Comedians often wonder why some of their jokes are not getting a laugh. If you’ve ever wondered this, read on. One of the reasons could be that it is not believable.
Comedians hear that they should tell the truth. That the truth is what’s funny. I think that pigeon-holes a comedian. I think it’s more accurate to say that your jokes or stories should be plausible. Even if they are a bit absurd.
As audiences, we love to be fooled, but we hate to be made fools of. Whether it’s a magic trick or a good joke, we’re fooled just a little. We experience surprise or a bit of amazement so we smile, laugh, applaud.
But, as audiences, when we’re made fools of we will turn. In comedy it is usually manifested as a groan or silence. In some cases you can actually watch an audience fold their arms, silently rejecting the performer’s recklessness in underestimating our intelligence.
I’ve seen comedians affect this behavior from audiences and stand in wonder as to why the audience would do such a thing. “I know this is funny! This is a funny idea!” “Come on! What’s wrong with the audience?” “How could they NOT get this?!”
You know the drill.
Storytelling Has Rules
As comedians, we’ve all done a joke and expected a laugh and the joke resulted in anything but laughter.
There are a lot of reasons that this happens. One of the most common reasons is the lack of understanding that comedy is heightened reality.
Plausibility in a story or joke is essential.
But before I go into it, allow me to argue that whether you perform one and two-liner jokes, or stories, it’s all the same. “A joke, (according to Sid Caesar) is a story with a curlicue.”
So if a joke is a story then it must have some kind of story structure and adhere to certain set of rules.
Sorry to break the news to some of you, there are rules in story telling and joke telling.
Fiction writers often argue that since they are the authors they can write anything since they are the creators. That is true. You CAN write anything you want, but if it does not follow certain rules, the reader or listener will immediately reject it.
Building Plausibility into Your Story
Stories, like jokes, have to adhere to a certain set rules. One of those rules is that the story or scenario has to be plausible. Another rule is that there should be some kind of point of view.
In trying to understand this concept, one of my students showed me an example of comedian, Rory Skovel on Comedy Central’s “The Half-Hour.” (3 1/2 minutes)
He was wondering how it is plausible that Rory had ‘stolen’ seven grandmothers. And if that concept didn’t violate the rule plausibility and wander into complete absurdity.
In my humble observation I give you this:
Rory’s persona is kinda like that of a sociopath. It’s quirky and off-center. He looks like he could’ve been one of those kids who was at risk of shooting up a high school so stealing and hoarding grandmothers doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility for his persona.
Also, in the structure of the storytelling, he adds, “…old people in wheelchairs, rarely turn around to see who’s pushing them.” This statement gives credence to how the main character in the story achieves his goal.
As outrageous as the story may be, the act of stealing grandmothers and keeping them in your basement is certainly plausible. It’s physically possible and given the main character’s persona in the story, it seems like plausible behavior.
Implausibility comes with Impossibility
That being said, if the storyteller sprung some concept on the audience that wasn’t introduced in the setup, then we might reject it. For example, in Rory’s story, he wheels the grandmother out to his van…
If he didn’t introduce the van and he just said something like, “…then I transport them to my basement using my magical telepathic transporting powers… ” or something like that, it would be completely implausible or unbelievable.
As a result the audience would think the comedian–by thinking that we would fall for such nonsense–are playing us for fools and we would reject the joke.
That being said, if the comedian built into the story that this was a dream or that he was in a world where those powers could be attained through submitting 5 cereal boxtops and a self-addressed stamped envelope, then we might allow it, because the given circumstances of the story, the telepathic powers would be plausible.
So the next time you tell a joke or a story and the audience doesn’t buy it. Maybe it is because it’s not considered plausible.
In order for ever story to be complete the writer has to address the maxim of the five W’s: Who? What? Where? Why? When? and How? — Okay, 5 W’s and an H! 🙂
If any one of those elements is NOT plausible (given the circumstances that were explained to us in the set up and the character), then the audience might not buy the concept and may reject it by responding to our joke with silence.
Would love to hear your thoughts. Have you ever had a story or joke that didn’t work?
Looking to add more laughs into your act? Sometimes just applying some deliberate writing you can use mechanics to add some quick laughs as you advance the routine.
According to Lorne Michaels, creator of Saturday Night Live, one of the crucial things an audience looks for in a comedian who first steps on stage is confidence.
Confidence is a two-way street; you as the performer have to have confidence in yourself for the audience to have confidence in your ability to make them laugh.
Immediate Laughs Build Confidence Fast
One way to build confidence in your act is to have a quick laugh within the first 10-15 seconds of taking the stage.
Economy is key. Challenge yourself to a game of how fast you can get to the joke. How many words before you can get the audience to laugh?
We built a laugh into Eugenia Kuzmina’s act by using her the emcee’s intro as a set up. The emcee says, “Ladies and gentlemen, coming to the stage now is a fashion model who wants to be a comedian. Please welcome Eugenia Kuzmina.
Eugenia enters the stage doing the fashion model’s scissored gate like she’s on a fashion runway. She walks to each end of the stage and poses just like she’s on the runway. Then approaches the mic, sighs, and then says, “I’m so hungry.”
So she gets a big laugh with as little as three words. Most of the time the audience begins giggling on her entrance, which helps to build the laugh on the line.
Years ago I did a show at a casino/resort in Nevada that had a fire the week before that threatened the cancellation of the show. That news was in the paper (remember newspapers?). It was also on the news.
When I was introduced, I walked on stage with a fire extinguisher, set it down next to me and… before I said anything, the audience laughed, then broke into applause.
Problem with that is if I want to rely on that gimmick to get laughs, before I come to town I would have to arrange for the venue to have a fire.
Applying the Maxim of the 5 w’s to Add Laughs
The good news is that many times the jokes are already sitting there in your existing act. You just need to use put on your comedy tool belt.
Using one of my students recent intros, watch how we took introduction and added 3 more quick laughs, giving her 7 laughs in the first 30 seconds.
Here is the intro to a set written by Laura Breech, one of my students:
“So I moved here recently and decided to check out the LA dating scene, so I dusted off that online profile…again. I’ve been on a few dates, and I don’t get why things never go anywhere. I’m doing all the things you’re supposed to on a first date: I’m getting dressed up, I’m making polite conversation, I’m swallowing…Hahah, JK, that doesn’t happen. Not on a first date! I’m a spitter. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but dude, I live in LA now. I’ve gotta count calories…”
It’s a good opening and has three laughs, but I took a look at the draft and thought there was a possibility to add a few more laughs.
I looked at each sentence and utilized the maxim of the 5 W’s (Who? What? Where? Why? When? And How?).
This was the result:
“So recently, I moved to L.A. for the same reason as most people; just to make absolutely certain that I’ll never be able to afford a home. And recently I decided to get into extreme sports; you know, the LA dating scene… so I dusted off that online profile… again. I’ve been on a few dates–okay, seventeen of them–(ahem)… and I don’t get why things never go anywhere. I’m doing all the things you’re supposed to on a first date: I’m getting dressed up, I’m making polite conversation, I’m swallowing…Ha!, Just kidding, that doesn’t happen. Not on a first date! I’m a spitter. Dude! I live in LA now. I gotta count calories…”
So just by asking questions like Why did I move to L.A.? and How is the “L.A. dating scene” different from other dating scenes? “What do I mean by a ‘few’ dates?, We were able to add about 3 more laughs to this opening for a total of 7 laughs in the first 30 seconds.
That averages out to a laugh every 4.2 seconds. That’s a great start and executed properly that opening will assuredly demonstrate ability and give that audience a hypodermic filled with confidence.
Go Even Further
But, wait, there’s more! Just because that’s the opening bit she performed at her show, it doesn’t mean we can’t evolve the piece even further.
The first thing that pops into my mind is that Laura compared L.A. dating to extreme sports. That tells us that there are two dissimilar ideas converging and that we can do a listing technique to generate some associative jokes to flesh this piece out even more.
So go ahead. Take your existing material and develop it further just by utilizing the comedic tools you have at your disposal and build that confidence in your comedy with more laughs.
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As a comedian, have you ever been asked to refine your point of view?
Have you ever wondered what your point of view is? Your persona? Your voice?
Or, like me, has a booker said to you, I’m looking for an “internal thru-line, a golden thread of continuity.”
I heard that one from Mark Lonow, former talent coordinator and co-owner of the Improv in L.A., (years ago) immediately after I did an audition that I thought I rocked.
It was disheartening because not only did I not get a spot at the Improv from him, I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about!
Two days later I said, “screw that!” I went right to Bud Friedman, (the founder of the Improv), pleaded for an audition and with the same act got booked in Vegas and on T.V.
What is a Point of View?
So what is a point of view? And what does a booker mean when he says he wants to see a stronger one?
A point of view is how you look at the world and the situations around you that you include in your comedy.
Basically answer the question: “Who are you?”
Can you say in a couple of sentences who you are?
Are you a cynic? Do you have a quirky way of looking at life? Do you like to pick out life’s minutia and point out those observations in a funny way? Are you a liberal? A conservative? Gun lover? Trump voter?
You’re point of view doesn’t have to be extreme.
Who Are You?
From scholar to buffoon, there are about 20 Major and distinctive comic masks, but each comedian can have only one. Download the 20 Comic Masks PDF Chart and see where you fit in!
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Amy Schumer is known for her subversive feminism and addressing various social issues through a character who is seemingly promiscuous and a little ditsy.
Schumer has described herself as just someone who goes in and out of being an irreverent idiot. (Although I think, and her bank account surely reflects, that she’s more than that).
Bill Burr is a bit of an edgy devil’s advocate. He approaches his comedy by challenging the status quo from a strong male point of view to the point where he appears at times to be misogynistic. But Burr always says “It doesn’t make sense. Somebody explain it.” Then he explains it, usually using analogies while making us think, “Oh I never thought about it that way.”
Larry the Cable Guy (Dan Whitney), is a simple guy, a bit of a buffoon trying to figure out how things work.”
Whitney Cummings is a woman fed up with the bullshit of men and relationships, but still trying figure out how to make relationships work.
When I first started I was just trying to write funny jokes and stories. I did wordplay, paradox and observation like Carlin, but with a strong Seinfeldian voice.
So much so that Seinfeld himself mocked me at a club after I did a set! Lol.
I was getting laughs but I wasn’t sure who I was or how to find myself. Then I got some advice from the most unexpected source…
I met a mobster when I was waiting tables in New York. He was one of my favorite customers. I told him I didn’t know what to be when I was up on stage. He said, “Don’t listen to your heart, it feels too much. Don’t listen to your head, it thinks too much. Listen to your gut, cuz your gut never lies to you.”
Shortly after that, I met George Carlin. He said to me, “take the stuff that drives you absolutely fucking crazy and make it funny.”
That’s when my voice turned more toward a socio-political irreverent style that felt cathartic and real to me.
It felt ‘right’ in my gut, you know?
I loved to watch and read the news and call bullshit. I like to look at the inequalities and the hypocrisies in the world and point them out.
My act evolved toward a message of tolerance of race, gender and sexual preference, but not religion because in my comedic view religion is the reason societies have created a fictitious hierarchy and division in the first place.
Basically I make fun of everyone, but in a way that unites and makes our various idiosyncrasies fun.
How do you define yourself?
How do You Find Your Point of View?
One way to find your point of view or voice is to ask people what they see when they see you.
Another way is to ask yourself how you want people to see you or get in touch with who you are around your friends and start with that.
Another way is to develop a character, refine it and perform material based on that character’s point of view.
For several years, I created a pretty refined character named Charlie Stone. Charlie was a quirky, long-haired surfer-type character. He wasn’t a stoner, because he didn’t do drugs, but he had a stoner approach to his world view…
“This gal comes up to me and says, Dude: are you a Christian? I said, ‘No: I’m a Catho-Christi-Hinuistic-Musli-Morma-Jew: I don’t want to miss out on Heaven cuz of a technicality!'”
Charlie was an interesting experiment. I used to go out on the road and open for me, Jerry Corley as Charlie Stone.
Basically I would wear a wig and these blue-tinted glasses and do 30 minutes as Charlie Stone then change while the emcee was up, come back to the stage as Jerry Corley and do another hour.
The interesting part was that even though my act would do well and many times end in a standing ovation, everyone would come up to me after the show and say, “Where’s Charlie Stone?!”
What I learned from that was that Charlie Stone’s character was so refined that he was memorable.
I’m positive that if I brought Charlie back today, because of the strong, refined character, he would place or win in competitions and book some T.V.
Talent coordinators and bookers often confuse the difference between character, persona, voice and ‘point-of-view.’
But usually what occurs is that if a character is well-defined, the point of view tends to just fall into place within that character.
Some People Say it Takes 7 Years or More to Find Your Persona. Is That True?
One of the reasons it takes people a long time to find their persona or voice is that the first several years of their journey into comedy, they are just trying to figure out how to write a joke and create an act, you know? Make something funny.
As they begin to develop material they begin to realize that some material seems to resonate more with them than other material and they start to focus more on the material that they’re more connected to, which helps to shape their voice.
Bill Burr said he spent the first 5-7 years of his career doing one and two-liner comedy. Then when he started to go up on stage and riff on ideas is when he found more of his cynical voice.”
Anthony Jeselnik said that he started writing comedy by study Jack Handy’s “Deep Thoughts” from Saturday Night Live. He started writing those down then writing his own. “Then I was up on stage and did a joke that was dark and it got a great response. And I knew that’s where I was going.”
There’s no one way to find your point of view. Just keep cognizant of who you are and what you’re trying to say.
Remember that your character can evolve, develop and change. Allow yourself to explore it. Try different things. Listen to the audience and how they respond, adjust and refine.
And also always, always listen to your heart–wait… your gut.
Vengeance is Mine!
Nothing gets a person’s pulse up more than a great plot driven by revenge. I’ve noticed that the best comedians use this super effective theme in their jokes or stories.
That’s one of the reasons why jokes about ex’s who have cheated on us can be so effective…
My Ex, who cheated on me, called me on Halloween. She said, “Jerry, I don’t know what to pretend to be for Halloween.” I said, “Why don’t you just dress normally and pretend you’re in a committed relationship?”
When you set up an antagonist, the audience has an urge to root for the protagonist, or the hero, (to those of you unfamiliar with the term).
Listen to the Audio Version
The audience becomes emotionally invested in the protagonist ‘winning’ after being wronged.
As a result, the audience is excited and gives more at the punchline. They laugh harder and not only that, they are also compelled to applaud.
There are two reasons for this:
- Since the individuals in the audience have also had an experience with being betrayed or otherwise slighted, they empathize with the comedian’s dilemma and are automatically emotionally invested. Since they have a similar experience, they want to see how you resolve it. So, when you avenge the wrong that was done to you, the audience feels that they also win. So it’s a more personal experience for them, so they applaud the win.
- By it’s nature as a structure in storytelling, the theme of revenge contains the critical combination of tension & release. There is immediate conflict and resolution which gives the story that necessary rise and fall that any story contains if it is to have a good beginning, middle and end. The advantage is that our audiences are already groomed to applaud when a story resolves. (Think about songs, when they end the music resolves back to the tonic note in the key, resolving the tension). And when a song ends, the audience naturally wants to applaud.
To highlight this point, sing the end of the National Anthem or any country’s anthem. “… and the home of the brave…” That tension to resolution, urges the audience to applaud. Dropping that concept into your set, even in mini-doses, is almost like plug ‘n play applause breaks.
It’s a brilliant concept!
An Antagonist Makes the Revenge Delicious
You’ve heard the phrase “revenge is a dish best served cold?” In comedy, revenge must be served proportionally. Comedy revenge is usually not murder or real physical harm–let’s face it, you’re probably not going to get laughs if your girlfriend cheats on you and you stab her in the throat–it’s usually more like intellectual retribution…
… like when Rosanne Barr says,
“My mother says the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I think the best way to a man’s heart is straight through his chest.”
I refer to this structure in comedy as “benign retaliation.” Meaning the revenge does not physically harm the antagonist and is usually proportional to what they did to you and saying it in words metaphorically as a cliche reformation, is much more symbolism than literalism.
Although, once the audience is rooting for you as the protagonist, it’s impressive what you can get away with as far as retaliation is concerned: even in longer stories.
“My ex was horrible with spending. But she would always justify her overspending by sale-shopping. And she would always walk into the house with these shopping bagsâ€”you know the kind I’m talking about; those paper bags with the rope-like handles. They’re made out rope so you can use it later to climb out of debt…
…or hang yourself.
And I always knew when she overspent. She would always start out saying the same thing. Maybe you’ve heard this… She would come in and say, ” Oh my God! You have no idea how much money I saved us!”
This one month we were really strapped and I said, “We need to have a moratorium on non-essential spending.” She was like “Well, I need sandals, because it’s summer. They’re only 45 dollars.” So she went out to get sandals.
And I knew I was in trouble because when she returned she had the bags with the rope handles… and she was like, “You have no idea how much money I saved us: I got this leather jacketâ€”normally 350 dollarsâ€”it was only 150! I got this sweaterâ€”it’s cashmere and silkâ€”normally 150, marked down to 70! You have no idea how much money I saved us!
I said, “I thought you went to get sandals?”
She said, “Yeah, they were only 80 dollars.”
I said, “You said they were forty-five?”
She said, “Well, since I saved us so much money, I figured I would get some better sandals!”
I was pissed. A week later I was doing a gig in Malaysia. And these two Malaysian hookers approach me after at the bar after the show. They were beautiful and super seductive. They were trying to negotiate with me, you know. “200 dollars.” I’m like, “Ladies. I’m a family man. I don’t do that.” They don’t give up though. They kept trying for about 30 minutes. Finally they said, “Okayâ€”for youâ€”45 dollarsâ€”two of usâ€”all night.”
The next day I called my girlfriend. I said, “Oh My God, You have no idea how much money I saved us!”
That simple story gets a lot of laughs and at the end it alwaysâ€”well, almost alwaysâ€”gets an applause break.
In real life it’s not appropriate get even with your girlfriend’s spending, by implying that you slept with hookers, but in comedy… it’s on!
An Antagonist Enables You to be More Edgy
When you build that antagonist, the audience can let you go pretty edgy in your comeback. Remember that Halloween joke at the top? Here’s the way I originally wrote it and deliver it when I’m in comedy clubs:
“My Ex who cheated on me with her boss, called me on Halloween. She said, “Jerry, I don’t know what to be for Halloween.” I said, “Why don’t you just dress for work and when people ask who you are you can say, “Just shut up and fuck me.”
Revenge as a Literary Device
Since storytelling began, revenge has titillated readers and listeners. It compels people to listen and participate emotionally. If you can get your audience to do that (even for a short joke) you know have a real winner.
Being such a powerful theme in storytelling, comedy writers should familiarize themselves with the concept of revenge and really get an understanding for the passion in it that the audience feels.
Be Sure There is a Reason for the Retaliation
But keep in mind, that in comedy, the retaliation needs to be benign and who the antagonist is, needs to be clear to the audience. If it’s not it could be deadly to the joke.
I had an audition set in front of David Letterman’s talent coordinator. I had a pretty good set. Afterwards, he gave me a critique, he said, “I loved your stuff. But that one joke about your ex-wife. We don’t like attacks on women with no reason for them. It’s sexist.”
I realized that because I was cutting my set down for 4 minutes, I left out the part that she cheated on me, so the attack seemed to come out of nowhere. If the audience does not crave the revenge, then, quite frankly, the audience doesn’t know why to root for you and the risk is diminished laughter or no laugh at all.
Here’s the irony of that story. Two months later, the talent coordinator was fired by Late Night for an interview where he was accused of being sexist.
Take some time and build some benign retaliation into your stories.
Watch some of your favorite comedians and see how they use revenge or benign retaliation in their stories or shorter jokes.
What are some of your favorite benign retaliation stories?
I’m gonna call this blog post an open letter to comedy teachers.
This especially goes out to one comedy teacher in particular who refers to himself as “America’s Original Comedy Coach.” (Lol, right?)
Recently, I put a post on Facebook called “911 For Your Jokes.” It’s a step-by-step walkthrough of 5 different ways to take a single subject, and develop a comedy routine, a bit or stand-alone jokes.
In the case of this particular post, the subject was ‘Flight Attendant.’ (See it in action here).
I put out these ‘freebies’ so that comedians and comedy writers (both new and old), can get some ideas and inspiration on how to get the material going.
Because we’ve all run into writer’s block, right?
Listen to the Audio Version
So “America’s Original Comedy Coach” (sorry, can’t say that without giggling), posted a comment ridiculing the fact that I was demonstrating this.
I think his comment was, “Formula #1: Don’t use any of these formulas for comedy or you’ll wind up sounding exactly like everyone else.”
You guys who know me, know that I would never usually call someone out like this, but when you attempt to ridicule me in a public forum, It’s on, bitch! :-).
Here are 3 Big Reasons you should Develop Structure in your Comedy Writing…
#1: Writing Makes it Easier to Build Structure into your Material
So let’s examine that whole “sound like everyone else” statement for a moment.
If you watch Jim Gaffigan, Bill Burr, Daniel Tosh, Amy Schumer, Brian Kiley, Whitney Cummings, Kira Soltanovich, (or any number of comedians who are currently at the top of their game), and you deconstruct their acts, you will discover that they all utilize similar techniques in their comedy routines to get laughs.
Would you say that they all sound alike?
Didn’t think so… and you want to know the reason?
They are different people!
Those comedians each have different points of view, different experiences and different ways of expressing themselves.
But it is the structure within their sets that gets the laughs. Without that structure, guess what?
#2: Get More Laughs
Let’s take two distinctly different, but similar comedians. Anthony Jeselnik and Brian Kiley. Below is an example of a joke each of them do.
They are using a comedy structure called the “Paired Phrase.”
KILEY: My wife and I have been married for 20 years, but there’s still that tension between her Dad and I. He’s always giving me a look like, “I know you’re having sex with my daughter.” And I’m always giving him a look like… “Barely.”
JESELNIK: I went to my girlfriend’s parents’ house over the holidays. Her Dad didn’t let us sleep in the same room. He was giving me a look like, “I don’t trust you.” And I gave him a look like, “Trust me, man… I’m fucking your daughter.”
You hear the similarity?
It’s goal of the paired phrase (in this particular context) to create pattern disruption or an expected rhythm or ending and then shatter created expectation.
When that pattern is disrupted, (with Kiley, he used self-deprecation while Jeselnik uses ambivalence and a bit of shock value), you create surprise and if you’re familiar with the 9 psychological laughter triggers, you already know that surprise is one of the most effective.
But if you were to watch Jeselnik and Kiley back to back, you wouldn’t think they sounded alike because they have totally different personas.
Jeselnik is driven by ambivalence, (being discompassionate about things society believes you should be compassionate about), and Kiley is driven by a persona that is slightly put upon and confused about the way things are supposed to work.
Using the ‘Reverse’ to Create Surprise
Another way to create surprise with with a comedy structure called a ‘reverse.’ This construct also sets up an expectation, then shatters it. When a comedian or comedy writer knows this, writing comedy is much easier.
I mean think about it. All Jeselnik has to do is to come up with a situation that we call can relate to and solve them with something unexpected.
“I break up with the girls the way I take off a band-aid; slow and in the shower.”
Kiley does a similar thing with the reverse structure by shattering our expectation with situation we can all identify with:
“I’m surprised I got together with my wife at all because when I first met her she was soooo… pregnant.”
So to say that structure is wrong is denying your students the very tools that make people laugh.
#3: Comedy Writing Enables you to Make More Money
America’s Original Comedy Coach also ridiculed my effort to encourage comedians to develop their skills in writing comedy material.
This is where I was completely dumbfounded! WTF!? Why would you NOT encourage your students to develop all their skill sets?
That’s like telling a baseball player to work only on hitting the ball. You might do pretty well when you’re up at bat, but you’ll suck everywhere else.
And, while in baseball a hitter may be considered good when he gets a hit 1 out of 3 times, if you do that in the comedy world, a talent booker wouldn’t even want you as a pinch hitter!
If you neglect developing your skills at writing you’re doing yourself a serious disservice.
Also… and this is a BIG also… when you know how to write comedy material, you have just exponentially increased your potential to create revenue.
There are so many opportunities out there for people who can write funny.
Doing stand-up and getting good is great, but learning to develop your writing chops just adds another high-revenue-creating skill set.
So, America’s Original Comedy Coach, I would rethink what you’re teaching your students and while you’re at it, maybe rethink calling yourself “America’s Original Comedy Coach.”
Think about it, man; If you were America’s original airplane, America’s original automobile or America’s original computer, you’d be obsolete.