Does All Comedy Need to be Based in Truth? [Video]

There seems to be a misconception out there when it comes to theories behind developing and writing comedy.

One of the most popularly espoused by many comedy instructors is: your comedy must be true.

NOT SO!

I’m not sure how this particular theory got so out of control. I say, “out of control” because I’ve heard from dozens of confused students of comedy on this very matter. So many, in fact, I feel that it’s time to address in on the blog.

So let me be clear: All comedy does not need to be true.

In other words, you can make stuff up!

To be fair, some of the people who have advocated this ‘truth’ misnomer may just be repeating something they’ve heard from other people. Or they are misinterpreting or misunderstanding what “true” is or what it means with regard to developing comedy or developing stories.

Bottom line is that if you only use what’s true, you are seriously limiting yourself and your material. There’s so much available if you use your imagination.

If you allow yourself to get stuck on only what’s true, you’ll deny your creative mind the ability to develop a whole field of new material; sketches, act-outs, and solid ponderable or observational creative material (Jerry Seinfeld-style)

However, truth is a good starting point…

For example, I wrote a bit a long time ago on how people in Texas say “Y’all.”

That is true.

Once I had that tid-bit of information, I wanted to write a funny routine about it, (I’m a comedian so ‘funny’ is usually how I like to write… I try anyway).

One of the most effective ways to write comedy, is to take a character trait of a person and put him or her in a situation that is opposite to their persona and/or character traits. It creates a situation that resolves with an unexpected result. Which creates surprise, thus laughter.

Got it?

So all I needed to do is come up with a character that the audience would never expect to use the phrase “Y’all.”

I thought British Royalty. That’s a good idea, but the odds of meeting British royalty in Texas are slim and improbable—Brits don’t understand Texan accents—so I thought further. Then I came up with the idea of using an austere French person.

Where would I find an austere French person in Texas?

A French restaurant in Dallas!

You can probably feel the presence of the incongruous relationship between those two elements (French person/Texas), already, and the idea is giving you a bit of a tickle.

So once I had the character and the situation. I had to create the story and the act-out.

So the bit goes like this:

“I was out of the country recently, I was in Texas. You ever notice that everyone says, “Y’all” in Texas. Everyone! You can go to other parts of the country and you’ll have pockets of the population that say “y’all,” but everyone in Texas says, “Y’all.” Like, one time, I was in a very expensive French restaurant in Dallas—which is a joke in itself—I was at the top of this hotel. Very French restaurant; the waiter was also very French. He had the little French mustache, the towel over his arm, the body odor. He comes up to our table and he’s like, “Good afternoon, Mademoiselle, Monsieur… Welcome to Café Lu Bonne… what can I get for Y’all.” I was like, “You just blew the atmosphere there ‘Pierre.

He turns around, he’s got a faded Copenhagen circle on the back of his Tuxedo pants… That’ll teach me for eating at a restaurant called, “Chateu de Big-Ass Barbecue.”

This bit is intended to be performed and not written, but it’s a bit that works any time, any where I am performing; clubs, corporates, parties, one-niters. It’s a no-fail joke.

Take a quick look at the video of that joke:

Jerry Corley at Wiseguys Comedy Club in Salt Lake City

Here’s the thing: IT NEVER HAPPENED! The entire scenario is a made-up story.

Bottom line is that comedy doesn’t have to be true to be funny and effective.

Here’s the caveat: comedy has to be believable and probable. If this was written outside the realm of believability, then the audience would not ‘buy it’ and the joke would fail.

The thing to remember is that comedy is heightened reality not complete absurdity. As audiences we love to be fooled, but we hate to be made fools of…

Make sense?

One of the other fallible pieces of information that students get subjected to is “don’t tell stories.”  NOT TRUE!

Notice the above joke. Is it a story or a joke?

It’s both. It is a story with seven laugh points, (in orange). It’s a bit that lasts about a minute, but includes seven laughs along the way.

Seven laughs in a minute. Considering that most clubs like the Improv, Comedy Store, Laugh Factory, etcetera, look for comedians to have a laugh every 18-20 seconds, seven in a minute doubles that. It’s a solid bit.

What do we gain from this?

Stories are fine, just as long as you have laugh points along the way!

What say you?

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Inspiring Your Creative Muse with a Regular Routine

the-thinker Having trouble getting inspiration for material?

Of all the questions I get from the writers and comedians I work with, by far the most common relates to inspiration.

“I haven’t ‘felt’ like writing.” or “Sometimes I feel it and sometimes I don’t.”

Do you fit into this category? Do you have trouble finding the inspiration to write?

When is the last time you wrote something and felt satisfied? When is the last time you wrote something fulfilling?

When is the last time you wrote something at all?

It happens to all of us. There were times that I would go weeks without writing a new joke. It felt miserable.

One day I purchased a book called “The Writer’s Way,” and it was part of my all-out plan to never have writers’ block again. And you know what?

It worked!

One of the things I learned in that book and from reading about guys like George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld is to write everyday. EVERYDAY. Non-negotiable.

Whether I write a paragraph or a joke or two. I make time every day to sit down and write something. Anything.

Some writers wait for an inspiration to hit them. Other writers summon their muse by developing a regular routine to work by thereby following the philosophy of:

[gn_quote style="1"]A Routine for writing, creates a routine for inspiration.[/gn_quote]

But it’s up to you. First you have to start with a decision to do it, then you need to plan your day, your week and set up a specific time (an appointment with yourself) that you block out in your daily calendar that is designated for your writing time and then STICK to that routine.

You’ll be amazed that when you stick to the routine, your inspiration will find it’s way to you.

It’s like working both sides of the creative equation.

Sometimes inspiration just happens and other times you have to coax it along by doing cliche exercises or writing 50 random lines from the news, ad-copy or editorials.

Here’s a great article on creativity. I read it and it inspired me to write this blog post.

Maybe it will help you to set up your own regular writing routine and get more creative!

Do you have certain techniques you use to get yourself inspired? Share them in the comments section!

Writing Funny about Proposition 8

gay-marriage-still2So you wake up early today. Maybe you go for a run, maybe you walk the dog, maybe, like me, you’re up early because you have a toddler in the house who wakes you up, because they don’t know that you’ve been up the night before trying to write.

But you feel like today is a good day.

It’s so good in fact, that today you’re going to get some good comedy writing done. You’re going to spend today writing some funny!

So you grab your coffee and you sit at your computer and you…

Look at CNN.

Look at E.S.P.N.

Check the Huff Post.

You look in the Top Stories, The sports section, the entertainment section for something that pops out at you that is funny weird, whacky or quirky.

You spend so much time trying to find inspiration to write some thing that could be funny that you don’t wind up being able to write funny at all.

In fact, you write nothing.

Hovering over you is this big amorphous goo labeled “funny” and you can’t seem to make heads or tails of it. (Does goo even have a head or tail?).

What happened?

Mistake #1: You sat down to write something funny.

Mistake #2: You looked for things that are already funny, quirky or weird in stories, news or events.

Mistake #3: You forgot to start with anything that affects you inspires you or pisses you off.

One of the best lessons I ever learned in comedy, I learned from George Carlin. He changed the way I looked at comedy. He said, “Take the stuff that drives you crazy… the stuff that makes you mad… the stuff that makes you want to call ‘bullshit,’ put it all down on paper… then MAKE IT FUNNY!

Take events, situations—whether they be political, sociological or interpersonal—and if they trigger you to call bullshit, get pissed off, angry, upset, confused and write them down; facts and all.

Don’t think about being funny, think about telling the audience what you think is wrong with the idea. How you would fix it. What dumb things have been said about it by dumb people.

Remember the Maxim of the five W’s: Who, What, Where, Why and How. (and Who cares, if you want to take your audience into consideration).

Just write down the facts like a rant.

Then you can go back and plug in the funny using the 12 Major comedy structures and 8 Major psychological elements that trigger human laughter.

I looked at the news, saw that Proposition 8 is trending and read a story on it.

Some parts of the story bothered me so I looked into it and wrote down the facts, wrote down how it affected me. Then I talked it out loud, revisited it and plugged some more funny into it.

Wash, rinse repeat.

Rarely is anything ever ready after the first draft. Most comedy—certainly most stand up—takes rewrites, tests before an audience, then another couple of rewrites.

But if you get the ideas down on the page first, you’re already half-way there. Now you just need to plug in funny.

After a few drafts and some testing this is four minutes or so, of an hour that I did at a fund raiser in front of a predominantly conservative crowd… remember the bit started out with something that pissed me off.

What Is Funny?

comedy_tragedyYou really want to know what’s funny? How ‘bout some obscure blogger, (Me!), trying to write an article entitled “What is Funny?!”

Funny is such a subjective term.

How is anyone going to write about how to be funny? It’s almost like trying to definitively answer, “Who is God?” Or “What is Love?”

As a comedian of 25 years, a comedy writer for Jay Leno and The Tonight Show, comedy instructor and founder of The Stand Up Comedy Clinic, (a comedy workshop in Los Angeles), the question is posed to me, literally, every single day.

So I thought I’d get serious about it for a minute and try to come up with a possible answer. Please remember, this is just my theory and by no means a definitive answer. So keep the nasty comments to yourself. I’m still searching too!

In other words, shut your conch!

What is “funny?” You could ask that question in many different ways–“What is funny?” “What is funny?” “What is Funny?” Or even “What’s so funny, bitch?!…” and still come up with a blank stare.

I’m not going to proclaim that I know what’s funny to everyone. Funny is very subjective. What is funny to one person is not necessary going to be funny to another.

In a nutshell, we’re just guessing, the audience is the judge.

Here’s what I can do. I can analyze funny. In fact, let’s do it together:

According to the dictionary, the number one definition of “Funny” is “to cause laughter or amusement.” Most people can agree on that. I was going to say “all people can agree on that, ” but people will find any reason not to agree—just watch the U.S. Congress. So, for the purpose of this article, let’s all agree on the definition of “Funny” as it causes laughter or amusement. In this case, since we are looking for laughs, let’s focus on laughter.

Because amusement is even more subjective. To some, the “Tilt-a-Whirl” at a carnival causes amusement. For me, it causes vomit. And here I think we can all agree that—and I’ve done a little research in this area—that vomiting is only amusing…if it’s not you.

Okay, back to what is funny?. How do we find funny? Well since we know that funny equals laughter we can start by looking at the science of laughter. When we do, we discover that according to experts on human behavior, the number one element that triggers human laughter is surprise.

Now, just by answering that, do you have any idea how far we’ve come now solving our initial question?

It’s almost algebraic. It’s almost an “if-then” statement: What is funny is something that causes laughter.

What causes laughter? Surprise, and if A=B and B=C, then A=C.

Then if Laughter = Funny and

Surprise = Laughter, then

Surprise = Funny!

Got it?

Say it with me: SURPRISE EQUALS FUNNY!

Some people say that you can’t teach stand up comedy or for that matter teach somebody how to be funny. And while I do believe you are born with talent and you develop skill, I also know that if you have a reasonable amount of intelligence and a command of the English language you can learn the structures of how to manipulate words to take something seemingly mundane and turn it into something funny.

I teach a comedy class in the Los Angeles area and I can teach just that to average, but amazing people and I’ve had tremendous results.

Can You Teach Funny?
How do you teach this, you ask?

All it takes is a little surprise.

Sid Caesar said, “Comedy is a story with a curlicue.”

If you tell me a story and you give it a surprise ending, you have just written your first joke. Tell me something about yourself:

Comedian Tim Bidore used to open with this joke: “I come from a large family…four Moms, five Dads…” He just took something mundane, a cliché of everyday life and really just changed the ending. It’s a curlicue. It’s unexpected. Hence, it’s a surprise. Is it Funny? Let’s go back to the formula

If Laughter=Funny, and

Surprise=Laughter, then

Surprise=Funny.

But we also understand the adage, the audience is the judge and in this case the audience still laughs at that line every time…and what is laughter equal to? FUNNY!

Now we’re starting to get it! Let’s look at it in another way…

How about when you go to the grocery store? When you check out, what does the clerk always say? “Did you find everything you were looking for?” Right? How do you usually respond? By saying, “Yes.” Because even if you didn’t find everything you were looking for, you just don’t want to deal with it.

But if you applied a common comedy formulas called The Double Entendre, you can start to look at a sentence or a question the way a comedian looks at it; by taking the implied meaning of a word and giving it a comedic perspective.

First, look at the question: “Did you find everything you were looking for?” We know what he/she means when they ask that question. What they’re asking is: Did you find everything you were looking for while you were shopping today.

What if we too the implied meaning of “everything” and blew it up a little? What if we took the meaning to the next level? “Did you find everything you’re looking for?” But this time we analyze it with a comedian’s sense; what do most people look for, not at the store, but in life; the meaning of life, or a soul mate, or love?

So what if we took one of those interpretations and responded to the question differently? Does it change? Let’s look:

Clerk: Did you find everything you were looking for?

Me: (Looking at the items on the conveyor) Well, I found some wine and some candlelight, but I couldn’t find my soulmate. You had Mahi-Mahi, but I’m just not into twins.

Now you have something that’s clever and unique. It will get a laugh every time at the grocery store because your interpretation of the intended meaning of “everything” is surprising and since we’ve already established that

Surprise triggers laughter and…

Laughter equals funny, then…

You’re on your way to understanding what is funny!