In this mini module of ‘Comedian Lessons,’ I’m simply going to lay out a simple technique that a lot of comedians—including myself—forget to do.
Have you ever been performing a gig and you’re just not getting the laughs you expect? I mean you’ve done this material before and it’s gotten great response, but tonight, nothing! Luke warm at best. There are probably at least a dozen reasons the audience isn’t giving you the love you expect. But in this comedian lesson we are going to focus on slowing down our pace.
I was performing at a Jewish Temple fundraiser at Beverly Hills High School years ago where a ton of top comedians were performing. I mean Norm Crosby was there Max Alexander, Danny Ganz (rated best Las Vegas Act 5 years straight…but now dead…). It was a 2-night gig and I was the 3rd comedian on the bill. Most of the audience was fairly well-to-do and had left middle age in the dust in like, 1980. To say they were old would be giving them a compliment.
They were still meandering into the auditorium after the second comedian had gotten on stage.
After most were seated, they brought me up and I figured I’d kick it into gear with some high energy delivery. I felt like I needed to shake up the place. My set was okay, the audience seemed to like me, but the laughs were in short supply. When I stepped off stage Norm Crosby (Google him kids ), told me that I have really great stuff, but I need to slow down. He said, “keep your energy up but slow down. The average age of this audience is deceased so you have to really take your time.”
The next night I stepped on stage. I started fast again (I was young and hard-headed), then I glanced to the wings and Norm Crosby was standing there mouthing “slow down!” I don’t know if you’ve done this, but when you’re already moving at a fast pace, it’s tough to slow down. I looked at Norm again and he sort of took an exaggerated deep breath—I figured that he was either coaching me to breathe or he was so exasperated with me that he was finding it hard to breathe!
I finally got the message. I took a deep breath and slowed down my pace…
Almost immediately, after the breath, the jokes started to get really solid laughs and I finished strong with some great applause. Afterward I received a ton of compliments from members of the audience. It was a simple matter of slowing down, which was counter to my instinct, which was telling me to give it to them hard and fast.
Reasons to slow down:
It gives the audience a chance to hear and understand you.
It gives the audience time to properly process your set up. So your punchline will be effective.
Going fast forces the audience to think too quickly and most audiences are there to relax. If they feel they are working too hard to understand you then you are going to lose them very quickly.
One mentor once said to me: Treat your audience like fourth graders, but in a good way. Slow down and make sure you see that they are getting what you’re saying. Then they will follow you to the punch and give you a solid laugh.
That was a great lesson for me as a comedian and I hope it helped you in this module of “Comedian Lessons.”
Comedy competitions are a great way to get your name out there, meet other comics and industry professionals and develop a thick, professional skin. By that I mean that you’ll develop a bullet-proof, confidence when it comes to auditions and higher-stakes performances. Here are some tips that may help you have a better grasp on how to handle these events:
• PREPARE A TIGHT TWO MINUTES: Most major competitions, including television’s “America’s Got Talent” and “Last Comic Standing,” give you two minutes to perform in the preliminary rounds. It doesn’t seem like a long time, but if you can write and perform a set that returns approximately 10 laughs in that time, you’ll be in the running. That breaks down to a laugh every 15 seconds or so. Don’t let that fool you. It doesn’t mean that you have to do a joke every 15 seconds, it means that in the overall two minutes, it’ll average out to that. The trick is that you structure your set so that you have tags and act-outs that follow your punch lines. With this structure one joke can generate two, three or four laughs, if not more sometimes. If you’re doing other commercial comedy competitions, sometimes you might have five minutes in the prelims. Know your time and know how to finish.
• BE UNIQUE: Do material that has a unique or original point of view. You are competing against a lot of comedians. Find out what others are doing and do something, ANYTHING different. I’ve sat in the judges seat numerous times. When you see the same stuff over and over it not only gets boring, it will have a negative impact on your score.
• M.A.P.: stands for MATERIAL-AUDIENCE-PERFORMER. Your material must suit the audience and the performer. Do material that defines YOU. Also groom your material to fit the competition. For example if you are competing for a broadcast television competition, you know that the material must be “television-clean.” Best way to determine this is to YouTube comedians who appear on the Tonight Show and other late night shows and make note of where they draw the line with their material. What’s acceptable innuendo, etc. It’s not only words that get cut by the censors, certain themes are also deemed inappropriate for broadcast T.V. For example if you think you’re clean and you end your set with “…so I went to my room and jerked off!” You’re not going to get on national T.V. and you probably will not make it through the preliminary rounds.
• BE PROFESSIONAL: seems like a pretty obvious tip. But you would be amazed at how many people behave unprofessionally at these events. From showing up drunk or high to arguing with event coordinators over trivial matters, these behaviors reflect on your professionalism and will definitely reflect on your ability to succeed in a competition. Sometimes competitions come with inconveniences (whether it’s waiting in long lines, cattle calls, dealing with disorganization, etc.) be as cordial as possible and be the guy/girl who can help with the situation rather than hinder it. The organizers discuss the event with each other and if your name comes up and you’re referred to as the “asshole who didn’t want to wait in line,” then guess who’s not moving to the quarters or the semis? Perception is everything. When people don’t know you by reputation all they have is the first impression you give them. You are performing from the moment you fill out that entry form and submit your video so do it as professionally as possible.
• BE SUPPORTIVE: You are not only involved in a competition to win it, you are also in it to meet and network with other professionals. If you are supportive and friendly, odds are you’ll walk away from the competition with some connections to other future gigs. So do yourself a favor and stay positive and helpful. Don’t walk around bitching about how they could’ve done something better. It’ll usually get around pretty quickly and you’ll be labeled uncooperative.
• SUBMIT QUALITY VIDEO: Back to first impressions. If the competition has you submitting video, submit the best quality you have. Make sure the sound level is good and you can be understood and make sure the video seems reasonably professional. Don’t submit something you shot in front of your fireplace. (Don’t laugh, it’s been done!). Submit something that has been preferably shot in front of a live audience (as opposed to a dead one!) and best reflects the professional image you want to put forth. Also don’t forget–or if you didn’t know–Apple’s iPad and iPhone don’t read flash video, so if you are hosting your own video you need to post it as a .mp4 so that it can be read and playable on those Apple products. If you need FREE video conversion software, visit my post here.
• FOLLOW THE RULES: All comedy competitions come with rules and terms. A polite piece of advice–READ THEM! It’s called the fine print. Know right off the bat what you’re getting into and what the terms are. You don’t want to get there and realize that you’re not prepared or that you didn’t meet the criteria. For example if they wanted a set to be 2 minutes only. Then you better keep to the time. I don’t care how funny you are, if you break the rules, the organizers will most likely disqualify you. Don’t lose on a technicality. Follow the rules.
• FIND OUT ABOUT THE LIGHT: If you don’t know about the light by now, read this. The light is how the comedy club organizers signal the performer that his/her time is up. Find out where the light is and what procedure they are following. Is the light a flashlight as they might use at Zanies in Chicago? Or is it a light that’s fixed near the back of the room, like at the Improv in Los Angeles? Or is it a picture or neon that illuminates, like at the Comedy Store in L.A.? Know what the light is and when they turn it on. Do they give you a minute light, 30-second light? You are much better knowing this information up front. You don’t what that on your mind when you are performing.
• HAVE FUN!: This is very important. When you do a competition, have a good time. It’s a long-shot that you are going to win. The more competitions you do, the more you improve, the higher your odds. So while you’re there, have a good time. You’ll enjoy it more. It will reflect in your professionalism and it leaves your mind in a better state to identify and create new material. Who knows? While your involved in the competition you might find yourself with a new comedy bit. Five new minutes on doing comedy competitions!
• SEND A “THANK YOU” TO THE ORGANIZERS – Always send a thank you note to the organizers of the comedy competitions. As trivial as this sounds, it’s always good to stay in their good graces. Most organizers for comedy competitions usually run clubs or maintain other booking responsibilities. If you send them a thank you note with a card that has your picture, you’re keeping your face in front of them. They’ll probably look at it and say, “that was cool.” It doesn’t always convert to work. But it’s better to be remembered as “cool,” because if you stay at it in this business, you will run into those people again.
There are a lot of sayings I remember from the greats, that stick with me to guide me and motivate me during my journey in comedy. I thought I’d share some with you while telling you a story in this comedy lesson that may help you learn to avoid not being invited back.
Spencer Tracy once said, “Be nice to everyone on the way up, because you meet those same people on the way down.” No place is this more true than in show business. Every business has their fair share of heady, selfish, temperamental people but show business tends to get more than its fair share. And it’s in this business where your attitude can get you in big trouble and that’s what this edition of comedy lessons is focused on.
One of my favorite sayings is actually from a club booker in Vegas: he said, “Jerry, I’m-a break your legs…” Kidding! The booker is Tony Camacho and he books Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club at The Tropicana Hotel. He said, “Be remembered NOT for what you do off-stage. Be remembered for what you do on-stage.”
Coming up in this business I learned to always be nicer than expected, earlier than expected and more prepared than expected and I try to convey that to my students in my comedy courses. Clubs have rules and if you don’t respect the rules you can do yourself and your fellow comedians a disservice.
One of those rules in comedy is to “mind the light.” In most comedy clubs, you are given a certain amount of time to perform on stage. At many of the clubs in L.A. it’s 5-7 minutes, sometimes you can get longer, but most clubs you get 5-7. Clubs have a system to let the performer know when their time is up. Usually there is a light set up somewhere in the showroom that will be turned on when you have 1 minute left in your set. After that, the light flashes and that basically means ‘get the hell off the stage.’
Minding your light shows that you are a professional. It shows that you know how to put together a 5-7 minute set, execute it, and get off the stage on time. Subsequently, it shows a T.V. talent coordinator that you know how to craft a tight set and wrap it up on time and in television, time is crucial.
My class recently had a showcase at the Comedy Store in the main room and one of my comedy students decided he would ‘run the light.’ This essentially means he planned to intentionally go over his time to try to get more time on the stage and thus a longer set on video. He bragged about it back stage and then took the stage. At six minutes his light came on and right then he started a bit that was at least 3 minutes long if not longer. At seven minutes the light started to flash and he ignored it, continuing his set.
The show producer cued music stopping this comedian in his tracks. (Music being played is the equivalent of the ‘hook’). The comedian said, “good night” and left the stage. But running the light wasn’t bad enough for this comic, he then bitched and moaned about it backstage while other comedians were trying to get into the right frame of mind to prepare themselves for their sets. Then he stormed out from the backstage area to the back of the showroom and started yelling at the producer, “That’s f**king bullshit. That’s so unprofessional!”
The comedian not only was incredibly unprofessional himself and intentionally ignored the light, he then started blaming everyone else! The guy has zero introspection a sure-fire personality flaw that will ultimately lead to failure…unless you’re Christian Bale.
This is one of the fastest ways to not be asked back by a club producer or booker. Despite the fact that this comedian was told numerous times to mind the light in the past, he thought he’d disrespect the club, the booker and his fellow comedians. The audience heard his yells of protest, too, as he marched to the back of the showroom.
So what’s the comedy lesson? He’ll definitely be remembered, not for what he did on-stage, but for what he did off-stage, and probably won’t—at least by that booker—be invited back.
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!
“Yes, you can teach comedy. It is a skill as much as an art.” When I tell people I teach comedy. The first thing I usually hear is: “there’s such a thing as comedy schools?” “I didn’t know you could teach comedy!
That’s a point of contention with a lot of people; whether or not you can teach comedy. Well, I can sit here and tell you, unequivocally, that YES, you can teach comedy and, yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as comedy schools. Whether most of them are any good or not is an argument for another day.
I’ve been a professional comedian for 25 years. I’ve toured 40 weeks plus during each of those years. I also wrote for “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” for 8 years. About 4 years ago I got the “teaching bug.” I know, sounds like a sickness, right? I opened my own comedy school in Burbank, California. In fact, out of all the comedy schools that are listed here in the Los Angeles area, I think I’m the only comedy teacher in Southern California that has a studio dedicated to comedy 24/7. I have first-hand experience that you CAN teach comedy, because my students go up at the Comedy Store in Hollywood, CA and are told by complete strangers that they are “funny,” and I have comedians who are regulars at the Comedy Store come up to me during their showcases and say, “Those guys are students?” It’s in the stucture.
I don’t know what they do in the other comedy schools, I can only tell you what happens in mine. Time and time again, I get people coming to my comedy school saying they learned more in 1 hour in my classes than they learned from an 8-week course in the other classes. I’m not saying that to blow my own horn—well, partially—I think the reason I’m writing this is to let you know that there is a lot of crap out there. Before you go out and blow four to five-hundred dollars on any of these comedy schools, you need to do your research.
Here’s a quick 3-step process for checking out any of these comedy schools:
Look up the instructor in the internet. Does he have any video of himself performing comedy? Does he have any samples of his work in written form any where? Blogs, joke lists, comedy-writing submission packages for any of the talk shows? If they don’t have any sample work for you to see then throw out their number.
If they have video or samples of their joke-telling or joke-writing ability, ask yourself: “Does it make me laugh?” “Does this guy/girl seem to know how to formulate a joke? Do they have timing? Are they getting laughs?
If they don’t make you laugh, if they don’t seem to know how to formulate a joke and if you don’t think they have timing and can execute, then repeat step 1—throw out there number. Because going to one of those comedy schools where the teacher can’t seem to execute, is like taking flying lessons from someone who’s not a pilot. Eventually, you’re going to crash and burn.
Then ask them if you could sit in and “audit” a class. That’s where you get to see them in action, you get to see how a class is run, whether or not you fit with the “groove” of the comedy teacher and find out who they are.
I’m constantly writing and I still tour. I’m actively doing what I absolutely love and that’s comedy; both writing and performing. As far as video is concerned, you can check out a clip of me below. And it’s not just some random clip of a 2 or 3 minute segment that I pieced together with just the best stuff. It’s an hour set. Take a look! Scan through the bits. Fast forward and go back. When you get to the end, you’ll see a standing ovation. And again, I’m not telling you this to blow my own horn—(really, this time!).
I’m telling you this because I teach what I do and I do what I teach. I teach structure. It’s in the structure where the laughs come from. And I structure my whole set so that at the end there’s a build up and a release that causes the audience to respond with an ovation. It’s all in the structure.
There’s a guy online who’s offering an online comedy course (which I will be launching shortly). I tried to look for video of him online and there is none. He claims it’s because he’s worried that if he makes a come-back to stand up comedy, people will have stolen his material. I’ve got lot’s of video online. The way I figure it, if people steal my material, I’ll just write more…because I can. And so can most of my students, because that’s what I teach them. Comedy schools should teach you COMEDY, don’t you agree; both writing and performing.
So, if you’re looking for comedy schools, I would love for you to check mine out, The Stand Up Comedy Clinic. As you can tell I don’t try to mince words. I tell it like it is. Even if it’s brutal. In the words of Steve Martin, “Comedy is not pretty.”
And if you’re looking for comedy schools that you can take online, please do drop me an email and let me know. I will keep you posted when mine is completed and up on line, (ETA: October 1, 2011). This is my passion, my art, it’s what I live for and I love it. Thanks for taking a second to hear me rant on comedy schools.
Enjoy the video (it’s when I had hair!). And please leave a comment to tell me what you thought. Good or bad. Because we make our greatest strides when we learn from our mistakes. Keep laughing, my bitches! (And I mean that with love and in jest…so shut your pie hole!).