Performing the Same Jokes Doesn’t Make it Boring

byron-valino-flappers

I just got an email from a young comedian who was worried about doing the same jokes he did last time he was on stage; “… it’s a ‘bringer show‘ and I’m expected to have 5 people there. My friends are coming and if I do the same jokes it’s going to be boring.”

I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard this.

Let me share something with you about that:

There’s nothing wrong with doing the same material you did the last time…

… as long as it’s great material!

I’ve been doing stand-up for 27 years. I work a lot. I’m constantly writing new material. But I have a core set that I’ve developed that gets a great response and often when I’m doing my hour or 90-minute show, it gets a standing ovation.

I have people come to see me who have seen me before. Sometimes they ask me to do their favorite bits. If it works into what I’m doing that road trip, I’ll pop it in.

A while back, I was doing a week in Oklahoma City and this biker walks up to me before the show and says, “Hey Man! I saw you here a while back and I want you to do that ‘Cow’ routine that you did last time. Brought the entire chapter with me. Forty of us bikers rode over an hour just to see ya.”

I looked at the table he referred to and there they were; forty bikers.

You know what? You could be damn sure I did the request!

When some random person approaches you in a club and makes a request based on what they saw the last time it should speak to you as a performer.

It says that you left an impression and, to them, the material was memorable and had an impact on them and they want to hear it again.

So guess what? You’re proabably NOT “boring” them.

Sometimes, as I’m developing my new act, someone might come up to me after a show and say, “I wish you did that bit you do about Mormons. I love that bit.”

In another example, Brian Kiley, who’s the head monologue writer over at The Conan O’Brien Show, is a local favorite in L.A. clubs.

He is often doing the exact same 7-10 minutes and you’ll hear a lot of jokes you’ve heard him do at other times.

He’s usually honing and testing the set because he has a T.V. spot coming up that he’s rehearsing for.

But here’s the cool part: whenever he’s on stage, not only is the audience laughing, but the back of the comedy club will be lined with comedians who’ve heard him before. His jokes are so strong and well-written that the comedians want to hear them again.

It’s the same reason we watch certain movies again or listen to our favorite songs, because they resonate with us and they make us laugh, cry or reminisce.

When you song search on Spotify, are you usually looking for songs you don’t know, or songs you’ve heard before and want to hear again?

When I was younger they had these things called comedy albums. (LOL!) Then they had comedy cd’s, then comedy VHS videos; now it’s DVD’s, links, netflix and YouTube.

But back in the day I had George Carlin’s albums, Richard Pryor’s, Steven Martin’s. We didn’t just listen to those albums one time, we listen to them–I don’t know–hundreds of times?

I remember Eddie Murphy’s ‘Delirious’. I had the album and the video. I watched it over and over again. Same routine. Loved it each time. Who says we don’t want to hear the same jokes?

Just because they are the same jokes, doesn’t make them ‘lame’ jokes.

Remember, even if your friends are reluctant to laugh at they jokes they’ve heard, it doesn’t matter because the audience is always different and if the material is awesome, the people who haven’t heard it will be laughing. And I assure you, because laughter is a socially contagious experience, your friends will be laughing too.

When you’re starting out, I cannot emphasize the importance of building that core act. You should do it constantly, revise, refine and polish. Add act-outs, tags and toppers. Until it crushes.

Worrying about your friends hearing the same jokes is counter-productive to you really developing and polishing your act. Not to mention that it can have a cascading negative impact on your development.

It limits you because if you’re always doing new material you never get to ‘own’ it. Therefore you’re always somewhat in your head and never truly present and in the moment.

As a result you never come across as utterly confident and if you’re not utterly confident, nobody in television will want to book you and your friends will still experience discomfort and won’t want to come to your next show anyway.

So don’t worry so much about your friends. Throw in a new joke or two into your core set and develop an act that’s memorable.

Because when the 40 bikers ride over an hour to see your show and request their favorite bit, a bit they’ve heard before, you can be totally assured that you are NOT ‘BORING.’

Go get ’em!

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One Reason Why Late Night TV Needs Fresh Writers

why late night needs fresh writers

Ratings are down for Late Night Shows. Of course they are. We don’t have 3 networks like we did back in the day. There are hundreds of channels to choose from so Late Night Talk Shows are competing for an audience harder than a new product competing for shelf space in a supermarket.

It’s a super competitive market out there which is why I came up with 3 Reasons Late Night TV Needs Fresh Writers.

New Hosts Almost Across the Board

Not sure if you’ve been watching, but it’s an interesting time in Late Night TV. We have new hosts across the the networks with Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, James Corden and Seth Meyers.

Who would’ve thought the day would come when Jimmy Kimmel is the veteran host. He debuted in January, 2003.

As far as the ratings are concerned, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon is far in the lead in that regard, but it’s not the ratings that are getting my attention. It’s not the hosts. I think the hosts are capable and talented.

It’s what’s happening behind the scenes, in the staff rooms that bothers me. So indulge me as a jump into reason number one:

Lazy Writing

I’m usually not guy who armchair-quarterback’s late shows, but lazy writing is something that bothers me to my core. I think it’s one reason why Late Night TV needs fresh writers.

There are writers on those staffs who are making a lot of money. The basic salary for a staff writer on a Late Night show is $4000 per week. That’s the base. You’d figure that if you were making that kind of money, you would bust your ass to keep that job.

The laziness first hit me when I was watching Seth Meyers over at ‘Late Night.’ I like Seth Meyers. Never saw him do stand-up, but loved him on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update and when I saw him host the ESPY awards in 2010, I was totally sold that he would be a solid Late Night host. I was also aware that he was bringing over a bunch of seasoned writers from Saturday Night Live to write on ‘Late Night’ so I was excited for some rockstar material.

Retreading Old Sketches

When I first tuned in, they had Meyers doing a sketch where he looks in the mirror doing “Affirmations.” “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me!”

Ring a bell?

Seth Meyers Affirmations

I’m like, What?! That’s Stuart Smalley, Al Franken’s character!

What’s so significant about that? That character first hit the air on Saturday Night Live in 1991 from a sketch of the same name.

Stuart-Smalley-Affirmations

#Lazy Writing. You would figure that the writers coming over to Late Night from SNL would bring experience, not recycled sketches.

As a Late Night TV writer, it’s your job to make your host look amazing and funny, not like he’s a retread from last century.

And “Late Night” airs in the 12:30 time slot in much of the country so what a great opportunity to be cutting edge and do something completely unique, right?

I mean where’s the lightning strikes? Where’s the ‘WTF’ moments? I just don’t see it.

Some of these writers are treating their comedy material like I treat my cough syrup with codeine; they use it way after its expiration date.

Severely Dated References

The most recent disappointment was over at the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He did a joke about Donald Trump taking the Nevada primaries and dropped in a reference to Siegfried and Roy.

Stephen Colbert - Late Night

Those guys haven’t been on a Vegas stage for 16 years.

Sixteen years! I mean while you’re at it, why don’t you just drop in a Y2K reference!

I mean, think about it this way: of the networks’ coveted demo of 18-34 males, none of them would have been old enough to even go to Vegas when Siegfried and Roy were actually relevant!

The youngest would’ve been two and the oldest would’ve been eighteen. How the hell are they even supposed to know who Siegfried and Roy are?

C’mon writers! Get out of your cubicles and tap celebrity culture of today, not last generation!

Duplicated Jokes

I would’ve let that go, but then I saw this:

James Corden at the Late Late Show did the same joke that they did over at Late Night with Stephen Colbert. I know that happens and all and I can hear some of you saying it’s ‘parallel thought’ and I get it, but not only was the joke done on the same network, but it was done the following night; a full show cycle later.

Is nobody doing their homework?

The good news is that it IS a ‘WTF’ moment. The bad news is that it’s NOT the type ‘WTF’ moment that makes your host look like a rockstar. It’s the type of ‘WTF’ that will take your ratings in the direction the stock market goes everytime China farts.

Not good.

I’m not writing about this simply to trash talk the shows. Those of you who know me, know that I’m a big supporter of people succeeding.

When Conan first hit the air he sucked and I celebrated when he found his groove, but I can tell you, with Conan, it was never about lazy writing, it was about his comfort as a host.

But in Late Night today it’s about the writers. When I was writing for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno I remember a veteran writer telling me that the burnout rate in late night writing is about 2 years.

Maybe some of these writers are experiencing burnout.

The reason I write this is there are a ton of fresh writers out there who would kill for the opportunity to be a late night writer.

Some email me from all over asking about how to get into the biz.

I got in because I found myself in college spending my days writing jokes on celebrity culture and current events rather than going to class.

So instead of fighting it I just came back to L.A. and wrote every day until I landed a job writing for the Tonight Show.

Are you like me? Do you do the same thing? Well then start setting goals to start writing 30-40 jokes a day.

Compare them with what’s on the Late Night shows and see if you’re better.

Because Late Night TV needs rockstars. Late Night TV need YOU!

Maybe YOU could be the one to help these hosts finally bring the ‘WTF’ moment.

Go get ’em!

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Another Common Misconception About Writing Your Comedy

misconceptions on comedy writingI recently posted an ad on Facebook promoting my comedy writing workshops. If you haven’t attended, these workshops are intense. You get powerful tools to write comedy on just about anything. But that’s not the point of this post.

When those ads run there’s a place you can leave comments, click “like” or “share.” When people click the ad they are taken to a page and invited to watch four writing tutorial videos.

The first video is on how to write 15-20 jokes on a single headline during breakfast.

What fascinated me was how quickly this ad was shared and liked. It received some really heart-warming comments like, “Amazing work, man!” and “Wow! Loved this video! When can I see the next one?” But again, that’s not exactly what this post is about.

The real fascination came from the skeptics. I try to avoid using the word “haters,” (it seems overused and a bit cliche), but the vitriol coming from the skeptics really urges you to lean toward the word “haters.”

The stuff that spilled into the comment box! People calling me a “hack” and “idiot,” or my favorite “aging comic.” Lol! Like you would take comedy advice from someone who hasn’t put in the time?

My mentor was George Carlin and when he mentored me 25 years ago, he was 8 years older than I am right now!

Imagine if I would’ve said, “Like I’m gonna take this advice from some aging comic!”

But instead of just discarding the ridiculous and under-examined claims from these skeptics, I decided to use them to address some misconceptions about writing your comedy.

One guy wrote, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, comedy comes from the depths of your soul.” Like that’s it. My first thought was ‘really?’

Comedy comes from the depths of your soul? That’s it? I just gotta get up on stage and talk about the depth of my soul and people are gonna laugh with me? Problem solved? Comedy gold, right?

Who needs any experience? Let’s just get up on stage and talk from the depths of our souls!

In the vast horizon of possibilities of where comedy can come from, why would anyone who’s taken any time to study this art make such a definitive and limiting statement?

Not only that, just look around! Jerry Seinfeld, “What is it with bugs?!” or “I don’t know if horses really know they’re racing. I think horses are sitting at the starting gate going, ‘I know there’s a bag of oats at the end of this and I wanna get there first.'”

Does that sound like it comes from the depths of Seinfeld’s soul?

Or take Anthony Jeselnik: “The best way to break up with a girl is like I take off a band-aid, slowly and in the shower.”

Depths of his soul? Or just a incongruous association joke about breaking up with a girl?

When you buy into the misconception that comedy only comes from the depths of our souls, you discount the silly, the ridiculous and the wildly insane.

Of course there are pieces the “depths of the soul” comment that make sense. It’s cathartic to talk about things that are deep and you have an emotional connection to. But how limiting is that statement?

It’s missing something, like, where the laugh comes from! So basically sometimes the idea can come from the depths of your soul but the comedy comes from the multiple stimuli that create laughter.

Maybe the initial idea comes from some place deep in your soul, but somewhere in the depth of your soul, some kind of laugh should occur, or guess what? It’s not comedy, it’s just sad or scary, or worse, creepy.

The relationship with my Ex is an example. It was a dark time. So the initial thoughts that inspired the material may have come from the depths of my soul, but the laughs have to be achieved through structure. In this case I use analogy and incongruous associations.

“My Ex was like a funny car; alcohol-fueled. She had the worst mood swings.
I called her the ‘Ice Princess.’ When I used to come home from a gig–before I went in the house– I would put my tongue on the front door. If it stuck, I stayed at the neighbor’s.”

One of the worst things that ever happened in my life was when my Mom was dying. The topic comes from the depths of my soul, but the laughs come from wildly exaggerating.

“Before my Mom died she had bouts of dementia. Which was a boon for me on my birthdays. She would always get me a birthday card with a hundred-dollar-bill in it. She’d be like, ‘Jerry, did I give you your birthday card?’ I be like, ‘No…’ I swear, if she was having a really bad day, I could net about a grand.”

The jokes are good. They get consistent laughs with audiences. The subject matter starts with something that may have come from the depths of my soul, but they have to engage the stimuli that triggers laughter, otherwise it’s just drivel.

In other words, the claim that comedy comes from the depths of your soul, can help us understand ONE of the possible places from which our comedy can be inspired. But stating that it’s the only place, misses the main point and it hides a vast horizon of other opportunities from our view.

Ever since the beginnings of the first attempts at comedy and comedy writing, there hasn’t been a single way to write or present comedy. There are only choices among an infinite palette of possibilities.

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How is Writing Comedy the Fastest Way to Complete and Utter Failure?

right way wrong way to do comedyI was listening to some comedy the other day and I came across this video (podcast interview on YouTube). There was a guy in the interview who was talking about comedy.

This guy was from Kentucky and he had a bit of that Southern accent that made me think, “Damn! I didn’t know they had the internet in the hollar“.

He said, “Writing comedy is the fastest way to complete failure.” As you might imagine, that got my attention!

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I was like, "What?! Okay, let's hear what this idiot has to say..."

Then I asked myself, "Why did you call this guy an idiot, Jerry? You don't even know him. That's not cool!" Then I quickly realized that I'm originally from New York. It's in my blood. I'll pretty much call a squirrel an idiot for being out in the snow without a coat.

Then I listened to more of this idiot, and it wasn't long before it was obvious...

This guy has no idea what he's talking about! He went on to say that the reason why "writing your comedy leads to complete and utter failure is because"--are you ready for this?--"it's one-dimensional... it's written on a page."

Genius!

If you sensed a gush of deep, guttural sarcasm, you weren't far off. I mean, "What!?" It's one-dimensional? It's written on a page? So that means it leads to complete and utter failure?

You know what else is written on a page? Pretty much every script for a sitcom or a movie!

And whether it's a drama or comedy, those words from the page have to be brought to life through performance.

Would you say that "Star Wars," or "Trainwreck" were one-dimensional? I don't think so. And we know they haven't led to complete and utter failure. Trainwreck did over $139 million Worldwide and Star Wars shattered box office records its first weekend. ($248 million, first weekend, for those who are curious).

So if this guy isn't a complete idiot then that sucking sound I've been hearing is him mouth-siphoning too much of that good Kentucky Moonshine.

By saying that writing your comedy is the quickest way to utter failure, you're totally discounting the role of the comedian. The comedian's role is to be able to "perform" their material.

I'm a good joke writer. I know that. I've made my living from that. But I don't take that material on stage and "read" jokes...

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received in comedy was from an acting teacher. She had me do a five minute set in front of my acting class. The jokes were good. They got laughs. But when I was done the teacher folded her arms and said, "Oh, look! Jerry thinks his jokes are so clever, he doesn't need to perform them."

Then she said, "I don't know how you feel about any of that stuff... so I don't care."

The Role of the Comedian is to Perform

It is the role of the comedian to learn how to perform their material, to have an understanding of the emotion of the joke, what it means and what's being said with that joke. Then deliver it like it's a conversation and it's right off the top of your head.

David Letterman called it, "rehearsed spontaneity."

It is also the role of the comedian or comedy writer to understand that laughter is NOT random. It's derived from certain stimuli. That stimuli is present in any line or story that gets a laugh. When a comedian or writer knows this, they can be sure to write it in.

Even when you're riffing and it sounds funny in your head. It's sounds funny because that stimuli is embedded somewhere in the words, the concept or the situation.

(To understand this further, checkout What Makes People Laugh).

So why would anyone allow something as ridiculous as that to come out of his conch? Especially when a huge body of evidence to the contrary is right in front of him?

Successful Comedians Write

Jerry Seinfeld is one of my all-time favorite comedians. He's smart. He's insightful. He's financially the most successful comedian of all time. According to Forbes, he's worth $750 million...

Also, between the June 2014 and June 2015, Seinfeld pulled in another $36 million. A large part of that from that little show about nothing.

That show "Seinfeld" was written by Jerry, (and Larry David for the first 5 seasons) with ball point pens and legal pads.

My point is Seinfeld writes down everything he says in his act. He's been called a "word surgeon;" removing every word that doesn't contribute to the joke. He works that material on the page before he takes the stage.

George Carlin wrote everything down. Jim Gaffigan too...

What? They're old? Okay how about Russell Peters, $19 million, Gabriel Iglesias $8 million, Aziz Ansari $9.5 million.

All of these guys write their material, first.

To be fair, Kevin Hart and Louis C.K. are also top earners in comedy. Both of them are a blend of both their writing and their riffing on stage.

The overwhelming majority of successful comedians write their material. Even Bill Burr who's known for his emotion-driven, (supposedly 'unscripted') stinging brand of comedy, started his first 5-7 years writing his stuff, because--self-admittedly--he "needed to know how to write a joke."

The reason why I say 'supposedly unscripted,' is because I recently saw him on stage at the Largo in L.A. working out his unscripted material... as he read from his notebook.

As you've probably heard me say before, there are 3 types of comics:

    1. The Coincidental Comedian

    - We're all coincidental comedians. That's when something funny happens in conversation or on a phone call or a drive to the airport or holiday dinner at the in-laws. When that moment occurs, we make a record of it, (Most people write it down). Then we repeat it to an audience and hope it's funny. Nothing wrong with being a Coincidental comedian. But we have to wait for that coincidence to occur to build an act.

    2. The Architect

    - The Architect is the comedian or writer who can sit down at will and write jokes, humorous stories, sketches or scripts at will, because he understands the structure of comedy and the science behind what makes people laugh. He doesn't have to wait for inspiration. He creates inspiration.

    3. The humorist

    - The Humorist is the best of both worlds. He can write his material and get up on stage and riff that material. His improv skills help him to expand on the material in the moment often coming up with tags and toppers.

We should all strive to be the humorist; a blend of both writing skill and spontaneity. Not just one or the other.

The Advantages of Learning to Write Comedy

In fact there are so many advantages to knowing how to write a joke including learning to sell scripts, write for late night, speech punch-up, staff writer, etc.

See, I think what some people don't get--including the guy from the hollar--is that your one and two-liner jokes are the fundamental core of, not only comedy, but storytelling.

Think about it, the one and two-liner is masterful. It has a beginning middle and end. It is a mini-story. Learning to command the one and two-liner enabled me to write better bits, better sketches, better scenes and better screenplays.

And the thing is when you learn what comedy is and what makes it work and then you learn to write it AND perform it, you can make a real living, because you've created the potential for multiple revenue streams.

With all these reasons, I don't know why this guy from the Hollar would say such nonsense. Then I realized that he also sells a product online on how to do stand-up. I guess selling people on the easy way is his angle. The path of least resistance sort of thing, you know?

I don't begrudge anyone who's trying to make a living. And I'm one of those people who buy all the books and programs so I can learn from everyone.

My concern is for the young comedian just getting into comedy. He's told he doesn't need to learn how to write it, then ten years down the line he's bitching about why he's not making any real money in this business.

There's no "Right Way" or "Wrong Way"

Bottom line is there's no right way or wrong way of coming up with your comedy for stand-up, but if you want to also learn to really master your comedy, know how to fix a joke or be in a writer's room, sell scripts, jokes, sketches or screenplays and diversify your talent to create multiple revenue streams, then you'll be so much better off learning to write your comedy as well.

There's an old saying in Hollywood, "You could be the funniest guy in the world, but if you can't put it on the page, it means nothing."
Just ask Jerry Seinfeld.

So writing your comedy doesn't lead to complete & utter failure. It leads to the opposite of it.

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14 Reasons Stand Up Comedy is Great For Actors

pat corley as phil on Murphy Brown

Pat Corley “Phil” on Murphy Brown

I grew up in an acting family. My mother and father were actors. My father was a successful character actor.

I studied at the Actor’s Studio in New York and Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute here in L.A.

But it all really came together when I started doing stand up. I just took a comedy class and developed an act. That is when I learned that stand up comedy is great for actors!

Stand up gave me an opportunity to be creative and develop content in between acting gigs. Stand up gave me the opportunity to play in front of 5 people to 15,000 people.

It gave me a chance to find my own voice, to be ‘real, present and in the moment’ on stage.

In acting, that is huge, for more reasons than just one. I put together fourteen.

If you’re having a dry spell in your acting, here are 14 reasons Stand Up Comedy is great for actors and a terrific addition to your skill set.

 

1. Casting Courage

You can learn to master playing in front of just a few people, which is very similar to a casting situation.

2. You learn to ad-lib:

Improv skills are one thing. Being able to ad-lib on the subject matter in a split-second is something you learn in stand-up.

3. Storytelling:

You learn not only how to tell stories that are funny, you learn interpret the humor in scripts and how to play comedy successfully by playing against the comedy. Mediocre comedians play the comedy. Great comedians play the situation.


After performing stand up, Performing in an audition situation was a piece of cake. I mean what could these people ever say to hurt my feelings that some drunk in the city hasn’t already said?



Ray Romano, Star of "Everybody Loves Raymond"

4. It’s a brilliant way to showcase.

Casting directors and directors are coming to comedy showcases more than ever. Casting directors, agents and managers are always looking for new talent. The problem is their time is very limited. They would rather come out to watch your 6-10 minute showcase than come out an watch a 2-hour play. It’s simple time management.

5. It demonstrates courage.

Most of the people you are trying to impress in the industry are in awe of artists who have the courage to do stand up. My friend met Robert Redford recently. Redford said, “I’m in awe of comedians. Doing stand up scares the hell out of me.”

6. The one-man/one-woman show

– your ticket to notoriety.

7. Work When You’re Not Working

When you’re a working comic and also an actor, you can work when you’re not “working.” Meaning, you can get gigs as a comedian and pay the bills performing when you don’t have an acting gig.

8. Funny is “Smart”

When people think you’re funny, they also think you’re smart. Funny is memorable. People like to be around people who make them laugh. If two actors are up for a job and the CD or the Director just saw you perform at a comedy club and you made them laugh, who is that CD most likely to choose?

9. You learn to be you

In 99 percent of all casting situations the casting director asks the actor to “just be yourself.” You’d be amazed at how many actors freeze. Actors spend so much time in training learning to develop characters that they forget how to be themselves. Stand up comedy gives you that ability.

10. Learn to NAIL AUDITIONS

Nothing develops unbreakable confidence onstage than performing stand up on a regular basis. “You develop a thick skin, ” says actor Ray Romano. “After performing stand up, Performing in an audition situation was a piece of cake. I mean what could these people ever say to hurt my feelings that some drunk in the city hasn’t already said?” One of the best ways to develop unbreakable confidence on stage is by doing stand up on a regular basis.

11. Memorability

– Whether it’s an audition or a comedy competition, one of the primary qualities that get you moving to the next level (the quarter or semi-final rounds in competitions, call-backs with producers, network or studio with acting), so if you go into an audition and you’re funny, you become memorable.

13. “It’s Impossible to Dislike Someone Who Makes You Laugh

This is one of my absolute favorites. I’ve used this in commercials, sitcoms & episodics. For someone to laugh with you they have to temporarily give themselves over to you. And when you make someone laugh, they like you. In the run of actors coming into the room to read, if you’re the one that leaves them in stitches… they will want to see you again!

14. 60-Percent of Breakdowns are for ‘Comedic Character’

– If you’re not studying comedy, you’re losing out on 60-percent of the acting opportunities currently being cast.

15. Stand-Up Comedy Shows Them a Different Side of You

– Every agent I’ve met looks at my resume and says, “Oh! You do stand-up?!” When it comes to ‘special skills’ stand-up can be one of your best assets!

Take Your Acting to the Next Level

So what are you waiting for? Take a class and in 8 weeks you’ll have a comedy routine you can perform, that will be video taped and you’ll be proud to showcase.

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