This is cool!
As you might already know about me, I’m a huge fan of Jerry Seinfeld. I studied him when I was first starting comedy right alongside two of my other heroes, George Carlin and Richard Pryor.
I know, what an interesting juxtaposition! Carlin, Seinfeld, Pryor. Considering that combination you’d think my jokes might start out, “I think bugs were our first friends, you ever notice how bugs walk? Them ‘muthufuckahs’ be like…”
But alas, I my jokes aren’t nearly as clever or interesting sounding… (throat-clearing to indicate sarcasm)…
Anyway, to the point of this blog post; In my previous post I gave you all a link to an awesome New York Times interview with Jerry Seinfeld. In the interview you may have learned how Seinfeld is considered a scientist when it comes to comedy. He dissects a joke and looks for the littlest nuances to make the joke funny.
That was in the meat of the interview but if your own interest in nuance was engaged, you may have seen this little tidbit off to the side…
In the N.Y. Times journey to become more internet savvy they’ve begun to add little morsels in their sidebars to keep the reader interested.
I love this interview with Seinfeld that they posted on how he writes a joke…
He even gets down to the nitty-gritty of what kind of pens he uses and his long-hand style of writing!
It starts out in typical Jerry Seinfeld style: “I know you think people are going to be interested in this… but they’re not…”
Got an email from someone and I thought it would be best addressed in my comedy-blog. Read on:
"I have a question which has been messing with me when writing my premise or setup. i find myself trying to produce material before wednesday which are the best nights in florida for open mics. my issue is not coming up with an idea its just getting it across so before i saw your blogs i went and got a book on comedy " The Comedy Bible" which states when writing your premise you need to have a topic + attitude which i understand that concept but it also states that when starting out a joke or building the premise you never want to use I or me. i saw your blog for the 1-2-3-joke about your poker app and in your premise you start off with I. i just want to know is that a myth as well? should i throw away that idea of when writing my premise not to include I or me?"
Great question! First of all, let me get this straight: there are rarely definitives in life like "never" and "always."
Maybe some exceptions could be
- "Never perform fire eating tricks after drinking One-Fifty-One."
- "Never joke about bombs in the security line at the airport and expect to board your flight," or
- "Never use the "N-word" as a white comedian while performing at a fund-raising benefit for Malcom X."
Those might be a few things that could fit in the "never" category. But when it comes to comedy theory there are few "nevers."
I’ve never heard the rule "never use ‘I’ or ‘me’," however. And I’m glad I haven’t because I do it all the time. My comedy is about my life and it would be hard to discuss my life without using those pronouns. There are no rules to that effect as far as I’m concerned.
In fact, if you watch Louis C.K., he talks about ‘I’ and ‘me’ quite often. Same with Lewis Black, John Stewart, Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby… the list goes on.
I don’t know what Judy Carter was thinking or maybe she meant something different. But remember she named the book The Comedy Bible. It was named after a book that is so filled with distortions, contradictions and falsehoods, even the churches pick and choose what parts of it to believe!
The two things that I think are valuable in that book is that humor should come from an emotional foundation and it’s nice to have a comedy buddy.
In the end think about this: Tom Dreesen, one of the most successful comedians of his time said that comedy is 90 percent surprise. If your material has surprise, incongruity, recognition or benign retaliation, odds are it has the elements to get a laugh.
Finally, in the end, whether or not the joke contains ‘I’ or ‘me’ if the audience laughs, it’s a keeper.
If you’ve been keeping up, then you know how much I love to study comedy structure. I’ve broken comedy down into 12 major comedy structures that all the greats use. In fact, great or not, when an audience laughs, odds are they laugh because one or more of the 12 major structures are in play.
Let’s take a look at Marc Maron. He’s always made me laugh. He’s to the point, he’s truthful. If he didn’t step away from comedy for so long, I think he would be one of those comedians who could stand alongside Louis C.K.
After you watch this short clip, let’s look at the structures in play.
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Marin has kind of a throw-away, I-don’t-really-give-a-shit-if-you-laugh delivery. Notice that he still allows time for the audience to enjoy the humor. Each time the audience laughs, comedy structure is in play:
“…she texted me like fifty f**king times…”
Slight chuckle here. Isn’t this recognition? Haven’t we had someone like that in our lives or don’t we know someone like that?
“…I was showing people…she’s f**king crazy…look how f**king crazy she is…”
Another laugh at the act out. Again recognition is in play. Haven’t we all shown someone a stupid, whacky or crazy texts? But this is all a set up for the larger 3-way build-up (triple) play, because what’s next?
…then on the fifty-first text was a picture of her pussy…and I said, “Well, maybe…you know…I could…you know…”
It shattered our assumption because he laid out two early opinions building up to how crazy this chick was and there’s NO WAY I could get involved with this…
He totally misdirected us then POW! Shattered our prediction of where he was going.
Also he has recognition still in play because guys will let a lot of stuff go when sex is involved, right?
In addition, Marc’s delivery is so damn conversational and real, that we recognize that nuance in people.
But that’s not all, let’s listen to the next joke where he uses recognition again then incongruity:
“…but like two texts after that, the guy who was building a bookshelf for me, texted me a picture of the bookshelf and I was actually more excited about that…”
Recognition and surprise are in play here. When he says, the guy texted me a picture of the bookcase…(we wonder what he’s going to say, then)…I was actually more excited about that (surprise) and we recognize that place where sometimes there are more important things than sex. Hmmm…is that also ambivalence?
And here comes the incongruity:
“…there was a part of me that was thinking…you know, “I don’t have to be afraid to put things in there…” (things in a bookcase juxtapose with things in a p*ssy. One won’t give you a disease both they both relate) Clear incongruity.
“…and I know that will last…” Incongruity again juxtaposing relationships with the bookcase.
So there you have it. Marc Marin uses structure in his comedy too. When a laugh is present. Structure is present.
Feedback? Leave me some notes. Love to hear your interpretation!
So you sit down to write and nothing happens. Now what? What causes your creative process to shut down?
There’s almost nothing more frustrating than not being able to write… I was going to say there is nothing more frustrating, but off the top of my head I came up with three: two had to do with passive aggressive ex’s, and one had to do with a phone call to Bank of America…who said there’s nothing to write about?!
One of the keys to learning how to be a comedian, is learning how to write solid comedy consistently. But…
One of the biggest dilemmas we have when we write comedy is that we’re always trying to think of “funny” or “weird” things to write about. That’s not necessarily the best approach. In fact, it’s probably the main cause of your block. Your brain goes into overload trying to think of funny things. So what do you do about it?
Write the truth. Comedy derives from truth. It starts with a simple story about your life.
One of the ways I like to write is by just writing about an event or an idea. Just putting down the facts on paper (or in my case, the computer). My only goal is to tell the story. It’s usually best if the event pissed me off or otherwise triggered an emotion. That emotion is my motivation for writing the story, but it’s not always necessary. I can also write it simply from the point of observation. Ultimately the quirky, odd, weird, stupid things appear, because aren’t they out there in everyday life anyway? The only way to get to them often is to write.
Once I have the idea on the page, I can go back over the material, in a second pass, and start to identify 3 things:
These are only 3 techniques, in the dozen or so available to a comedy writer, but they are extremely effective and can help you take a regular story and turn it into a comedy bit.
Let’s quickly look at each of these:
Analogy is the process of comparing one thing to another in an imaginary or metaphorical way. If one definition of a joke is “the convergence of two or more clearly identifiable ideas,” then analogy helps you to impose a secondary idea into your story and introduce comedy. It’s “automatic incongruity” and incongruity creates SURPRISE. Once you become familiar with incongruity you’ll realize that it is one of the best ways to learn how to write comedy
Having sex with my ex was a lot like working on the bench press at the gym; I always had to wipe it down and three guys were just there before me.
You would normally not think of putting bench pressing and sex with your ex together, but that’s exactly what triggers the humor. They don’t normally fit and therefore they create incongruity and in this particular case, clear, visual imagery.
Word play is one of the easiest ways to create “plays” or “turns” in your stories. Almost all words in the English language have multiple meanings. You simply take the implied meaning and turn it into a more exaggerated meaning. Because you shatter the expected meaning, you create surprise and have a laugh point within your story.
I was checking out at the grocery story and the clerk said, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”
I said, “Well, I found the wine and the candles, but I couldn’t find a soul mate. You had Mahi-Mahi, but I’m not into twins.”
The simple play on the word “everything” changes the entire nature of the story. Without spinning the intended meaning of the word “everything,” the story would simply fall flat. Right?
The number one trigger for human laughter is SURPRISE. One of the quickest, most effective ways to get there is using a structure called a “REVERSE.” You simply change the reader’s or listener’s perception of where the story was going, by quickly pulling the rug out from under them.
I was holding my 9-month old daughter on my lap and she was grabbing at my chest hair. So I wrote down: “My 9-month old daughter loves to grab my chest hair.”
In that sentence we have a very definitive statement. In order to create surprise, we must change the definitive to an assumptive. One of the definitives in the statement is: it’s “my” chest hair. So I ask myself, what can I do to change that to an assumptive? So the statement becomes:
I have a 9-month old daughter. You know what she loves to play with? Chest hair…
So now it is assumed that it’s my chest hair. So let’s play it like that, then shatter the assumption so we have a joke:
I have a 9-month old daughter. You know what she loves to play with? Chest hair…she’ll really pull on it too. I finally had to say to my wife, (pointing at her chest) ‘You might want to get that stuff lasered.’ (You can also use “waxed,” but I found that there were better laughs with the word “lasered.”
So now that you have these techniques, you can apply them to turn your stories into comedy. Tomorrow I will show you a story that was submitted to me by a student and I will show you the process of how I turn it into something funny.
***Please feel free to leave comments. I would love to hear from you!!!***
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.