The biggest questions I get in teaching humor courses is: Can comedy be taught? Many times it’s comes as an attack. The most recent one I received was from some guy in San Diego, who was of course afraid to share his name. He left messages and sent emails—a full on assault!—(shaking in my boots…well, to be honest, Skechers). He said, “You can’t teach comedy! You either are funny or you’re not! You, of all people should know that!”
I didn’t understand a couple of things, first of all why all the hostility, dude? And secondly, why me of all people? If I’m the one teaching comedy, then it’s definitely not me! I did this with a smile on my face, of course, because I usually smile at such naivete.
It’s the kind of naiveté you find when someone is generally ignorant about a lot of things. They’re usually the same people that think that we didn’t actually put a man on the moon, Sadaam Hussein was responsible for 9-11, and that a stripper smiles at you when you give her money, because she really likes you!”
But I digress…comedy can be taught because all comedy has structure. It has a wide variety of formulas and techniques that can be utilized to surprise the listener or viewer. And if surprise is the number one element that triggers human laughter, wouldn’t it be wise to learn the different ways a humorist can write or deliver a line or a story that will create surprise?
You can learn comedy on your own, but if you study with someone who is knowledgeable and who has experience then you can probably get funnier faster. Learning comedy is like learning anything. It takes time to get good, but if you study with a good teacher you get better faster.
Comedy is a lot like magic. When a magician puts a ball in one hand, wave the magic wand over it and the ball disappears only to reappear behind your ear, he used misdirection to distract you so that you didn’t actually see where the ball was going. He created surprise. He’s doing the same thing a comedian does when the comedian leads you down one path verbally, only to misdirect you so that he can surprise you with the ending. As in… “This morning, I woke up in the hotel room and the housekeeper was banging on the door, just banging…finally, I had to get up and let her out.”
This is called a reverse in comedy and it works all the time. It’s just one of the formulas I teach in my comedy classes, workshops and seminars. The reverse; learn to use it. Its effectiveness will surprise you. In fact, it works so well, it’s like magic!
The masses love to watch movies. We watch movies to be taken to exotic places; places we’ve never seen or been to so that we may have that experience, if even for the 90 minutes that we are in the theater. It’s no different with a comedy act. Your comedy act is your story. And if the story is compelling and interesting and takes us to an exotic place than YOU will stand out from most comics out there who just try to be funny. Anyone can be funny, but it’s when you can take the audience on a journey with vivid images and show them something they haven’t seen before either from your unique point of view or your unique life experience.
I recently taught a seminar at the World Series Of Comedy in Las Vegas and I had the pleasure of meeting many talented comedians all trying to do the same thing; improve their act, sharpen their skills, make themselves better and more noticeable so they will work more. At breakfast I was talking to a comedian who was raised in the mean streets of Minnesota, in the hood. He began to tell me that he didn’t think the audience was interested in his life because it wasn’t exciting or flashy. He said he did “external” comedy rather than talk about himself because he didn’t think anyone would give a damn.
I asked him about his upbringing and the neighborhood that he was raised in and he began to tell me in vivid colors about what a shit hole it was. How he and his brother managed to get to school by playing make-believe. “Make believe we’re in the army and we have to avoid getting shot by the enemy.” Problem was the enemy drove in cars that had doors painted with the words, “To Protect and Serve.” He went on to tell me more about his single mom. “She was married, but the reason we called her ‘single mom’ is because that all the cash she ever had in her purse. A single.” He continued for about a half-hour. I was so compelled in the story that I didn’t eat my breakfast. While he was talking about his upbringing, I took notes and recited back to much of what he told me. He just realized that he had a 3 to 4 minute bit about his life and when he heard me say it he realized how exotic his life actually was.
So very excited to announce that one our hardest working comedy students at Jerry Corley’s Stand Up Comedy Clinic, David Conolly, has just signed with Levity Entertainment Group.
Levity was originally founded by Robert Hartman, the majority owner of the Improv comedy club chain and Judy Brown Marmel, the creator and producer of the Aspen Comedy Festival. Together with Levity, they have created a powerhouse entertainment entity producing over 400 hours of comedy specials for television. Since they also control the Improvs nationwide, they have influence and booking control over the comedians that appear in their clubs nationwide. They are positioned to leverage their influence vertically to enhance any comedian’s success.
David started studying with Jerry Corley at the S.U.C.C. in the summer of 2010. During his second round of classes, he used his demo from his first graduation at the Comedy Store Belly Room to secure a spot at the World Series of Comedy in Las Vegas, where he competed with over 100 other comedians in comedy competition. He performed the set he developed during his first 8 weeks at the Clinic and made it all the way to the semi-finals. He also received attention from bookers who were attending the festival. A week after the festival he performed at the Casa Blanca Resort and Casino in Mesquite, NV and he just returned from Chicago where he appeared at the legendary Zanies Comedy Club. Zanies is one of the most prestigious clubs in the country and also one of the most difficult to get into. David also just finished taping a set for Jan Smith’s ComedyTime.tv, a set that will appear as content for the internet and mobile phones.
David has been getting notice around town and receiving offers to host and appear in other special shows. One of the key reasons is because David’s act has structure and it’s structure that makes a comedian stand out among the rest. Stucture is what Jerry Corley emphasizes in his Comedy Classes based in Los Angeles and in Seminars and Intensives, taught nationwide.
Many comedians say that they don’t use formula, but what they don’t understand is that it’s the formula that stimulates the laugh.
This formula is called Compare and Contrast. It’s used a lot in comedy. One of the first times I identified this technique was when I was working with Cathy Ladman in Sacramento. She was talking about men and women: “I know that I have complex skin. My boyfriend is pretty sure he has a face.” You’ve probably heard it used in describing a failed relationship: “I knew it wouldn’t work, we were just too different. I am a Sagittarius and she was… a bitch. Here we also have the added surprise that when the joke writer sets it up as a Zodiac joke, the listener is anticipating it to continue with a zodiac theme but when the performer switches it, heightens the laugh. Here’s a video of me using the formula in a joke about my ex-wife…
Comedy Formula – Compare and Contrast
There’s several different ways you can use this formula to get laughs. Try them yourself.
by Jerry Corley, founder of the Stand Up Comedy Clinic
Several people have contacted me asking me a simple question: “How do I write a joke.” The question doesn’t stay simple for long. Soon it explodes into an argument of whether they want to do “jokes, ” or “stories.” “The simple fact is: A joke is a story! Sid Caesar, master comedian, performer and writer once said a joke is a story with a curlicue.” People argue with me all the time that formula and structure have no place in today’s comedy. In fact, those folks are either completely naive or they are lying to themselves, because every great comedian—whether he knows it or not—is using comedic structure.
To understand how to write a joke, we must first understand why people laugh. Fact: the number one element that triggers human laughter is SURPRISE. It’s like magic, only with words. A magician surprises the audience when he does his trick. If there is no surprise, there is no trick. The formula for any magician is to have surprise. Without formulating surprise, you’re gonna have one hell of a boring act.
It’s the same with comedy. Once you understand this, you can do one of two things: 1. You can start to ramble and figure out how to surprise your audience… or 2. You can develop an understand of the structures or “formulas” in comedy that create surprise for the audience, whenever you want. Two other major reasons humans laugh are embarrassment and recognition, but we’ll get to those later.
The key is for any joke to work, there has to be some kind of surprise. So the next question is: How to we create surprise? The easiest way to create surprise is to lead the audience to assume one thing—then surprise them with something different. (See how it’s similar to magic?)
- I woke up in the hotel this morning and the housekeeper was banging on the door, just banging… Finally, I had to get up and let her out.
Let’s look at the joke. It’s a common situation. Most people have been in a hotel room and been disturbed by a knocking housekeeper. She knocks because she’s outside and wants to come in. That’s what the audience assumes! So as a comedian or humorist, you switch the ending at the last minute to surprise them. This is called a “reverse” in comedy and it works all the time. The key is that you don’t want to use this same formula repetitively, because the ending will then be expected to be switched and you’ve given away the surprise. Remember, without surprise, there is no laugh. Let’s look at a couple more jokes that come out of talking about personal setbacks in my life that I formulated into jokes:
- “I’ve been losing my hair…some guys say it doesn’t bother them when they lose their hair. It bugs me a little bit…like, in the mornings, when my wife is running my fingers through my hair—but I already left for work!
- I remember one relationship this chick broke up with me and I went over to her house at two in the morning to beg her to take me back. I was banging on the door, yelling, “Stacy! Stacy!—which is weird, cuz’ her name is Emily.
Each of these jokes use the formula of leading the audience to assume one thing then shattering that assumption with something different.
This is just one formula for writing jokes. Of course each of these can be weaved into a story and disguised as a story so it not so obvious that you’re telling jokes. If you disguise it into a story the audience is less likely to see the joke coming and be surprised. And, like a magician if they don’t see it coming if makes for a better act.
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About the author:
Jerry Corley is a professional comedian with 25 years experience touring the globe. He was also a contributing writer to the Tonight Show with Jay Leno for 8 years. Currently, he is still touring and also teaching comedy classes in Los Angeles at the Stand Up Comedy Clinic.