A comedian walks into a bar and sees a poster with a saying that is similar to a joke he’s been doing. It’s not the same joke, but it almost has the exact set up line.
He panics. A thousand questions run through his mind: “What do I do?”
“Did the guy who did that poster see my act and use a version the joke?”
“Did I see that poster some time in the past and it stuck in my head?”
“Should I stop doing my joke?”
Okay, that wasn’t a thousand questions, but you get the gist.
This complication… that’s what I’ll call it, a “complication,” because that’s all it is. It’s parallel thought, it’s… whatever.
The point is there’s a poster out there and it has your joke–or a version of it–printed right on it. So you know that there are probably more posters out there
And at this point, it doesn’t matter whether or not it was your joke or not, someone else has used it at a commercial level and that might have negative impact on you.
So what do you do?
An old friend of mine, who had a lot of success as a comedy writer in show business once said to me, “if it’s inherently yours, keep it.” I like that; If it’s inherently yours…
That means if you really came up with that idea from scratch, keep it. Okay, let’s go with that for now.
But what if someone comes up to you later and says, “You know that one joke you do? I saw it on a poster.” Or worse, “You know that joke about Pop Tarts? I just saw Paula Poundstone do that joke on an old “Tonight Show.”
Then I would–and this should be imperative–do the research and find out how similar the poster or the Paula joke is, to my joke.
What “the same” means:
There is a difference between similar and the same.
Different people have different ideas about what the definition of “same joke” is. I have seen this a million times. I remember doing some material about getting pulled over by a cop.
In my act-out, the cop says, “Do you know how fast you were going?”
My character responds in a surfer-like voice, “You think at that speed I’d risk taking my eyes off the road to check the speedometer?”
This was such a favorite joke of mine that I had a cartoon drawn and I had it printed on a T-shirt and sold hundreds of them at shows around the country.
A few years later, a version of that joke showed up in the movie “Liar, Liar” with Jim Carrey.
I received a ton of phone calls saying that “they stole” my joke.
I did my research, which consisted of watching the movie–and since Jim Carrey can be entertaining, the research wasn’t brutal and decided that I would continue to do the joke.
The joke was similar, but not the same.
When To Drop The Joke
There does come a time, however that you can decide to drop a joke from your act.
One night while I was on the road in right in the middle of my show, this guy in the audience–who, tragically, bore a similar appearance to Homer Simpson–shouted, “You stole that joke from “Liar, Liar!”
Doh! What do you do with that?
First of all, don’t panic. There’s no reason to if you know you were at the helm during the incunabula of the joke.
I knew inherently that I had written that joke way before that movie was ever written, but I had to respond to the heckler, then decide what I was going to eventually do about the joke.
So I said to the guy, “Doh! You know, Homer, (which got an immediate laugh, thankfully, because I needed one at this point), things like this happen a lot in comedy, but before you accuse someone of stealing a joke, you really have to look at two things: One, the similarity of the two jokes and two, the chronology…
“First of all, it’s not the same joke, so it’s not a ‘stolen’ joke. Second of all, if there is going to be an accusation of stealing, let’s just say that I did that joke on television in 1992. ‘Liar, Liar’ came out in 1997.
So to accuse me of stealing that joke is like me accusing you of stealing your look from Homer Simpson.”
Now, because I was already getting laughs from that audience and they were on my side, that statement elicited an applause break from that audience and quieted down the heckler, (if I wasn’t getting laughs, the audience might have looked at me like the pompous ass that I can sometimes be!).
Deciding To Drop The Joke
But even though I knew that the joke was inherently mine, since that movie caused that person in the audience to question my integrity, I decided to drop the joke, if simply to avoid that kind of interruption in the future.
But mostly I keep doing my material. I learned this lesson by watching other professional comedians–especially those who are vastly more successful than I.
Learning From Top Comedians
Jim Gaffigan does a joke that is exactly like mine. I’m not going to quote the exact joke, but the set up is identical and punch is really close. Let’s just say that my joke ends with “four Moms, five Dads,” and his joke ends with “Nine parents…”
My joke about that is “Wow, Gaffigan is so genius, he even does the math in my joke!”
But would I ever accuse Jim Gaffigan of stealing my joke? No way! I just chalk it up to parallel thinking and let it go. Gaffigan works his ass off and is a top notch comedian and joke writer. That stuff just happens.
Or take Jerry Seinfeld. He was doing a joke about Pop Tarts lately that struck me as being similar to Paula Poundstone’s Pop Tart routine she did in the eighties.
It’s not the same routine, but it does address Pop Tarts from a similar angle.
Or the amazing Louis C.K. If you really listen to him, is the subject matter of his routines original? Kids, Family, Money, Growing up, Relationships, etc.
Are any of those ideas original? No! But his point of view, insightfulness and honesty are genius.
Where would he be if, before he wrote anything, he said to himself, “I can’t talk about kids… other comedians already do that.”?
So stop worrying about originality for originality’s sake.
Doing that can cause a comedian or a writer to do go into paralysis.
The only thing I can say about that is, don’t let it stop you from writing the joke in the first place.
There are several reasons that a joke shows up in a similar form somewhere. Parallel thinking, common subject matter, writing about the same current events, are some of the more benign reasons.
Laziness and blatant plagiarism are a couple of others.
Don’t Worry. Be Funny.
But worrying about that shouldn’t even enter your mind during the creative process. Just as editing the material is never step one, (it’s step two, three or four), figuring out whether your joke is original should also never be step one.
Just write the damn material and worry about that later.
Instead of sitting there at your notebook or your computer and worrying about whether or not something is original, just write about stuff you are passionate about.
Write the stuff you really want to talk about, then turn it funny by finding the surprise, the paradox, the incongruity or several of the other proven comedy structures available to you to trigger laughs.
As long as you are staying true to your integrity as a writer and trying your damnedest to come up with ideas that come from your own experience or your unique point of view (embellished, sometimes of course for the laughs), then you don’t have to obsess about whether or not it’s original.
Take a look at this quick video with Jerry Seinfeld on Jimmy Fallon talking about “The worst I ever bombed, then read about my worse bomb ever and then go ahead and share your worse bomb ever!
Have you ever bombed?
I think all of us who’ve ever done stand-up comedy have bombed at one time or another.
Whether you have bombed or not doesn’t mean anything. What you do with that experience defines your character.
I remember the worst time I ever bombed. Sadly, it was voluntary. Well, the bombing wasn’t voluntary, meaning it was unpaid. It was very early in my career. (Here is where we see the wavy lines on the screen and the weird “time-travel” music).
My best friend, Adam had a band that played jazz and funk at restaurants and bars around L.A. and I used to do the breaks. So whenever the band took a break, I would get up and do ten or fifteen minutes while the band rested.
One of the worst gigs you can do is when nobody expects comedy and this is usually the case when there’s a band playing. But it was a mic, you know? To top it off, I didn’t have to fight 20 other comics for a spot to do 5 to 7 minutes.
We were at this place called “The Rusty Pelican” a seafood and steakhouse in Calabasas, California, right next to a Porsche dealership. The band ended their set and I went up to do comedy and nobody was really listening.
“Sharks Smelling Blood”
These three preppy guys saw that I wasn’t doing well and they were like sharks smelling blood. I think I actually heard them say, “Look, that dude is bombing, let’s go fuck with him.”
They came right up the the front of the stage and just kept saying the worst stuff.
When one of them ran out of breath, the other one started. It was tag team heckling and I wasn’t allowed to tap out.
I wound up saying something like. “Well, this isn’t going to work,” and I just said, “At least you can enjoy the music.”
I stumbled off stage, then I remembered I was recording the set. I turned around, grabbed my recorder and said to the audience, “Can’t forget this. It’s my black box. It recorded everything that led up to the crash.”
I think it’s like the only laugh I got.
Some comedians, when they relive their bombing stories, talk about all their friends being at the event: “Oh my God it was the most humiliating thing I have ever experienced! I mean, my friends and family were there!” They came up to me afterward and said, “That was brave,” or “At least you had good stage presence…” Or worse, after an experience like that some comedians never step on stage again!
At the Rusty Pelican I didn’t have comments afterwards from my friends, because my friends who were there were so embarrassed, they left before the set was over.
So I went to the bar, grabbed a beer, went to a dark corner and sank as deep as I could into a booth. I was going to just sit there and get drunk. Then, half-way into my beer I sat up and thought, that is never going to happen to me again!
Don’t get me wrong the thought was preceded with how I could break the beer bottle on the table and disfigure the bastards who heckled me.
But I thought it through and realized there is no way I would do that because if I did I would probably never be invited to play the band’s break again, I would probably go to jail and the most important reason: I’m way too much of a wimp!
In retrospect, for me, it was the worst experience and the best experience wrapped up into one, because I didn’t finish that beer. I went home, took that recorder, listened to every line those guys said, wrote them down and then wrote like thirty comebacks.
That exercise led me to come up with a bunch of responses that I could use any time whether I was being heckled or just not getting laughs!
One memorable line I wrote and can still use today is: “I don’t blame you guys for acting out. You’re probably still healing, trying to find a way to embarrass someone else the way you did your mother, when she popped you out of her vagina.”
That One Gig Is Not that Important
One thing we have to learn EARLY in our careers is this: That one gig that seems so important at that moment, isn’t. It’s just one gig.
Whether we bomb because it was a heckler issue or because we just had a horrible set, no matter where we are, at whatever level, it’s just ONE GIG!
We have to learn that everything isn’t riding on that one gig, because when you look back you will realize how insignificant that one gig really was, in terms of humiliation, because the humiliation is short-lived.
We take our biggest leaps from our biggest mistakes, but only if we embrace them, find solutions to the problems and apply the solutions.
That’s when you come out on the other side, sharper, smarter and faster. That’s what I did with the lesson from my worst bomb ever. And all I can say is I wish those guys would heckle me at a show today!
That gig at the Rusty Pelican was significant to me. It made me realize that I needed more tools to deal with hecklers. But as far as humiliation goes? I’m still here, working and making a living in comedy. The Rusty Pelican in Calabasas? They went out of business 15 years ago!
It’s been over six years since George Carlin died of heart failure at 71 in Santa Monica, CA.
George was widely regarded as one of the most important and influential stand-up comedians of all time. He’s listed in Comedy Central’s list of Top 100 Comics at number 2, just behind the great Richard Pryor, but just ahead of the trailblazing Lenny Bruce who paved the road for comedians all over the country to be able to speak freely and test the boundaries of obscenity.
But George Carlin’s fame is nearly unmatched as a comedian. Arguably, his bit “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” is one of his most memorable. It was funny on several levels. It challenged the status quo and pushed the boundaries of decency laws in the U.S. in 1972.
In comedy terms that bit would be described as “word-play,” “the witty exploitation of the meanings and ambiguities of words.”
But at the Summerfest in Milwaukee in 1972 that bit would be described as obscenity and would get Carlin thrown in jail. That bit not only got Carlin arrested but also got WBAI, an FM radio station in New York City, cited by the FCC for broadcasting “obscene” material.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision. Evidently, the nursery rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” doesn’t hold true in a court so powerful that calls itself “Supreme.”
So what are those words? “Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that’ll infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.”
Those are the words that are so disgusting that a man got thrown in jail, radio station fined and the Supreme Court to issue a ruling that gave the FCC the broader right to decide what was “indecent,” and what can and can’t be broadcast on the public airwaves, words that are so profoundly offensive that those very same words are printed on the transcript of the court ruling and stored where? The Supreme Court.
Here’s Carlin with the Seven:
This piece is a classic and every student of comedy should know about it. But my point in this post isn’t just about “The Seven Words,” it about word-play and the power that word-play still has in comedy.
Some of the younger comedians, don’t believe in word-play they will give you some sciolistic nonsense about word-play being “hack.”
That couldn’t be farther from the truth! Word-play can result in puns, but not always. If you approach word-play the way George Carlin did, you can find the paradox in certain words: “You can prick your finger, but you can’t finger your prick,” is one of Carlin’s old standards.
Hack? Well I guess it depends on the listener’s point of view. But that joke has been around for more than 40 years. It’s memorable and it has a shelf-life.
It it used a lot in script writing too. Arrested Development was a super popular show for many years and the writers employed word-play as one of their primary tools for getting a laugh.
Let’s look at one of Carlin’s last HBO specials. He opens using a word-play bit and gets a rousing ovation. What a way to open!
Here’s a transcript from that performance:
George Carlin’s Modern Man
I’m a modern man, a man for the millennium. Digital and smoke free. A diversified multi-cultural, post-modern deconstruction that is anatomically and ecologically incorrect.
I’ve been up linked and downloaded, I’ve been inputted and outsourced, I know the upside of downsizing, I know the downside of upgrading. I’m a high-tech low-life. A cutting edge, state-of-the-art bi-coastal multi-tasker and I can give you a gigabyte in a nanosecond! I’m new wave, but I’m old school and my inner child is outward bound.
I’m a hot-wired, heat seeking, warm-hearted cool customer, voice activated and bio-degradable. I interface with my database, my database is in cyberspace, so I’m interactive, I’m hyperactive and from time to time I’m radioactive. Behind the eight ball, ahead of the curve, ridin the wave, dodgin the bullet and pushin the envelope. I’m on-point, on-task, on-message and off drugs.
I’ve got no need for coke and speed. I’ve got no urge to binge and purge. I’m in-the-moment, on-the-edge, over-the-top and under-the-radar. A high-concept, low-profile, medium-range ballistic missionary. A street-wise smart bomb. A top-gun bottom feeder. I wear power ties, I tell power lies, I take power naps and run victory laps. I’m a totally ongoing big-foot, slam-dunk, rainmaker with a pro-active outreach. A raging workaholic. A working rageaholic. Out of rehab and in denial!
I’ve got a personal trainer, a personal shopper, a personal assistant and a personal agenda. You can’t shut me up. You can’t dumb me down because I’m tireless and I’m wireless, I’m an alpha male on beta-blockers. I’m a non-believer and an over-achiever, laid-back but fashion-forward. Up-front, down-home, low-rent, high-maintenance. Super-sized, long-lasting, high-definition, fast-acting, oven-ready and built-to-last! I’m a hands-on, foot-loose, knee-jerk head case pretty maturely post-traumatic and I’ve got a love-child that sends me hate mail.
But, I’m feeling, I’m caring, I’m healing, I’m sharing– a supportive, bonding, nurturing primary care-giver. My output is down, but my income is up. I took a short position on the long bond and my revenue stream has its own cash-flow. I read junk mail, I eat junk food, I buy junk bonds and I watch trash sports! I’m gender specific, capital intensive, user-friendly and lactose intolerant. I like rough sex.
I like tough love. I use the “F” word in my emails and the software on my hard-drive is hardcore–no soft porn. I bought a microwave at a mini-mall; I bought a mini-van at a mega-store. I eat fast-food in the slow lane. I’m toll-free, bite-sized, ready-to-wear and I come in all sizes. A fully-equipped, factory-authorized, hospital-tested, clinically-proven, scientifically- formulated medical miracle.
I’ve been pre-wash, pre-cooked, pre-heated, pre-screened, pre-approved, pre-packaged, post-dated, freeze-dried, double-wrapped, vacuum-packed and, I have an unlimited broadband capacity. I’m a rude dude, but I’m the real deal. Lean and mean! Cocked, locked and ready-to-rock. Rough, tough and hard to bluff. I take it slow, I go with the flow, I ride with the tide. I’ve got glide in my stride. Drivin and movin, sailin and spinin, jiving and groovin, wailin and winnin. I don’t snooze, so I don’t lose. I keep the pedal to the metal and the rubber on the road. I party hearty and lunch time is crunch time. I’m hangin in, there ain’t no doubt and I’m hangin tough, over and out!”
Have you ever wondered what the secret to success in comedy is?
Ever feel like it’s just this massively intimidating idea, like this enormous blob of ectoplasmic goop that has no shape or form?
Building a career in comedy can be so daunting.
School is so much easier! In school they tell you what to do. You know when to take your SAT’s. You’re told how many units you need to graduate, what you’re GPA needs to be.
In college, you’re told that in order to become a teacher, you have to take certain classes, get so many units, take an internship at a company and if you graduate with the right GPA and honors, you have an opportunity to have a job waiting for you when you finally graduate.
It’s a process and it’s similar for a lot of careers. It usually goes something like: High School-College-Internship-Job-Career. That’s organized and easy to conceive; maybe there’s some variation or advanced degrees for specialties like law, medicine or engineering, but it’s still a process that’s pretty well defined.
When you start out doing comedy, there is no obvious process and nobody tells you what to do. You have to find your own way as you go. You can talk to others, but there’s still no real map.
Or is there?
Comedians always ask me, “what’s the secret to success?”
My favorite response? “It’s not a secret.”
There are successful comedians and artists out there all the time telling you what they did in their careers.
I tell all my students exactly what I did to hit my financial and artistic goals.
The success guru Tony Robbins said, “If you want to be successful, find someone who has achieved the results you want and copy what they do and you’ll achieve the same results.”
By that he means copy their methods not their products. In other words, find out how they got successful and do the same thing.
That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. I can’t tell you how to succeed. I can only tell you what I did to reach my level of success in this business. I’m still learning and still achieving and some years are better than others.
I don’t just try to figure it all out on my own. I look to others, study their careers. I read biographies of other successful artists and listen or read their interviews. Sometimes they can reveal some pretty awesome things that they did to succeed. I jot them down and see if it might work for me too.
One of the keys to success in this business is to realize that show-business is two words and whether you’re a writer, performer or both, if you start thinking of this as building your business you’ll find that it’s a little less daunting. After all, building a business has a simple formula.
The basic formula to building a business is:
Find an Idea
Have a Plan of Action
Secure Funding to Implement that Plan
Sell That Idea to Customers on a Recurring Basis.
Most Comedians have step 1, the idea, (perform stand-up), but they want to jump immediately to step 4 without digging in to step 2 or 3.
In fact most comedians don’t even want to think about step 3, because it means they have to spend money, but let’s leave that aside for now. Let’s focus on steps 1 and 2.
Step 1: The Idea. Comedians have the idea; it’s their comedy or the idea that they want to do stand-up. But what’s really missing with most comedians is the plan of action.
The problem is that it’s missing both creatively and economically.
One of the things I suggest is to read and listen to what other comedians did in their career to get where they are.
Bill Burr is one of my favorites. His blend of honesty, passion and emotion in his material is what has propelled him to the status he enjoys today and what will continue to keep him on top.
What’s important to understand is that Bill wrote jokes for the first few years of his career. “I knew I had to know how to write jokes,” he says.
It might not have been his plan of action but looking back at his paper trail, a smart comedian might get some ideas from that plan. He then said, “I still wrote out jokes for the first ten or eleven years of my career. I was always kind of writing onstage. About six years in, I was riffing and doing that type of thing…”
If you read closely, can you see that Bill is kind of giving you his plan of action? His method? His secrets to success?
Remember what Tony Robbins said, “find someone who has achieved the results you want and copy what they do…”
You have been toiling on your act for a while. You’ve written. You’ve tightened. You’ve rehearsed. You’ve sweat. You’ve honed. You feel you’re beginning to find your voice.
You’ve developed a crystalized point of view and a through-line that’s on steroids and you’re ready to flex it like a 20-year-old with a well-earned six-pack.
You’re beginning to feel like you don’t just have laughs, you may just have a purpose!
Then you get a booking at a club you’ve worked in previously and the booker drops this bombshell: “I don’t like this new style of comedy you’re doing. I think you should go back to the old you.”
What do you do?
Several comedians have asked me about this over the years. How much do you adjust your act when a booker doesn’t dig your style?
My answer is “That depends.”
In my career as a comedian, I have walked away from gigs, I have fired managers and I’ve made other decisions–both good and bad–that go against the grain of the take-any-gig-that-comes-my-way attitude.
And although I probably would’ve never considered doing that in the early part of my career, when I finally started to feel my voice, to really express myself, to come from a place that meant something to me, that’s when I decided to be my own man, my own artist, my own company.
Basically I made a decision that I’m going to succeed or fail based on my own brand, my own goals and my own business model.
It was both freeing and frightening. But then I got the best advice ever from a surprising source… George Carlin.
When I started out, I emulated a variety comedians. I was studying George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. I was also a big fan of Bill Hicks.
I’ll admit it, I went with the trend at the time and I was very quirky. I was very “Seinfeldian.”
I was booking a lot of feature work. My first audition for Bud Friedman resulted in being booked in Vegas at least 4 times a year and getting a spot on A & E’s “An Evening at the Improv,” my first television spot as a comedian.
It wasn’t until I met George Carlin that I got the best piece of comedy advice ever. He changed my approach and subsequently, my career.
Carlin said, “There’s a line. Cross it.”
At first I didn’t know exactly what he was talking about. Then he clarified: “Take the stuff that drives you crazy and make it funny. You ever watch T.V. or read the news and call bullshit? That’s your comedy. Use that. But make it funny…
Say something that means something to you. Otherwise you’re just one of those cookie-cutter comedians who ain’t sayin’ anything!”
Then he said, “You can mix it up with fluff, if you have quirky and observational stuff, because the audience needs that playful stuff too, but say something that means something.
Don’t just make them laugh, make them think!”
It was that coincidental meeting that changed my entire approach to comedy. I started building an act that came from a real personal perspective. I started taking the stuff that drove me crazy and started to make it funny.
I started watching the news and reading the paper and when I felt myself call ‘bullshit,’ I wrote it down and made it funny, using paradox and irony, word-play and incongruity. I used powerful benign retaliation like Carlin, Bill Hicks and Chris Rock, (a powerful form of payback-style comedy) that you can learn in my eBook, “Breaking Comedy’s DNA.”
I became more of a socio-political comedian. I also had my quirky, fun observational stuff, but most of my act was driven by my angst and strong point of view. I blended it when I needed to, dropped certain edgy stuff when I did corporates, but most importantly, I felt like I was me!
Ninety percent of communication is non-verbal. The rest is visual and emotional.
Shortly after that tip from Carlin, my act changed. I took it on the road. It was getting a good reception.
Then I played a club in Sacramento. It was a club I had performed in for years as a feature, then a headliner. I went there with my new act; a very powerful socio-political act with kind of an underlying theme of tolerance.
Five nights, seven shows; after the first show, the club owner said, “I don’t like this new Jerry. I like the smart, quirky Jerry better.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was stuck. I liked this guy. He booked me a lot. I liked the club. I liked the people.
The next night I came in and did my quirky act. He was happy. But I wasn’t.
In my hotel room that night, I decided that I was going to take Carlin’s advice rather than some club owner’s in Sacramento. I came to work the next night. Did my socio-political act and pulled out all the stops.
That night I received my first standing ovation. I was beyond surprised.
After the show, the club owner came up to me to congratulate me… or so I thought.
He said he wanted me to finish my week doing my quirky act. and that he already expressed his displeasure with my socio-political act and that if I wasn’t willing to do as he asked, then I wasn’t welcome to work there anymore.
WTF!? Did he not see that standing ovation?
I tried to convince him otherwise, but he wouldn’t budge. I’m not sure why, but I think the issues I was pointing out as ridiculous, he actually believed in.
I finished up that week giving him what he wanted. After all, it is a business and I live by the golden rule, (He who has the gold, makes the rules).
Besides, I had to remember, I’m a guest in his club.
But after my last performance, he cut me my check and I respectfully told him that I’ve made up my mind that the quirky Jerry is no longer true to me and I wanted to evolve–at least in the clubs–and if he didn’t approve, then I wouldn’t be working for him anymore.
When I returned home, the check bounced! Eight months later, that club went under.
The club closing had nothing to do with me. It was because the club owner was a bad business man. That wasn’t my point of view, but that of the IRS.
The lesson for me in all of this was clear; Be True To You!
In my collective business model, I know that all work in this business is a collaboration. The club owners are absolutely a part of that collaborative effort and as long as it doesn’t hurt the integrity of my act, I am always willing to make some adjustments to it.
But, once you hit that stage, it’s just you, that crowd and that microphone.
Think about it. Even if I did what he wanted rather than what was true to me, my check still would’ve bounced, that club would’ve still gone out of business, and there still would’ve been a gaping three-week hole in my schedule that I would’ve had to fill anyway.
To round it out, before the end of that year, I started working at the rival to that club in Sac. Many of the same people from the previous club came to see me there.
The rival club owner liked me. He liked that I brought an audience with me.
He liked when the audience gave up a standing ovation and…
He liked to have a comedian that wasn’t afraid to say something that means something.