Does All Comedy Need to be Based in Truth? [Video]

There seems to be a misconception out there when it comes to theories behind developing and writing comedy.

One of the most popularly espoused by many comedy instructors is: your comedy must be true.

NOT SO!

I’m not sure how this particular theory got so out of control. I say, “out of control” because I’ve heard from dozens of confused students of comedy on this very matter. So many, in fact, I feel that it’s time to address in on the blog.

So let me be clear: All comedy does not need to be true.

In other words, you can make stuff up!

To be fair, some of the people who have advocated this ‘truth’ misnomer may just be repeating something they’ve heard from other people. Or they are misinterpreting or misunderstanding what “true” is or what it means with regard to developing comedy or developing stories.

Bottom line is that if you only use what’s true, you are seriously limiting yourself and your material. There’s so much available if you use your imagination.

If you allow yourself to get stuck on only what’s true, you’ll deny your creative mind the ability to develop a whole field of new material; sketches, act-outs, and solid ponderable or observational creative material (Jerry Seinfeld-style)

However, truth is a good starting point…

For example, I wrote a bit a long time ago on how people in Texas say “Y’all.”

That is true.

Once I had that tid-bit of information, I wanted to write a funny routine about it, (I’m a comedian so ‘funny’ is usually how I like to write… I try anyway).

One of the most effective ways to write comedy, is to take a character trait of a person and put him or her in a situation that is opposite to their persona and/or character traits. It creates a situation that resolves with an unexpected result. Which creates surprise, thus laughter.

Got it?

So all I needed to do is come up with a character that the audience would never expect to use the phrase “Y’all.”

I thought British Royalty. That’s a good idea, but the odds of meeting British royalty in Texas are slim and improbable—Brits don’t understand Texan accents—so I thought further. Then I came up with the idea of using an austere French person.

Where would I find an austere French person in Texas?

A French restaurant in Dallas!

You can probably feel the presence of the incongruous relationship between those two elements (French person/Texas), already, and the idea is giving you a bit of a tickle.

So once I had the character and the situation. I had to create the story and the act-out.

So the bit goes like this:

“I was out of the country recently, I was in Texas. You ever notice that everyone says, “Y’all” in Texas. Everyone! You can go to other parts of the country and you’ll have pockets of the population that say “y’all,” but everyone in Texas says, “Y’all.” Like, one time, I was in a very expensive French restaurant in Dallas—which is a joke in itself—I was at the top of this hotel. Very French restaurant; the waiter was also very French. He had the little French mustache, the towel over his arm, the body odor. He comes up to our table and he’s like, “Good afternoon, Mademoiselle, Monsieur… Welcome to Café Lu Bonne… what can I get for Y’all.” I was like, “You just blew the atmosphere there ‘Pierre.

He turns around, he’s got a faded Copenhagen circle on the back of his Tuxedo pants… That’ll teach me for eating at a restaurant called, “Chateu de Big-Ass Barbecue.”

This bit is intended to be performed and not written, but it’s a bit that works any time, any where I am performing; clubs, corporates, parties, one-niters. It’s a no-fail joke.

Take a quick look at the video of that joke:

Jerry Corley at Wiseguys Comedy Club in Salt Lake City

Here’s the thing: IT NEVER HAPPENED! The entire scenario is a made-up story.

Bottom line is that comedy doesn’t have to be true to be funny and effective.

Here’s the caveat: comedy has to be believable and probable. If this was written outside the realm of believability, then the audience would not ‘buy it’ and the joke would fail.

The thing to remember is that comedy is heightened reality not complete absurdity. As audiences we love to be fooled, but we hate to be made fools of…

Make sense?

One of the other fallible pieces of information that students get subjected to is “don’t tell stories.”  NOT TRUE!

Notice the above joke. Is it a story or a joke?

It’s both. It is a story with seven laugh points, (in orange). It’s a bit that lasts about a minute, but includes seven laughs along the way.

Seven laughs in a minute. Considering that most clubs like the Improv, Comedy Store, Laugh Factory, etcetera, look for comedians to have a laugh every 18-20 seconds, seven in a minute doubles that. It’s a solid bit.

What do we gain from this?

Stories are fine, just as long as you have laugh points along the way!

What say you?

How Bill Burr Uses Comedy Structure Too

2013-07-07 21_38_12-Bill Burr - Epidemic of gold digging whores - YouTube

Recently I got an e-mail from a guy who said, “Jerry, I’ve been reading your stuff and Bill Burr doesn’t use any of the structures you talk about…”

REALLY?

Bill Burr has quickly become one of my favorite comedians. He’s intelligent. He’s crafty, and the dude is wickedly funny!

He’s narrowed down his demographic to mostly male 18-44. Although he can resonate with a broader demo, this is his core.

Burr has balls because even in our overtly politically correct world, he tackles issues that can cause a rift; mostly with women.

Grab Burr’s latest comedy DVD “You People Are All The Same” Here. (C’mon people! It’s Five Bucks!)

But he’s no different than any other comedian who gets laughs. Where the laughs are you will find him using a variation of the 12 Comedic Structures and the 8 Major Laughter Triggers, that I teach in my comedy classes and breakdown in my e-Book.

I’m going to approach the first few minutes of this bit of Bill Burr’s, almost line by line, and offer suggestions as to why the bits work so well. This way you can see how the things I teach, work. Even in a rant-style like Burr’s.

Play the video then and follow along the with assessment and PLEASE leave comments. Even if you disagree. We’re here to learn!

Here we go…

Bill Burr – Epidemic of Gold Digging Whores

Performance Technique

First of all pay attention to Bill’s technique. His point of view is clear. He’s a Cynic with a capital ‘C.’ But what makes it work is that he keeps this wicked, mischievous smile all the way through. CLASSIC! It’s his way of saying to his audience, “I don’t take myself too seriously… notice the funny here folks!”

It’s that smile that makes him likeable. Kind of the guy you want to have a beer with.

Structure

I’ve spent a lot of time arguing that structure is key to getting laughs. Bill uses structure just like any other comic. He just finesses it and disguises it, as you would disguise exposition in a script.

Below we’ll go line-by-line. Bill Burr’s lines will be in yellow. My running commentary (if you give a shit) will be in white.

“I’m afraid to get married, man…
Perfect. Sets up dilemma. Even though I’m up here on stage, I have fears too. Plus it’s very conversational. When it’s a conversation, 2013-07-07 21_21_19-Bill Burr - Epidemic of gold digging whores - YouTube the punch usually comes with more surprise because we’re not expecting a joke.

What man wouldn’t be afraid to get married at this point? Look at Kobe. Look at the shit he’s going through right now.

Audience laughs. Why? Surprise and Recognition We recognize Kobe and his situation while at the same time we’re surprised that Burr would choose Kobe Bryant as a guy we should empathize with.

Guy’s gettin’ a divorce… his wife is gonna get seventy million bucks… never hit a layup in her life….

Audience laughs. Why? Recognition, incongruity and simple truth. By saying, “never hit a layup in her life,” he puts an instant image of Kobe’s wife in our minds doing a layup! For some of you, your image may have her in a Lakers’ uniform. That’s both recognition and incongruity, because our minds probably see her as the wife of an NBA star and not in a sweaty jersey and Burr puts her there in there on the boards at the base of the paint, doing a layup. He paints this incongruous picture for us and we laugh. Also, it’s simple truth. Burr has taken the complex issue of legally awarding Alimony and narrowed it down to: “she never hit a layup in her life.” True and Simple.

NOTE: You’ll notice that Bill Burr is an avid sports fan. Within his act you’ll find multiple sports analogies, euphemisms and metaphors.

We continue…

Can anyone explain these divorce settlements? Can anyone make sense of them? Tiger Woods’ wife: Two Hundred and fifty million dollars! She’s a babysitter! Worth a quarter of a billion fucking dollars!”

Two fascinating things going on here. The incongruity that befalls on the fact that a babysitter is getting two hundred and fifty mil is funny because of the huge incongruity, but this audience pulls back a little. But Burr uses this tension build to challenge the audience and further make his point. Notice: He’s still smiling!

Somebody explai—justify it. Justify it! What? He cheated on her? I don’t give a fuck! I don’t give a fuck! He cheated on her. The relationships over right then. Kobe cheated right? Shouldn’t that relationship been over right then? Why did she hang out for three years like some jaded cop trying to get her fuckin’ pension? Right? Get that ten years in?

Audience Laughs. Why? Give you one guess; INCONGRUITY. Here he even uses the “is-like” formula to get the incongruity in place. “Why did she hang out for three years like some jaded cop trying to get her fucking pension?” Once he set up that incongruity play, then audience laughs. Then he tags it with “Get that ten years in…”

NOTE:You should take note that Burr laughs out loud at this point. Keeping the flavor of the entire show in a humorous light. Cynical, but humorous! Brilliant! It’s theater science that the audience is in whatever state the performer is in, so when Burr laughs he keeps the audience in a humorous mood.

2013-07-07 21_25_30-Bill Burr - Epidemic of gold digging whores - YouTube I don’t know maybe that’s too harsh, but that shit bothers me man! Dude, there is an epidemic of gold-digging whores in this country…

Audience Laughs and Applauds. Why? The statement is surprising and a bit shocking. It’s simple truth (based on the information he’s given us up to this point).  Burr also sets up his dilemma of still trying to figure this shit out with “I don’t know. Maybe that’s too harsh.”  So he’s never saying, “This is the only truth and if you don’t like it, get the fuck out.” It’s more like, “I’m still trying to figure this out too!” Whenever I hear this line it reminds me the way George Carlin used shock and exaggeration by opening with the line: “You ever notice that women who are against abortion, are women you wouldn’t want to fuck anyway?”

….and every night I put on the news and I’m waitin’ for someone to address it. Every night. Never see it. Y’know? And every night, I bring up ‘gold-digging whores’ and the whole crowd pulls back like I’m talking about ‘Bigfoot,’ alright? Like I’m saying the moon is made out of cheese or somethin.’

Audience Laughs. Why? Recognition and Release. Release; He spent time talking about gold-digging whores and built up tension. Steve Martin said that comedy is about tension and release. Well he builds up tension and then points out that the audience is pulling back, “like I’m talking about Bigfoot.” Notice he uses “like” again. Doing a comparison to something unrelated and something we recognize. We also recognize the situation when someone starts talking conspiracy that people tend to pull back.

I’m talking about whores people! They’re everywhere!

Shock value (Surprise). And notice he delivers this harsh line while he sporting that wicked smile. It’s brilliant incongruity. You ever see a movie where the villain is spraying the bank with machine gun fire while the soundtrack is playing some playful circus music like “Entry of the Gladiators.” Same cool technique. Like a point-counterpoint in music. He saying a harsh phrase while wearing a smile. Awesome!

How many? How many more great men are gonna get chopped in half before we do somethin’? (Pause) Why is it so quiet in here?!

This is awesome RELEASE! Using the audience’s own political correctness tension and just putting it under a spotlight by acknowledging the tension with the smile! Gets the audience to release that tension. This is how powerful RELEASE can be. There’s a wave of energy from the audience!

Emotion

One thing you notice with Burr, is that his emotions are always clear. You know exactly how he feels about what he’s talking about. This is very important in stand-up comedy. That’s how a performer connects to his audience; through emotion. Even if an audience doesn’t agree with your ideology, they can still relate to the way you feel about it and recognize that, because they’ve felt that same way about something in their lives too.

I’m not calling any woman in here a whore. So don’t pull back. That’s not fair. If you brought up ‘wife-beaters’ I wouldn’t pull back. I get it. There’s guys hittin’ women and they need to be stopped. But you gotta understand that gold-diggin’ whores are the wife-beaters for men.

Audience Laughs. Why? INCONGRUITY. When Burr says,  “you gotta understand that gold-diggin’ whores are the wife-beaters for men,” Isn’t that like saying “are like the wife beaters for men?” So he’s juxtaposed the two elements. They laughed at that incongruity. Now he’ll tag it with something from the wife beater section that we all recognize and give us an act-out…

Yeah! They are! Except, we don’t have that lumped up Rihanna photo in the end. (ACT-OUT: a quick act-out of a mangled face).2013-07-07 21_30_27-Bill Burr - Epidemic of gold digging whores - YouTube

But it’s not obvious. It’s in the eyes. It’s in the lines in your face. It’s in Mel Gibson’s high-pitched voice on the answering machine, (ACT OUT: Mel Gibson on the phone): “I had to give up my Laker Tickets!” That is the sound of a man who’s being taken for everything he’s got.

Audience Laughs. Why? RECOGNITION. Men experience abuse too in different ways. This compare and contrast and Recognition drives the point with laughter. AND they recognize the Mel Gibson phone message that got so much play on the news. Then he tags it. By reminding us what it is. Classic act-out structure; tell us what you’re going to tell us, act it out, then tell us what you just told us.

I’ve got to tell you. I’m envious of women. I’m not saying your problems get solved, but at least they’re taken seriously. You know? You got one-eight-hundred numbers, you got ribbons… there’s groups. People give a shit. Anything happens to a guy it’s just considered funny. Some woman cut her husband’s dick off, through it in the garbage disposal and turned it on. People thought it was hilarious. They were like, “Hey Stumpy!” Nobody cares!

Several laughs here. Why? Let’s look at simple truth and recognition; “You got 1-800 numbers, you got ribbons… there’s groups. Both factual (simple truth) and recognizable. But the bigger laugh comes with the compare and contrast  “Anything happens to a guy it’s just considered hilarious!” Then Hey Stumpy! INCONGRUITY. What do you call a guy who had his dick cut off? “Stumpy.”

But the big laugh comes in the next few lines where Burr uses a three-way build-up (triple) and recognition combined. Huge laugh! The three-way build-up creates tension and the recognition pulls out the stops and BOOM! Laughter and applause.

You think if a guy removed a woman’s titty and threw it in the drier, anybody would be jokin’ about it the next day? The entire country would grind to a hault, there would be a moment of silence… (here’s the third of the 3-way build) The N.F.L. would have a special-colored headband everybody would have to wear…

When he says that line about the “special-colored headband…,” do you get a clear image of the pink ribbons, etc. that the N.F.L. players wear during ‘Breast Cancer Awareness Month?” That’s definitely recognition at work!

We can go on and on—as I cover this full 11:30 video in my classes—and I’d love to because I love listening to Bill Burr. But this blog post would wind up being prohibitively long. And I think, by now, you get the idea! If you don’t hit me with a comment and I’ll deconstruct the rest of it.

Listen closely to Burr’s use of the phrase “is-like.” He uses it a lot. He often compares one thing to another then puts them both together in what is known as an incongruity/act-out.

Throughout the entire video he uses that powerful comedy structure. My favorite part is when he gets to the end of the act (right about the 11:15 mark) he compares a man’s dick to a third-base coach, waving in runners.

Take a look and see Burr’s brilliant use of this comedy structure and he pays it off and closes his set. Awesome!

Texture and Persona

Also listen to Burr’s use of the language. He spits out metaphor and euphemism keeping the sentences interesting and edgy. Listen when he talks about Schwarzenegger. “Why do you think she hooked up with him? Because of that nineteen eighties flat-top he’s still rockin’?” Burr accomplishes two things in this sentence; He mocks Schwarzenegger and also keeps it interesting with the choice of words.

Conclusion

Burr uses a variation of several comedy structures in his act, combined with his wicked smile and his commitment to his emotional point of view. He also takes on this challenging subject matter with a challenging ideology. This drives anxiety in the audience, creating tension. If you have tension sometimes all you have to do is acknowledge the reality that the tension exists and the audience will release it by laughing.

I still use that technique. When I talk about issues or deal with a crabby heckler and I feel like the audience is tense and quiet. I simply say something like, “Does anyone else feel the tension in this room?” or I laugh through the end of this line: “Is it me or did it just get really hot in here?!”

These are simple comedic devices you can use to release tension that builds up in the audience. Bill Burr uses it masterfully!

If you take anything away from this video, take away Burr’s use of analogy to create humorous opportunities, (the “is-like” or variations thereof).

Burr uses it like his clutch-hitter in the line-up; when he needs the bases cleared and a big laugh to take him to the next segment, he brings in the big bat (incongruity/act-out) and he swings for the fences.

Love to hear your thoughts!

And don’t forget to grab Burr’s Comedy DVD. It’s a brilliant lesson in finessing structure.

Inspiring Your Creative Muse with a Regular Routine

the-thinker Having trouble getting inspiration for material?

Of all the questions I get from the writers and comedians I work with, by far the most common relates to inspiration.

“I haven’t ‘felt’ like writing.” or “Sometimes I feel it and sometimes I don’t.”

Do you fit into this category? Do you have trouble finding the inspiration to write?

When is the last time you wrote something and felt satisfied? When is the last time you wrote something fulfilling?

When is the last time you wrote something at all?

It happens to all of us. There were times that I would go weeks without writing a new joke. It felt miserable.

One day I purchased a book called “The Writer’s Way,” and it was part of my all-out plan to never have writers’ block again. And you know what?

It worked!

One of the things I learned in that book and from reading about guys like George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld is to write everyday. EVERYDAY. Non-negotiable.

Whether I write a paragraph or a joke or two. I make time every day to sit down and write something. Anything.

Some writers wait for an inspiration to hit them. Other writers summon their muse by developing a regular routine to work by thereby following the philosophy of:

[gn_quote style="1"]A Routine for writing, creates a routine for inspiration.[/gn_quote]

But it’s up to you. First you have to start with a decision to do it, then you need to plan your day, your week and set up a specific time (an appointment with yourself) that you block out in your daily calendar that is designated for your writing time and then STICK to that routine.

You’ll be amazed that when you stick to the routine, your inspiration will find it’s way to you.

It’s like working both sides of the creative equation.

Sometimes inspiration just happens and other times you have to coax it along by doing cliche exercises or writing 50 random lines from the news, ad-copy or editorials.

Here’s a great article on creativity. I read it and it inspired me to write this blog post.

Maybe it will help you to set up your own regular writing routine and get more creative!

Do you have certain techniques you use to get yourself inspired? Share them in the comments section!

Writing Funny about Proposition 8

gay-marriage-still2So you wake up early today. Maybe you go for a run, maybe you walk the dog, maybe, like me, you’re up early because you have a toddler in the house who wakes you up, because they don’t know that you’ve been up the night before trying to write.

But you feel like today is a good day.

It’s so good in fact, that today you’re going to get some good comedy writing done. You’re going to spend today writing some funny!

So you grab your coffee and you sit at your computer and you…

Look at CNN.

Look at E.S.P.N.

Check the Huff Post.

You look in the Top Stories, The sports section, the entertainment section for something that pops out at you that is funny weird, whacky or quirky.

You spend so much time trying to find inspiration to write some thing that could be funny that you don’t wind up being able to write funny at all.

In fact, you write nothing.

Hovering over you is this big amorphous goo labeled “funny” and you can’t seem to make heads or tails of it. (Does goo even have a head or tail?).

What happened?

Mistake #1: You sat down to write something funny.

Mistake #2: You looked for things that are already funny, quirky or weird in stories, news or events.

Mistake #3: You forgot to start with anything that affects you inspires you or pisses you off.

One of the best lessons I ever learned in comedy, I learned from George Carlin. He changed the way I looked at comedy. He said, “Take the stuff that drives you crazy… the stuff that makes you mad… the stuff that makes you want to call ‘bullshit,’ put it all down on paper… then MAKE IT FUNNY!

Take events, situations—whether they be political, sociological or interpersonal—and if they trigger you to call bullshit, get pissed off, angry, upset, confused and write them down; facts and all.

Don’t think about being funny, think about telling the audience what you think is wrong with the idea. How you would fix it. What dumb things have been said about it by dumb people.

Remember the Maxim of the five W’s: Who, What, Where, Why and How. (and Who cares, if you want to take your audience into consideration).

Just write down the facts like a rant.

Then you can go back and plug in the funny using the 12 Major comedy structures and 8 Major psychological elements that trigger human laughter.

I looked at the news, saw that Proposition 8 is trending and read a story on it.

Some parts of the story bothered me so I looked into it and wrote down the facts, wrote down how it affected me. Then I talked it out loud, revisited it and plugged some more funny into it.

Wash, rinse repeat.

Rarely is anything ever ready after the first draft. Most comedy—certainly most stand up—takes rewrites, tests before an audience, then another couple of rewrites.

But if you get the ideas down on the page first, you’re already half-way there. Now you just need to plug in funny.

After a few drafts and some testing this is four minutes or so, of an hour that I did at a fund raiser in front of a predominantly conservative crowd… remember the bit started out with something that pissed me off.

How to Write A Joke – Jerry Seinfeld Style

This is cool!

As you might already know about me, I’m a huge fan of Jerry Seinfeld. I studied him when I was first starting comedy right alongside two of my other heroes, George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

I know, what an interesting juxtaposition! Carlin, Seinfeld, Pryor. Considering that combination you’d think my jokes might start out, “I think bugs were our first friends, you ever notice how bugs walk? Them ‘muthufuckahs’ be like…”

But alas, I my jokes aren’t nearly as clever or interesting sounding… (throat-clearing to indicate sarcasm)…

Anyway, to the point of this blog post; In my previous post I gave you all a link to an awesome New York Times interview with Jerry Seinfeld. In the interview you may have learned how Seinfeld is considered a scientist when it comes to comedy. He dissects a joke and looks for the littlest nuances to make the joke funny.

That was in the meat of the interview but if your own interest in nuance was engaged, you may have seen this little tidbit off to the side…

In the N.Y. Times journey to become more internet savvy they’ve begun to add little morsels in their sidebars to keep the reader interested.

I love this interview with Seinfeld that they posted on how he writes a joke…

He even gets down to the nitty-gritty of what kind of pens he uses and his long-hand style of writing!

It starts out in typical Jerry Seinfeld style: “I know you think people are going to be interested in this… but they’re not…”

How to write comedy - Jerry Seinfeld style