Here’s an age-old argument that never ends; Can you learn to be funny? You’ll get answers on both ends of the spectrum. What’s interesting is the people who DON’T believe you can learn to be funny are really negative. They’ll actually call me and leave a nasty voicemail about how you can’t teach anyone to be funny. Makes me laugh, because the truth is “funny” is learnable.
As infants, we learn what funny is. If you look at a baby and you say “ooooooooooh—BOO!” The baby, laughs! It’s uncanny “ooooooooh—BOO!” You’ve probably seen it a hundred times. It’s because the person doing the “performance” is creating an expectation with “ooooooooh.” In the babies little mind “ooooooooh” is going to go on an on. Then you shatter that expectation with a quick “BOO!” It’s the surprise that gets the laugh. Pretty simple concept and it doesn’t change when we get older either. Surprise is still the number element that triggers human laughter. So, I’m sorry naysayers, you can learn to be funny.
It’s as simple as sharpening your awareness of the opportunity to shatter the expectation and create the surprise. If you take any statement of piece of dialogue and you suddenly change the perception of what is being said or, say, change the perception of the meaning of a word, you’ll have surprise which will result in funny. “I’ve been losing my hair lately. It bugs me a little bit. Like in the mornings when my wife is running her fingers through my hair, but I already left for work.” That line gets a laugh every time because the audience has a perception of “running her fingers through my hair, ” once I let them get that picture in their heads, I throw in that the hair she’s running her fingers through is the hair left behind on the pillow after I went to work. Because their image was shattered, they laugh. Learn to identify the opportunity to spin what you say at the last minute and you will learn to be funny.
In comedy, that’s called a reverse. It’s classic, and if used properly, that formula will get a solid, triggered laugh from an audience every time. Well, unless the audience doesn’t speak the language you’re speaking, or they’re dead. And if you’re running your jokes by a dead audience, then you should see a shrink, or better yet, stop playing the Hollywood Improv.
The reverse is just one of the humor formulas you can learn in your journey to learning to be funny. It’s one that I teach in my comedy classes and seminars. It’s powerful, but it’s one of those formulas you want to avoid using in back-to-back jokes when doing a routine. Once you give up the formula your audience begins to anticipate the surprise. Then it’s no longer a surprise, is it?
Here’s a real-life scenario in which I used a formula to lighten the mood. My wife and I were expecting a baby. I came home from work late one night and she was laying on the couch. She said, “I’m having gas pains.” I said, “Babe, everyone is, it’s like $4.25 a gallon!” She laughed. The we discovered that those “gas pains” were coming 3 minutes apart.
That is called the double-entendre formula. Take the perceived meaning of the word and turn it into something that the listener didn’t expect. I’ll talk more about that in a future blog…you know, the blog that I write where you can’t teach someone the skills to learn to be funny…
Jerry Corley is the founder of the Stand Up Comedy Clinic. He teaches the science behind the art of comedy from his studio in Burbank, CA.
For all the negatives I see in Charlie Sheen’s current behavior and what sometimes just seems like a drug-induced rant, the important thing to consider is that he’s doing something—anything to keep busy. His television show, ‘Two and a Half Men’ is on hiatus and he, (according to the network’s latest information), is no longer a part of it. That would take most actors and put them into a funk. But Charlie Sheen took the disagreement that got him fired and created a live show (if you want to call it that), and took it on the road for a 20-city tour. That’s a good thing. I could say he should’ve hired some writers to really pump it up and make it funny, but after he dissed all the writers on Two and a Half Men, there’s probably fewer writers who are willing to jump up and write for him. Hell, I’ll do it! I’ll put some words into his mouth and make him funny.
But I digress. My point is that Charlie went out and did something. He stayed creative.
He’s going to learn A LOT from this tour. First, he’ll learn that you can’t just go up there and try to be funny. It doesn’t work. Just ask Jersey Shores’ “Situation.” When he tried to be funny on Donald Trump’s roast, he nearly got booed off. You need structure. You need material. Comedy is only comedy when people laugh and people laugh when there’s irony, incongruity or surprise. It’s a very simple concept.
So my point is—really this time!—that when you are an artist, (a writer, comedian, painter, actor, musician, etc.), and there seems to be nothing going on for you…get out and do something. Figure out a way to write, tell jokes, paint, act or play music! It creates energy around you, it makes you seem busy. It keeps your creativity flowing and you get better at what you do!
A couple of students in my comedy class that I teach in Burbank are screenwriters and directors. They’ve been studying comedy for various reasons. One of them, David Conolly, was in a slow point in his directing career, so his wife got him involved in my class—probably to get him out of the house!
Hindsight News Ep. 102
As a result of being in my class, he’s stayed busy. His comedy act is taking off, he’s kept people notified via social networking and literally hundreds of people are aware that he’s doing stand up. As a result, he’s gotten standup comedy gigs and other acting entertainment-related opportunities have also come his way. He’s got a really big project in the works now, but that’s something I’ll only mention when it is signed, sealed and delivered.
Another student, Robert Narholz, is a screenwriter/director. He came to the class to explore comedy structure, (as his next writing project is going to be a romantic comedy.) He’s learned a ton and he’s gone from being one of the most serious people I’ve ever met to a guy with a very interesting and witty personality. He’s still serious, but seriously funny too!
These two ‘comedians’ wanted to continue “doing something, ” so they decided to explore producing online content in the form of a sketch show. They’ve done an amazing job with this project and I’m proud to share it with everyone I know—which is about 6 of you now. (Isn’t it exciting? My fan base has doubled since my last posting!)
Online content is still very popular. Industry is still looking for good ideas and I think these guys have hit that mark with their new sketch show, “Hindsight News!” It comes at you in short, 6-8 minute episodes that resemble “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” It’s quick, it moves and it’s funny.
How might this benefit them professionally? First: they’re putting out content. They are writing. They are acting. They are utilizing their skills to stay busy. They are also using other actors, such as cast members Annie Girard and Brian Zuanich. They have a casting calls for guest actors, thus giving other actors something to do too. As a result they are building more relationships, further developing their network of people and through the internet they are reaching more people than they ever thought possible.
As a result, just like Charlie Sheen, they too, are “Winning.”
I was asked recently if I would post who I thought were the top comedians of all time. At first I thought, “No problem!” Then as I began to put together my list I realized that it was an impossible task. There are so many great comedians. They are great for so many different reasons. I would just make the list anyway and post it, but it’s by no means an accurate list. I’ll also add an honorable mention. I have to because when I first scribbled my list, I lost it. Then I made a new list. I found the old list and they were different so this is by no means an official list. I would love to hear your thoughts, as comedy is an art and art is subjective. Everyone has different tastes. Feel free to contribute.
1. George Carlin
George was my Mentor. I grew up listening to George. I studied him and actually got to share a limo with him to the airport while in New York. He was both a socio-political comedian and an observational/word-play comedian. His “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television” is classic. He, in my view, was the best, but then again, he gave me the best advice. He said, “Take the shit that drives you absolutely crazy and make it funny!
Bill Cosby is, of course, on the list. Here’s another comedian I grew up listening to. Bill wasn’t just a stand up. He was also a sit-down. He was a story teller. His inflections and stories about family and human behavior were so familiar we laughed because we had experienced the “same thing.” in our homes.
Despite his issues and being accused of sexual assault, it doesn’t mean he didn’t do anything for comedy. I might drop him from the list soon, but for now, he stays.
One of my favorite routines is “Kids Are Brain Damaged!”
3. Richard Pryor Richard Pryor was a favorite and yes, another one of the comedians I grew up listening too. My parents used to play his albums, alongside Carlin and Cosby. The language was never a big deal. My parents used to say, “If you have any questions about the words, just ask.” You could imagine the dinner table discussions that inspired. In general, human behavior sense, there are two types of performers: Givers and Takers. Pryor was a giver. He shared his pain, admitted his faults and pleaded with the audience to like him. And we did!
4. Lenny Bruce – What else could you say about Lenny Bruce. He took the bullet for all comedians. Some say he paved the way for just the comedians who use profanity in their routines. But Lenny was grander than that. He paved the way to allow “free speech” in entertainment. Even though his life was short (he lived to 41), his effort and love for the art form and to be able to speak freely in this country, allowed all who followed to do the same.
5. Bob Hope – People forget that when Bob Hope was 75, he was still at the top of his game. He continued to shoot television specials and tour the world. Hell, he ran NBC. When he wanted to do a special, he would call the head of N.B.C. and say, “Fred, we want this Sunday.” The head of N.B.C. would say, “Okay, Bob.” And reprogram the network’s entire Sunday evening lineup to accommodate Bob Hope. He was loved all over the world and gave millions to charities. He never did a re-run, EVER! He always wanted his material to be fresh. The only thing that would leave him off this list is that he didn’t write all his own material. He had a well-paid writing staff that was available 24/7.
6. Jerry Seinfeld – Some people would say, “What’s the deal with putting Jerry Seinfeld on the top 10 list?” That’s pure and simple, Jerry Seinfeld took observational material to a whole new level. So much so that he spawned a T.V. show that was nearly canceled in its first airing. It was entitled “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” The show was brought back as “Seinfeld.” It had a very successful run of 9 seasons. Jerry, decided to end the run, not the network. Then despite being set for 6 lifetimes, Jerry went back to doing stand up. Now that’s a comedian. Jerry is worth over 2 billion dollars. So when you ask why Jerry? I got 2 billion reasons. Here’s a clip of Jerry’s first appearance on H.B.O. He was doing the Smothers Brothers special.
7. Paula Poundstone – I had to get a female in here. I know there are a lot of funny gals out there, but Paula is one of my favorites. Who else can make fun of her suicide attempt and make it funny. She’s quirky and likeable. I always enjoy watching me some Paula Poundstone. I could have put in work-a-holics like Joan Rivers or Phyllis Diller, but, to me, they seemed more like volume contributors rather than substance contributors. Plus, Paula wrote all her own material. Paula is also one who is a “giver” in the Richard Pryor sense. She shares her pain and struggles. The best part of that is that she does it in a way that makes me laugh!
8. Bill Hicks One of the most honest comedians on the face of the planet. His honesty got him notoriety but also got him in trouble. He had limited options because of his honesty and I think that’s why he’s one of my favorites. He took on everything and basically to the “nth” degree. He took George Carlin’s saying, “Take the shit that drives you crazy and make it funny.” He is one of a kind in my book.
9. Steve Martin – Like Lenny Bruce, Steve Martin changed the face of comedy. But he went the other way. His zany antics and use of props took comedy to an entirely different place. He was unique and basically dressed the part. If comedy is incongruity then his white suit, coupled with ‘happy feet’ and the arrow through the head, at the time was legendary. I don’t know how it would play now. But Steve Martin left an impression on the art form.
10. Eddie Murphy – Okay, okay… I know many of you are wondering, “Where’s so-and-so? How can you put together this list and not mention Brian Regan, Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Jack Benny, Sam Kinnison, George Burns, Mitch Headburg, Ellen DeGenerous, Alan King and so many more? The only thing I can say is the list was not long enough and I put together a list that impacted my life. So Eddie Murphy makes the cut. His Delirious album was one of the funniest I’ve ever listened to, although I preferred Richard Pryor. Eddie sly persona was revealed through that goofy classic Eddie laugh that he carried into films…you know the good ones: Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, etc. Here’s one of my favorites: “Ice Cream”
So that’s it! Please feel free to add your own. Comedy is an amazing art form and I applaud all comedians who work hard in this business. I’m in awe of the struggle they go through to make it and the commitment it takes. To all the comedians out there: YOU ROCK!
I had the most amazing lunch the other day. I was contacted by Bob Mills, one of the legendary writers for Bob Hope. He started in the business at the age of 39. He was a lawyer in San Francisco before that. He contacted me via my website and liked what he saw, so I asked him to lunch. I scheduled 90 minutes into my calendar for the lunch. I had a dentist appointment after that. We met at the Daily Grill in Studio City, one of those places you walk into and usually have some celebrity sightings.
Bob was already waiting for me as I am notoriously late. From the moment we shook hands I knew I was talking to someone special. We barely ordered iced-tea and we were already neck deep in talking about comedy. This was subject that we both clearly had an absolute passion for. Since I’m the one who usually does the talking about comedy I had to remember to shut the hell up and let him speak, for he had experiences that I’ve always dreamed about.
Bob was a member of one of the most famous writing teams comedy will ever know. Bob Hope’s guys–or I should say guys and one gal–were extremely loyal and they were well-paid. Bob could call them at any time of the day or night and ask for material and boy did Hope use material. He never did reruns with his specials of which he did close to 100 and he always needed fresh material for his live performances.
The stories Bob told me were fascinating. To have an insight on one of the most legendary comedians the world has ever known was priceless. Needless to say the lunch lasted 3 hours. So much for the dentist.
Bob wrote a fascinating book about his experiences with Hope, the specials, the tours and the stars they worked with. It’s called “The Laugh Makers.” I read it and I couldn’t put it down. I recommend this book to anyone interested in writing or performing…or anyone who loved Bob Hope.
I’ve included a widget for anyone who might be interested in buying Bob’s book. If you’re a comedian or a writer or remotely interested, get the damn book.
That’s right! April is National Humor Month and it’s about time too, because I was just recovering from March, which is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Who doesn’t need a laugh after having your prostate checked–daily, mind you! It was my choice. I happen to have a very hot female internist as my regular doctor, so really, who’s the victim?
So how do we celebrate National Humor Month? I’m going to celebrate by making sure to have a laugh every day. In addition, I’m going to write 10 new jokes a day. Yeah, that’s it!. And I’m going to present that challenge to everyone, professional and amateur comedians alike. Challenge yourself to write 10 per day. Here’s the catch. It’s humor, not stress, so if you only come up with one, that’s fine! Here are the rules: No topic is off limits and you have to have fun doing it. Once it stops being fun and you find yourself stressing, go to YouTube, look up your favorite comedian and spend the next 10 minutes laughing and forget about it. Nobody can be a failure during National Humor Month…well, except Kirstie Alley. I have a feeling she’s going to wind up being the butt of many of the jokes–speaking of butt, have you seen the way Kirstie is moving her butt on Dancing With The Stars? Last Monday night’s episode she shook it so hard it wound up in the first 10 minutes of “House.”
I encourage everyone reading–which should be about 3 of you–to try to write some jokes. Read my blog called JOKES 1-2-3 (You can find it by looking in the search window), to give you some ideas on how to come up with ideas and get started, because everyone should laugh. Then add the joke to the comment box.
Did you know the number one quality men and women look for in a partner is a “sense of humor?” So not only is laughter the best medicine, it could also get you laid! Can I count that as my first joke?
Jerry Corley is the founder of the Stand Up Comedy Clinic, a 8-week comedy course taught at his studio in Burbank, CA.