“How do I know when my jokes are working?”
If you’ve been following my blog, by now you know that writing one and two liners is key to really making your story-telling pop.
If you aren’t aware of this, I’ll remind you.
Stories are great. I do stories, but with the clubs and television expecting a laugh every 18-20 seconds, you must be sure you include laugh-points all along the arc of that story. The best way to do this is to get really good at your one and two-liners, giving your story an opportunity to create a laugh after almost every one to three sentences.
If you don’t have laugh points in your stories, then you’re not doing comedy.
Keep in mind, there are some exceptions to this rule, but overall, if we’re in a comedy club, we want to laugh.
So How Do You Get Good at This?
You have to start to recognize opportunities for comedy ‘plays’ along your story’s journey. There are a vast array of techniques and structures to help you hit your laugh points, and if you’ve read and worked through my eBook, “Breaking Comedy’s DNA,” you’d know almost every one of those.
It’s amazing when you have the knowledge to trigger laugh in your story almost at will. That’s right “at will!”
Every logical grouping of words can be turned into something funny.
That being said, one of the best way to develop and laser sharpen your ability to do this is by working your one and two-liners.
And the best way of doing that is through current event, trivia and factoid humor.
Why? Because the first part of the joke is already written for you!
That’s right. Think about it; when you read a headline, a factoid or a piece of trivia, the headline is already written. All you have to do is come up with an ending!
Then you re-tool, tinker and tighten, add some misdirection, surprise or incongruity and ‘BAM!’ you have a joke.
- They are reopening the Washington Monument. The thing has been shut down for the last two years – just like Congress.
- Some NFL players criticized Michael Sam for kissing his boyfriend after getting drafted. He has to learn that NFL players are not supposed to be in gay relationships until after they’re in prison!
Both of these jokes utilize the ‘listing technique;’ the most powerful technique used in comedy today. One definition of a joke is ‘the convergence of two dissimilar ideas.’
In the Washington monument joke, all I did is take the first part of the joke: “They are reopening the Washington monument, which has been shut down for the last two years…” and I listed everything about Washington in one column, then everything about the Washington monument in another column. When I found similarities between the two (even in my imagination, because comedy is heightened reality), I finessed a joke from that idea.
I did the same thing with the Michael Sam joke. Here we have more than two dissimilar ideas converging.
Can you tell what those ideas are? NFL, PRISON, GAY RELATIONSHIPS, RELATIONSHIPS, ETC. *(See a more thorough example of this comedy writing tool here)*
In this case I would list everything I could think of utilizing all four ideas. Notice how I also used ‘relationships,’ not just ‘gay relationships?’
When we open up the idea of ‘gay relationships’ to relationships, I now have a possible idea for a slam on the NFL and all the cases of sexual assault. So that joke could be something like:
- Some NFL players criticized Michael Sam for kissing his boyfriend after getting drafted. See, Michael Sam doesn’t get it, in order to be accepted in the NFL you can’t do something gross like kiss another man, you gotta rape a chick.
Now you have an edgy joke. This joke might not be my voice. It certainly won’t fit on Late Night, but it could be suitable for ‘The Daily Show’ or Bill Maher. If not, I’m sure I could sell it to Chris Rock.
In essence, before I finish this blog post, I’ve already made 50 bucks!
How do you know it’s funny?
If you set a goal to write at least 10 of these jokes a day, then all you have to do is compare it against the Late Night shows jokes and see whose his funnier.
Sometimes it will be theirs. Sometimes Yours.
The more you do it, the better you get. Then you’ll more readily recognize the opportunities for these ‘plays’ in your stories and your stories will be funnier, more compelling and more worthy of the definition of comedy.
There is a movie out there called “A Knight’s Tale.” It stars the late Heath Ledger as William Thatcher, a peasant squire, who, after his master dies, changes “his stars” by changing his identity and becoming a knight.
It’s a fairy tale. Or is it?
About a month ago, a regular guy from Peoria, Illinois, who tweeted regular jokes as a way of venting from work and the grind of daily life, got picked up by the executives over at Late Night with Seth Meyers, to be a staff writer on the show after they took notice of his funny tweets.
I’ve been telling my students for several years now that they need to be tweeting their jokes regularly to get their writing out there, seen by others. Now it seems that crazy idea is paying off.
In the blink of a tweet, Bryan Donaldson a family man, went from a clock puncher for an insurance company to a staff writer on network television.
Is this sheer luck? No! He worked hard everyday tweeting jokes and gaining followers on Twitter. He’s a classic example of opportunity meeting preparedness.
Through his diligent and funny tweeting, Donaldson got an opportunity of a lifetime.
Can you do the same? Maybe so.
The point I’m trying to make is opportunity is out there every single day. But most of us are not doing what we need to do to take advantage of it.
You should be writing every day, generating material. Either to tweet or for practice. Every time you write, you get better. And that’s the goal; to be prepared when opportunity arises.
Then, like Heath Ledger’s character in “A Knight’s Tale,” you too might be able to “change your stars.”
Comedy is a Veiled Attack
You’re attacking someone or something. Even yourself. The basic rule about attacking is: Always attack up. What this means is that in our society an audience roots for the underdog. If you are a white male and you are making jokes about a minority, it is technically attacking “down.” Because the white male still dominates in our society. If you are a male and you are attacking a female (for no understandable reason), you are also attacking “down,” because we still see women as the fairer sex. If you are anyone and you are attacking Special Olympics kids, you are technically attacking “down,” because Special Olympics kids are seen as people that can’t take care of themselves and they need our help. This is a general rule and can be broken from time to time, but I think you get the idea.
However, this is not to be misunderstood. If you can set the person up (who is “beneath” you) as an antagonist that needs retaliation, then the audience will root for you to get back at them and make fun of them. Don’t be afraid to attack “down,” just make sure there is just cause.
I missed out on a Letterman audition because the talent coordinator told me that I was attacking my ex-wife for no reason. For time sake, I had cut the set-up to the joke which was how she cheated on me. If the audience had that information, the joke would’ve been more effective.
Don’t Worry About Pleasing Everyone
If someone gets offended because you use the word pee or if you curse, GOOD! Maybe they are NOT your audience. You cannot be all things to everyone. Be YOU! Unless you are doing corporates or kids’ shows or doing warm-up for studio audiences, don’t worry about being all things to everyone. In comedy people love to hear a unique perspective. George Carlin said “there’s nothing wrong with fluff. Sometimes the audience needs it, but do comedy that says something.” If you’re doing comedy that “walks” some of the room that could be a good thing. Out of those people who stayed, there could be a percentage that wind up being die-hard fans; You know, people who will follow you anywhere!
It may seem simple to understand. But what is funny? I run into people all the time (sometimes in my classes) that say, “I just want to express myself. I don’t want to write it down.” “When I write it down it doesn’t come out funny.” I understand this dilemma. It makes total sense. Sometimes when you try to hard to stick to a script, it can feel awkward or unnatural. In doing stand-up comedy, there is a fine line between doing the material as written and “free-styling.”
Here’s the key to understanding comedy: Every time the audience laughs, there is a stimulus present in the material or the action. In other words, SOMETHING triggered the audience’s laughter. Part of the science of comedy is learning what those triggers are and then how to exploit them whenever you want so that you can repeat them, almost at will.
Those laughter triggers are hidden within the structure of comedy. So whether it’s Jerry Seinfeld using recognition triggers and incongruity or it’s Bill Burr using compare and contrast, incongruity and incongruity act-outs, driven by a strong emotional point of view, their structures are very strong and very present in their material. In other words they are NOT just riffing at will. If you have read my book “Breaking Comedy’s D.N.A.,” you will learn those structures and you will begin to be able to identify them in all comedians. When you do that you can then start to plug them in to your material and you will find that the laughs start increasing exponentially.
Without the structure in your material, it simply becomes a story or an opinion that you’re sharing with the audience. All the while the audience is thinking: That’s nice, but I’m here to laugh.”
In other words, be natural. Sound conversational, but your structure is going to get the laughs.
Comedian after comedian took the stage last night. Many in the line up, took the mic and proceeded to yell into it—in a 68-seat comedy room.
This is a 68-seat comedy room. The acoustics are great. The distance from the foot of the stage to the back of the room cannot be more than 45-feet and you have a mic and a sound system.
Why are you YELLING?
I thought hard about whether or not to write about this. I mean: “Shit, I’m 50. If I talk about comics ‘yelling,’ am I just being an ornery douche?”
What made me do it? I thought about the other comics who hit that stage and didn’t yell. They told their stories and their jokes and they let their organic antagonism drive the emphasis in their voices when needed to drive a point home. They got great laughs.
The others just YELLED. Not only did they yell, they yelled with the mic against their faces.
Not sure where this comes from. Is it a need to hear yourself or is it just a simple misunderstanding about the nature of the sound equipment you are using? Or is it because you’re thinking, the joke isn’t funny, but if I yell it, the audience will have to think it’s funny.
Either way, there are some things you should know about volume.
First,—and this may seem elementary—the sound system is designed to amplify your voice. You don’t need to shout. Unless of course your persona is loud, (Lewis Black or Bobcat Goldthwait).
The Benign Violation Theory
When you shout into that microphone, the sound comes out of the speakers and its intensity is increased along with the volume. When it’s too loud for the room, the audience will actually back away from you and in some cases, mentally shut you off.
The psychology of it in relation to comedy, is called The Benign Violation Theory. When an audience feels violated (directly or indirectly) they turn away from a performer rather than engage with them.
It’s the complete opposite effect you want from your audience!
The classic mistake of a comedian or rapper or speaker is to substitute volume for the genuine emotion of frustration or enthusiasm.
Yelling into the mic doesn’t get the audience excited. It causes them to close down or worse, get angry.
Second, if you need volume to make your point, pull the mic away.
You’ve seen singers when they pull the mic away from their mouth. They do that because they know that when they project more, the volume increases and when the volume increases it can offend, or violate the audience’s sensitivities—or their eardrums, (not to mention peak the sound system and distort).
If, as a comedian or speaker, you need to increase your volume or yell to make a point or play a character, pull the mic away, you might find that the joke is actually good enough to stand on its own.
If the joke is not strong enough and you have to yell to make it seem stronger or funnier, consider looking at the root of the joke to figure out what you were trying to communicate. When you discover precisely what that is, try to look for an analogy (something that situation is like) to create recognition (a powerful laughter trigger), or see if there is some irony that you can point out in the material.
Often in irony you will find opposites (great for creating surprise), or hypocrisy.
And when you find hypocrisy you will find an audience that wants to laugh at the hypocrite to retaliate.
Take this line:
“Focus on the Family Founder, James Dobson said this gem the other day: ‘If we allow Gays to parent, they will raise gay children…’ We interrupt this comedy show to bring you a special bulletin: Straight parents have been raising Gay children for centuries.”
I use this line in my act. There is clear irony present in the line. Within that there is the hypocrisy of what this clown, Dobson, is saying. When the audience sees how ridiculous that Dobson’s statement is, they want to laugh in his face. So they do, and I DON’T HAVE TO YELL IT!
So for the sake of your act and the sake of our eardrums, practice your mic technique, then try to find the irony or analogy to drive the joke so the audience is laughing at the material not your volume.
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.
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.
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…
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?