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.
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:
Write down 50 facts about me; just facts.
Sometimes I will get the facts from answering questions on a personality profile quiz.
Select 10-25 of those facts that seem to antagonize or inspire me most.
Put each of those lines on a page and try to utilize 3 primary comedy structures:
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.”).
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.”).
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.”).
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.
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!
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.
If things weren’t interesting enough in the Late Night world, Chelsea Handler of “Chelsea Lately” has just signed to do a Late Night Show on Netflix.
This immediately made me wonder: What is Netflix thinking?!
I think this can work, and if it does, what does it mean for you?
Netflix is on the cutting edge in original content with the super-successful House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey and Orange Is The New Black starring Taylor Schilling and a full cast of excellent actors.
Now they are taking on the world of Late Night, offering a show to the sassy and very funny, Chelsea Handler.
Kind of an interesting setting: “Late Night” on Demand. Not sure how it will do in this content delivery setting but considering the success DVRs, Amazon, Hulu and other content providers, and their ability to let viewers watch their favorite shows whenever they want really not only opens up almost endless possibilities for viewers but for writers as well!
Maybe that’s something that Conan O’Brien should’ve thought about, especially considering multi-million dollar disappearing act he seems to be doing over at TBS.
I don’t even know what channel TBS is on my DirecTV or even if it’s on their lineup at all. I just don’t pay that much attention any more. With 500+ channels on my DirecTV, nothing really stands out. Am I the only one?
The sad part is that I like Conan.
However, I know I go to Netflix all the time looking for something to watch at night when I’m having a cocktail or three.
But enough about my alcohol problem…
What Does This Mean For You?
There has never been this kind of movement in Late Night programming in television history. This means that there will be staff shake-ups and new staff hirings for shows.
Consider what’s happening in the next few months: Not only is Chelsea Handler starting a new show soon, Craig Ferguson is leaving CBS and David Letterman will be swapped with Steven Colbert. That’s three Late Night shows that are starting and staffing!
Makes you want to say HOLY CRAP! How do YOU spell “OPPORTUNITY?”
As a person who has been around this business for years as an actor, a comedian and a writer, I see this as a golden opportunity. This is the closest thing to pilot season a writer of Late Night can ask for.
Top 3 Things you should be doing right now:
Creating or Refreshing a Submission Packet for Late Night
Contacting The New Shows To Find Out Exactly What They are Looking for in a Packet
Sharpening Your Skills to Write Sketches, Monologues, Desk Pieces, and Drop-Ins
Writing for Late Night is one of the few jobs in this town you can get without an agent or much prior television experience. In fact, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, the highest rated Late Night Show on TV right now, recently scooped up an IT Professional based on what he was posting on his Twitter feed.
Getting your stuff seen by the right people at Late Night is not that difficult.
The Head Writer is Looking For You
The Head Writer at any of these shows has a specific job. He has to make sure the writing team is producing the best content that fits the show and is right for the Host. At the same time, turnover in the Late Night world is big, so the Head Writer is always looking for talented writers who can produce material for his show.
So who do you think you need to contact to get your writing packet seen?
You guessed it; The Head Writer.
So get out there and get your stuff seen!
How Do You Do This?
There’s a specific set of skills you need to get into Late Night Comedy Writing.
You can learn those skills by trial and error. Not a bad thing. The more you write the more you learn. You can test your jokes against Late Night Shows to see how they compare to the writers who are on the shows you are targeting.
You can acquire knowledge & develop your skill by attending workshops: Joe Toplyn teaches an excellent workshop in New York City. I teach an excellent LIVE workshop in Burbank this Tuesday night and I have an online video course. (P.S. I don’t get any commission or kick-backs or anything from pimping Joe’s workshops. I just think he’s a talented guy who has a ton of experience).
You can acquire the knowledge by reading books on the subject. Again Joe Toplyn has an excellent book, “Comedy Writing For Late Night T.V.,” available on Amazon.
Remember classes are not mandatory, but they will help you acquire knowledge from experienced professionals and help you develop your writing chops a lot faster. Workshops also help you light a fire under that writer’s butt and fill your head with new inspiration, goals and creativity.
So what are you waiting for?
Hit me back if you have any questions or if I can help you in any way to venture into the Late Night Comedy Writing world. I will give you my all to help you reach your goals.
Best if you leave a comment below and start a conversation. Maybe we can get Mr. Toplyn in to join us too!
I’ve been posting and blogging about comedy writing tools for several years now, giving you the best tools that I use to write comedy. I’m loving every minute of it!
In this post I’m sharing with you my 5 favorite writing tools online. It’s a combination of tools I’ve already posted, but you may have forgotten they were there or missed them because you didn’t see the post.
Look at them now because soon I am going to be locking them in the vault and only using them for online courses.
These tools work whether you are a one-and-two-liner comedian or whether you are a story-teller.
These tools work for coming up with jokes for Clubs , Corporate, Late Night, Sketches, Screenwriting, or novel writing.
The structure of comedy is as important to the laugh as hitting the right notes in the right key is important to the music.
In other words, without the structures, there is little or no laughter.
Every comedian who’s made you laugh from Jerry Seinfeld to Kevin Hart; from Jim Jefferies to Bill Burr; from Louis CK to Amy Schumer, they all utilize the structures I teach in my courses and in my eBook writing system. They all use them, even if they don’t know it!
George Carlin said to me, “I know 98-percent of the time that a joke is funny before I get it on stage.” I asked him how he knew and he said, “because I know they contain all the elements necessary for a joke to be funny.”
This was the second one I shared with the public when I first started writing my blog. It’s a simple method I use when I am staring at a blank page or computer screen saying, “I got nothin!” I just run this scenario through my head and I always wind up with something; usually about 5 minutes of new material! The good thing is I can use it starting from complete scratch!
This video tutorial was the first of its kind ever put on the internet. May still be the only one of its kind. Where I start with a simple headline from the news and I walk you through the procedure as you look at my computer screen. It’s like you’re looking over my shoulder while I write jokes and show you one of my processes for generating material. This technique has helped me to write thousands of jokes over the years.
Another first of its kind as far as the viewer being able to watch joke writing in a certain niche in a real-time environment. In this video I will take the corporate subject matter of “Title Insurance” and walk through my process as I basically write 10 minutes of Title Insurance jokes. Inspired from a phone call I received from National Title asking me how much I charge to perform at one of their events doing at least five minutes of Title Insurance humor. After I quoted them my fee I knew I better be able to write some title insurance jokes. So I start from scratch and write 10 minutes in less than an hour. Take a look at the process if you want to learn how to write comedy for corporate engagements. Definitely worth a look!
Most people I run into who are trying to write comedy, think that comedy writing is a mystery. They think it’s got to be really clever and difficult. Some of the best comedy is the simplest comedy. Much of it comes in the form of opposites. One of the easiest ways to get to the punch is NOT to think of something FUNNY but to think in opposites. This exercise gets you there fast. It may seem simple, but it’s powerful. I’ve used this in sketch writing, screenwriting and in stand-up. Always effective!
I love Bill Burr! He’s a terrific and expressive comedian, who loves to take the alternate point of view on popular social opinions. His technique is masterful, but when someone told me that Bill doesn’t use any comedy structure, I just had to show them not only that he does, but how he does and exactly where he uses it. Take a look at this Bill Burr video and then watch as line-by-line, you get to see where he places the key elements that trigger the laughs!
So there you have it
Five of my best tools for writing jokes. But here’s the thing: This barely scratches the surface of the tools I use on a regular basis to write jokes. In my classes and with my online courses, I teach 23 different approaches to writing comedy. Remember, there’s no single way to approaching comedy writing.
But these tools will give you a process to make it easier. I still use the old-school method of getting an inspiration and talking it out on stage until it develops into a solid routine, but I prefer to use the George Carlin method: write it funny so you know it’s funny before you take the stage!
I hope you enjoy this list of tools. Remember they won’t stay online long, so use them, share them with others and please feel free to leave a comment below and let me know how you’re doing!