A Comedian Tip From Danny Zuker

If you don’t know who Danny Zuker is, you should.

He’s an Emmy-award winning writer and co-Executive Producer for the hit series ‘Modern Family,” one of the best shows on television, in my humble opinion.

Every time I can get my hands on an interview of someone I respect in this business, I do, and I send out a quiet ‘thank you.’

It’s a chance to get another piece to the puzzle of success.

Each interview holds answers.

In my blog post, “Paralyzed By Analysis,” Princeton neuroscientist Dr. Sam Wang says, “If you want to know the answers to the secrets of how to be successful, look at someone who has been there, done that and do what they have done. It’s a glimpse into the future.”

So when I read this post on about Danny Zuker I don’t just enjoy the read, I get answers that help solve the problem of ‘how to succeed’ by paying close attention to what he says.

It’s a great comedian tip.

In this article I gleaned two important things:

  1. Get involved anyway you can in the business you love.
    • Danny did it by producing videos when he was younger, then working as a Production Assistant which led to a writing job.
  2. Use Twitter to get your message out and develop a following.
    • Mr. Zuker, too, had problems, just like me, understanding Twitter, but once you get it you have fun with it and the whole world has the opportunity to recognize you as funny. You also learn to really get your thoughts down to 140 characters to keep everything concise.

If you’re a comedian and you haven’t been getting out, getting your content online and getting on Twitter to promote and participate you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Each of these things give you goals, allows you express yourself and help you to reach out and connect with others.

It’s the new media and an important additional facet to the fascinating business we’re in.

Read the article, follow the advice.

Oh, and ‘Thank you’ Mr. Zuker!

Follow me on Twitter: @jokedoctor and follow the funny @DannyZuker

IMPORTANT! Patton Oswalt’s Keynote Address at JFL

patton_oswalt1

Patton Oswalt is a comedian, an actor, a writer and a voice talent. He’s done all of what we comedians strive to do and more. Basically, Dude rocks!

He was recently keynote speaker at the 3rd annual Just For Laughs Comedy Conference in Montreal. In typical Patton Oswalt style he opened the speech with a bit of self-deprecation, (see, the best still use it!).

Here’s what’s interesting: instead of giving some kind of motivation speech to the troops, Patton read two open letters that he wrote; the first, to the comedians in the room and the second to the brass that runs this industry.

The result was a speech that was far more motivational than a speech that was intended to motivate.

In our classes, we talk about getting your content out, getting it seen and continuing to create more content. We talk about utilizing the internet to enhance your presence. So does Patton Oswalt and he knows a thing or two about this.

But I can’t do it justice by blathering on about it. Read them below. These will be more worth your time than anything else you read with regard to comedy this week!

Here’s Letter Number one:

 

Dear comedian in 2012:

How are you? I am good. In answer to your last letter, the mozzarella sticks at the Irvine Improv do taste weird. I’m taking your advice and sticking with the nachos.

Hey, ‘know what I was thinking the other day? Everything I know about succeeding as a comedian and ultimately as an artist is worthless now, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

I started doing comedy in the summer of 1988. That was a different time, wasn’t it? Joe Piscopo was president, Mary Lou Retton won the Cold War, and Andy Kindler turned 50

If I hadn’t popped that goddamn ‘P’, the Piscopo joke would’ve annihilated.

When I say everything I know about succeeding a comedian is worthless, I know what I’m talking about because everything I know became worthless twice in my lifetime.

The first time was the evening of May 22, 1992. I’d been doing standup almost four years at that point, and that was Johnny Carson’s last ever Tonight Show.

Up until that night, the way you made it in comedy was very clear, simple, straightforward. You went on Carson, you killed, you got called over to the couch, and the next day you had your sitcom and your mansion, and you’re made. Just ask Drew Carey and Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres. And Bill Clinton. That’s how you did it.

But now, Johnny was gone and he wasn’t coming back.

All the comedians I remember starting out with in D.C., all the older ones, told me over and over again ‘you gotta work clean, you gotta get your five minutes, and you gotta get on Carson.’ And it all comes down to that.

And in one night, all of them were wrong. And not just wrong, they were unmoored. They were drifting. A lot of these bulletproof comics I’d opened for, whose careers seemed pre-destined, a lot of them never recovered from that night. You’ll never hear their names. They had been sharks in a man-made pond and had been drained. They decided their time had passed.

Keep that in mind for later. They had decided their time had passed.

The second time everything I knew about comedy became worthless has been petty much every day for the last three years.

I know that’s not an exact date. Some other younger, not yet famous name in this room – you are going to pinpoint that date 20 years from now. But for now, every day for about the last few years will have to suffice.

I just want to give you a brief timeline of my career up to this point, when I knew it was all changing again. Listen to my words very carefully. Two words will come up again and again and they’re going to come back later along with that phrase “they decided” and people are going to carry me around the room.

I was lucky enough to get hired onto King of Queens in 1998. I had nine years on that show. Money, great cast, even better writers, a lot of fun. I bought a house. Then I was lucky enough to get cast as a lead voice in a Pixar movie in 2007. Acclaim, money, I got to meet a lot of my heroes. Then I was lucky enough to get cast on The United States of Tara on Showtime. I got to watch Toni Collette work. I got to perform Diablo Cody’s writing. After which, I was lucky enough to get cast in Young Adult, which is where I got to make out with Charlize Theron. I will use that as an icebreaker if i ever meet Christina Ricci.

I’ve been lucky enough to be given specials on HBO, Comedy Central, and Showtime. As well as I’ve been lucky enough to release records on major labels, and I was lucky they approached me to do it. And that led to me being lucky enough to get Grammy nominations.

I know that sounds like a huge ego-stroking credit dump. But if you listened very carefully, you would have heard two words over and over again: “lucky” and “given.” Those are two very very dangerous words for a comedian. Those two words can put you to sleep, especially once you get a taste of both being “lucky” and being “given.” The days about luck and being given are about to end. They’re about to go away.

Not totally. There are always comedians who will work hard and get noticed by agents and managers and record labels. There will always be an element of that. And they deserve their success. And there’s always going to be people who benefit from that.

What I mean is: Not being lucky and not being given are no longer going to define your career as a comedian and as an artist.

Remember what I said earlier about those bulletproof headliners who focused on their 5 minutes on the Tonight Show and when it ended they decided their opportunity was gone? They decided. Nobody decided that for them. They decided.

Now, look at my career up to this point. Luck, being given. Other people deciding for me.

In the middle of the TV shows and the albums and the specials, I took a big chunk of my money and invested it in a little tour called The Comedians of Comedy. I put it together with my friends, we did small clubs, stayed in shitty hotel rooms, packed ourselves in a tiny van and drove it around the country. The tour was filmed for a very low-budget documentary that I convinced Netflix to release. That became a low-budget show on Comedy Central that we all still own a part of, me and the comedians. That led to a low budget concert film that we put on DVD.

At the end of it, I was exhausted, I was in debt, and I wound up with a wider fanbase of the kind of people I always dreamed of having as fans. And I built that from the ground up, friends and people I respected and was a fan of.

And I realize now I need to combine both of the lessons I’ve learned.

I need to decide more career stuff for myself and make it happen for myself, and I need to stop waiting to luck out and be given. I need to unlearn those muscles.

I’m seeing this notion take form in a lot of my friends. A lot of you out there. You, for instance, the person I’m writing to. Your podcast is amazing. Your videos on your YouTube channel are getting better and better every single one that you make, just like when we did open mics, better and better every week. Your Twitter feed is hilarious.

Listen, I’m doing the Laugh Trench in Milwaukee next week. Is there any chance for an RT?

Your friend, Patton Oswalt

Letter number two:

Dear gatekeepers in broadcast and cable executive offices, focus groups, record labels, development departments, agencies and management companies:

Shalom.

Last month I turned in a script for a pilot I co-wrote with Phil Rosenthal who has had a share of luck and success I can only dream of. Thanks for the notes you gave me on the pilot script. I’m not going to be implementing any of them.

And no, I’m not going to call you “the enemy” or “the man.” I have zero right to say that based on the breaks I’ve gotten from you over the years. If I tried to strike a Che Guevara pose, you would be correct in pointing out that the dramatic underlighting on my face was being reflected up from my swimming pool.

I am as much to blame for my uneasiness and realization of late that I’m part of the problem, that I’m half asleep and more than half complacent.

And I’m still not going to implement your notes. And I’m quoting Phil Rosenthal on this, but he said after we read your notes – and I’m quoting him verbatim – “We’re living in a post-Louie world, and these notes are from a pre-According to Jim world.”

I just read a letter to my fellow comedians telling them what I’m about to tell you, but in a different way. Here it is.

You guys need to stop thinking like gatekeepers. You need to do it for the sake of your own survival.

Because all of us comedians after watching Louis CK revolutionize sitcoms and comedy recordings and live tours. And listening to "WTF With Marc Maron" and "Comedy Bang! Bang!" and watching the growth of the UCB Theatre on two coasts and seeing careers being made on Twitter and Youtube.

Our careers don’t hinge on somebody in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in our direction. There are no gates. They’re gone. The model for success as a comedian in the ’70s and ’80s? That was middle school. Remember, they’d hand you a worksheet, fill in the blanks on the worksheet, hand it in, you’ll get your little points.

And that doesn’t prepare you for college. College is the 21st century. Show up if you want to, there’s an essay, there’s a paper, and there’s a final. And you decide how well you do on them, and that’s it. And then after you’re done with that, you get even more autonomy whether you want it or not because you’re an adult now.

Comedians are getting more and more comfortable with the idea that if we’re not successful, it’s not because we haven’t gotten our foot in the door, or nobody’s given us a hand up. We can do that ourselves now. Every single day we can do more and more without you and depend on you less and less.

If we work with you in the future, it’s going to be because we like your product and your choices and your commitment to pushing boundaries and ability to protect the new and difficult.

Here’s the deal, and I think it’s a really good one.

I want you, all of the gatekeepers, to become fans. I want you to become true enthusiasts like me. I want you to become thrill-seekers. I want you to be as excited as I was when I first saw Maria Bamford’s stand-up, or attended The Paul F. Tompkins show, or listened to Sklarbro Country….

I want you to be as charged with hope as I am that we’re looking at the most top-heavy with talent young wave of comedians that this industry have ever had at any time in its history.

And since this new generation was born into post-modern anything, they are wilder and more fearless than anything you’ve ever dealt with. But remind yourselves: Youth isn’t king. Content is king. Lena Dunham’s 26-year-old voice is just as vital as Louis CK’s 42-year-old voice which is just as vital as Eddie Pepitone’s 50-something voice.

Age doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all about what you have to say and what you’re going to say. Please throw the old fucking model away.

Just the tiny sampling at this amazing festival…. I’m excited to not be the funniest person in the room. It makes me work harder and try to be better at what I do. So be as excited and grateful as I am.

And if in the opportunities you give me, you try to cram all this wildness and risk-taking back in to the crappy mimeographic worksheet form of middle school, we’re just going to walk away. We’re not going to work together. No harm no foul. We can just walk away.

You know why we can do that now? Because of these. (Oswalt holds up an iPhone)

In my hand right now I’m holding more filmmaking technology than Orsen Welles had when he filmed Citizen Kane.

I’m holding almost the same amount of cinematography, post-editing, sound editing, and broadcast capabilities as you have at your tv network.

In a couple of years it’s going to be fucking equal. I see what’s fucking coming. This isn’t a threat, this is an offer. We like to create. We’re the ones who love to make shit all the time. You’re the ones who like to discover it and patronize it support it and nurture it and broadcast it. Just get out of our way when we do it.

If you get out of our way and we fuckin’ get out and fall on our face, we won’t blame you like we did in the past. Because we won’t have taken any of your notes, so it’ll truly be on us.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the stuff uploaded to Youtube. There are sitcoms now on the internet, some of them are brilliant, some of them are “meh,” some of them fuckin suck. At about the same ratio that things are brilliant and “meh” and suck on your network.

If you think that we’re somehow going to turn on you later if what we do falls on its face, and blame you because we can’t take criticism? Let me tell you one thing: We have gone through years of open mics to get where we need to get. Criticism is nothing to us, and comment threads are fucking electrons.

Signed,

Patton Oswalt

Comedian Lesson: Paralyzed By Analysis

Trying to make a decision on whether or not to try stand up comedy or whether or not to get into stand-up? It’s not an easy decision. As humans our ability to think about the modeled world is extremely effective our abilities to problem solve and develop an innovative approach to solve a problem is highly advanced. However our ability to foresee the effects of a decision in the distant future is our dilemma. We can get caught up in the decision making process, almost to the point of paralysis; we get stuck in perpetual indecision… or according to Princeton neuroscientist Sam Wang:

Human brains house a tremendously complex prefrontal cortex, which gives us the capability to think about a modeled world and contemplate the future. Where we get caught up is our ability to predict the long-term effects of our decisions. “It’s difficult to judge whether some life decision you make today will make you happy a few years down the road,” says Wang. To get around this limitation, he recommends  learning from someone who has been faced with the same decision: “They can report accurately whether it made them happy or unhappy.”

Finding a Solution

Lot’s people I talk to mention to me that they’ve thought about doing stand up. It’s something they’ve always wanted to do. These people come to me in their forties and fifties. They talked to family and friends and asked them about it and got a mixed response.

What Mr. Wang is saying is that you should talk to someone who has made that decision and seen the result of that choice. It’s almost a real glimpse into the future from someone who has lived it!

I’ve been there. I made the decision long ago that I wanted to do stand up comedy for a living. I knew there would be tough times, but I also knew that if I applied myself that I would accomplish my goals.

It was the best decision of my life! I am immersed in comedy every day. My whole career is based on creating humor as well as teaching it.

If you want to get into stand up comedy. Do it! Give it a shot! You can always change your mind and go manage a car dealership later. It’s better than being stuck at forty or fifty and wondering if you should’ve done it.

Comedy Class | Don’t Use ‘I’ or ‘Me’?

commercial_4Got an email from someone and I thought it would be best addressed in my comedy-blog. Read on:

"I have a question which has been messing with me when writing my premise or setup. i find myself trying to produce material before wednesday which are the best nights in florida for open mics. my issue is not coming up with an idea its just getting it across so before i saw your blogs i went and got a book on comedy " The Comedy Bible" which states when writing your premise you need to have a topic + attitude which i understand that concept but it also states that when starting out a joke or building the premise you never want to use I or me. i saw your blog for the 1-2-3-joke about your poker app and in your premise you start off with I. i just want to know is that a myth as well? should i throw away that idea of when writing my premise not to include I or me?"

Great question! First of all, let me get this straight: there are rarely definitives in life like "never" and "always."

Maybe some exceptions could be

  • "Never perform fire eating tricks after drinking One-Fifty-One."
  • "Never joke about bombs in the security line at the airport and expect to board your flight," or
  • "Never use the "N-word" as a white comedian while performing at a fund-raising benefit for Malcom X."

Those might be a few things that could fit in the "never" category. But when it comes to comedy theory there are few "nevers."

I’ve never heard the rule "never use ‘I’ or ‘me’," however. And I’m glad I haven’t because I do it all the time. My comedy is about my life and it would be hard to discuss my life without using those pronouns. There are no rules to that effect as far as I’m concerned.

In fact, if you watch Louis C.K., he talks about ‘I’ and ‘me’ quite often. Same with Lewis Black, John Stewart, Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby… the list goes on.

I don’t know what Judy Carter was thinking or maybe she meant something different. But remember she named the book The Comedy Bible. It was named after a book that is so filled with distortions, contradictions and falsehoods, even the churches pick and choose what parts of it to believe!

The two things that I think are valuable in that book is that humor should come from an emotional foundation and it’s nice to have a comedy buddy.

In the end think about this: Tom Dreesen, one of the most successful comedians of his time said that comedy is 90 percent surprise. If your material has surprise, incongruity, recognition or benign retaliation, odds are it has the elements to get a laugh.

Finally, in the end, whether or not the joke contains ‘I’ or ‘me’ if the audience laughs, it’s a keeper.

Busting The Top 3 Comedy Myths

mythbusters2In 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?

carrot top

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.