Learning How to Write Comedy Doesn’t Need to Be A Mystery

COMEDY TECHNIQUE – COMPARE & CONTRAST

 apples_and_oranges
Writing Comedy does not need to be a mystery..

How many times have you sat down and stared at a blank page or a blank computer screen trying to find something funny to write?

Discovering how to write comedy on a regular, routine basis does not need to be a mystery.

There are a vast array of techniques that you can apply on a daily basis during your writing sessions that can help you generate a ton of material.

The Compare and Contrast (also know as complex to simple) comedy structure is a very simple, yet very powerful comedy structure that can get you quick laughs.

It’s used by all the top comedians to varying degrees and is a very effective tool.

Bill Burr uses compare and contrast in a self-deprecating way in order to belittle himself or his achievements.

He’ll compare the achievements of others then reference his own achievements to point out that in comparison to the other persons achievements, he is insignificant.

This taps into the superiority laughter trigger, (making the audience feel superior) and usually winds up with a solid laugh.

Bill uses this in his bit on “Gold Digging Whores” when he talks about the achievements of Arnold Schwarzenegger:

Bill Burr – Compare & Contrast Joke Technique

“Anybody here think they could move to Austria, learn the language, become famous for working out, then be a movie star, then marry into their royalty, then hold public office? How many lifetimes would you need? I’m on my third attempt at Rosetta Stone Spanish!”

Here he gets laughs and an applause break! My theory is that the laughs come from the superiority laughter trigger, but Burr also utilizes recognition and says, “Rosetta Stone” Spanish.

He doesn’t just say “I’m on my third attempt at Spanish.” When he says “Rosetta Stone” ask yourself if you get an instant image of the Rosetta Stone brand in your mind’s eye.

In addition to the image, Rosetta Stone is known as the best method for learning a language fast, so Burr is really cutting himself down.

It’s the recognition of Rosetta Stone that takes that joke up a notch so the applause break comes as part of the recognition.

The audience can’t just laugh they want to give Burr more accolades than just laughter.

*Want to see a full breakdown of how Bill Burr Writes Comedy?

There are several ways to use Compare & Contrast as a comedy structure:

Compare & Contrast Act-Out

Amy Schumer finds this technique extremely useful in creating laughs for her act. In a video on “Certified Funny” Schumer uses this technique very effectively within the first 30 seconds of her act:

 
Amy Schumer – Compare-Contrast Joke Writing Technique

Schumer:

“I’m not shallow at all…

like the guy I’m seeing right now, isn’t even good-looking. Setup

“I’m serious.” Focuser

No one’s ever like: Setup to the Act-out (Here it comes!)

“Who’s that?” Act-out (Compare)

They’re like: Setup to the contrast

“What Happened? Is he Ill? Should we call someone?” Contrasting Act-out

See how cleverly Schumer uses this technique to create the laugh on the way to the “A” joke of ‘not being shallow?’

Once you understand the power of Compare and Contrast as a comedic structure, you’ll be able to plug it in to your act when you need an additional laugh.

One of the advantages of this technique is that it is truly structured. The audience will quickly focus when you hit them with a compare and contrast line.

Because by it’s nature it’s one of those lines that gets just gets audiences focused. That’s one of the reasons commercials that use that side-by-side comparison are so successful. Because it’s sort of a puzzle and an audience gets to participate mentally.

Also much of compare and contrast is dealing with the recognition laughter trigger. The comparisons are familiar to an audience and if you’ve read my book or are familiar with the psychological laughter triggers of a human being, then you know how powerful recognition can be.

Exercise:

Pick 3 Compare & Contrast Subjects and Write 5-10 Comparisons for each. You don’t have to be as clever as Schumer or Burr. In fact I want you to do simple comparisons for your exercise. It will help you mine your brain for these contrasts and help you to train yourself to recognize them in your daily life: Here are some examples:

  • Men – Women
  • Conservatives – Liberals
  • Gay People – Straight People
  • Rich People – Broke People
  • Hot Chicks – Ugly (or not so hot) Chicks
  • Black People – White People
  • Fat People – Skinny People
  • Cats – Dogs
  • Casey Kasem – Ryan Seacrest
  • Mother’s Day – Father’s Day
  • Tony Stewart – Martha Stewart
  • Jews – Catholics

We could go on and on, but…

Let’s take the simple example of Women and Men. I was at my niece’s graduation party recently and lots of family showed up as well as my niece’s friends. The World Cup was on and it was an interesting observation to see how quickly the genders split up and found their spots at the house. The Men were inside the house watching the World Cup and the Women were outside sitting in the Gazebo.

Men and Women

The conversations the men were having and the conversations the women were having were the same only different: Men were like, “Did you see that play? That’s ridiculous! If that’s not a damn foul, I don’t know what is!” And the women were like, “Did you hear who Kim is dating?” It’s ridiculous! He’s 10 years younger. If that’s not craddle-robbing I don’t know what is!”

So, in also utilizing the “Paired-Phrase” structure, in paring the rhythms of the two act-outs, we also heighten the joke.

Another Example: Specificity

Is it me, or did you notice how when you saw Casey Kasem and Ryan Seacrest, the specificity of those items conjured up new ideas. Was there more focus? Did you see images? Sometimes getting specific can give you more motivation to write jokes.

In the example of Tony Stewart (Nascar driver) and Martha Stewart (Magazine editor, entrepreneur), I actually got that idea from Twitter. I was looking through tweets and I saw the name “@Melissa Stewart” and at first glance I thought it was @MarthaStewart.

So in looking for an exaggerated incongruity I thought it would be funny to mistake @MarthaStewart for an opposite, say, @MartyStewart.

In a compare and contrast exercise in my head I said, “If I followed @MarthaStewart I could finally get my master bedroom to coordinate. If I followed @MartyStewart I could probably do the same, but it would be in a bold sports theme.

The thinking being, of course, that we associate good decorating with Martha Stewart while Marty sounds like a beer drinking guy who spends his weekends watching sports.

In a revised draft, using specificity, I decided that in might be better to use a more commonly known Nascar driver, Tony Stewart, (yes, I had to look him up). People who know Tony Stewart. His name is used often enough in middle America.

So the joke might wind up reading:

“I was on Twitter and instead of following @MarthaStewart I accidentally followed @TonyStewart. My rug still ties in the room, but in a bold @Nascar theme!”

Are you starting to get some ideas? Now get to work and write your own! Have fun!

Why *This is My Art* is Utter Nonsense

art-and-businessI was at party recently and I had the privilege of meeting another veteran comedian, a comedian who had reached a certain notable level of success.

We were talking about comedy and I had mentioned that one of my students—Sascha Knopf—was a finalist in the ‘CA’s Funniest Female’ Comedy Competition this year, and another student of mine—Pauline Yasuda—won it in 2013.

This comedian looked me dead in the eye and said, “I don’t believe in competitions. This is my art.”

“You’re falling into that trap, are you?”

And although I know what she was trying to say and I respect it; it’s a common trap that ‘artists’ fall into and it’s utter nonsense.

This Is Not Art School

I didn’t engage in a discussion with this comedian about the topic, but it’s an important lesson to address and should be part of Art School 101 for everyone whether you’re an actor, dancer, writer, painter or comedian.

It’s an especially important lesson if you’re in one of those arts where there is little—if any—formal training; like stand-up comedy.

That lesson is:

This is Show Business, not Art School.

There is a difference. In art school we can do whatever we want. We can paint, or sculpt or write and be as creative as we want, flavoring our art to our own tastes, express ourselves purely without regard to the world’s judgment.

If they think it’s bland or too spicy, ‘screw them’ because it is my art and beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in art school the beholder is you and a handful of other artists, but mostly you, because at Art School, you write the checks (or if you’re lucky, you are the offspring of parents with money, then it’s their check).

When you get into Show Business—which is two distinct words—read that again and let it sink in: Show-Business is two words. Each word should have equal weight, but they don’t. They call it a business because it is just that. If you don’t put butts in the seats or sell your art, nobody gives a damn.

In show-business, who is the ‘beholder?’

  • Club bookers
  • Talent Coordinators
  • Casting Directors
  • Listeners (if it’s radio)
  • The network
  • The Advertisers
  • The audience

You are therefore beholden to those who make the decisions and write the checks. After all, comedy is not performed in a vacuum. You have to please those who are in charge and that includes the audience.

Don’t get me wrong, a strong developed point of view and character are essential to making you unique and brand-able, but you have to adjust when the ‘beholders’ demand it.

*A side-note:

If you are such a powerful presence and your brand of art is generating ticket sales, filling arenas, generating a million followers on social media, the ‘beholders’ will acquiesce and will see the beauty in what you do, because they will see the revenue that you will generate.

But that’s only because they see that as good ‘business,’ because, really, most decision makers in this business don’t know what’s good or what’s funny.

Let me repeat that: Most decision makers in this business don’t know what’s good or what’s funny…

I mean c’mon! They released and distributed a remake of “The Three Stooges!”

Talk about being completely disconnected from the mass appeal of a comedy audience! (FYI Fox: Comedy Audiences have evolved beyond the hysteria from a ball-peen hammer to the head—if it was ever even hysterical in the first place).

That movie’s colossal failure underscores the concept that the audience is the final judge and they are a part of what makes up the essence of show business.

What’s that make us as comedians?

Comedians Are The Ultimate Panderers

Did that sting? Yeah, it hurt to write it too, but it’s true, so get over it.

Art? Yes, but not like in an painter who paints a picture and puts it out there. You either like it or you don’t.

In comedy we seek immediate gratification. That’s one reason we do this amazing art-form. But to get that gratification we have to adjust our subject matter and our jokes so we get laughs.

If we perform material and it doesn’t get laughs we immediately do two things:

  1. Re-write the material, or…
  2. Throw it away

We adjust to what the audience laughs at. You can be pure and and artist all you want, but you have to be aware of the audience and if they are laughing… and if they’re not, you make the adjustment.

Because if they are not laughing, you are not a comedian; you are a talker.

And in their comedy club or on their comedy show, a booker or a talent coordinator doesn’t want a talker.

Take a comedian like Bill Burr or throw back to Bill Hicks; you might think they just say (or said) anything they want, but that’s not true. They work their acts and edit and rewrite, keeping what works and throwing out what doesn’t.

Comedians adjust because we want laughs. Laughs get us noticed and laughs get us work. Because we’re not in it simply for the art. We’re in it because we not only love what we do but our goal is to make a living doing it.

It’s business and show-business is the game.

Comedy competitions are a part of the game.

There are few things, besides a personal reference from a legendary comic, that can help boost your notoriety faster than a strong finish at a notable comedy competition:

In short comedy competitions:

  • Are solid resume boosters
  • Get eyebrows raised
  • Demonstrate a level of credibility
  • Provide invaluable networking opportunities
  • Give an opportunity to put out a press release
  • Great ways to impress an agent or manager and snag representation

So, although being an artist is commendable and I work hard on my art, the end result is that this is show business and to ignore that fact and only focus on the art is, in my opinion, a naïve approach to the business.

Testing Your Jokes Against Late Night

 

Tonight Show-Jimmy Fallon

 

“How do I know when my jokes are working?”

If you’ve been following my blog, by now you know that writing one and two liners is key to really making your story-telling pop.

If you aren’t aware of this, I’ll remind you.

Stories are great. I do stories, but with the clubs and television expecting a laugh every 18-20 seconds, you must be sure you include laugh-points all along the arc of that story. The best way to do this is to get really good at your one and two-liners, giving your story an opportunity to create a laugh after almost every one to three sentences.

If you don’t have laugh points in your stories, then you’re not doing comedy.

Keep in mind, there are some exceptions to this rule, but overall, if we’re in a comedy club, we want to laugh.

So How Do You Get Good at This?

You have to start to recognize opportunities for comedy ‘plays’ along your story’s journey. There are a vast array of techniques and structures to help you hit your laugh points, and if you’ve read and worked through my eBook, “Breaking Comedy’s DNA,” you’d know almost every one of those.

It’s amazing when you have the knowledge to trigger laugh in your story almost at will. That’s right “at will!”

Every logical grouping of words can be turned into something funny.

That being said, one of the best way to develop and laser sharpen  your ability to do this is by working your one and two-liners.

And the best way of doing that is through current event, trivia and factoid humor.

Why? Because the first part of the joke is already written for you!

That’s right. Think about it; when you read a headline, a factoid or a piece of trivia, the headline is already written. All you have to do is come up with an ending!

Then you re-tool, tinker and tighten, add some misdirection, surprise or incongruity and ‘BAM!’ you have a joke.

  • They are reopening the Washington Monument. The thing has been shut down for the last two years – just like Congress.
  • Some NFL players criticized Michael Sam for kissing his boyfriend after getting drafted. He has to learn that NFL players are not supposed to be in gay relationships until after they’re in prison!

Both of these jokes utilize the ‘listing technique;’ the most powerful technique used in comedy today. One definition of a joke is ‘the convergence of two dissimilar ideas.’

In the Washington monument joke, all I did is take the first part of the joke: “They are reopening the Washington monument, which has been shut down for the last two years…” and I listed everything about Washington in one column, then everything about the Washington monument in another column. When I found similarities between the two (even in my imagination, because comedy is heightened reality), I finessed a joke from that idea.

I did the same thing with the Michael Sam joke. Here we have more than two dissimilar ideas converging.

Can you tell what those ideas are? NFL, PRISON, GAY RELATIONSHIPS, RELATIONSHIPS, ETC. *(See a more thorough example of this comedy writing tool here)* 

In this case I would list everything I could think of utilizing all four ideas. Notice how I also used ‘relationships,’ not just ‘gay relationships?’

When we open up the idea of ‘gay relationships’ to relationships, I now have a possible idea for a slam on the NFL and all the cases of sexual assault. So that joke could be something like:

  • Some NFL players criticized Michael Sam for kissing his boyfriend after getting drafted. See, Michael Sam doesn’t get it, in order to be accepted in the NFL you can’t do something gross like kiss another man, you gotta rape a chick.

Now you have an edgy joke. This joke might not be my voice. It certainly won’t fit on Late Night, but it could be suitable for ‘The Daily Show’ or Bill Maher. If not, I’m sure I could sell it to Chris Rock.

In essence, before I finish this blog post, I’ve already made 50 bucks!

How do you know it’s funny?

If you set a goal to write at least 10 of these jokes a day, then all you have to do is compare it against the Late Night shows jokes and see whose his funnier.

Sometimes it will be theirs. Sometimes Yours.

The more you do it, the better you get. Then you’ll more readily recognize the opportunities for these ‘plays’ in your stories and your stories will be funnier, more compelling and more worthy of the definition of comedy.

CBS Blew It! – Craig Ferguson Announces He’s Leaving ‘Late Late Show’

Craig Ferguson announces he'll be leaving the Late, Late Show

The field is totally opening up!

Craig Ferguson announced Monday night that he’ll be leaving the Late, Late Show at the end of this year.  There is a lot of speculation that Ferguson was mistreated and completely overlooked, when CBS passed over him to replace David Letterman who will be retiring at the end of this year.

This after a 10-year run!

He was like a second string quarterback waiting his turn to take over the team.

Imagine if the Green Bay Packers overlooked Aaron Rogers after Brett Favre left the team?

Tragic!

CBS Blew It!

I think CBS completely blew it with this decision. They instead went with Stephen Colbert.

Colbert is very talented, but unproven and untested as a host in a non-satirical, non-character-based environment.

Ferguson is fresh, unique and extremely talented.

The execs who made this decision have ABSOLUTELY NO CONCEPT of the level of talent it takes to go off-script like Ferguson does and riff on a subject and get consistently great laughs. The guy is a genius.

*But Jerry, tell us how you really feel!*

He has an ability to detach from the show and actually make you feel like he’s in your living room; all the while still engaging the studio audience.

Who else does that?!

Answer: Nobody!

I don’t understand their reasoning for this decision. The only thing I can hypothesize on is that they are looking to target the 18-34 male demographic; the demo that is so coveted by advertisers and and already targeted by Comedy Central, Colbert’s current home.

But if that’s the case they blew it, as Ferguson and Colbert are virtually the same age!

Writing Positions Are Opening Up

But what does this mean for my readers, (all 3 of you)?

I know that some of you are really into looking to nail a job on a Late Night Show as a writer. This is a truly historic time with the shake-ups that are happening all around late night. Never in my life time have there been so many changes in the late night line up. in the same year.

With Colbert replacing Letterman and Ferguson leaving at the end of this year, new opportunities will be springing up all over the network.

Time to sharpen your pencils, freshen your pens and get your carpel tunnel wrist braces on and start re-typing and re-writing your Late Night TV submission packets.

Those of you who have taken my workshop on writing for late night know that you should be re-tooling your submission packet every 6 months and sending it in to the shows producers on a regular basis.

You should also be tweeting your daily jokes. Why?  The Late Night with Seth Meyers people plucked an I.T. worker from Peoria, and put him on the staff for the show after reading his humorous tweets.

Now the Dude is earning a $4000 minimum weekly paycheck as a staff writer on the show. Hell Yes!

So even though I’m in disagreement about the network’s decision to overlook Ferguson, I am laser-beam focused on the new opportunities available for writers.

Get writing!

Late Show With Seth Meyers Plucks ‘I.T. Guy From Peoria’ as Writer

Heath Ledger in a Knights Tale

There is a movie out there called “A Knight’s Tale.” It stars the late Heath Ledger as William Thatcher, a peasant squire, who, after his master dies, changes “his stars” by changing his identity and becoming a knight.

It’s a fairy tale. Or is it?

About a month ago, a regular guy from Peoria, Illinois, who tweeted regular jokes as a way of venting from work and the grind of daily life, got picked up by the executives over at Late Night with Seth Meyers, to be a staff writer on the show after they took notice of his funny tweets.

 

I’ve been telling my students for several years now that they need to be tweeting their jokes regularly to get their writing out there, seen by others. Now it seems that crazy idea is paying off.

In the blink of a tweet, Bryan Donaldson a family man, went from a clock puncher for an insurance company to a staff writer on network television.

Is this sheer luck? No! He worked hard everyday tweeting jokes and gaining followers on Twitter. He’s a classic example of opportunity meeting preparedness.

Through his diligent and funny tweeting, Donaldson got an opportunity of a lifetime.

Can you do the same? Maybe so.

The point I’m trying to make is opportunity is out there every single day. But most of us are not doing what we need to do to take advantage of it.

You should be writing every day, generating material. Either to tweet or for practice. Every time you write, you get better. And that’s the goal; to be prepared when opportunity arises.

Then, like Heath Ledger’s character in “A Knight’s Tale,” you too might be able to “change your stars.”