Are you one of those people who is afraid of mistakes? Are you afraid to put something out thereâ€”either on stage or in a meeting or even on social mediaâ€”for fear that you made a mistake and someone will call you out on it, thus making you the laughing stock of the world and eternally miserable?
This happens to all of us at some level.
I remember, early in my studying, being in an acting class. I really wanted to be an actor. My father had some fame as an actor and I wanted to be an actor too. I went to the classes and when I did something “wrong,” the teacher would try to give me notes.
I would always try to interrupt with something like a “Yeah, yeah, I know I did that,” or something similar. Instead of really listening to the note based on what the teacher saw in my performance, I would jump ahead because I didn’t really want to hear that I was flawed, that I made a mistake.
Fortunately I had a father who used to coach me as well. He saw that I would try to jump in and not truly listen to the note. He would wait for me to finish my objection. Then say, “Next time I give you a critique, instead of instantly jumping in I want you to try something. I want you to think of a follow-up question, based on what I said.”
This approach served two purposes. It required me wait to actually hear the note. And…
It made me have to think of a follow-up question, so I was forced to listen deeply to the note, process what it meant to me and follow up, thus cementing the learning into my brain.
So therefore, it forced me to acknowledge my mistake, learn from it and figure out how to apply the mistake as a lesson, NOT as a mistake.
Does this make sense?
When we make mistakes and learn from them, we make huge leaps in our learning and through experience you learn that mistakes are actually positive things, not negative.
Instead of fearing mistakes, we should embrace them, ruminate in them and figure out possible solutions. I express that as a plural, because there’s normally never just one solution. There’s usually multiple.
It is key that you write down the mistake, what you learned from it and finally the possible solutions to correct the mistake in the future.
That’s why in the classes I teach, I encourage the students to provide their own suggestions and notes to their fellow students. It requires them to actively listen, process and trouble-shoot a possible solution. This helps them to become more knowledgeable as a comedy writer or comedian, in a faster time period.
When you teach you learn twice.
This type of fear of mistakes can paralyze us in so many ways. It creates a circle of repeated mistakes that cripple growth, stifle productivity and increase stress.
I have a friend. We get together once in awhile to write, go shopping or grab a bite.
She has this fear of mistakes and I see it constantly and repeatedly paralyze her productivity and infuse more stress into her life.
Now the following conversation may seem tedious, but I think it is essential so that you can really get the idea and maybeâ€”just maybeâ€”see similarities in your own behaviors.
About 6 months ago my friend called me and said, “Hey, let’s get together later and go shopping at the mall.”
I said, “What time?”
She said, “Oh late afternoon sometime. I have a lot to get done first.”
I said, “You should set some goals as to exactly what you need to get done and apply a time to it. When that timer is done get up and move on to the next–”
She interrupted, “â€”Yeah, yeah. I know. That’s a good idea.”
I said, “Okay. Just let me know when?”
At 5 o’clock we planned to get together to shop at the mall, eat and hang out. Since she’s always late, we wound up connecting at the mall at 5:30.
She was hungry, so we grabbed a bite to eat. Then it was time to shop!
As we started to hit the stores, we noticed that they were all starting to close.
She started stressing, “Why are they closing?!”
“Well, it’s Sunday. Most malls close early on Sundays.”
It was a mistake not to set your goals and not plan out the day… I’ve explained the acknowledge mistakes lesson to her that I learned from my father. I hoped that she would start to apply them… she struggles with that.
6 months later…
My friend texts me. Again, it was a Sunday morning.
“Hey, l’ve got to go back home for about a week. Wanna meet at the mall and go shopping?”
“Sure. What time?”
“I don’t know. Late afternoon. I’ve got a lot to get done first:”
Then 30 minutes later the text came in: “Hey, it’s Sunday. Let’s do early afternoon. In fact, I’ll meet you at three! The malls close early don’t they?”
Now I just hope she shows up on time!
If you fear mistakes nowâ€”no matter what the level of your fearâ€”by doing the above approach of acknowledging, processing and solving, you will eventually lose that fear.
At some point, that fear of mistakes becomes just a shrug, and you look forward to processing it, learning from it and solving it. Because, now you will realize how much time or money you saved, how your business or relationship improved and how above all you transformed in some way and became a better person in life… or at least a better person to go shopping with.
You learn so much from acknowledging your mistakes, rather than being afraid of mistakes.
In my experience, I realized that when I made mistake and acknowledged it, I wasn’t a laughing stock of the world and it didn’t make me eternally miserable.
Instead, it enabled me to eternally grow.
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Where to Start
So you want to write comedy about an idea you have but you don’t know how to get to the funny stuff.
Or you might even be asking where do I even start?
Has this ever happened to you?
Below you’ll find several ways to approach a single word or simple subject and be able to write comedy about it.
Listen to the Audio Version
Most people create jokes by coincidence; we all do this, but relying only on coincidence can leave a comedy writer stranded, waiting for the coincidence to occur.
This sometimes leaves us without writing new comedy material for days, sometimes weeks… eeek!
So now for those of us who have a just a thought, a word or a simple subject we can now apply a couple of relatively easy applications and really start to write comedy.
In this article I’m going to show you 5 Ways to Write Comedy from simple words and subjects.
All of these approaches are proven approaches I’ve used to come up with material for my act or shows I’ve written for. These techniques work for dialogue, sketches, jokes or just inspiration which has led to new ideas.
Most really good comedy has a clear association or crisp surprise. Other comedy contains irony, paradox, coincidence, retaliation, etc.
You can get all 13 comedy structures by grabbing my eBook “Breaking Comedy’s DNA.”
Let’s Write Comedy!
So, let’s get to it…
In the Comedy Clinic’s private Facebook group (set up for those who attend my 8-week stand-up classes), there was a comment from one of my students who’s brand new to comedy.
She’s a flight attendant and was trying to utilize the listing technique, a method used to flesh out concepts to develop comedy material.
One of the things I love about teaching is learning from students and what they need help with. When that happens, I figure if they are asking these questions, maybe others are too. So I put together some further instruction to share with other students of comedy.
The listing technique is one way to create jokes based on a single subject, (you can see it in action in this video).
The object is to start with that single subject and then find a secondary element by using a variety of methods.
The goal is to find the funny in the subject matter.
These are NOT the ONLY methods, but these are very effective and the most widely used by the most successful comedy writers.
It’s important to remember that this is a FIRST DRAFT exercise and the resulting ideas and or material may or may not be the finished product.
Sometimes the exercises lead to solid jokes, sometimes they are a gateway to inspiration to help the writer create sketches, or even show or movie concepts, but aren’t quite in the shape they need to be in for a stand-up performance… yet.
As most of you already know, when you write comedy the first draft is its infancy. Then you rewrite. When you get it on the stage the material is still in its adolescence.
When you perform it for an audience there are usually some additional adjustments that get made as new inspirations occur while you’re on the stage as the material begins to mature.
The purpose is to create a process for yourself so you can start with a subject and come up with material. Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t happen for you right away. That’s not creative! 🙂
So let’s get to it!
Start with a Subject:
- Flight Attendant.
Now let’s look at the 5 different approaches to take the simple subject of ‘Flight Attendant’ and develop the comedy.
NOTE: Steps 1-5 Below are separate strategies. This is not a combined strategy. Although you could use them all to really drill down and flesh out a comedy bit.
Create an Analogy.
Being a flight attendant is like: find something (usually unrelated to being a flight attendant) with which to draw the analogy. Now you have two clearly different ideas converging, (Incongruity).
What if we chose “Waitress” Being a flight attendant is like being a waitress.
You might come up with something like this set up, punchline, act-out combination:
“I’m a flight attendant. I hate when passengers treat you like you’re a waitress. The difference is that a flight attendant is flying at 38-thousand feet and if the shit hits the fan, we’ve got to be there to assist the passengers… even at our own peril. First of all, flight attendants are NOT waitresses. I’ve been a waitress at a few different restaurants, and I’ve never had to explain to a customer where all the exits are located before they start on their meal.
- So that’s why I don’t like passengers who treat me like a waitress. “Treat me like a waitress, I’ll act like a waitress… like if the shit hits the fan and this flying germ tube catches on fire, if I was a waitress, I’m not gonna assist your ass at my own peril. I’ll be the first out that door! (ACT-OUT: Yelling back to them) “There are four emergency exits, but I’m not showing them to you, cuz I’m a waitress! Enjoy your peanuts, bitches!”
- IDEA: The flight attendant safety briefing is like a waitress telling her table what the specials are that evening. (You could develop a routine here using similar signals a flight attendant uses when giving her safety briefing, as you describe the chef’s specials).
Remember: We started with nothing at the beginning of this exercise. But by simply applying analogy, we have a bit:
Add a Descriptor to the Subject
of “flight attendant.”
Ask yourself what kind of flight attendant? What if you added a descriptor that also defines one of your personal weaknesses?
- Anger management issues?
- Hormonal? Anytime you ask the flight attendant a question, she responds with (ACT OUT: BIG SIGH) “WHATEVER!”
- Once you have that in place you can use the incongruity technique to run a Top 10 List. “Top 10 Reasons You Know Your Flight Attendant is Hormonal.”
(Remember, the Top 10 exercise is used to generate punchlines, not for you to read off a list. That was Letterman’s bag).
Facts about flight attendants.
You can come up with your own, then look up stuff on the internet. On quick glance, I came up with this:
- Flight attendants have strict luggage restrictions imposed on them by some airlines. One carry-on bag and a personal bag. It’s a safety issue. This way it’s impossible for any flight attendants to ever bring ALL their baggage. Think about it! On a typical flight for Southwest, there are 3 flight attendants. That’s a LOT of Daddy issues!
- Flight attendants don’t age-out. Pilots are federally mandated to retire at age 65. Flight attendants don’t have to. So at Southwest Airlines, Bags may fly free, but Old Bags fly forever.
Definition of a Flight Attendant.
Definitions give you a great chance to do a Compare and Contrast riff.
- What’s different about being a Southwest Flight attendant than being a flight attendant at one of the other airlines?
Cliché Reformation or Take-off: and Simple Truth.
- There are a lot of phrases used on an airline that create an opportunity to be reformed with an unexpected ending for a quick laugh.
- “In the case of a darkened or smoke-filled cabin, safety strips on the floor will be illuminated, leading you right to the cockpit door where you can get your hands on the captain who got us into this mess in the first place.”
- *Do not unfasten your seatbelt until the plane comes to a full and complete stop. Why do they say full AND complete? Wouldn’t “full” stop or “complete” stop make it clear enough?
- And what’s so special about the smoke detector in the lavatory? There’s a special law that protects it; “Federal Regulations prohibit the tampering with or destroying a lavatory smoke detector.” It’s like they’re doing a little ‘wink-wink.’ You can fuck with the flight attendants all you want, but if you even tamper with that smoke detector, the feds will drag you to prison!
Hope this helps! And…
Remember, I am here for YOUR comfort and safety.
Hope this pre-flight instruction was helpful in your endeavor to write comedy. If you need more assistance, you’ll find a Joke Doctor button illuminated on the console above your head. Feel free to press that button and a Joke Doctor will help you as soon as it is safely possible, but if I come to your seat only to find that you’re phone is NOT in airplane mode, I’m gonna tell the feds that you tampered with a smoke detector.
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It is the most exciting time in history to try to get a job writing on a show in Late Night TV!
So when I get emails from people asking if they should pursue an opportunity to write for Late Night TV.
I always answer with a resounding “Yes!” and I have solid reasoning to back it up.
In fact I have 200,005 reasons you should pursue a job to write for Late Night TV.
But before we go there, let’s back up for a moment and look at the traditional method people use to prepare for a career.
The Career Path of the College Grad
Most people go to college for 4-5 years, get the skill set they need to work in the career of their choice.
If it’s a specialty like doctor or lawyer, they put in an extra few years of law school or med school followed by internship and/or residency.
Now I wholeheartedly believe that education is by far the best investment one can make in one’s future.
Every single time I invested in learning a new skill set, my resulting revenue skyrocketed.
Some people tell me that paying to learn comedy writing is too expensive.
I don’t get it.
My sons are in college, just finishing up. One university costs $30,000 annually. The other one $12,000 annually.
That’s quite an investment!
According to Forbes, when they graduate they are looking at an average starting salary of $42,000 a year.
And that’s IF they land a job in their specialty.
It doesn’t take an MIT graduate to realize it’s gonna take a while to make a profit on that investment.
To make matters worse, you’re already 4-5 years in on your investment.
Which leads me to…
200,005 reasons to write for Late Night TV:
REASON 1 thru 200,000
According to the Writer’s Guild of America, the starting salary for a writer in Late Night is $4,198 per week. Most of these shows are yearly. And even if you took 10-12 weeks off per year, that’s over $200,000 a year!
That’s base starting pay!
If you write a 2-minute sketch and that gets on the air, you earn another 3,875.00 for that sketch…
… and if you write a song parody, you get ASCAP fees on top of that!
Not bad, but that’s not all…
Writing for Late Night TV is still one of the only jobs in the industry where you can get hired without experience and without a resume! You just have to show that you can write funny.
That’s how I got my job writing for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and how a lot of guys I know got their jobs. In fact, most recently, an IT guy from Peoria named Bryan Donaldson got hired on Late Night with Seth Meyers because of his funny tweets!
Other writers I know simply submitted fresh writing sample packets consistently, then they were called in for a meeting and booked the job!
Frida Deguise, one of my Skype students in Australia works with me on her joke writing. Her career is now taking off–both as a comedian and a writer. She just sold out two shows in Melbourne, Australia and was just hired as a writer on “Gruen,” Australia’s hottest variety/talk show (similar to our Daily Show). Frida, previously had zero experience and no resume in the business. She made such an impression that she got a joke greenlit her first day on the job. (nearly unheard of).
Get the Free Video: “How to get a job writing for Late Night TV”
The cost of the investment in the education (in both time and money) to get the skills for Late Night TV writing is microscopic compared to traditional career preparation. When I decided I wanted to write for Late Night TV, I dropped out of college and dedicated swapped the time I was going to spend in classes at school with time deliberately learning the craft to write for Late Night. I hired a comedy comedy writer from the Dean Martin Roasts to coach me and keep me accountable.
Every day 4-5 hours a day, I wrote Late Night-style comedy. Within 18 months I was hired at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. 18 months. Compare that with the time and money it takes to get a degree in college!
The amazing part is that–despite the fact that it was hard work–I could actually measure my progress. Once I figured out the structures and developed a process I was cranking out 80-120 jokes a day.
You saw the costs of college above, but get this; Emerson College is now offering an accredited BFA in Comedic Arts. You can graduate with a Bachelor’s in comedy! But if you go to Emerson it will cost you $42,000 a year. That’s 168,000 for that 4-year degree.
Besides, name one job that you can get right out of college that earns you a starting salary of 200k a year?
Once you’re a writer you become a member of the WGA, (the Writer’s Guild of America) where your salary is protected and you get great health benefits.
If you like to write jokes, there’s no better job in the world!
Writing for a late show like The Tonight Show gives you enormous credibility and leverage. If you’re also a comedian, it opens so many more doors. You can get booked at almost any club because the title “writer” on a well known show is a credit that can be promoted in any comedy club in any city in the U.S. and Canada. After writing for the Tonight Show, I booked audience warm-up gigs, stand-up spots on multiple TV shows, etc. Every show increased my personal appearance value.
Not only that, once you’re a writer for Late Night, you can get booked for high-paying speaking engagements due to your affiliation with the show. Years after I was writing for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, I’m still being booked to speak all over the World.
Supply & Demand
The Late Night TV industry has totally exploded. When I was first writing for Late Night, there were 2 shows. Now there’s 9 Late Night style shows and that’s not even including Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” on TBS and Chelsea Handler on “Chelsea” on Netflix. With Hulu, Amazon and YouTube whispering about producing new streaming shows. Plus if you include the daytime talk shows like “Ellen, “Wendy Williams,” and Harry Connick’s new show “Harry,” you can see that Talk-Variety shows are experiencing amazing growth.
Consider the additional fact that since Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert departed Comedy Central, they’ve been scrambling to find an effective replacement. Look for 1 or 2 new shows from C.C.
Good comedy content is in high demand and continuing to grow. Problem is, the talent pool of good comedy writers is seriously thin. The next 5 years is going to be a boom period for good comedy writers. If you’ve thought about writing for Late Night TV, what you do in the next 6 months can have a huge impact on the rest of your life!
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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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