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

What Is Funny?

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

Funny is such a subjective term.

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

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

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

In other words, shut your conch!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then if Laughter = Funny and

Surprise = Laughter, then

Surprise = Funny!

Got it?

Say it with me: SURPRISE EQUALS FUNNY!

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

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

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

All it takes is a little surprise.

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

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

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

If Laughter=Funny, and

Surprise=Laughter, then

Surprise=Funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clerk: Did you find everything you were looking for?

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

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

Surprise triggers laughter and…

Laughter equals funny, then…

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

The Key To Comedy

Key to comedyOne of the most common questions I get as a stand up comedian, writer and now coach is: What is the key to comedy?

And although there are too many variables for me to even suggest that I have all the answers when it comes to comedy, I can give you the key. That’s right I can give you the key to comedy.

The key is SURPRISE.

If we break comedy down; I mean, really break comedy down into parts, then we can start to design solutions. So let’s do that briefly in this blog post.

I guess we can all agree that for comedy to be comedy, we need to get the audience to laugh, right? So that’s our problem. We need to make people laugh.

So let’s find a solution…

Somebody has to be laughing in order for someone to say that something is comedic or humorous. Now that we know that, we need to know what causes people to laugh.

According to several psychologists, the number one element that triggers human laughter is surprise.

Create surprise and do it well and the audience almost has no choice but to laugh.

Imagine that power as a comedian; to put the audience in the position where they have no choice but to laugh!

Now that we have that psychological element in place we are part of the way through solving our problem. The next question is how to we pull that trigger?

We create surprise in our writing or our dialogue, conversation, speech or script.

There are several ways to create surprise in comedy. I’m going to share with you the simplest and one of the most commonly used strategies to create surprise:

  • Double Entendre
Double Entendre means “two meanings.” Those of us in comedy are blessed that the English language provides us with multiple meanings of words. We can use a word in a sentence to imply one meaning then use the comedic interpretation to create comedy. To look at it in its simplest form: if you have a friend that turns everything into a sexual connotation, then you’ve probably seen the double-entendre formula used in comedy. It could be used in scene writing too.
A basketball coach is at a press conference after his team lost in a blow out;
PRESS: Coach how do you feel about the execution of the offense?
COACH: I’m all for it.
In this example, the coach used the comedic interpretation of the word “execution.” While the journalist meant how do you think the offense played?  The coach went for the surprise meaning of “kill.”
Because the expected of the word execution was so strong in the context in which it was being used, when the coach played the comedic meaning, he created a level of surprise that would lead just about any crowd to a laugh. Couple that with the fact that the losing coach is normally NOT in a good mood. He is not expected to be funny.

Surprise also occurs when something happens that is unexpected, right? So do or say something unexpected and you have an increased possibility of creating a laugh.

Here’s another example of using surprise:

When I was in the grocery store, the check out girl said to me, “Did you find everything you were looking for?” The word “everything” really stood out for me. What did she mean when she said “everything?” Her intended meaning was probably did I find everything I was shopping for.

What is my comedic meaning of everything? The meaning of life, a soul-mate, eternal love, etc.

I went with that interpretation. So, when she asked “Did you find everything you were looking for?” I said, “Well I found the wine and the candles, but I couldn’t find a soul-mate. You had Mahi-Mahi, but I’m not into twins.”

That got big laugh with her.

Word play makes up the majority of all comedy out there. But the comedian has to be careful not to overuse it. It’s easy to get “punny” if you use it incorrectly. And you’ll wind up getting groans.

Then that key to comedy will just wind up breaking off in the lock.

Louis C.K. | Simple Comedy Structure

I’m a big fan of Louis C.K. Just wanted to share some of his work.
Louis C.K., a comedian Rolling Stone magazine calls “The funniest comedian alive.”
Watch what he does. Listen how he uses analogy to introduce new incongruous elements, impose the characteristics of one element on another and then, how he acts them out creating the comedy.

It’s all about the structure, baby. It’s all about the structure!