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!).
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.