Shut Up and Write!

By Jerry Corley | Founder – The Stand Up Comedy Clinicwriting_hands

Comedy Tip of The Day: Write, write and write some more.

I’ve been a stand up comedian for 25 years. I’ve worked television, radio, the road, corporates, colleges, casinos, you name it. I’ve been teaching comedy now for 6 years. 4 years with my own comedy classes and 2 years with professional comedians at the Friars Club of Beverly Hills, when I help found the Comedy Writer’s Forum.

At the Writer’s Forum, several comedians would meet every Monday night and work on new material. It started out small but grew to be a nice group of professional comedians all trying to continuously develop material.

We then started to meet every Monday at 5pm. We would write all new material until 8pm. We would then open the doors to the public and put on shows where each comedian did 5 minutes of brand new material written that evening. At first it was hard for everyone, then it was just challenging and exhilarating. Meeting every week and forcing ourselves to generate new material every night gave us purpose. It gave us a reason to push and generate new material.

All of us who were in that group became better writers as a result. We learned methods to generate material. It was at the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills where I first started teaching my joke-writing system. I didn’t know it was a system. I thought everyone knew how to generate material.

When comedians and comedy writers ask me how they can get better, one of the first things I say to them is “write.” Write your ass off and keep writing. Work on being original, work on structured material, work on writing clean. Even if your persona is not clean, you should work on also writing clean so that even if you can’t use the material yourself, you can sell it.

That’s why in my classes, every session is started of with a writing drill. I give the students a set up (usually from the news) and they start writing and you know what? I am almost always amazed—yes, “amazed” at the level of joke that each of these students wind up producing. It all starts with writing…

So what are you waiting for?

Write, write and write some more!

Biggest Mistakes Comedians Make When Writing Comedy

By Jerry Corley | Founder – The Stand Up Comedy Clinic

man-scratching-head-300x200Comedy writing is rewarding. There is no better feeling than writing a joke and getting an appreciative laugh. Okay, maybe there is a better feeling but that belongs in a different blog…besides, if I told my wife that the things she does don’t compare to joke writing, she might get offended. Winking smileBut I digress…

The dichotomy between the fun and the reward of getting the laugh versus the sometimes tedious and frustrating process of comedy writing,   is often misunderstood. Comedy writing is fun, but it’s also work. Most comedians and comedy writers forget about that. You have to put in the work to get the rewards. The more work you put in the bigger and better the rewards…usually.

It is like guitar playing. I play guitar as a hobby. The more I practice, the better I get. The better I get, the more I want to play. But when I stop practicing and just play the songs I already know, I stop getting better. Got it?

Sometimes the work might not produce material that works. But that’s the process. You have to learn to accept that sometimes the writing session comes up without truly rewarding material. You have to brush it off and return the next day. Everyone goes through that. The better you get, the fewer encounters you have with that kind of failure, but it does happen.

There are two major mistakes comedians and writers make when writing comedy.

  • Giving up too soon.
  • Trying to find something funny to write about.

Giving up too soon is very common with comedians and comedy writers. Recently I did a comedy writing seminar at the World Series of Comedy in Las Vegas, a week-long comedy conference/competition I recommend to all comedians. While at the seminar I asked the comedians how many of them spent a minimum of 3 hours a day writing material? Five comedians raised their hands—that’s out of eighty in attendance!

If you’re not spending a few hours a day writing, then get the hell out of the business. It’s cut-throat out there and if you’re not putting in the time on your comedy writing, then you’re not going to be able to compete in the stand up comedy business. Besides, if you treat yourself as a professional, the results will begin to start coming back to you in a more professional way. Dig in. Dig deep and get to work.

I learned this many years ago. I was touring with a guy who used to be the head writer on a comedy show. I wrote a joke about Congress that I was pretty proud of. I told it to him. He said, “dig deeper.” I wrote another one, he said, “dig deeper.” He kept repeating that until I had put 3 hours in on the joke. By the time I was done I had 30 lines for that one joke and the more I worked, the funnier they got.

Because of that one event, I started digging deep all the time. It wasn’t long before I got 30 lines in two hours, then an hour.

The Biggest Mistake We Can Make When Writing Comedy

The other big mistake comedians and  comedy writers make when writing comedy is they try to find something funny to write about. It’s uncanny. We’ll look at the newspaper and online stories and repeat like a mantra: “that’s not funny…that’s not funny…that’s not funny.” Until we conclude that there’s nothing funny in the news today. And that’s the biggest mistake we can make when writing comedy.

A joke in its simplest form is STRAIGHT LINE – PUNCHLINE. It’s not FUNNY LINE – PUNCHLINE. So the comedy writer must be vigilant in taking the straight line, the fact, the statement and writing it down. Isolate it in its most unfunny state, then, turn it funny by finding the double-entendre play, or doing a reverse, or doing a listing technique or an analogy play or apply 7 other comedy formulas to turn it into something funny. But always start with a straight line first.

Set a goal: When you sit down to write, just tell yourself you’re going to write 25 straight lines. For some of you that could be the most writing you’ve done in a while.

Keep checking back I’ll have more on this later.

“I’m Getting Bored With My Comedy Writing”

By Jerry Corley | Founder – The Stand Up Comedy Clinic

I just had a session with one of my private students at my studio. After he ran some of his material, I asked him what happened to some of the other bits he was working on last time we met. He said, “I’m getting bored with it.” Does that sound familiar? It does to me!

I remember writing material, working on it then after doing it on stage once or twice, getting bored with it, despite the fact that it was good and getting laughs. Worse, I would get a showcase for a spot in a club or a television show and I would abandon my trusted material because I thought it would be best if I wrote new material for the showcase.

Problem is when you do that, the material might be fresh, but it’s untested and when it’s untested and you’re in a higher tension situation like an audition, the new material sounds like just that, “new.” Therefore, you sound “new.”  It doesn’t sound honed. It doesn’t tight, because you’re still working out the kinks and you don’t quite “own” it.

When you showcase, audition or make an important appearance at a club, you want your act to look effortless. You want it to look like it’s just coming out of your mouth for the first time even though it isn’t and that takes rehearsal, practice and stage time.

Anthony Hopkins reads a script two hundred times before he starts to work on it. That way the material is now a part of who he is. Does his work ever look stale? Does he ever look bored?

My father, Pat Corley, a character actor for almost sixty years said that it takes eight hours of rehearsal to “own” five minutes of material. You can memorize that material in far less time, but owning it, is a completely different story. It has to be a part of you.

Jay Leno said, whenever you’re working on new material, do the “tried and true” up front, slip some new material in the middle and close with the “tried and true.”

Rita Rudner adds a new joke or a new routine every week and in a year she has a whole new act.

Part of being a professional is learning to continue to make the material you’ve been doing sound fresh every night. That’s part of your craft.

I saw Kevin James, (star of “King of Queens, ” a hit show on network T.V. for many seasons), when he did his first showcase in L.A. for network executives. He did material I’d seen him do for years. But the networks guys were seeing for the first time. He killed. It resulted in a sitcom that made him a star.

To build an act, you must have material to build on. That material might be stuff you’ve done enough to get bored with, but the guy in the club drinking a beer, has probably heard it for the first time.

How To Be a Better Comedian

By Jerry Corley | Founder – The Stand Up Comedy Clinic

Student Robert NarholzA young comedian came up to me the other day and asked, “how can be a better comedy writer…I mean, right now?”

My first thought was to give him the standard rhetoric about how it’s a process and it takes time, blah, blah, blah. But, instead, I watched his act and I got a sense of where he was in his comic “trajectory, ” for lack of a better term. It was as I thought, so I just told him, “You want to get better right now? Stop trying so hard. Stop trying to find “funny” things to talk about and start talking about what’s true.

Comedy in it’s most basic structure has a straight line and and punch line. The straight line (aka: setup) is crucial. It’s got to be believable. It must be a situation or a statement that sounds logical is recognizable to an audience. Once the straight line is clear, you can spin it with an unexpected result. But it’s best if it starts with something that is true.

In addition, I know a ton of comics—okay, one guy, but he weighs about two-thousand pounds—(see what I did there?). I know a lot of comics in all levels of their careers who have trouble coming up with material because they are always looking for something funny to write about. Talk about putting the pressure on yourself to write everyday! If you’re just looking for “funny things” to write about, then you’re going to find yourself creating your own writer’s block. Just write the truth then turn it into something funny.

You can start with yourself: What’s true about me?

  1. I’m Irish and American Indian…
  2. I come from a large family…
  3. I’ve been married a total of 19 years…
  4. I went to a very strict Catholic school…

On the surface these are just statements about my life. I’m not looking for “funny things” about my life, I’m just looking for statements that describe me. Nothing funny there right? But if you understand that comedy has structure and it’s in the surprise where the jokes come from you can apply the ten major comedy formulas to any of these statements and make them “funny.” Let’s do it… write jokes that is…

  1. I’m Irish and American Indian… so you know pretty much that I have V.I.P. seats waiting for me at any A.A. meeting. I walk into that meeting it’s like, “Hey ‘Running-Bear O’Reilly, ’ we have a chair for you in the front row!”
  2. I come from a large family… four Moms, Five Dads…
  3. I’ve been married a total of 19 years… it would be nice if it wasn’t split between three wives.
  4. I went to a very strict Catholic School… I had A.D.D…. Once!

Very simple straight lines can become very effective jokes. Of course it’s much easier once you understand the ten major comedy formulas and how to apply them. But the key is they didn’t come from trying to write about “funny things.” They came from just writing about what’s true.

Can You Learn To Be Funny?

babyHere’s an age-old argument that never ends; Can you learn to be funny? You’ll get answers on both ends of the spectrum. What’s interesting is the people who DON’T believe you can learn to be funny are really negative. They’ll actually call me and leave a nasty voicemail about how you can’t teach anyone to be funny. Makes me laugh, because the truth is “funny” is learnable.

As infants, we learn what funny is. If you look at a baby and you say “ooooooooooh—BOO!” The baby, laughs! It’s uncanny “ooooooooh—BOO!” You’ve probably seen it a hundred times. It’s because the person doing the “performance” is creating an expectation with “ooooooooh.” In the babies little mind “ooooooooh” is going to go on an on. Then you shatter that expectation with a quick “BOO!” It’s the surprise that gets the laugh. Pretty simple concept and it doesn’t change when we get older either. Surprise is still the number element that triggers human laughter. So, I’m sorry naysayers, you can learn to be funny.

It’s as simple as sharpening your awareness of the opportunity to shatter the expectation and create the surprise. If you take any statement of piece of dialogue and you suddenly change the perception of what is being said or, say, change the perception of the meaning of a word, you’ll have surprise which will result in funny. “I’ve been losing my hair lately. It bugs me a little bit. Like in the mornings when my wife is running her fingers through my hair, but I already left for work.” That line gets a laugh every time because the audience has a perception of “running her fingers through my hair, ” once I let them get that picture in their heads, I throw in that the hair she’s running her fingers through is the hair left behind on the pillow after I went to work. Because their image was shattered, they laugh. Learn to identify the opportunity to spin what you say at the last minute and you will learn to be funny.

In comedy, that’s called a reverse. It’s classic, and if used properly, that formula will get a solid, triggered laugh from an audience every time. Well, unless the audience doesn’t speak the language you’re speaking, or they’re dead. And if you’re running your jokes by a dead audience, then you should see a shrink, or better yet, stop playing the Hollywood Improv. Smile

The reverse is just one of the humor formulas you can learn in your journey to learning to be funny. It’s one that I teach in my comedy classes and seminars. It’s powerful, but it’s one of those formulas you want to avoid using in back-to-back jokes when doing a routine. Once you give up the formula your audience begins to anticipate the surprise. Then it’s no longer a surprise, is it?

Here’s a real-life scenario in which I used a formula to lighten the mood. My wife and I were expecting a baby. I came home from work late one night and she was laying on the couch. She said, “I’m having gas pains.” I said, “Babe, everyone is, it’s like $4.25 a gallon!” She laughed. The we discovered that those “gas pains” were coming 3 minutes apart. 

That is called the double-entendre formula. Take the perceived meaning of the word and turn it into something that the listener didn’t expect. I’ll talk more about that in a future blog…you know, the blog that I write where you can’t teach someone the skills to learn to be funny…

Jerry Corley is the founder of the Stand Up Comedy Clinic. He teaches the science behind the art of comedy from his studio in Burbank, CA.