Got a call from a young comedian today. Didn’t recognize the number, but I took the call anyway.
He said, “Thanks for taking my call. I really need some advice…”
I sighed to myself and thought… I knew I shouldn’t have answered the phone…
Then I heard his voice crack a little.
Dude was hurting. He went on to tell me what was up. He said, “I have a show tonight. My girlfriend just broke up with me and I’m fu**ing crushed. She won’t even talk to me. What do I do?”
I thought to myself, Did you call the right number? I’m a joke writer!
Then he said, “How do I go on stage and be funny when everything hurts?”
I like to help people. I thrive in it, but when he said that, I could feel myself like, I don’t know–jump–to the occasion.
I didn’t know whether the comedian in me was feeling heroic or schadenfreude; some kind of sadistic enjoyment that someone else was suffering.
So I took a breath and just let words come out of my mouth. I’m sure it was rambling–like these blog posts the three of you endure from me!
I said, “I’m sorry you’re going through such pain. Don’t fight it. You’re human. Embrace it.
“Allow yourself to wallow in it and experience it, but when that spotlight turns on and they call your name… it’s showtime… got it?!
“Because feeling overwhelmed by emotion is only one part of being human. Another part being able to turn on your own light, shift your emotion and give them a show, even if it’s on a fucking dime.
Because being a performer is not what we do, it’s who we are.”
I know that might sound cliche or trite to the point of sounding ingenuous, but nothing could be truer.
When I first started in this business, one of my life changing moments occurred when I heard a joke by Rodney Dangerfield (now, you have to imagine his voice saying this joke for the best effect).
He said, “Comedy is in my blood; too bad it’s not in my material!”
And though I laughed at the punchline, it was the set up that I really felt to my bones. I thought comedy is in my blood. And that was the moment I decided to do it for the rest of my life.
And in the rest of your life, you are going to experience ups and downs, breakups and deaths, but that doesn’t change who you are.
That light still goes on at eight o’clock and that audience has paid good money to laugh. So for that five minutes, thirty minutes or an hour, you have to bring it and bring it hard.
My talk seemed to help this young man on the phone, because his voice changed. He became animated.
“You’re right!” He said. His voice cracked again, but this time for a different reason; he was excited.
“Thank you for taking my call and thank you for the advice, man. Really!”
We hung up the phone. (Okay, didn’t really ‘hang up’ the phone. I pressed a button…)
But, if I didn’t say it on the phone, I’ll say it here: ‘Thank YOU, young comedian!’
After that call, I felt I was supposed to feel proud of myself and, I don’t know–maybe heroic?
But in that precise moment, my eyes filled with tears and I realized, that call was as much for him as it was for me.
In short, we’re human. Allow yourself to feel, to go through the ups and downs of life. But when that light goes on, give them a show and be unstoppable!
After all, being a comedian or a performer is not what you do; it’s who you are.
Polish. Usually this word is used to talk about fingernails, the shine on someone’s shoes or when’s someone’s from Poland—wait, that’s a different ‘Polish.’
But what about comedy?
There are loads of people that come to me weekly and ask how they can take their comedy to the next level. I have several workable and proven solutions. Not a single one can be deemed a fix-all for every comedian.
Each comedian has their own needs and an adjustment or a note is different for each one.
But I think there is one thing that could be painted on to each comedian’s act with a really broad brush…
I see a ton of comedians that get up on stage night after night at the mics and they wander through their acts like an old guy pullin’ an oxygen tank in a Vegas casino. They have no direction, no specificity and no polish.
“What else, what else, uhm… let’s see… uhm crazy, man, shit’s crazy, man. I tell you…”
How are you supposed to give your material a fair shake if you don’t take the time to polish what you’re going to say to the audience. Even when you’re testing material in front of an audience, have some direction.
KNOW where you’re going from joke to joke… or story to story.
Sometimes just one glitch in the set up of the material will cause an audience to respond half-heartedly or worse, not respond at all.
What fixes that? Polish.
Here’s the simplest solution: Practice!
Sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many comedians don’t practice before they hit that stage.
When you write a new joke, do you practice saying that joke out loud? How many times? To whom?
- Say the joke out loud at least 25 times.
- Then say it to your friends.
- Then before you hit the stage, say the joke in the context and flow of your existing set at least 25 times. This will help secure the flow of the act both leading up to the new joke and following it.
Practicing will give you high odds of really giving that joke a fair shot when it lands in the ears of the audience.
I can’t emphasize this enough!
Before his first appearance on the Tonight Show, Jerry Seinfeld performed his Tonight Show set 100 times at clubs in front of audiences.
That’s right 100 times! The exact same set. How many of you have done that before a show or a competition?
He knew that he would be a little nervous on that sound stage in Burbank, California. But after rehearsing that same set 100 times in front of different audiences, he knew nothing would be able to shake him, aside from an Earthquake.
So do your homework and prepare. if you don’t you’ll wind up like that cliché comedian at the mics; unpolished and unpracticed, trying new jokes and boring the audience with…
Uhm… what else, what else…
Dig it? Share it!
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.
One of my classes just had their graduation showcase at the world-famous Comedy Store. A student-comedian was not happy with his set. Some of the jokes worked and others didn’t. He was wondering whether the material was funny or whether he was just getting pity laughs while running the material in class.
He was ready to toss out some really good material just because they didn’t get laughs that night.
Never throw out material that you believe in if it doesn’t get a laugh on one given night.
Everyone has had a night where even the “tried and true” material is not resonating with the audience. Always give a bit at least 3-4 attempts in front of different audiences before you determine that it’s not working.
There could be a multitude of reasons that joke or comedy bit doesn’t work;
- The room could be too hot
- The drinks are taking a long time
- The waiter or waitress seems rude
- The dynamic of the room is not immediately conducive to laughter
- The audience is not empathizing with you
- The audience doesn’t know you yet to trust you
… then list can go on and on.
Comedy is a process and you learn how an audience feels and with experience you develop the ability to better read an audience’s mood, then you make adjustments in your act to reflect their mood. I never blame the audience for my set not working. I believe that it’s my job to figure it out and get them to respond. Most of the time it’s successful, sometimes…not so much!
If I see that an audience is fickle; they are not giving love right away, I will either hit them with solid surprise and structure at the opening rather than an esoteric story-based routine. Once I get them to give me 2-3 solid laughs, I can try to lay out a more story-based routine. Sometimes I’ll just talk to them and ask them a question like, “Is this the support group for back-pain sufferers?” Then why are you guys groaning at everything?” “Is this one of those overly politically correct crowds?” Then I have a routine about political correctness that almost always does well. Once I’ve earned their trust and their laughter, now I can test the new stuff.
Jay Leno use to say, “Start with the ‘tried and true’, then put some new stuff in the middle, then end with the tried and true.” It’s good advice that could keep you from throwing away good material by overreacting to just one audience and it’s a good comedian lesson.