3 Cool Ways to get Started Writing Your Comedy Act

how to write a stand-up comedy act

I get this question a lot. How do I write a stand-up comedy act? What’s the best way to start?

That’s a typical dilemma in comedy, isn’t it? Just getting started writing.

The big problem actually arises when people try to write something funny. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true. People have a skewed concept of writing funny.

A lot of times when people try to write funny, they wind up with something zany, whacky or implausible. What they should be shooting for is plausible but unexpected.

Now, I don’t know if there is a “best” way to start, but in nearly 30 years on the road and 8 years writing for the Tonight Show and others, I’ve learned a few things about getting started writing comedy for television and writing for my own stand-up act. So I will share some of my techniques for getting started.

Please note that this is by no means the ONLY way to get started, but it one way I’ve used successfully through the years.

This is also part of a concept I learned from one of the best, George Carlin. Carlin said, “I know with 98 percent accuracy that a joke is going to be funny before I step on stage.”  I said, “How do you know that?” He said, “Because it contains all the elements a joke needs to be funny.”

So when I write, I use those elements.
There are two primary ways you can write comedy. Internally and externally.

Internal is personal. It’s about you. External is not about you but everything outside of you.

For this article, I’m going to talk about the internal.

First I write down 50 facts about me.

I don’t prejudge the facts, I just write them down. They include who I am, where I’m from, my heritage (lineage), my parents, family, religion, politics, relationship status, my idiosyncrasies, flaws, failures, etc.

The facts also include what I’ve been doing the last few weeks, days, hours.

The general idea is that a comedian should be able to take any logical grouping of words and turn it funny using structure.

Applying Comedy Structure

Once I have the facts down on the page, I take each one and apply comedy structure by asking 3 questions:

  1. Is there a double-entendre play? (Is there a word that has an implied meaning that I can turn into a comedic meaning using cynicism, sexuality, or sarcasm)
  2. Reverse: Is there something assumed in the statement that I can shatter. Can I take the expected outcome and flip it at the last second.
  3. Incongruity: Are there two or more dissimilar ideas that I can turn into a joke using association or juxtaposition. (most common technique used in comedy; incongruity).

This is the simplified approach using 3 major comedy structures of Double-Entendre, Reverse and Incongruity.

Since there are 13 Major Comedy Structures, I will often see other possibilities in the sentence and use one of them.

For example. If I was to open my act by saying, “I have 5 kids.”
I could turn that into something like, “I have 5 kids…that’s right 5 kids… because I’m only half-Mormon. I have 5 kids from 3 different moms. (audience responds with audible surprise)… Oh, there’s the judgement. One part of you was going “Oh, 5 kids. That’s quite an accomplishment. The other part’s like, “5 kids from 3 different moms? That’s trailer trash…”

Then I might add an act-out… “If I was in an episode of Cops, it would be like, (AO: Cop pointing a gun) “Sir step down from that milk crate!”
ME: (Trailer trash me): “Milk crate? Shiiiiit, that’s my porch!”

There are a lot of different ways to go with that one fact but it all started from the fact “I have 5 kids.”

Keep in mind, that comedy material like this is not meant to be read, but spoken and acted out. It might not sound funny on the page, it has never failed on the stage.

Another way I like to start is by writing what’s happening in my life.

“Yesterday was my wife’s birthday so I bought her a gift certificate for a His and Hers Massage. She was like, (AO: My Wife’s voice): “Jerry, this is a ‘we’ gift, not a ‘me’ gift.” So I returned it and got her a gift certificate for dinner for ONE.”

This particular structure is called Benign Retaliation. I call it the perfect joke structure because it automatically contains an antagonist and a protagonist. And when you have an antagonist and protagonist, the audience is compelled not to just listen to the joke, but to root for the protagonist to win.

Therefore, the audience is emotionally more committed than just laughing at a simple surprise-style joke.

Here’s another example of a benign retaliation joke:

My Ex–who cheated on me–called me on Halloween. She was like, “Jerry, I don’t know what to pretend to be for Halloween.” I said, “Why don’t you dress normally and pretend you’re in a committed relationship.”

Double Entendre Structure

If we look at a simple double-entendre style joke, I might take it and finesse it into a story so it’s more compelling:

“I used to coach soccer and I remember our team got into the playoffs one time—yeah “one time,” that’s how bad we were. But this one time we got pummeled. Afterwards, the local paper interviewed me. The lady was like, Coach Corley, how do you feel about the execution of the offense?” I was like, “I’m all for it… and while you’re at it, do me. We all need to be put out of our misery.” Yeah, that’s what I said. They quoted me on that.

Reverse Structure

Another way to get started is with a quick Reverse. That’s where the fact you wrote has a strong expectation. The human brain is programmed to anticipate and create an expected ending of a story. That’s why you have couples that often finish each others sentences.

So I might say something simple like, “So, I’m in love… don’t tell my wife.”
Or I might say, “Six months sober… thank you very much. (Then take a beer or flask out of my pocket, take a drink) I’m so kidding! But you guys wouldn’t have applauded if I said, “I’ve been drinking since I was 18 and I don’t punch my wife.”

Another reverse might be to talk about my kids.

I’m trying to teach my daughter how to tie her shoes… which is weird, cuz’ she’s twenty-two. I’m just kidding. She’s five. Five years old and I’m trying to teach her how to tie her shoes. She’s like “Dad, I can’t Dad. I can’t!” And I’m like, “How many times have I told you not to use that word. I am NOT your Dad.”

Incongruity Structure

The last technique (but most popular in comedy) is Incongruity or juxtaposing contrasting elements in a sentence by using free association.

Like if I opened with “I’m Irish and American Indian… that’s my lineage, Irish and American Indian.

Now I have two clearly identifiable incongruous ideas. Irish and American Indian. If  I was to list everything I could think about dealing with Irish and do the same with American Indian, I might come up with this simple joke.

I’m Irish and American Indian. That’s my lineage. Irish and American Indian. You know what that means; I pretty much have VIP seats waiting for me at any AA meeting. (Then I might add an act out) I walk into that meeting it would be like (AO: meeting proctor, greeting me walking in) Hey! Running Bear O’Reilly! We have a seat for you in the front row…”

Or something like that.

This is just a simple approach to getting started writing a stand-up act. It’s based in the science of what triggers human laughter, then uses the structures that pull those triggers.

Again there are endless ways to go about writing your comedy. Most people are what I call coincidental comedians. We just wait for something funny to happen then if we record it or write it down, we can remember to tell it to an audience. The problem is, you have to wait for that “coincidence” to occur in order to write an act.

I prefer to understand comedy at it’s intrinsic operational level so that I can write comedy at will.

IMPORTANT: One thing to keep in mind is that learning how to write the way we talk is a skill that has to be practiced. We’re taught to write prosaically, but we speak in broken sentences, use contractions and slang. Therefore, we have to learn how to write the way we talk.

When you write your jokes you have to now get up on stage and perform them by telling them to the audience, like you you’re just talking to your friends.

I hope this helps you get started!

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Hannibal Buress Laughed in the Face of Loyola University

Hannibal Buress

Hannibal Buress laughed in the face of Loyola University in a recent performance at the Catholic College in Chicago.

Buress opened his act with a projection image of an email that was sent to him by the university’s show organizers. The email basically banned him from talking about rape, sexual abuse, race and sexual orientation during his set.

After he posted that email and read it to the audience, he launched right into a joke about priests and their long history of sexual abuse. The organizers then cut his mic. The audience booed that his mic was cut and then Buress kept on without the mic. He said, “Bitch ass old people. I can project,” (referring to working without a mic). Then he said, “Ya’ll fuck kids, right?”

That’s when the university increased the volume of the music to the point where Buress walked off stage.

Fifteen minutes later, Buress came back on stage to a standing ovation and went on with his set apparently after students took to Twitter and started requesting refunds.

As a result of this news, I received several questions as to what I thought about this. I want to address the two primary ways I look at this. First the “play-it-safe” way of doing things.

  1. The Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules. When someone pays you to perform and gives you the rules you need to follow, you should follow those rules.
  2. M-A-P: When I started in comedy I learned the rule of the writer and followed the M-A-P, Material-Audience-Performer rule. The material has to be right for the audience and has to be right for the performer.

These are the play-it-safe rules to go by. You want to work, so you don’t make any waves. Probably the safest bet for the new comedian.

The other way of looking at it is that Buress is like comedian Paul Mooney. Mooney built his career challenging the rules and breaking the rules. Mooney’s gotten kicked off stage and had his material cut more than once. But that’s what makes Paul Mooney, Paul Mooney. His willingness to be daring and to laugh in the face of the rules.

To some, it’s what a comedian is about, right?, being the ultimate iconoclast and taking on the status quo. Bill Burr is like that to a certain extent. Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Red Foxx, (and we can’t forget Lenny Bruce who made it all possible), all took chances and broke rules.

Buress is known for his outing of Bill Cosby’s rape allegations and injecting new life into those accusations. Some say it was Buress’s video of doing that on stage that gave that investigation legs and led to the ultimate demise of Cosby.

Breaking rules is what Buress does as a comedian. His profanity-laced material is often off-color, challenges society’s supposed norms, and attacks the powers that be by telling his truth, which in the case of the Catholic Church, (sexual abuse by priests) just happened to be the truth.

Also consider the fact that nobody reaches any level of real success without taking big, bold risks. Buress is a risk taker and his career success reflects that. It has become his brand.

If we look beyond the layers of this incident, we have to ask several questions like why did Loyola book Hannibal Buress in the first place? Did they not know the kind of the material he does? A quick YouTube or Google search would’ve given the organizers an idea. Seems to me that the organizers are not accepting accountability.

The other thing about this story that struck me was that it was reported that Hannibal came back on stage after the students started asking for refunds.

What?!

The tuition for Loyola is $40,000 per year. At any school I’ve ever performed the school had a budget for entertainment. Why were the students paying for Buress?

And if the students were paying for the tickets, the “Golden Rule” doesn’t apply to the administrators, it applies to the students who paid to see Buress. The administration facilitated the event, but the students paid for a product and I’m sure they expected to receive the product they paid for.

That’s like hiring the band Rage Against the Machine and telling them they can’t sing “Take the Power Back” or “Killing in the Name” or booking Cardi B and telling her she can’t do “Bodak Yellow.”

In the end, when Buress gave the students what they what they were paying for, the administration gave the order to silence him, thus screwing the students.

Which leads us back to Buress’s earlier statement: “Ya’ll fuck kids, right?”

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Why Wait? Plan your Own Success!

plan your success

A DREAM written down with a date becomes a GOAL.

A GOAL broken down into steps becomes a PLAN.
A PLAN backed by ACTION makes your DREAMS come TRUE.

But a DREAM minus GOALS and a PLAN becomes REGRET.

I know that sounds just like some cliche fluff that you’d find on one of those cheesy motivational posters in an office.

I know, office? Yuck!

But you would be amazed at how many people—especially artists—don’t even write down their goals.

You know how most people go through their lives? They WAIT for something to happen. Writers, Actors and comedians are most vulnerable here.

One of the reasons this happens is because they’re waiting for success, not planning for success.

When you want to be a lawyer, you know you can go to college, then law school. You talk to a counselor and they map out a plan of classes that will get you to a certain number of units of a certain selection of classes and you graduate.

Maybe you’re working as an intern for the last part of school. If you do well in school, sometimes that firm hires you.

Then you take the bar exam with a certain number of questions on that exam and you have to get a certain percentage of answers right so you can pass the bar.

In many cases you are hired right out of college and the firm you’re working for pays the expense for you to take and pass the bar. Congratulations! You have a job. You are a lawyer!

Unfortunately, it is not the same thing with show business. You don’t have a specific amount of classes you need to take, you don’t have to achieve a certain amount of units, you don’t have a test and you don’t get a degree that says you are qualified.

So what are you supposed to do?

As an actor, you go to class, you develop the skills, you do an agent showcase, you get an agent and they send you out for auditions.

But what about comedian or comedy writer? It’s really the same thing, but it’s up to YOU to develop the skills, then submit for the job.

Just as you would with a regular job. It’s really no different except that you don’t have a test and you don’t have a specific amount of units you have to pass and you don’t have to have a degree.

The good news is that you don’t have to attend a specific amount of years or earn a specific amount of credits at a university or trade school.

You just have to prove your competence.

There are two primary ways of developing that competence.

  1. Go out and just do it and do it and hope for the best.
  2. Take classes, get coaching to master the fundamentals from someone with real experience. Learn to avoid the mistakes and have a safe environment where you can workout, receive guidance, have accountability and develop a set faster and more efficiently.

I’ve tried both ways, and trust me, it’s much faster working with a professional.

 

Each method has their benefits and their pitfalls. Getting out and performing is great, but I’ve seen 10’s, maybe hundreds of comedians getting up at the mics regularly doing the same material that doesn’t work, the very next week they come up and do the exact same material and it doesn’t work.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I’m sure you’ve heard this: Albert Einstein is credited with saying that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

Famous UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Having a coach or a good teacher,  can help to guide you through the writing of solid material. Can help to give you the extra tip or pointer that can take a joke that’s not working and make it work.

I believe that if you think an idea is funny, but it’s not getting laughs, then most likely it’s funny, but it’s just missing an element that is needed to trigger the laugh.

In my classes, part of what we study is WHY people laugh. What triggers that?

When you understand that at its most intrinsic level you can begin to make changes to a joke to take it from a semi-chuckle (because it’s a funny idea) to a triggered laugh because it a funny joke.

Here’s an example:

One of my students went up and did this joke:

I’m in menopause and I’ve been getting these terrible hot flashes lately. I mean they’re bad. Last night, we were home, the kids are asleep and I got this awful hot flash. I was burning up. So I just peeled off all my clothes. I swear I almost game my husband a heart attack. Thank God we weren’t at Starbucks.

It’s a funny idea. But it’s not quite a joke.

One element that should be present in all jokes is surprise. So I suggested changing the set up to a more assumptive set up by removing one of the elements from the maxim of the five W’s (Who? What? Where? Why? When? and How?). So we removed where, (“we were home”).

So that changes the set up. Keeping “the kids were asleep,” helps support and misdirect the audience to assume  she is home and give her a better opportunity for surprise. So the joke becomes:

“I’m in menopause and I’ve been getting these terrible hot flashes lately. I mean they’re bad. Last night, the kids are asleep and I got this awful hot flash. I was burning up. So I just peeled off all my clothes. I swear I almost gave my husband a heart attack… ‘Cuz we were at Starbucks… 

Now, with the sudden change in location (surprise) and using Starbucks as the punchline, it offers another opportunity for her to add a tag to the joke:

… (Shrugs shoulders) the coffee wasn’t the only thing that was hot…” 

After understanding this concept, it enabled the student to add her own tag after that. She said, “I just took my husband’s coffee cake and said, ‘would you like me to heat that up for you?'”

Fixing the funny idea and making it more of a joke, gave it a much bigger laugh in front of the audience. Also adding the two tags, allowed for her to get three laughs from the idea, instead of just one.

Having the guidance from someone who’s a professional who understands the mechanics of comedy writing and performance can help you learn a lot faster and reach your goal of developing an act in a much more efficient way.

So getting up on stage and just doing it over and over and over the same way is not the most effective way of getting better, it’s just the definition of insanity.

The New Year is right around the corner.

If you have a DREAM…
Set some GOALS…
Make a PLAN…
Take ACTION…

… and make your DREAMS come TRUE!

and may you have an amazing 2018!

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Holidays Can be Stressful or They Can be Comedy Gold, Your Choice!

Stay funny during the holidays

First of all Merry Christmas to everyone.  And those who don’t celebrate Christmas, Happy Hanukkah! And let’s not forget Kwaanza, Boxing Day, Winter Soltice, Pancha Ganapati, Yule, Yalda and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. Happy that to you too!

And the rest of you will probably burn in an eternal Hellfire.

Festive Huh?!

I try to include everyone because I’m a self-proclaimed Catho-Christi-Hinuistic-Musli-Morma-Jew. I am! I don’t want to miss out on Heaven because of a technicality!

I love the holidays, but every year we hear stories about how stressful the holidays can be.

Suicide rates go up, family arguments occur, anxiety and depression increases, crime increases and so do heart attacks.

That’s not fake news, those are facts and I know it sounds drastic, but as a comedian I say, “Comedy Gold, right?!”

This little blog post is just a friendly reminder that despite the chaos and heightened everything that trends significantly upward during the holiday season, remember that you are a jester and revel in it!

Keep your eyes out for funny nuances of family members. Remember that little squabbles that feel so stressful during the holidays can become hysterical bits of comedy for your stand-up, your columns or your tweets.

One way to be sure you’re keeping your sense of humor is to remember to keep your cynical glasses on. Every comic is a bit of a cynic. We look outside the situation to see the funny in the situation.

If you’ve followed this blog at all you know that I’m emphatic about looking toward the opposite of expected to find the funny. If the number one psychological human laughter trigger is surprise, then looking for the opposite of expected is almost a magical way to find the funny. Or a funny start to a bit.

One exercise that helps is to utilize a top 10 list as a punchline generator.

  • Top 10 Reasons you know it’s Christmas in Los Angeles, (or where you live)
  • Top 10 Reasons you know it’s the Holidays at your house.

I know a lot of people who are in mixed marriages or whose parents are two different religions. You could start with something like…

“My father was raised Catholic. My mother was raised Jewish…”

Then do a top 10 list related to how you know it’s the holidays at your house to generate joke ideas.

Remember the Top 10 exercise is not designed for you to create a Top 10 List for your act, per se. That was Letterman’s bag. It’s there for you to generate punchlines and joke ideas for you to finesse into stand-alone jokes or jokes to fit into an bit.

Whatever works for you, just remember that humor is everywhere and seeking it out during the holidays, may reduce the stress that can actually come from the holidays.

Making it your goal to find some funny will help you to actually keep your Happy Holidays, happy!

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Trying to Write Jokes, but Feeling Stuck?

So you’re writing and you get a premise down on the page and then… it just doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Does this happen to you?

I was Skype-coaching with one of my students today and he said, I’ve been trying to write, but I keep feeling like I’m getting stuck.”

It can be super frustrating, especially when you’re just writing to put something, ANYTHING, on the page.

So how do you take that idea and make it into something?

First off, it’s important to understand WHAT you’re writing. Often you have an idea but you can’t figure out where to go with it.

Come up with an Angle

Sometimes it’s because you haven’t come up with an angle.

Writing comedy is much like journalism or script writing. You’re telling a story, but for the story to gain interest right at the setup, it must have an angle.

An angle in story writing is much like your opinion on the matter. It’s what starts to shape the premise. Without an angle there is no premise and without a premise, it’s usually not interesting.

Sometimes the angle is subtle. It’s stated in what’s called a topic statement or in script talk it’s often referred to as “theme stated.”

For example. I talk about having 5 kids. Then I say I have 5 kids from 3 different moms. Often, someone in the audience will emit an audible gasp, or a “Wow,” or “Ohhh…” That’s when I’ll laugh, point out and say, “There’s the judgement!”

I’ll follow that with a couple of tags. But it’s when I say, “I just couldn’t figure out relationships…” That’s when it becomes interesting to the audience. That’s something almost everyone can relate to. Also by saying “I just couldn’t figure out relationships…” Gives me an angle to approach the rest of the story.

Now I can talk about each relationship the curious craziness of my ex and my glaring failures.

Some times it’s easier to find the angle once you step out the idea…

I approach it like I’d approach writing a script from the seed of the idea. One of the first things you have to remember is a story isn’t a story without the Maxim of the 5 W’s being present.

Meaning Who? What? Where? Why? When? and How? Without answering all those questions, there’s going to be huge gaps.

In comedy, by answering those questions you start to clarify the imagery and enhance the idea by adding more specifics, more detail.

Sometimes the jokes are in the details

Sometimes the detail is what gets you to the jokes and the detail can change the direction of the joke, just like a screenplay or a story.

So my student said he went shopping for a washer/dryer with his wife. He was just looking at why he AND his wife need to go shopping for appliances. But as we stepped out the idea it began to shape up in a different way because he was inspired by a new angle.

We talked about the reasons why, answering one of the maxims. Then I asked “What?” As in what kind of washer did you wind up buying?
He said, “Samsung.”

To me, Samsung seemed like a weird answer. In my head I was thinking, Samsung doesn’t make washer/dryers!

Boom! That sparked an emotion. Which indicates a point of view or an angle. And that’s when when we started riffing on an idea that fleshed itself out to a decent first draft bit.

The premise started to flesh out like this:

My wife and I bought a Samsung washer/dryer combination. Yeah, Samsung is now making washer/dryers. (This is the angle)—->That’s not cool. There’s a time when a company starts making shit outside their specialty and you know they’re just starting to get out of control. <—- Like Samsung makes cellphones, computer screens, flat screens. I mean I have a Samsung phone. Now they’re doing Washer/Dryer combos? That’s great and all, but every time it goes into the spin cycle my phone drops a call. Samsung Washers just don’t make sense…

So that got it started. But I try to treat a premise like a wet towel and wring it out for everything I can find.

Use an analogy to open up the premise

Often in a premise it’s a good idea to find an analogy. An analogy will introduce a second element (a dissimilar idea). This gives you a chance to do a listing technique and come up with possible associative jokes. And since it’s comedy, we heighten the reality.

So you ask, “What’s it like?” Samsung, the smartphone manufacturer making cellphones is like… (Here I’m going to wildly exaggerate to see if the analogy works), so the bit continues…

…That’s like buying a Kotex Motorcycle. What would their slogan be? “Already comes with the girl riding it.” Come down and buy a new, 2017 Kotex V-Twin. We’ll make you a great deal. Swear to god, No strings attached.
Nothing handles like a Kotex Motorcycle. Accelerates fast, turns on a dime, and it can navigate in the tightest places. AND, you can tell when she needs an oil change because she gets really moody.

A good ‘first draft’ approach

Realize that this is just a first draft approach. I don’t even know if the jokes will stay in the set, but it’s a good effort, especially considering he felt like he was banging his head against the wall and his premises didn’t seem to be going anywhere at all.

So next time you feel like you’re stuck… start with an idea, step it out with the maxim of the 5-W’s, create an angle, drop in an analogy, look for the similarity between the dissimilar ideas and write the jokes.

It’s just one great way to keep yourself from banging your head against the wall.

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