One of the most common questions I get as a stand up comedian, writer and now coach is: What is the key to comedy?
And although there are too many variables for me to even suggest that I have all the answers when it comes to comedy, I can give you the key. That’s right I can give you the key to comedy.
The key is SURPRISE.
If we break comedy down; I mean, really break comedy down into parts, then we can start to design solutions. So let’s do that briefly in this blog post.
I guess we can all agree that for comedy to be comedy, we need to get the audience to laugh, right? So that’s our problem. We need to make people laugh.
So let’s find a solution…
Somebody has to be laughing in order for someone to say that something is comedic or humorous. Now that we know that, we need to know what causes people to laugh.
According to several psychologists, the number one element that triggers human laughter is surprise.
Create surprise and do it well and the audience almost has no choice but to laugh.
Imagine that power as a comedian; to put the audience in the position where they have no choice but to laugh!
Now that we have that psychological element in place we are part of the way through solving our problem. The next question is how to we pull that trigger?
We create surprise in our writing or our dialogue, conversation, speech or script.
There are several ways to create surprise in comedy. I’m going to share with you the simplest and one of the most commonly used strategies to create surprise:
Double Entendre means “two meanings.” Those of us in comedy are blessed that the English language provides us with multiple meanings of words. We can use a word in a sentence to imply one meaning then use the comedic interpretation to create comedy. To look at it in its simplest form: if you have a friend that turns everything into a sexual connotation, then you’ve probably seen the double-entendre formula used in comedy. It could be used in scene writing too.
A basketball coach is at a press conference after his team lost in a blow out;
PRESS: Coach how do you feel about the execution of the offense?
COACH: I’m all for it.
In this example, the coach used the comedic interpretation of the word “execution.” While the journalist meant how do you think the offense played? The coach went for the surprise meaning of “kill.”
Because the expected of the word execution was so strong in the context in which it was being used, when the coach played the comedic meaning, he created a level of surprise that would lead just about any crowd to a laugh. Couple that with the fact that the losing coach is normally NOT in a good mood. He is not expected to be funny.
Surprise also occurs when something happens that is unexpected, right? So do or say something unexpected and you have an increased possibility of creating a laugh.
Here’s another example of using surprise:
When I was in the grocery store, the check out girl said to me, “Did you find everything you were looking for?” The word “everything” really stood out for me. What did she mean when she said “everything?” Her intended meaning was probably did I find everything I was shopping for.
What is my comedic meaning of everything? The meaning of life, a soul-mate, eternal love, etc.
I went with that interpretation. So, when she asked “Did you find everything you were looking for?” I said, “Well I found the wine and the candles, but I couldn’t find a soul-mate. You had Mahi-Mahi, but I’m not into twins.”
That got big laugh with her.
Word play makes up the majority of all comedy out there. But the comedian has to be careful not to overuse it. It’s easy to get “punny” if you use it incorrectly. And you’ll wind up getting groans.
Then that key to comedy will just wind up breaking off in the lock.
Got an email from someone and I thought it would be best addressed in my comedy-blog. Read on:
"I have a question which has been messing with me when writing my premise or setup. i find myself trying to produce material before wednesday which are the best nights in florida for open mics. my issue is not coming up with an idea its just getting it across so before i saw your blogs i went and got a book on comedy " The Comedy Bible" which states when writing your premise you need to have a topic + attitude which i understand that concept but it also states that when starting out a joke or building the premise you never want to use I or me. i saw your blog for the 1-2-3-joke about your poker app and in your premise you start off with I. i just want to know is that a myth as well? should i throw away that idea of when writing my premise not to include I or me?"
Great question! First of all, let me get this straight: there are rarely definitives in life like "never" and "always."
Maybe some exceptions could be
- "Never perform fire eating tricks after drinking One-Fifty-One."
- "Never joke about bombs in the security line at the airport and expect to board your flight," or
- "Never use the "N-word" as a white comedian while performing at a fund-raising benefit for Malcom X."
Those might be a few things that could fit in the "never" category. But when it comes to comedy theory there are few "nevers."
I’ve never heard the rule "never use ‘I’ or ‘me’," however. And I’m glad I haven’t because I do it all the time. My comedy is about my life and it would be hard to discuss my life without using those pronouns. There are no rules to that effect as far as I’m concerned.
In fact, if you watch Louis C.K., he talks about ‘I’ and ‘me’ quite often. Same with Lewis Black, John Stewart, Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby… the list goes on.
I don’t know what Judy Carter was thinking or maybe she meant something different. But remember she named the book The Comedy Bible. It was named after a book that is so filled with distortions, contradictions and falsehoods, even the churches pick and choose what parts of it to believe!
The two things that I think are valuable in that book is that humor should come from an emotional foundation and it’s nice to have a comedy buddy.
In the end think about this: Tom Dreesen, one of the most successful comedians of his time said that comedy is 90 percent surprise. If your material has surprise, incongruity, recognition or benign retaliation, odds are it has the elements to get a laugh.
Finally, in the end, whether or not the joke contains ‘I’ or ‘me’ if the audience laughs, it’s a keeper.
I got an email from a person interested in doing stand up comedy and he saw my How To Write Comedy video online. In the video I take a headline right from Yahoo News and I write 15 jokes in about 30 minutes using what I call the listing technique.
The gentleman understood the concept but was having a hard time when it came time to write the material on his own from scratch. Sound familiar? So he emailed me a few questions including the line he was working with. The line was:
“Hand Sanitizer: The new vodka for teens”
Now that’s a headline!
One definition of a joke is “The convergence of two or more clearly identifiable ideas coming together.” It’s incongruity; comedy 101. You may already know this, but the incongruity comedy structure is probably the most common structure used in commercially accepted comedy today. It basically means you are imposing the characteristics of one thing onto another thing which normally does not possess those characteristics.
That headline does present us with two clearly identifiable ideas that are converging: Hand Sanitizer and drinking teenagers. But the problem with that headline is that it is a headline. It may work as a written piece of material but it doesn’t work for stand up because there is no conversation happening. In other words you would never talk this way so how would you present this to an audience?
When working with headlines. You must go beyond the headline to find the statement of fact that clearly defines to the reader or audience what we are talking about. The line must contain all the information we need to convey what is going on to the reader or listener. These are the facts. That’s why it’s called the straight line.
The line must be conversational. Many times people are trying to write jokes from the news or the headlines we forget to be conversational. The key to making someone laugh is surprise. If you sound like you are just telling someone a story and they are not expecting a twist that turns into a joke, then the joke is more effective.
Johnny Carson stood on that star on the Tonight Show for 30 years and we knew he was there to do his monologue. But he would start each joke in a conversational tone which made it sound like he was just sharing something he read or heard today. “Oh! I heard this today…” So if we used that concept for this joke premise it might sound like: “Oh I heard this today…apparently, in an effort to get drunk, some teens are now drinking hand sanitizer.”
Do you see how that changed the tone of the headline and made it a bit more conversational? Remember it’s still stand up comedy so the structure of having the important word as close to the end of the sentence is still crucial.
So now you have a clear set up with all the information necessary to converge the ideas and get to the comedy and one way to get to the comedy here is to list all the ideas we can think about regarding hand sanitizer, alcohol and teens. This leads me to…
Most comedians do not take the time to do the lists so that they can find the jokes.
Because I’ve been doing this so long, I do a lot of the lists in my head, but when I get stuck I will make a thorough list to find the incongruities of the contrasting elements: hand sanitizer and drinking. These jokes came out of the top of my head… Please keep in mind that these are all first draft jokes. They still could use some refining:
“Oh I heard this today…apparently, in an effort to get drunk, some teens are now drinking hand sanitizer.”
1. The good news is it has spurned new high school party games like “spin the Purell…” Sure you might still have to kiss the ugly chick, but you can be assured that she’ll be germ-free…
2. Kids are no longer doing shots they’re doing squirts. (or pumps)
3. Experts knew they were on to something when store shelves were stocked with hand sanitizers with names like Absolut, Grey Goose and Smirnoff.
or a version of the ‘spin the Purell joke:
4. Now kids are able to get filthy drunk, yet be completely germ free.
These 3 or 4 jokes rolled out of my head in seconds, just listing in my head. If I actually sat down and listed, I could probably turn out another 10-20 jokes or more.
Using the listing technique take that headline and let me know if you come up with any! Leave a comment below!
You ever watch other comedians come to the club or the open-mic time and time again with new material? Are you envious? You ever watch other comedians just seemingly come up with material on the spot that makes you say to yourself “Genius! I wish I thought of that!” You ever wonder how they did it? How they seem to be able to do it time and time again?” You ask yourself how do they learn how to write comedy so well?
Well there are reasons that some comedians are good at this and some are not. In one instance you might say that a particular comedian is a “natural,” or he was “born with a gift.” But odds are he or she wasn’t “born with it” at all. Very few babies pop out of their mother’s womb saying stuff like “You call that a birth canal? It’s more like trying to push an egg through a stir stick!” or “Hey, Mom! Shave that! Haven’t you heard of a ‘Brazillian?’”
In most instances people who seem to be “born with it” actually had early exposure to comedy either through video or audio when they were younger. If you, as a child are exposed on a regular basis to the rhythms of comedy you begin to identify with comedy more readily and apply it in your life.
Your personality definitely has something to do with it. But the comedian then takes the next step and makes a conscious decision to actually apply it in their life. A light switch goes off and they say, “Hey, I can get laughs with this!” They then begin to recognize what they are doing that gets them laughter and they begin to replicate it. Whether they know it or not, they are learning how to write comedy.
A really good comedian will also study other comedians then apply some of the nuances to their material, recognizing patterns that seem to be consistently effective and use those in their approach to comedy. They see a comedian make an observational joke, then they observe something with a similar nuance and apply it to their repertoire. As they get better at this, they may start writing this stuff down and then actually take the leap, build an act and start pursuing comedy. The more they do comedy the more they readily identify with the patterns and apply them more.
For example, since I was seven years old, I listened to George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby, constantly. They all do a lot of observational material. When I was twelve, I went to the Post Office with my father. There was a sign on the door that said, “NO DOGS ALLOWED, EXCEPT ‘SEEING-EYE DOGS’.” I said, “Dad, what’s a ‘seeing-eye’ dog,” (imagining a dog with one really big ‘seeing’ eye…).
He said, “It’s a dog that helps blind people get around…”
I looked at the sign, looked at him and said, “Then who’s this sign for?”
He thought that was really funny. A few years later, I heard comedian Gary Shandling do that same thing as a joke and get really big laughs. I thought to myself, “Wow, if I just collected a whole bunch of those ideas, I could get laughs too!”
It’s almost like a guitar player. You ask any famous guitar player, they’ll tell you how they learned a riff from another guitar player then developed a variation or multiple variations on that riff, until they had their own brand. The more riffs they learn, the more they developed their own version, soon they are the guitar player everyone is emulating.
What’s my point? The point is that a comedian learns to identify with patterns that get laughs. When those “patterns”—whether they are rhythmical patterns or recognition patterns—are part of what some of us in comedy refer to as “comedy structure” or “comedy formula.”
Some comedians, like Dave Chappelle, for example (one of my absolute favorites) develop an understanding of these rhythms by trial and error and experience. Chappelle has been doing stand up comedy since he was thirteen. He has learned what seems to work by developing and tuning his instinct. Jerry Seinfeld (another favorite of mine) also works almost totally on instinct. And when I say instinct, they apply formulas and patterns—not consciously knowing the formula—but because it ‘feels’ right.
In my twenty-five years as a comedian, comedy writer and diligent student of comedy, I have identified 11 major comedy formulas used in comedy today. I’ve learned to memorize them and put them into practice on a regular basis. Now when I write comedy they almost automatically come out and get applied to my stories. They also are a part of my conversation and thought process. Learning these formulas has helped me become a solid comedy writer, being able to write 60-120 jokes a day or more, because studying the formulas helped me really learn how to write comedy. I use these formulas on a daily basis to write comedy and in one of my other blog posts I demonstrate how I do this to write 15 jokes on one topic in thirty minutes.
Once you learn that comedy does have rhythms and patterns (formulas and structure) that do get consistent laughs and in fact are the reason all comedians trigger laughter from an audience, you will be a better comedian and comedy writer yourself. Learning the formulas early helps you to cut through the learning curve and instead of being a comedian that relies purely on their instinct, you can be the comedian who knows why a joke is funny and how to put it into your comedy whenever you want. Then you’ll be the comedian who knows not only how to be funny, but also, how to write comedy.
Years ago, when I was first starting in comedy, I worked with a headliner comedian who said he hadn’t written a new joke in 11 years. Why do so many comedians and comedy writers have such a difficult time writing material? Are you one of those comedians? Do you write everyday? Do you have a difficult time coming up with stuff that’s funny? That might be your dilemma.
Yeah, that right there! That might be your dilemma; you are trying to come up with something “Funny.”
A comedian or comedy writer doesn’t just come up with something funny, he’s able to take just about anything and turn it into something funny. See the difference? When you sit down to write; you look at the news, read the N.Y. Times, look at the headlines on the internet. Do you ask yourself, “What’s so funny?” What’s funny? Nothing is funny, because most news reports the facts. (I said most because, well, there’s FOX). But what do you do with something that’s not supposed to be funny? The answer is: you do your job. It’s your job to turn it into something that is funny and you do that in comedy by applying comedic formulas.
Two guys walk into a bar…
I come from a large family…
My father was a bastard…
I’m Irish and American Indian…
I have five kids…
Millions of fish washed up in the harbor around Redondo Beach…
On the face of it are any of these lines funny? If you said yes, you’re either really damn funny or your need your head examined! Either way, both are great qualities for being a comedian…
At first glance, those lines are not funny. They don’t read funny. So, what’s so funny?
What’s funny is that you can take these lines and easily turn them into something that is funny. First, you have to understand the basics of what makes people laugh [link]. Once you understand that, you can start to apply the basic comedy formulas. They are basic, but they are so powerful that, when used correctly, they can trigger the laughter from an audience and that’s what you’re looking for as a comic.
I’ll take these lines and use two comedic formulas (Incongruity or The Reverse) to make the lines funny by doing a take-off (commenting on the sentence).
First, if we know that surprise is the number one element that triggers human laughter, then we know we have to try to get into the head of the listener. Let’s look at the first line:
Two guys walk into a bar. In the listener’s head, what are they thinking? What kind of bar? A bar that serves liquor would probably be the best assumption right? So let’s change the meaning of the word “bar.” What if we changed the meaning of the word bar to like a post or a steel bar that’s hanging so low that we would bump our heads on it if we didn’t duck. Now how does the line read?
Two guys walk into a bar…which is kind of stupid, cuz’ if the first one hits it, the next one’s gonna see it, right?
See what we did there? We shattered the audience’s assumption of the meaning of the word ‘bar.’ And came up with something funny. So if we look at the other lines we might have:
I come from a large family…four moms, five dads.
My father was a bastard…he wasn’t a bad guy, he just didn’t know his father.
I’m Irish and American Indian… you know what that means; I pretty much have V.I.P. seats waiting for me at any A.A. meeting.
I have five kids… so I’m half-Mormon…
Millions of fish washed up in the Harbor around Redondo Beach… There’s good news and bad news; The bad news is it’s going to take weeks to clean that up that mess. The good news is: Now the common man knows what it smells like when Kirsti Alley sunbathes nude.
So instead of looking for something funny to write, just find something and turn it into something funny.
Then when someone asks, “What’s so funny?” You’ll be able to say, “Me!”