How Developing Habits Makes You A Better Comedy Writer

image How do you start your day?

How do you end your day?

I bet that if you walk through the motions, step-by-step, you can pretty much rubber-stamp habits like preparing for bed or waking up to go to work.

Like, for me, going to bed might be mapped out in steps like this:

  • Check the doors to make sure they are locked
  • Turn out the porch light and the light in the Foyer
  • Tell Fairchild (our Butler), that I will have tea in the library prior to turning in.
  • Set the thermostat
  • Get undressed
  • Use the bathroom
  • Brush my teeth, etc.

All of these—except for the smart-ass and fictitious ‘Butler’ comment—I don’t really have to think about.

I do them automatically, and I bet if you mapped out your morning or evening habits, you would probably be able to say you do them automatically too.

What about your morning commute to work? Do you have to think about it? Or is it automatic?

Unless you’re like some people I know who use a G.P.S. to get everywhere, all the time, (and you know who you are), your drive to work is probably automatic. You don’t have to think of the low-level details required to get there.

How does this happen? How to we train our brains to utilize ‘automaticity’ with certain tasks or behaviors?

PRACTICE

That’s right, practice. The behavior of repetition. Repeating a task over and over will help you train your brain to do it automatically.

Without thinking about it.

That makes sense to most of us. But how do you change a habit or better yet, develop a solid habit?

Willpower is a Finite Resource

Relying on sheer willpower to develop a new habit is not necessarily a good idea. Willpower, according to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is a finite resource and it suffers depletion after use.

A study actually done on this phenomenon called “ego-depletion,” shows that after willpower is exerted in one area, it becomes harder for an individual to exert it in another.

Have you experienced this?

With the understanding of this new knowledge of “ego-depletion,” it would seem wise to slow down your habit changing and apply it in a more focused way.

If you’re like most people, you probably come up with more than one New Years resolution, right?

Then you try to apply these new behaviors all at once.

“I’m gonna go to the gym everyday…”

“I’m gonna eat more salads.”

“I’m gonna stop drinking, smoking and drugs.”

“I’m gonna write some clean comedy.”

That seems like a small list, but according to the behavior studies, most people have 10 or more resolutions and those who tried to implement and develop these habits all at once, would soon fail miserably at all of them.

Focus on One Task at a Time

One way to really ensure that you will have a high rate of success on developing a new habit is to focus developing only one at a time.

If you slow down and take one habit at a time and give it your complete focus and attention your odds of experiencing ‘ego-depletion’ are drastically reduced.

So if you want to “wake up earlier” or “write some clean comedy,” then try doing only one of those for a month. That’s right 30 days of only one habit.

Although some studies say it takes 60 days to fully develop a new habit, other studies say habits can be developed in 20 days and since we are focusing on one habit at a time, 30 days seems practical.

If you actually applied this and did it for a year, you could make a lot of changes in your comedy writing and in your life, overall.

Start ‘Habitualizing’ Right Now to be Funnier

Today or tomorrow, write down the 10-12 new habits you want to apply to your comedy or your life.

Choose which one is most important to you or most needed.

Then spend the next 30 days implementing it by writing it in your daily calendar and making it an appointment.

Really map it out!

Say for example I want to be funnier in my everyday life. I know through experience, that one of the easiest ways to be funnier is to utilize the Double-entendre comedy structure. Simply put, using the secondary meaning of a word to respond to a comment from someone. They say something with an intended meaning and you respond with the comedic meaning of the word or meaning of the phrase in its entirety.

If I decide that I’m going to sharpen that sense or strengthen that muscle in my comedy, I would practice with random sentences, then find a word in that sentence that could have multiple meanings.

Then I would write a few lines in response to the original line using the comedic interpretation of the word.

For example, if I was in the grocery store and the clerk said, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

I might respond with, “Well, I found the wine and some candles, but I couldn’t find a soul-mate… you had Mahi-Mahi, but I’m not into twins…”

Or try to write another line in response to “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

“Everything? Can you tell me where I could find a hot chick who digs bald guys who jerk-off and eat hot pockets?”

If I did this every day for a month, with five random lines, without fail, I would be a sharper, faster, funnier writer in no time. Plus I would have a habit developed to do it everyday.

With 12 months in the year and 12 Major comedic joke structures, applying habits each month could make you one Hell of a writer in a year.

Get to Work

So what are you waiting for? Now that you have a process and an understanding, select those habits you want to change. Implement your focus and start changing the way you work, by developing new habits to become a better comedy writer.

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Patton Oswalt: “I stole a Joke. Not consciously.”

patton-oswaltIn a recent blog post about joke-thieving, I posted that Howie Mandel allegedly caught a comedian named Greg Wilson “stealing” a joke on America’s Got Talent.

It generated a lot of comments; some agreeing, some disagreeing with my post, some attacked, some complimented. Some people sent private emails to avoid getting into it in the comment thread.

The piece was written in a heightened way to draw attention to a dilemma we always face as writers and comedians; intellectual property theft.

Whether it’s a joke or a movie script or a television pilot idea, I’ve experienced it personally at several levels. And I expect to experience it more.

But the questions remain:

What do you do about it when it happens to you?

How do you keep from doing it yourself?

Who cares if I use someone else’s material?

I think the best advice I got on joke-stealing is from Jay Leno. He said, “Just write faster than everyone else and your reputation will precede you.”

He also says to people that accuse him of stealing a joke, “You keep it. I’ll write more.” Great advice. I highly recommend not only following it, but making it your code.

My Irish temper sometimes impedes my ability to make sound and reasonable decisions in a lot of situations. It can especially get in the way when someone steals a joke.

Temper can manifest itself in many ways. It once manifested in the Comedy Store parking lot with another comedian’s bloody head bouncing off the hood of a Trans Am.

Some of you might be saying, “Oh my God, Jerry! I can’t believe you would do such a thing to a Trans Am!”

Why not? It was the nineties and Trans Ams were so previous decade!

Despite the fact that I’m no longer the guy who reacts like that, I still like to defer to people who are smarter when it comes to trying to sort out an answer to a popular problem…

Patton Oswalt is smart, funny involved and completely dedicated to the business of comedy. I follow his tweets (when I can) and read his “Spew.

I think it’s always a good idea to follow people who are smarter than you, funnier than you and ultimately more successful than you so that you can continue your journey to be the best you can be.

One of the suggestions he gives in his “Closed Letter To Myself about Thievery, Heckling and Rape Jokes,” is to let the joke thief steal. Eventually he’ll reach that point of no return, where the thief will—with the help of other comedians’ material—reach the level of network T.V. as a performer or a writer, then crash and burn because they didn’t get to that level by developing their own creativity.

Because at that level when it’s all on them to ‘create,’ their creative well is a dust bowl. They become the reason for their own demise.

So take some time (it’s a long piece so grab some coffee), and give Patton’s article a read. I think he’s got a better solution to understanding the thievery dilemma than I.

I mean, unless you really hate Trans Ams.

Writing Funny about Proposition 8

gay-marriage-still2So you wake up early today. Maybe you go for a run, maybe you walk the dog, maybe, like me, you’re up early because you have a toddler in the house who wakes you up, because they don’t know that you’ve been up the night before trying to write.

But you feel like today is a good day.

It’s so good in fact, that today you’re going to get some good comedy writing done. You’re going to spend today writing some funny!

So you grab your coffee and you sit at your computer and you…

Look at CNN.

Look at E.S.P.N.

Check the Huff Post.

You look in the Top Stories, The sports section, the entertainment section for something that pops out at you that is funny weird, whacky or quirky.

You spend so much time trying to find inspiration to write some thing that could be funny that you don’t wind up being able to write funny at all.

In fact, you write nothing.

Hovering over you is this big amorphous goo labeled “funny” and you can’t seem to make heads or tails of it. (Does goo even have a head or tail?).

What happened?

Mistake #1: You sat down to write something funny.

Mistake #2: You looked for things that are already funny, quirky or weird in stories, news or events.

Mistake #3: You forgot to start with anything that affects you inspires you or pisses you off.

One of the best lessons I ever learned in comedy, I learned from George Carlin. He changed the way I looked at comedy. He said, “Take the stuff that drives you crazy… the stuff that makes you mad… the stuff that makes you want to call ‘bullshit,’ put it all down on paper… then MAKE IT FUNNY!

Take events, situations—whether they be political, sociological or interpersonal—and if they trigger you to call bullshit, get pissed off, angry, upset, confused and write them down; facts and all.

Don’t think about being funny, think about telling the audience what you think is wrong with the idea. How you would fix it. What dumb things have been said about it by dumb people.

Remember the Maxim of the five W’s: Who, What, Where, Why and How. (and Who cares, if you want to take your audience into consideration).

Just write down the facts like a rant.

Then you can go back and plug in the funny using the 12 Major comedy structures and 8 Major psychological elements that trigger human laughter.

I looked at the news, saw that Proposition 8 is trending and read a story on it.

Some parts of the story bothered me so I looked into it and wrote down the facts, wrote down how it affected me. Then I talked it out loud, revisited it and plugged some more funny into it.

Wash, rinse repeat.

Rarely is anything ever ready after the first draft. Most comedy—certainly most stand up—takes rewrites, tests before an audience, then another couple of rewrites.

But if you get the ideas down on the page first, you’re already half-way there. Now you just need to plug in funny.

After a few drafts and some testing this is four minutes or so, of an hour that I did at a fund raiser in front of a predominantly conservative crowd… remember the bit started out with something that pissed me off.

George Carlin May Be Dead; But Wordplay is Alive!

George Carlin - Modern Man

Wordplay in comedy is ‘hack!"

If you believed some comedians in this industry, you might think that statement is true.

If someone said that to me today, I would tell them that one of the most memorable comedy bits in all of comedy is George Carlin’s "Seven Words You Can’t Say On T.V."

It’s pure wordplay.

They might counter that with, "Well that was a long time ago."

And I might let them believe that they’re right and let them begin that fall into the abyss of ignorance and arrogance that usually accompanies a comedian who’s been doing comedy for all of four or five years.

But not you. I would never let you fall into that abyss.

The readers of my blog–all three of you–I’ll try to not only guide you but give you supporting evidence from one the the masters…

George Carlin; a master wordsmith in comedy.

Ironic, considering that he left school in 9th grade.

And although the argument that "Seven Words" is from a different era and that it wouldn’t play today might hold some relevance; though I doubt it, I give you "Modern Man," a bit of pure wordplay comedy that Carlin did in his later years.

And I dare you tell me it’s ‘hack.’

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