Another Common Misconception About Writing Your Comedy

misconceptions on comedy writingI recently posted an ad on Facebook promoting my comedy writing workshops. If you haven’t attended, these workshops are intense. You get powerful tools to write comedy on just about anything. But that’s not the point of this post.

When those ads run there’s a place you can leave comments, click “like” or “share.” When people click the ad they are taken to a page and invited to watch four writing tutorial videos.

The first video is on how to write 15-20 jokes on a single headline during breakfast.

What fascinated me was how quickly this ad was shared and liked. It received some really heart-warming comments like, “Amazing work, man!” and “Wow! Loved this video! When can I see the next one?” But again, that’s not exactly what this post is about.

The real fascination came from the skeptics. I try to avoid using the word “haters,” (it seems overused and a bit cliche), but the vitriol coming from the skeptics really urges you to lean toward the word “haters.”

The stuff that spilled into the comment box! People calling me a “hack” and “idiot,” or my favorite “aging comic.” Lol! Like you would take comedy advice from someone who hasn’t put in the time?

My mentor was George Carlin and when he mentored me 25 years ago, he was 8 years older than I am right now!

Imagine if I would’ve said, “Like I’m gonna take this advice from some aging comic!”

But instead of just discarding the ridiculous and under-examined claims from these skeptics, I decided to use them to address some misconceptions about writing your comedy.

One guy wrote, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, comedy comes from the depths of your soul.” Like that’s it. My first thought was ‘really?’

Comedy comes from the depths of your soul? That’s it? I just gotta get up on stage and talk about the depth of my soul and people are gonna laugh with me? Problem solved? Comedy gold, right?

Who needs any experience? Let’s just get up on stage and talk from the depths of our souls!

In the vast horizon of possibilities of where comedy can come from, why would anyone who’s taken any time to study this art make such a definitive and limiting statement?

Not only that, just look around! Jerry Seinfeld, “What is it with bugs?!” or “I don’t know if horses really know they’re racing. I think horses are sitting at the starting gate going, ‘I know there’s a bag of oats at the end of this and I wanna get there first.'”

Does that sound like it comes from the depths of Seinfeld’s soul?

Or take Anthony Jeselnik: “The best way to break up with a girl is like I take off a band-aid, slowly and in the shower.”

Depths of his soul? Or just a incongruous association joke about breaking up with a girl?

When you buy into the misconception that comedy only comes from the depths of our souls, you discount the silly, the ridiculous and the wildly insane.

Of course there are pieces the “depths of the soul” comment that make sense. It’s cathartic to talk about things that are deep and you have an emotional connection to. But how limiting is that statement?

It’s missing something, like, where the laugh comes from! So basically sometimes the idea can come from the depths of your soul but the comedy comes from the multiple stimuli that create laughter.

Maybe the initial idea comes from some place deep in your soul, but somewhere in the depth of your soul, some kind of laugh should occur, or guess what? It’s not comedy, it’s just sad or scary, or worse, creepy.

The relationship with my Ex is an example. It was a dark time. So the initial thoughts that inspired the material may have come from the depths of my soul, but the laughs have to be achieved through structure. In this case I use analogy and incongruous associations.

“My Ex was like a funny car; alcohol-fueled. She had the worst mood swings.
I called her the ‘Ice Princess.’ When I used to come home from a gig–before I went in the house– I would put my tongue on the front door. If it stuck, I stayed at the neighbor’s.”

One of the worst things that ever happened in my life was when my Mom was dying. The topic comes from the depths of my soul, but the laughs come from wildly exaggerating.

“Before my Mom died she had bouts of dementia. Which was a boon for me on my birthdays. She would always get me a birthday card with a hundred-dollar-bill in it. She’d be like, ‘Jerry, did I give you your birthday card?’ I be like, ‘No…’ I swear, if she was having a really bad day, I could net about a grand.”

The jokes are good. They get consistent laughs with audiences. The subject matter starts with something that may have come from the depths of my soul, but they have to engage the stimuli that triggers laughter, otherwise it’s just drivel.

In other words, the claim that comedy comes from the depths of your soul, can help us understand ONE of the possible places from which our comedy can be inspired. But stating that it’s the only place, misses the main point and it hides a vast horizon of other opportunities from our view.

Ever since the beginnings of the first attempts at comedy and comedy writing, there hasn’t been a single way to write or present comedy. There are only choices among an infinite palette of possibilities.

How is Writing Comedy the Fastest Way to Complete and Utter Failure?

right way wrong way to do comedyI was listening to some comedy the other day and I came across this video (podcast interview on YouTube). There was a guy in the interview who was talking about comedy.

This guy was from Kentucky and he had a bit of that Southern accent that made me think, “Damn! I didn’t know they had the internet in the hollar“.

He said, “Writing comedy is the fastest way to complete failure.” As you might imagine, that got my attention!


Listen to the Audio of This Post

I was like, "What?! Okay, let's hear what this idiot has to say..."

Then I asked myself, "Why did you call this guy an idiot, Jerry? You don't even know him. That's not cool!" Then I quickly realized that I'm originally from New York. It's in my blood. I'll pretty much call a squirrel an idiot for being out in the snow without a coat.

Then I listened to more of this idiot, and it wasn't long before it was obvious...

This guy has no idea what he's talking about! He went on to say that the reason why "writing your comedy leads to complete and utter failure is because"--are you ready for this?--"it's one-dimensional... it's written on a page."


If you sensed a gush of deep, guttural sarcasm, you weren't far off. I mean, "What!?" It's one-dimensional? It's written on a page? So that means it leads to complete and utter failure?

You know what else is written on a page? Pretty much every script for a sitcom or a movie!

And whether it's a drama or comedy, those words from the page have to be brought to life through performance.

Would you say that "Star Wars," or "Trainwreck" were one-dimensional? I don't think so. And we know they haven't led to complete and utter failure. Trainwreck did over $139 million Worldwide and Star Wars shattered box office records its first weekend. ($248 million, first weekend, for those who are curious).

So if this guy isn't a complete idiot then that sucking sound I've been hearing is him mouth-siphoning too much of that good Kentucky Moonshine.

By saying that writing your comedy is the quickest way to utter failure, you're totally discounting the role of the comedian. The comedian's role is to be able to "perform" their material.

I'm a good joke writer. I know that. I've made my living from that. But I don't take that material on stage and "read" jokes...

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received in comedy was from an acting teacher. She had me do a five minute set in front of my acting class. The jokes were good. They got laughs. But when I was done the teacher folded her arms and said, "Oh, look! Jerry thinks his jokes are so clever, he doesn't need to perform them."

Then she said, "I don't know how you feel about any of that stuff... so I don't care."

The Role of the Comedian is to Perform

It is the role of the comedian to learn how to perform their material, to have an understanding of the emotion of the joke, what it means and what's being said with that joke. Then deliver it like it's a conversation and it's right off the top of your head.

David Letterman called it, "rehearsed spontaneity."

It is also the role of the comedian or comedy writer to understand that laughter is NOT random. It's derived from certain stimuli. That stimuli is present in any line or story that gets a laugh. When a comedian or writer knows this, they can be sure to write it in.

Even when you're riffing and it sounds funny in your head. It's sounds funny because that stimuli is embedded somewhere in the words, the concept or the situation.

(To understand this further, checkout What Makes People Laugh).

So why would anyone allow something as ridiculous as that to come out of his conch? Especially when a huge body of evidence to the contrary is right in front of him?

Successful Comedians Write

Jerry Seinfeld is one of my all-time favorite comedians. He's smart. He's insightful. He's financially the most successful comedian of all time. According to Forbes, he's worth $750 million...

Also, between the June 2014 and June 2015, Seinfeld pulled in another $36 million. A large part of that from that little show about nothing.

That show "Seinfeld" was written by Jerry, (and Larry David for the first 5 seasons) with ball point pens and legal pads.

My point is Seinfeld writes down everything he says in his act. He's been called a "word surgeon;" removing every word that doesn't contribute to the joke. He works that material on the page before he takes the stage.

George Carlin wrote everything down. Jim Gaffigan too...

What? They're old? Okay how about Russell Peters, $19 million, Gabriel Iglesias $8 million, Aziz Ansari $9.5 million.

All of these guys write their material, first.

To be fair, Kevin Hart and Louis C.K. are also top earners in comedy. Both of them are a blend of both their writing and their riffing on stage.

The overwhelming majority of successful comedians write their material. Even Bill Burr who's known for his emotion-driven, (supposedly 'unscripted') stinging brand of comedy, started his first 5-7 years writing his stuff, because--self-admittedly--he "needed to know how to write a joke."

The reason why I say 'supposedly unscripted,' is because I recently saw him on stage at the Largo in L.A. working out his unscripted material... as he read from his notebook.

As you've probably heard me say before, there are 3 types of comics:

    1. The Coincidental Comedian

    - We're all coincidental comedians. That's when something funny happens in conversation or on a phone call or a drive to the airport or holiday dinner at the in-laws. When that moment occurs, we make a record of it, (Most people write it down). Then we repeat it to an audience and hope it's funny. Nothing wrong with being a Coincidental comedian. But we have to wait for that coincidence to occur to build an act.

    2. The Architect

    - The Architect is the comedian or writer who can sit down at will and write jokes, humorous stories, sketches or scripts at will, because he understands the structure of comedy and the science behind what makes people laugh. He doesn't have to wait for inspiration. He creates inspiration.

    3. The humorist

    - The Humorist is the best of both worlds. He can write his material and get up on stage and riff that material. His improv skills help him to expand on the material in the moment often coming up with tags and toppers.

We should all strive to be the humorist; a blend of both writing skill and spontaneity. Not just one or the other.

The Advantages of Learning to Write Comedy

In fact there are so many advantages to knowing how to write a joke including learning to sell scripts, write for late night, speech punch-up, staff writer, etc.

See, I think what some people don't get--including the guy from the hollar--is that your one and two-liner jokes are the fundamental core of, not only comedy, but storytelling.

Think about it, the one and two-liner is masterful. It has a beginning middle and end. It is a mini-story. Learning to command the one and two-liner enabled me to write better bits, better sketches, better scenes and better screenplays.

And the thing is when you learn what comedy is and what makes it work and then you learn to write it AND perform it, you can make a real living, because you've created the potential for multiple revenue streams.

With all these reasons, I don't know why this guy from the Hollar would say such nonsense. Then I realized that he also sells a product online on how to do stand-up. I guess selling people on the easy way is his angle. The path of least resistance sort of thing, you know?

I don't begrudge anyone who's trying to make a living. And I'm one of those people who buy all the books and programs so I can learn from everyone.

My concern is for the young comedian just getting into comedy. He's told he doesn't need to learn how to write it, then ten years down the line he's bitching about why he's not making any real money in this business.

There's no "Right Way" or "Wrong Way"

Bottom line is there's no right way or wrong way of coming up with your comedy for stand-up, but if you want to also learn to really master your comedy, know how to fix a joke or be in a writer's room, sell scripts, jokes, sketches or screenplays and diversify your talent to create multiple revenue streams, then you'll be so much better off learning to write your comedy as well.

There's an old saying in Hollywood, "You could be the funniest guy in the world, but if you can't put it on the page, it means nothing."
Just ask Jerry Seinfeld.

So writing your comedy doesn't lead to complete & utter failure. It leads to the opposite of it.

Develop a Strategy to Avoid Killing the Momentum in Your Career

bridge-new-yorkEver go on a road trip with friends or family. You leave at a certain time and you expect to arrive at a certain time. So in your head you plan what happens when you get there.

If you’re going skiing, you know you’ll have time to stop at your favorite restaurant before you head up to the slopes.

If you’re camping you know you’ll have time to pitch the tent, get the fire going, cook some grub and crack a beer. But then…

Traffic stops. It doesn’t even move. There’s no off ramp. Other people are shutting off their cars. Truckers are getting out of their cabs. That’s never a good sign.

It’s a momentum killer.

That’s what happens when you stop taking action in your career.

When I started in show business, I was an actor. I had the fortunate experience of watching my Dad go through his career as an actor. There were ups and downs. Sometimes the downs were really down.pat-corley-murphy-brown

There were slow periods followed by an actor’s strike then a writer’s strike. My parents had to sell their house during that one.

Eventually my Dad hit the big job. A series regular on a show called “Murphy Brown.” Which was a top 10 show for many years. He was on that show for 10 years. The struggle paid off and he and my mom were set for life.

But the downs were brutal.

I said, “That’s not gonna happen to me.” Now it’s one thing to say that in a matter of wishful thinking and it’s another to take action. So right after I said, “That’s not gonna happen to me,” I said, “How can I make sure that doesn’t happen to me?”

In my 20’s I had flaming red hair. I was booking commercials like crazy. Then at some point, my hair started to recede. I wasn’t booking as many as before.

One of my casting directors, Sheila Manning, said, “We love you Jerry, but with that baby face and receding hairline, we just don’t know where to cast you.”

I was suffering the Ron Howard effect.

Some if you will be too young to understand this, but Ron Howard was an actor before he was a director and producer. He had–and still has–a baby face and is completely bald on top. It was hard to cast him with that look. He knew it, so he did a lateral move into directing.

I thank my lucky stars for Sheila Manning, her support and her honesty made me understand that it wasn’t my acting and that I had to figure out a solution to be able to make money without giving up on my creativity.

I thought was else can I do and still be in show business?

I saw an ad for a comedy class and I enrolled. I learned some joke writing concepts.

I eventually left the class because the teacher yelled at me for helping a fellow student.

I know, weird right?

Immediately I started to go to open mics, then I studied all the comedians who made me laugh. I mean really broke it down. I applied 4-8 hours per day to writing jokes and studying comedians.

Then went to 7-10 open mics a week. I noticed that all the comedians I liked had a definite structure to their material. I counted the amount of laughs they got per minute and what triggered the laugh.

I noticed that out of the 20 comedians I was studying, there were definite patterns.

I studied The Tonight Show and the monologue. Recorded the shows. I wrote down the monologue jokes word for word and studied them.

I again noticed repeating patterns in the writing.
I started to write the first parts of the jokes and write my own punchlines. (I never used them, but it was great practice).

Soon I was writing jokes right from the news. At first I struggled with them.

Then I figured the structure and subsequently a process to writing everyday.

The process was paramount!

The process became a system of steps that I applied each day to writing current event jokes. I got this idea when I was learning more about computers.

I figured since I was going to be working a lot with computers, I should know something about how they work. One of the earliest explanations I read was that a computer executes a series of steps automatically to power up and that those steps occur each and every time.

And the computer did this no matter who turned it on or what mood that person was in.
So I realized that if I could apply this process to my joke writing.

Sort of a step1-step 2-step 3=Joke.

Eventually, I started to write jokes on automatic and I was writing a lot of them. Sometimes I’d get really edgy with the jokes and I knew they weren’t right for The Tonight Show, but I went to the Comedy Store and I gave it to a comedian, l (can’t mention his name contractually), whose voice I thought it fit. He did the joke, it got a laugh; a really big laugh!

He said he would buy the joke from me.
I learned I could write more jokes and sell them to other comedians and other places that bought jokes.

Sometimes I would just give jokes away to other comedians I knew couldn’t afford to buy them. That only helped to enhance and spread my reputation as a good joke writer.

Greeting card companies, radio syndicates, other comedians. The more I wrote, the more I sold. Then through reputation people started calling me to write material for them.

I was still performing in the clubs at night. One day I got a call from Jay Leno. He had just started doing The Tonight Show.

He tested me right on the phone! Told me a headline from the news that morning and asked me what I would do on that?

Little did he know, I was up that morning writing my jokes and I just happened to write a joke on that exact headline he gave me!

I told him the joke. He laughed. Then hired me on the spot as a contributing writer to The Tonight Show.

Some people say it was “luck.” But really? What is luck? Luck is opportunity meets preparedness!

And that comes from getting busy and staying busy. Setting goals and going for them. Creating a process and a routine so you don’t have to wait for inspiration, instead you can create inspiration. Then taking action so you can avoid killing the momentum in your career.

If you’re good you will work, but you gotta get to work. You’ve got to take action.

Voice Typing: Google Docs Secrets to Improve Your Writing Efficiency

Have you ever lost a writing document on your computer after spending hours revising it? You look and look and for the life of you, you cannot find that document!

Few things are more frustrating, except…

Losing years worth of writing documents when a hard drive crashes.

Or have you ever been out and about and a friend calls and needs a copy of a revision of a document? Or a spreadsheet or a presentation? And you wind up saying something like, “I’ll get it out to you as soon as I get back to my computer…”

Or have you ever wanted to collaborate on writing with someone and you get confused about sending each other drafts of each other’s work and you get confused about which draft you’re on or who wrote what?

Or finally… do you hate typing? Do you wish there was a way you could talk and your own personal stenographer would record it and type up all the pages and send them to you?

Well, what if I told you that I have a tool that will solve all those problems. Better yet, what if I told you that the solution was 100% free?

That’s the subject of the video I have for you today. It’s 7-minutes. It will help you see how you can use this very tool and it’s right under your nose every day.

This tool will help you totally improve your writing efficiency, get more efficient, never lose documents and collaborate with anyone in real time. I think you’ll dig it! Check out the video below, then leave me a comment and tell me how you think it might help you be more efficient with your writing!

How Do You Get Into Late Night TV Comedy Writing?

Late Night TV Comedy is Booming!

There are more stories in the news and the internet about Late Night TV than ever before. There was even a cover on Vanity Fair featuring the ten Late Night Hosts that are now on the air in the most recent programming schedule on cable and network.

Just think about it, late night used to sit in a quiet corner of the T.V. scheduled at 11:30. It was the program that people watched after the nightly news and before they went to bed.

Now it’s almost glamorous! There’s a news story pretty much every day about the genre, segments and sketches go viral (like with this ‘new’ opening for Late Night with Seth Meyers), and the hosts get splashed across the front page of Vanity Fair, arguably the elite of celebrity culture magazines.

As the news about Late Night Comedy proliferates in the media, I’ve been receiving more questions. The most common question is: How do you get into Late Night TV Comedy Writing?

You’re going to have a love-hate feeling about how simple the answer is.

It’s… (sound of drum roll, then Tympani, building, building… still building and ending urgently with a climactic… sound-effect of a fart )…

“Hard work!”

Ouch. Right? I know there are a ton of people reading this that just checked out. Which explains why there are so few people that actually make it in Late Night TV comedy writing.

As a writer for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno for 8 years, where I wrote 80-120 jokes a day, I kinda know how much work it is.

But here’s the thing. It’s not really work.

There’s an old saying. If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.

So if you’re writing jokes all day every day, it’s not really work is it? Especially if you have a process, like the listing technique. (Get a free tutorial of the listing technique here.)

But I know you’re probably reading this to get better answers and I know most people look for a process or steps to help them succeed so I’m going to do my best to map that out for you based on what I did and saw others do.

Step 1: Treat yourself like a professional NOW.

This is one of the best pieces of advice I ever received–besides “You should trim down there!”

The advice was told to me by my comedy writing coach, Gene Perret, (Emmy-award winning comedy writer).

So what does treating yourself like a professional NOW actually mean?

To me that meant that I designed a schedule like I was going to work.

Right now, do you have a day job? Do they give you a schedule so you know what days and times you are working? Do you diligently show up at those designated times? Go to lunch at the designated time and end your day at the designated time?

If you answered ‘yes’ to that question, now ask yourself if you do the same for your writing career? If you don’t you’re not alone, but you must ask why do so many of NOT give the that kind of commitment to the job we really want?

Or maybe you would like to give your dream that kind of commitment but you leave your writing up to some kind of divine inspiration?

If you leave it to divine inspiration that’s fine, but you can’t depend on that inspiration. That type of inspiration is fleeting.

But if you set up a schedule, just like your work schedule, and you report to work on that schedule where you assign yourself writing tasks and goals, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you develop as a writer. And if you develop a process for your writing you will begin to realize that it is much more productive to create inspiration than to wait for inspiration.

When I decided I was going to break into comedy and write for Late Night and do stand up, I set up a schedule. I actually put this in my date book like it was my schedule for work.

late night tv comedy writing

From 7-11am every day I wrote jokes from the newspaper and CNN. My goal was to start with 30-40 jokes a day.

At first, I STRUGGLED to hit that goal. But after a month of consistent writing, I started hitting and surpassing that goal.

Step 2: Give daily assignments to yourself:

There’s nothing worse than sitting in front of your computer or notebook with nothing. I would set goals to write 30-40 late night (current event) monologue jokes, one sketch and one Top 10 List. The next day I might assign myself, 30-40 monologue jokes, one parody, and a desk piece and so on…

If I couldn’t think of anything to write, I would look at my recordings on my VCR (yes VCR…shut up! :-)) and I would write down all the jokes that David Letterman did, then try to make them funnier. I did this as an exercise, one day a week, just like I was at the gym doing “leg” day.

Giving yourself direction and goals is one of the best ways to crush writer’s block. Because, you know your task and you sit down to write it. Often I would assign it the day before and go to sleep at night knowing what I had to do in the morning. It helped me wake up with direction and believe it or not the subconscious gets your mind in gear while you sleep!

Step 3: Target the late night show you want to write for and watch

Believe it or not, this is a step a lot of writer’s miss. They just write jokes, but if you watch your shows and study the hosts, you’ll notice that not all hosts do all types of jokes and that their rhythms are different.

Kimmel will do a different style of joke than Fallon. Colbert will do different jokes than James Corden and if you notice from the above video, Seth Meyers might be scrapping the monologue entirely an opening with a ‘Weekend Update’-style, mock news delivery of jokes which includes more ‘drop-ins.’ (jokes that utilize visual imagery to pop the laugh).

Once you know what host uses what style and rhythm it will also make your writing more efficient.

Check your jokes against the hosts. Write their jokes out. Feel the rhythm of their jokes, study the mechanics and see how it compares to yours. Their jokes will usually start out being more economical and less wordy. This process will help you to really get more efficient.

Test your jokes with your friends or at the clubs and mics.

Step 4: Put together a submission packet

Once you become a proficient joke writer and it shouldn’t take long if you do it consistently, then you can feel like you’ve developed the chops to write for Late Night TV.

Once you feel confident about your work, put together a submission packet.

For the most part a writing packet should contain 2 pages of monologue jokes, a desk piece, and a sketch.

The details are too long and out of the scope of this blog post, but I give you a full template; an actual packet that was submitted in my Late Night Comedy Writing & Submission Course.

In the end it’s…

It’s All About Luck

In this business they often say, “it’s all about luck.” Some people equate that to ‘chance.’ I prefer to say, ‘Luck’ is opportunity meets preparedness. If you’re prepared and the opportunity arises, you’ll be the one who has the luck.

So get yourself prepared and make the luck happen!

If you’re really super interested in learning more about writing for the exploding Late Night TV industry, Sign Up for my Late Night TV Writing industry updates and stay in the loop.