In the 25 years that I’ve been a professional comedian, I’ve faced a lot of so-called myths that have spread around the comedy circles. It’s amazing that no matter how much you work to diffuse those myths or prove those myths wrong, new comedians seem to continue to nurture and spread tired, hugely over-told and wildly understood myths. I’m using this particular post to point them out and bust them. So that they don’t continue to stifle up-and-comers. Here they are:
1. Don’t laugh at your own jokes.
One of my students was performing her act on stage and despite the fact that she’s an attractive girl, she wore this “scowl” throughout her act. It’s wasn’t a result of her point of view or her emotional approach to the joke, it was just a scowl. At the end of her set I said, “You should smile more. It opens up your face and shows you’re having a good time.”
She said, “ I don’t want to because a comic friend of mine said I shouldn’t laugh at my own jokes.”
That particular rule of thumb is so misunderstood. There’s a difference between enjoying the material and “laughing at your own jokes.” I think that rule is better applied to those comedians who laugh because the joke doesn’t get laughs. The comedian who laughs to say “hey look at me I’m funny…” is what that rule of thumb is better suited for. But you can laugh and enjoy and giggle and play all you want.
If you want to see someone who blasts that rule to smithereens, watch Craig Ferguson work. He has a great time is always laughing at himself.
Here’s a bit of theater science: “The audience is in whatever state the performer is in.” So if you’re having a good time, the audience has no choice but to have a good time.
2. Prop Comics & Guitar Comics are all hacks.
Gotta put this bitch to bed once an for all. There are a lot of comedians that think that just because they prefer to be monologists, that anyone who uses an instrument or a prop is a hack. That’s NOT necessarily true. Guitar and prop comics are simply adding an additional dynamic to the overall show. Those who waste time calling them “hacks” are either naïve or jealous.
A good guitar comic is probably booking more festivals and New Years’ shows at a substantially higher dollar rate than a monologist, because the music can take the audience to another level of participation.
If you are using props, impressions or a guitar, you better be good and the jokes better be solid and interesting, original and funny. There is a tendency for a prop comic, an impressionist or a guitar comic to use their props or instruments to get easy laughs. If you do this, you’re going to wind up being classified as a “hacky” comic. But then again if you were a strict monologist and your material wasn’t interesting intelligent, original or funny, wouldn’t you be considered “hacky” anyway?
People make fun of Carrot Top because he’s a prop comic. Why would any comedian waste time and energy bashing someone who’s doing what he loves and making a living. Bash all you want. Carrot Top has his own theater in Vegas and is one of the highest earning comedians alive today. Instead of bashing Carrot Top, comedians should ask themselves, “What can I learn from his success?”
I might not be a big fan of prop comedy, but I’m a fan of Scott Thompson, (Carrot Top).
3. “I Gotta Follow That?”
I hear a lot of comedians wait to go on stage and someone really good just finishes and they say something like, “You mean, I gotta follow that?!”
Here’s what I learned over the years in this business. The audience wants to enjoy every comedian. They really want to hear a unique and different point of view. I learned a long time ago that you’re not “following” any body. You’re just “next.”
This lesson was taught to me in a very unique way. I was a fiery and fast feature comedian back in the day, hungry to step up to the headliner position. I was writing my ass off and rehearsing and touring 35 weeks a year. I wanted to headline. So when I took the stage I poured it on. I would always give the best shows I could.
I was in Sacramento working at a club called Laughs Unlimited and it was the first night of the week and I was working with the lovely Diane Nichols. Diane had been on The Tonight Show with Johnny and Jay. I wanted to blow the doors off the place to prove that even though she was on network T.V., she couldn’t follow this gun slinger.
I went on stage and right out of the gate I was hitting all my jokes. Everything worked. I was on fire. I wrapped up and she came on stage. In an exhausted forty-something voice she said, “Wow, ladies and gentleman how ‘bout a hand for Jerry Corley…what a ball of energy huh? (Big pause)… I wish I had that kind of energy…”
The audience laughed hard. She didn’t miss a beat. She wasn’t worried about following me… she wasn’t even thinking about me. She was doing her thing and since the audience is in whatever state the performer is in, they were right there with her too.
I learned a BIG LESSON that night.
That came back to me later in my career too. I was headlining at a resort in Nevada and this guitar comic I admire, Huck Flynn, was booked as a feature. I thought the booker must have screwed up because he was rocking rooms as a headliner before I even started in comedy. But here I was having to follow him… did he take it easy on me? No way! He got on stage and blew the doors off the place. The audience loved him.
Now it was my turn. I remembered that lesson I learned from Diane Nichols… I got on stage nice and easy and I said, “Wow, ladies and gentleman, how ‘bout a hand for Huck Flynn…he can really play with that guitar, huh? (Big pause)… I’m not even that good playing with myself…”
They forgot about Huck and they were now with me, because I stayed true to me and my groove… because I wasn’t following anybody, I was just next.
After a terrific graduation showcase for one of my classes this week, I sent out an email congratulating everyone on a job well done.
One of my students sent me an email: “The compliments are nice, but when does it translate into a paid gig?”
That’s a great question and is one of the most burning questions comedians have who are starting out in this business.
The hard and fast reality is this: It NEVER “translates” into a paid gig! Let’s get this straight…
No one will ever walk up to you after you do a random showcase and offer you a job. If it does happen, then it will be a rare occasion indeed.
I have had students who have showcased and got approached by managers or agents and developed other key relationships at a showcase, but to have someone come up to you and offer you a job without you developing a relationship with them first, is very rare. Especially in L.A.
Does this mean you cannot convert what you’ve learned in a class into a paying career? Of course not. What it means is that YOU have to get out there and chase the work.
The student who asked me this question is a sweet, kind woman who has a funny act, but doesn’t hit the mics regularly.
She reminds me of the “Guy And The Lottery Ticket” joke:
“A man is sitting on the sidewalk in front of a liquor store that sells lottery tickets. Every day you can hear him praying, “Please God, let me win the lottery. Please God let me win the lottery… Then one day a priest sees him on the sidewalk, empty-handed, praying. The man catching the eye of the priest says, “Father, is there a God? I’ve been praying for weeks… how come God won’t let me win the lottery?” The priest puts his hand on the man’s shoulder and says, “First, my son… you have to buy a ticket.”
The only thing I know for sure is what has happened to me in my 25-year career as a stand up comedian: I was hitting the mics 3-6 times a week. I was meeting other comedians. I was developing relationships and building a reputation.
One of the first paid gigs I got was when I was doing an open mic in Chatsworth, CA. I’d done this open mic probably twenty-five times. I would arrive at the bar at sign-up time and stay till close, supporting the other comics. I developed a casual business relationship with the booker. He liked my style and was impressed that every time I hit that mic, I had new material and was getting consistent laughs. He commented on it and asked how much time I had. I said, “about an hour.”
He asked if I had video… and I had a couple of tapes in the backpack I carried with me wherever I went. I handed it to him. He was impressed that I had one on me. (I thought to myself Wow! Some of that “crazy” shit my Dad told me to do is paying off!) The booker took the video home to watch it. I was excited.
The very next week I went back to that open mic, my heart soaring with anticipation of getting a job. When I got there I found out that the booker who took my tape just went out on the road to do his “new” act. That man’s name was Carlos Mencia…
JUST KIDDING! It wasn’t Mencia…
But he did go out on the road for two weeks. I was disappointed that I would have to wait for him to return, but I was already going to that open mic for about six months so what was another two weeks? The very next day the booker called me and told me he liked the video and he had a gig for me in West Covina at a place called Lamp Post Pizza. It paid a hundred bucks and you got food and a couple of drink tickets. I thought to myself: “I’VE MADE IT!”
I did the show and did really well. I got my hundred bucks, but was too nervous to enjoy the free food. I came home and was so excited that I got paid for telling jokes! I basically got paid for doing something that used to get me into trouble back in school! Fuckin’ Eh!
I was so excited and jacked up from that experience, that I researched and called everyone I knew that did comedy. I found something called Comedy USA, a publication that culled and printed information for comedians, bookers and clubs. I called all of clubs listed. Ninety percent said “NO.” I called more. I got a Fed-Ex account, got my tape duplicated and sent it out to everyone I could. Slowly, I started to get work. Most of it was filling in for last minute cancelations and some of it was driving 5 to 6 hours to make fifty bucks, but it was a start.
I spent 5 days a week, making at least 10 calls per day for my career. I sent out tapes, traveled to clubs and auditioned in person whenever I could. Eventually one job turned in to several jobs. I did this all without an agent or manager, (Sometimes my wife called as my manager). Eventually I turned it into a career doing 40-45 weeks of work a year and more. But I chased it and I worked it. Every. Single. Day.
My point is this: YOU HAVE TO DO THE WORK! YOU have to hit the mics 3-6 times a week. YOU have to develop the act to where it’s nearly flawless and YOU have to chase the work to win this comedy lottery…
In the words of the Priest: “First, my son, you have to buy a ticket!”
Most comedians I know are always looking for ways to improve. One of my goals as a comedian for 25 years, writer, comedy school owner and personal comedy coach, is to give my students the best information I can find, regarding comedy, so when I received a call from Eddie Brill that he was coming to L.A. to teach his comedy workshop, I wanted to be sure I put it on my comedy blog so that everyone has access to it.
Regardless of what your life’s study, you don’t reach a level of success by only learning from one teacher. I’ve taken the Eddie Brill workshops and he gives sound advice with regard to comedy. Eddie is a comedian’s comedian. He has a passion about the art of comedy that shared by only a few comics that I know.
Eddie’s experience as a comedian that spans nearly 30 years, and his inside knowledge as the talent coordinator for Late Night with David Letterman, (he was recently fired according to the Chicago Tribune), gives the comedian or anyone interested in comedy the opportunity to gain some unique knowledge from a person truly in the know.
Despite the recent development at Letterman, I would urge any comedian to attend Eddie’s weekend workshop or his evening seminar, not only for the knowledge Eddie imparts with regard to comedy, but also to add another quality connection to your comedy network, as Eddie continues his work coordinating the Great American Comedy Festival and surely will have his hand in another position in television as a talent coordinator in the near future.
Eddie will be in L.A. teaching his his workshop at the Hollywood Improv on January 26th, 27th and 28th. If you want to add another dimension to your understanding of stand up comedy, take the Eddie Brill Comedy Workshop. Be sure you use the VIP Code: “Jerry”.
Comedy competitions are a great way to get your name out there, meet other comics and industry professionals and develop a thick, professional skin. By that I mean that you’ll develop a bullet-proof, confidence when it comes to auditions and higher-stakes performances. Here are some tips that may help you have a better grasp on how to handle these events:
• PREPARE A TIGHT TWO MINUTES: Most major competitions, including television’s “America’s Got Talent” and “Last Comic Standing,” give you two minutes to perform in the preliminary rounds. It doesn’t seem like a long time, but if you can write and perform a set that returns approximately 10 laughs in that time, you’ll be in the running. That breaks down to a laugh every 15 seconds or so. Don’t let that fool you. It doesn’t mean that you have to do a joke every 15 seconds, it means that in the overall two minutes, it’ll average out to that. The trick is that you structure your set so that you have tags and act-outs that follow your punch lines. With this structure one joke can generate two, three or four laughs, if not more sometimes. If you’re doing other commercial comedy competitions, sometimes you might have five minutes in the prelims. Know your time and know how to finish.
• BE UNIQUE: Do material that has a unique or original point of view. You are competing against a lot of comedians. Find out what others are doing and do something, ANYTHING different. I’ve sat in the judges seat numerous times. When you see the same stuff over and over it not only gets boring, it will have a negative impact on your score.
• M.A.P.: stands for MATERIAL-AUDIENCE-PERFORMER. Your material must suit the audience and the performer. Do material that defines YOU. Also groom your material to fit the competition. For example if you are competing for a broadcast television competition, you know that the material must be “television-clean.” Best way to determine this is to YouTube comedians who appear on the Tonight Show and other late night shows and make note of where they draw the line with their material. What’s acceptable innuendo, etc. It’s not only words that get cut by the censors, certain themes are also deemed inappropriate for broadcast T.V. For example if you think you’re clean and you end your set with “…so I went to my room and jerked off!” You’re not going to get on national T.V. and you probably will not make it through the preliminary rounds.
• BE PROFESSIONAL: seems like a pretty obvious tip. But you would be amazed at how many people behave unprofessionally at these events. From showing up drunk or high to arguing with event coordinators over trivial matters, these behaviors reflect on your professionalism and will definitely reflect on your ability to succeed in a competition. Sometimes competitions come with inconveniences (whether it’s waiting in long lines, cattle calls, dealing with disorganization, etc.) be as cordial as possible and be the guy/girl who can help with the situation rather than hinder it. The organizers discuss the event with each other and if your name comes up and you’re referred to as the “asshole who didn’t want to wait in line,” then guess who’s not moving to the quarters or the semis? Perception is everything. When people don’t know you by reputation all they have is the first impression you give them. You are performing from the moment you fill out that entry form and submit your video so do it as professionally as possible.
• BE SUPPORTIVE: You are not only involved in a competition to win it, you are also in it to meet and network with other professionals. If you are supportive and friendly, odds are you’ll walk away from the competition with some connections to other future gigs. So do yourself a favor and stay positive and helpful. Don’t walk around bitching about how they could’ve done something better. It’ll usually get around pretty quickly and you’ll be labeled uncooperative.
• SUBMIT QUALITY VIDEO: Back to first impressions. If the competition has you submitting video, submit the best quality you have. Make sure the sound level is good and you can be understood and make sure the video seems reasonably professional. Don’t submit something you shot in front of your fireplace. (Don’t laugh, it’s been done!). Submit something that has been preferably shot in front of a live audience (as opposed to a dead one!) and best reflects the professional image you want to put forth. Also don’t forget–or if you didn’t know–Apple’s iPad and iPhone don’t read flash video, so if you are hosting your own video you need to post it as a .mp4 so that it can be read and playable on those Apple products. If you need FREE video conversion software, visit my post here.
• FOLLOW THE RULES: All comedy competitions come with rules and terms. A polite piece of advice–READ THEM! It’s called the fine print. Know right off the bat what you’re getting into and what the terms are. You don’t want to get there and realize that you’re not prepared or that you didn’t meet the criteria. For example if they wanted a set to be 2 minutes only. Then you better keep to the time. I don’t care how funny you are, if you break the rules, the organizers will most likely disqualify you. Don’t lose on a technicality. Follow the rules.
• FIND OUT ABOUT THE LIGHT: If you don’t know about the light by now, read this. The light is how the comedy club organizers signal the performer that his/her time is up. Find out where the light is and what procedure they are following. Is the light a flashlight as they might use at Zanies in Chicago? Or is it a light that’s fixed near the back of the room, like at the Improv in Los Angeles? Or is it a picture or neon that illuminates, like at the Comedy Store in L.A.? Know what the light is and when they turn it on. Do they give you a minute light, 30-second light? You are much better knowing this information up front. You don’t what that on your mind when you are performing.
• HAVE FUN!: This is very important. When you do a competition, have a good time. It’s a long-shot that you are going to win. The more competitions you do, the more you improve, the higher your odds. So while you’re there, have a good time. You’ll enjoy it more. It will reflect in your professionalism and it leaves your mind in a better state to identify and create new material. Who knows? While your involved in the competition you might find yourself with a new comedy bit. Five new minutes on doing comedy competitions!
• SEND A “THANK YOU” TO THE ORGANIZERS – Always send a thank you note to the organizers of the comedy competitions. As trivial as this sounds, it’s always good to stay in their good graces. Most organizers for comedy competitions usually run clubs or maintain other booking responsibilities. If you send them a thank you note with a card that has your picture, you’re keeping your face in front of them. They’ll probably look at it and say, “that was cool.” It doesn’t always convert to work. But it’s better to be remembered as “cool,” because if you stay at it in this business, you will run into those people again.
Here’s another entry into my blog on How to be a funny girl. Why would I bother writing about something like this? Because this business is hungry for funny women! In my opinion there are not enough funny women in comedy. I’ve seen a trend toward an increasing amount recently, but overall there are still not enough funny girls.
In my workshops, I’ve had more women attending lately. I think it’s awesome for a funny girl to hit the stage and make us all laugh. Why? Because ,you begin to learn that women have a different perspective on life and you get to hear them pour out their souls on stage and make it funny.
One of my favorite funny women is Paula Poundstone. She knows how to be a funny girl. She shared her struggles (joking about her suicide attempt), and she shared her quirky observations, (why you have to eat Pop Tarts in two’s).
Most funny girls are either funny and clean or they are edgy and blue. It’s fun when you can get a funny girl that can combine both.
On this blog I’m going to share one of my new favorite funny girls, this funny girl does just that. This girl knows how to be funny. She’s one of my students at The Stand Up Comedy Clinic. Her name is Pauline Yasuda and she’s one funny girl. During my 8 week course she would bring in a new 5-7 minute act almost every week. We would tweak them with suggestions and heighten the laugh points by clarifying the imagery. But other than a couple of word suggestions and enhancing certain associations in the material, the humor was already present.
But don’t take my word for it. Watch the video for yourself and leave a comment if you think Pauline knows how to be a funny girl.