I’m gonna call this blog post an open letter to comedy teachers.
This especially goes out to one comedy teacher in particular who refers to himself as “America’s Original Comedy Coach.” (Lol, right?)
Recently, I put a post on Facebook called “911 For Your Jokes.” It’s a step-by-step walkthrough of 5 different ways to take a single subject, and develop a comedy routine, a bit or stand-alone jokes.
In the case of this particular post, the subject was ‘Flight Attendant.’ (See it in action here).
I put out these ‘freebies’ so that comedians and comedy writers (both new and old), can get some ideas and inspiration on how to get the material going.
Because we’ve all run into writer’s block, right?
Listen to the Audio Version
So “America’s Original Comedy Coach” (sorry, can’t say that without giggling), posted a comment ridiculing the fact that I was demonstrating this.
I think his comment was, “Formula #1: Don’t use any of these formulas for comedy or you’ll wind up sounding exactly like everyone else.”
You guys who know me, know that I would never usually call someone out like this, but when you attempt to ridicule me in a public forum, It’s on, bitch! :-).
Here are 3 Big Reasons you should Develop Structure in your Comedy Writing…
#1: Writing Makes it Easier to Build Structure into your Material
So let’s examine that whole “sound like everyone else” statement for a moment.
If you watch Jim Gaffigan, Bill Burr, Daniel Tosh, Amy Schumer, Brian Kiley, Whitney Cummings, Kira Soltanovich, (or any number of comedians who are currently at the top of their game), and you deconstruct their acts, you will discover that they all utilize similar techniques in their comedy routines to get laughs.
Would you say that they all sound alike?
Didn’t think so… and you want to know the reason?
They are different people!
Those comedians each have different points of view, different experiences and different ways of expressing themselves.
But it is the structure within their sets that gets the laughs. Without that structure, guess what?
#2: Get More Laughs
Let’s take two distinctly different, but similar comedians. Anthony Jeselnik and Brian Kiley. Below is an example of a joke each of them do.
They are using a comedy structure called the “Paired Phrase.”
KILEY: My wife and I have been married for 20 years, but there’s still that tension between her Dad and I. He’s always giving me a look like, “I know you’re having sex with my daughter.” And I’m always giving him a look like… “Barely.”
JESELNIK: I went to my girlfriend’s parents’ house over the holidays. Her Dad didn’t let us sleep in the same room. He was giving me a look like, “I don’t trust you.” And I gave him a look like, “Trust me, man… I’m fucking your daughter.”
You hear the similarity?
It’s goal of the paired phrase (in this particular context) to create pattern disruption or an expected rhythm or ending and then shatter created expectation.
When that pattern is disrupted, (with Kiley, he used self-deprecation while Jeselnik uses ambivalence and a bit of shock value), you create surprise and if you’re familiar with the 9 psychological laughter triggers, you already know that surprise is one of the most effective.
But if you were to watch Jeselnik and Kiley back to back, you wouldn’t think they sounded alike because they have totally different personas.
Jeselnik is driven by ambivalence, (being discompassionate about things society believes you should be compassionate about), and Kiley is driven by a persona that is slightly put upon and confused about the way things are supposed to work.
Using the ‘Reverse’ to Create Surprise
Another way to create surprise with with a comedy structure called a ‘reverse.’ This construct also sets up an expectation, then shatters it. When a comedian or comedy writer knows this, writing comedy is much easier.
I mean think about it. All Jeselnik has to do is to come up with a situation that we call can relate to and solve them with something unexpected.
“I break up with the girls the way I take off a band-aid; slow and in the shower.”
Kiley does a similar thing with the reverse structure by shattering our expectation with situation we can all identify with:
“I’m surprised I got together with my wife at all because when I first met her she was soooo… pregnant.”
So to say that structure is wrong is denying your students the very tools that make people laugh.
#3: Comedy Writing Enables you to Make More Money
America’s Original Comedy Coach also ridiculed my effort to encourage comedians to develop their skills in writing comedy material.
This is where I was completely dumbfounded! WTF!? Why would you NOT encourage your students to develop all their skill sets?
That’s like telling a baseball player to work only on hitting the ball. You might do pretty well when you’re up at bat, but you’ll suck everywhere else.
And, while in baseball a hitter may be considered good when he gets a hit 1 out of 3 times, if you do that in the comedy world, a talent booker wouldn’t even want you as a pinch hitter!
If you neglect developing your skills at writing you’re doing yourself a serious disservice.
Also… and this is a BIG also… when you know how to write comedy material, you have just exponentially increased your potential to create revenue.
There are so many opportunities out there for people who can write funny.
Doing stand-up and getting good is great, but learning to develop your writing chops just adds another high-revenue-creating skill set.
So, America’s Original Comedy Coach, I would rethink what you’re teaching your students and while you’re at it, maybe rethink calling yourself “America’s Original Comedy Coach.”
Think about it, man; If you were America’s original airplane, America’s original automobile or America’s original computer, you’d be obsolete.
Are you one of those people who is afraid of mistakes? Are you afraid to put something out thereâ€”either on stage or in a meeting or even on social mediaâ€”for fear that you made a mistake and someone will call you out on it, thus making you the laughing stock of the world and eternally miserable?
This happens to all of us at some level.
I remember, early in my studying, being in an acting class. I really wanted to be an actor. My father had some fame as an actor and I wanted to be an actor too. I went to the classes and when I did something “wrong,” the teacher would try to give me notes.
I would always try to interrupt with something like a “Yeah, yeah, I know I did that,” or something similar. Instead of really listening to the note based on what the teacher saw in my performance, I would jump ahead because I didn’t really want to hear that I was flawed, that I made a mistake.
Fortunately I had a father who used to coach me as well. He saw that I would try to jump in and not truly listen to the note. He would wait for me to finish my objection. Then say, “Next time I give you a critique, instead of instantly jumping in I want you to try something. I want you to think of a follow-up question, based on what I said.”
This approach served two purposes. It required me wait to actually hear the note. And…
It made me have to think of a follow-up question, so I was forced to listen deeply to the note, process what it meant to me and follow up, thus cementing the learning into my brain.
So therefore, it forced me to acknowledge my mistake, learn from it and figure out how to apply the mistake as a lesson, NOT as a mistake.
Does this make sense?
When we make mistakes and learn from them, we make huge leaps in our learning and through experience you learn that mistakes are actually positive things, not negative.
Instead of fearing mistakes, we should embrace them, ruminate in them and figure out possible solutions. I express that as a plural, because there’s normally never just one solution. There’s usually multiple.
It is key that you write down the mistake, what you learned from it and finally the possible solutions to correct the mistake in the future.
That’s why in the classes I teach, I encourage the students to provide their own suggestions and notes to their fellow students. It requires them to actively listen, process and trouble-shoot a possible solution. This helps them to become more knowledgeable as a comedy writer or comedian, in a faster time period.
When you teach you learn twice.
This type of fear of mistakes can paralyze us in so many ways. It creates a circle of repeated mistakes that cripple growth, stifle productivity and increase stress.
I have a friend. We get together once in awhile to write, go shopping or grab a bite.
She has this fear of mistakes and I see it constantly and repeatedly paralyze her productivity and infuse more stress into her life.
Now the following conversation may seem tedious, but I think it is essential so that you can really get the idea and maybeâ€”just maybeâ€”see similarities in your own behaviors.
About 6 months ago my friend called me and said, “Hey, let’s get together later and go shopping at the mall.”
I said, “What time?”
She said, “Oh late afternoon sometime. I have a lot to get done first.”
I said, “You should set some goals as to exactly what you need to get done and apply a time to it. When that timer is done get up and move on to the next–”
She interrupted, “â€”Yeah, yeah. I know. That’s a good idea.”
I said, “Okay. Just let me know when?”
At 5 o’clock we planned to get together to shop at the mall, eat and hang out. Since she’s always late, we wound up connecting at the mall at 5:30.
She was hungry, so we grabbed a bite to eat. Then it was time to shop!
As we started to hit the stores, we noticed that they were all starting to close.
She started stressing, “Why are they closing?!”
“Well, it’s Sunday. Most malls close early on Sundays.”
It was a mistake not to set your goals and not plan out the day… I’ve explained the acknowledge mistakes lesson to her that I learned from my father. I hoped that she would start to apply them… she struggles with that.
6 months later…
My friend texts me. Again, it was a Sunday morning.
“Hey, l’ve got to go back home for about a week. Wanna meet at the mall and go shopping?”
“Sure. What time?”
“I don’t know. Late afternoon. I’ve got a lot to get done first:”
Then 30 minutes later the text came in: “Hey, it’s Sunday. Let’s do early afternoon. In fact, I’ll meet you at three! The malls close early don’t they?”
Now I just hope she shows up on time!
If you fear mistakes nowâ€”no matter what the level of your fearâ€”by doing the above approach of acknowledging, processing and solving, you will eventually lose that fear.
At some point, that fear of mistakes becomes just a shrug, and you look forward to processing it, learning from it and solving it. Because, now you will realize how much time or money you saved, how your business or relationship improved and how above all you transformed in some way and became a better person in life… or at least a better person to go shopping with.
You learn so much from acknowledging your mistakes, rather than being afraid of mistakes.
In my experience, I realized that when I made mistake and acknowledged it, I wasn’t a laughing stock of the world and it didn’t make me eternally miserable.
Instead, it enabled me to eternally grow.
It is the most exciting time in history to try to get a job writing on a show in Late Night TV!
So when I get emails from people asking if they should pursue an opportunity to write for Late Night TV.
I always answer with a resounding “Yes!” and I have solid reasoning to back it up.
In fact I have 200,005 reasons you should pursue a job to write for Late Night TV.
But before we go there, let’s back up for a moment and look at the traditional method people use to prepare for a career.
The Career Path of the College Grad
Most people go to college for 4-5 years, get the skill set they need to work in the career of their choice.
If it’s a specialty like doctor or lawyer, they put in an extra few years of law school or med school followed by internship and/or residency.
Now I wholeheartedly believe that education is by far the best investment one can make in one’s future.
Every single time I invested in learning a new skill set, my resulting revenue skyrocketed.
Some people tell me that paying to learn comedy writing is too expensive.
I don’t get it.
My sons are in college, just finishing up. One university costs $30,000 annually. The other one $12,000 annually.
That’s quite an investment!
According to Forbes, when they graduate they are looking at an average starting salary of $42,000 a year.
And that’s IF they land a job in their specialty.
It doesn’t take an MIT graduate to realize it’s gonna take a while to make a profit on that investment.
To make matters worse, you’re already 4-5 years in on your investment.
Which leads me to…
200,005 reasons to write for Late Night TV:
REASON 1 thru 200,000
According to the Writer’s Guild of America, the starting salary for a writer in Late Night is $4,198 per week. Most of these shows are yearly. And even if you took 10-12 weeks off per year, that’s over $200,000 a year!
That’s base starting pay!
If you write a 2-minute sketch and that gets on the air, you earn another 3,875.00 for that sketch…
… and if you write a song parody, you get ASCAP fees on top of that!
Not bad, but that’s not all…
Writing for Late Night TV is still one of the only jobs in the industry where you can get hired without experience and without a resume! You just have to show that you can write funny.
That’s how I got my job writing for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and how a lot of guys I know got their jobs. In fact, most recently, an IT guy from Peoria named Bryan Donaldson got hired on Late Night with Seth Meyers because of his funny tweets!
Other writers I know simply submitted fresh writing sample packets consistently, then they were called in for a meeting and booked the job!
Frida Deguise, one of my Skype students in Australia works with me on her joke writing. Her career is now taking off–both as a comedian and a writer. She just sold out two shows in Melbourne, Australia and was just hired as a writer on “Gruen,” Australia’s hottest variety/talk show (similar to our Daily Show). Frida, previously had zero experience and no resume in the business. She made such an impression that she got a joke greenlit her first day on the job. (nearly unheard of).
Get the Free Video: “How to get a job writing for Late Night TV”
The cost of the investment in the education (in both time and money) to get the skills for Late Night TV writing is microscopic compared to traditional career preparation. When I decided I wanted to write for Late Night TV, I dropped out of college and dedicated swapped the time I was going to spend in classes at school with time deliberately learning the craft to write for Late Night. I hired a comedy comedy writer from the Dean Martin Roasts to coach me and keep me accountable.
Every day 4-5 hours a day, I wrote Late Night-style comedy. Within 18 months I was hired at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. 18 months. Compare that with the time and money it takes to get a degree in college!
The amazing part is that–despite the fact that it was hard work–I could actually measure my progress. Once I figured out the structures and developed a process I was cranking out 80-120 jokes a day.
You saw the costs of college above, but get this; Emerson College is now offering an accredited BFA in Comedic Arts. You can graduate with a Bachelor’s in comedy! But if you go to Emerson it will cost you $42,000 a year. That’s 168,000 for that 4-year degree.
Besides, name one job that you can get right out of college that earns you a starting salary of 200k a year?
Once you’re a writer you become a member of the WGA, (the Writer’s Guild of America) where your salary is protected and you get great health benefits.
If you like to write jokes, there’s no better job in the world!
Writing for a late show like The Tonight Show gives you enormous credibility and leverage. If you’re also a comedian, it opens so many more doors. You can get booked at almost any club because the title “writer” on a well known show is a credit that can be promoted in any comedy club in any city in the U.S. and Canada. After writing for the Tonight Show, I booked audience warm-up gigs, stand-up spots on multiple TV shows, etc. Every show increased my personal appearance value.
Not only that, once you’re a writer for Late Night, you can get booked for high-paying speaking engagements due to your affiliation with the show. Years after I was writing for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, I’m still being booked to speak all over the World.
Supply & Demand
The Late Night TV industry has totally exploded. When I was first writing for Late Night, there were 2 shows. Now there’s 9 Late Night style shows and that’s not even including Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” on TBS and Chelsea Handler on “Chelsea” on Netflix. With Hulu, Amazon and YouTube whispering about producing new streaming shows. Plus if you include the daytime talk shows like “Ellen, “Wendy Williams,” and Harry Connick’s new show “Harry,” you can see that Talk-Variety shows are experiencing amazing growth.
Consider the additional fact that since Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert departed Comedy Central, they’ve been scrambling to find an effective replacement. Look for 1 or 2 new shows from C.C.
Good comedy content is in high demand and continuing to grow. Problem is, the talent pool of good comedy writers is seriously thin. The next 5 years is going to be a boom period for good comedy writers. If you’ve thought about writing for Late Night TV, what you do in the next 6 months can have a huge impact on the rest of your life!
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!