“How Can I Be More Funny?”

How a comedian can use visual imagery in his comedy material to trigger stronger laughs.

By Jerry Corley | The Stand Up Comedy Clinic

Dan TobiasA 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! Smile), 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.

What is Funny?

comedy_tragedyWhat is funny?

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.

Biggest Mistakes Comedians Make When Writing Comedy

By Jerry Corley | Founder – The Stand Up Comedy Clinic

man-scratching-head-300x200Comedy writing is rewarding. There is no better feeling than writing a joke and getting an appreciative laugh. Okay, maybe there is a better feeling but that belongs in a different blog…besides, if I told my wife that the things she does don’t compare to joke writing, she might get offended. Winking smileBut I digress…

The dichotomy between the fun and the reward of getting the laugh versus the sometimes tedious and frustrating process of comedy writing,   is often misunderstood. Comedy writing is fun, but it’s also work. Most comedians and comedy writers forget about that. You have to put in the work to get the rewards. The more work you put in the bigger and better the rewards…usually.

It is like guitar playing. I play guitar as a hobby. The more I practice, the better I get. The better I get, the more I want to play. But when I stop practicing and just play the songs I already know, I stop getting better. Got it?

Sometimes the work might not produce material that works. But that’s the process. You have to learn to accept that sometimes the writing session comes up without truly rewarding material. You have to brush it off and return the next day. Everyone goes through that. The better you get, the fewer encounters you have with that kind of failure, but it does happen.

There are two major mistakes comedians and writers make when writing comedy.

  • Giving up too soon.
  • Trying to find something funny to write about.

Giving up too soon is very common with comedians and comedy writers. Recently I did a comedy writing seminar at the World Series of Comedy in Las Vegas, a week-long comedy conference/competition I recommend to all comedians. While at the seminar I asked the comedians how many of them spent a minimum of 3 hours a day writing material? Five comedians raised their hands—that’s out of eighty in attendance!

If you’re not spending a few hours a day writing, then get the hell out of the business. It’s cut-throat out there and if you’re not putting in the time on your comedy writing, then you’re not going to be able to compete in the stand up comedy business. Besides, if you treat yourself as a professional, the results will begin to start coming back to you in a more professional way. Dig in. Dig deep and get to work.

I learned this many years ago. I was touring with a guy who used to be the head writer on a comedy show. I wrote a joke about Congress that I was pretty proud of. I told it to him. He said, “dig deeper.” I wrote another one, he said, “dig deeper.” He kept repeating that until I had put 3 hours in on the joke. By the time I was done I had 30 lines for that one joke and the more I worked, the funnier they got.

Because of that one event, I started digging deep all the time. It wasn’t long before I got 30 lines in two hours, then an hour.

The Biggest Mistake We Can Make When Writing Comedy

The other big mistake comedians and  comedy writers make when writing comedy is they try to find something funny to write about. It’s uncanny. We’ll look at the newspaper and online stories and repeat like a mantra: “that’s not funny…that’s not funny…that’s not funny.” Until we conclude that there’s nothing funny in the news today. And that’s the biggest mistake we can make when writing comedy.

A joke in its simplest form is STRAIGHT LINE – PUNCHLINE. It’s not FUNNY LINE – PUNCHLINE. So the comedy writer must be vigilant in taking the straight line, the fact, the statement and writing it down. Isolate it in its most unfunny state, then, turn it funny by finding the double-entendre play, or doing a reverse, or doing a listing technique or an analogy play or apply 7 other comedy formulas to turn it into something funny. But always start with a straight line first.

Set a goal: When you sit down to write, just tell yourself you’re going to write 25 straight lines. For some of you that could be the most writing you’ve done in a while.

Keep checking back I’ll have more on this later.

How To Be a Better Comedian

By Jerry Corley | Founder – The Stand Up Comedy Clinic

Student Robert NarholzA young comedian came up to me the other day and asked, “how can be a better comedy writer…I mean, right now?”

My first thought was to give him the standard rhetoric about how it’s a process and it takes time, blah, blah, blah. But, instead, I watched his act and I got a sense of where he was in his comic “trajectory, ” for lack of a better term. It was as I thought, so I just told him, “You want to get better right now? Stop trying so hard. Stop trying to find “funny” things to talk about and start talking about what’s true.

Comedy in it’s most basic structure has a straight line and and punch line. The straight line (aka: setup) is crucial. It’s got to be believable. It must be a situation or a statement that sounds logical is recognizable to an audience. Once the straight line is clear, you can spin it with an unexpected result. But it’s best if it starts with something that is true.

In addition, I know a ton of comics—okay, one guy, but he weighs about two-thousand pounds—(see what I did there?). I know a lot of comics in all levels of their careers who have trouble coming up with material because they are always looking for something funny to write about. Talk about putting the pressure on yourself to write everyday! If you’re just looking for “funny things” to write about, then you’re going to find yourself creating your own writer’s block. Just write the truth then turn it into something funny.

You can start with yourself: What’s true about me?

  1. I’m Irish and American Indian…
  2. I come from a large family…
  3. I’ve been married a total of 19 years…
  4. I went to a very strict Catholic school…

On the surface these are just statements about my life. I’m not looking for “funny things” about my life, I’m just looking for statements that describe me. Nothing funny there right? But if you understand that comedy has structure and it’s in the surprise where the jokes come from you can apply the ten major comedy formulas to any of these statements and make them “funny.” Let’s do it… write jokes that is…

  1. I’m Irish and American Indian… so you know pretty much that I have V.I.P. seats waiting for me at any A.A. meeting. I walk into that meeting it’s like, “Hey ‘Running-Bear O’Reilly, ’ we have a chair for you in the front row!”
  2. I come from a large family… four Moms, Five Dads…
  3. I’ve been married a total of 19 years… it would be nice if it wasn’t split between three wives.
  4. I went to a very strict Catholic School… I had A.D.D…. Once!

Very simple straight lines can become very effective jokes. Of course it’s much easier once you understand the ten major comedy formulas and how to apply them. But the key is they didn’t come from trying to write about “funny things.” They came from just writing about what’s true.

10 Sure-Fire Tips on Radio Interviews for Comedians

on the airOne of the things we are asked to do as comedians, from time to time, is radio interviews. When we are on the road working in a club, if the club owner has a relationship with the local radio station, the comedian, (usually the headliner), will be required to do some kind of promotion on the radio. The radio interview can be a “call-in, ” or it an “in-studio’” interview. In my 25 years touring the country as a professional comedian, I’ve done countless radio interviews. My favorite are “in-studio.” In studio interviews give the comedian a chance to meet face-to-face with the D.J. so you can get acquainted. I’ve been asked many times about radio interviews, so I’ve put together a list of 10 sure-fire radio-interview tips for the comedian:

 

  1. Strut Your Material. You are there to sell you! And since you’re a comedian, you need to be funny. The radio audience, who is usually driving in the car or getting ready for work, wants—I should say NEEDS—to know you’re funny. If you do segments of your act that you know get laughs, then you increase the odds that those listeners will come see your show. Some comedians, believe it or not just start talking about their lives without any punchlines or any funny. From a radio listeners point of view, that is BORING. Think about a movie trailer. That trailer better have something good in it or you’re not going to see the movie. Tease them with portions of your act and choose those portions of your act that brand you.
  2. Know how much time you have. One of the things you should know is how much time you have for your segment. Just like doing a set in a brand new club or for a showcase, always know how much “air time” you are going to be given. This will help you prepare your material for the segment. If you don’t know how much, you might be getting ready to hit them with your punchline just as the engineer hits them with a commercial.
  3. Know the Station I.D. There’s nothing more embarrassing than going on the radio and not knowing what radio station you’re on. HINT: write it down on a piece of paper and have it in front of you the entire segment. Better yet, write it at the top of set list you are using to guide you through your segment. You’d be amazed at how many comedians forget what radio station they are on and they wind up embarrassing themselves, the D.J., the club owner, and the program director. It may not seem like a big thing, but if the president of the station is listening and you blow the station ID, it’s not going to go over well. Besides, knowing the station I.D. shows that you are a professional.
  4. Prepare Your Questions. Depending on how much time you have, offer the D.J. a sheet of 4 to 10 questions to ask you that will cue you to do the comedy bits you want to feature. Most D.J.’s will thank you for this. In fact, in my years of doing this I’ve never had a D.J. who didn’t appreciate the questions. They might have other questions they want to ask you that are factual, or based on your bio, but the list will help you present the bits that will get the callers asking for tickets.
  5. Own Your Time. One of the biggest factors to remember on the radio is that despite the fact that it’s their radio station. It’s YOUR segment. Take your space and do your thing. For those minutes that you are on the air, it is your show, so do it. Have you ever listened to Robin Williams on the radio or seen him on a talk show. Hosts love to have him on because they know that those minutes are going to be some of the most entertaining of the evening. When that “On The Air” light goes on, I turn on. I play, I joke, I’ll even make fun of the D.J., but in the same way I would make fun of my best friend. It creates an energy if you take over the show. The results are fantastic. No fewer than 3 times, I’ve been approached after a radio segment I’ve done and I’ve been offered a job as on air talent.
  6. Create A Radio Set List. Too many comedians hit the airwaves unprepared. Don’t get caught in that trap. Prepare a set list (which should go with the questions you give the D.J.), Take a look at your act and write a short radio set list that will highlight the segments of your act you want people to hear. Don’t worry about them hearing it on the radio AND THEN hearing it at the show. Audiences love this. They feel like they are a part of something special. If you make a set list, you only have to do it once in while. Save it on your smartphone to use whenever you need it. Of course remember to update it as your act changes.
  7. Be Your Own Laugh Track. Occasionally when you’re doing radio, you get a D.J. that just won’t give you any energy. He doesn’t laugh at your bits and he’s just not a fun guy. When this happens, take over and laugh at your own bits. Perceive what the radio listener is hearing and have fun. There’s an old saying in comedy and entertainment. “The audience is in whatever state the performer is in.” This holds true on radio too! Have fun. Giggle, laugh, play take jabs at the D.J. if that what it takes and if that fits in your persona or style and represents the comedian you are promoting that night.
  8. Avoid Jokes That Are Visual. This might seem so simple that it’s stupid, but again you’d be surprised at the number of comedians that get on the air, forget to prep and the next thing you know they’re launching into a bit that ends with a visual punchline. On the radio it will end with dead air. That’s why it’s important to prepare your set and know what you’re going to do before the light goes on.
  9. Do Something Local. When you’re doing local radio, take the time to look at the local newspaper (in print or online), to find out what’s going on? Sometimes, just a jokes about the size of the town of something about the local events that are being pimped in the newspaper can get a great response. The audience will totally appreciate the fact that you took the time to take an interest in where they live, even if it was just to make jokes about it.
  10. Offer Free Tickets. Make sure to ask whether or not the station is giving a select amount of comps to callers. This is an essential part of selling the interest in the show. Take control and make mention of it before the D.J. does. Say something like, “Oh Yeah! Before I go I want to offer some free tickets to the show to the first few callers!” It personalizes the show and makes you look like a rock star!

So these are my 10 tips. I’m sure there’s more. Feel free to leave a comment and keep the discussion going with your own input, or suggestions from your own experience.

 

Jerry Corley is the Founder of the Stand Up Comedy Clinic. He teaches from his own studio in Burbank, CA