Performing the Same Jokes Doesn’t Make it Boring

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I just got an email from a young comedian who was worried about doing the same jokes he did last time he was on stage; “… it’s a ‘bringer show‘ and I’m expected to have 5 people there. My friends are coming and if I do the same jokes it’s going to be boring.”

I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard this.

Let me share something with you about that:

There’s nothing wrong with doing the same material you did the last time…

… as long as it’s great material!

I’ve been doing stand-up for 27 years. I work a lot. I’m constantly writing new material. But I have a core set that I’ve developed that gets a great response and often when I’m doing my hour or 90-minute show, it gets a standing ovation.

I have people come to see me who have seen me before. Sometimes they ask me to do their favorite bits. If it works into what I’m doing that road trip, I’ll pop it in.

A while back, I was doing a week in Oklahoma City and this biker walks up to me before the show and says, “Hey Man! I saw you here a while back and I want you to do that ‘Cow’ routine that you did last time. Brought the entire chapter with me. Forty of us bikers rode over an hour just to see ya.”

I looked at the table he referred to and there they were; forty bikers.

You know what? You could be damn sure I did the request!

When some random person approaches you in a club and makes a request based on what they saw the last time it should speak to you as a performer.

It says that you left an impression and, to them, the material was memorable and had an impact on them and they want to hear it again.

So guess what? You’re proabably NOT “boring” them.

Sometimes, as I’m developing my new act, someone might come up to me after a show and say, “I wish you did that bit you do about Mormons. I love that bit.”

In another example, Brian Kiley, who’s the head monologue writer over at The Conan O’Brien Show, is a local favorite in L.A. clubs.

He is often doing the exact same 7-10 minutes and you’ll hear a lot of jokes you’ve heard him do at other times.

He’s usually honing and testing the set because he has a T.V. spot coming up that he’s rehearsing for.

But here’s the cool part: whenever he’s on stage, not only is the audience laughing, but the back of the comedy club will be lined with comedians who’ve heard him before. His jokes are so strong and well-written that the comedians want to hear them again.

It’s the same reason we watch certain movies again or listen to our favorite songs, because they resonate with us and they make us laugh, cry or reminisce.

When you song search on Spotify, are you usually looking for songs you don’t know, or songs you’ve heard before and want to hear again?

When I was younger they had these things called comedy albums. (LOL!) Then they had comedy cd’s, then comedy VHS videos; now it’s DVD’s, links, netflix and YouTube.

But back in the day I had George Carlin’s albums, Richard Pryor’s, Steven Martin’s. We didn’t just listen to those albums one time, we listen to them–I don’t know–hundreds of times?

I remember Eddie Murphy’s ‘Delirious’. I had the album and the video. I watched it over and over again. Same routine. Loved it each time. Who says we don’t want to hear the same jokes?

Just because they are the same jokes, doesn’t make them ‘lame’ jokes.

Remember, even if your friends are reluctant to laugh at they jokes they’ve heard, it doesn’t matter because the audience is always different and if the material is awesome, the people who haven’t heard it will be laughing. And I assure you, because laughter is a socially contagious experience, your friends will be laughing too.

When you’re starting out, I cannot emphasize the importance of building that core act. You should do it constantly, revise, refine and polish. Add act-outs, tags and toppers. Until it crushes.

Worrying about your friends hearing the same jokes is counter-productive to you really developing and polishing your act. Not to mention that it can have a cascading negative impact on your development.

It limits you because if you’re always doing new material you never get to ‘own’ it. Therefore you’re always somewhat in your head and never truly present and in the moment.

As a result you never come across as utterly confident and if you’re not utterly confident, nobody in television will want to book you and your friends will still experience discomfort and won’t want to come to your next show anyway.

So don’t worry so much about your friends. Throw in a new joke or two into your core set and develop an act that’s memorable.

Because when the 40 bikers ride over an hour to see your show and request their favorite bit, a bit they’ve heard before, you can be totally assured that you are NOT ‘BORING.’

Go get ’em!

Top 3 Ridiculous Myths About Hecklers

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There’s a post in Dave Schwenson’s newsletter “How to be a Working Comic,” about hecklers. It’s worth a read and you should definitely check it out. I’m a huge fan of Dave’s and I have a lot of respect for him. He was the manager of the Improv when I got my first T.V. spot and he was largely, (if not entirely), responsible for all my bookings in Vegas.

But I’ve got to address some myths about hecklers and attempt to put them to rest. So in this post I will attempt to bust the top 3 ridiculous myths about hecklers.

You, my devout blog readers (all three of you), will help me get the word out by hitting the like button and tweeting the the post to all your comedian friends and other friends of comedy… right? 🙂

Considering that most of you also have about three friends, we can easily paper the world with this important info!

So let’s get to it.

As stand-ups,we deal with a dynamic that almost no other entertainment professionals deal with. That dynamic is the heckler.

I receive lots of questions about hecklers. The information culled from these emails is interesting. The new comedians have a fear of hecklers and the experienced comedians want advice on how to properly handle hecklers. 

Over the years, I’ve heard hecklers called “jerks,” “A-Holes,” and even “the ‘cancer’ of comedy.” But in my 27 years doing stand-up, I’ve learned a lot about the heckler and here in this post I want to give you some tools and bust the top 3 ridiculous myths about hecklers.

The heckler is, of course, the person in the audience who yells out something during your act. The yelling out has a tendency to throw off a comedian. Comedians can be thrown off their game, forget their material, get all riled up, angry, yell, scream profanities at the heckler.

I don’t believe that helps the show at all.

Not that the heckler should do the talking out in the first place, but the comedian should be able to handle a situation like this comedically.

Once in a great while the occasion arises when you do need to be a little more brutal in your heckle responses, but it’s the exception, not the rule.

Sun Tzu in “The Art of War” said “know thy enemy.” And although I don’t necessarily consider all hecklers my “enemy,” it’s a good rule to follow because it’s far easier to understand and handle this situation if you, as the comedian, understand the heckler.

So first, let’s deal with that.

Myth #1: “It’s Us Against Them”

In a comedy documentary called “Alone Up There,” filmmaker Sean Patrick Shaul interviews many comedians and other comedy professionals to find out what makes a comedian tick.

In the documentary, veteran comedian Bobby Slayton, (The “Pit Bull of Comedy”), bobby slayton comedian boldy says to the camera, “It’s us against them.”

Isn’t that a little dramatic? I have a lot of respect for Slayton. He’s one of the fastest comedians on his feet today and he’s a super helpful guy with other comedians. But the theory that it’s an “us against them” dynamic is shaky at best.

Let’s bust this myth, right now.

I don’t think that theory has been examined even at the most basic level. I mean think about it. You’ve sat in those seats watching a comedy show, right? Have you ever thought it was an us against them thing? Have you ever sat there, as the next comedian is being introduced saying to yourself, “Make us laugh, idiot?!”

Probably not, right? I mean, I usually wait till the comedian is several failed jokes in to say, “Oh boy, this guy doesn’t get it.” But that’s about as close as it gets to us-against-them.

When a comedian is introduced and while he is taking the stage, I’m curious. I’m thinking something like, what’s this guy got? or something like that.

In other words, the typical audience member is rooting for the comedian to do well, not hoping they’ll wanna throw down.

We’re at a comedy club because we want to laugh, not because we want to fight.

I’ve run into very few situations where there was an us-against-them mentality. And the closest it ever got was more of a ‘it’s a me-against-him mentality, or it’s a me-against-that-table mentality. But that situation was rare.

So the “us-against-them” thing? Let’s get rid of that idea right now. The audience is rooting for you to make them laugh. They want the ticket price to be worth it.

Myth #2 “Hecklers are Jerks or A-holes”

Some people automatically jump to the conclusion that hecklers are jerks or “a-holes.” That’s not necessarily true and the comedian has a huge advantage in keeping that interaction with the heckler positive and funny.

First the comedian should understand that the overwhelming majority of hecklers are not trying to ruin your show. Most hecklers are just wanting to embellish or engage. There’s a psychology behind this that may help support this notion.

There’s an old saying, “It’s impossible to dislike anyone who makes you laugh.” Also, when someone laughs they released the same hormones someone does when they fall in love. So when you’re making them laugh they actually have an innate thought that the comedian is their ‘friend.’

So when you have a heckler, think about it this way: Who in your life insults you the most? Probably your best friends. They know everything about you. They do it in a teasing way because they love you, but they can certainly get pretty brutal at times.

Most hecklers are not brutal, they just want to engage or embellish. Sometimes they even tag a joke. If you just treat them like your best friend, (usually with a stinging response and a smile on your face), they will usually laugh with you and you keep the show at a level that can still be identified as “comedy” and not “barfight.”

Myth #3: Hecklers are the Cancer of Comedy

Quite the contrary! Don’t fall so much in love with yourself as a comedian or performer that you forget you wouldn’t exist without that audience. You’re on stage in front of people. It’s a live a event.

Part of the nature of this business is that comedy is a conversation. It’s supposed to be a one-way conversation, but it’s still a conversation and if you say something that offends or something that someone in the audience disagrees with, then you might get a response. It’s your job to be prepared.

Some people don’t have a lot of experience with comedy. Some hecklers think it’s “part of the show.” And some hecklers actually think they are “helping” you.

I don’t know how many times I had a heckler and had to deal with them then after the show they’ll come up to me and say, “I really helped you out tonight, huh?”

To call them the “cancer of comedy” is counter-productive. Think about it. Each time you have a heckler you have to deal with, you become faster on your feet. You learn how to engage with the heckler, while keeping the audience laughing. When you have a heckler you have a great opportunity to engage some of the most powerful laughter triggers in comedy. Embarrassment, Superiority and Release.

  1. The audience feels superior to the heckler you are addressing.
    These psychological laughter triggers working together can create powerful laughter and applause from the audience
  2. The audience recognizes how embarrassing that situation would be if it was them, and…
  3. The audience is releasing tension because it’s not them!

All of these working together can actually make the show more memorable, more energetic while adding a totally unique dynamic. This gives you a chance to be a rockstar. But you have to do the work and prepare for hecklers.

What do you do to prepare?

In my early days, I was heckled once where I couldn’t recover. Three guys were heckling me and when one ran out of breath, the other one picked it up. It was brutal!

I went home that night and vowed that that would not happen again. I did a few things to be more prepared for hecklers. You can do some of these too.

I sat down and wrote about 30 generic heckler responses.

One of the most memorable heckle responses in memory is from Steve Martin. Someone in the crowd shouted something out and Martin responded by saying, “I remember when I had my first beer.” So I thought to myself; how can I respond by insulting the hecklers ability to be out in public?

I wrote: “Looks like someone’s wife gave someone back his balls for the night.” If it seems like that alone won’t work, I might pile on a little by saying, “I’m just kidding, he’s not married. I mean, look at this Dude. That would have to be one rude bitch to be able to tolerate a grown man who has yet to learn how to behave in public.”

Keep in mind. I’m not being too brutal. Just stinging a little as I would my best friends.

If it’s a table of people the guy is in I might ask a rhetorical question like, “So what’s going on here? Are these all your friends or are you the only one in the trailer park with a car? Because I’ve seen your house and I love what you’ve done with the Michelins.”

These lines are time-tested and usually work to shut the heckler up. They’re not brutal lines. They’re playful and they don’t put the heckler into a corner where they feel the need to retaliate.

What happens if you get too brutal?

If you’re too brutal, things can get ugly. I’ve gone too far a couple of times, because of my stubbornness and I’ve gotten a beer bottle thrown at me, gotten punched in the face and threatened by a heckler I brutalized who wanted the last word so badly, he went out to his car and returned with a gun.

Fortunately, the bouncers kept him from returning.

One thing you can do to write heckle lines is to watch YouTube and search hecklers. Write down what the hecklers say and write at least 10 comebacks, because odds are you’re going to hear that same heckle from some other heckler at some point.

The second thing I would highly recommend is to read outside your comfort zone. Comedians should be more well-read than the audience. In reading stuff outside your comfort zone, you open yourself up to new ideas.

I read Popular Mechanics while at the dentist and the article talked about how Harley Davidson patented the sound of their motorcycles.

About a month later I was the hired comedian for the Laughlin River Run where about 10 thousand bikers show up for a retreat and take over Laughlin.

At one point during my show, there was this biker who kept spouting off about his “Ole Lady.” At random points in my act he would respond by always referring to “My Ole lady!” At one point some of the other bikers didn’t want to hear it so one guy shouted to me, “Git ’em!” (Meaning he wanted the comedian to deal with the heckler).

I didn’t know what to say at first. Then I remembered the article from Popular Mechanics and said, “Did you know that Harley Davidson patented the sound of their motorcycles? They own the sound!” Then I looked right at the dude who was heckling and I said, “I wonder who owns the queef, because I fucked your ‘ole lady’ last night and I think I owe some royalties.”

The entire place exploded with laughter and the heckler raised his hand in a fist and said, “Good one!” Then he shut up for the rest of show.

Sometimes hecklers just want to be acknowledged. He wasn’t trying to be mean, but he was being annoying. When the audience let me know that they were tired of him, I hit him with a response that was related to the niche of the audience I was performing for.

The point of that story is that I wouldn’t have had that information available if I didn’t read outside my comfort zone.

Conclusion:

In the end, it’s your job to keep that energy in the realm of comedy. Not turn it into a fight. It’s better for you, it’s better for the crowd and it’s better for the comedy world in general.

Think about it this way: If there are people in the audience who’ve never been to a comedy show before and the energy of the show turns from the positivity of a comedy show to the negative energy of a bar fight, then odds are they will never come to a comedy show again. That’s bad for all of us.

So remember to do your work and keep it funny.

Love to hear your comments and if you enjoyed this piece, give it a “like,” okay?

How do I Get on Stage and be Funny When Everything Hurts?

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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.

1 Sure-Fire Way to Take Your Comedy To The Next Level

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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:

Polish.

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?

  1. Say the joke out loud at least 25 times.
  2. Then say it to your friends.
  3. 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 clichĂ© comedian at the mics; unpolished and unpracticed, trying new jokes and boring the audience with:

Uhm: what else, what else:

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3 Vital Things To Remember When Performing Stand-up Comedy

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  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. Be Funny

    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.