Stop Overthinking the Joke. Sometimes It’s Just ‘Funny’

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If there was a big yellow caution sign for anyone in the comedy world it should be “Watch for Big Head”

One of my most notorious weaknesses in comedy is trying to be too clever.

I’ve spent nearly thirty years, not only as a comedian and comedy writer, but also as a comedy scientist; figuring out what makes something funny and how to bottle it so it can be reproduced at will.

Sometimes I’ll write a joke and think to myself, ‘that’s too simple… that’s not going to get a big laugh,’ only to try the joke on stage and get not just a great laugh, but an applause break.

I wrote a joke the other day and opened with it that night at the Comedy Store:

“The republicans are consulting with Caitlyn Jenner on how to best deal with Donald Trump. You know, since she’s now the expert on how to quickly eliminate a dick.”

The joke got a crisp laugh, then solid applause followed… and just earlier I was in my ‘big head’ I wondering whether that would even get a good laugh.

It’s Easy to Get Too Clever

The more experience we have in comedy, the easier it is to get too clever; to get stuck in analysis of the joke.

Most solid comedy is about simple associations, recognition and release of tension. Because Caitlyn Jenner, Donald Trump and the presidential race are all politically charged and issues that are now, it’s more likely to create tension and provide for solid release. And since release is the one of the top triggers for applause, it worked.

But because I was in my ‘big head,’ I second guessed myself.

If it Sounds Funny, Do It!

Sometimes, we have to remember to get out of our own way and write what we think is funny. Does it sound funny? Does it feel funny? Then do it.

Emmy Award-winning writer, Gene Perret said, “Sometimes the joke doesn’t need to be categorized. Sometimes it defies explanation, it’s just funny.

He goes on to say,

“Steven Wright, one of the most inventive comedy writers of all time, has a line that defies categorizing, that reads:

“When I was a kid we had a sandbox in our back yard that was filled with quicksand. I was an only child… eventually.”

Kathleen Madigan had a line in her act during the time when the book Final Exit, a controversial book on how to commit suicide, was first published. She talked about being in a bookstore checkout line behind a customer who was buying it.

“The guy was about to pay $19.95 for a book on how to commit suicide. I said, ‘Hey man, I’ll stab you in the head for five dollars.'”

Mr. Perret makes a good point. Although each of these jokes has a definite reason that they would trigger laughs, they don’t necessarily fit into any category. They are just funny.

I like explaining and understanding ‘why’ something is funny. It’s my life’s work. But sometimes you don’t need an explanation, sometimes funny is just funny.

So resist the temptation of getting into over analysis of the joke, if it feels funny, just do it.

In other words, watch out for ‘big head.’

 

How to Write Comedy Like Daniel Tosh – A Deconstruction

How to Write Stand up Comedy Like Daniel Tosh – A Deconstruction

Wanna learn what makes Daniel Tosh tick? Some people just think he’s an arrogant A-hole. But there’s more to Tosh than meets the eye.

Take a look at this deconstruction of an 8-minute segment of Tosh’s special “Happy Thoughts” and learn exactly the tools Tosh uses to get laughs.

Some Background on Tosh

Happy Thoughts was released in 2011 and was Daniel Tosh’s second big comedy special after his acclaimed debut stand-up special, ‘Completely Serious.’

Prior to this, Tosh was already hosting and executive producing Tosh 2.0 for Comedy Central. He already had a huge fan base that knows his character and what he does as a comedian; he presents you with a slice of life from a cynic’s double-edged switch blade.

Tosh was born in Germany and raised in Florida as the son of a preacher, which may explain his notorious cynicism toward life. I know if I was raised as a preacher’s kid, I would think the world was full of crap too.

So as we deconstruct a little Tosh here, (about 8 minutes), understand that most of the audience already ‘gets’ him and his point of view and if you don’t, it’s basically through the eyes of a bit of a clever, nerdy, skeptic.

I say, nerdy because the Tosh went to Astronaut High School… and yes, he did graduate.

He could’ve been named “Most likely to have a countdown,” because on his website, he actually had a clock counting down to his thirty-eighth birthday. It was then where he said that if he wasn’t a success, he would retire from comedy and kill himself… or move to the beach.

When the clock finally counted down his fans sent emails telling him he was a success.

He now lives at the beach.

How Tosh Gets Laughs

Watch how Tosh uses all the comedy structures and taps into all the laughter triggers we discuss and have made our mantra at the Comedy Clinic.

So watch the video then come back and see line-by-line, how Tosh triggers the laugh each and every time. There’s almost no mystery to how or why he gets laughs.

One absolute take-away I got from this video is that Tosh is NOT just an “attack” comedian. Tosh continuously uses self-deprecation to remind the audience that he doesn’t take himself that seriously. Count how many ways he uses it.

You’ll learn a lot about diversifying your own self-deprecation and how many different ways you can write it.

It’s all in the structure. Here we go…

(AUDIENCE CHEERING)

TOSH: San Francisco..

TOSH: Alright you’re ruining the show.
(Cheers subside).

TOSH: Thank you for clapping for what my parents are ashamed of.
(LAUGHS). Self-deprecation.

TOSH: San Francisco. Yes.
(CHEERS).

TOSH: My third favorite city to do comedy in.
(LAUGHS). Surprise. Unexpected. Ambivalence. Most comedians give praise. He tells them pretty much that they weren’t good enough for first. Think about it this way:

When someone gives praise, we’re so used to hearing them say something like, “you’re the best.” Instead he gives them a solid and specific ranking of ‘third.’ (Unexpected). And because of the tension of the live audience, it heightens the moment.

It’s almost like if a guy and girl are in bed and he he says, “If we were in school what kind of grade would you give my dick?” Girl’s like, “C-minus.” That would be a funny situation.

You would expect in a heightened moment like that the girl would absolutely give her lover an A but she not only surprises us with less than that, she actually gets really specific with the ‘minus.’

TOSH: That’s not bad right? Top ten. Congratulations.

Tags to the previous line. The audience is laughing at the quirky incongruity that he’s congratulating them on placing third.

TOSH: More butt-fucking per square foot… (LAUGHS) than anywhere else in the world.

There are many times when you hear a skilled comedian say something that elicits a groan, or makes the audience pull back, but instead of dropping it, the comedian will repeat it and repeat it again. What he is using is the the ambivalence laughter trigger at its essence.

It’s like he’s saying, I will say it over and over letting you know that I know it’s inappropriate, but I’m saying it anyway… that totally pulls the ambivalence trigger and that also creates surprise. It’s also part of Tosh’s rules-don’t-apply-to-me character.

TOSH: That’s you guys, that’s you.
Talking right at them, creates tension and release and also embarrassment, again, because of the outlandish accusation.

That takes balls people.

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But he’s not done yet. He carries it further when he then uses incongruity and association in his next joke…

TOSH: Put that on your post cards. (LAUGHS) “San Francisco… more butt-fucking per square foot… miss you.” Tosh adds the “miss you” line as part of the the recognizable piece of the post card tag.

Recognition is powerful. How many of you saw the image of the postcard; especially when Tosh said “Miss You?”

Tosh now transitions, by using some self-deprecation…

TOSH: Now, if you’ve not seen me perform before, I am NOT good live… heads up.
Perfect time to knock himself down a peg after picking on San Francisco. And notice the tag ‘heads up…’ It might seem innocuous, but it’s well-planted to get another tickle from the audience to keep them rolling.

Everyone should consider reviewing their core act and really studying where one might put some extra tags and toppers that ‘color’ their jokes. Not only do tags and toppers add more laugh points, but they serve the purpose of making the jokes sound more conversational.

This is one of the key reasons people don’t think Tosh does ‘jokes.’  Reading this break-down you can clearly see that he does. He’s just terrific at finessing the material!

Quick side note: the San Francisco-Butt-Fucking premise is nothing original. But he does approach it in an interesting way.

TOSH: If I offend anybody tonight, I apologize. That’s not my intention. I’m not going to guess what your personal line of decency is, I cross my own from time to time… it’s how I know I still have one. (LAUGHS)

It’s simple truth and also a little bit of self-deprecation, in that he implies that he has to check to see if he has a line of decency. (and that’s funny!) And it’s a terrific way to ease into his next joke which is an attack joke. But not directly, as he finesses into it by saying…

TOSH: I have no problem with illegal immigration in this country… except for the fact that they don’t serve on jury duty.

I love this line because it is so unexpected, right? Who would’ve thought to use illegal immigrants on jury duty? Brilliant! But that just warms up the audience for his next line…

TOSH: That’s horse shit! It should be the other way around, they should serve exclusively on jury duty… yeah!

This elicits laughter and a solid applause break, first because the incongruity (we don’t usually think of illegal immigrants on jury duty and secondly the audience applauds because it’s a social situation that creates a lot of tension and he found a way to utilize illegal immigrants to solve what is considered a hassle for most people (jury duty), imposed on us by the ‘Man.’

So there’s benign retaliation and paradox present because we utilize what’s considered a social problem to take care of another social problem. Benign retaliation is like the perfect joke structure because it has an antagonist and a protagonist.

Tosh finds a way to have the antagonist (illegal immigrants) used to go after the other antagonist (government mandated jury duty). Clever & Paradoxical.

Paradox is one of those structures that doesn’t always reach the level of comedic irony. But it is an impressive tool that can take your writing to the next level.

But that only sets the audience up for the double edge of the joke…

TOSH: Then it finally would be a jury of one’s own peers… (ouch)

Laughter, applause, groans… (And notice how he let’s them have their moment), because he stepped over the “line.” But being Tosh, he doesn’t pull back he presses the subject further…

TOSH: It’s not a stereotype if it’s always true. (Simple Truth. His simple truth, but we get it).
This goads the audience in typical Tosh fashion; not apologizing for the overreaching statement, which through his character, is what makes it funny.

On top of that, notice he said, “always true.” That surreptitiously takes this joke to a level of absurdity, so that if you’re listening closely, you can tell he’s clowning and not serious. You can get away with this level of absurdity when you’re using the ambivalence laughter trigger as well as benign retaliation.

It gets the audience laughing at the fact that they shouldn’t be laughing… then he pushes again.
TOSH: Yeah, then it becomes law.

Then he pushes yet again, but then teases the audience.

TOSH: That joke is called, “Latinos are Criminals.” (They laugh-groan), That’s just the title, it doesn’t mean anything. (Using simple truth to call them out on their judgement of the material).

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This one of my favorite things Tosh does. He says “Latinos are Criminals” with his tongue planted deeply in his cheek and when the audience still groans, he remains playful and calls them out by saying, “That’s just the title…” It’s his way of continuously reminding the audience that they just might be overreacting.

After another hard-hitting bit of material, Tosh then does some more self-deprecation; this time by using his girlfriend. The girlfriend in this case is sort of used in a quasi benign-retaliation scenario. He also uses compare and contrast to build it more into a joke format…

TOSH: Sometimes before I walk on stage my girlfriend might say, “Have a great show. Break a leg.” This is what she said to me a few weeks ago, right before I walked on stage, she said, “Hey, you ever worry about gettin’ shot when you’re out there?”
I’m like, ‘what the hell is wrong with you?’
She followed it with, “You should move around more.”
This is a perfect setup for benign retaliation, with which Tosh responds…
‘Uh, You should go back to reading your vampire books.’

I should move around more? As if a sniper would get frustrated; ‘I can’t keep up. He lives.’
(Notice how Tosh doesn’t bail on the act-out, he continues to play it through even as the audience is laughing. He gives the “thumbs-up” as though he was the sniper).

TOSH: You ever scratch your girlfriend with a hangnail and pretend you’re Wolverine?

This is an interesting joke choice. It’s almost a non-sequitur. It seems to come completely out of left field. It’s so surprising and disconnected that the audience laughs. There’s also recognition present. I’ve scratched my girlfriend with a hangnail, but never pretended I was Wolverine–since comedy is heightened-reality the pretending is plausible.

Here’s what’s super interesting to me. Since Tosh added the Wolverine element, he continues with the story simply by imposing the values of the plot points of Wolverine on himself:

TOSH: She’s like, “Knock it off.” I’m like (character voice): ‘You made me like this…’ Then you run into the woods, you’re naked. You’ve gotta figure things out; ‘where’d I come from?’ ‘why am I wearing dog tags?’ ‘DID I SERVE?!’

This is awesome example of pure structure getting the laugh. The idea barely makes any sense but since Tosh uses the Wolverine element to drive an act-out scenario and includes recognizable story points from the movie “Wolverine,” the audience laughs.

TOSH: A lot of times people complain that their significant other takes too long to get ready to go out at night. I’ve never had that complaint. And I think it’s because I never want to go anywhere. (LAUGH). Strange huh? Why did the audience laugh at that?

It’s not that funny on the page. But if you listen rhythm of the joke it’s a paired phrase (‘never had that complaint’ / ‘never want to go anywhere’). Another example of the structure getting triggering the audience’s laughter mechanism.

TOSH: So I could care less how long it takes her to get ready. That’s just less time I have to spend with her horrible friends pretending I don’t want to kill myself. (LAUGH) Here’s another example of heightened reality. The laughter trigger at play here is ambivalence. Heightened and exaggerated.

There is surprise that also results from the seemingly cold-hearted ambivalence. But with Tosh, we’ve already established that when he goes this deep he’s all tongue-in-cheek. Plus EVERYONE has been in a relationship where they have to endure their significant other’s friends. So recognition is also very present. This is what stimulates that applause.

TOSH: She’ll take an hour and a half to get ready, she’ll come down and be like, “Oh my God, you were so patient.” I’ll be like, “For what? You look disgusting! Right? Yeah! Now she’s crying… whatever! I just bought myself another two hours to watch the game!

Again outrageous. Almost not believable.

But it’s Tosh, so we go with it. Ambivalence and recognition, pure and simple, is what is stimulating the laughs. But who else besides Tosh could get away with that? But in Tosh style, he know it crosses the line, but this time instead of self-deprecating, he pushes more…

TOSH: Yeah, it’s not like she’s gonna break up with me… she’s ten years younger. She’s one opinion away from being replaced. (This elicits groans and applause; evil and good fighting it out in the audience). Then Tosh uses more ambivalence…

TOSH: I can say that. I have a television show. (LAUGHS) Yeah, the power at our household has shifted dramatically. (LAUGHS) Pure ambivalence again. Tosh even sort of turns away from the audience in an sort-of “I-don’t-even-care-what-you-think” pose. Ambivalence creates surprise, because, really?

Who says that sort of stuff in public? (Except comedians). Also keep in mind he’s sort of giggling throughout. That’s important when doing run-on ambivalence. If the audience knows you’re joking then they want to joke with you. Also remember that people love to be given permission to misbehave.

This taps into the release laughter trigger as well, leaving the audience with sort of the feeling of: I’ve always wanted to vent like that…

When Tosh says, “The power at our house has shifted dramatically.” He taps into the structure of associative humor (he just tagged the joke using a phrase that related to the original subject matter).

Since the audience is already rolling with the laughs, comments (or tags and toppers) that associate to what you just said will carry the laughs further. Plus it has the added benefit of keeping it conversational.

Then, once again, Tosh comes back with self-deprecation, but with an interesting twist:

TOSH: Now, if you’re following me on Twitter, you know that I had diarrhea today. (LAUGHS) Non-sequitur surprise, self deprecation. (Remember: anytime Tosh self-deprecates, he’s using the superiority laughter trigger; making the audience feel superior, while reminding them that he has flaws and doesn’t really take himself too seriously).

TOSH: Am I using that website properly? (LAUGH). Mischievous, playful, incongruity and recognition.

TOSH: Sometimes I like to sit on the toilet in reverse. (LAUGH; you could even say “cheap” laugh), but nonetheless, this non-sequitur performs well giving us a silly transition to a silly visual. (Really? Who didn’t get a visual of a guy straddling the toilet backwards in that scenario?!).

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Then Tosh pauses giving the audience a real chance to contemplate what he just said. He then uses an act-out of the audience macro conscience…

TOSH: We’re listening. (LAUGHS)… I’ll give you one guess as to why they laughed here; If recognition triggers the audience’s collective conscience to say I’ve seen that, I’ve heard that, I’ve done that. Isn’t it just as powerful–if not more so–for the audience to say, I’m doing that?!

That also taps into coincidence, doesn’t it? And after all, when something is coincidental isn’t it also surprising?

Then to heighten the play, Tosh, does an act out of sitting on the toilet backwards and the possible conversation one might have with oneself. This conjures another solid laugh with applause. Often the act-out tag does this because it taps into the listener recognizing the situation that the comedian just set up.

Study that structure; it’s awesome. Some comedians utilize that one structure for nearly their entire acts. It’s powerful.

TOSH: Yeah, the people that are clapping right now are the ones who are saying, “Okay all kidding aside, that guy is a genius.” Again he uses the tactic of assuming what the audience is saying… He’s tapping into recognition and coincidence.

The audience recognizes that even though they’re probably not thinking that exactly, they may be thinking, hmmm, never thought about that… or something similar.

Even if they’re not thinking that, what Tosh did was plant that visual of him sitting on the toilet backwards, (in effect saying ‘anyone can do this’), in their collective minds, so that when he refers to it (even with the tactic of assuming what the audience is saying) it’s still an associative tag to the original setup of “sitting on the toilet backwards.”

Great technique.

TOSH: No, no, no, no… it’s the simplicity. I’ve been sitting on that thing my whole life. You’re telling me that I can turn around, have a bowl of cereal, (LAUGH)… yeah… set the alarm ten minutes later, (LAUGH)… multi-task, (LAUGH)… alright, nobody should eat while on the toilet… (ACT-OUT: Dumb Guy): “But I’m lactose intolerant and I’ve always wanted to enjoy a bowl of Puffins with whole milk…”

Keep in mind this whole joke is a shit joke. I mostly veer away from shit jokes, but you have to admit, it’s a pretty clever approach to doing shit joke. Also if you study the run Tosh does with this… that last bit continues with short–sometimes, one word–tags; each getting a solid laugh.

This is why Tosh is looked at as one of the top comics today. His ability to keep the audience rolling in laughter.

Immediately following this, once again Tosh goes into self-deprecation; this time it’s someone calling him out via email he received about this joke. Those who think Tosh is just an attack comic are missing out on the finer techniques he’s using as a comedic artist, painting in a stumble everywhere it’s needed to remind the audience that he has flaws too.

TOSH: Somebody emailed me and they’re like, “Hey Dipshit…” Which for the record is a wonderful subject line if you ever want me to read your email… Oh, let’s see what this nice fan has to say…! You had me at hello… (LAUGHS).

Tosh is wonderful at both blending quick act-outs and the milking the act-out tags. Realize that everytime he speaks either as another person or character, or his own consciousness, he’s doing a bit of an act-out.

Then he not only says the line “Oh, let’s see what this nice fan has to say…” He pushes it again with a frivolous “You-had-me-at-hello” comment that is also recognizable. And gets a strong laugh. (Recognition is such a powerful laughter trigger!) Cleverly crafted for increased laugh points.

Then he gets back to the act-out of the fan who emailed…

TOSH: (ACT-OUT): “You know you have to take your pants completely off to sit on the toilet backwards. (PAUSES, REFLECTS ACKNOWLEDGES HE’S BUSTED). Touche. Alright. So I don’t research. It’s a pre-shower shit agreed? Can we move on? Sticklers to every joke detail! (PAUSE) You ever have a post-shower shit? Oh! Might as well go back to bed and start your whole day over. (LAUGHS).

There’s a bit of very clever self-deprecation. Tosh is allowing some non-existent fan to put him in his place. This is a great way to use Candor. Candor is nearly a never-miss tactic to use with any audience. It’s admitting to the audience that you are flawed.

Who won’t accept you when you admit to being flawed. Candor taps into the superiority laughter trigger (making the audience feel superior) while also buying yourself some more comedic credibility.

Notice Tosh is using the same sparring technique he used with the tete a tete he had with his girlfriend. She wins, then he wins, then she wins, then he ultimately wins. Using this tactic taps into the benign retaliation strategy.

This strategy usually always works at some level because the audience is not included. It’s a similar tactic to having a back and forth with someone in the audience only there’s less tension. The key is that the entire time, the audience feels superior either to Tosh (when he loses) or to the third party (when they lose).

There’s genius working here on many levels. First, Tosh uses an email, that criticizes his joke, as material for his own act! This is why I don’t mind hecklers, they always provide me with fodder for another show. In a way they’re writing for me and they don’t know it.

Second, when Tosh ‘reads’ the email, and says, “Hey dipshit…” at that very moment, don’t you crave for Tosh to get back at this emailing critic? If your emotions, even a small degree, were urging Tosh to have a comeback for this emailing critic, then Tosh did his job at getting you, the listener, actively involved in his story. Awesome!

Tosh then continues to tag (he uses act-out tags brilliantly) to create a run similar to the Wolverine run he did earlier.

TOSH: Things are wrong! That’s not the order of events. There’s a glitch in the matrix. This world’s not real. Mom! (LAUGHS) Wipe me! (APPLAUSE BREAK).

This run builds tension and when it finally releases the audience is tapped on laughter so they acknowledge the cleverness of the run with applause.

TOSH: Am I the only person that hopes David Beckham has sex with Brad Pitt? (SMALL CHUCKLE) I don’t know who’s in charge of casting in Hollywood, but make it happen before one of them is out of their prime. (SMALL LAUGH) Could you imagine those two men together making love? (BIGGER LAUGH).

Here we have massive incongruity, surprise and recognition laughter triggers at play.

TOSH: If there’s a man in here who’s junk doesn’t wiggle just a little bit at the thought of those two men together… (LAUGH) Embarrassment, surprise and recognition are at play here.

TOSH: This has nothing to do with your homophobic sexual preference. At that level it’s art you monkey! Okay? (Wry grin) (LAUGHS) Ambivalence, recognition and incongruity. Plus the added surprise that he would call someone “monkey.” (Interesting and surprising choice of words).

You should be honored that you share the same restroom with those Greek Gods. (SMALL LAUGH) A topper to continue the roll of the joke.

TOSH: Can you imagine if they had a child (TOSH uses classic comedy structure of “what if?” Instead uses “can you imagine?” This allows the listener to participate in something that can’t really happen). But we still get a vague image of an imaginary good-looking baby.

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TOSH:(ACT-OUT: Celestial sound effect): Was that Simba? What the f**k? Was that Simba? (Small laughs). Was that the Beckham-Pitt kid? Was that “Pitt-Kham?” (BIG LAUGH) If you guessed recognition with this one, you’re catching on.

This was recorded during the time when the media was joint branding couples and babies, (IE: “Brad-Jolie”).

TOSH: The most beautiful child the world has ever seen… picture baby-Jesus with better abs. (LAUGHS). That’s a good-looking baby.

Simple incongruity and recognition here; apply the values of a baby on to Jesus and vice-versa. Did you get clear and real imagery in your mind’s eye? Then Tosh did his job.

The more clear the recognizable imagery, the more an opportunity for a solid laugh. But he pushes further and farther than anyone expects…

TOSH: If they had a baby Abercrombie store? They’d hire him to work the front door… (LAUGHS)

Interesting right? There’s not even a punch line here or anything. But that’s the power of tags and toppers along with real recognition.

When he says Abercrombie, do you see the store? Specificity is important when you’re performing because you want the audience to see the images you are creating.

The more specific you get, the more it increases the possibility for a laugh and using recognizable brands is a great and simple way of doing this.

Now Tosh does classic Tosh; he starts to do an act out. Posing like the baby.

TOSH: Right. Just standing there, shirtless… propped up. He can’t stand yet… just leaning against the wall… (Laugh)

Again the imagery is funny. Creating visual imagery. And when Tosh does this there is massive incongruity because we’ve seen the carved manikins and models they use at Abercrombie with their six-packs. Tosh is putting a baby in this scenario and the incongruity and recognition is what is triggering the laughs.

Now he does something really interesting. In the middle of his special, he shifts gears and changes the story from a real baby to a “poster” of a baby, (we’ll get into the reasons he may have made this choice later).

TOSH: Big poster… Big poster of himself… just standin’– little tight Pampers… and you’d walk in and you’d be like, (ACT-OUT): I don’t want to say this… but I want to fuck that baby. (BIG LAUGH with BIG GROANS) The audience laughs due to the big surprise and the incongruity and ambivalence of actually imposing a baby into a sexual situation.

But this is where TOSH does this thing; instead of backing off when the audience begins to release their groan, he pushes harder…

TOSH: Oh man do I want to fuck that baby!

Then he adds and act-out within an act-out…

TOSH: If I had three wishes, two of them would be to fuck that baby and one would be for more wishes. (LAUGHS). (ACT-OUT: as the Genie or person who grants wishes) “Well you can’t do that…” Well then I wanna fuck the baby a third time… (More LAUGHS with some possible GROANS) Tosh continues to plow through…

TOSH: I want to use all three wishes bangin’ that baby! (LAUGHS with some applause)… Tosh again heads them off at the pass…

TOSH: Go ahead dumb people… be offended by a joke that doesn’t have a plausible premise. (LAUGHS). Oh, I’d love to read your email… (ACT-OUT: Reading an email as the person who sent it): “I felt you went over the line a bit… when you theoretically wanted to fornicate with a mythical child… (LAUGHS & APPLAUSE)… END OF SEGMENT.

Summarizing Tosh’s Act

The baby part is one of my favorite parts of this segment of Tosh’s act (which in its entirety is over an hour), because he pushes the audiences groan button by intentionally stepping over the line, but in a non existent scenario. Then he continuously pushes harder.

The magic of what he did here is that the scenario is so over the top (but in imagination; remember he said, “Imagine if those two had a child…) When something is put into imagination we’ll imagine the plausibility because it’s like a dream. But even though they started with groans, Tosh got them to a place of nervous, self-conscious laughter.

I call this ‘funeral’ or ‘church’ laughter. It’s that nervous laughter that happens when you know you shouldn’t be laughing at the material, but it is funny so you laugh both at the material and at the fact that you shouldn’t be laughing.

This kind of laughter is contagious.

Then at the very end he calls out the “dumb people.” This is a great technique to utilize embarrassment, superiority, recognition and simple truth.

By calling out the dumb people the vast majority of the audience knows he’s not talking about them, so they feel both superiority and embarrassment for the “dumb people” and then when he talks about someone’s possible email, we get the to the simple truth of what actually just transpired. A non-existent story about something that never happened and never would happen.

By doing this, in a roundabout way, Tosh calls the audience out on their own over sensitivity toward what is just a comedy routine. This releases the audience from their tension and it resolves in a nice applause break, which very effectively, concludes the bit.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Before I wrap what has to be my longest blog post, remember when Tosh shifted gears and said it was a ‘poster’ of a baby? Let’s briefly examine why Tosh shifted gears. I believe it’s because he finally did realize that he might be crossing his own line of decency, (that or the show’s producer).

Think about it, he went from what seemed like the polished version of his joke to suddenly calling it a ‘poster’ of a baby… because even though it’s in our imaginations, fornicating with a poster of a mythical baby is easier to digest than imagining it being a real, living baby.

This totally validates Tosh as not just some frivolous attack comedian, but as a mischievous, wickedly sardonic craftsman of comedy.

Laughs Per Minute

In this short 8-minute segment, Tosh got a ton of laughter and applause; in fact in this video, 72 laugh points in 8 minutes. That averages 9 laugh points per minute throughout this entire 8-minute segment that we’ve examined.

That’s pretty awesome, considering that the average is 4 per minute.

Once you examine this deconstruction of Tosh, who I now have a renewed respect for as a comedic craftsman, I think you will find that his use of the laughter triggers and comedy structures is exactly how he created the stimuli for the audience to release their laughter.

After all, you who are reading this (all three of you) already know that it’s not magic and it’s not a guessing game, it’s a well-crafted understanding and implementation of the art and science known as comedy.

Don’t Watch Comedy Passively

When you study comedians live or on video, you shouldn’t just watch passively, but with the intention of learning. Ask yourself, what’s the take-away? With Tosh these are my take-aways:

Play through my act-outs. Don’t bail too soon.
When I hit something that the audience takes as too edgy, I will commit to saying it over and over a few times until they laugh at the fact that they shouldn’t be laughing at what I’m saying. Turn their groans into funeral or “church” laughter.

Remember to use self-deprecation to remind the audience (and myself) not to take myself too seriously, (Remember comedy is about obstacles).

I hope you enjoyed this. Please share the love and leave me a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this evaluation.

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What These Two Weiners Can Teach Us About Comedy

What these two wieners can teach us about comedy

What in the world of funny?!

I can’t believe this hack just did a joke on the name Weiner being so much like the hot dog wiener. Oh my God what a hack!

I can just hear it now all the super clever comedians out there skewering me for having the nerve to post such a ridiculously sophomoric statement.

But I have a point to this whole thing… I think.

There’s a trend out there in stand-up comedy land, kids. And the trend is for comics to be Bill Burr or Louis C.K.

The trend is to be clever just like them. You know, tell stories, make a profound statement. After all, wasn’t it George Carlin who said, “Don’t just make them laugh, make them think!”

I get it and I’m with you. I love to do think humor. I love to speak out with profundity and make a daring, yet good socio-political statement. I love to have the balls to “walk” a room.

T.V. Comedy is About Simplicity

But this post is about simplicity and its place in comedy; especially in television.

That’s right Simplicity. There’s a place for it and there’s big money in it.

What? Money you say?

We all want to be the clever Bill Burr or Louis C.K. but realize they started a long time ago and they didn’t start doing the stories you hear them do when they step on stage now .

They started with jokes. Writing jokes and telling jokes. (At least Burr did).

But you’re missing an element in your total game if you just stick to the clever story-teller comedy. There’s an angle you all should be working and that’s the angle of being able to write your one and two liner jokes.

Every comedian out there should be spending some time each day cranking out some solid one and two-liners. Honing that craft and getting good at it. Because one of the ways to be sure that you can survive in this business is to build multiple revenue streams.

One of those revenue streams could be writing for Late Night T.V.

The key to writing for Late Night T.V. is not the deep-meaning, clever, iconoclastic comedy. It is the simple association, simple surprise, short-form comedy concept that can play not only in New York and L.A. but in Middle America too.

One of those simple comedy structures is Double Entendre or wordplay comedy.

I took the pulse of my readers recently (all three of you) regarding wordplay humor and I got back some interesting feedback regarding the state of wordplay in comedy.

Most of it was like, “Dude Wordplay ain’t dead but it’s certainly on life support.”

I respect people’s opinions, even when the opinions are retarded. (See I can say “retarded” because I’m referring to an opinion–a thing, not a person… besides I know a lot of retarded things).

I jest, of course and I wouldn’t blame you for unsubscribing for that “retarded” comment, (but if you did you’d be retarded), because I’m about to show you why wordplay is alive and well–even a crucial skill you should refine, if not as a comedian, then as a writer.

Wordplay is Alive in the T.V. Comedy Writing Scene

Wordplay and double entendre is used in comedy writing on television like it’s nobody’s business. Late Night is chewing it up. It’s in commercials. It’s in Sitcoms.

Most of the successful shows on T.V. are using the Double-Entendre or wordplay comedy technique to get audiences to laugh and with great success.

You might not think that it works, but there’s an old saying in comedy and it’s “know your audience,” and I hate to be the bearer of bad news but Late Night isn’t playing to you.

If you’re reading this blog then you probably have at least a passing interesting in stand-up comedy or comedy writing and YOU are Late Night’s last target audience.

The audience that Late Night T.V. targets is the middle America audience. Mostly the male demo between eighteen and thirty-four.

They are targeting people who are tired after a long day of work and feeding the kids and dealing with the day’s errands, tasks and chores.

Late Night, for the most part is about simple humor. Don’t believe me? Check out this little bit from “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon”

Steve Higgins and Jimmy do Scat. (As in scatological humor).

In the middle of the Pros and Cons desk piece, they go on a “fart and shart” riff that lasts an entire two minutes. Now two minutes is nothing in real time but in T.V. time is a good chunk.

Listen to the wordplay and tell me that it’s not funny. But remember. It’s not up to you and me. It’s up to the audience. And the audience is loving this stuff!

You’ll also find a ton of wordplay in “Arrested Development” and “How I Met Your Mother” two rather successful television shows.

And not only that, also in commercials. If you look at some of the funny commercials you’ll find that wordplay is used and used often.

Like in this ad for Discover Card.

Frog Protection – Discover Card

Consider the silliness of both. Consider how “hacky” either could appear if you did an amalgamation of either on stage in your stand-up at the Comedy Store.

But remember television writing is not necessarily about being clever, it is about being silly and getting the laugh.

Also consider that a Late Night Writer makes a minimum of $4000 per week and a copywriter for a huge marketing firm could be making upwards of $700k per year.

So while I dig doing clever, solid story-telling, stand-up, it might be wise for me financially to also hone my simple comedy skills like Double-Entendre and Wordplay. Because that kind of money doesn’t sound like it’s on life support.

How to Avoid The Creative Paralysis of Being Original

confused-man

Should I Stop Doing My Joke?

A comedian walks into a bar and sees a poster with a saying that is similar to a joke he’s been doing. It’s not the same joke, but it almost has the exact set up line.

He panics. A thousand questions run through his mind: “What do I do?”
“Did the guy who did that poster see my act and use a version the joke?”
“Did I see that poster some time in the past and it stuck in my head?”
“Should I stop doing my joke?”

Okay, that wasn’t a thousand questions, but you get the gist.

This complication… that’s what I’ll call it, a “complication,” because that’s all it is. It’s parallel thought, it’s… whatever.

The point is there’s a poster out there and it has your joke–or a version of it–printed right on it. So you know that there are probably more posters out there

And at this point, it doesn’t matter whether or not it was your joke or not, someone else has used it at a commercial level and that might have negative impact on you.

So what do you do?

An old friend of mine, who had a lot of success as a comedy writer in show business once said to me, “if it’s inherently yours, keep it.” I like that; If it’s inherently yours…

That means if you really came up with that idea from scratch, keep it. Okay, let’s go with that for now.

But what if someone comes up to you later and says, “You know that one joke you do? I saw it on a poster.” Or worse, “You know that joke about Pop Tarts? I just saw Paula Poundstone do that joke on an old “Tonight Show.”

Then I would–and this should be imperative–do the research and find out how similar the poster or the Paula joke is, to my joke.

What “the same” means:

There is a difference between similar and the same.

Different people have different ideas about what the definition of “same joke” is. I have seen this a million times. I remember doing some material about getting pulled over by a cop.

In my act-out, the cop says, “Do you know how fast you were going?”

My character responds in  a surfer-like voice, “You think at that speed I’d risk taking my eyes off the road to check the speedometer?”

This was such a favorite joke of mine that I had a cartoon drawn and I had it printed on a T-shirt and sold hundreds of them at shows around the country.

A few years later, a  version of that joke showed up in the movie “Liar, Liar” with Jim Carrey.

I received a ton of phone calls saying that “they stole” my joke.

I did my research, which consisted of watching the movie–and since Jim Carrey can be entertaining, the research wasn’t brutal and decided that I would continue to do the joke.

The joke was similar, but not the same.

When To Drop The Joke

There does come a time, however that you can decide to drop a joke from your act.

One night while I was on the road in   right in the middle of my show, this guy in the audience–who, tragically, bore a similar appearance to Homer Simpson–shouted, “You stole that joke from “Liar, Liar!”

Doh! What do you do with that?

First of all, don’t panic. There’s no reason to if you know you were at the helm during the incunabula of the joke.

I knew inherently that I had written that joke way before that movie was ever written, but I had to respond to the heckler, then decide what I was going to eventually do about the joke.

So I said to the guy, “Doh! You know, Homer, (which got an immediate laugh, thankfully, because I needed one at this point), things like this happen a lot in comedy, but before you accuse someone of stealing a joke, you really have to look at two things: One, the similarity of the two jokes and two, the chronology…

“First of all, it’s not the same joke, so it’s not a ‘stolen’ joke. Second of all, if there is going to be an accusation of stealing, let’s just say that I did that joke on television in 1992. ‘Liar, Liar’ came out in 1997.

So to accuse me of stealing that joke is like me accusing you of stealing your look from Homer Simpson.”

Now, because I was already getting laughs from that audience and they were on my side, that statement elicited an applause break from that audience and quieted down the heckler, (if I wasn’t getting laughs, the audience might have looked at me like the pompous ass that I can sometimes be!).

Deciding To Drop The Joke

But even though I knew that the joke was inherently mine, since that movie caused that person in the audience to question my integrity, I decided to drop the joke, if simply to avoid that  kind of interruption in the future.

But mostly I keep doing my material. I learned this lesson by watching other professional comedians–especially those who are vastly more successful than I.

Learning From Top Comedians

Jim Gaffigan does a joke that is exactly like mine. I’m not going to quote the exact joke, but the set up is identical and punch is really close. Let’s just say that my joke ends with “four Moms, five Dads,” and his joke ends with “Nine parents…”

My joke about that is “Wow, Gaffigan is so genius, he even does the math in my joke!”

But would I ever accuse Jim Gaffigan of stealing my joke? No way! I just chalk it up to parallel thinking and let it go. Gaffigan works his ass off and is a top notch comedian and joke writer. That stuff just happens.

Or take Jerry Seinfeld. He was doing a joke about Pop Tarts lately that struck me as being similar to Paula Poundstone’s Pop Tart routine she did in the eighties.

It’s not the same routine, but it does address Pop Tarts from a similar angle.

Or the amazing Louis C.K. If you really listen to him, is the subject matter of his routines original? Kids, Family, Money, Growing up, Relationships, etc.

Are any of those ideas original? No! But his point of view, insightfulness and honesty are genius.

Where would he be if, before he wrote anything, he said to himself, “I can’t talk about kids… other comedians already do that.”?

So stop worrying about originality for originality’s sake.

Doing that can cause a comedian or a writer to do go into paralysis.

The only thing I can say about that is, don’t let it stop you from writing the joke in the first place.

Just write!

There are several reasons that a joke shows up in a similar form somewhere. Parallel thinking, common subject matter, writing about the same current events, are some of the more benign reasons.

Laziness and blatant plagiarism are a couple of others.

Don’t Worry. Be Funny.

But worrying about that shouldn’t even enter your mind during the creative process. Just as editing the material is never step one, (it’s step two, three or four), figuring out whether your joke is original should also never be step one.

Just write the damn material and worry about that later.

Instead of sitting there at your notebook or your computer and worrying about whether or not something is original, just write about stuff you are passionate about.

Write the stuff you really want to talk about, then turn it funny by finding the surprise, the paradox, the incongruity or several of the other proven comedy structures available to you to trigger laughs.

As long as you are staying true to your integrity as a writer and trying your damnedest to come up with ideas that come from your own experience or your unique point of view (embellished, sometimes of course for the laughs), then you don’t have to obsess about whether or not it’s original.

“As long as it’s inherently yours…”

Master Word-Play Like George Carlin

George Carlin

It’s been over six years since George Carlin died of heart failure at 71 in Santa Monica, CA.

George was widely regarded as one of the most important and influential stand-up comedians of all time. He’s listed in Comedy Central’s list of Top 100 Comics at number 2, just behind the great Richard Pryor, but just ahead of the trailblazing Lenny Bruce who paved the road for comedians all over the country to be able to speak freely and test the boundaries of obscenity.

But George Carlin’s fame is nearly unmatched as a comedian. Arguably, his bit “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” is one of his most memorable. It was funny on several levels. It challenged the status quo and pushed the boundaries of decency laws in the U.S. in 1972.

In comedy terms that bit would be described as “word-play,” “the witty exploitation of the meanings and ambiguities of words.”  

But at the Summerfest in Milwaukee in 1972 that bit would be described as obscenity and would get Carlin thrown in jail. That bit not only got Carlin arrested but also got WBAI, an FM radio station in New York City, cited by the FCC for broadcasting “obscene” material.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision. Evidently, the nursery rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” doesn’t hold true in a court so powerful that calls itself “Supreme.”

So what are those words? “Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that’ll infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.”

Those are the words that are so disgusting that a man got thrown in jail, radio station fined and the Supreme Court to issue a ruling that gave the FCC the broader right to decide what was “indecent,” and what can and can’t be broadcast on the public airwaves, words that are so profoundly offensive that those very same words are printed on the transcript of the court ruling and stored where? The Supreme Court.

Here’s Carlin with the Seven:

 

This piece is a classic and every student of comedy should know about it. But my point in this post isn’t just about “The Seven Words,” it about word-play and the power that word-play still has in comedy.

Some of the younger comedians, don’t believe in word-play they will give you some sciolistic nonsense about word-play being “hack.” 

That couldn’t be farther from the truth! Word-play can result in puns, but not always. If you approach word-play the way George Carlin did, you can find the paradox in certain words: “You can prick your finger, but you can’t finger your prick,” is one of Carlin’s old standards.

Hack? Well I guess it depends on the listener’s point of view. But that joke has been around for more than 40 years. It’s memorable and it has a shelf-life.

It it used a lot in script writing too. Arrested Development was a super popular show for many years and the writers employed word-play as one of their primary tools for getting a laugh. 

Let’s look at one of Carlin’s last HBO specials. He opens using a word-play bit and gets a rousing ovation. What a way to open!

Modern Man

Here’s a transcript from that performance:

George Carlin’s Modern Man

I’m a modern man, a man for the millennium. Digital and smoke free. A diversified multi-cultural, post-modern deconstruction that is anatomically and ecologically incorrect.

I’ve been up linked and downloaded, I’ve been inputted and outsourced, I know the upside of downsizing, I know the downside of upgrading. I’m a high-tech low-life. A cutting edge, state-of-the-art bi-coastal multi-tasker and I can give you a gigabyte in a nanosecond! 
I’m new wave, but I’m old school and my inner child is outward bound.

I’m a hot-wired, heat seeking, warm-hearted cool customer, voice activated and bio-degradable. I interface with my database, my database is in cyberspace, so I’m interactive, I’m hyperactive and from time to time I’m radioactive. 

Behind the eight ball, ahead of the curve, ridin the wave, dodgin the bullet and pushin the envelope. I’m on-point, on-task, on-message and off drugs.

I’ve got no need for coke and speed. I’ve got no urge to binge and purge. I’m in-the-moment, on-the-edge, over-the-top and under-the-radar. A high-concept, low-profile, medium-range ballistic missionary. A street-wise smart bomb. A top-gun bottom feeder. I wear power ties, I tell power lies, I take power naps and run victory laps. I’m a totally ongoing big-foot, slam-dunk, rainmaker with a pro-active outreach. A raging workaholic. A working rageaholic. Out of rehab and in denial!



I’ve got a personal trainer, a personal shopper, a personal assistant and a personal agenda. You can’t shut me up. You can’t dumb me down because I’m tireless and I’m wireless, I’m an alpha male on beta-blockers. 

I’m a non-believer and an over-achiever, laid-back but fashion-forward. Up-front, down-home, low-rent, high-maintenance. Super-sized, long-lasting, high-definition, fast-acting, oven-ready and built-to-last! I’m a hands-on, foot-loose, knee-jerk head case pretty maturely post-traumatic and I’ve got a love-child that sends me hate mail. 



But, I’m feeling, I’m caring, I’m healing, I’m sharing– a supportive, bonding, nurturing primary care-giver. My output is down, but my income is up. I took a short position on the long bond and my revenue stream has its own cash-flow. I read junk mail, I eat junk food, I buy junk bonds and I watch trash sports! I’m gender specific, capital intensive, user-friendly and lactose intolerant. 

I like rough sex.

I like tough love. I use the “F” word in my emails and the software on my hard-drive is hardcore–no soft porn. 

I bought a microwave at a mini-mall; I bought a mini-van at a mega-store. I eat fast-food in the slow lane. I’m toll-free, bite-sized, ready-to-wear and I come in all sizes. A fully-equipped, factory-authorized, hospital-tested, clinically-proven, scientifically- formulated medical miracle.

I’ve been pre-wash, pre-cooked, pre-heated, pre-screened, pre-approved, pre-packaged, post-dated, freeze-dried, double-wrapped, vacuum-packed and, I have an unlimited broadband capacity. 

I’m a rude dude, but I’m the real deal. Lean and mean! Cocked, locked and ready-to-rock. Rough, tough and hard to bluff. I take it slow, I go with the flow, I ride with the tide. I’ve got glide in my stride. Drivin and movin, sailin and spinin, jiving and groovin, wailin and winnin. I don’t snooze, so I don’t lose. I keep the pedal to the metal and the rubber on the road. I party hearty and lunch time is crunch time. I’m hangin in, there ain’t no doubt and I’m hangin tough, over and out!”


― George Carlin

Now tell me… is word-play dead?