Comedians often wonder why some of their jokes are not getting a laugh. If you’ve ever wondered this, read on. One of the reasons could be that it is not believable.
Comedians hear that they should tell the truth. That the truth is what’s funny. I think that pigeon-holes a comedian. I think it’s more accurate to say that your jokes or stories should be plausible. Even if they are a bit absurd.
As audiences, we love to be fooled, but we hate to be made fools of. Whether it’s a magic trick or a good joke, we’re fooled just a little. We experience surprise or a bit of amazement so we smile, laugh, applaud.
But, as audiences, when we’re made fools of we will turn. In comedy it is usually manifested as a groan or silence. In some cases you can actually watch an audience fold their arms, silently rejecting the performer’s recklessness in underestimating our intelligence.
I’ve seen comedians affect this behavior from audiences and stand in wonder as to why the audience would do such a thing. “I know this is funny! This is a funny idea!” “Come on! What’s wrong with the audience?” “How could they NOT get this?!”
You know the drill.
Storytelling Has Rules
As comedians, we’ve all done a joke and expected a laugh and the joke resulted in anything but laughter.
There are a lot of reasons that this happens. One of the most common reasons is the lack of understanding that comedy is heightened reality.
Plausibility in a story or joke is essential.
But before I go into it, allow me to argue that whether you perform one and two-liner jokes, or stories, it’s all the same. “A joke, (according to Sid Caesar) is a story with a curlicue.”
So if a joke is a story then it must have some kind of story structure and adhere to certain set of rules.
Sorry to break the news to some of you, there are rules in story telling and joke telling.
Fiction writers often argue that since they are the authors they can write anything since they are the creators. That is true. You CAN write anything you want, but if it does not follow certain rules, the reader or listener will immediately reject it.
Building Plausibility into Your Story
Stories, like jokes, have to adhere to a certain set rules. One of those rules is that the story or scenario has to be plausible. Another rule is that there should be some kind of point of view.
In trying to understand this concept, one of my students showed me an example of comedian, Rory Skovel on Comedy Central’s “The Half-Hour.” (3 1/2 minutes)
He was wondering how it is plausible that Rory had ‘stolen’ seven grandmothers. And if that concept didn’t violate the rule plausibility and wander into complete absurdity.
In my humble observation I give you this:
Rory’s persona is kinda like that of a sociopath. It’s quirky and off-center. He looks like he could’ve been one of those kids who was at risk of shooting up a high school so stealing and hoarding grandmothers doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility for his persona.
Also, in the structure of the storytelling, he adds, “…old people in wheelchairs, rarely turn around to see who’s pushing them.” This statement gives credence to how the main character in the story achieves his goal.
As outrageous as the story may be, the act of stealing grandmothers and keeping them in your basement is certainly plausible. It’s physically possible and given the main character’s persona in the story, it seems like plausible behavior.
Implausibility comes with Impossibility
That being said, if the storyteller sprung some concept on the audience that wasn’t introduced in the setup, then we might reject it. For example, in Rory’s story, he wheels the grandmother out to his van…
If he didn’t introduce the van and he just said something like, “…then I transport them to my basement using my magical telepathic transporting powers… ” or something like that, it would be completely implausible or unbelievable.
As a result the audience would think the comedian–by thinking that we would fall for such nonsense–are playing us for fools and we would reject the joke.
That being said, if the comedian built into the story that this was a dream or that he was in a world where those powers could be attained through submitting 5 cereal boxtops and a self-addressed stamped envelope, then we might allow it, because the given circumstances of the story, the telepathic powers would be plausible.
So the next time you tell a joke or a story and the audience doesn’t buy it. Maybe it is because it’s not considered plausible.
In order for ever story to be complete the writer has to address the maxim of the five W’s: Who? What? Where? Why? When? and How? — Okay, 5 W’s and an H! 🙂
If any one of those elements is NOT plausible (given the circumstances that were explained to us in the set up and the character), then the audience might not buy the concept and may reject it by responding to our joke with silence.
Would love to hear your thoughts. Have you ever had a story or joke that didn’t work?
Leave a Comment
Looking to add more laughs into your act? Sometimes just applying some deliberate writing you can use mechanics to add some quick laughs as you advance the routine.
According to Lorne Michaels, creator of Saturday Night Live, one of the crucial things an audience looks for in a comedian who first steps on stage is confidence.
Confidence is a two-way street; you as the performer have to have confidence in yourself for the audience to have confidence in your ability to make them laugh.
Immediate Laughs Build Confidence Fast
One way to build confidence in your act is to have a quick laugh within the first 10-15 seconds of taking the stage.
Economy is key. Challenge yourself to a game of how fast you can get to the joke. How many words before you can get the audience to laugh?
We built a laugh into Eugenia Kuzmina’s act by using her the emcee’s intro as a set up. The emcee says, “Ladies and gentlemen, coming to the stage now is a fashion model who wants to be a comedian. Please welcome Eugenia Kuzmina.
Eugenia enters the stage doing the fashion model’s scissored gate like she’s on a fashion runway. She walks to each end of the stage and poses just like she’s on the runway. Then approaches the mic, sighs, and then says, “I’m so hungry.”
So she gets a big laugh with as little as three words. Most of the time the audience begins giggling on her entrance, which helps to build the laugh on the line.
Years ago I did a show at a casino/resort in Nevada that had a fire the week before that threatened the cancellation of the show. That news was in the paper (remember newspapers?). It was also on the news.
When I was introduced, I walked on stage with a fire extinguisher, set it down next to me and… before I said anything, the audience laughed, then broke into applause.
Problem with that is if I want to rely on that gimmick to get laughs, before I come to town I would have to arrange for the venue to have a fire.
Applying the Maxim of the 5 w’s to Add Laughs
The good news is that many times the jokes are already sitting there in your existing act. You just need to use put on your comedy tool belt.
Using one of my students recent intros, watch how we took introduction and added 3 more quick laughs, giving her 7 laughs in the first 30 seconds.
Here is the intro to a set written by Laura Breech, one of my students:
“So I moved here recently and decided to check out the LA dating scene, so I dusted off that online profile…again. I’ve been on a few dates, and I don’t get why things never go anywhere. I’m doing all the things you’re supposed to on a first date: I’m getting dressed up, I’m making polite conversation, I’m swallowing…Hahah, JK, that doesn’t happen. Not on a first date! I’m a spitter. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but dude, I live in LA now. I’ve gotta count calories…”
It’s a good opening and has three laughs, but I took a look at the draft and thought there was a possibility to add a few more laughs.
I looked at each sentence and utilized the maxim of the 5 W’s (Who? What? Where? Why? When? And How?).
This was the result:
“So recently, I moved to L.A. for the same reason as most people; just to make absolutely certain that I’ll never be able to afford a home. And recently I decided to get into extreme sports; you know, the LA dating scene… so I dusted off that online profile… again. I’ve been on a few dates–okay, seventeen of them–(ahem)… and I don’t get why things never go anywhere. I’m doing all the things you’re supposed to on a first date: I’m getting dressed up, I’m making polite conversation, I’m swallowing…Ha!, Just kidding, that doesn’t happen. Not on a first date! I’m a spitter. Dude! I live in LA now. I gotta count calories…”
So just by asking questions like Why did I move to L.A.? and How is the “L.A. dating scene” different from other dating scenes? “What do I mean by a ‘few’ dates?, We were able to add about 3 more laughs to this opening for a total of 7 laughs in the first 30 seconds.
That averages out to a laugh every 4.2 seconds. That’s a great start and executed properly that opening will assuredly demonstrate ability and give that audience a hypodermic filled with confidence.
Go Even Further
But, wait, there’s more! Just because that’s the opening bit she performed at her show, it doesn’t mean we can’t evolve the piece even further.
The first thing that pops into my mind is that Laura compared L.A. dating to extreme sports. That tells us that there are two dissimilar ideas converging and that we can do a listing technique to generate some associative jokes to flesh this piece out even more.
So go ahead. Take your existing material and develop it further just by utilizing the comedic tools you have at your disposal and build that confidence in your comedy with more laughs.
Join over 10,000 other stand-up comedy and comedy writing enthusiasts and Sign up for the Comedy Clinic newsletter and receive FREE comedy tips, tricks and gig information.
Leave a Comment
A booker contacts you and wants you to do a show. Then they say something like,
“Oh and I want a clean comedy show…”
What does a booker mean when they say they want a ‘clean’ comedy show?
It really depends. I’ve heard things from bookers that were like, “You’ve got to be able to do it in front of your grandmother…”
You don’t know my grandmother! What if my grandmother was like this:
Esther Hersh as Gangster Granny on The Ben Show from Jerry Corley on Vimeo.
If my grandmother was like “Gangsta Granny,” then I could probably get away with anything and my act wouldn’t be clean at all.
The important thing to remember is that the responsibility falls on you to clarify what that individual booker means by “clean.” Because in the end, if you fail to reach that booker’s definition of clean, he/she is probably not going to have you back or worse, won’t pay you for the show you did (read till the end).
So ask them specifically what they mean by clean. You might say, “Do you mean PG clean or G-rated clean?”
Ask who the audience is.
In some audience’s you can do jokes about sex other audiences you can’t. And there’s a way to do sex jokes clean and not so clean.
The general guideline with doing sex jokes in a clean (network TV) environment is that the jokes can’t be graphic. You can say “we were having sex,” but the moment you mention anything that brings to mind a specific image of genitalia or bodily fluids, positions, etc., then the material is no longer clean.
When doing comedy for network TV, the network will has a department called ‘Standards & Practices.’ It’s a bunch of lawyers who work for a network who decide whether or not the content is suitable for the network’s viewer. They will determine what’s ‘clean.’
Here are a couple of examples from Brian Kiley, the head monologue writer for Conan O’Brien who has done more than a dozen spots on late night TV. Many of his jokes are about sex. But they are considered clean enough for network.
“My brother is not the brightest guy in the world. He had heart surgery recently and he said to the doctor, “Doc, when can I have sex?” And the doctor said, “When you can walk up a flight of stairs, you can have sex.” And my brother said, “Why? Who’s up there?”
“When my wife and I were first married, she would yell out the name of her old boyfriend. The Weird thing is, his name was also brian… so she would yell out, “Brian. Not you… the OTHER Brian.”
So you could see that in these jokes, Kiley gets away with doing these on The Late Show with David Letterman. Even the one about his father needing to turn in sperm sample. But in the context of the joke the sperm sample was a medical procedure, not a sexual situation, so it passes the test.
But here’s where the definition of ‘clean’ gets tricky. What if you were doing an event at a high school in front of students, parents and administrators? Could you do the sperm joke or the sex jokes? I guess it depends on what school right?
So when it comes to doing clean, context has a lot to do with it.
There is no absolute definition for clean. Here’s something you should never do…
I was on the road with this comedian from Salt Lake City and we got a call from a booker in the middle of the week to do a corporate show for a bunch of gold miners. It was a dinner and everyone was well dressed. The pay was $1000 for the headliner and $500 for the feature act.
When we got to the event this huge dude in a tuxedo comes up to us–There’s something scary about a huge dude in a tuxedo. Like, first of all, what tuxedo company rents shirts with a 22-inch neck?
Anyway, he says to us, “We need this show to be clean because the wives are here.”
The comedian I was working with was told by some other comedian that when they want it clean all you have to do is ask the audience, “Do you want the clean stuff or the dirty stuff?”
So He got up onstage and said, “Do you want the clean stuff or the dirty stuff?” And one guy yelled out “Dirty!” So he said, “How do you make Martha Stewart scream? You f*ck her in the ass and wipe your dick on her drapes.”
That was his opening joke. Yeesh!
I looked over and the huge dude in the tuxedo popped a vein and said to me, “get him off the goddam stage.” So I had to go up on the stage and tell him he was done. Then spent the next 5 minutes making fun of him to recover, and then had to honor the contract and fulfill the 90-minute obligation.
Needless to say, that comedian didn’t get paid.
Whether you decide to work clean or not is up to you. You don’t have to pick one over the other. You can work clean for certain events and work blue for others.
From George Carlin to Louis C.K. to Amy Schumer, even though they are known for being blue, they each clean it up when they do network TV.
But if you know how to work clean and still get laughs then the simple truth is that you’re going to work more.
But if you’re going to work clean, find out exactly what they mean by it.
‘Clean’ might mean different things to different bookers, but there’s one thing that is for sure: When the booker says “Your show needs to be clean,” you don’t make it “dirty.”
Leave a Comment
Business guru, Napolean Hill wrote a best selling book (over 100 million copies sold), called “Think and Grow Rich”
Comedians should have a book called “Think Broke and Stay Broke.”
A large percentage of comedians today have that ‘broke-artist’ mentality. They actually think their way into staying broke.
It’s exactly that mentality that keeps them broke.
Reality vs. Perception
I think part of the problem is reality vs. perception.
Here’s the reality: If you can get laughs consistently and work in almost any environment, you are a valuable commodity.
Here’s the perception: It’s an art, so you shouldn’t think about money.
The problem with that approach is that if you’re not thinking about making money, you ARE thinking about being broke.
When I ran an ad on Facebook for my comedy business seminar called, “How to be the Richest Comedian Nobody’s Heard Of,” where I drill down 20+ ways to monetize your comedy, either in writing or stand-up, one comedian actually commented with, “Don’t even expect to make any money in comedy until you’ve been doing it for 10 years.”
Like somehow 10 years is the magic number?
In other words, “think broke until the end of the 9th year.”
Sad part is, he’s not the only comedian that thinks like this. In fact, I sometimes think that more comedians think this way than not.
This is a bullshit belief system. Why do I say that? Because these comedians love to make these big, broad claims when all the evidence to the contrary is right before their very eyes.
From the first time Jerry Seinfeld took the stage in 1981 at Catch a Rising Star in NYC, it took him only 5 years to get on the “Tonight Show.” After that, he was made.
Letterman was in Indianapolis watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He kept hearing that comedians were appearing at the Comedy Store. He saw an association between the Comedy Store and The Tonight Show, so he moved to L.A., got into the Comedy Store and within 3 years he was on The Tonight Show. He was made.
Both of those guys were making money in comedy before that. Not a lot of money but they were getting paid gigs.
My Own Experience
I was making money less than 2 years into doing comedy and many of my students are doing it just 2 years in as well.
At 27, I had just started dabbling in comedy. I left L.A. to go back to school and finish getting my degree. I wanted to get a degree so I could have something to fall back on just in case my career went in the toilet.
While at college, to make a little money, I got a job teaching comedy traffic school.
At the end of one of my traffic school classes, this student in class approached me. He said, “Hey Jerry. I’m the president of the local Chamber of Commerce. Every year we have an annual dinner where we swear out the old officers and swear in the new. Every year, every Chamber in the country does this. I was wondering if you could emcee that event then do like 30 minutes of comedy. We’ll pay you $800, feed you and give you beer.”
I thought Wow! Beer! 🙂
I did the gig. It was a lot of fun. I hired a videographer to get the event on a broadcast-quality video. I got my check for $800, ate the food and drank a beer.
3 days later, I got a call from the neighboring Chamber of Commerce. The gal said, “Hey Jerry. We hear you did a great job with the Chico Chamber of Commerce. I was wondering if you could do the same for us?”
I did the gig. It went great.
Then I thought how many Chambers of Commerce are there in the country?
Turns out, there’s 7,650.
I mailed out flyers to 200 of them. I booked 28 gigs in a 3 month period, all at $800. That’s $22,400. Or close to $7,500 a month. Not bad for a college kid with no agent, right? And that was in 1991!
Here’s the killer. At that point, I hadn’t done one single club gig yet.
I knew right then, that I had a business. I WAS the BUSINESS.
Note: I don’t say any of this to brag or anything. I say it to point out the possibilities.
Leveraging My Comedy Business
I sent out more fliers and booked hundreds of Chambers around the country.
But, there’s more…
One of the tricks I use to write comedy is to look up definitions. Definitions give you a starting point. When I looked up the definition for the Chamber of Commerce it said, “A local association to promote and protect the interests of the business community in a particular place.”
I thought to myself hmmm… an “association…”
How many associations are there in the U.S.? According to the IRS there is 1.53 million and most of them want a comedian at one of their events.
They just don’t know it: yet.
I recently did a gig for the Northwest Regional Tow Truckers Association, (who even knew they existed?!).
They paid $3500 for one night, flew me in, paid for my hotel and fed me.
And with 1.53 million associations out there, the available gigs is endless.
So when another “broke-thinker” says to me, “you can’t make any money in comedy until you’ve been doing it 10 years:” I say, “No. YOU can’t make any money in comedy. I’M doing okay.”
When you learn how to treat comedy like a business by learning how to create multiple revenue streams, how to scale and how to take advantage of something called “idle capacity,” not only can you learn to make money in comedy, but you can learn to build a comedy enterprise and create a great living.
And this is why I share this information. Because comedians have to get it out of their heads that they are competing with one another. There are enough gigs for everyone. You just have to know where to find them.
All you have to do is stop thinking like a broke artist and start thinking like a business
Leave a Comment
It was only a matter of time before Larry Wilmore’s “The Nightly Show” on Comedy Central got the axe.
Following that brutal appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner where Wilmore looked like a new comedian trying to get one laugh before he got the light, it seemed like it was just a countdown to Wilmore’s show being struck from the programming board.
Quite frankly I don’t know what Comedy Central was thinking giving Wilmore his own show in the first place. Yes, he’s smart and funny and a great writer, but that doesn’t convert to that on-camera gusto that is needed to develop, let alone compel and retain an audience. Especially an audience of 18-34 males. (Comedy Central’s main demographic).
Sure, Wilmore’s great. But he lacks pizazz and on-camera comes across as dull.
It seems like Comedy Central has been struggling to grab an audience in the variety talk show space since Jon Stewart took his exit.
According to Deadline Hollywood, now that Wilmore is gone, Comedy Central plans to fill the slot with @Midnight until they find a replacement.
That’s a Bad News–Great News Scenario
That’s great news, creatives! Think about it: what’s been missing since Jon Stewart left the Daily Show? The energy, the edge, the razor sharp and laser-quick wit and instincts of Stewart.
Sure Trevor Noah is funny and smart. But he doesn’t have that contemporary, modern high-five-me-at-bar type of gusto. Neither did Wilmore.
I think Comedy Central made a huge mistake allowing John Oliver and Samantha Bee to flee to HBO and TBS. Have you seen either of those shows? They have the edge and the energy that is totally missing at the Daily Show.
And I mean really? TBS? That’s like the ‘witness protection program’ of television; nobody knows they’re there!
Isn’t that right Conan?
If you haven’t seen these two shows, watch ’em. They’re filled with that attack-the-status-quo-energy that the Daily Show currently is missing since Stewart left. In my view the secret sauce comes from the contemporary and relatable analogies the hosts draw to the misgivings of the targets of their ridicule.
They’re not only entertaining us, they are informing us and increasing awareness.
That’s exactly the pattern that was used when Jon Stewart was at the helm.
I’ve got to tell you, that when stuff like this is happening in our industry, I get all charged up!
I mean sure, a show got canceled, but you gotta look at the bright side. The show wasn’t sustaining any numbers.
Where some people see failure, I see amazing opportunity!
I mean what a perfect time to self-produce a show that has that edge.
If I was new writer trying to break in, not only would I be writing and submitting packets every three to six months, I would be collaborating and self-producing a 5 min. edgy variety/talk show just like the Daily Show with the same type of enthusiasm and gusto that was ever-present at that show.
Why would you self-produce?
*Because with the technology we have today, it’s easy. You can download Wirecast (http://www.telestream.net/wirecast/) and produce a multi-cam show using your iPhones.
Want to do it cheaply get the FREE TRIAL of wirecast, then upgrade to eliminate the watermark for $9.99
Better yet, use Open Broadcast Software (http://obsproject.com/). It’s a little less user-friendly, but I’ve heard good things. One of the really good things I heard was that it is FREE! *
**(The asterisks indicate an update since the post was first published).**
The simpler, the better because you don’t want to get bogged down in the editing bay.
Better yet, rehearse a tight 5-minute, well written show and live stream it! Then develop an audience and a subscriber base, then you can create pressure on the the industry to the point where they have to take notice of you.
Think about it. If you develop a really strong following that’s watching you because you stream solid content on a daily or semi-daily basis, somebody in the industry will take notice.
You can put it up on Twitch.tv and build your fanbase. There are gamers on there right now with 30-thousand + subscribers. Subscribers who pay 5 bucks a month to be there.
Even if you have a rusty calculator in your head, it doesn’t take but a second to realize that that’s bank.
Who’s Gaming on That Platform?
Twitch.tv has over 100 million monthly users and they just added a comedy category on that platform. Can you say, “ground floor opportunity?”
Here’s the kicker… 75 percent of the users are male and 73 percent are ages 18-34; Hello? are you listening? That’s the exact demo Comedy Central is coveting!
That’s how you work outside the system to develop notoriety inside the system.
Besides, what an amazingly cool thing to do while you write and develop your Late Night TV packets for (in-system) submission.
You’re basically repurposing your writing, using it on your self-produced show while you’re still submitting it in your packet.
That’s just cool!
You want a quick show that’s well-written with cutting jokes and with a host that has a strong and dynamic identity; preferably with an edge of sarcasm or cynicism.
In other words, someone who’s not afraid to call ‘bullshit,’ and make it relatable and funny.
So if you don’t know how to write comedy in that fickle Late Night TV structure, then now’s the time to get those skills so you can begin to participate at a level that just 2 years ago was unheard of.
So get to work on your shows, creatives!
Comedy Central is dying to see it!
Leave a Comment