Why *This is My Art* is Utter Nonsense

art-and-businessI was at party recently and I had the privilege of meeting another veteran comedian, a comedian who had reached a certain notable level of success.

We were talking about comedy and I had mentioned that one of my students—Sascha Knopf—was a finalist in the ‘CA’s Funniest Female’ Comedy Competition this year, and another student of mine—Pauline Yasuda—won it in 2013.

This comedian looked me dead in the eye and said, “I don’t believe in competitions. This is my art.”

“You’re falling into that trap, are you?”

And although I know what she was trying to say and I respect it; it’s a common trap that ‘artists’ fall into and it’s utter nonsense.

This Is Not Art School

I didn’t engage in a discussion with this comedian about the topic, but it’s an important lesson to address and should be part of Art School 101 for everyone whether you’re an actor, dancer, writer, painter or comedian.

It’s an especially important lesson if you’re in one of those arts where there is little—if any—formal training; like stand-up comedy.

That lesson is:

This is Show Business, not Art School.

There is a difference. In art school we can do whatever we want. We can paint, or sculpt or write and be as creative as we want, flavoring our art to our own tastes, express ourselves purely without regard to the world’s judgment.

If they think it’s bland or too spicy, ‘screw them’ because it is my art and beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in art school the beholder is you and a handful of other artists, but mostly you, because at Art School, you write the checks (or if you’re lucky, you are the offspring of parents with money, then it’s their check).

When you get into Show Business—which is two distinct words—read that again and let it sink in: Show-Business is two words. Each word should have equal weight, but they don’t. They call it a business because it is just that. If you don’t put butts in the seats or sell your art, nobody gives a damn.

In show-business, who is the ‘beholder?’

  • Club bookers
  • Talent Coordinators
  • Casting Directors
  • Listeners (if it’s radio)
  • The network
  • The Advertisers
  • The audience

You are therefore beholden to those who make the decisions and write the checks. After all, comedy is not performed in a vacuum. You have to please those who are in charge and that includes the audience.

Don’t get me wrong, a strong developed point of view and character are essential to making you unique and brand-able, but you have to adjust when the ‘beholders’ demand it.

*A side-note:

If you are such a powerful presence and your brand of art is generating ticket sales, filling arenas, generating a million followers on social media, the ‘beholders’ will acquiesce and will see the beauty in what you do, because they will see the revenue that you will generate.

But that’s only because they see that as good ‘business,’ because, really, most decision makers in this business don’t know what’s good or what’s funny.

Let me repeat that: Most decision makers in this business don’t know what’s good or what’s funny…

I mean c’mon! They released and distributed a remake of “The Three Stooges!”

Talk about being completely disconnected from the mass appeal of a comedy audience! (FYI Fox: Comedy Audiences have evolved beyond the hysteria from a ball-peen hammer to the head—if it was ever even hysterical in the first place).

That movie’s colossal failure underscores the concept that the audience is the final judge and they are a part of what makes up the essence of show business.

What’s that make us as comedians?

Comedians Are The Ultimate Panderers

Did that sting? Yeah, it hurt to write it too, but it’s true, so get over it.

Art? Yes, but not like in an painter who paints a picture and puts it out there. You either like it or you don’t.

In comedy we seek immediate gratification. That’s one reason we do this amazing art-form. But to get that gratification we have to adjust our subject matter and our jokes so we get laughs.

If we perform material and it doesn’t get laughs we immediately do two things:

  1. Re-write the material, or…
  2. Throw it away

We adjust to what the audience laughs at. You can be pure and and artist all you want, but you have to be aware of the audience and if they are laughing… and if they’re not, you make the adjustment.

Because if they are not laughing, you are not a comedian; you are a talker.

And in their comedy club or on their comedy show, a booker or a talent coordinator doesn’t want a talker.

Take a comedian like Bill Burr or throw back to Bill Hicks; you might think they just say (or said) anything they want, but that’s not true. They work their acts and edit and rewrite, keeping what works and throwing out what doesn’t.

Comedians adjust because we want laughs. Laughs get us noticed and laughs get us work. Because we’re not in it simply for the art. We’re in it because we not only love what we do but our goal is to make a living doing it.

It’s business and show-business is the game.

Comedy competitions are a part of the game.

There are few things, besides a personal reference from a legendary comic, that can help boost your notoriety faster than a strong finish at a notable comedy competition:

In short comedy competitions:

  • Are solid resume boosters
  • Get eyebrows raised
  • Demonstrate a level of credibility
  • Provide invaluable networking opportunities
  • Give an opportunity to put out a press release
  • Great ways to impress an agent or manager and snag representation

So, although being an artist is commendable and I work hard on my art, the end result is that this is show business and to ignore that fact and only focus on the art is, in my opinion, a naïve approach to the business.

Testing Your Jokes Against Late Night

 

Tonight Show-Jimmy Fallon

 

“How do I know when my jokes are working?”

If you’ve been following my blog, by now you know that writing one and two liners is key to really making your story-telling pop.

If you aren’t aware of this, I’ll remind you.

Stories are great. I do stories, but with the clubs and television expecting a laugh every 18-20 seconds, you must be sure you include laugh-points all along the arc of that story. The best way to do this is to get really good at your one and two-liners, giving your story an opportunity to create a laugh after almost every one to three sentences.

If you don’t have laugh points in your stories, then you’re not doing comedy.

Keep in mind, there are some exceptions to this rule, but overall, if we’re in a comedy club, we want to laugh.

So How Do You Get Good at This?

You have to start to recognize opportunities for comedy ‘plays’ along your story’s journey. There are a vast array of techniques and structures to help you hit your laugh points, and if you’ve read and worked through my eBook, “Breaking Comedy’s DNA,” you’d know almost every one of those.

It’s amazing when you have the knowledge to trigger laugh in your story almost at will. That’s right “at will!”

Every logical grouping of words can be turned into something funny.

That being said, one of the best way to develop and laser sharpen  your ability to do this is by working your one and two-liners.

And the best way of doing that is through current event, trivia and factoid humor.

Why? Because the first part of the joke is already written for you!

That’s right. Think about it; when you read a headline, a factoid or a piece of trivia, the headline is already written. All you have to do is come up with an ending!

Then you re-tool, tinker and tighten, add some misdirection, surprise or incongruity and ‘BAM!’ you have a joke.

  • They are reopening the Washington Monument. The thing has been shut down for the last two years – just like Congress.
  • Some NFL players criticized Michael Sam for kissing his boyfriend after getting drafted. He has to learn that NFL players are not supposed to be in gay relationships until after they’re in prison!

Both of these jokes utilize the ‘listing technique;’ the most powerful technique used in comedy today. One definition of a joke is ‘the convergence of two dissimilar ideas.’

In the Washington monument joke, all I did is take the first part of the joke: “They are reopening the Washington monument, which has been shut down for the last two years…” and I listed everything about Washington in one column, then everything about the Washington monument in another column. When I found similarities between the two (even in my imagination, because comedy is heightened reality), I finessed a joke from that idea.

I did the same thing with the Michael Sam joke. Here we have more than two dissimilar ideas converging.

Can you tell what those ideas are? NFL, PRISON, GAY RELATIONSHIPS, RELATIONSHIPS, ETC. *(See a more thorough example of this comedy writing tool here)* 

In this case I would list everything I could think of utilizing all four ideas. Notice how I also used ‘relationships,’ not just ‘gay relationships?’

When we open up the idea of ‘gay relationships’ to relationships, I now have a possible idea for a slam on the NFL and all the cases of sexual assault. So that joke could be something like:

  • Some NFL players criticized Michael Sam for kissing his boyfriend after getting drafted. See, Michael Sam doesn’t get it, in order to be accepted in the NFL you can’t do something gross like kiss another man, you gotta rape a chick.

Now you have an edgy joke. This joke might not be my voice. It certainly won’t fit on Late Night, but it could be suitable for ‘The Daily Show’ or Bill Maher. If not, I’m sure I could sell it to Chris Rock.

In essence, before I finish this blog post, I’ve already made 50 bucks!

How do you know it’s funny?

If you set a goal to write at least 10 of these jokes a day, then all you have to do is compare it against the Late Night shows jokes and see whose his funnier.

Sometimes it will be theirs. Sometimes Yours.

The more you do it, the better you get. Then you’ll more readily recognize the opportunities for these ‘plays’ in your stories and your stories will be funnier, more compelling and more worthy of the definition of comedy.

Late Show With Seth Meyers Plucks ‘I.T. Guy From Peoria’ as Writer

Heath Ledger in a Knights Tale

There is a movie out there called “A Knight’s Tale.” It stars the late Heath Ledger as William Thatcher, a peasant squire, who, after his master dies, changes “his stars” by changing his identity and becoming a knight.

It’s a fairy tale. Or is it?

About a month ago, a regular guy from Peoria, Illinois, who tweeted regular jokes as a way of venting from work and the grind of daily life, got picked up by the executives over at Late Night with Seth Meyers, to be a staff writer on the show after they took notice of his funny tweets.

 

I’ve been telling my students for several years now that they need to be tweeting their jokes regularly to get their writing out there, seen by others. Now it seems that crazy idea is paying off.

In the blink of a tweet, Bryan Donaldson a family man, went from a clock puncher for an insurance company to a staff writer on network television.

Is this sheer luck? No! He worked hard everyday tweeting jokes and gaining followers on Twitter. He’s a classic example of opportunity meeting preparedness.

Through his diligent and funny tweeting, Donaldson got an opportunity of a lifetime.

Can you do the same? Maybe so.

The point I’m trying to make is opportunity is out there every single day. But most of us are not doing what we need to do to take advantage of it.

You should be writing every day, generating material. Either to tweet or for practice. Every time you write, you get better. And that’s the goal; to be prepared when opportunity arises.

Then, like Heath Ledger’s character in “A Knight’s Tale,” you too might be able to “change your stars.”

Tonight Show is Not Just For the Old Folks

Justin Timberlake   Jimmy Fallon s  History Of Rap 5  Is Perfect

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

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

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

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

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

Now this should not be confused with age or birthdate.

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

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

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

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

This keeps the viewer watching and the ratings high.

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

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

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

What are your thoughts?

How To Write Comedy for Corporate Gigs [VIDEO]

Happy Thanksgiving!

One-of-a-kind comedy writing tutorial.

Just let me start by saying I am thankful for all of you who take the time to read my blog and leave me comments, likes and tweets.

For Thanksgiving I want to give you this video tutorial on writing material for corporates.

As many of you know corporate gigs are the well paid gigs that can really earn you a terrific living in comedy. I spent much of my career doing corporates and earning a terrific living.

The key do grabbing the higher paying gigs in corporate is being able to write material that relates to the company or the niche for which you have been hired to perform.

This video is a FULL VIDEO TUTORIAL on writing comedy material for corporates. It’s not a teaser. It’s much like my video on writing jokes for current events video. It walks you through starting with a subject—in this case: “Title Insurance”—then writing ten minutes of material for that subject.

Watch the video when you have time to sit and watch an hour and eighteen minutes of the sometimes tedious process of putting together ten minutes of material from scratch. In other words it can be boring as hell unless you’re a comedy writing nerd like me!

So grab a cup of coffee and your notebook and enjoy. This is a one-of-a-kind-tutorial and is only one of the techniques I use to write corporate material for a specific niche.  Enjoy!

I would love to hear your feedback!

Happy Thanksgiving!

NOTE: If the video doesn’t appear, refresh the page. Thanks!