5 Reasons to Use Imitation and Emulation to Learn Stand-up Comedy

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From the time we are toddlers, we learn by watching and imitating. That’s how we learn to walk, to talk, to express ourselves.

Imitation is the ‘stem-cell’ of our learning ability.

So why not utilize this technique when learning how to be a comedian?

At first, it might seem like cheating, no?

And when I say, “imitate,” I don’t mean “copy.” I mean emulate.

Practice sounding like a certain comedian.

I mean, “but wait!” You might be saying. Stand-up is one of the last real “raw” performance-based art forms. Why would anyone want to imitate?

5 Reasons to Use Imitation or Emulation in your Comedy:

There are several reasons, when you are starting out, to use imitation and emulation develop. Here are a few:

  • It can get you to sounding like a comedian faster.
  • Imitation or emulation can help you discover new inspirations.
  • It can help you find the inflection to make a joke, or bit, really resonate.
  • It can help your brain to recognize the patterns and rhythms that get laughter from the audience
  • It can help you get confident in your pauses and perfect your timing.

Once you start emulating the behaviors of a comedian, you begin to ‘walk in their shoes,’ and you begin to think like one. As a result, more jokes come to you off-handedly during the normal progress of your day and you start recognizing subjects and situations that are ripe for a comedy routine.

As a tool, imitation and emulation is used all the time in life.

Famous guitar players all say that they learned by playing the riffs of the greats, then from those techniques they branched off and developed their own style.

Johnny Carson said he copied Jack Benny to learn how to perfect his timing.

Jerry Seinfeld was clearly influenced by George Carlin.

Robin Williams seemed to take his moves directly from Jonathan Winters.

When you watch Bill Burr, can’t you see a bit of Dennis Leary?

I studied Carlin, Pryor, Cosby and Seinfeld, mostly. When I first started I was very “Seinfeldian.” In fact, I remember going on stage at the Laugh Factory in L.A. one night. Jerry Seinfeld was in the room. I did my set with my jokes, but my inflections and behaviors had a definite Seinfeld feel.

After my performance—which got a decent response, from the audience—I said hello to Seinfeld and he just sort of blew me off. I said to myself, “maybe I I should tone it down a little.”

After that experience, I was lucky enough to meet with George Carlin. He gave me the best insight to comedy;

He said: “Take the stuff that drives you crazy and make it funny!”

That’s when I started to really develop as a comedian.

But it was the study and emulation of my favorite comedians that got me moving in this industry. Within my first two years as a comedian, I developed an hour of material, nailed my first audition with the legendary Bud Friedman, (owner of the Improvisation) in Los Angeles and got booked in Vegas and got my first television booking as a comedian.

After that, I used that television tape to book gigs all over the country and I never looked back.

Stand-up is a Conversation

One of my students is an actress. She’s a really, really good actress. She started doing stand-up in July. Like a lot of actors, she was having trouble eliminating that fourth wall and making the material sound like it was stand-up, rather than an actor’s monologue.

The difference between stand-up and acting is that stand-up is a conversation. It’s hopefully a one-way conversation, but it is more like a conversation. It’s like you’re talking to your friends in your living room or better yet, at a bar.

This actress-comedian was having a difficult time breaking out of the monologue mode. Then she started studying comedians like Whitney Cummings and Amy Schumer. I mean really studying them.

She listened to them for hours! (I recommend that to anyone—take your favorite comedian and listen to them for hours).

She would even repeat their lines while she was in her apartment, trying to emulate their nuances and their voices.

In a matter of a week or two, her act went to the next level. By the time she had her next appearance, she was sounding more like a comedian. Her material was resonating more with the audience. They were responding to her faster and with harder, snappier laughter.

She was becoming a comedian. It was her own material, but she emulated to get the nuance of a comedian.

4 Weeks to Being A Better Writer

To some people this seems crazy…

I get it. The comedian’s nuance and rhythm my come naturally to you. If so, then this post is not for you.

Go do your thing and continue in your own growth and brilliance.

But to you comedians with some years of experience, I still recommend listening to the really good comedians.

When I had been doing comedy for about 8 years, I was on the road for four weeks straight. In my car I had one cassette (yes, I said “cassette!” Don’t judge!). It was Dennis Miller.

One thing about Dennis, is he used to use really colorful language in his material. The writing was clever. He used a lot of analogy, simile and metaphor to add texture to his stories. In my view it made the story worth listening to.

By the end of the tour, my comedy also had more compelling language. It was better written and it was getting better response. I kept it in my own voice, but that four weeks with Dennis Miller made me a far better writer!

This particular post is for beginners who are having a hard time getting out of the habit of sounding like they are reciting material and getting more in the habit of sounding like a comedian; like a conversationalist.

For you, if you are struggling with this concept. Try emulating or imitating. It might make you sound like a comedian faster.

Then again, you might already be emulating.

Tenacious D Is Putting On a Comedy Festival in L.A.

Great News!
Fresh from the wire over at Technology Tell’s entertainment blog:
Tenacious D is planning the Festival Supreme, a music and comedy festival of the like Los Angeles has never seen. It’s the first of it’s kind in my memory. It will be featuring top comedians and performers like Zach Galifianakis, Adam Sandler, The Mr. Show Experience (featuring David Cross and Bob Odenkirk), and Reggie Watts.
Sarah Silverman is also slated to perform.

The great news is that this is a real comedy festival with real stars!

It’ll be interesting to see how L.A. supports an event like this. Considering you can usually get a pretty decent lineup of top comics almost any night of the week at any one of  the top comedy clubs in L.A. But it’s usually a surprise, as opposed to a scheduled festival.

What’s the schedule? Glad you asked! Keep Saturday, October 19th open and save your pennies; ninety-nine thousand of them to be exact, because the tickets to this bad boy are starting at $99.

Not too bad a price considering there are going to be four stages all at, or around, the Santa Monica pier.

Sounds like fun! In fact I’m gonna head over to the festival’s website right now and get a couple of tix!

BUSTED! Comedian Caught Stealing Another Comic’s Material During ‘America’s Got Talent’ Taping?

America's Got Talent

The Greg Wilson is Accused of Stealing Another Comedian’s Material while recording America’s Got Talent

According to the story that I first read on Slashfilm.com, comedian-contestant, The Greg Wilson, was performing on “America’s Got Talent.” He went to his closing bit which was an act-out of a mimed argument of a couple arguing in a car.

The crowd loved it, the first two judges loved it. When they got to Howie, he asked the contestant, (The Greg Wilson), “Did you write this, or are you performing someone else’s material?”

OUCH!

Right there in front of the audience and the cameras at the Pantages in Los Angeles, he gets asked if he stole material!

DOUBLE OUCH!

To top it all off, Howie says that he knows the comic that does the bit in question. Then he reveals the name of the comic: “Frank Nicotero.” Some of you may say, “Who the hell is Frank Nicotero?” Well, Frank is a comic who has been around for quite a while. He’s smart and funny… and he also just happens to be the warm-up comedian for… (drum-roll please)…

AMERICA’S GOT TALENT!

So The Greg Wilson is being accused of stealing a bit from a comedian who (unbeknownst to him) is in the SAME ROOM!

DOUBLE OUCH with an “OH SNAP!”

Being accused of stealing material is a big deal in this business. It’s scummy. It’s pathetic. And it can ruin a reputation and possibly a career… isn’t that right Carlos Mencia?

But to be snagged while doing it for a television show that gets to broadcast out to tens of millions is epic!

Here’s where it gets a little gritty:

I watched both comedians performing the bit:

Here’s Frank Nicotero:

Here’s The Greg Wilson: (The Bit starts at 3:43)

See The Differences?

When I watched both of the videos my initial reaction was this:

This bit is a high concept bit that could easily be performed by two different comedians. We’ve all seen couples fighting in a car and I could see that two comedians could come up with similar bits on that concept.

Based on the two versions, I thought that Greg Wilson did a more concise job defining the different characters and acting them out, but…

Jay Leno said to me: “There are no ethics in this business. You have to write faster than everyone else and your reputation will precede you.”

[gn_quote style="1"]Your reputation will precede you…[/gn_quote]

That’s where this conflict begins to sort itself out; and we can begin to answer the question of if the idea was stolen.

If we consider the fact that Frank Nicotero is a seasoned professional who has hosted a television show called “Street Smarts” for 5 years and has had additional success and has a reputation that is super solid in this business, the origination of the bit in question starts to become clear.

But this is what settled it for me…

According to people who know both guys, It’s said that The Greg Wilson KNOWS Frank and Greg has SEEN FRANK PERFORM THAT BIT for years. I mean the bit goes back to 1993 for Frank Nicotero. It has been Frank’s closing piece for a very long time.

That’s where it’s No Bueno.

It boils down to this: Having a reputation for being a solid writer and comedian with fresh ideas by actually doing the work and writing on a regular basis is crucial in developing your reputation.

By doing a comedy bit that is known to be a signature bit of another comedian, The Greg Wilson has created a dilemma for himself that he now needs to overcome. He has seriously tainted his reputation and that is now being spread via the internet and social media.

If this story continues to have legs, it could really have an impact on his career and what other people in this business think of him.

Also consider this: America’s Got Talent is a reality show. It stays on the air as long as the ratings stay high. Much of the ratings are driven by conflict and drama on the show and although Frank was told that The Greg Wilson’s bit will never be aired…

A decision might be made by the show’s producers to air the segment just for the sheer drama and conflict. It’s bound to drive ratings and new blog posts, shares on Facebook and tweets on Twitter.

This story doesn’t die here. It reanimates when the show airs in about 6 weeks for potentially tens of millions of viewers watching on T.V. and potentially millions in the blogosphere and social media all pointing to the headline of The Greg Wilson allegedly stealing Frank Nicotero’s routine and performing it on Television.

Your reputation precedes you, indeed.

Love to hear your thoughts on this situation pro or con…

“This Audience is Mostly Mormon”

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mormon-note

So one of my favorite students Skyped with me today.

He was upset about a comedy show he did.

It was a show he produced.

It was a show he emceed.

And it was a show that he didn’t do as well as he wanted.

“It was especially rough because I put the show together and I didn’t go over as well as I would’ve expected.

What gives?”

There’s no ‘magic’ solution to knowing how an audience will respond but it helps if you understand a little bit about comedian/audience dynamic.

There are a lot of reasons to why an audience doesn’t respond well to certain jokes.

In front of one audience one night a joke might rock, the next night, in front of a different audience, that very same joke might get groans or nothing.

That’s not uncommon and it happens for a reason.

Fortunately we can get a handle on the reasoning.

We might not be able to solve the problem all the time but we can at least understand why so we can make an adjustment, either during the show or at another show.

Sometimes the reasons are right in front of us. Sometimes the reasons are not visible.

Indulge me with a quick scenario:

In the middle nineties, I was doing a gig in Utah for a little known company called Hewlett Packard. We were at a restaurant, upstairs. The audience was well-dressed, some were keeping the bartender at the open bar busy, so I figured, This is going to be fun!

I started my show and I figured since we were in Utah I did a riff of jokes about Mormons that culminated with…

[gn_quote style="1"]…for years I thought RV’s that had those bikes on the front of them… were Mormon hunters… is that wrong?”[/gn_quote]

It received a mediocre laughter at best, but it was nervous laughter and that was only from a select group of people– If you guessed, the ones who were drinking… you’re right!

I couldn’t understand why the audience wasn’t laughing. I mean I just did this round of jokes the night before and got screams and applause!

In the eighth minute, someone in the audience handed me a note.

It said: “This crowd is mostly Mormon.”

That explained it!

They had a background, experiences and an understanding about being Mormon that wasn’t going to allow them to look at my point of view about Mormons and see it as “funny.”

According to Dan O’Shannon in his book, “What Are You Laughing At, these are called “Reception Factors.”

Other ‘Reception Factors” might include:

  • Physical Health
  • Social Situation
  • Feelings about source
  • Method of Communication

There are others, of course but this spreads a vast umbrella over the “Reception Factors” of an audience.

Once I received that note, I was able to adjust. But I don’t just adjust, I acknowledge. I’m about transparency on the stage.

One of the things I learned is that complete candor can save you in moments of discomfort–like this one.

So I read the note out loud and then said, “Wow did I just step in sh–” then I stopped short of saying “shit,” giggled, looked at them as coyly as I could, and said “Poop,” in an overly cute way.

And although that doesn’t sound funny, the situation was funny.

In fact, the audience didn’t just laugh, they applauded…and for different reasons…

The people who were Mormon laughed at my embarrassment and candor, while the people with the cocktails laughed, because the way I delivered it could have been read as a sardonic mocking of the Mormons’ strict adherence to not using profanity.

Or I’m pretty sure that’s what was going on…

Bottom line is this. Use the simple formula of M.A.P. Material-Audience-Performer. The material should suit the audience and should suit the performer.

And when you don’t know what’s going on acknowledge then… ask…then…

Make a joke about yourself, switch gears and do some material that’s not designed to insult the intelligence of that particular audience’s “Reception Factors.”

What are some of your worst experiences with material and audience?

IMPORTANT! Patton Oswalt’s Keynote Address at JFL

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Patton Oswalt is a comedian, an actor, a writer and a voice talent. He’s done all of what we comedians strive to do and more. Basically, Dude rocks!

He was recently keynote speaker at the 3rd annual Just For Laughs Comedy Conference in Montreal. In typical Patton Oswalt style he opened the speech with a bit of self-deprecation, (see, the best still use it!).

Here’s what’s interesting: instead of giving some kind of motivation speech to the troops, Patton read two open letters that he wrote; the first, to the comedians in the room and the second to the brass that runs this industry.

The result was a speech that was far more motivational than a speech that was intended to motivate.

In our classes, we talk about getting your content out, getting it seen and continuing to create more content. We talk about utilizing the internet to enhance your presence. So does Patton Oswalt and he knows a thing or two about this.

But I can’t do it justice by blathering on about it. Read them below. These will be more worth your time than anything else you read with regard to comedy this week!

Here’s Letter Number one:

 

Dear comedian in 2012:

How are you? I am good. In answer to your last letter, the mozzarella sticks at the Irvine Improv do taste weird. I’m taking your advice and sticking with the nachos.

Hey, ‘know what I was thinking the other day? Everything I know about succeeding as a comedian and ultimately as an artist is worthless now, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

I started doing comedy in the summer of 1988. That was a different time, wasn’t it? Joe Piscopo was president, Mary Lou Retton won the Cold War, and Andy Kindler turned 50

If I hadn’t popped that goddamn ‘P’, the Piscopo joke would’ve annihilated.

When I say everything I know about succeeding a comedian is worthless, I know what I’m talking about because everything I know became worthless twice in my lifetime.

The first time was the evening of May 22, 1992. I’d been doing standup almost four years at that point, and that was Johnny Carson’s last ever Tonight Show.

Up until that night, the way you made it in comedy was very clear, simple, straightforward. You went on Carson, you killed, you got called over to the couch, and the next day you had your sitcom and your mansion, and you’re made. Just ask Drew Carey and Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres. And Bill Clinton. That’s how you did it.

But now, Johnny was gone and he wasn’t coming back.

All the comedians I remember starting out with in D.C., all the older ones, told me over and over again ‘you gotta work clean, you gotta get your five minutes, and you gotta get on Carson.’ And it all comes down to that.

And in one night, all of them were wrong. And not just wrong, they were unmoored. They were drifting. A lot of these bulletproof comics I’d opened for, whose careers seemed pre-destined, a lot of them never recovered from that night. You’ll never hear their names. They had been sharks in a man-made pond and had been drained. They decided their time had passed.

Keep that in mind for later. They had decided their time had passed.

The second time everything I knew about comedy became worthless has been petty much every day for the last three years.

I know that’s not an exact date. Some other younger, not yet famous name in this room – you are going to pinpoint that date 20 years from now. But for now, every day for about the last few years will have to suffice.

I just want to give you a brief timeline of my career up to this point, when I knew it was all changing again. Listen to my words very carefully. Two words will come up again and again and they’re going to come back later along with that phrase “they decided” and people are going to carry me around the room.

I was lucky enough to get hired onto King of Queens in 1998. I had nine years on that show. Money, great cast, even better writers, a lot of fun. I bought a house. Then I was lucky enough to get cast as a lead voice in a Pixar movie in 2007. Acclaim, money, I got to meet a lot of my heroes. Then I was lucky enough to get cast on The United States of Tara on Showtime. I got to watch Toni Collette work. I got to perform Diablo Cody’s writing. After which, I was lucky enough to get cast in Young Adult, which is where I got to make out with Charlize Theron. I will use that as an icebreaker if i ever meet Christina Ricci.

I’ve been lucky enough to be given specials on HBO, Comedy Central, and Showtime. As well as I’ve been lucky enough to release records on major labels, and I was lucky they approached me to do it. And that led to me being lucky enough to get Grammy nominations.

I know that sounds like a huge ego-stroking credit dump. But if you listened very carefully, you would have heard two words over and over again: “lucky” and “given.” Those are two very very dangerous words for a comedian. Those two words can put you to sleep, especially once you get a taste of both being “lucky” and being “given.” The days about luck and being given are about to end. They’re about to go away.

Not totally. There are always comedians who will work hard and get noticed by agents and managers and record labels. There will always be an element of that. And they deserve their success. And there’s always going to be people who benefit from that.

What I mean is: Not being lucky and not being given are no longer going to define your career as a comedian and as an artist.

Remember what I said earlier about those bulletproof headliners who focused on their 5 minutes on the Tonight Show and when it ended they decided their opportunity was gone? They decided. Nobody decided that for them. They decided.

Now, look at my career up to this point. Luck, being given. Other people deciding for me.

In the middle of the TV shows and the albums and the specials, I took a big chunk of my money and invested it in a little tour called The Comedians of Comedy. I put it together with my friends, we did small clubs, stayed in shitty hotel rooms, packed ourselves in a tiny van and drove it around the country. The tour was filmed for a very low-budget documentary that I convinced Netflix to release. That became a low-budget show on Comedy Central that we all still own a part of, me and the comedians. That led to a low budget concert film that we put on DVD.

At the end of it, I was exhausted, I was in debt, and I wound up with a wider fanbase of the kind of people I always dreamed of having as fans. And I built that from the ground up, friends and people I respected and was a fan of.

And I realize now I need to combine both of the lessons I’ve learned.

I need to decide more career stuff for myself and make it happen for myself, and I need to stop waiting to luck out and be given. I need to unlearn those muscles.

I’m seeing this notion take form in a lot of my friends. A lot of you out there. You, for instance, the person I’m writing to. Your podcast is amazing. Your videos on your YouTube channel are getting better and better every single one that you make, just like when we did open mics, better and better every week. Your Twitter feed is hilarious.

Listen, I’m doing the Laugh Trench in Milwaukee next week. Is there any chance for an RT?

Your friend, Patton Oswalt

Letter number two:

Dear gatekeepers in broadcast and cable executive offices, focus groups, record labels, development departments, agencies and management companies:

Shalom.

Last month I turned in a script for a pilot I co-wrote with Phil Rosenthal who has had a share of luck and success I can only dream of. Thanks for the notes you gave me on the pilot script. I’m not going to be implementing any of them.

And no, I’m not going to call you “the enemy” or “the man.” I have zero right to say that based on the breaks I’ve gotten from you over the years. If I tried to strike a Che Guevara pose, you would be correct in pointing out that the dramatic underlighting on my face was being reflected up from my swimming pool.

I am as much to blame for my uneasiness and realization of late that I’m part of the problem, that I’m half asleep and more than half complacent.

And I’m still not going to implement your notes. And I’m quoting Phil Rosenthal on this, but he said after we read your notes – and I’m quoting him verbatim – “We’re living in a post-Louie world, and these notes are from a pre-According to Jim world.”

I just read a letter to my fellow comedians telling them what I’m about to tell you, but in a different way. Here it is.

You guys need to stop thinking like gatekeepers. You need to do it for the sake of your own survival.

Because all of us comedians after watching Louis CK revolutionize sitcoms and comedy recordings and live tours. And listening to "WTF With Marc Maron" and "Comedy Bang! Bang!" and watching the growth of the UCB Theatre on two coasts and seeing careers being made on Twitter and Youtube.

Our careers don’t hinge on somebody in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in our direction. There are no gates. They’re gone. The model for success as a comedian in the ’70s and ’80s? That was middle school. Remember, they’d hand you a worksheet, fill in the blanks on the worksheet, hand it in, you’ll get your little points.

And that doesn’t prepare you for college. College is the 21st century. Show up if you want to, there’s an essay, there’s a paper, and there’s a final. And you decide how well you do on them, and that’s it. And then after you’re done with that, you get even more autonomy whether you want it or not because you’re an adult now.

Comedians are getting more and more comfortable with the idea that if we’re not successful, it’s not because we haven’t gotten our foot in the door, or nobody’s given us a hand up. We can do that ourselves now. Every single day we can do more and more without you and depend on you less and less.

If we work with you in the future, it’s going to be because we like your product and your choices and your commitment to pushing boundaries and ability to protect the new and difficult.

Here’s the deal, and I think it’s a really good one.

I want you, all of the gatekeepers, to become fans. I want you to become true enthusiasts like me. I want you to become thrill-seekers. I want you to be as excited as I was when I first saw Maria Bamford’s stand-up, or attended The Paul F. Tompkins show, or listened to Sklarbro Country….

I want you to be as charged with hope as I am that we’re looking at the most top-heavy with talent young wave of comedians that this industry have ever had at any time in its history.

And since this new generation was born into post-modern anything, they are wilder and more fearless than anything you’ve ever dealt with. But remind yourselves: Youth isn’t king. Content is king. Lena Dunham’s 26-year-old voice is just as vital as Louis CK’s 42-year-old voice which is just as vital as Eddie Pepitone’s 50-something voice.

Age doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all about what you have to say and what you’re going to say. Please throw the old fucking model away.

Just the tiny sampling at this amazing festival…. I’m excited to not be the funniest person in the room. It makes me work harder and try to be better at what I do. So be as excited and grateful as I am.

And if in the opportunities you give me, you try to cram all this wildness and risk-taking back in to the crappy mimeographic worksheet form of middle school, we’re just going to walk away. We’re not going to work together. No harm no foul. We can just walk away.

You know why we can do that now? Because of these. (Oswalt holds up an iPhone)

In my hand right now I’m holding more filmmaking technology than Orsen Welles had when he filmed Citizen Kane.

I’m holding almost the same amount of cinematography, post-editing, sound editing, and broadcast capabilities as you have at your tv network.

In a couple of years it’s going to be fucking equal. I see what’s fucking coming. This isn’t a threat, this is an offer. We like to create. We’re the ones who love to make shit all the time. You’re the ones who like to discover it and patronize it support it and nurture it and broadcast it. Just get out of our way when we do it.

If you get out of our way and we fuckin’ get out and fall on our face, we won’t blame you like we did in the past. Because we won’t have taken any of your notes, so it’ll truly be on us.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the stuff uploaded to Youtube. There are sitcoms now on the internet, some of them are brilliant, some of them are “meh,” some of them fuckin suck. At about the same ratio that things are brilliant and “meh” and suck on your network.

If you think that we’re somehow going to turn on you later if what we do falls on its face, and blame you because we can’t take criticism? Let me tell you one thing: We have gone through years of open mics to get where we need to get. Criticism is nothing to us, and comment threads are fucking electrons.

Signed,

Patton Oswalt