Another Common Misconception About Writing Your Comedy

misconceptions on comedy writingI recently posted an ad on Facebook promoting my comedy writing workshops. If you haven’t attended, these workshops are intense. You get powerful tools to write comedy on just about anything. But that’s not the point of this post.

When those ads run there’s a place you can leave comments, click “like” or “share.” When people click the ad they are taken to a page and invited to watch four writing tutorial videos.

The first video is on how to write 15-20 jokes on a single headline during breakfast.

What fascinated me was how quickly this ad was shared and liked. It received some really heart-warming comments like, “Amazing work, man!” and “Wow! Loved this video! When can I see the next one?” But again, that’s not exactly what this post is about.

The real fascination came from the skeptics. I try to avoid using the word “haters,” (it seems overused and a bit cliche), but the vitriol coming from the skeptics really urges you to lean toward the word “haters.”

The stuff that spilled into the comment box! People calling me a “hack” and “idiot,” or my favorite “aging comic.” Lol! Like you would take comedy advice from someone who hasn’t put in the time?

My mentor was George Carlin and when he mentored me 25 years ago, he was 8 years older than I am right now!

Imagine if I would’ve said, “Like I’m gonna take this advice from some aging comic!”

But instead of just discarding the ridiculous and under-examined claims from these skeptics, I decided to use them to address some misconceptions about writing your comedy.

One guy wrote, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, comedy comes from the depths of your soul.” Like that’s it. My first thought was ‘really?’

Comedy comes from the depths of your soul? That’s it? I just gotta get up on stage and talk about the depth of my soul and people are gonna laugh with me? Problem solved? Comedy gold, right?

Who needs any experience? Let’s just get up on stage and talk from the depths of our souls!

In the vast horizon of possibilities of where comedy can come from, why would anyone who’s taken any time to study this art make such a definitive and limiting statement?

Not only that, just look around! Jerry Seinfeld, “What is it with bugs?!” or “I don’t know if horses really know they’re racing. I think horses are sitting at the starting gate going, ‘I know there’s a bag of oats at the end of this and I wanna get there first.'”

Does that sound like it comes from the depths of Seinfeld’s soul?

Or take Anthony Jeselnik: “The best way to break up with a girl is like I take off a band-aid, slowly and in the shower.”

Depths of his soul? Or just a incongruous association joke about breaking up with a girl?

When you buy into the misconception that comedy only comes from the depths of our souls, you discount the silly, the ridiculous and the wildly insane.

Of course there are pieces the “depths of the soul” comment that make sense. It’s cathartic to talk about things that are deep and you have an emotional connection to. But how limiting is that statement?

It’s missing something, like, where the laugh comes from! So basically sometimes the idea can come from the depths of your soul but the comedy comes from the multiple stimuli that create laughter.

Maybe the initial idea comes from some place deep in your soul, but somewhere in the depth of your soul, some kind of laugh should occur, or guess what? It’s not comedy, it’s just sad or scary, or worse, creepy.

The relationship with my Ex is an example. It was a dark time. So the initial thoughts that inspired the material may have come from the depths of my soul, but the laughs have to be achieved through structure. In this case I use analogy and incongruous associations.

“My Ex was like a funny car; alcohol-fueled. She had the worst mood swings.
I called her the ‘Ice Princess.’ When I used to come home from a gig–before I went in the house– I would put my tongue on the front door. If it stuck, I stayed at the neighbor’s.”

One of the worst things that ever happened in my life was when my Mom was dying. The topic comes from the depths of my soul, but the laughs come from wildly exaggerating.

“Before my Mom died she had bouts of dementia. Which was a boon for me on my birthdays. She would always get me a birthday card with a hundred-dollar-bill in it. She’d be like, ‘Jerry, did I give you your birthday card?’ I be like, ‘No…’ I swear, if she was having a really bad day, I could net about a grand.”

The jokes are good. They get consistent laughs with audiences. The subject matter starts with something that may have come from the depths of my soul, but they have to engage the stimuli that triggers laughter, otherwise it’s just drivel.

In other words, the claim that comedy comes from the depths of your soul, can help us understand ONE of the possible places from which our comedy can be inspired. But stating that it’s the only place, misses the main point and it hides a vast horizon of other opportunities from our view.

Ever since the beginnings of the first attempts at comedy and comedy writing, there hasn’t been a single way to write or present comedy. There are only choices among an infinite palette of possibilities.

How is Writing Comedy the Fastest Way to Complete and Utter Failure?

right way wrong way to do comedyI was listening to some comedy the other day and I came across this video (podcast interview on YouTube). There was a guy in the interview who was talking about comedy.

This guy was from Kentucky and he had a bit of that Southern accent that made me think, “Damn! I didn’t know they had the internet in the hollar“.

He said, “Writing comedy is the fastest way to complete failure.” As you might imagine, that got my attention!

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I was like, "What?! Okay, let's hear what this idiot has to say..."

Then I asked myself, "Why did you call this guy an idiot, Jerry? You don't even know him. That's not cool!" Then I quickly realized that I'm originally from New York. It's in my blood. I'll pretty much call a squirrel an idiot for being out in the snow without a coat.

Then I listened to more of this idiot, and it wasn't long before it was obvious...

This guy has no idea what he's talking about! He went on to say that the reason why "writing your comedy leads to complete and utter failure is because"--are you ready for this?--"it's one-dimensional... it's written on a page."

Genius!

If you sensed a gush of deep, guttural sarcasm, you weren't far off. I mean, "What!?" It's one-dimensional? It's written on a page? So that means it leads to complete and utter failure?

You know what else is written on a page? Pretty much every script for a sitcom or a movie!

And whether it's a drama or comedy, those words from the page have to be brought to life through performance.

Would you say that "Star Wars," or "Trainwreck" were one-dimensional? I don't think so. And we know they haven't led to complete and utter failure. Trainwreck did over $139 million Worldwide and Star Wars shattered box office records its first weekend. ($248 million, first weekend, for those who are curious).

So if this guy isn't a complete idiot then that sucking sound I've been hearing is him mouth-siphoning too much of that good Kentucky Moonshine.

By saying that writing your comedy is the quickest way to utter failure, you're totally discounting the role of the comedian. The comedian's role is to be able to "perform" their material.

I'm a good joke writer. I know that. I've made my living from that. But I don't take that material on stage and "read" jokes...

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received in comedy was from an acting teacher. She had me do a five minute set in front of my acting class. The jokes were good. They got laughs. But when I was done the teacher folded her arms and said, "Oh, look! Jerry thinks his jokes are so clever, he doesn't need to perform them."

Then she said, "I don't know how you feel about any of that stuff... so I don't care."

The Role of the Comedian is to Perform

It is the role of the comedian to learn how to perform their material, to have an understanding of the emotion of the joke, what it means and what's being said with that joke. Then deliver it like it's a conversation and it's right off the top of your head.

David Letterman called it, "rehearsed spontaneity."

It is also the role of the comedian or comedy writer to understand that laughter is NOT random. It's derived from certain stimuli. That stimuli is present in any line or story that gets a laugh. When a comedian or writer knows this, they can be sure to write it in.

Even when you're riffing and it sounds funny in your head. It's sounds funny because that stimuli is embedded somewhere in the words, the concept or the situation.

(To understand this further, checkout What Makes People Laugh).

So why would anyone allow something as ridiculous as that to come out of his conch? Especially when a huge body of evidence to the contrary is right in front of him?

Successful Comedians Write

Jerry Seinfeld is one of my all-time favorite comedians. He's smart. He's insightful. He's financially the most successful comedian of all time. According to Forbes, he's worth $750 million...

Also, between the June 2014 and June 2015, Seinfeld pulled in another $36 million. A large part of that from that little show about nothing.

That show "Seinfeld" was written by Jerry, (and Larry David for the first 5 seasons) with ball point pens and legal pads.

My point is Seinfeld writes down everything he says in his act. He's been called a "word surgeon;" removing every word that doesn't contribute to the joke. He works that material on the page before he takes the stage.

George Carlin wrote everything down. Jim Gaffigan too...

What? They're old? Okay how about Russell Peters, $19 million, Gabriel Iglesias $8 million, Aziz Ansari $9.5 million.

All of these guys write their material, first.

To be fair, Kevin Hart and Louis C.K. are also top earners in comedy. Both of them are a blend of both their writing and their riffing on stage.

The overwhelming majority of successful comedians write their material. Even Bill Burr who's known for his emotion-driven, (supposedly 'unscripted') stinging brand of comedy, started his first 5-7 years writing his stuff, because--self-admittedly--he "needed to know how to write a joke."

The reason why I say 'supposedly unscripted,' is because I recently saw him on stage at the Largo in L.A. working out his unscripted material... as he read from his notebook.

As you've probably heard me say before, there are 3 types of comics:

    1. The Coincidental Comedian

    - We're all coincidental comedians. That's when something funny happens in conversation or on a phone call or a drive to the airport or holiday dinner at the in-laws. When that moment occurs, we make a record of it, (Most people write it down). Then we repeat it to an audience and hope it's funny. Nothing wrong with being a Coincidental comedian. But we have to wait for that coincidence to occur to build an act.

    2. The Architect

    - The Architect is the comedian or writer who can sit down at will and write jokes, humorous stories, sketches or scripts at will, because he understands the structure of comedy and the science behind what makes people laugh. He doesn't have to wait for inspiration. He creates inspiration.

    3. The humorist

    - The Humorist is the best of both worlds. He can write his material and get up on stage and riff that material. His improv skills help him to expand on the material in the moment often coming up with tags and toppers.

We should all strive to be the humorist; a blend of both writing skill and spontaneity. Not just one or the other.

The Advantages of Learning to Write Comedy

In fact there are so many advantages to knowing how to write a joke including learning to sell scripts, write for late night, speech punch-up, staff writer, etc.

See, I think what some people don't get--including the guy from the hollar--is that your one and two-liner jokes are the fundamental core of, not only comedy, but storytelling.

Think about it, the one and two-liner is masterful. It has a beginning middle and end. It is a mini-story. Learning to command the one and two-liner enabled me to write better bits, better sketches, better scenes and better screenplays.

And the thing is when you learn what comedy is and what makes it work and then you learn to write it AND perform it, you can make a real living, because you've created the potential for multiple revenue streams.

With all these reasons, I don't know why this guy from the Hollar would say such nonsense. Then I realized that he also sells a product online on how to do stand-up. I guess selling people on the easy way is his angle. The path of least resistance sort of thing, you know?

I don't begrudge anyone who's trying to make a living. And I'm one of those people who buy all the books and programs so I can learn from everyone.

My concern is for the young comedian just getting into comedy. He's told he doesn't need to learn how to write it, then ten years down the line he's bitching about why he's not making any real money in this business.

There's no "Right Way" or "Wrong Way"

Bottom line is there's no right way or wrong way of coming up with your comedy for stand-up, but if you want to also learn to really master your comedy, know how to fix a joke or be in a writer's room, sell scripts, jokes, sketches or screenplays and diversify your talent to create multiple revenue streams, then you'll be so much better off learning to write your comedy as well.

There's an old saying in Hollywood, "You could be the funniest guy in the world, but if you can't put it on the page, it means nothing."
Just ask Jerry Seinfeld.

So writing your comedy doesn't lead to complete & utter failure. It leads to the opposite of it.

Stop Overthinking the Joke. Sometimes It’s Just ‘Funny’

Watch-for-big-head650x504

If there was a big yellow caution sign for anyone in the comedy world it should be “Watch for Big Head”

One of my most notorious weaknesses in comedy is trying to be too clever.

I’ve spent nearly thirty years, not only as a comedian and comedy writer, but also as a comedy scientist; figuring out what makes something funny and how to bottle it so it can be reproduced at will.

Sometimes I’ll write a joke and think to myself, ‘that’s too simple… that’s not going to get a big laugh,’ only to try the joke on stage and get not just a great laugh, but an applause break.

I wrote a joke the other day and opened with it that night at the Comedy Store:

“The republicans are consulting with Caitlyn Jenner on how to best deal with Donald Trump. You know, since she’s now the expert on how to quickly eliminate a dick.”

The joke got a crisp laugh, then solid applause followed… and just earlier I was in my ‘big head’ I wondering whether that would even get a good laugh.

It’s Easy to Get Too Clever

The more experience we have in comedy, the easier it is to get too clever; to get stuck in analysis of the joke.

Most solid comedy is about simple associations, recognition and release of tension. Because Caitlyn Jenner, Donald Trump and the presidential race are all politically charged and issues that are now, it’s more likely to create tension and provide for solid release. And since release is the one of the top triggers for applause, it worked.

But because I was in my ‘big head,’ I second guessed myself.

If it Sounds Funny, Do It!

Sometimes, we have to remember to get out of our own way and write what we think is funny. Does it sound funny? Does it feel funny? Then do it.

Emmy Award-winning writer, Gene Perret said, “Sometimes the joke doesn’t need to be categorized. Sometimes it defies explanation, it’s just funny.

He goes on to say,

“Steven Wright, one of the most inventive comedy writers of all time, has a line that defies categorizing, that reads:

“When I was a kid we had a sandbox in our back yard that was filled with quicksand. I was an only child… eventually.”

Kathleen Madigan had a line in her act during the time when the book Final Exit, a controversial book on how to commit suicide, was first published. She talked about being in a bookstore checkout line behind a customer who was buying it.

“The guy was about to pay $19.95 for a book on how to commit suicide. I said, ‘Hey man, I’ll stab you in the head for five dollars.'”

Mr. Perret makes a good point. Although each of these jokes has a definite reason that they would trigger laughs, they don’t necessarily fit into any category. They are just funny.

I like explaining and understanding ‘why’ something is funny. It’s my life’s work. But sometimes you don’t need an explanation, sometimes funny is just funny.

So resist the temptation of getting into over analysis of the joke, if it feels funny, just do it.

In other words, watch out for ‘big head.’

 

The Best Way to Write a Comedy Act if You’re an Absolute Newbie

nat-margolis-comedian

Got an email from a kid, (I say, kid but for all I know the guy could’ve been fifty!), it said, “Hey Jerry I’m new in comedy. What’s the best way to start building a comedy set? Should I write it down first or just do stuff that my friends think is funny?”

This is a great question and one I receive a lot.

One of the benefits of people leaving me comments at the bottom of my blog posts and sending me emails is that I can then turn around and answer them on my comedy blog.

So how do you write a comedy act if you’re an absolute newbie?

The thing is that there’s no single answer to this question. Comedians work different ways.

I emphasize writing, because that’s how I started.

I studied other comedians then started taking the things that happened in my daily observations and wrote them down.

I didn’t begin performing until I had what I thought was an hour of material. I didn’t think you could start until you had an hour, because that was about the length of all the comedy albums I was listening to at the time.

Of course we know differently now. You can begin to perform in comedy if you have three to five minutes.

I started by doing observational, external material, because I wasn’t yet comfortable talking about myself.

Two things that stand out in my recollection:

1. When I was twelve I went to the Post Office with my father and there was a sign on the door,  it said, “NO DOGS ALLOWED, except seeing-eye dogs.”
I said to my father, “Dad, what’s a ‘seeing-eye’ dog?”
He said, “It’s a dog that helps blind people get around.”
I then said, “Then who’s this sign for?”

My Dad thought it was funny. I didn’t even think it was a joke. Years later I heard Garry Shandling do almost an exact version of that which I didn’t even think was a joke and he got big laughs.

But at that time I was playing soccer and music and didn’t have any interest in performing or writing comedy.

2. When I started studying comedy another Garry Shandling joke stood out. The joke was, “I just sold the house I live in. Got a great price for it too. Made the landlord mad as hell…”

The first Shandling joke just stuck out to me as simple observational humor, (which I now know is more than just a simple observation; it’s more paradoxical, possibly tipping into irony), which is more powerful than simple observation.

The second one is pure structure. It is a perfect reverse. Being armed with this information changed the way I went about creating my early comedy sets.

I still have my very first performance on VHS. I watch it and it’s okay, but the structure is sloppy and it just sounds unorganized. It was me telling stories and observations that weren’t economized and reduced to what I know a tight bit should sound like now.

There are three primary techniques I use when creating a comedy routine. The first way is to always write down things that are funny. Usually when I’m with a group of friends and something occurs that makes me and them laugh, I will write it down to possibly use later.

The other technique is to sit down and write jokes. I prefer this technique because I don’t have to wait for the coincidence of the moment with friends or a funny situation to just happen to ‘occur’ to me. I can just sit down and generate material.

I do this by utilizing about 23 different approaches, but for the sake of this blog post, I will just write about two approaches. Here they are…

They are simple called “Fifty Facts” and “Fifty Random Lines.” That’s where I will write down fifty facts about me. The procedure usually goes like this:

  1. Write down 50 facts about me; just facts.
  2. Sometimes I will get the facts from answering questions on a personality profile quiz.
  3. Select 10-25 of those facts that seem to antagonize or inspire me most.
  4. Put each of those lines on a page and try to utilize 3 primary comedy structures:
    1. Double-entendre  using the implied meaning of a word and turning it into the comedic meaning. (Ie: Came home from work the other night and I say to my wife. “How you doin’? She’s says, “Having some gas pains. I’m like, “Everyone is, it’s like four bucks a gallon again.”).
    2. Incongruity (finding and juxtaposing 2 or more contrasting ideas that are in the line ie: “I’m Irish and American Indian. You know what that means? I pretty much have VIP seats waiting for me at any AA meeting.”).
    3. Reverse (as in the Gary Shandling joke above. Ie: “You know what my baby loves to play with? Chest hair and she’ll yank on it too. Finally I had to say to my wife, ‘You know, you might want to get that shit lasered.”).
  5. After I have several jokes written, I go back and flesh the jokes out with tags, toppers and act-outs, to bring the jokes alive and get more laughs per minute from each.
  6. I will then repeat this process with the 50 Random Lines which are external facts, headlines, ad copy, statements from leaders, etc.

This is of course the simplified version and a lot more goes into it. But this is the beginning. After I have about five minutes (a page and a half at a 12 point Times New Roman font ), I then rehearse it out loud. When we say our material out loud, different creative parts of our brains are being accessed and new ideas will be inspired. I audio record all out loud rehearsals so I don’t miss anything. After I rehearse it 25 times all the way through, I then perform it on stage…

Remember I said I used three techniques? This is the third; performance.

When you’re on stage in front of an audience you, once again, have new sensations that are occurring and your brain is in somewhat of an altered state resulting in new impulses and ideas which will continue to help you to shape the act even more.

So in answer to the “Kid’s” question, you can use what works for you, but for me it’s a combination of writing jokes, recording coincidental observation and letting the act evolve in performance.

This is a simple approach I also look for paradoxical situations, comedic irony and one of my favorites, benign retaliation.  To really dig deep into all of the available laughter triggers and comedy structures dig into my eBook writing system, “Breaking Comedy’s DNA” and start to really break into comedy writing.

If you have any questions about getting your act started, leave me a comment below. Love to talk to you!

What These Two Weiners Can Teach Us About Comedy

What these two wieners can teach us about comedy

What in the world of funny?!

I can’t believe this hack just did a joke on the name Weiner being so much like the hot dog wiener. Oh my God what a hack!

I can just hear it now all the super clever comedians out there skewering me for having the nerve to post such a ridiculously sophomoric statement.

But I have a point to this whole thing… I think.

There’s a trend out there in stand-up comedy land, kids. And the trend is for comics to be Bill Burr or Louis C.K.

The trend is to be clever just like them. You know, tell stories, make a profound statement. After all, wasn’t it George Carlin who said, “Don’t just make them laugh, make them think!”

I get it and I’m with you. I love to do think humor. I love to speak out with profundity and make a daring, yet good socio-political statement. I love to have the balls to “walk” a room.

T.V. Comedy is About Simplicity

But this post is about simplicity and its place in comedy; especially in television.

That’s right Simplicity. There’s a place for it and there’s big money in it.

What? Money you say?

We all want to be the clever Bill Burr or Louis C.K. but realize they started a long time ago and they didn’t start doing the stories you hear them do when they step on stage now .

They started with jokes. Writing jokes and telling jokes. (At least Burr did).

But you’re missing an element in your total game if you just stick to the clever story-teller comedy. There’s an angle you all should be working and that’s the angle of being able to write your one and two liner jokes.

Every comedian out there should be spending some time each day cranking out some solid one and two-liners. Honing that craft and getting good at it. Because one of the ways to be sure that you can survive in this business is to build multiple revenue streams.

One of those revenue streams could be writing for Late Night T.V.

The key to writing for Late Night T.V. is not the deep-meaning, clever, iconoclastic comedy. It is the simple association, simple surprise, short-form comedy concept that can play not only in New York and L.A. but in Middle America too.

One of those simple comedy structures is Double Entendre or wordplay comedy.

I took the pulse of my readers recently (all three of you) regarding wordplay humor and I got back some interesting feedback regarding the state of wordplay in comedy.

Most of it was like, “Dude Wordplay ain’t dead but it’s certainly on life support.”

I respect people’s opinions, even when the opinions are retarded. (See I can say “retarded” because I’m referring to an opinion–a thing, not a person… besides I know a lot of retarded things).

I jest, of course and I wouldn’t blame you for unsubscribing for that “retarded” comment, (but if you did you’d be retarded), because I’m about to show you why wordplay is alive and well–even a crucial skill you should refine, if not as a comedian, then as a writer.

Wordplay is Alive in the T.V. Comedy Writing Scene

Wordplay and double entendre is used in comedy writing on television like it’s nobody’s business. Late Night is chewing it up. It’s in commercials. It’s in Sitcoms.

Most of the successful shows on T.V. are using the Double-Entendre or wordplay comedy technique to get audiences to laugh and with great success.

You might not think that it works, but there’s an old saying in comedy and it’s “know your audience,” and I hate to be the bearer of bad news but Late Night isn’t playing to you.

If you’re reading this blog then you probably have at least a passing interesting in stand-up comedy or comedy writing and YOU are Late Night’s last target audience.

The audience that Late Night T.V. targets is the middle America audience. Mostly the male demo between eighteen and thirty-four.

They are targeting people who are tired after a long day of work and feeding the kids and dealing with the day’s errands, tasks and chores.

Late Night, for the most part is about simple humor. Don’t believe me? Check out this little bit from “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon”

Steve Higgins and Jimmy do Scat. (As in scatological humor).

In the middle of the Pros and Cons desk piece, they go on a “fart and shart” riff that lasts an entire two minutes. Now two minutes is nothing in real time but in T.V. time is a good chunk.

Listen to the wordplay and tell me that it’s not funny. But remember. It’s not up to you and me. It’s up to the audience. And the audience is loving this stuff!

You’ll also find a ton of wordplay in “Arrested Development” and “How I Met Your Mother” two rather successful television shows.

And not only that, also in commercials. If you look at some of the funny commercials you’ll find that wordplay is used and used often.

Like in this ad for Discover Card.

Frog Protection – Discover Card

Consider the silliness of both. Consider how “hacky” either could appear if you did an amalgamation of either on stage in your stand-up at the Comedy Store.

But remember television writing is not necessarily about being clever, it is about being silly and getting the laugh.

Also consider that a Late Night Writer makes a minimum of $4000 per week and a copywriter for a huge marketing firm could be making upwards of $700k per year.

So while I dig doing clever, solid story-telling, stand-up, it might be wise for me financially to also hone my simple comedy skills like Double-Entendre and Wordplay. Because that kind of money doesn’t sound like it’s on life support.