How to Avoid The Creative Paralysis of Being Original

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Should I Stop Doing My Joke?

A comedian walks into a bar and sees a poster with a saying that is similar to a joke he’s been doing. It’s not the same joke, but it almost has the exact set up line.

He panics. A thousand questions run through his mind: “What do I do?”
“Did the guy who did that poster see my act and use a version the joke?”
“Did I see that poster some time in the past and it stuck in my head?”
“Should I stop doing my joke?”

Okay, that wasn’t a thousand questions, but you get the gist.

This complication… that’s what I’ll call it, a “complication,” because that’s all it is. It’s parallel thought, it’s… whatever.

The point is there’s a poster out there and it has your joke–or a version of it–printed right on it. So you know that there are probably more posters out there

And at this point, it doesn’t matter whether or not it was your joke or not, someone else has used it at a commercial level and that might have negative impact on you.

So what do you do?

An old friend of mine, who had a lot of success as a comedy writer in show business once said to me, “if it’s inherently yours, keep it.” I like that; If it’s inherently yours…

That means if you really came up with that idea from scratch, keep it. Okay, let’s go with that for now.

But what if someone comes up to you later and says, “You know that one joke you do? I saw it on a poster.” Or worse, “You know that joke about Pop Tarts? I just saw Paula Poundstone do that joke on an old “Tonight Show.”

Then I would–and this should be imperative–do the research and find out how similar the poster or the Paula joke is, to my joke.

What “the same” means:

There is a difference between similar and the same.

Different people have different ideas about what the definition of “same joke” is. I have seen this a million times. I remember doing some material about getting pulled over by a cop.

In my act-out, the cop says, “Do you know how fast you were going?”

My character responds in  a surfer-like voice, “You think at that speed I’d risk taking my eyes off the road to check the speedometer?”

This was such a favorite joke of mine that I had a cartoon drawn and I had it printed on a T-shirt and sold hundreds of them at shows around the country.

A few years later, a  version of that joke showed up in the movie “Liar, Liar” with Jim Carrey.

I received a ton of phone calls saying that “they stole” my joke.

I did my research, which consisted of watching the movie–and since Jim Carrey can be entertaining, the research wasn’t brutal and decided that I would continue to do the joke.

The joke was similar, but not the same.

When To Drop The Joke

There does come a time, however that you can decide to drop a joke from your act.

One night while I was on the road in   right in the middle of my show, this guy in the audience–who, tragically, bore a similar appearance to Homer Simpson–shouted, “You stole that joke from “Liar, Liar!”

Doh! What do you do with that?

First of all, don’t panic. There’s no reason to if you know you were at the helm during the incunabula of the joke.

I knew inherently that I had written that joke way before that movie was ever written, but I had to respond to the heckler, then decide what I was going to eventually do about the joke.

So I said to the guy, “Doh! You know, Homer, (which got an immediate laugh, thankfully, because I needed one at this point), things like this happen a lot in comedy, but before you accuse someone of stealing a joke, you really have to look at two things: One, the similarity of the two jokes and two, the chronology…

“First of all, it’s not the same joke, so it’s not a ‘stolen’ joke. Second of all, if there is going to be an accusation of stealing, let’s just say that I did that joke on television in 1992. ‘Liar, Liar’ came out in 1997.

So to accuse me of stealing that joke is like me accusing you of stealing your look from Homer Simpson.”

Now, because I was already getting laughs from that audience and they were on my side, that statement elicited an applause break from that audience and quieted down the heckler, (if I wasn’t getting laughs, the audience might have looked at me like the pompous ass that I can sometimes be!).

Deciding To Drop The Joke

But even though I knew that the joke was inherently mine, since that movie caused that person in the audience to question my integrity, I decided to drop the joke, if simply to avoid that  kind of interruption in the future.

But mostly I keep doing my material. I learned this lesson by watching other professional comedians–especially those who are vastly more successful than I.

Learning From Top Comedians

Jim Gaffigan does a joke that is exactly like mine. I’m not going to quote the exact joke, but the set up is identical and punch is really close. Let’s just say that my joke ends with “four Moms, five Dads,” and his joke ends with “Nine parents…”

My joke about that is “Wow, Gaffigan is so genius, he even does the math in my joke!”

But would I ever accuse Jim Gaffigan of stealing my joke? No way! I just chalk it up to parallel thinking and let it go. Gaffigan works his ass off and is a top notch comedian and joke writer. That stuff just happens.

Or take Jerry Seinfeld. He was doing a joke about Pop Tarts lately that struck me as being similar to Paula Poundstone’s Pop Tart routine she did in the eighties.

It’s not the same routine, but it does address Pop Tarts from a similar angle.

Or the amazing Louis C.K. If you really listen to him, is the subject matter of his routines original? Kids, Family, Money, Growing up, Relationships, etc.

Are any of those ideas original? No! But his point of view, insightfulness and honesty are genius.

Where would he be if, before he wrote anything, he said to himself, “I can’t talk about kids… other comedians already do that.”?

So stop worrying about originality for originality’s sake.

Doing that can cause a comedian or a writer to do go into paralysis.

The only thing I can say about that is, don’t let it stop you from writing the joke in the first place.

Just write!

There are several reasons that a joke shows up in a similar form somewhere. Parallel thinking, common subject matter, writing about the same current events, are some of the more benign reasons.

Laziness and blatant plagiarism are a couple of others.

Don’t Worry. Be Funny.

But worrying about that shouldn’t even enter your mind during the creative process. Just as editing the material is never step one, (it’s step two, three or four), figuring out whether your joke is original should also never be step one.

Just write the damn material and worry about that later.

Instead of sitting there at your notebook or your computer and worrying about whether or not something is original, just write about stuff you are passionate about.

Write the stuff you really want to talk about, then turn it funny by finding the surprise, the paradox, the incongruity or several of the other proven comedy structures available to you to trigger laughs.

As long as you are staying true to your integrity as a writer and trying your damnedest to come up with ideas that come from your own experience or your unique point of view (embellished, sometimes of course for the laughs), then you don’t have to obsess about whether or not it’s original.

“As long as it’s inherently yours…”

1 Sure-Fire Way to Take Your Comedy To The Next Level

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Polish. Usually this word is used to talk about fingernails, the shine on someone’s shoes or when’s someone’s from Poland—wait, that’s a different ‘Polish.’

But what about comedy?

There are loads of people that come to me weekly and ask how they can take their comedy to the next level. I have several workable and proven solutions. Not a single one can be deemed a fix-all for every comedian.

Each comedian has their own needs and an adjustment or a note is different for each one.

But I think there is one thing that could be painted on to each comedian’s act with a really broad brush…

Polish.

I see a ton of comedians that get up on stage night after night at the mics and they wander through their acts like an old guy pullin’ an oxygen tank in a Vegas casino. They have no direction, no specificity and no polish.

“What else, what else, uhm… let’s see… uhm crazy, man, shit’s crazy, man. I tell you…”

How are you supposed to give your material a fair shake if you don’t take the time to polish what you’re going to say to the audience. Even when you’re testing material in front of an audience, have some direction.

KNOW where you’re going from joke to joke… or story to story.

Sometimes just one glitch in the set up of the material will cause an audience to respond half-heartedly or worse, not respond at all.

What fixes that? Polish.

Here’s the simplest solution: Practice!

Sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many comedians don’t practice before they hit that stage.

When you write a new joke, do you practice saying that joke out loud? How many times? To whom?

  1. Say the joke out loud at least 25 times.
  2. Then say it to your friends.
  3. Then before you hit the stage, say the joke in the context and flow of your existing set at least 25 times. This will help secure the flow of the act both leading up to the new joke and following it.

Practicing will give you high odds of really giving that joke a fair shot when it lands in the ears of the audience.

I can’t emphasize this enough!

Before his first appearance on the Tonight Show, Jerry Seinfeld performed his Tonight Show set 100 times at clubs in front of audiences.

That’s right 100 times! The exact same set. How many of you have done that before a show or a competition?

He knew that he would be a little nervous on that sound stage in Burbank, California. But after rehearsing that same set 100 times in front of different audiences, he knew nothing would be able to shake him, aside from an Earthquake.

So do your homework and prepare. if you don’t you’ll wind up like that cliché comedian at the mics; unpolished and unpracticed, trying new jokes and boring the audience with…

Uhm… what else, what else…

If you dig it, Share it?

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3 Vital Things To Remember When Performing Stand-up Comedy

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  1. Comedy is a Veiled Attack

    You’re attacking someone or something. Even yourself. The basic rule about attacking is: Always attack up. What this means is that in our society an audience roots for the underdog. If you are a white male and you are making jokes about a minority, it is technically attacking “down.” Because the white male still dominates in our society. If you are a male and you are attacking a female (for no understandable reason), you are also attacking “down,” because we still see women as the fairer sex. If you are anyone and you are attacking Special Olympics kids, you are technically attacking “down,” because Special Olympics kids are seen as people that can’t take care of themselves and they need our help. This is a general rule and can be broken from time to time, but I think you get the idea.

    However, this is not to be misunderstood. If you can set the person up (who is “beneath” you) as an antagonist that needs retaliation, then the audience will root for you to get back at them and make fun of them. Don’t be afraid to attack “down,” just make sure there is just cause.

    I missed out on a Letterman audition because the talent coordinator told me that I was attacking my ex-wife for no reason. For time sake, I had cut the set-up to the joke which was how she cheated on me. If the audience had that information, the joke would’ve been more effective.

  2. Don’t Worry About Pleasing Everyone

    If someone gets offended because you use the word pee or if you curse, GOOD! Maybe they are NOT your audience. You cannot be all things to everyone. Be YOU! Unless you are doing corporates or kids’ shows or doing warm-up for studio audiences, don’t worry about being all things to everyone. In comedy people love to hear a unique perspective. George Carlin said “there’s nothing wrong with fluff. Sometimes the audience needs it, but do comedy that says something.” If you’re doing comedy that “walks” some of the room that could be a good thing. Out of those people who stayed, there could be a percentage that wind up being die-hard fans; You know, people who will follow you anywhere!

  3. Be Funny

    It may seem simple to understand. But what is funny? I run into people all the time (sometimes in my classes) that say, “I just want to express myself. I don’t want to write it down.” “When I write it down it doesn’t come out funny.”  I understand this dilemma. It makes total sense. Sometimes when you try to hard to stick to a script, it can feel awkward or unnatural. In doing stand-up comedy, there is a fine line between doing the material as written and “free-styling.”

    Here’s the key to understanding comedy: Every time the audience laughs, there is a stimulus present in the material or the action. In other words, SOMETHING triggered the audience’s laughter. Part of the science of comedy is learning what those triggers are and then how to exploit them whenever you want so that you can repeat them, almost at will.

    Those laughter triggers are hidden within the structure of comedy. So whether it’s Jerry Seinfeld using recognition triggers and incongruity or it’s Bill Burr using compare and contrast, incongruity and incongruity act-outs, driven by a strong emotional point of view, their structures are very strong and very present in their material. In other words they are NOT just riffing at will. If you have read my book “Breaking Comedy’s D.N.A.,” you will learn those structures and you will begin to be able to identify them in all comedians. When you do that you can then start to plug them in to your material and you will find that the laughs start increasing exponentially.

    Without the structure in your material, it simply becomes a story or an opinion that you’re sharing with the audience. All the while the audience is thinking: That’s nice, but I’m here to laugh.”

    In other words, be natural. Sound conversational, but your structure is going to get the laughs.

Tonight Show is Not Just For the Old Folks

Justin Timberlake   Jimmy Fallon s  History Of Rap 5  Is Perfect

Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” is just finishing its first week and it has been an experience in engaging entertainment. Fallon has found that “something” that the show has been missing for the last 20 years; FUN!

Fallon’s ability to do impressions and his talent with music is the driving force of the show. Not to go without mention, the hipness and playfulness of his house band “The Roots,” makes Fallon’s “Tonight” totally entertaining and has turned the Tonight Show from that show than Mom and Dad watch before they go to bed, into a show that could entertain the tweens through the fifty-somethings at least.

I’m fifty (hard to admit it), and I find that show totally engaging.

How does that affect you as a comedian or a writer?

Simple. As a comedian or writer it is always good to reinvent yourself. Update, reboot, rewire, retrofit, restore rehab or renovate. Whatever you want to call it, keeping up to date and staying “now” is what drives engagement.

Now this should not be confused with age or birthdate.

Although Jimmy Fallon represents youth and will help NBC acquire the coveted 18-34 demographic in the late night slot, it doesn’t mean that in order to capture that demo, you must utilize only 18-34 talent.

The biggest draw on cable for a nightly show is still Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. (Stewart turns 52 this year and Colbert 50).

The key to driving engagement, at least where Fallon is concerned is his ability to be recognizable with his entertainment. He engages the audience with stuff they recognize (Ie: Song parodies and impressions). Even in the sketch above with Justin Timberlake, he slips into a Snoop Dog impression, a Dr. Dre, Ton Loc and Beastie Boys.

Familiarity and recognition drive engagement. If we recognize something we react physically to the television with a point a gesture like, “I’ve seen that,” “I know that!” “I remember that!”

This keeps the viewer watching and the ratings high.

It doesn’t have to be impressions. In fact, I would warn against that, unless you really nail the voice.

But doing something that creates an “in the moment” and “now” dynamic like engaging with the audience, act-outs, interaction with the band, keeps it moving and keeps it now.

There’s an old theatre science theory that states: "The audience is in whatever state the performer is in." Watch Fallon and Timberlake below and see just how much fun they are having and ask yourself, Is the audience having fun too?

What are your thoughts?

Ira Glass on The Creative Process

Ira Glass on the Creative Process

Do It Again and Again…and Again…

This post was shared by student Patrick Kanehann who’s followed this mantra and has continued to get better and better and better!

Ira Glass, the host of radio’s “This American Life,” shares his insight on doing what you want to do and how to get good at it.

If you truly believe you’re doing what you want to do then do it over and over and over again. And when you feel like quitting, do it some more.

It’s what I tell students in my classes. When you first start, you might not be that good. But when you keep doing it, you get better and you get better and soon you start to realize that your work begins to meet your ambition.

Take a look:

 

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What are some of your stories about getting started and keeping going?