In the 25 years that I’ve been a professional comedian, I’ve faced a lot of so-called myths that have spread around the comedy circles. It’s amazing that no matter how much you work to diffuse those myths or prove those myths wrong, new comedians seem to continue to nurture and spread tired, hugely over-told and wildly understood myths. I’m using this particular post to point them out and bust them. So that they don’t continue to stifle up-and-comers. Here they are:
1. Don’t laugh at your own jokes.
One of my students was performing her act on stage and despite the fact that she’s an attractive girl, she wore this “scowl” throughout her act. It’s wasn’t a result of her point of view or her emotional approach to the joke, it was just a scowl. At the end of her set I said, “You should smile more. It opens up your face and shows you’re having a good time.”
She said, “ I don’t want to because a comic friend of mine said I shouldn’t laugh at my own jokes.”
That particular rule of thumb is so misunderstood. There’s a difference between enjoying the material and “laughing at your own jokes.” I think that rule is better applied to those comedians who laugh because the joke doesn’t get laughs. The comedian who laughs to say “hey look at me I’m funny…” is what that rule of thumb is better suited for. But you can laugh and enjoy and giggle and play all you want.
If you want to see someone who blasts that rule to smithereens, watch Craig Ferguson work. He has a great time is always laughing at himself.
Here’s a bit of theater science: “The audience is in whatever state the performer is in.” So if you’re having a good time, the audience has no choice but to have a good time.
2. Prop Comics & Guitar Comics are all hacks.
Gotta put this bitch to bed once an for all. There are a lot of comedians that think that just because they prefer to be monologists, that anyone who uses an instrument or a prop is a hack. That’s NOT necessarily true. Guitar and prop comics are simply adding an additional dynamic to the overall show. Those who waste time calling them “hacks” are either naïve or jealous.
A good guitar comic is probably booking more festivals and New Years’ shows at a substantially higher dollar rate than a monologist, because the music can take the audience to another level of participation.
If you are using props, impressions or a guitar, you better be good and the jokes better be solid and interesting, original and funny. There is a tendency for a prop comic, an impressionist or a guitar comic to use their props or instruments to get easy laughs. If you do this, you’re going to wind up being classified as a “hacky” comic. But then again if you were a strict monologist and your material wasn’t interesting intelligent, original or funny, wouldn’t you be considered “hacky” anyway?
People make fun of Carrot Top because he’s a prop comic. Why would any comedian waste time and energy bashing someone who’s doing what he loves and making a living. Bash all you want. Carrot Top has his own theater in Vegas and is one of the highest earning comedians alive today. Instead of bashing Carrot Top, comedians should ask themselves, “What can I learn from his success?”
I might not be a big fan of prop comedy, but I’m a fan of Scott Thompson, (Carrot Top).
3. “I Gotta Follow That?”
I hear a lot of comedians wait to go on stage and someone really good just finishes and they say something like, “You mean, I gotta follow that?!”
Here’s what I learned over the years in this business. The audience wants to enjoy every comedian. They really want to hear a unique and different point of view. I learned a long time ago that you’re not “following” any body. You’re just “next.”
This lesson was taught to me in a very unique way. I was a fiery and fast feature comedian back in the day, hungry to step up to the headliner position. I was writing my ass off and rehearsing and touring 35 weeks a year. I wanted to headline. So when I took the stage I poured it on. I would always give the best shows I could.
I was in Sacramento working at a club called Laughs Unlimited and it was the first night of the week and I was working with the lovely Diane Nichols. Diane had been on The Tonight Show with Johnny and Jay. I wanted to blow the doors off the place to prove that even though she was on network T.V., she couldn’t follow this gun slinger.
I went on stage and right out of the gate I was hitting all my jokes. Everything worked. I was on fire. I wrapped up and she came on stage. In an exhausted forty-something voice she said, “Wow, ladies and gentleman how ‘bout a hand for Jerry Corley…what a ball of energy huh? (Big pause)… I wish I had that kind of energy…”
The audience laughed hard. She didn’t miss a beat. She wasn’t worried about following me… she wasn’t even thinking about me. She was doing her thing and since the audience is in whatever state the performer is in, they were right there with her too.
I learned a BIG LESSON that night.
That came back to me later in my career too. I was headlining at a resort in Nevada and this guitar comic I admire, Huck Flynn, was booked as a feature. I thought the booker must have screwed up because he was rocking rooms as a headliner before I even started in comedy. But here I was having to follow him… did he take it easy on me? No way! He got on stage and blew the doors off the place. The audience loved him.
Now it was my turn. I remembered that lesson I learned from Diane Nichols… I got on stage nice and easy and I said, “Wow, ladies and gentleman, how ‘bout a hand for Huck Flynn…he can really play with that guitar, huh? (Big pause)… I’m not even that good playing with myself…”
They forgot about Huck and they were now with me, because I stayed true to me and my groove… because I wasn’t following anybody, I was just next.
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!!!***
Video is your calling card! As a comedian I like to post my videos online. I also post teaching videos, joke-writing videos, and other comedy video presentations. One of the problems I run into is that I need my video to be a specific format and it always seems like it’s not the right format for the hosting web page I’m trying to post it on.
More recently, the iPad and iPhone revealed that they don’t play flash video! So, if you want iPad and iPod users to be able to watch your videos, then you’re going to have to convert the video to mp4 format. I would recommend it since, in a recent report up to 20 percent of video watchers out there are watching videos on their iPads or iPhones. Considering that 9.1 million people Google the word “comedian” on a monthly basis, that’s just short of 2 million people that can’t see your video! That’s a lot of viewers! Don’t miss out on this demographic. Get your videos seen!
I’ve done some research when it comes to this and I have for you on my blog two video conversion programs that you can download and use for FREE! That’s right bitches, FREE! All you need to do is download it to your computer and start using it to convert your videos to the mp4 format so it’s viewable on Quicktime (Apple’s video format). Why would I take the time and write a blog about FREE video conversion software? Because (Big, hairy, creepy voice) “I love you!” Here they are:
ANY VIDEO CONVERTER
Also, here’s something really cool “Any Video Converter” the screenshot you see below, also has a built-in YouTube video download application! That means you can download YouTube videos to your computer! Cool shit, huh? All you have to do is go to this page and download the the sofware by clicking the orange box that says “Download Free Video Converter.”
Handbrake is an excellent video conversion software too! It’s fast. It’s easy. And it gets it right when it comes to the right conversion that will work with Apple video. The only shortcoming with Handbrake is that it does not seem to support Windows Media Video files, meaning that if you have a .WMV file, it does not recognize it and therefore won’t convert it. So grab handbrake for FREE and give it a test run. See how easy you can convert your favorite videos. And remember, it’s FREE!
I hope this helps you to get your video up online. Keep your eyes open for more information when it comes to video and how to shoot it, get it online and get it recognized so that people will find it.
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.