A young comedian came up to me the other day and asked, “how can be a better comedy writer…I mean, right now?”
My first thought was to give him the standard rhetoric about how it’s a process and it takes time, blah, blah, blah. But, instead, I watched his act and I got a sense of where he was in his comic “trajectory, ” for lack of a better term. It was as I thought, so I just told him, “You want to get better right now? Stop trying so hard. Stop trying to find “funny” things to talk about and start talking about what’s true.
Comedy in it’s most basic structure has a straight line and and punch line. The straight line (aka: setup) is crucial. It’s got to be believable. It must be a situation or a statement that sounds logical is recognizable to an audience. Once the straight line is clear, you can spin it with an unexpected result. But it’s best if it starts with something that is true.
In addition, I know a ton of comics—okay, one guy, but he weighs about two-thousand pounds—(see what I did there?). I know a lot of comics in all levels of their careers who have trouble coming up with material because they are always looking for something funny to write about. Talk about putting the pressure on yourself to write everyday! If you’re just looking for “funny things” to write about, then you’re going to find yourself creating your own writer’s block. Just write the truth then turn it into something funny.
You can start with yourself: What’s true about me?
I’m Irish and American Indian…
I come from a large family…
I’ve been married a total of 19 years…
I went to a very strict Catholic school…
On the surface these are just statements about my life. I’m not looking for “funny things” about my life, I’m just looking for statements that describe me. Nothing funny there right? But if you understand that comedy has structure and it’s in the surprise where the jokes come from you can apply the ten major comedy formulas to any of these statements and make them “funny.” Let’s do it… write jokes that is…
I’m Irish and American Indian… so you know pretty much that I have V.I.P. seats waiting for me at any A.A. meeting. I walk into that meeting it’s like, “Hey ‘Running-Bear O’Reilly, ’ we have a chair for you in the front row!”
I come from a large family… four Moms, Five Dads…
I’ve been married a total of 19 years… it would be nice if it wasn’t split between three wives.
I went to a very strict Catholic School… I had A.D.D…. Once!
Very simple straight lines can become very effective jokes. Of course it’s much easier once you understand the ten major comedy formulas and how to apply them. But the key is they didn’t come from trying to write about “funny things.” They came from just writing about what’s true.
I just got an email from someone who said, “The only way to learn stand up comedy is stage time.” That’s a common response, but is it really well thought out? I would have to say, “No.” If the comedian is like a surgeon and the audience are his patients, this comedian must have the stench of death following close behind.
Is it fair to make that comparison? After all, medicine is not comedy.
Think about it this way. It you were to compare being a comedian to piloting an airplane, how many of you would want to fly “Open-Mic Airlines?”
Comedy is an art form and stand up comedy is a performing art, as is music, acting, dancing, singing and magic. Sorry mimes, if I left you out. However, what some people forget is that the comedian, unless he’s just buying jokes or stealing them—why, Carlos Mencia, has your name has become synonymous with that theme?—then the comedian is also a writer.
Every single one of those art forms has a learning learning curve. Comedy, in its form, is most like magic. As magic is about misdirection and surprise, so is comedy. In fact, scientifically, the number one element that triggers human laughter is surprise. When the magician takes the ball into his hand waves the wand over it and says, “abracadabra, ” “presto-chango, ” “expelliarmus, ” (or whatever magicians are saying these days) and the magician opens his hand and the ball is gone, we smile, we giggle, because we have been surprised. But if a magician doesn’t learn the formula, if the ball doesn’t disappear and reappear or worse, if we see where the ball is going, then there is no surprise and there is no magic and the smiles and giggles will be replaced by groans and boos and hisses. Misdirection and surprise are part of the comedian’s fundamentals as well and must be learned before getting “stagetime, ” otherwise those same groans, boos and hisses—and worse, will follow the comedian.
Structurally, comedy is also about story telling and music. Most of us know that a good story and a good piece of music has a beginning, middle and end. Unfortunately, most comedians don’t know this or don’t know to put it in their acts…certainly they need this over at SNL. When you do build this in, you stand out. Audiences love resolution and they respond with applause. It’s as simple as a musical scale, if you sing: DO-RE-MI-FA-SO-LA-TI-, the audience is going to feel unresolved. They will feel like something is missing. However, if you sing, DO-RE-MI-FA-SO-LA-TI-DO, the audience will feel compelled to raise their hands in applause. Learn your fundamentals, your scales, your rudiments, then can you make beautiful music.
It’s the same thing in comedy. Stagetime is definitely the way to hone your skills of performing comedy, but if you learn what makes people laugh and you learn to identify surprise, irony, incongruity and recognition, then apply that to your performance before you get your “stagetime, ” you probably would’ve saved the audiences you’ve encountered a lot of misery you unwittingly injected into their hearts, their memories and their olfactories, because the potency of the stench of death you most certainly left behind would’ve been a lot less significant.
Here’s an age-old argument that never ends; Can you learn to be funny? You’ll get answers on both ends of the spectrum. What’s interesting is the people who DON’T believe you can learn to be funny are really negative. They’ll actually call me and leave a nasty voicemail about how you can’t teach anyone to be funny. Makes me laugh, because the truth is “funny” is learnable.
As infants, we learn what funny is. If you look at a baby and you say “ooooooooooh—BOO!” The baby, laughs! It’s uncanny “ooooooooh—BOO!” You’ve probably seen it a hundred times. It’s because the person doing the “performance” is creating an expectation with “ooooooooh.” In the babies little mind “ooooooooh” is going to go on an on. Then you shatter that expectation with a quick “BOO!” It’s the surprise that gets the laugh. Pretty simple concept and it doesn’t change when we get older either. Surprise is still the number element that triggers human laughter. So, I’m sorry naysayers, you can learn to be funny.
It’s as simple as sharpening your awareness of the opportunity to shatter the expectation and create the surprise. If you take any statement of piece of dialogue and you suddenly change the perception of what is being said or, say, change the perception of the meaning of a word, you’ll have surprise which will result in funny. “I’ve been losing my hair lately. It bugs me a little bit. Like in the mornings when my wife is running her fingers through my hair, but I already left for work.” That line gets a laugh every time because the audience has a perception of “running her fingers through my hair, ” once I let them get that picture in their heads, I throw in that the hair she’s running her fingers through is the hair left behind on the pillow after I went to work. Because their image was shattered, they laugh. Learn to identify the opportunity to spin what you say at the last minute and you will learn to be funny.
In comedy, that’s called a reverse. It’s classic, and if used properly, that formula will get a solid, triggered laugh from an audience every time. Well, unless the audience doesn’t speak the language you’re speaking, or they’re dead. And if you’re running your jokes by a dead audience, then you should see a shrink, or better yet, stop playing the Hollywood Improv.
The reverse is just one of the humor formulas you can learn in your journey to learning to be funny. It’s one that I teach in my comedy classes and seminars. It’s powerful, but it’s one of those formulas you want to avoid using in back-to-back jokes when doing a routine. Once you give up the formula your audience begins to anticipate the surprise. Then it’s no longer a surprise, is it?
Here’s a real-life scenario in which I used a formula to lighten the mood. My wife and I were expecting a baby. I came home from work late one night and she was laying on the couch. She said, “I’m having gas pains.” I said, “Babe, everyone is, it’s like $4.25 a gallon!” She laughed. The we discovered that those “gas pains” were coming 3 minutes apart.
That is called the double-entendre formula. Take the perceived meaning of the word and turn it into something that the listener didn’t expect. I’ll talk more about that in a future blog…you know, the blog that I write where you can’t teach someone the skills to learn to be funny…
Jerry Corley is the founder of the Stand Up Comedy Clinic. He teaches the science behind the art of comedy from his studio in Burbank, CA.
I was asked recently if I would post who I thought were the top comedians of all time. At first I thought, “No problem!” Then as I began to put together my list I realized that it was an impossible task. There are so many great comedians. They are great for so many different reasons. I would just make the list anyway and post it, but it’s by no means an accurate list. I’ll also add an honorable mention. I have to because when I first scribbled my list, I lost it. Then I made a new list. I found the old list and they were different so this is by no means an official list. I would love to hear your thoughts, as comedy is an art and art is subjective. Everyone has different tastes. Feel free to contribute.
1. George Carlin
George was my Mentor. I grew up listening to George. I studied him and actually got to share a limo with him to the airport while in New York. He was both a socio-political comedian and an observational/word-play comedian. His “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television” is classic. He, in my view, was the best, but then again, he gave me the best advice. He said, “Take the shit that drives you absolutely crazy and make it funny!
Bill Cosby is, of course, on the list. Here’s another comedian I grew up listening to. Bill wasn’t just a stand up. He was also a sit-down. He was a story teller. His inflections and stories about family and human behavior were so familiar we laughed because we had experienced the “same thing.” in our homes. One of my favorites is “Kids Are Brain Damaged!”
3. Richard Pryor Richard Pryor was a favorite and yes, another one of the comedians I grew up listening too. My parents used to play his albums, alongside Carlin and Cosby. The language was never a big deal. My parents used to say, “If you have any questions about the words, just ask.” You could imagine the dinner table discussions that inspired. In general, human behavior sense, there are two types of performers: Givers and Takers. Pryor was a giver. He shared his pain, admitted his faults and pleaded with the audience to like him. And we did!
4. Lenny Bruce – What else could you say about Lenny Bruce. He took the bullet for all comedians. Some say he paved the way for just the comedians who use profanity in their routines. But Lenny was grander than that. He paved the way to allow “free speech” in entertainment. Even though his life was short (he lived to 41), his effort and love for the art form and to be able to speak freely in this country, allowed all who followed to do the same.
5. Bob Hope – People forget that when Bob Hope was 75, he was still at the top of his game. He continued to shoot television specials and tour the world. Hell, he ran NBC. When he wanted to do a special, he would call the head of N.B.C. and say, “Fred, we want this Sunday.” The head of N.B.C. would say, “Okay, Bob.” And reprogram the network’s entire Sunday evening lineup to accommodate Bob Hope. He was loved all over the world and gave millions to charities. He never did a re-run, EVER! He always wanted his material to be fresh. The only thing that would leave him off this list is that he didn’t write all his own material. He had a well-paid writing staff that was available 24/7.
6. Jerry Seinfeld – Some people would say, “What’s the deal with putting Jerry Seinfeld on the top 10 list?” That’s pure and simple, Jerry Seinfeld took observational material to a whole new level. So much so that he spawned a T.V. show that was nearly canceled in its first airing. It was entitled “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” The show was brought back as “Seinfeld.” It had a very successful run of 9 seasons. Jerry, decided to end the run, not the network. Then despite being set for 6 lifetimes, Jerry went back to doing stand up. Now that’s a comedian. Jerry is worth over 2 billion dollars. So when you ask why Jerry? I got 2 billion reasons. Here’s a clip of Jerry’s first appearance on H.B.O. He was doing the Smothers Brothers special.
7. Paula Poundstone – I had to get a female in here. I know there are a lot of funny gals out there, but Paula is one of my favorites. Who else can make fun of her suicide attempt and make it funny. She’s quirky and likeable. I always enjoy watching me some Paula Poundstone. I could have put in work-a-holics like Joan Rivers or Phyllis Diller, but, to me, they seemed more like volume contributors rather than substance contributors. Plus, Paula wrote all her own material. Paula is also one who is a “giver” in the Richard Pryor sense. She shares her pain and struggles. The best part of that is that she does it in a way that makes me laugh!
8. Bill Hicks One of the most honest comedians on the face of the planet. His honesty got him notoriety but also got him in trouble. He had limited options because of his honesty and I think that’s why he’s one of my favorites. He took on everything and basically to the “nth” degree took George Carlin’s saying, “Take the shit that drives you crazy and make it funny.” He is one of a kind in my book.
9. Steve Martin – Like Lenny Bruce, Steve Martin changed the face of comedy. But he went the other way. His zany antics and use of props took comedy to an entirely different place. He was unique and basically dressed the part. If comedy is incongruity then his white suit, coupled with ‘happy feet’ and the arrow through the head, at the time was legendary. I don’t know how it would play now. But Steve Martin left an impression on the art form.
10. Eddie Murphy – Okay, okay… I know many of you are wondering, “Where’s so-and-so? How can you put together this list and not mention Brian Regan, Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Jack Benny, Sam Kinnison, George Burns, Mitch Headburg, Ellen DeGenerous, Alan King and so many more? The only thing I can say is the list was not long enough and I put together a list that impacted my life. So Eddie Murphy makes the cut. His Delirious album was one of the funniest I’ve ever listened to, although I preferred Richard Pryor. Eddie sly persona was revealed through that goofy classic Eddie laugh that he carried into films…you know the good ones: Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, etc. Here’s one of my favorites: “Ice Cream”
So that’s it! Please feel free to add your own. Comedy is an amazing art form and I applaud all comedians who work hard in this business. I’m in awe of the struggle they go through to make it and the commitment it takes. To all the comedians out there: YOU ROCK!
I had the most amazing lunch the other day. I was contacted by Bob Mills, one of the legendary writers for Bob Hope. He started in the business at the age of 39. He was a lawyer in San Francisco before that. He contacted me via my website and liked what he saw, so I asked him to lunch. I scheduled 90 minutes into my calendar for the lunch. I had a dentist appointment after that. We met at the Daily Grill in Studio City, one of those places you walk into and usually have some celebrity sightings.
Bob was already waiting for me as I am notoriously late. From the moment we shook hands I knew I was talking to someone special. We barely ordered iced-tea and we were already neck deep in talking about comedy. This was subject that we both clearly had an absolute passion for. Since I’m the one who usually does the talking about comedy I had to remember to shut the hell up and let him speak, for he had experiences that I’ve always dreamed about.
Bob was a member of one of the most famous writing teams comedy will ever know. Bob Hope’s guys–or I should say guys and one gal–were extremely loyal and they were well-paid. Bob could call them at any time of the day or night and ask for material and boy did Hope use material. He never did reruns with his specials of which he did close to 100 and he always needed fresh material for his live performances.
The stories Bob told me were fascinating. To have an insight on one of the most legendary comedians the world has ever known was priceless. Needless to say the lunch lasted 3 hours. So much for the dentist.
Bob wrote a fascinating book about his experiences with Hope, the specials, the tours and the stars they worked with. It’s called “The Laugh Makers.” I read it and I couldn’t put it down. I recommend this book to anyone interested in writing or performing…or anyone who loved Bob Hope.
I’ve included a widget for anyone who might be interested in buying Bob’s book. If you’re a comedian or a writer or remotely interested, get the damn book.