Here’s another in my series on How To Be A Famous Comedian. (Disclaimer: if you’re in it to be famous, you’re in it for all the wrong reasons…you need to be in it because it’s in YOU–wait is that a Gatorade commercial? However, one of the ways to learn how to be a famous comedian is to learn from the comedians who are already famous so here’s an interesting clip from Ricky Gervais, one of my favorites)
In my classes I teach that the comedian has to be liked. You never put yourself above the audience. As the audience, we want to root for you. When you stand up there and you think you’re “all that,” you’re not going to get any respect from the audience and you’re certainly not going to get any respect from Ricky Gervais.
Take this approach into consideration when you’re writing your comedy material. When you pump yourself up for any reason, knock yourself down a peg. When I talk about my time playing soccer I say this: “When I was 20 I played professional soccer–for a short period of time, as it was a game of skill–“ Then I go on to tell this story of how I played on an all Latino team and was the only white guy. But boosting myself up by saying I played professional soccer, may sound like bragging to the audience, so I follow it immediately by “for a short period of time, as it was a game of skill.” It knocks me back down a peg.
Stand up comedy is not about being prettier, sexier or smarter than the audience, it’s about stumbling…and getting back up. It’s one of the oldest formulas in comedy…I’m just trying to get from point A to point B and I keep running into obstacles. Here’s the irony: the more you stumble and get back up, the more the audience roots for you to win. I hope you enjoy the clip from Ricky Gervais. Take a look at my other blog posts, there’s a lot of information about comedy and if you liked this video, please leave a comment below. Stay funny!
I was at the Comedy Store last night. I was talking to a young comedian about crafting a joke and the importance of writing everyday and this other comedian butts in and says, “I don’t give a damn about any of that, I just want to know how to be a famous comedian!”
What this comedian didn’t realize was that I just saw him do about an 10-minute set and not only did he run the light, (went way over his time), disrespecting the audience, the booker and his fellow comics, he also did a whole 2-minute bit about not putting kids on “time-out” but putting them on “knock-out,” (a bit that’s more worn out than a Vegas hooker on New Year’s Eve). When he said “I just want to know how to be a famous comedian,” I remember thinking to myself, not with that act!
I’ve been doing comedy for 25 years. I’ve written for Jay Leno for 8 years. So I try my best not to be negative when I’m around other comedians. I’m honest, just not negative. The truth is there is no direct answer to the quest of “how to be a famous comedian,” but there are guidelines.
Write, write and write some more!
One of the crucial keys to making it in this industry is originality. That’s one thing bookers look for when scouting for talent. They also look for how well you craft a joke. Most stand up comedy on late night talk shows is about well-crafted jokes and routines, not about big act-outs. The only way to develop that is by writing and writing a lot. Most comedians, I’ve noticed don’t actually write a lot. They wait for something funny to happen to them and they write it down or record it somehow. That’s a good way to get material, mind you, but it’s only one way. When you learn the fundamentals of comedy including joke structure and technique, then you can make something funny, rather than wait for something to be funny.
A comedian should be spending several hours every day writing. Most don’t. One of the problems is that most comedians and wanna-be comedians equate comedy with frivolity and they treat their profession frivolously. That’s one way NOT to be a famous comedian.
Stage Time is King!
Once you have a well-crafted act (I have a lot of posts on techniques) of 5-7 minutes, then it’s time to hit the stage. Writing is great for the crafting of the material and really sharpening your sense of humor, but nothing beats getting on the stage. A comedian who is looking for notoriety, (whether they are trying to get famous or not), should be hitting the open-mics at least 3 times a week. If you can’t commit to that, you might want to consider a different line of work. You have to develop your act, your timing and your comfort level on stage so you can learn to be yourself while standing in front of complete strangers and the only way to do that is stage time. Sure, open-mics can be grueling. The audience is usually notoriously comedian-heavy and sometimes they can feel unrewarding. But the mere consistent appearance and mic-work will eventually payoff. If you’re doing good work, you’ll gain respect and reach at least some level of fame with the other comedians.
When I was doing the open mics, I was up at least 4 nights a week, at least and sometimes several times in one night. I gained a reputation as a good writer. There’s a nice feeling that accompanies walking into a room and having people talk about you—in a good way! I was always nice to everyone too and if I heard another comedian do a joke and thought of a tag for the joke I would always write it down and offer it to the comic as a suggestion.
Some of the best advice I got from Jay Leno. He said “write faster than everybody else and your reputation will precede you.” It was true. I was “famous” within certain circles for being a really good writer and comedian.
Develop your act and hit the road!
Once you’ve written and honed an act of between 15-30 minutes of solid material, (“solid” meaning a laugh point every 18-20 seconds), then it’s time to hit the road and develop it. When you start working night after night, you really start to develop as a comedian. The beauty of the road is that you’re out there working on comedy 24 hours a day. You write during the day and perform at night. By the end of 4 months on the road, you should have the makings for about an hour of material. When you feel completely secure in your material. It’s time to start submitting yourself to T.V. talent coordinators. Some bookers take DVD’s, some like to see links on the internet and YouTube.
You can contact the bookers by getting the “Hollywood Creative Directory.” It lists all the shows that are on the air and their staffs. Be sure to check out the style of comedian that gets booked on each show. Fallon is different from Kimmel and Ferguson is different from Leno. Once you feel you fit a certain show. Send a DVD right to the booker with a note that says “I’m a regular watcher of your show and I think my act fits with what you do. Please take a look.” Be sure that your name and contact info is on the DVD and the cover of the DVD as they often they get separated.
There is no certainty of success only the joy of the work!
Other than working hard on both parts of the word show-business there are no rules or guarantees to success. My Dad, who was a successful character actor, once said to me, “You have to get into this business for the right reasons. If you get into it to be famous, get out now, because odds are that’s not going to happen. If you get into because it’s who you are and you stay true to being the best you can be and doing the best work possible, you will reach such a great personal level of success and gratification that the idea of how to be a famous comedian won’t be as important as being the best comedian you can be.
The business of Comedy can be brutal. Here’s a couple of simple tips to get you going on the right track.
Have you ever set up a lemonade stand as a kid? You thought it would be great putting your portable table out with a pitcher filled with lemonade and some paper cups and you had a business.
But you sat there in the sun and your only customers were your Mom, Dad, and if you were lucky a neighbor’s Mom. And after a long day in the sun in anticipation of making money, you wound up exactly the way you started…broke. The only difference is afterwards, you were a broke with a suntan—except in my case, a sunburn!
How does this relate to comedy? In comedy without customers, you are not a business. You’re just a broke stand up comedian.
So, how do you remedy this situation? I’m going to give you the answer. It’s quite simple actually: HARD WORK!
Did you know that less than 2 percent of the comedians that start out in this business actually continue on to any level of financial success? That’s right. 2 percent! That’s a brutal statistic isn’t it?
The good news is that when you compare it to the other performing arts, the stats are similar. In the acting profession, according to the Screen Actors Guild, (the primary union that handles actors), the percentage of actors working at any given time is about 2 percent.
One of the reasons the failure rate in comedy is so high is because most people who get into this business—don’t treat it as such. They equate comedy with frivolity and thus, treat their profession, frivolously.
Most beginning comedians I run into also have day jobs and complain that after a day at work they have no energy to write or work on their act. I totally understand that dilemma. When you’re starting out it’s hard to balance your day job with building your comedy career. The good news is it CAN be done.
As a comedian, you should focus on three things:
But how do you do that when you have limited time? I mean you work after all!
“Show Business” is two words. You have the SHOW and you have the BUSINESS. You have to start thinking of your comedy career as a business—your OWN business and you need to start working it like your own business NOW. Not, “I’ll think about it…” NOW!
In most start-up businesses, it’s not unheard of for the owners to put in 18-hour days. You, as the owner, have to do everything. You work as the owner, the sales team, the accountant, human resources and the janitor. 18-hour days are pretty standard.
As a comedian, it’s very similar. You are the writer, the performer and the booker.
So, when you are starting as comedian, treat it like your own business. Put in the time. Build a schedule into your calendar. Give yourself at least a 2-3 hour period where you are working on your writing at least 4-5 days a week. Print a “DO-NOT-DISTURB” sign and post it on your door. Let everyone in the house know that during this period of time, you are writing and DO IT!
It may seem tough at first, but eventually it’ll become a part of your daily routine. But it is important to put it on your schedule. Treat it like you are reporting to work. When you do that, you train your mind to prepare for it. It helps you to follow-up and meet that goal.
You also have to plan to get mic time. Once you have 5-7 minutes of material, it’s time to hit the mics. You should be up at a mic somewhere in front of people at least 2-3 times per week, if you’re in a town where it’s accessible. If you’re near a town where comedy is accessible, then you should find ways to hit a mic at least a couple times a month. If this means getting in the car and driving to the next town…then do it! I remember driving 5-6 hours to do a gig for FREE just to get the stage time and make another business connection.
Sometimes I’ll tell a comedian that and they’ll say, “but that means you’ve lost money on gas!” I understand you’re frustration. I really do. But this is a business and in business you need to spend money to make money. You need to speculate to accumulate. You spent money to get experience and make a connection. Besides it’s tax deductible once you start to pursue this as a career. It’s training. It’s research and development. It’s travel.
Once you develop 10-15 minutes of solid material (by solid, I mean that it’s generating laughs every 18-20 seconds or so), then it’s time for you to become the sales team. Start hitting the phones, the email, Facebook and Linked In to make connections with comedy club bookers, club owners and talent coordinators.
Go to the clubs meet other comedians, find out who’s booking what and how to get in touch with them.
You should be at this point making no less than 10 phone calls per day for your career. That’s right, 10. But just having that number in your head helps you doesn’t it?!
Call comedy clubs, Rotary Clubs, Toastmasters, offer your services for free at local events, parties, annual banquets for chambers of commerce. Teach a comedy traffic school. It’s amazing how quickly you can hone your act when you have a captive audience!
Ultimately, if you study the fundamentals of comedy, you get to be a good joke writer and a better comedian with mic time and practice, you will find that doors will start to open.
Treat everyone with respect, over-deliver wherever you go, and be the guy who will do favors and help other people out. Be nice to everyone. Even the people you don’t like. Be nice! You never know when they will be in a position to help you!
This is only a summary of how to go about this there are many other ways to develop your comedy business. There are many tried and true techniques that I will go over in future articles.
In a nutshell, remember that people who start their own business put in around 18 hours a day. Think about the time you put into your comedy business and if you’re not treating it like your OWN business and you’re not putting in the time, then you might as well go to your kitchen, get a folding table and set up a lemonade stand.
A young comedian came up to me at the Comedy Store the other night and said, “Did you see my set? I think I’m doing good, but how could I be more funny?”
I did see his comedy set. He had some pretty good jokes. Some structure was off, like not saving the punch word for the end of the joke, etc.
I didn’t have a lot of time to talk—and if you know me, you know I could stay up all night in front of the Comedy Store talking about comedy structure—then, when the sun starts cracking the horizon, say, “Wanna grab a bite to eat?”
But since my time was limited, I gave him one bit of comedy advice that I thought would help. I figured it was probably better to give him just one comedy tip, because I have a tendency to overload people with information, which in all honesty, just creates confusion…and since this comedian was confused anyway (and I mean that in a nice way! ), I just gave him this suggestion. I hope it can help you in your comedy writing too!
Go back and analyze your comedy material and find the jokes where you can put in more visual imagery.
Using strong visual imagery receives a more crystallized response from a comedy audience than a joke where the imagery isn’t clear.
IE: “I’m losing my hair. There are some times when it really bothers me. Especially, in the mornings, when my wife is running her fingers through my hair…but I already left for work.”
There is a clear visual perception of hair on the pillow in the mind’s eye. That concise visual elicits greater immediate response from a comedy audience than a more vague joke might, like:
“They say that the state of your apartment represents the state of your mind. Right now my apartment is experiencing a frontal lobe issue.”
Despite both jokes being funny, (both jokes have been time-tested in front of comedy audiences all over the country and have gotten consistent laughs), the first one has a clearer visual. One of the reasons might be that most people have never seen a frontal lobe and can’t visualize it clearly. They get the idea of the joke, but it takes a second.
But let’s look at another version of the second joke:
“I need to get it together. They say that your apartment represents the state of your mind. Right now the inside of my apartment looks like the inside of my purse!”
Did you get a clear visual there? Did the joke seem more crisp? Was the visual more crystallized in your mind and as a result, the punch more effective?
We’ve seen the inside of a purse. Even if you’re a male comedian you could structure that joke to say, “Right now the inside of my apartment looks like the inside of my girlfriend’s purse.”
…and as a guy, this joke now has a double possibility for some added comedy…
“Right now the inside of my apartment looks like the inside of my girlfriend’s purse… The worst part is, my girlfriend’s purse was just found by my wife!”
Now there’s two comedic visuals. The inside of a purse and the memories we have of the faces of pissed off spouses.
So add visual imagery to your stand up comedy material and your writing and remember If you can see the picture clearly, odds are the audience will be able to see it too.
You really want to know what’s funny? How ‘bout some dumb-ass blogger trying to write an article entitled “What is Funny?!”
Funny is such a subjective term. How is anyone going to write about how to be funny? It’s almost like trying to definitively answer, “Who is God?” Or “What is Love?”
As a comedian of 25 years, a comedy writer for Jay Leno and The Tonight Show, comedy instructor and founder of The Stand Up Comedy Clinic, (a comedy workshop in Los Angeles), the question is posed to me, literally, every single day. So I thought I’d get serious about it for a minute and try to come up with a possible answer.
Please remember, this is just my theory and by no means a definitive answer. So keep the nasty comments to yourself. I’m still searching too! In other words, shut your conch! J
What is “funny?” You could ask that question in many different ways–“What is funny?” “What is funny?” “What is Funny?” Or even “What’s so funny, bitch?!…” and still come up with a blank stare. I’m not going to proclaim that I know what’s funny to everyone. Funny is very subjective. What is funny to one person is not necessary going to be funny to another. In a nutshell, we’re just guessing, the audience is the judge.
Here’s what I can do. I can analyze funny. In fact, let’s do it together. According to the dictionary, the number one definition of “Funny” is “to cause laughter or amusement.” Most people can agree on that. I was going to say “all people can agree on that, ” but people will find any reason not to agree—just watch the U.S. Congress.
So, for the purpose of this article, let’s all agree on the definition of “Funny;” that it causes laughter or amusement. In this case, since we are looking for laughs, let’s focus on laughter.
Because amusement is even more subjective. To some, the “Tilt-a-Whirl” at a carnival causes amusement. For me, it causes vomit. And here I think we can all agree that—and I’ve done a little research in this area—that vomiting is only amusing…if it’s not you.
Okay, back to what is funny?. How do we find funny? Well since we know that funny equals laughter we can start by looking at the science of laughter. When we do, we discover that according to experts on human behavior, the number one element that triggers human laughter is surprise.
Now by answering that, do you have any idea how far we’ve come now solving our initial question? It’s almost algebraic. It’s almost an “if-then” statement: What is funny is something that causes laughter. What causes laughter? Surprise, and if A=B and B=C, then A=C, then if Funny=Laughter and Surprise=Laughter, then Funny=Surprise! Got it?
Some people say that you can’t teach stand up comedy or for that matter teach somebody how to be funny. And while I do believe you are born with talent and you develop skill, I also know that if you have a reasonable amount of intelligence and a command of the English language you can learn the structures of how to manipulate words to take something seemingly mundane and turn it into something funny. I teach a comedy class in the Los Angeles area and I can teach just that to average, but amazing people and I’ve had tremendous results. How, you ask?
All it takes is a little surprise. Sid Caesar said, “Comedy is a story with a curlicue.” If you tell me a story and you give it a surprise ending, you have just written your first joke. Tell me something about yourself:
Comedian Tim Bidore used to open with this joke: “I come from a large family…four Moms, five Dads…” He just took something mundane, a cliché of everyday life and really just changed the ending. It’s a curlicue. It’s unexpected. Hence, it’s a surprise. Is it Funny? Let’s go back to the formula If Laughter=Funny, and Surprise=Laughter, then Surprise=Funny.
But we also understand the adage, the audience is the judge and in this case the audience still laughs at that line every time…and what is laughter equal to? FUNNY! Now we’re starting to get it!
Let’s look at it in another way…
How about when you go to the grocery store? When you check out, what does the clerk always say? “Did you find everything you were looking for?” Right? How do you usually respond? By saying, “Yes.” Because even if you didn’t find everything you were looking for, you just don’t want to deal with it.
What if you really took a moment, looked at that question and answered it in a unique way and surprising way?
First, look at the question: “Did you find everything you were looking for?” We know what he/she means when they ask that question. What they’re asking is: Did you find everything you were looking for while you were shopping today.
What if we blew it up a little? What if we took the meaning to the next level? “Did you find everything you’re looking for?” But this time we analyze it in a more “universal” sense, what do most people look for, not at the store, but in life; the meaning of life, or a soul mate, or love?
So what if we took one of those interpretations and responded to the question differently? Does it change? Let’s look:
Clerk: Did you find everything you were looking for?
Me: (Looking at the items on the conveyor) Well, I found some wine and some candlelight, but I couldn’t find my soulmate. You had Mahi-Mahi, but I’m just not into twins.
But then you realize that sometimes there might be someone that thinks you’re trying to relate women to fish. So you change it just to be silly:
Clerk: Did you find everything you were looking for?
Me: Well, I found the wine and the candles, but I couldn’t find my soul mate. So instead, I got Cheeze Whiz!”
Now you have something that’s clever and unique. It will get a laugh every time at the grocery store and since it’s impossible to hate someone who makes you laugh, the next time you go into that store, they’re going to have everything you’re looking for!
Of course this is only one way to create laughter. This method creates surprise by saying something unexpected by using a comedy formula called, Double Entendre. It’s French. The literal interpretation is: “Two meanings.”
In my comedy courses I’ve broken down ten major comedy formulas that are used in contemporary comedy today. These formulas are used, literally, by all the comedians working today. Bottom line is if they make you laugh they are using one of these formulas.
When you learn these formulas and learn how to properly apply them, you can learn to effectively create surprise and as we learned earlier, surprise is the number one element that triggers human laughter.
That’s it for now! Stay tuned for my next article: “Who is God…or is God Love?”
Jerry Corley’s Stand Up Comedy Clinic is an 8-week comedy class based in Los Angeles. Jerry teaches the fundamentals of comedy and humor writing and works hand-in-hand with students to help them create their own 5-7 minute stand-up act, which they perform in a Los Angeles Comedy Club.