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.
That’s no typo up there in the title. I’m going to rebrand the word; change it from not only a noun, but also to a verb. The act of being a comedian. The connotation is so narrow isn’t it. “…An entertainer who seeks to make people laugh with sketches and funny monologues…” But being a comedian is so much more.
“How To Comedian” is my series on equaling out the word show-business and giving comedians tools so get work, the business end of the equation. Since I was 23, I haven’t had a full-time job. Everything I’ve done has to do with being a comedian and focusing on comedy. There have been times when I slowed down on the road to spend more time with family, but ultimately all my income has come from knowing how to comedian. That includes telling the jokes and making a living.
When I hang around the comedy store or talk to other comedians, their primary concern is getting work. “There’s not enough work out there…” is the common line.
I’m going to tell you something right now: there’s more work available as a comedian than you can even imagine.
Here’s the catch: to get started, you need 3 things:
You just have to know where to find it.
You have to have the balls to go and get it.
And you have to be able to work CLEAN!
Wow! Is that all? It may seem like a small requirement and it is, but in reality only a small percentage of comedians out there have these qualities. Some have balls but can’t work clean. Some work clean, but don’t know where to find the work or they don’t have balls.
Sad, but true. Stick with me, my cheeky laugh-makers, I will guide you through.
Every year from November to January, I am booked solid with “corporates” and other events that pay between $600 and $5000 per appearance. (To be completely transparent, the $5000 gigs are not as common, but they do bite sometimes when I pitch them this price). Those gigs pretty much set me up for the following year. Not bad, huh? I’ve been doing that since my early twenties in gigs no one has ever heard of. But it didn’t come easy.
First, I had to learn to work clean. When I started, I didn’t think I could even step on stage until I had an hour worth of material. No one told me what I needed. I didn’t have anyone to guide me. So I wrote and wrote until I had an hour. My only audience at that time, to try my material out on, was my parents and the comedy traffic school I was teaching. The material had to be clean.
Once you have your hour of clean material, (really, all you need is around 40 minutes), and you’ve honed it and rehearsed it so that it generates laughs every 20-30 seconds, (In club auditions they look for a laugh-point every 18-20 seconds, but for corporate you have more flexibility), you can begin to move to the next step: Knowing where to find the gigs.
My suggestion is to start locally. Call your local Toastmasters, Rotary Clubs and other similar organizations (they all have websites). Tell them you would like to do 15-30 minutes of comedy for one of their luncheons. Offer to do it for FREE. That’s right. FREE.
Trust me on this. When you give away your best stuff, they will buy anything from you.
When you do an event like this for free, ask them not to tell people that you’re doing it for free. Give them a professional solid, funny show and you will be amazed at how many business cards are thrust at you after your appearance. All these folks own businesses and are looking for something new. They see how effective a comedian can be at a corporate event and now that they got a taste, they’ll want to see if they can afford you.
I do this every year at different Rotary Clubs in the area and it works like magic. I always book at least one gig, usually more. Think about it, for an hour or two of my time, I book a gig that usually pays a minimum of $1000.
So let’s start there. I don’t want to make this blog too long. Comedians have a short attention span! See, this is where having balls comes in. You can’t just wait for the work to come to you, you’ve got to go out and get the work! That’s your job. That’s the first step in really learning how to comedian!
The irony of this scenario is even though this technique works like magic. Over 97 percent of comedians won’t do this and I’ll see the same faces at the Comedy Store saying, “There’s not enough work out there…”
Conan Writer Deon Cole talks about Conan’s tattoos…or the lack thereof, and how he wrote a joke that didn’t make the cut…
Deon talks about how he became a writer on "The Conan O’Brien Show." It’s an interesting story and revealed a side of Deon that I’ve seen before, liked and I’m glad to see he still embodies it. I have enormous respect for Deon. He can get on CNN and talk about a joke that didn’t make the cut. Talk about keepin’ it real, huh? We spend so much time trying to show how good we are, because we have fragile egos and Deon just lays it out for all of us. What does that teach me as a writer and comedian? It teaches me that candor is cool.
When you’re honest with the audience they love you for it. Relate it back to the Ricky Gervais video in my previous post: Rick said that "comedy is about empathy…I want to see someone who stumbles and falls and brushes himself off…" Important lessons. How do you apply this lesson? Time and time again I am asked what if I bomb? What if the audience doesn’t like you. If you’re just trying to get from point A to point B and encountering obstacles along the way, we will like you. We will root for you. In other words, let us see you stumble. Let us see you get back up, because we will root for you the whole way!
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.
Here’s another in my series on How To Be A Famous Comedian. (Disclaimer: if you’re in it to be famous, you’re in it for all the wrong reasons…you need to be in it because it’s in YOU–wait is that a Gatorade commercial? However, one of the ways to learn how to be a famous comedian is to learn from the comedians who are already famous so here’s an interesting clip from Ricky Gervais, one of my favorites)
In my classes I teach that the comedian has to be liked. You never put yourself above the audience. As the audience, we want to root for you. When you stand up there and you think you’re “all that,” you’re not going to get any respect from the audience and you’re certainly not going to get any respect from Ricky Gervais.
Take this approach into consideration when you’re writing your comedy material. When you pump yourself up for any reason, knock yourself down a peg. When I talk about my time playing soccer I say this: “When I was 20 I played professional soccer–for a short period of time, as it was a game of skill–” Then I go on to tell this story of how I played on an all Latino team and was the only white guy. But boosting myself up by saying I played professional soccer, may sound like bragging to the audience, so I follow it immediately by “for a short period of time, as it was a game of skill.” It knocks me back down a peg.
Stand up comedy is not about being prettier, sexier or smarter than the audience, it’s about stumbling…and getting back up. It’s one of the oldest formulas in comedy…I’m just trying to get from point A to point B and I keep running into obstacles. Here’s the irony: the more you stumble and get back up, the more the audience roots for you to win. I hope you enjoy the clip from Ricky Gervais. Take a look at my other blog posts, there’s a lot of information about comedy and if you liked this video, please leave a comment below. Stay funny!