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?
There seems to be a misconception out there when it comes to theories behind developing and writing comedy.
One of the most popularly espoused by many comedy instructors is: your comedy must be true.
I’m not sure how this particular theory got so out of control. I say, “out of control” because I’ve heard from dozens of confused students of comedy on this very matter. So many, in fact, I feel that it’s time to address in on the blog.
So let me be clear: All comedy does not need to be true.
In other words, you can make stuff up!
To be fair, some of the people who have advocated this ‘truth’ misnomer may just be repeating something they’ve heard from other people. Or they are misinterpreting or misunderstanding what “true” is or what it means with regard to developing comedy or developing stories.
Bottom line is that if you only use what’s true, you are seriously limiting yourself and your material. There’s so much available if you use your imagination.
If you allow yourself to get stuck on only what’s true, you’ll deny your creative mind the ability to develop a whole field of new material; sketches, act-outs, and solid ponderable or observational creative material (Jerry Seinfeld-style)
However, truth is a good starting point…
For example, I wrote a bit a long time ago on how people in Texas say “Y’all.”
That is true.
Once I had that tid-bit of information, I wanted to write a funny routine about it, (I’m a comedian so ‘funny’ is usually how I like to write… I try anyway).
One of the most effective ways to write comedy, is to take a character trait of a person and put him or her in a situation that is opposite to their persona and/or character traits. It creates a situation that resolves with an unexpected result. Which creates surprise, thus laughter.
So all I needed to do is come up with a character that the audience would never expect to use the phrase “Y’all.”
I thought British Royalty. That’s a good idea, but the odds of meeting British royalty in Texas are slim and improbable—Brits don’t understand Texan accents—so I thought further. Then I came up with the idea of using an austere French person.
Where would I find an austere French person in Texas?
A French restaurant in Dallas!
You can probably feel the presence of the incongruous relationship between those two elements (French person/Texas), already, and the idea is giving you a bit of a tickle.
So once I had the character and the situation. I had to create the story and the act-out.
So the bit goes like this:
“I was out of the country recently, I was in Texas. You ever notice that everyone says, “Y’all” in Texas. Everyone! You can go to other parts of the country and you’ll have pockets of the population that say “y’all,” but everyone in Texas says, “Y’all.” Like, one time, I was in a very expensive French restaurant in Dallas—which is a joke in itself—I was at the top of this hotel. Very French restaurant; the waiter was also very French. He had the little French mustache, the towel over his arm, the body odor. He comes up to our table and he’s like, “Good afternoon, Mademoiselle, Monsieur… Welcome to Café Lu Bonne… what can I get for Y’all.” I was like, “You just blew the atmosphere there ‘Pierre.’
He turns around, he’s got a faded Copenhagen circle on the back of his Tuxedo pants… That’ll teach me for eating at a restaurant called, “Chateu de Big-Ass Barbecue.”
This bit is intended to be performed and not written, but it’s a bit that works any time, any where I am performing; clubs, corporates, parties, one-niters. It’s a no-fail joke.
Take a quick look at the video of that joke:
Jerry Corley at Wiseguys Comedy Club in Salt Lake City
Here’s the thing: IT NEVER HAPPENED! The entire scenario is a made-up story.
Bottom line is that comedy doesn’t have to be true to be funny and effective.
Here’s the caveat: comedy has to be believable and probable. If this was written outside the realm of believability, then the audience would not ‘buy it’ and the joke would fail.
The thing to remember is that comedy is heightened reality not complete absurdity. As audiences we love to be fooled, but we hate to be made fools of…
One of the other fallible pieces of information that students get subjected to is “don’t tell stories.” NOT TRUE!
Notice the above joke. Is it a story or a joke?
It’s both. It is a story with seven laugh points, (in orange). It’s a bit that lasts about a minute, but includes seven laughs along the way.
Seven laughs in a minute. Considering that most clubs like the Improv, Comedy Store, Laugh Factory, etcetera, look for comedians to have a laugh every 18-20 seconds, seven in a minute doubles that. It’s a solid bit.
What do we gain from this?
Stories are fine, just as long as you have laugh points along the way!
But he’s no different than any other comedian who gets laughs. Where the laughs are you will find him using a variation of the 12 Comedic Structures and the 8 Major Laughter Triggers, that I teach in my comedy classes and breakdown in my e-Book.
I’m going to approach the first few minutes of this bit of Bill Burr’s, almost line by line, and offer suggestions as to why the bits work so well. This way you can see how the things I teach, work. Even in a rant-style like Burr’s.
Play the video then and follow along the with assessment and PLEASE leave comments. Even if you disagree. We’re here to learn!
Here we go…
First of all pay attention to Bill’s technique. His point of view is clear. He’s a Cynic with a capital ‘C.’ But what makes it work is that he keeps this wicked, mischievous smile all the way through. CLASSIC! It’s his way of saying to his audience, “I don’t take myself too seriously… notice the funny here folks!”
It’s that smile that makes him likeable. Kind of the guy you want to have a beer with.
I’ve spent a lot of time arguing that structure is key to getting laughs. Bill uses structure just like any other comic. He just finesses it and disguises it, as you would disguise exposition in a script.
Below we’ll go line-by-line. Bill Burr’s lines will be in yellow. My running commentary (if you give a shit) will be in white.
“I’m afraid to get married, man… Perfect. Sets up dilemma. Even though I’m up here on stage, I have fears too. Plus it’s very conversational. When it’s a conversation, the punch usually comes with more surprise because we’re not expecting a joke.
What man wouldn’t be afraid to get married at this point? Look at Kobe. Look at the shit he’s going through right now.
Audience laughs. Why? Surprise and Recognition We recognize Kobe and his situation while at the same time we’re surprised that Burr would choose Kobe Bryant as a guy we should empathize with.
Guy’s gettin’ a divorce… his wife is gonna get seventy million bucks… never hit a layup in her life….
Audience laughs. Why? Recognition,incongruity and simple truth. By saying, “never hit a layup in her life,” he puts an instant image of Kobe’s wife in our minds doing a layup! For some of you, your image may have her in a Lakers’ uniform. That’s both recognition and incongruity, because our minds probably see her as the wife of an NBA star and not in a sweaty jersey and Burr puts her there in there on the boards at the base of the paint, doing a layup. He paints this incongruous picture for us and we laugh. Also, it’s simple truth. Burr has taken the complex issue of legally awarding Alimony and narrowed it down to: “she never hit a layup in her life.” True and Simple.
NOTE: You’ll notice that Bill Burr is an avid sports fan. Within his act you’ll find multiple sports analogies, euphemisms and metaphors.
Can anyone explain these divorce settlements? Can anyone make sense of them? Tiger Woods’ wife: Two Hundred and fifty million dollars! She’s a babysitter! Worth a quarter of a billion fucking dollars!”
Two fascinating things going on here. The incongruity that befalls on the fact that a babysitter is getting two hundred and fifty mil is funny because of the huge incongruity, but this audience pulls back a little. But Burr uses this tension build to challenge the audience and further make his point. Notice: He’s still smiling!
Somebody explai—justify it. Justify it! What? He cheated on her? I don’t give a fuck! I don’t give a fuck! He cheated on her. The relationships over right then. Kobe cheated right? Shouldn’t that relationship been over right then? Why did she hang out for three years like some jaded cop trying to get her fuckin’ pension? Right? Get that ten years in?
Audience Laughs. Why? Give you one guess; INCONGRUITY. Here he even uses the “is-like” formula to get the incongruity in place. “Why did she hang out for three years like some jaded cop trying to get her fucking pension?” Once he set up that incongruity play, then audience laughs. Then he tags it with “Get that ten years in…”
NOTE:You should take note that Burr laughs out loud at this point. Keeping the flavor of the entire show in a humorous light. Cynical, but humorous! Brilliant! It’s theater science that the audience is in whatever state the performer is in, so when Burr laughs he keeps the audience in a humorous mood.
I don’t know maybe that’s too harsh, but that shit bothers me man! Dude, there is an epidemic of gold-digging whores in this country…
Audience Laughs and Applauds. Why? The statement is surprising and a bit shocking. It’s simple truth (based on the information he’s given us up to this point). Burr also sets up his dilemma of still trying to figure this shit out with “I don’t know. Maybe that’s too harsh.” So he’s never saying, “This is the only truth and if you don’t like it, get the fuck out.” It’s more like, “I’m still trying to figure this out too!” Whenever I hear this line it reminds me the way George Carlin used shock and exaggeration by opening with the line: “You ever notice that women who are against abortion, are women you wouldn’t want to fuck anyway?”
….and every night I put on the news and I’m waitin’ for someone to address it. Every night. Never see it. Y’know? And every night, I bring up ‘gold-digging whores’ and the whole crowd pulls back like I’m talking about ‘Bigfoot,’ alright? Like I’m saying the moon is made out of cheese or somethin.’
Audience Laughs. Why? Recognition and Release. Release; He spent time talking about gold-digging whores and built up tension. Steve Martin said that comedy is about tension and release. Well he builds up tension and then points out that the audience is pulling back, “like I’m talking about Bigfoot.” Notice he uses “like” again. Doing a comparison to something unrelated and something we recognize. We also recognize the situation when someone starts talking conspiracy that people tend to pull back.
I’m talking about whores people! They’re everywhere!
Shock value (Surprise). And notice he delivers this harsh line while he sporting that wicked smile. It’s brilliant incongruity. You ever see a movie where the villain is spraying the bank with machine gun fire while the soundtrack is playing some playful circus music like “Entry of the Gladiators.” Same cool technique. Like a point-counterpoint in music. He saying a harsh phrase while wearing a smile. Awesome!
How many? How many more great men are gonna get chopped in half before we do somethin’? (Pause) Why is it so quiet in here?!
This is awesome RELEASE! Using the audience’s own political correctness tension and just putting it under a spotlight by acknowledging the tension with the smile! Gets the audience to release that tension. This is how powerful RELEASE can be. There’s a wave of energy from the audience!
One thing you notice with Burr, is that his emotions are always clear. You know exactly how he feels about what he’s talking about. This is very important in stand-up comedy. That’s how a performer connects to his audience; through emotion. Even if an audience doesn’t agree with your ideology, they can still relate to the way you feel about it and recognize that, because they’ve felt that same way about something in their lives too.
I’m not calling any woman in here a whore. So don’t pull back. That’s not fair. If you brought up ‘wife-beaters’ I wouldn’t pull back. I get it. There’s guys hittin’ women and they need to be stopped. But you gotta understand that gold-diggin’ whores are the wife-beaters for men.
Audience Laughs. Why? INCONGRUITY. When Burr says, “you gotta understand that gold-diggin’ whores are the wife-beaters for men,” Isn’t that like saying “are like the wife beaters for men?” So he’s juxtaposed the two elements. They laughed at that incongruity. Now he’ll tag it with something from the wife beater section that we all recognize and give us an act-out…
Yeah! They are! Except, we don’t have that lumped up Rihanna photo in the end. (ACT-OUT: a quick act-out of a mangled face).
But it’s not obvious. It’s in the eyes. It’s in the lines in your face. It’s in Mel Gibson’s high-pitched voice on the answering machine, (ACT OUT: Mel Gibson on the phone): “I had to give up my Laker Tickets!” That is the sound of a man who’s being taken for everything he’s got.
Audience Laughs. Why? RECOGNITION. Men experience abuse too in different ways. This compare and contrast and Recognition drives the point with laughter. AND they recognize the Mel Gibson phone message that got so much play on the news. Then he tags it. By reminding us what it is. Classic act-out structure; tell us what you’re going to tell us, act it out, then tell us what you just told us.
I’ve got to tell you. I’m envious of women. I’m not saying your problems get solved, but at least they’re taken seriously. You know? You got one-eight-hundred numbers, you got ribbons… there’s groups. People give a shit. Anything happens to a guy it’s just considered funny. Some woman cut her husband’s dick off, through it in the garbage disposal and turned it on. People thought it was hilarious. They were like, “Hey Stumpy!” Nobody cares!
Several laughs here. Why? Let’s look at simple truth and recognition; “You got 1-800 numbers, you got ribbons… there’s groups. Both factual (simple truth) and recognizable. But the bigger laugh comes with the compare and contrast “Anything happens to a guy it’s just considered hilarious!” Then Hey Stumpy! INCONGRUITY. What do you call a guy who had his dick cut off? “Stumpy.”
But the big laugh comes in the next few lines where Burr uses a three-way build-up (triple) and recognition combined. Huge laugh! The three-way build-up creates tension and the recognition pulls out the stops and BOOM! Laughter and applause.
You think if a guy removed a woman’s titty and threw it in the drier, anybody would be jokin’ about it the next day? The entire country would grind to a hault, there would be a moment of silence… (here’s the third of the 3-way build) The N.F.L. would have a special-colored headband everybody would have to wear…
When he says that line about the “special-colored headband…,” do you get a clear image of the pink ribbons, etc. that the N.F.L. players wear during ‘Breast Cancer Awareness Month?” That’s definitely recognition at work!
We can go on and on—as I cover this full 11:30 video in my classes—and I’d love to because I love listening to Bill Burr. But this blog post would wind up being prohibitively long. And I think, by now, you get the idea! If you don’t hit me with a comment and I’ll deconstruct the rest of it.
Listen closely to Burr’s use of the phrase “is-like.” He uses it a lot. He often compares one thing to another then puts them both together in what is known as an incongruity/act-out.
Throughout the entire video he uses that powerful comedy structure. My favorite part is when he gets to the end of the act (right about the 11:15 mark) he compares a man’s dick to a third-base coach, waving in runners.
Take a look and see Burr’s brilliant use of this comedy structure and he pays it off and closes his set. Awesome!
Texture and Persona
Also listen to Burr’s use of the language. He spits out metaphor and euphemism keeping the sentences interesting and edgy. Listen when he talks about Schwarzenegger. “Why do you think she hooked up with him? Because of that nineteen eighties flat-top he’s still rockin’?” Burr accomplishes two things in this sentence; He mocks Schwarzenegger and also keeps it interesting with the choice of words.
Burr uses a variation of several comedy structures in his act, combined with his wicked smile and his commitment to his emotional point of view. He also takes on this challenging subject matter with a challenging ideology. This drives anxiety in the audience, creating tension. If you have tension sometimes all you have to do is acknowledge the reality that the tension exists and the audience will release it by laughing.
I still use that technique. When I talk about issues or deal with a crabby heckler and I feel like the audience is tense and quiet. I simply say something like, “Does anyone else feel the tension in this room?” or I laugh through the end of this line: “Is it me or did it just get really hot in here?!”
These are simple comedic devices you can use to release tension that builds up in the audience. Bill Burr uses it masterfully!
If you take anything away from this video, take away Burr’s use of analogy to create humorous opportunities, (the “is-like” or variations thereof).
Burr uses it like his clutch-hitter in the line-up; when he needs the bases cleared and a big laugh to take him to the next segment, he brings in the big bat (incongruity/act-out) and he swings for the fences.
After all the emails, I’m now going to start to dedicate some of the space on this blog for non-comedians; a place where the ‘everyday’ person can get a dose of insight into how to be funny.
Before we get started with the tips, please be advised that being funny is subjective. What one person thinks is funny may draw, from another person, a blank stare or worse a snarl, or a punch in the throat. (It hasn’t happened to me yet, but there’s still hope!).
Despite the subjectiveness of ‘funny,’ there are certain strategies and techniques that you can apply to your daily conversation that will drastically increase your ability to be recognized as “funny.”
And… it’s not as hard as you might think, because much of learning how to be funny is surprisingly scientific.
It is a scientific fact (proven through scientific case study and scientific process), that a human being laughs when they are surprised.
You should be writing that word down right now. SURPRISE. It’s key. In fact out of the 9 Major Human Laughter Triggers, if you focused on surprise alone, in a short period of time, you could be recognized as the funniest guy in your school, at your work or in your cell block. (I write that, because as it turns out a lot of inmates have been reading my blog).
I guess you can avoid being someone’s bitch if you’re making them laugh!
The problem with surprise is that it also causes us to startle or cry.
So we have to understand how to apply it so it works to help us achieve our goal—and that’s to make someone laugh.
We laugh when we are surprised in a benign way or in a way that doesn’t threaten our safety or our reputation.
So let’s start with owning the fact that the number one trigger for human laughter is surprise.
Actually there are, (at a psychological level), 9 major laugh triggers for the human being.
Since one of those triggers is tickling, there are eight which are applicable to what we are trying to do and that is to make people laugh in every day situations;
In Social situations
Giving presentations or speaking engagements
The great thing, is that if you’re NOT a comedian, a LITTLE humor goes a LONG way! You don’t have the same requirements and expectations as a comedian does, so a small surprise in the middle of a talk can be very effective.
If you’re known for being a square or completely ‘un-funny,’ then a small joke can be hysterical because everyone is so used to your normally subdued personality and the wordplay is unexpected which creates crisp surprise and BOOM a laugh.
For example Conrad Hilton founder of Hilton Hotels was noted for being a dry and serious human being. When interviewed at a business function in January, he was asked, “What are some of your New Year’s resolutions?”
He replied, “I would just ask that people put the shower curtain INSIDE the tub.
Not incredibly funny by any means, but since Mr. Hilton is rarely ever seen saying anything that is NOT serious, it got a big laugh. It was the SURPRISE that triggered the laugh mechanism.
The eight major laughter triggers for the human being are:
Some comedy writing gurus have stated that the last one, ‘configurational’ doesn’t apply to commercially accepted comedy today, but that’s completely wrong.
Configurational jokes are those that make an audience think and solve the punchline. If you think of Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg, you know that that kind of comedy is alive and well.
Well Mitch Hedberg is dead, so I guess it’s only half-alive.
Hedberg and Wright still have had such influence, many comedians are emulating their style and becoming very successful.
You can’t watch Steven Wright or Mitch Hedberg without starting to think funny or incongruously yourself.
But, after watching you might ask “how’s that help me to be funny?”
I’m glad you asked.
Sometimes just seeing it in action gives you a better understanding of how to apply it.
Understanding surprise as a laughter trigger is just the first step.
The real fun comes when you apply the techniques yourself.
You can be the most boring person in the world but if you engage surprise effectively, you could easily get a laugh.
One of my favorite techniques to get a laugh in everyday situations is to use the double entendre comedy formula. It’s one of techniques I teach in my 12-Steps to How To Be Funny for the every day person.
Double entendre means ‘two meanings.’
If you really take a moment and listen to the English language, you’ll find that we have a ton of words that have multiple meanings. All you have to do is think of the alternate meaning.
If you know someone that turns everything you say into a sexual connotation, then you know someone who uses double entendre to get a laugh.
GUY #1: You gonna be able to get your haircut this weekend?
GUY #2: Yeah, Cara said she could do me, Saturday.
GUY #1: Then, when’s she gonna cut your hair?
All you have to do is think of alternate meanings for common words.
For example, say you’re at the grocery store and the clerk at the counter says, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”
Think in steps:
Step #1: What do they mean by that?
Step #2: Is there a word in that statement that I can change the meaning of?
Step#3: What is their intended meaning of that word?
Step#4: What’s my ‘comedic’ interpretation of the word?
CLERK: Did you find everything you were looking for?
YOU: 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.
Let’s try another one in a different joke format:
I was on the road with a comic. As he got off the phone with his girlfriend he said to me, “That’s a relief. My girlfriend got a cat to keep her company while I’m on the road.” Then I said, “Bad news is, that cat is a six-foot-two jazz musician.”
With the simple double-entendre formula, you can actually train yourself to recognize the multiple meanings of words and respond to it with a comedic or ‘alternate’ interpretation.
It’s fast. It’s easy and tons of fun… Sounds like my fat ex-girlfriend!
So use double-entendre and you’ll be on your way to learning how to be funny!
If you believed some comedians in this industry, you might think that statement is true.
If someone said that to me today, I would tell them that one of the most memorable comedy bits in all of comedy is George Carlin’s "Seven Words You Can’t Say On T.V."
It’s pure wordplay.
They might counter that with, "Well that was a long time ago."
And I might let them believe that they’re right and let them begin that fall into the abyss of ignorance and arrogance that usually accompanies a comedian who’s been doing comedy for all of four or five years.
But not you. I would never let you fall into that abyss.
The readers of my blog–all three of you–I’ll try to not only guide you but give you supporting evidence from one the the masters…
George Carlin; a master wordsmith in comedy.
Ironic, considering that he left school in 9th grade.
And although the argument that "Seven Words" is from a different era and that it wouldn’t play today might hold some relevance; though I doubt it, I give you "Modern Man," a bit of pure wordplay comedy that Carlin did in his later years.