As a comedian, have you ever been asked to refine your point of view?
Have you ever wondered what your point of view is? Your persona? Your voice?
Or, like me, has a booker said to you, I’m looking for an “internal thru-line, a golden thread of continuity.”
I heard that one from Mark Lonow, former talent coordinator and co-owner of the Improv in L.A., (years ago) immediately after I did an audition that I thought I rocked.
It was disheartening because not only did I not get a spot at the Improv from him, I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about!
Two days later I said, “screw that!” I went right to Bud Friedman, (the founder of the Improv), pleaded for an audition and with the same act got booked in Vegas and on T.V.
What is a Point of View?
So what is a point of view? And what does a booker mean when he says he wants to see a stronger one?
A point of view is how you look at the world and the situations around you that you include in your comedy.
Basically answer the question: “Who are you?”
Can you say in a couple of sentences who you are?
Are you a cynic? Do you have a quirky way of looking at life? Do you like to pick out life’s minutia and point out those observations in a funny way? Are you a liberal? A conservative? Gun lover? Trump voter?
You’re point of view doesn’t have to be extreme.
Who Are You?
From scholar to buffoon, there are about 20 Major and distinctive comic masks, but each comedian can have only one. Download the 20 Comic Masks PDF Chart and see where you fit in!
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Amy Schumer is known for her subversive feminism and addressing various social issues through a character who is seemingly promiscuous and a little ditsy.
Schumer has described herself as just someone who goes in and out of being an irreverent idiot. (Although I think, and her bank account surely reflects, that she’s more than that).
Bill Burr is a bit of an edgy devil’s advocate. He approaches his comedy by challenging the status quo from a strong male point of view to the point where he appears at times to be misogynistic. But Burr always says “It doesn’t make sense. Somebody explain it.” Then he explains it, usually using analogies while making us think, “Oh I never thought about it that way.”
Larry the Cable Guy (Dan Whitney), is a simple guy, a bit of a buffoon trying to figure out how things work.”
Whitney Cummings is a woman fed up with the bullshit of men and relationships, but still trying figure out how to make relationships work.
When I first started I was just trying to write funny jokes and stories. I did wordplay, paradox and observation like Carlin, but with a strong Seinfeldian voice.
So much so that Seinfeld himself mocked me at a club after I did a set! Lol.
I was getting laughs but I wasn’t sure who I was or how to find myself. Then I got some advice from the most unexpected source…
I met a mobster when I was waiting tables in New York. He was one of my favorite customers. I told him I didn’t know what to be when I was up on stage. He said, “Don’t listen to your heart, it feels too much. Don’t listen to your head, it thinks too much. Listen to your gut, cuz your gut never lies to you.”
Shortly after that, I met George Carlin. He said to me, “take the stuff that drives you absolutely fucking crazy and make it funny.”
That’s when my voice turned more toward a socio-political irreverent style that felt cathartic and real to me.
It felt ‘right’ in my gut, you know?
I loved to watch and read the news and call bullshit. I like to look at the inequalities and the hypocrisies in the world and point them out.
My act evolved toward a message of tolerance of race, gender and sexual preference, but not religion because in my comedic view religion is the reason societies have created a fictitious hierarchy and division in the first place.
Basically I make fun of everyone, but in a way that unites and makes our various idiosyncrasies fun.
How do you define yourself?
How do You Find Your Point of View?
One way to find your point of view or voice is to ask people what they see when they see you.
Another way is to ask yourself how you want people to see you or get in touch with who you are around your friends and start with that.
Another way is to develop a character, refine it and perform material based on that character’s point of view.
For several years, I created a pretty refined character named Charlie Stone. Charlie was a quirky, long-haired surfer-type character. He wasn’t a stoner, because he didn’t do drugs, but he had a stoner approach to his world view…
“This gal comes up to me and says, Dude… are you a Christian? I said, ‘No… I’m a Catho-Christi-Hinuistic-Musli-Morma-Jew… I don’t want to miss out on Heaven cuz of a technicality!'”
Charlie was an interesting experiment. I used to go out on the road and open for me, Jerry Corley as Charlie Stone.
Basically I would wear a wig and these blue-tinted glasses and do 30 minutes as Charlie Stone then change while the emcee was up, come back to the stage as Jerry Corley and do another hour.
The interesting part was that even though my act would do well and many times end in a standing ovation, everyone would come up to me after the show and say, “Where’s Charlie Stone?!”
What I learned from that was that Charlie Stone’s character was so refined that he was memorable.
I’m positive that if I brought Charlie back today, because of the strong, refined character, he would place or win in competitions and book some T.V.
Talent coordinators and bookers often confuse the difference between character, persona, voice and ‘point-of-view.’
But usually what occurs is that if a character is well-defined, the point of view tends to just fall into place within that character.
Some People Say it Takes 7 Years or More to Find Your Persona. Is That True?
One of the reasons it takes people a long time to find their persona or voice is that the first several years of their journey into comedy, they are just trying to figure out how to write a joke and create an act, you know? Make something funny.
As they begin to develop material they begin to realize that some material seems to resonate more with them than other material and they start to focus more on the material that they’re more connected to, which helps to shape their voice.
Bill Burr said he spent the first 5-7 years of his career doing one and two-liner comedy. Then when he started to go up on stage and riff on ideas is when he found more of his cynical voice.”
Anthony Jeselnik said that he started writing comedy by study Jack Handy’s “Deep Thoughts” from Saturday Night Live. He started writing those down then writing his own. “Then I was up on stage and did a joke that was dark and it got a great response. And I knew that’s where I was going.”
There’s no one way to find your point of view. Just keep cognizant of who you are and what you’re trying to say.
Remember that your character can evolve, develop and change. Allow yourself to explore it. Try different things. Listen to the audience and how they respond, adjust and refine.
And also always, always listen to your heart–wait… your gut.
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Vengeance is Mine!
Nothing gets a person’s pulse up more than a great plot driven by revenge. I’ve noticed that the best comedians use this super effective theme in their jokes or stories.
That’s one of the reasons why jokes about ex’s who have cheated on us can be so effective…
My Ex, who cheated on me, called me on Halloween. She said, “Jerry, I don’t know what to pretend to be for Halloween.” I said, “Why don’t you just dress normally and pretend you’re in a committed relationship?”
When you set up an antagonist, the audience has an urge to root for the protagonist, or the hero, (to those of you unfamiliar with the term).
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The audience becomes emotionally invested in the protagonist ‘winning’ after being wronged.
As a result, the audience is excited and gives more at the punchline. They laugh harder and not only that, they are also compelled to applaud.
There are two reasons for this:
- Since the individuals in the audience have also had an experience with being betrayed or otherwise slighted, they empathize with the comedian’s dilemma and are automatically emotionally invested. Since they have a similar experience, they want to see how you resolve it. So, when you avenge the wrong that was done to you, the audience feels that they also win. So it’s a more personal experience for them, so they applaud the win.
- By it’s nature as a structure in storytelling, the theme of revenge contains the critical combination of tension & release. There is immediate conflict and resolution which gives the story that necessary rise and fall that any story contains if it is to have a good beginning, middle and end. The advantage is that our audiences are already groomed to applaud when a story resolves. (Think about songs, when they end the music resolves back to the tonic note in the key, resolving the tension). And when a song ends, the audience naturally wants to applaud.
To highlight this point, sing the end of the National Anthem or any country’s anthem. “… and the home of the brave…” That tension to resolution, urges the audience to applaud. Dropping that concept into your set, even in mini-doses, is almost like plug ‘n play applause breaks.
It’s a brilliant concept!
An Antagonist Makes the Revenge Delicious
You’ve heard the phrase “revenge is a dish best served cold?” In comedy, revenge must be served proportionally. Comedy revenge is usually not murder or real physical harm–let’s face it, you’re probably not going to get laughs if your girlfriend cheats on you and you stab her in the throat–it’s usually more like intellectual retribution…
… like when Rosanne Barr says,
“My mother says the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I think the best way to a man’s heart is straight through his chest.”
I refer to this structure in comedy as “benign retaliation.” Meaning the revenge does not physically harm the antagonist and is usually proportional to what they did to you and saying it in words metaphorically as a cliche reformation, is much more symbolism than literalism.
Although, once the audience is rooting for you as the protagonist, it’s impressive what you can get away with as far as retaliation is concerned… even in longer stories.
“My ex was horrible with spending. But she would always justify her overspending by sale-shopping. And she would always walk into the house with these shopping bags—you know the kind I’m talking about; those paper bags with the rope-like handles. They’re made out rope so you can use it later to climb out of debt…
…or hang yourself.
And I always knew when she overspent. She would always start out saying the same thing. Maybe you’ve heard this… She would come in and say, “ Oh my God! You have no idea how much money I saved us!”
This one month we were really strapped and I said, “We need to have a moratorium on non-essential spending.” She was like “Well, I need sandals, because it’s summer. They’re only 45 dollars.” So she went out to get sandals.
And I knew I was in trouble because when she returned she had the bags with the rope handles… and she was like, “You have no idea how much money I saved us… I got this leather jacket—normally 350 dollars—it was only 150! I got this sweater—it’s cashmere and silk—normally 150, marked down to 70! You have no idea how much money I saved us!
I said, “I thought you went to get sandals?”
She said, “Yeah, they were only 80 dollars.”
I said, “You said they were forty-five?”
She said, “Well, since I saved us so much money, I figured I would get some better sandals!”
I was pissed. A week later I was doing a gig in Malaysia. And these two Malaysian hookers approach me after at the bar after the show. They were beautiful and super seductive. They were trying to negotiate with me, you know. “200 dollars.” I’m like, “Ladies. I’m a family man. I don’t do that.” They don’t give up though. They kept trying for about 30 minutes. Finally they said, “Okay—for you—45 dollars—two of us—all night.”
The next day I called my girlfriend. I said, “Oh My God, You have no idea how much money I saved us!”
That simple story gets a lot of laughs and at the end it always—well, almost always—gets an applause break.
In real life it’s not appropriate get even with your girlfriend’s spending, by implying that you slept with hookers, but in comedy… it’s on!
An Antagonist Enables You to be More Edgy
When you build that antagonist, the audience can let you go pretty edgy in your comeback. Remember that Halloween joke at the top? Here’s the way I originally wrote it and deliver it when I’m in comedy clubs:
“My Ex who cheated on me with her boss, called me on Halloween. She said, “Jerry, I don’t know what to be for Halloween.” I said, “Why don’t you just dress for work and when people ask who you are you can say, “Just shut up and fuck me.”
Revenge as a Literary Device
Since storytelling began, revenge has titillated readers and listeners. It compels people to listen and participate emotionally. If you can get your audience to do that (even for a short joke) you know have a real winner.
Being such a powerful theme in storytelling, comedy writers should familiarize themselves with the concept of revenge and really get an understanding for the passion in it that the audience feels.
Be Sure There is a Reason for the Retaliation
But keep in mind, that in comedy, the retaliation needs to be benign and who the antagonist is, needs to be clear to the audience. If it’s not it could be deadly to the joke.
I had an audition set in front of David Letterman’s talent coordinator. I had a pretty good set. Afterwards, he gave me a critique, he said, “I loved your stuff. But that one joke about your ex-wife. We don’t like attacks on women with no reason for them. It’s sexist.”
I realized that because I was cutting my set down for 4 minutes, I left out the part that she cheated on me, so the attack seemed to come out of nowhere. If the audience does not crave the revenge, then, quite frankly, the audience doesn’t know why to root for you and the risk is diminished laughter or no laugh at all.
Here’s the irony of that story. Two months later, the talent coordinator was fired by Late Night for an interview where he was accused of being sexist.
Take some time and build some benign retaliation into your stories.
Watch some of your favorite comedians and see how they use revenge or benign retaliation in their stories or shorter jokes.
What are some of your favorite benign retaliation stories?
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I’m gonna call this blog post an open letter to comedy teachers.
This especially goes out to one comedy teacher in particular who refers to himself as “America’s Original Comedy Coach.” (Lol, right?)
Recently, I put a post on Facebook called “911 For Your Jokes.” It’s a step-by-step walkthrough of 5 different ways to take a single subject, and develop a comedy routine, a bit or stand-alone jokes.
In the case of this particular post, the subject was ‘Flight Attendant.’ (See it in action here).
I put out these ‘freebies’ so that comedians and comedy writers (both new and old), can get some ideas and inspiration on how to get the material going.
Because we’ve all run into writer’s block, right?
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So “America’s Original Comedy Coach” (sorry, can’t say that without giggling), posted a comment ridiculing the fact that I was demonstrating this.
I think his comment was, “Formula #1: Don’t use any of these formulas for comedy or you’ll wind up sounding exactly like everyone else.”
You guys who know me, know that I would never usually call someone out like this, but when you attempt to ridicule me in a public forum, It’s on, bitch! :-).
Here are 3 Big Reasons you should Develop Structure in your Comedy Writing…
#1: Writing Makes it Easier to Build Structure into your Material
So let’s examine that whole “sound like everyone else” statement for a moment.
If you watch Jim Gaffigan, Bill Burr, Daniel Tosh, Amy Schumer, Brian Kiley, Whitney Cummings, Kira Soltanovich, (or any number of comedians who are currently at the top of their game), and you deconstruct their acts, you will discover that they all utilize similar techniques in their comedy routines to get laughs.
Would you say that they all sound alike?
Didn’t think so… and you want to know the reason?
They are different people!
Those comedians each have different points of view, different experiences and different ways of expressing themselves.
But it is the structure within their sets that gets the laughs. Without that structure, guess what?
#2: Get More Laughs
Let’s take two distinctly different, but similar comedians. Anthony Jeselnik and Brian Kiley. Below is an example of a joke each of them do.
They are using a comedy structure called the “Paired Phrase.”
KILEY: My wife and I have been married for 20 years, but there’s still that tension between her Dad and I. He’s always giving me a look like, “I know you’re having sex with my daughter.” And I’m always giving him a look like… “Barely.”
JESELNIK: I went to my girlfriend’s parents’ house over the holidays. Her Dad didn’t let us sleep in the same room. He was giving me a look like, “I don’t trust you.” And I gave him a look like, “Trust me, man… I’m fucking your daughter.”
You hear the similarity?
It’s goal of the paired phrase (in this particular context) to create pattern disruption or an expected rhythm or ending and then shatter created expectation.
When that pattern is disrupted, (with Kiley, he used self-deprecation while Jeselnik uses ambivalence and a bit of shock value), you create surprise and if you’re familiar with the 9 psychological laughter triggers, you already know that surprise is one of the most effective.
But if you were to watch Jeselnik and Kiley back to back, you wouldn’t think they sounded alike because they have totally different personas.
Jeselnik is driven by ambivalence, (being discompassionate about things society believes you should be compassionate about), and Kiley is driven by a persona that is slightly put upon and confused about the way things are supposed to work.
Using the ‘Reverse’ to Create Surprise
Another way to create surprise with with a comedy structure called a ‘reverse.’ This construct also sets up an expectation, then shatters it. When a comedian or comedy writer knows this, writing comedy is much easier.
I mean think about it. All Jeselnik has to do is to come up with a situation that we call can relate to and solve them with something unexpected.
“I break up with the girls the way I take off a band-aid; slow and in the shower.”
Kiley does a similar thing with the reverse structure by shattering our expectation with situation we can all identify with:
“I’m surprised I got together with my wife at all because when I first met her she was soooo… pregnant.”
So to say that structure is wrong is denying your students the very tools that make people laugh.
#3: Comedy Writing Enables you to Make More Money
America’s Original Comedy Coach also ridiculed my effort to encourage comedians to develop their skills in writing comedy material.
This is where I was completely dumbfounded! WTF!? Why would you NOT encourage your students to develop all their skill sets?
That’s like telling a baseball player to work only on hitting the ball. You might do pretty well when you’re up at bat, but you’ll suck everywhere else.
And, while in baseball a hitter may be considered good when he gets a hit 1 out of 3 times, if you do that in the comedy world, a talent booker wouldn’t even want you as a pinch hitter!
If you neglect developing your skills at writing you’re doing yourself a serious disservice.
Also… and this is a BIG also… when you know how to write comedy material, you have just exponentially increased your potential to create revenue.
There are so many opportunities out there for people who can write funny.
Doing stand-up and getting good is great, but learning to develop your writing chops just adds another high-revenue-creating skill set.
So, America’s Original Comedy Coach, I would rethink what you’re teaching your students and while you’re at it, maybe rethink calling yourself “America’s Original Comedy Coach.”
Think about it, man; If you were America’s original airplane, America’s original automobile or America’s original computer, you’d be obsolete.
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This could be the most important 9-minute comedy lesson of your life.
In the next 9 minutes you’re going to learn a lot! I mean a ton! I’m calling this article my 9-minute Comedy Mastermind Session.
When it comes to comedy writing and theory, my argument always focuses on structure.
“Structure is king!” I’ll usually say.
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Getting to the point and getting the laugh with a strong point of view while saying something that actually means something is crucial but structure is where the laugh occurs… not just trying to be funny.
This next 9-minutes focuses on that.
Structure is really the keys to the car that drives comedy success. I’d argue that it’s not just important, it’s crucial!
Side-by-Side Comedian Comparison
In the next 9 minutes you’re going to look at two comedians.
Rob Delaney and Brian Kiley.
Delaney is your classic internet sensation comedian. His rise to notoriety came via Twitter where he had 1.26 million followers! But you’ll soon learn that Twitter comedy doesn’t necessarily interpret into stellar stand-up.
Brian Kiley is the head monologue writer for Conan O’Brien. Kiley is a master of structure and joke telling. But his joke telling style is so well finessed that it doesn’t seem like he’s us telling jokes.
Take a look at these two comedians as they appear on 2 different late night shows.
Structure vs. No structure. It’s Kiley with solid structure and Delaney with just telling a story and trying to be funny
You be the judge…
…and as always I would love to hear your comments.
Let’s take a look at comedian Rob Delaney. He performed a set on Jimmy Kimmel Live. He wasn’t prepared, he lacked structure and he totally shits the bed…
Caution: You might have to will yourself to watch the entire 4.5 minutes. But it’s important that you do.
Now let’s watch 4.5 minutes of Brian Kiley. Brian is a master of joke structure. You don’t have to be like him or deliver your material in this more “joke” form, but you’ll easily see the difference between structured and unstructured material.
In my view, structure is king.
Brian Kiley’s set is far superior in it’s structure and it’s story-telling than Rob Delaney. In fact, rumor has it that Delaney tried to make sure that this didn’t get out. I get it.
I’m not posting this to slam Delaney as a comedian. I’ve been doing stand-up for nearly 30 years, I know how hard it is to get on T.V. So big props to him for just getting the spot. But when you get there you’ve got to have a structured set.
Your effectiveness is judged by laughs per minute. If you’re not getting laughs, the audience is tuning out.
A stand-up comedian’s time is also limited on late night TV shows. Comedian’s sets have been running around 4 minutes 30 seconds! I just watched comedian Dulce Sloan on Conan and she only had 3 minutes!
You gotta get to the jokes fast and keep them rolling! If you don’t you might wind up like Rob Delaney and totally shitting the bed.
There are two primary ways to learn how to build comedy and story structure into your comedy act: 1. Get up and try it and learn through trial and error and hopefully find your way to doing what the successful comedians are doing… or 2. Drop in on one of my comedy classes and learn why people laugh and learn the structures that trigger that laughter. You can also really jack up your comedy writing skills at one of my Weekend Comedy Writing Workshops.
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Are you one of those people who is afraid of mistakes? Are you afraid to put something out there—either on stage or in a meeting or even on social media—for fear that you made a mistake and someone will call you out on it, thus making you the laughing stock of the world and eternally miserable?
This happens to all of us at some level.
I remember, early in my studying, being in an acting class. I really wanted to be an actor. My father had some fame as an actor and I wanted to be an actor too. I went to the classes and when I did something “wrong,” the teacher would try to give me notes.
I would always try to interrupt with something like a “Yeah, yeah, I know I did that,” or something similar. Instead of really listening to the note based on what the teacher saw in my performance, I would jump ahead because I didn’t really want to hear that I was flawed, that I made a mistake.
Fortunately I had a father who used to coach me as well. He saw that I would try to jump in and not truly listen to the note. He would wait for me to finish my objection. Then say, “Next time I give you a critique, instead of instantly jumping in I want you to try something. I want you to think of a follow-up question, based on what I said.”
This approach served two purposes. It required me wait to actually hear the note. And…
It made me have to think of a follow-up question, so I was forced to listen deeply to the note, process what it meant to me and follow up, thus cementing the learning into my brain.
So therefore, it forced me to acknowledge my mistake, learn from it and figure out how to apply the mistake as a lesson, NOT as a mistake.
Does this make sense?
When we make mistakes and learn from them, we make huge leaps in our learning and through experience you learn that mistakes are actually positive things, not negative.
Instead of fearing mistakes, we should embrace them, ruminate in them and figure out possible solutions. I express that as a plural, because there’s normally never just one solution. There’s usually multiple.
It is key that you write down the mistake, what you learned from it and finally the possible solutions to correct the mistake in the future.
That’s why in the classes I teach, I encourage the students to provide their own suggestions and notes to their fellow students. It requires them to actively listen, process and trouble-shoot a possible solution. This helps them to become more knowledgeable as a comedy writer or comedian, in a faster time period.
When you teach you learn twice.
This type of fear of mistakes can paralyze us in so many ways. It creates a circle of repeated mistakes that cripple growth, stifle productivity and increase stress.
I have a friend. We get together once in awhile to write, go shopping or grab a bite.
She has this fear of mistakes and I see it constantly and repeatedly paralyze her productivity and infuse more stress into her life.
Now the following conversation may seem tedious, but I think it is essential so that you can really get the idea and maybe—just maybe—see similarities in your own behaviors.
About 6 months ago my friend called me and said, “Hey, let’s get together later and go shopping at the mall.”
I said, “What time?”
She said, “Oh late afternoon sometime. I have a lot to get done first.”
I said, “You should set some goals as to exactly what you need to get done and apply a time to it. When that timer is done get up and move on to the next–”
She interrupted, “—Yeah, yeah. I know. That’s a good idea.”
I said, “Okay. Just let me know when?”
At 5 o’clock we planned to get together to shop at the mall, eat and hang out. Since she’s always late, we wound up connecting at the mall at 5:30.
She was hungry, so we grabbed a bite to eat. Then it was time to shop!
As we started to hit the stores, we noticed that they were all starting to close.
She started stressing, “Why are they closing?!”
“Well, it’s Sunday. Most malls close early on Sundays.”
It was a mistake not to set your goals and not plan out the day… I’ve explained the acknowledge mistakes lesson to her that I learned from my father. I hoped that she would start to apply them… she struggles with that.
6 months later…
My friend texts me. Again, it was a Sunday morning.
“Hey, l’ve got to go back home for about a week. Wanna meet at the mall and go shopping?”
“Sure. What time?”
“I don’t know. Late afternoon. I’ve got a lot to get done first…”
Then 30 minutes later the text came in: “Hey, it’s Sunday. Let’s do early afternoon. In fact, I’ll meet you at three! The malls close early don’t they?”
Now I just hope she shows up on time!
If you fear mistakes now—no matter what the level of your fear—by doing the above approach of acknowledging, processing and solving, you will eventually lose that fear.
At some point, that fear of mistakes becomes just a shrug, and you look forward to processing it, learning from it and solving it. Because, now you will realize how much time or money you saved, how your business or relationship improved and how above all you transformed in some way and became a better person in life… or at least a better person to go shopping with.
You learn so much from acknowledging your mistakes, rather than being afraid of mistakes.
In my experience, I realized that when I made mistake and acknowledged it, I wasn’t a laughing stock of the world and it didn’t make me eternally miserable.
Instead, it enabled me to eternally grow.
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