It’s been over six years since George Carlin died of heart failure at 71 in Santa Monica, CA.
George was widely regarded as one of the most important and influential stand-up comedians of all time. He’s listed in Comedy Central’s list of Top 100 Comics at number 2, just behind the great Richard Pryor, but just ahead of the trailblazing Lenny Bruce who paved the road for comedians all over the country to be able to speak freely and test the boundaries of obscenity.
But George Carlin’s fame is nearly unmatched as a comedian. Arguably, his bit “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” is one of his most memorable. It was funny on several levels. It challenged the status quo and pushed the boundaries of decency laws in the U.S. in 1972.
In comedy terms that bit would be described as “word-play,” “the witty exploitation of the meanings and ambiguities of words.”
But at the Summerfest in Milwaukee in 1972 that bit would be described as obscenity and would get Carlin thrown in jail. That bit not only got Carlin arrested but also got WBAI, an FM radio station in New York City, cited by the FCC for broadcasting “obscene” material.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision. Evidently, the nursery rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” doesn’t hold true in a court so powerful that calls itself “Supreme.”
So what are those words? “Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that’ll infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.”
Those are the words that are so disgusting that a man got thrown in jail, radio station fined and the Supreme Court to issue a ruling that gave the FCC the broader right to decide what was “indecent,” and what can and can’t be broadcast on the public airwaves, words that are so profoundly offensive that those very same words are printed on the transcript of the court ruling and stored where? The Supreme Court.
Here’s Carlin with the Seven:
This piece is a classic and every student of comedy should know about it. But my point in this post isn’t just about “The Seven Words,” it about word-play and the power that word-play still has in comedy.
Some of the younger comedians, don’t believe in word-play they will give you some sciolistic nonsense about word-play being “hack.”
That couldn’t be farther from the truth! Word-play can result in puns, but not always. If you approach word-play the way George Carlin did, you can find the paradox in certain words: “You can prick your finger, but you can’t finger your prick,” is one of Carlin’s old standards.
Hack? Well I guess it depends on the listener’s point of view. But that joke has been around for more than 40 years. It’s memorable and it has a shelf-life.
It it used a lot in script writing too. Arrested Development was a super popular show for many years and the writers employed word-play as one of their primary tools for getting a laugh.
Let’s look at one of Carlin’s last HBO specials. He opens using a word-play bit and gets a rousing ovation. What a way to open!
Here’s a transcript from that performance:
George Carlin’s Modern Man
I’m a modern man, a man for the millennium. Digital and smoke free. A diversified multi-cultural, post-modern deconstruction that is anatomically and ecologically incorrect.
I’ve been up linked and downloaded, I’ve been inputted and outsourced, I know the upside of downsizing, I know the downside of upgrading. I’m a high-tech low-life. A cutting edge, state-of-the-art bi-coastal multi-tasker and I can give you a gigabyte in a nanosecond! I’m new wave, but I’m old school and my inner child is outward bound.
I’m a hot-wired, heat seeking, warm-hearted cool customer, voice activated and bio-degradable. I interface with my database, my database is in cyberspace, so I’m interactive, I’m hyperactive and from time to time I’m radioactive. Behind the eight ball, ahead of the curve, ridin the wave, dodgin the bullet and pushin the envelope. I’m on-point, on-task, on-message and off drugs.
I’ve got no need for coke and speed. I’ve got no urge to binge and purge. I’m in-the-moment, on-the-edge, over-the-top and under-the-radar. A high-concept, low-profile, medium-range ballistic missionary. A street-wise smart bomb. A top-gun bottom feeder. I wear power ties, I tell power lies, I take power naps and run victory laps. I’m a totally ongoing big-foot, slam-dunk, rainmaker with a pro-active outreach. A raging workaholic. A working rageaholic. Out of rehab and in denial!
I’ve got a personal trainer, a personal shopper, a personal assistant and a personal agenda. You can’t shut me up. You can’t dumb me down because I’m tireless and I’m wireless, I’m an alpha male on beta-blockers. I’m a non-believer and an over-achiever, laid-back but fashion-forward. Up-front, down-home, low-rent, high-maintenance. Super-sized, long-lasting, high-definition, fast-acting, oven-ready and built-to-last! I’m a hands-on, foot-loose, knee-jerk head case pretty maturely post-traumatic and I’ve got a love-child that sends me hate mail.
But, I’m feeling, I’m caring, I’m healing, I’m sharing– a supportive, bonding, nurturing primary care-giver. My output is down, but my income is up. I took a short position on the long bond and my revenue stream has its own cash-flow. I read junk mail, I eat junk food, I buy junk bonds and I watch trash sports! I’m gender specific, capital intensive, user-friendly and lactose intolerant. I like rough sex.
I like tough love. I use the “F” word in my emails and the software on my hard-drive is hardcore–no soft porn. I bought a microwave at a mini-mall; I bought a mini-van at a mega-store. I eat fast-food in the slow lane. I’m toll-free, bite-sized, ready-to-wear and I come in all sizes. A fully-equipped, factory-authorized, hospital-tested, clinically-proven, scientifically- formulated medical miracle.
I’ve been pre-wash, pre-cooked, pre-heated, pre-screened, pre-approved, pre-packaged, post-dated, freeze-dried, double-wrapped, vacuum-packed and, I have an unlimited broadband capacity. I’m a rude dude, but I’m the real deal. Lean and mean! Cocked, locked and ready-to-rock. Rough, tough and hard to bluff. I take it slow, I go with the flow, I ride with the tide. I’ve got glide in my stride. Drivin and movin, sailin and spinin, jiving and groovin, wailin and winnin. I don’t snooze, so I don’t lose. I keep the pedal to the metal and the rubber on the road. I party hearty and lunch time is crunch time. I’m hangin in, there ain’t no doubt and I’m hangin tough, over and out!”
Have you ever wondered what the secret to success in comedy is?
Ever feel like it’s just this massively intimidating idea, like this enormous blob of ectoplasmic goop that has no shape or form?
Building a career in comedy can be so daunting.
School is so much easier! In school they tell you what to do. You know when to take your SAT’s. You’re told how many units you need to graduate, what you’re GPA needs to be.
In college, you’re told that in order to become a teacher, you have to take certain classes, get so many units, take an internship at a company and if you graduate with the right GPA and honors, you have an opportunity to have a job waiting for you when you finally graduate.
It’s a process and it’s similar for a lot of careers. It usually goes something like: High School-College-Internship-Job-Career. That’s organized and easy to conceive; maybe there’s some variation or advanced degrees for specialties like law, medicine or engineering, but it’s still a process that’s pretty well defined.
When you start out doing comedy, there is no obvious process and nobody tells you what to do. You have to find your own way as you go. You can talk to others, but there’s still no real map.
Or is there?
Comedians always ask me, “what’s the secret to success?”
My favorite response? “It’s not a secret.”
There are successful comedians and artists out there all the time telling you what they did in their careers.
I tell all my students exactly what I did to hit my financial and artistic goals.
The success guru Tony Robbins said, “If you want to be successful, find someone who has achieved the results you want and copy what they do and you’ll achieve the same results.”
By that he means copy their methods not their products. In other words, find out how they got successful and do the same thing.
That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. I can’t tell you how to succeed. I can only tell you what I did to reach my level of success in this business. I’m still learning and still achieving and some years are better than others.
I don’t just try to figure it all out on my own. I look to others, study their careers. I read biographies of other successful artists and listen or read their interviews. Sometimes they can reveal some pretty awesome things that they did to succeed. I jot them down and see if it might work for me too.
One of the keys to success in this business is to realize that show-business is two words and whether you’re a writer, performer or both, if you start thinking of this as building your business you’ll find that it’s a little less daunting. After all, building a business has a simple formula.
The basic formula to building a business is:
Find an Idea
Have a Plan of Action
Secure Funding to Implement that Plan
Sell That Idea to Customers on a Recurring Basis.
Most Comedians have step 1, the idea, (perform stand-up), but they want to jump immediately to step 4 without digging in to step 2 or 3.
In fact most comedians don’t even want to think about step 3, because it means they have to spend money, but let’s leave that aside for now. Let’s focus on steps 1 and 2.
Step 1: The Idea. Comedians have the idea; it’s their comedy or the idea that they want to do stand-up. But what’s really missing with most comedians is the plan of action.
The problem is that it’s missing both creatively and economically.
One of the things I suggest is to read and listen to what other comedians did in their career to get where they are.
Bill Burr is one of my favorites. His blend of honesty, passion and emotion in his material is what has propelled him to the status he enjoys today and what will continue to keep him on top.
What’s important to understand is that Bill wrote jokes for the first few years of his career. “I knew I had to know how to write jokes,” he says.
It might not have been his plan of action but looking back at his paper trail, a smart comedian might get some ideas from that plan. He then said, “I still wrote out jokes for the first ten or eleven years of my career. I was always kind of writing onstage. About six years in, I was riffing and doing that type of thing…”
If you read closely, can you see that Bill is kind of giving you his plan of action? His method? His secrets to success?
Remember what Tony Robbins said, “find someone who has achieved the results you want and copy what they do…”
The life and comedy lessons that I learned from the brief encounters I had with Robin Williams came flooding back to me since I got the news of his death.
It was 4:00PM Monday August 11th, and I was sitting at the computer writing jokes; ironically, only nineteen hours after we wrapped an Anti-Suicide Benefit Show at the Hollywood Improv to raise awareness for Depression and Suicide. That’s when I got the call from a friend and fellow comedian.
He simply said: “Robin Williams is Dead.”
There was that long silence that follows that kind of message. Longer than normal. That kind of silence that seems to stretch forever. The kind of silence that would make you really uncomfortable on stage.
I did what I usually do when I hear news that I can’t totally process emotionally; I went to jokes: “Leave it to Robin to do this right after the Anti-Suicide Benefit. Ha! If the benefit didn’t raise awareness, this sure will.”
Then I cried.
I didn’t plan it. I didn’t feel it coming on. It was just one of those things that happened spontaneously, you know?
I didn’t cry when Carlin died. That news seriously bummed me out, but I didn’t cry… and Carlin mentored me.
At first I refused to believe it. Like a lot of comedians, I had worked with Robin several times. I even drove him in a limousine every day for a couple of weeks early in my career, when I was cutting down my road work to try to save my marriage.
I remember Robin said to me, “Save your marriage? F*@k your marriage. Save your life!”
Then in a character voice, almost disgustedly, he said, “You’re a comedian. A chauffeur YOU ARE NOT!”
He said, “Yeah Bitterman, you missed the turn about a half-mile back!” Then he launched into a Dudley Moore laugh from the movie “Arthur.”
It was a good laugh. But, that sunk in deep. And later that week after I dropped him off at his jet, I quit the limo and went right back out on the road for good.
I worked with him a couple of times after that. We weren’t buddies. We didn’t call each other or anything. The time I spent with the man was minuscule in a chronological sense, but his impact is eternal. And each time I bumped into him or had the honor of working with him, he was always, ALWAYS kind.
That’s one of the things he taught me. That in this business, where sometimes people can be so back-stabbing, angry, resentful and use their success to try to diminish you, he was just Robin, all the time.
He taught me that synergy works better than enemy and that being kind to your fellow comedian, your fellow human doesn’t ever hurt your career. It always helps.
Robin Breathed Life Into Comedy
Robin’s career was, in a word, stellar. From the time he was picked up to do “Mork and Mindy,” he was off and running. He was a comedian, but a comedian who had goals beyond just doing stand-up. He started as a comedian in the Bay Area in the seventies, then went off to “study” at the The Julliard School of Drama in New York.
When he went back to the Bay Area, he was a different comedian. He was doing characters on stage. Characters were not new in comedy, Carlin did characters, but it was the way he was doing the characters; BIG, BOLD COMMITTED. He was blowing the doors off the clubs!
He was a pure entertainer. I know, he had a bit of a reputation for stealing jokes. Hell, he stole a couple of mine. But somehow that was different. He was “Robin.” He breathed life into comedy. I could always write new jokes.
He taught me the power of incongruous act-outs in comedy, (a version of solo-sketch comedy), that if you give the audience a clear premise: Like in this video, where he does his version of American soccer and South American soccer, then segues into American Football referees. The set up is clear cut. He sets up the characters, then just brings them to life.
You watch Robin Williams do comedy and you can’t help but feel a bit manic. Because, from the moment he takes the stage, that’s the way he performed and there’s a theory in theater science that the audience is in whatever state the performer is in. When you saw Robin perform, you had no choice but to leave that experience, charged up.
Depression and Suicide
Early reports coming in from the news is that his death was an apparent suicide. Now I think I understand why I cried when my friend called. The sheer dichotomy. In a weird way, Robin, who struggled with addiction and depression and was open about it, represented a certain hope for many.
I have never experienced addiction or depression. The closest I’ve been to that is drunk and tired.
Then it kind of hit me why Robin’s death made me cry when Carlin’s didn’t. Carlin died of so-called natural causes; a heart-related issue. Robin’s death was mired in a more profound tragedy. He died of something seemingly treatable, but obviously misunderstood.
There are close to 15 million people in the U.S. that suffer from depression. And if a man who had the resources to afford and access all the help he needed to deal with it can’t find a way out, what are the other 14 million nine-hundred and ninety-nine thousand going to do?
We need you back, Robin.
Today I’m going to Amazon to buy every Robin Williams comedy video I can get my hands on. Maybe Robin can still help play away the pain and give others hope.
Robin Williams affected us all in one way or another. For me, he was partly responsible for where I am today. One marriage down but still making a living doing comedy.
If things weren’t interesting enough in the Late Night world, Chelsea Handler of “Chelsea Lately” has just signed to do a Late Night Show on Netflix.
This immediately made me wonder: What is Netflix thinking?!
I think this can work, and if it does, what does it mean for you?
Netflix is on the cutting edge in original content with the super-successful House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey and Orange Is The New Black starring Taylor Schilling and a full cast of excellent actors.
Now they are taking on the world of Late Night, offering a show to the sassy and very funny, Chelsea Handler.
Kind of an interesting setting: “Late Night” on Demand. Not sure how it will do in this content delivery setting but considering the success DVRs, Amazon, Hulu and other content providers, and their ability to let viewers watch their favorite shows whenever they want really not only opens up almost endless possibilities for viewers but for writers as well!
Maybe that’s something that Conan O’Brien should’ve thought about, especially considering multi-million dollar disappearing act he seems to be doing over at TBS.
I don’t even know what channel TBS is on my DirecTV or even if it’s on their lineup at all. I just don’t pay that much attention any more. With 500+ channels on my DirecTV, nothing really stands out. Am I the only one?
The sad part is that I like Conan.
However, I know I go to Netflix all the time looking for something to watch at night when I’m having a cocktail or three.
But enough about my alcohol problem…
What Does This Mean For You?
There has never been this kind of movement in Late Night programming in television history. This means that there will be staff shake-ups and new staff hirings for shows.
Consider what’s happening in the next few months: Not only is Chelsea Handler starting a new show soon, Craig Ferguson is leaving CBS and David Letterman will be swapped with Steven Colbert. That’s three Late Night shows that are starting and staffing!
Makes you want to say HOLY CRAP! How do YOU spell “OPPORTUNITY?”
As a person who has been around this business for years as an actor, a comedian and a writer, I see this as a golden opportunity. This is the closest thing to pilot season a writer of Late Night can ask for.
Top 3 Things you should be doing right now:
Creating or Refreshing a Submission Packet for Late Night
Contacting The New Shows To Find Out Exactly What They are Looking for in a Packet
Sharpening Your Skills to Write Sketches, Monologues, Desk Pieces, and Drop-Ins
Writing for Late Night is one of the few jobs in this town you can get without an agent or much prior television experience. In fact, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, the highest rated Late Night Show on TV right now, recently scooped up an IT Professional based on what he was posting on his Twitter feed.
Getting your stuff seen by the right people at Late Night is not that difficult.
The Head Writer is Looking For You
The Head Writer at any of these shows has a specific job. He has to make sure the writing team is producing the best content that fits the show and is right for the Host. At the same time, turnover in the Late Night world is big, so the Head Writer is always looking for talented writers who can produce material for his show.
So who do you think you need to contact to get your writing packet seen?
You guessed it; The Head Writer.
So get out there and get your stuff seen!
How Do You Do This?
There’s a specific set of skills you need to get into Late Night Comedy Writing.
You can learn those skills by trial and error. Not a bad thing. The more you write the more you learn. You can test your jokes against Late Night Shows to see how they compare to the writers who are on the shows you are targeting.
You can acquire knowledge & develop your skill by attending workshops: Joe Toplyn teaches an excellent workshop in New York City. I teach an excellent LIVE workshop in Burbank this Tuesday night and I have an online video course. (P.S. I don’t get any commission or kick-backs or anything from pimping Joe’s workshops. I just think he’s a talented guy who has a ton of experience).
You can acquire the knowledge by reading books on the subject. Again Joe Toplyn has an excellent book, “Comedy Writing For Late Night T.V.,” available on Amazon.
Remember classes are not mandatory, but they will help you acquire knowledge from experienced professionals and help you develop your writing chops a lot faster. Workshops also help you light a fire under that writer’s butt and fill your head with new inspiration, goals and creativity.
So what are you waiting for?
Hit me back if you have any questions or if I can help you in any way to venture into the Late Night Comedy Writing world. I will give you my all to help you reach your goals.
Best if you leave a comment below and start a conversation. Maybe we can get Mr. Toplyn in to join us too!
I’ve been posting and blogging about comedy writing tools for several years now, giving you the best tools that I use to write comedy. I’m loving every minute of it!
In this post I’m sharing with you my 5 favorite writing tools online. It’s a combination of tools I’ve already posted, but you may have forgotten they were there or missed them because you didn’t see the post.
Look at them now because soon I am going to be locking them in the vault and only using them for online courses.
These tools work whether you are a one-and-two-liner comedian or whether you are a story-teller.
These tools work for coming up with jokes for Clubs , Corporate, Late Night, Sketches, Screenwriting, or novel writing.
The structure of comedy is as important to the laugh as hitting the right notes in the right key is important to the music.
In other words, without the structures, there is little or no laughter.
Every comedian who’s made you laugh from Jerry Seinfeld to Kevin Hart; from Jim Jefferies to Bill Burr; from Louis CK to Amy Schumer, they all utilize the structures I teach in my courses and in my eBook writing system. They all use them, even if they don’t know it!
George Carlin said to me, “I know 98-percent of the time that a joke is funny before I get it on stage.” I asked him how he knew and he said, “because I know they contain all the elements necessary for a joke to be funny.”
This was the second one I shared with the public when I first started writing my blog. It’s a simple method I use when I am staring at a blank page or computer screen saying, “I got nothin!” I just run this scenario through my head and I always wind up with something; usually about 5 minutes of new material! The good thing is I can use it starting from complete scratch!
This video tutorial was the first of its kind ever put on the internet. May still be the only one of its kind. Where I start with a simple headline from the news and I walk you through the procedure as you look at my computer screen. It’s like you’re looking over my shoulder while I write jokes and show you one of my processes for generating material. This technique has helped me to write thousands of jokes over the years.
Another first of its kind as far as the viewer being able to watch joke writing in a certain niche in a real-time environment. In this video I will take the corporate subject matter of “Title Insurance” and walk through my process as I basically write 10 minutes of Title Insurance jokes. Inspired from a phone call I received from National Title asking me how much I charge to perform at one of their events doing at least five minutes of Title Insurance humor. After I quoted them my fee I knew I better be able to write some title insurance jokes. So I start from scratch and write 10 minutes in less than an hour. Take a look at the process if you want to learn how to write comedy for corporate engagements. Definitely worth a look!
Most people I run into who are trying to write comedy, think that comedy writing is a mystery. They think it’s got to be really clever and difficult. Some of the best comedy is the simplest comedy. Much of it comes in the form of opposites. One of the easiest ways to get to the punch is NOT to think of something FUNNY but to think in opposites. This exercise gets you there fast. It may seem simple, but it’s powerful. I’ve used this in sketch writing, screenwriting and in stand-up. Always effective!
I love Bill Burr! He’s a terrific and expressive comedian, who loves to take the alternate point of view on popular social opinions. His technique is masterful, but when someone told me that Bill doesn’t use any comedy structure, I just had to show them not only that he does, but how he does and exactly where he uses it. Take a look at this Bill Burr video and then watch as line-by-line, you get to see where he places the key elements that trigger the laughs!
So there you have it
Five of my best tools for writing jokes. But here’s the thing: This barely scratches the surface of the tools I use on a regular basis to write jokes. In my classes and with my online courses, I teach 23 different approaches to writing comedy. Remember, there’s no single way to approaching comedy writing.
But these tools will give you a process to make it easier. I still use the old-school method of getting an inspiration and talking it out on stage until it develops into a solid routine, but I prefer to use the George Carlin method: write it funny so you know it’s funny before you take the stage!
I hope you enjoy this list of tools. Remember they won’t stay online long, so use them, share them with others and please feel free to leave a comment below and let me know how you’re doing!