Looking to add more laughs into your act? Sometimes just applying some deliberate writing you can use mechanics to add some quick laughs as you advance the routine.
According to Lorne Michaels, creator of Saturday Night Live, one of the crucial things an audience looks for in a comedian who first steps on stage is confidence.
Confidence is a two-way street; you as the performer have to have confidence in yourself for the audience to have confidence in your ability to make them laugh.
Immediate Laughs Build Confidence Fast
One way to build confidence in your act is to have a quick laugh within the first 10-15 seconds of taking the stage.
Economy is key. Challenge yourself to a game of how fast you can get to the joke. How many words before you can get the audience to laugh?
We built a laugh into Eugenia Kuzmina’s act by using her the emcee’s intro as a set up. The emcee says, “Ladies and gentlemen, coming to the stage now is a fashion model who wants to be a comedian. Please welcome Eugenia Kuzmina.
Eugenia enters the stage doing the fashion model’s scissored gate like she’s on a fashion runway. She walks to each end of the stage and poses just like she’s on the runway. Then approaches the mic, sighs, and then says, “I’m so hungry.”
So she gets a big laugh with as little as three words. Most of the time the audience begins giggling on her entrance, which helps to build the laugh on the line.
Years ago I did a show at a casino/resort in Nevada that had a fire the week before that threatened the cancellation of the show. That news was in the paper (remember newspapers?). It was also on the news.
When I was introduced, I walked on stage with a fire extinguisher, set it down next to me and… before I said anything, the audience laughed, then broke into applause.
Problem with that is if I want to rely on that gimmick to get laughs, before I come to town I would have to arrange for the venue to have a fire.
Applying the Maxim of the 5 w’s to Add Laughs
The good news is that many times the jokes are already sitting there in your existing act. You just need to use put on your comedy tool belt.
Using one of my students recent intros, watch how we took introduction and added 3 more quick laughs, giving her 7 laughs in the first 30 seconds.
Here is the intro to a set written by Laura Breech, one of my students:
“So I moved here recently and decided to check out the LA dating scene, so I dusted off that online profile…again. I’ve been on a few dates, and I don’t get why things never go anywhere. I’m doing all the things you’re supposed to on a first date: I’m getting dressed up, I’m making polite conversation, I’m swallowing…Hahah, JK, that doesn’t happen. Not on a first date! I’m a spitter. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but dude, I live in LA now. I’ve gotta count calories…”
It’s a good opening and has three laughs, but I took a look at the draft and thought there was a possibility to add a few more laughs.
I looked at each sentence and utilized the maxim of the 5 W’s (Who? What? Where? Why? When? And How?).
This was the result:
“So recently, I moved to L.A. for the same reason as most people; just to make absolutely certain that I’ll never be able to afford a home. And recently I decided to get into extreme sports; you know, the LA dating scene… so I dusted off that online profile… again. I’ve been on a few dates–okay, seventeen of them–(ahem)… and I don’t get why things never go anywhere. I’m doing all the things you’re supposed to on a first date: I’m getting dressed up, I’m making polite conversation, I’m swallowing…Ha!, Just kidding, that doesn’t happen. Not on a first date! I’m a spitter. Dude! I live in LA now. I gotta count calories…”
So just by asking questions like Why did I move to L.A.? and How is the “L.A. dating scene” different from other dating scenes? “What do I mean by a ‘few’ dates?, We were able to add about 3 more laughs to this opening for a total of 7 laughs in the first 30 seconds.
That averages out to a laugh every 4.2 seconds. That’s a great start and executed properly that opening will assuredly demonstrate ability and give that audience a hypodermic filled with confidence.
Go Even Further
But, wait, there’s more! Just because that’s the opening bit she performed at her show, it doesn’t mean we can’t evolve the piece even further.
The first thing that pops into my mind is that Laura compared L.A. dating to extreme sports. That tells us that there are two dissimilar ideas converging and that we can do a listing technique to generate some associative jokes to flesh this piece out even more.
So go ahead. Take your existing material and develop it further just by utilizing the comedic tools you have at your disposal and build that confidence in your comedy with more laughs.
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This could be the most important 9-minute comedy lesson of your life.
In the next 9 minutes you’re going to learn a lot! I mean a ton! I’m calling this article my 9-minute Comedy Mastermind Session.
When it comes to comedy writing and theory, my argument always focuses on structure.
“Structure is king!” I’ll usually say.
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Getting to the point and getting the laugh with a strong point of view while saying something that actually means something is crucial but structure is where the laugh occurs… not just trying to be funny.
This next 9-minutes focuses on that.
Structure is really the keys to the car that drives comedy success. I’d argue that it’s not just important, it’s crucial!
Side-by-Side Comedian Comparison
In the next 9 minutes you’re going to look at two comedians.
Rob Delaney and Brian Kiley.
Delaney is your classic internet sensation comedian. His rise to notoriety came via Twitter where he had 1.26 million followers! But you’ll soon learn that Twitter comedy doesn’t necessarily interpret into stellar stand-up.
Brian Kiley is the head monologue writer for Conan O’Brien. Kiley is a master of structure and joke telling. But his joke telling style is so well finessed that it doesn’t seem like he’s us telling jokes.
Take a look at these two comedians as they appear on 2 different late night shows.
Structure vs. No structure. It’s Kiley with solid structure and Delaney with just telling a story and trying to be funny
You be the judge…
…and as always I would love to hear your comments.
Let’s take a look at comedian Rob Delaney. He performed a set on Jimmy Kimmel Live. He wasn’t prepared, he lacked structure and he totally shits the bed…
Caution: You might have to will yourself to watch the entire 4.5 minutes. But it’s important that you do.
Now let’s watch 4.5 minutes of Brian Kiley. Brian is a master of joke structure. You don’t have to be like him or deliver your material in this more “joke” form, but you’ll easily see the difference between structured and unstructured material.
In my view, structure is king.
Brian Kiley’s set is far superior in it’s structure and it’s story-telling than Rob Delaney. In fact, rumor has it that Delaney tried to make sure that this didn’t get out. I get it.
I’m not posting this to slam Delaney as a comedian. I’ve been doing stand-up for nearly 30 years, I know how hard it is to get on T.V. So big props to him for just getting the spot. But when you get there you’ve got to have a structured set.
Your effectiveness is judged by laughs per minute. If you’re not getting laughs, the audience is tuning out.
A stand-up comedian’s time is also limited on late night TV shows. Comedian’s sets have been running around 4 minutes 30 seconds! I just watched comedian Dulce Sloan on Conan and she only had 3 minutes!
You gotta get to the jokes fast and keep them rolling! If you don’t you might wind up like Rob Delaney and totally shitting the bed.
There are two primary ways to learn how to build comedy and story structure into your comedy act: 1. Get up and try it and learn through trial and error and hopefully find your way to doing what the successful comedians are doing… or 2. Drop in on one of my comedy classes and learn why people laugh and learn the structures that trigger that laughter. You can also really jack up your comedy writing skills at one of my Weekend Comedy Writing Workshops.
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Where to Start
So you want to write comedy about an idea you have but you don’t know how to get to the funny stuff.
Or you might even be asking where do I even start?
Has this ever happened to you?
Below you’ll find several ways to approach a single word or simple subject and be able to write comedy about it.
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Most people create jokes by coincidence; we all do this, but relying only on coincidence can leave a comedy writer stranded, waiting for the coincidence to occur.
This sometimes leaves us without writing new comedy material for days, sometimes weeks… eeek!
So now for those of us who have a just a thought, a word or a simple subject we can now apply a couple of relatively easy applications and really start to write comedy.
In this article I’m going to show you 5 Ways to Write Comedy from simple words and subjects.
All of these approaches are proven approaches I’ve used to come up with material for my act or shows I’ve written for. These techniques work for dialogue, sketches, jokes or just inspiration which has led to new ideas.
Most really good comedy has a clear association or crisp surprise. Other comedy contains irony, paradox, coincidence, retaliation, etc.
You can get all 13 comedy structures by grabbing my eBook “Breaking Comedy’s DNA.”
Let’s Write Comedy!
So, let’s get to it…
In the Comedy Clinic’s private Facebook group (set up for those who attend my 8-week stand-up classes), there was a comment from one of my students who’s brand new to comedy.
She’s a flight attendant and was trying to utilize the listing technique, a method used to flesh out concepts to develop comedy material.
One of the things I love about teaching is learning from students and what they need help with. When that happens, I figure if they are asking these questions, maybe others are too. So I put together some further instruction to share with other students of comedy.
The listing technique is one way to create jokes based on a single subject, (you can see it in action in this video).
The object is to start with that single subject and then find a secondary element by using a variety of methods.
The goal is to find the funny in the subject matter.
These are NOT the ONLY methods, but these are very effective and the most widely used by the most successful comedy writers.
It’s important to remember that this is a FIRST DRAFT exercise and the resulting ideas and or material may or may not be the finished product.
Sometimes the exercises lead to solid jokes, sometimes they are a gateway to inspiration to help the writer create sketches, or even show or movie concepts, but aren’t quite in the shape they need to be in for a stand-up performance… yet.
As most of you already know, when you write comedy the first draft is its infancy. Then you rewrite. When you get it on the stage the material is still in its adolescence.
When you perform it for an audience there are usually some additional adjustments that get made as new inspirations occur while you’re on the stage as the material begins to mature.
The purpose is to create a process for yourself so you can start with a subject and come up with material. Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t happen for you right away. That’s not creative! 🙂
So let’s get to it!
Start with a Subject:
- Flight Attendant.
Now let’s look at the 5 different approaches to take the simple subject of ‘Flight Attendant’ and develop the comedy.
NOTE: Steps 1-5 Below are separate strategies. This is not a combined strategy. Although you could use them all to really drill down and flesh out a comedy bit.
Create an Analogy.
Being a flight attendant is like: find something (usually unrelated to being a flight attendant) with which to draw the analogy. Now you have two clearly different ideas converging, (Incongruity).
What if we chose “Waitress” Being a flight attendant is like being a waitress.
You might come up with something like this set up, punchline, act-out combination:
“I’m a flight attendant. I hate when passengers treat you like you’re a waitress. The difference is that a flight attendant is flying at 38-thousand feet and if the shit hits the fan, we’ve got to be there to assist the passengers… even at our own peril. First of all, flight attendants are NOT waitresses. I’ve been a waitress at a few different restaurants, and I’ve never had to explain to a customer where all the exits are located before they start on their meal.
- So that’s why I don’t like passengers who treat me like a waitress. “Treat me like a waitress, I’ll act like a waitress… like if the shit hits the fan and this flying germ tube catches on fire, if I was a waitress, I’m not gonna assist your ass at my own peril. I’ll be the first out that door! (ACT-OUT: Yelling back to them) “There are four emergency exits, but I’m not showing them to you, cuz I’m a waitress! Enjoy your peanuts, bitches!”
- IDEA: The flight attendant safety briefing is like a waitress telling her table what the specials are that evening. (You could develop a routine here using similar signals a flight attendant uses when giving her safety briefing, as you describe the chef’s specials).
Remember: We started with nothing at the beginning of this exercise. But by simply applying analogy, we have a bit:
Add a Descriptor to the Subject
of “flight attendant.”
Ask yourself what kind of flight attendant? What if you added a descriptor that also defines one of your personal weaknesses?
- Anger management issues?
- Hormonal? Anytime you ask the flight attendant a question, she responds with (ACT OUT: BIG SIGH) “WHATEVER!”
- Once you have that in place you can use the incongruity technique to run a Top 10 List. “Top 10 Reasons You Know Your Flight Attendant is Hormonal.”
(Remember, the Top 10 exercise is used to generate punchlines, not for you to read off a list. That was Letterman’s bag).
Facts about flight attendants.
You can come up with your own, then look up stuff on the internet. On quick glance, I came up with this:
- Flight attendants have strict luggage restrictions imposed on them by some airlines. One carry-on bag and a personal bag. It’s a safety issue. This way it’s impossible for any flight attendants to ever bring ALL their baggage. Think about it! On a typical flight for Southwest, there are 3 flight attendants. That’s a LOT of Daddy issues!
- Flight attendants don’t age-out. Pilots are federally mandated to retire at age 65. Flight attendants don’t have to. So at Southwest Airlines, Bags may fly free, but Old Bags fly forever.
Definition of a Flight Attendant.
Definitions give you a great chance to do a Compare and Contrast riff.
- What’s different about being a Southwest Flight attendant than being a flight attendant at one of the other airlines?
Cliché Reformation or Take-off: and Simple Truth.
- There are a lot of phrases used on an airline that create an opportunity to be reformed with an unexpected ending for a quick laugh.
- “In the case of a darkened or smoke-filled cabin, safety strips on the floor will be illuminated, leading you right to the cockpit door where you can get your hands on the captain who got us into this mess in the first place.”
- *Do not unfasten your seatbelt until the plane comes to a full and complete stop. Why do they say full AND complete? Wouldn’t “full” stop or “complete” stop make it clear enough?
- And what’s so special about the smoke detector in the lavatory? There’s a special law that protects it; “Federal Regulations prohibit the tampering with or destroying a lavatory smoke detector.” It’s like they’re doing a little ‘wink-wink.’ You can fuck with the flight attendants all you want, but if you even tamper with that smoke detector, the feds will drag you to prison!
Hope this helps! And…
Remember, I am here for YOUR comfort and safety.
Hope this pre-flight instruction was helpful in your endeavor to write comedy. If you need more assistance, you’ll find a Joke Doctor button illuminated on the console above your head. Feel free to press that button and a Joke Doctor will help you as soon as it is safely possible, but if I come to your seat only to find that you’re phone is NOT in airplane mode, I’m gonna tell the feds that you tampered with a smoke detector.
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I just got an email from a young comedian who was worried about doing the same jokes he did last time he was on stage; “… it’s a ‘bringer show‘ and I’m expected to have 5 people there. My friends are coming and if I do the same jokes it’s going to be boring.”
I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard this.
Let me share something with you about that:
There’s nothing wrong with doing the same material you did the last time…
… as long as it’s great material!
I’ve been doing stand-up for 27 years. I work a lot. I’m constantly writing new material. But I have a core set that I’ve developed that gets a great response and often when I’m doing my hour or 90-minute show, it gets a standing ovation.
I have people come to see me who have seen me before. Sometimes they ask me to do their favorite bits. If it works into what I’m doing that road trip, I’ll pop it in.
A while back, I was doing a week in Oklahoma City and this biker walks up to me before the show and says, “Hey Man! I saw you here a while back and I want you to do that ‘Cow’ routine that you did last time. Brought the entire chapter with me. Forty of us bikers rode over an hour just to see ya.”
I looked at the table he referred to and there they were; forty bikers.
You know what? You could be damn sure I did the request!
When some random person approaches you in a club and makes a request based on what they saw the last time it should speak to you as a performer.
It says that you left an impression and, to them, the material was memorable and had an impact on them and they want to hear it again.
So guess what? You’re proabably NOT “boring” them.
Sometimes, as I’m developing my new act, someone might come up to me after a show and say, “I wish you did that bit you do about Mormons. I love that bit.”
In another example, Brian Kiley, who’s the head monologue writer over at The Conan O’Brien Show, is a local favorite in L.A. clubs.
He is often doing the exact same 7-10 minutes and you’ll hear a lot of jokes you’ve heard him do at other times.
He’s usually honing and testing the set because he has a T.V. spot coming up that he’s rehearsing for.
But here’s the cool part: whenever he’s on stage, not only is the audience laughing, but the back of the comedy club will be lined with comedians who’ve heard him before. His jokes are so strong and well-written that the comedians want to hear them again.
It’s the same reason we watch certain movies again or listen to our favorite songs, because they resonate with us and they make us laugh, cry or reminisce.
When you song search on Spotify, are you usually looking for songs you don’t know, or songs you’ve heard before and want to hear again?
When I was younger they had these things called comedy albums. (LOL!) Then they had comedy cd’s, then comedy VHS videos; now it’s DVD’s, links, netflix and YouTube.
But back in the day I had George Carlin’s albums, Richard Pryor’s, Steven Martin’s. We didn’t just listen to those albums one time, we listen to them–I don’t know–hundreds of times?
I remember Eddie Murphy’s ‘Delirious’. I had the album and the video. I watched it over and over again. Same routine. Loved it each time. Who says we don’t want to hear the same jokes?
Just because they are the same jokes, doesn’t make them ‘lame’ jokes.
Remember, even if your friends are reluctant to laugh at they jokes they’ve heard, it doesn’t matter because the audience is always different and if the material is awesome, the people who haven’t heard it will be laughing. And I assure you, because laughter is a socially contagious experience, your friends will be laughing too.
When you’re starting out, I cannot emphasize the importance of building that core act. You should do it constantly, revise, refine and polish. Add act-outs, tags and toppers. Until it crushes.
Worrying about your friends hearing the same jokes is counter-productive to you really developing and polishing your act. Not to mention that it can have a cascading negative impact on your development.
It limits you because if you’re always doing new material you never get to ‘own’ it. Therefore you’re always somewhat in your head and never truly present and in the moment.
As a result you never come across as utterly confident and if you’re not utterly confident, nobody in television will want to book you and your friends will still experience discomfort and won’t want to come to your next show anyway.
So don’t worry so much about your friends. Throw in a new joke or two into your core set and develop an act that’s memorable.
Because when the 40 bikers ride over an hour to see your show and request their favorite bit, a bit they’ve heard before, you can be totally assured that you are NOT ‘BORING.’
Go get ’em!
I 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.