Writing Jokes 1-2-3
by Jerry Corley founder of The Stand Up Comedy Clinic
One of the most common concerns I hear from humor writers and comedians is that they have days and sometimes weeks where they “can’t think of anything funny.” I thought to myself that I’m never without something to write or make jokes about. There’s always something there, it seems. So I thought about how my mind comes up with stuff.
I broke it down into steps and I’m going to give you that process right now. I’m calling it “1-2-3 JOKES.”
Start with stuff that is close to you. Look around you, think about your surroundings, situations, behaviors and ask yourself 3 questions:
1. What is new?
2. What has changed?
3. What have I acquired?
What’s new? Every day is a new day. With all the holidays and special occasion days we celebrate in this country and worldwide, almost everyday of every week gives us something to joke about. Did you know March 1st is National Pancake Day? Of course, it is immediately followed by National Maple Syrup Day.
As you ask yourself these questions, don’t leave anything out! Write it all down! Just looking in the mailbox, I’m sure everyone has acquired a cell phone bill, heating bill, water bill, cable bill, etc. You have a new pair of sneakers, let’s talk about them!
Too many comedians and humor writers stop too soon. They think, “there’s nothing funny there. They don’t take the time to write out everything about their sneakers and use their imagination to develop material. Every comedian and humor writer should be able to take any logical grouping of words and make it funny. But it takes dedication and work.
Okay, let’s get back to 1-2-3 JOKES.
Let’s look at a situation that happened to me recently. I asked “What have I acquired?” I just got a new video poker app for my Smartphone.
So now we have a premise: Video Poker App. How do we even start writing a joke for it?
Most jokes are a convergence of two or more clearly defined ideas. So let’s go to work.
Let’s utilize the oldest tool known to writers and investigators. It’s the Maxim of the 5 W’s. Let’s ask:
Who? What? Why? Where? When? How?
Okay so it’s 5 W’s and an “H.” No investigation is considered complete unless all of those questions have been answered. So if we go back to the Video Poker App premise and ask those questions we might come up with something like:
Who plays the video poker app? Me
What is it? Video Poker or What happens when I play? I can upset my wife sometimes.
Where do I play? I play at the airport, in line at the bank, on a plane, in the bathroom…
Why do I play? To have some mental downtime, to get away from work. To have something to occupy me while I’m in the bathroom.
When? Whenever I have nothing else to do.
How? On my phone, by myself, with my thumbs.
With this information we have all we need to develop material for the premise “video poker app.” If you’ve read my blog or have taken my classes you know the science of why people laugh. Two prime reasons (especially with regard to commercially acceptable humor), are surprise and embarrassment. So let’s ask ourselves how we can utilize a set up line that might present surprise or embarrassment. The first thing that comes to me is “bathroom.”
So, if I look at the entirety of the material I’ve collected I can put together a set up line that might go something like this:
I just got a new video poker app for my Droid. I love playing it in the bathroom.
Now we have two or more clearly defined ideas: Video-poker App and bathroom. If we were to use the listing technique that I teach in my seminars we could easily come up with phrases that we could easily combine to make a joke. The first one I came up with was:
I just got a new video poker app for my Droid. I love playing it in the bathroom.
My wife’s feelings are mixed on that. She says she loves the fact that I found a new way to play with myself, but she gets a little irritated when I’m on the toilet and she hears me yell, “Full House!”
If we really took the time and flushed out all the possible plays we have with those two ideas, we could come up with an easy 10, 20 or 30 jokes on just the video-poker app premise, alone 20-30 jokes!
And just think we started the day thinking, “I can’t think of anything funny…”
Jerry Corley is a professional comedian with over 25 years of experience and a former writer for Jay Leno and The Tonight Show. He teaches a comedy writing and performance at the Stand Up Comedy Clinic. Visit http://www.standupcomedyclinic.com
Attention all comics and comedy lovers in the 909: Fox Sports Bar and Lounge in Pamona is now doing a comedy show. Stand Up Comedy Clinic Students Christian Zaragoza and Ernie Ordonez, put their money where their mouth is (what money? the show is FREE!) and they organized and are producing a comedy show in Pamona. The Inland Empire needs a good room where comedians can work and they followed through by getting this started. One of the things I encourage my students to do is to perform whenever and wherever possible. Walt Whitman said: “Actors must act. Writers must write. Painters must paint.” Well comedians have double duty in that they must write and perform as much as possible. Christian and Ernie saw this as an opportunity to start a show.
What a great idea! As a comedian, you begin to understand the importance of networking, meeting as many other comedians as possible, because it’s not only your continued work ethic that will help you succeed, but it is in your relationships where your career thrives. Starting a successful comedy room is a great way to meet other comedians and help to nurture those relationships.
For more information or to get in touch with Chris or Ernie about future comedy shows in Pamona, Click the show flyer and “friend” Chris on Facebook. If you develop that relationship, maybe you can make an appearance at the next comedy showcase in Pamona. Eventually, it may turn into a paid gig. And while you’re at it Tweet this article or post on your Facebook page and help these guys really develop this gig into something successful!
Good Luck you guys! I hope you have me on the next show, because I couldn’t do it this round.
It never fails when you’re doing comedy; you’re trying to get the audience warmed up and you get heckled. How do you handle them? First of all, most hecklers aren’t there to hurt your show. Believe it or not, they usually think they are trying to “help you.”
Each heckle is a new opportunity to hone your ad-lib skills and work in some formula so that a surprise appears in your response and results in a laugh from the audience. The last thing you want to do is spend too much time with a heckler this ensures that the heckler won that battle, because a main portion of your act was focused on giving him the attention that he was seeking in the first place.
I was at the M-Bar in Hollywood last night watching one of my students, Josh Weinstock, do a show. The M-Bar is a lovely lounge with great lighting and sound. The M.C. was working hard to get the audience warmed up. He was doing his set, not getting great laughs and at one point, got frustrated. He looked at a guy sitting in the front and said “what are you doing here?”
The guy said, “Pretending to watch comedy.”
Well, the M.C. was stung, but he riffed it away the best he could in that moment. But you could tell that the comment wounded him. He spent too much time trying to respond to the heckle and didn’t get much laughter from it. The best way to respond to a heckler–well besides hitting them with a sledge hammer–is to give them the equivalent of that in a funny response. The more experience you have the better you master the art of heckle-responses. But there is a process that you can use too:
- Listen to what was said. In this case it was “I’m pretending to watch comedy…”
- Process the information. Repeat what the heckler said so you can be assured the audience heard it.
- Use your knowledge and skill in creating surprise to get laughs and respond.
I heard the heckler that night. “I’m pretending to watch comedy…” If I was the comedian I would’ve said, “You’re pretending to watch comedy? (Look at him.) That’s ironic, because at that exact same time I was pretending to watch an asshole…I’m just kidding, dude…I wasn’t pretending.”
That’s going to get a laugh from the audience. It’s simple. It’s a reverse so it creates surprise. And it reaffirms to the audience that you are in control.
In my classes I often quote George Carlin (He was my mentor and still is). He often said that good comedy was about good ideas. He was also a master wordsmith, (pretty impressive for a guy who left school in the 9th grade). I’ve reprinted a piece below for you to read. It’s a perfect example of fun with words and yet it’s a profound reflection on the state of our times. If a comedian were to do a piece like this, it would be recommended that he/she do it in a set lasting 15-30 minuntes or more. Enjoy!
A Message by George Carlin:
The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider Freeways , but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness.
We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom.
We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often.
We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life. We’ve added years to life not life to years. We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor. We conquered outer space but not inner space. We’ve done larger things, but not better things.
We’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We’ve conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We’ve learned to rush, but not to wait. We build more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but we communicate less and less.
These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion, big men and small character, steep profits and shallow relationships. These are the days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier houses, but broken homes. These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill. It is a time when there is much in the showroom window and nothing in the stockroom. A time when technology can bring this letter to you, and a time when you can choose either to share this insight, or to just leave it.
Remember; spend some time with your loved ones, because they are not going to be around forever.
Remember, say a kind word to someone who looks up to you in awe, because that little person soon will grow up and leave your side.
Remember, to give a warm hug to the one next to you, because that is the only treasure you can give with your heart and it doesn’t cost a cent.
Remember, to say, ‘I love you’ to your partner and your loved ones, but most of all mean it. A kiss and an embrace will mend hurt when it comes from deep inside of you.
Remember to hold hands and cherish the moment for someday that person will not be there again.
Give time to love, give time to speak! And give time to share the precious thoughts in your mind.
AND ALWAYS REMEMBER:Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.
You may have heard me mention before the importance of watching or listening to the greats to develop a thorough understanding of structure, form and style. It’s not only important for those reasons but also for the understanding that by exposing yourself—not in that way—to the varied styles, you will begin to subconsciously—or consciously—adopt some of them. You’ll start with a touch of Louis C.K., sprinkle in a little Lewis Black, maybe add some Chris Rock, and top it all off with some Jon Stewart. Whatever combination you choose, you’ll begin to fashion a brand new style—of your own.
There’s nothing wrong with borrowing from the greats—as long as it’s not borrowing their material! George Carlin once said during a comedy show acceptance speech, that he thanked many of the greats from radio, film and television comedy. He was grateful to all of them because he learned from them and adopted some of their techniques to form his own individual brand of humor.
You might look at this, as you would, a recipe. Whether it’s you or me working from the same recipe, we’re going to add our own unique finishing touches to give it a flavor that is more representative of our individual taste, because our own personality is put into the recipe.
By being aware of different styles, you’ll learn all the ingredients you can use in your own unique comedic recipe.