in the protagonist ‘winning’ after being wronged.

As a result, the audience is excited and gives more at the punchline. They laugh harder and not only that, they are also compelled to applaud.

There are two reasons for this:

  1. Since the individuals in the audience have also had an experience with being betrayed or otherwise slighted, they empathize with the comedian’s dilemma and are automatically emotionally invested. Since they have a similar experience, they want to see how you resolve it. So, when you avenge the wrong that was done to you, the audience feels that they also win. So it’s a more personal experience for them, so they applaud the win.
  2. By it’s nature as a structure in storytelling, the theme of revenge contains the critical combination of tension & release. There is immediate conflict and resolution which gives the story that necessary rise and fall that any story contains if it is to have a good beginning, middle and end.  The advantage is that our audiences are already groomed to applaud when a story resolves. (Think about songs, when they end the music resolves back to the tonic note in the key, resolving the tension). And when a song ends, the audience naturally wants to applaud.

To highlight this point, sing the end of the National Anthem or any country’s anthem. “… and the home of the brave…” That tension to resolution, urges the audience to applaud. Dropping that concept into your set, even in mini-doses, is almost like plug ‘n play applause breaks.

It’s a brilliant concept!

An Antagonist Makes the Revenge Delicious

You’ve heard the phrase “revenge is a dish best served cold?” In comedy, revenge must be served proportionally. Comedy revenge is usually not murder or real physical harm–let’s face it, you’re probably not going to get laughs if your girlfriend cheats on you and you stab her in the throat–it’s usually more like intellectual retribution…

… like when Rosanne Barr says,

“My mother says the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I think the best way to a man’s heart is straight through his chest.”

I refer to this structure in comedy as “benign retaliation.” Meaning the revenge does not physically harm the antagonist and is usually proportional to what they did to you and saying it in words metaphorically as a cliche reformation, is much more symbolism than literalism.

Although, once the audience is rooting for you as the protagonist, it’s impressive what you can get away with as far as retaliation is concerned: even in longer stories.

“My ex was horrible with spending. But she would always justify her overspending by sale-shopping. And she would always walk into the house with these shopping bags—you know the kind I’m talking about; those paper bags with the rope-like handles. They’re made out rope so you can use it later to climb out of debt…

…or hang yourself.

And I always knew when she overspent. She would always start out saying the same thing. Maybe you’ve heard this… She would come in and say, ” Oh my God! You have no idea how much money I saved us!”

This one month we were really strapped and I said, “We need to have a moratorium on non-essential spending.” She was like “Well, I need sandals, because it’s summer. They’re only 45 dollars.” So she went out to get sandals. 

And I knew I was in trouble because when she returned she had the bags with the rope handles… and she was like, “You have no idea how much money I saved us: I got this leather jacket—normally 350 dollars—it was only 150! I got this sweater—it’s cashmere and silk—normally 150, marked down to 70! You have no idea how much money I saved us!

I said, “I thought you went to get sandals?”
She said, “Yeah, they were only 80 dollars.”
I said, “You said they were forty-five?”
She said, “Well, since I saved us so much money, I figured I would get some better sandals!”

I was pissed. A week later I was doing a gig in Malaysia. And these two Malaysian hookers approach me after at the bar after the show. They were beautiful and super seductive. They were trying to negotiate with me, you know. “200 dollars.” I’m like, “Ladies. I’m a family man. I don’t do that.” They don’t give up though. They kept trying for about 30 minutes. Finally they said, “Okay—for you—45 dollars—two of us—all night.”

The next day I called my girlfriend. I said, “Oh My God, You have no idea how much money I saved us!”

That simple story gets a lot of laughs and at the end it always—well, almost always—gets an applause break.

In real life it’s not appropriate get even with your girlfriend’s spending, by implying that you slept with hookers, but in comedy… it’s on!

An Antagonist Enables You to be More Edgy

When you build that antagonist, the audience can let you go pretty edgy in your comeback. Remember that Halloween joke at the top? Here’s the way I originally wrote it and deliver it when I’m in comedy clubs:

“My Ex who cheated on me with her boss, called me on Halloween. She said, “Jerry, I don’t know what to be for Halloween.”  I said, “Why don’t you just dress for work and when people ask who you are you can say, “Just shut up and fuck me.”

Revenge as a Literary Device

Since storytelling began, revenge has titillated readers and listeners. It compels people to listen and participate emotionally. If you can get your audience to do that (even for a short joke) you know have a real winner.

Being such a powerful theme in storytelling, comedy writers should familiarize themselves with the concept of revenge and really get an understanding for the passion in it that the audience feels.

Be Sure There is a Reason for the Retaliation

But keep in mind, that in comedy, the retaliation needs to be benign and who the antagonist is, needs to be clear to the audience. If it’s not it could be deadly to the joke.

I had an audition set in front of David Letterman’s talent coordinator. I had a pretty good set. Afterwards, he gave me a critique, he said, “I loved your stuff. But that one joke about your ex-wife. We don’t like attacks on women with no reason for them. It’s sexist.”

I realized that because I was cutting my set down for 4 minutes, I left out the part that she cheated on me, so the attack seemed to come out of nowhere. If the audience does not crave the revenge, then, quite frankly, the audience doesn’t know why to root for you and the risk is diminished laughter or no laugh at all.

Here’s the irony of that story. Two months later, the talent coordinator was fired by Late Night for an interview where he was accused of being sexist.

Take some time and build some benign retaliation into your stories.

Watch some of your favorite comedians and see how they use revenge or benign retaliation in their stories or shorter jokes.

What are some of your favorite benign retaliation stories?

3 Reasons You Should Develop Your Comedy Writing Chops

3 Reasons to develop your comedy writing chops

Open Letter

I’m gonna call this blog post an open letter to comedy teachers.

This especially goes out to one comedy teacher in particular who refers to himself as “America’s Original Comedy Coach.” (Lol, right?)

Recently, I put a post on Facebook called “911 For Your Jokes.” It’s a step-by-step walkthrough of 5 different ways to take a single subject, and develop a comedy routine, a bit or stand-alone jokes.

In the case of this particular post, the subject was ‘Flight Attendant.’ (See it in action here).

I put out these ‘freebies’ so that comedians and comedy writers (both new and old), can get some ideas and inspiration on how to get the material going.

Because we’ve all run into writer’s block, right?

Listen to the Audio Version

So “America’s Original Comedy Coach” (sorry, can’t say that without giggling), posted a comment ridiculing the fact that I was demonstrating this.

I think his comment was, “Formula #1: Don’t use any of these formulas for comedy or you’ll wind up sounding exactly like everyone else.”

You guys who know me, know that I would never usually call someone out like this, but when you attempt to ridicule me in a public forum, It’s on, bitch! :-).

Here are 3 Big Reasons you should Develop Structure in your Comedy Writing…

#1: Writing Makes it Easier to Build Structure into your Material

So let’s examine that whole “sound like everyone else” statement for a moment.

If you watch Jim Gaffigan, Bill Burr, Daniel Tosh, Amy Schumer, Brian Kiley, Whitney Cummings, Kira Soltanovich, (or any number of comedians who are currently at the top of their game), and you deconstruct their acts, you will discover that they all utilize similar techniques in their comedy routines to get laughs.

Would you say that they all sound alike?

Didn’t think so… and you want to know the reason?

They are different people!

Those comedians each have different points of view, different experiences and different ways of expressing themselves.

But it is the structure within their sets that gets the laughs. Without that structure, guess what?

No laughs.

#2: Get More Laughs

Let’s take two distinctly different, but similar comedians. Anthony Jeselnik and Brian Kiley. Below is an example of a joke each of them do.

They are using a comedy structure called the “Paired Phrase.”

KILEY: My wife and I have been married for 20 years, but there’s still that tension between her Dad and I. He’s always giving me a look like, “I know you’re having sex with my daughter.” And I’m always giving him a look like… “Barely.”

JESELNIK: I went to my girlfriend’s parents’ house over the holidays. Her Dad didn’t let us sleep in the same room. He was giving me a look like, “I don’t trust you.” And I gave him a look like, “Trust me, man… I’m fucking your daughter.”

You hear the similarity?

It’s goal of the paired phrase (in this particular context) to create pattern disruption or an expected rhythm or ending and then shatter created expectation.

When that pattern is disrupted, (with Kiley, he used self-deprecation while Jeselnik uses ambivalence and a bit of shock value), you create surprise and if you’re familiar with the 9 psychological laughter triggers, you already know that surprise is one of the most effective.

But if you were to watch Jeselnik and Kiley back to back, you wouldn’t think they sounded alike because they have totally different personas.

Jeselnik is driven by ambivalence, (being discompassionate about things society believes you should be compassionate about), and Kiley is driven by a persona that is slightly put upon and confused about the way things are supposed to work.

Using the ‘Reverse’ to Create Surprise

Another way to create surprise with with a comedy structure called a ‘reverse.’ This construct also sets up an expectation, then shatters it. When a comedian or comedy writer knows this, writing comedy is much easier.

I mean think about it. All Jeselnik has to do is to come up with a situation that we call can relate to and solve them with something unexpected.

“I break up with the girls the way I take off a band-aid; slow and in the shower.”

Kiley does a similar thing with the reverse structure by shattering our expectation with situation we can all identify with:

“I’m surprised I got together with my wife at all because when I first met her she was soooo… pregnant.”

So to say that structure is wrong is denying your students the very tools that make people laugh.

#3: Comedy Writing Enables you to Make More Money

America’s Original Comedy Coach also ridiculed my effort to encourage comedians to develop their skills in writing comedy material.

This is where I was completely dumbfounded! WTF!? Why would you NOT encourage your students to develop all their skill sets?

That’s like telling a baseball player to work only on hitting the ball. You might do pretty well when you’re up at bat, but you’ll suck everywhere else.

And, while in baseball a hitter may be considered good when he gets a hit 1 out of 3 times, if you do that in the comedy world, a talent booker wouldn’t even want you as a pinch hitter!

If you neglect developing your skills at writing you’re doing yourself a serious disservice.

Also… and this is a BIG also… when you know how to write comedy material, you have just exponentially increased your potential to create revenue.

There are so many opportunities out there for people who can write funny.

Doing stand-up and getting good is great, but learning to develop your writing chops just adds another high-revenue-creating skill set.

So, America’s Original Comedy Coach, I would rethink what you’re teaching your students and while you’re at it, maybe rethink calling yourself “America’s Original Comedy Coach.”

Think about it, man; If you were America’s original airplane, America’s original automobile or America’s original computer, you’d be obsolete.