What Is Funny?

comedy_tragedyYou really want to know what’s funny? How ‘bout some obscure blogger, (Me!), trying to write an article entitled “What is Funny?!”

Funny is such a subjective term.

How is anyone going to write about how to be funny? It’s almost like trying to definitively answer, “Who is God?” Or “What is Love?”

As a comedian of 25 years, a comedy writer for Jay Leno and The Tonight Show, comedy instructor and founder of The Stand Up Comedy Clinic, (a comedy workshop in Los Angeles), the question is posed to me, literally, every single day.

So I thought I’d get serious about it for a minute and try to come up with a possible answer. Please remember, this is just my theory and by no means a definitive answer. So keep the nasty comments to yourself. I’m still searching too!

In other words, shut your conch!

What is “funny?” You could ask that question in many different ways–“What is funny?” “What is funny?” “What is Funny?” Or even “What’s so funny, bitch?!…” and still come up with a blank stare.

I’m not going to proclaim that I know what’s funny to everyone. Funny is very subjective. What is funny to one person is not necessary going to be funny to another.

In a nutshell, we’re just guessing, the audience is the judge.

Here’s what I can do. I can analyze funny. In fact, let’s do it together:

According to the dictionary, the number one definition of “Funny” is “to cause laughter or amusement.” Most people can agree on that. I was going to say “all people can agree on that, ” but people will find any reason not to agree—just watch the U.S. Congress. So, for the purpose of this article, let’s all agree on the definition of “Funny” as it causes laughter or amusement. In this case, since we are looking for laughs, let’s focus on laughter.

Because amusement is even more subjective. To some, the “Tilt-a-Whirl” at a carnival causes amusement. For me, it causes vomit. And here I think we can all agree that—and I’ve done a little research in this area—that vomiting is only amusing…if it’s not you.

Okay, back to what is funny?. How do we find funny? Well since we know that funny equals laughter we can start by looking at the science of laughter. When we do, we discover that according to experts on human behavior, the number one element that triggers human laughter is surprise.

Now, just by answering that, do you have any idea how far we’ve come now solving our initial question?

It’s almost algebraic. It’s almost an “if-then” statement: What is funny is something that causes laughter.

What causes laughter? Surprise, and if A=B and B=C, then A=C.

Then if Laughter = Funny and

Surprise = Laughter, then

Surprise = Funny!

Got it?

Say it with me: SURPRISE EQUALS FUNNY!

Some people say that you can’t teach stand up comedy or for that matter teach somebody how to be funny. And while I do believe you are born with talent and you develop skill, I also know that if you have a reasonable amount of intelligence and a command of the English language you can learn the structures of how to manipulate words to take something seemingly mundane and turn it into something funny.

I teach a comedy class in the Los Angeles area and I can teach just that to average, but amazing people and I’ve had tremendous results.

Can You Teach Funny?
How do you teach this, you ask?

All it takes is a little surprise.

Sid Caesar said, “Comedy is a story with a curlicue.”

If you tell me a story and you give it a surprise ending, you have just written your first joke. Tell me something about yourself:

Comedian Tim Bidore used to open with this joke: “I come from a large family…four Moms, five Dads…” He just took something mundane, a cliché of everyday life and really just changed the ending. It’s a curlicue. It’s unexpected. Hence, it’s a surprise. Is it Funny? Let’s go back to the formula

If Laughter=Funny, and

Surprise=Laughter, then

Surprise=Funny.

But we also understand the adage, the audience is the judge and in this case the audience still laughs at that line every time…and what is laughter equal to? FUNNY!

Now we’re starting to get it! Let’s look at it in another way…

How about when you go to the grocery store? When you check out, what does the clerk always say? “Did you find everything you were looking for?” Right? How do you usually respond? By saying, “Yes.” Because even if you didn’t find everything you were looking for, you just don’t want to deal with it.

But if you applied a common comedy formulas called The Double Entendre, you can start to look at a sentence or a question the way a comedian looks at it; by taking the implied meaning of a word and giving it a comedic perspective.

First, look at the question: “Did you find everything you were looking for?” We know what he/she means when they ask that question. What they’re asking is: Did you find everything you were looking for while you were shopping today.

What if we too the implied meaning of “everything” and blew it up a little? What if we took the meaning to the next level? “Did you find everything you’re looking for?” But this time we analyze it with a comedian’s sense; what do most people look for, not at the store, but in life; the meaning of life, or a soul mate, or love?

So what if we took one of those interpretations and responded to the question differently? Does it change? Let’s look:

Clerk: Did you find everything you were looking for?

Me: (Looking at the items on the conveyor) Well, I found some wine and some candlelight, but I couldn’t find my soulmate. You had Mahi-Mahi, but I’m just not into twins.

Now you have something that’s clever and unique. It will get a laugh every time at the grocery store because your interpretation of the intended meaning of “everything” is surprising and since we’ve already established that

Surprise triggers laughter and…

Laughter equals funny, then…

You’re on your way to understanding what is funny!

Comedy Class | Need A Laugh? Tell The Truth!

swear-inHmmm? What’s that you say? Tell the truth? Why do I need to waste my time telling the truth when I’m busy trying to be funny?

One of the best things about comedy is that almost anything goes, especially the truth.

My comedy students ask me: “what do I do when they’re not laughing?” My first response is, “Write better jokes!”  But when the joke or idea is pretty good and they’re still not laughing what do you do to get through the set? Your best bet is honesty… and when I say “honesty,” I mean honesty about exactly how you feel at that moment.

You know what? It almost never fails!

I’ve been teaching this little gem in my comedy classes from the beginning and only the best implement it. But when they do, it works. One of my students was having a trying set at the Comedy Store. He’s a natural so he didn’t think he needed to prepare thoroughly. He thought he could basically get on stage and “riff” it.

After the first couple of jokes didn’t resonate the way he hoped, you could actually see him go right into his head. He started to sweat. Then something snapped and he said to himself, “fuck it.”

He let out a sigh and said to the audience. “Man, this stuff was getting laughs in my head when I rehearsed it.” The audience let out a strong laugh. It was a laugh that came from release. The release of tension of them empathizing for a comedian who was bombing.

Then he said, “The last place I want to be right now is right here on this stage.” The audience laughed harder and then applauded. They applauded out of the fact that someone, anyone in their lives was being purely honest. This comedian, whom they didn’t know, just bared his soul in front of them. They rewarded him with applause.

After that, he was able to recover, get out of his head and finish his set.

Seventeen comedians and two drinks later a couple approached him after the show. They said, “You were our favorite.” He was like, “Why?” They said, “because you were so REAL.”

So the next time you feel the jokes aren’t clicking… Tell the truth!

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.

How To Be A Comedian | Analyzing Marc Maron

If you’ve been keeping up, then you know how much I love to study comedy structure. I’ve broken comedy down into 12 major comedy structures that all the greats use. In fact, great or not, when an audience laughs, odds are they laugh because one or more of the 12 major structures are in play.

Let’s take a look at Marc Maron. He’s always made me laugh. He’s to the point, he’s truthful. If he didn’t step away from comedy for so long, I think he would be one of those comedians who could stand alongside Louis C.K.

After you watch this short clip, let’s look at the structures in play.

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Marin has kind of a throw-away, I-don’t-really-give-a-shit-if-you-laugh delivery. Notice that he still allows time for the audience to enjoy the humor. Each time the audience laughs, comedy structure is in play:

“…she texted me like fifty f**king times…”
Slight chuckle here. Isn’t this recognition? Haven’t we had someone like that in our lives or don’t we know someone like that?

“…I was showing people…she’s f**king crazy…look how f**king crazy she is…”

Another laugh at the act out. Again recognition is in play. Haven’t we all shown someone a stupid, whacky or crazy texts? But this is all a set up for the larger 3-way build-up (triple) play, because what’s next?

…then on the fifty-first text was a picture of her pussy…and I said, “Well, maybe…you know…I could…you know…”

It shattered our assumption because he laid out two early opinions building up to how crazy this chick was and there’s NO WAY I could get involved with this…
He totally misdirected us then POW! Shattered our prediction of where he was going.

Also he has recognition still in play because guys will let a lot of stuff go when sex is involved, right?
In addition, Marc’s delivery is so damn conversational and real, that we recognize that nuance in people.

But that’s not all, let’s listen to the next joke where he uses recognition again then incongruity:

“…but like two texts after that, the guy who was building a bookshelf for me, texted me a picture of the bookshelf and I was actually more excited about that…”
Recognition and surprise are in play here. When he says, the guy texted me a picture of the bookcase…(we wonder what he’s going to say, then)…I was actually more excited about that (surprise) and we recognize that place where sometimes there are more important things than sex. Hmmm…is that also ambivalence?

And here comes the incongruity:

“…there was a part of me that was thinking…you know, “I don’t have to be afraid to put things in there…” (things in a bookcase juxtapose with things in a p*ssy. One won’t give you a disease both they both relate) Clear incongruity.

“…and I know that will last…” Incongruity again juxtaposing relationships with the bookcase.

So there you have it. Marc Marin uses structure in his comedy too. When a laugh is present. Structure is present.

Feedback? Leave me some notes. Love to hear your interpretation!

How To Write Funny

heres-johnnySo you sit down to write and nothing happens. Now what? What causes your creative process to shut down?

There’s almost nothing more frustrating than not being able to write… I was going to say there is nothing more frustrating, but off the top of my head I came up with three: two had to do with passive aggressive ex’s, and one had to do with a phone call to Bank of America…who said there’s nothing to write about?!

One of the keys to learning how to be a comedian, is learning how to write solid comedy consistently. But…

One of the biggest dilemmas we have when we write comedy is that we’re always trying to think of “funny” or “weird” things to write about. That’s not necessarily the best approach. In fact, it’s probably the main cause of your block. Your brain goes into overload trying to think of funny things. So what do you do about it?

Write the truth. Comedy derives from truth.  It starts with a simple story about your life.

One of the ways I like to write is by just writing about an event or an idea. Just putting down the facts on paper (or in my case, the computer). My only goal is to tell the story. It’s usually best if the event pissed me off or otherwise triggered an emotion. That emotion is my motivation for writing the story, but it’s not always necessary. I can also write it simply from the point of observation. Ultimately the quirky, odd, weird, stupid things appear, because aren’t they out there in everyday life anyway? The only way to get to them often is to write.

Once I have the idea on the page, I can go back over the material, in a second pass, and start to identify 3 things:

  1. Analogy
  2. Word-play
  3. Reverses

These are only 3 techniques, in the dozen or so available to a comedy writer, but they are extremely effective and can help you take a regular story and turn it into a comedy bit.

Let’s quickly look at each of these:

1. ANALOGY:

Analogy is the process of comparing one thing to another in an imaginary or metaphorical way.  If one definition of a joke is “the convergence of two or more clearly identifiable ideas,” then analogy helps you to impose a secondary idea into your story and introduce comedy. It’s “automatic incongruity” and incongruity creates SURPRISE. Once you become familiar with incongruity you’ll realize that it is one of the best ways to learn how to write comedy

Example:

Having sex with my ex was a lot like working on the bench press at the gym; I always had to wipe it down and three guys were just there before me.

You would normally not think of putting bench pressing and sex with your ex together, but that’s exactly what triggers the humor. They don’t normally fit and therefore they create incongruity and in this particular case, clear, visual imagery.

2. WORD-PLAY

Word play is one of the easiest ways to create “plays” or “turns” in your stories. Almost all words in the English language have multiple meanings. You simply take the implied meaning and turn it into a more exaggerated meaning. Because you shatter the expected meaning, you create surprise and have a laugh point within your story.

Example:

I was checking out at the grocery story and the clerk said, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”
I said, “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.”

The simple play on the word “everything” changes the entire nature of the story. Without spinning the intended meaning of the word “everything,” the story would simply fall flat. Right?

3. REVERSES:

The number one trigger for human laughter is SURPRISE. One of the quickest, most effective ways to get there is using a structure called a “REVERSE.” You simply change the reader’s or listener’s perception of where the story was going, by quickly pulling the rug out from under them.

Example:

I was holding my 9-month old daughter on my lap and she was grabbing at my chest hair. So I wrote down: “My 9-month old daughter loves to grab my chest hair.”

In that sentence we have a very definitive statement. In order to create surprise, we must change the definitive to an assumptive. One of the definitives in the statement is: it’s “my” chest hair. So I ask myself, what can I do to change that to an assumptive?  So the statement becomes:

I have a 9-month old daughter. You know what she loves to play with? Chest hair…

So now it is assumed that it’s my chest hair. So let’s play it like that, then shatter the assumption so we have a joke:

 I have a 9-month old daughter. You know what she loves to play with? Chest hair…she’ll really pull on it too. I finally had to say to my wife, (pointing at her chest) ‘You might want to get that stuff lasered.’ (You can also use “waxed,” but I found that there were better laughs with the word “lasered.”

So now that you have these techniques, you can apply them to turn your stories into comedy. Tomorrow I will show you a story that was submitted to me by a student and I will show you the process of how I turn it into something funny.

***Please feel free to leave comments. I would love to hear from you!!!***