Polish. Usually this word is used to talk about fingernails, the shine on someone’s shoes or when’s someone’s from Poland—wait, that’s a different ‘Polish.’
But what about comedy?
There are loads of people that come to me weekly and ask how they can take their comedy to the next level. I have several workable and proven solutions. Not a single one can be deemed a fix-all for every comedian.
Each comedian has their own needs and an adjustment or a note is different for each one.
But I think there is one thing that could be painted on to each comedian’s act with a really broad brush…
I see a ton of comedians that get up on stage night after night at the mics and they wander through their acts like an old guy pullin’ an oxygen tank in a Vegas casino. They have no direction, no specificity and no polish.
“What else, what else, uhm… let’s see… uhm crazy, man, shit’s crazy, man. I tell you…”
How are you supposed to give your material a fair shake if you don’t take the time to polish what you’re going to say to the audience. Even when you’re testing material in front of an audience, have some direction.
KNOW where you’re going from joke to joke… or story to story.
Sometimes just one glitch in the set up of the material will cause an audience to respond half-heartedly or worse, not respond at all.
What fixes that? Polish.
Here’s the simplest solution: Practice!
Sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many comedians don’t practice before they hit that stage.
When you write a new joke, do you practice saying that joke out loud? How many times? To whom?
Say the joke out loud at least 25 times.
Then say it to your friends.
Then before you hit the stage, say the joke in the context and flow of your existing set at least 25 times. This will help secure the flow of the act both leading up to the new joke and following it.
Practicing will give you high odds of really giving that joke a fair shot when it lands in the ears of the audience.
I can’t emphasize this enough!
Before his first appearance on the Tonight Show, Jerry Seinfeld performed his Tonight Show set 100 times at clubs in front of audiences.
That’s right 100 times! The exact same set. How many of you have done that before a show or a competition?
He knew that he would be a little nervous on that sound stage in Burbank, California. But after rehearsing that same set 100 times in front of different audiences, he knew nothing would be able to shake him, aside from an Earthquake.
So do your homework and prepare. if you don’t you’ll wind up like that cliché comedian at the mics; unpolished and unpracticed, trying new jokes and boring the audience with…
Quick shout out to Stand Up Comedy Clinic student and funny girl, Sascha Knopf, who moved to the Semi-Final round in California’s Funniest Female comedy competition at the Ice House in Pasadena Wednesday night.
Sascha was in a mix of some darn good comedians too. Many of whom traveled from as far as Washington D.C. to participate in the competition.
One of the things that I really dig about teaching is watching students overcome obstacles, develop their comedic skill, hit milestones and achieve dreams… and this is no exception because the fascinating part of this share is that Sascha has only been involved in stand-up for eight months!
One of the judges said it was a blend of her structure and performance that made the judge feel like she “belonged there.”
About Sascha Knopf
Sascha is a skilled actress who has appeared in films like “Shallow Hal,” “Expiration Date” and “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?,” where she held her own comedically, playing opposite Danny Devito and Martin Lawrence. (Check out her reel on Sascha’s website.)
Sascha decided to try stand-up to compliment acting resume and give herself yet another creative outlet.
I say, “yet another,” because Knopf is one those people who exudes creativity. She’s always working on something to keep the creativity Gods happy. If she’s not acting or doing stand-up, she’s shooting pictures, because she’s also a skilled photographer. She spent some time with some of the top fashion designers shooting fashion week in New York and still shoots actors, comedians and events in L.A.
I’m proud to brag that Comedy Clinic Alumn, Stephanie Blum, also moved to the next round in the competition. Stephanie is a veteran of stand-up comedy and can crank out some great material so I’m looking forward to the competition as it moves forward with two Comedy Clinic students going to the semi-finals.
Shameless Plug: Comedy Clinic Student Won in 2013
Our students are no strangers to the CA Funniest Female comedy competition, as alumnus Pauline Yasuda was the winner of the competition in 2013! Pauline brought her comedy A-game to the competition last year which was held at Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank, CA. Pauline took first place out of a ton of comics who came from as far as Australia.
Pauline may be taking a break from comedy for a bit as she just had her first baby, but as a father of five myself (that’s right, Five! Don’t judge!), I know Pauline will have a ton of new jokes in the coming months!
Good luck to all the comedians in this year’s California’s Funniest Female comedy competition!
About the Competition
California’s Funniest Female comedy competition is in it’s 11th year. It is produced by Bill Word and attracts comedians from all over the world and has done a lot to promote female comedians throughout its tenure. Check out their website and keep tabs so you can get into the competition next year!
Today is the day! I leave for Moscow to teach a master class in American-style comedy to 25 Russian actors who want to learn that brand of stand-up.
I’ve never seen Russian stand-up. In fact, I’ve never seen a Russian smile, so this will be interesting. Of course I’m joking about the smile. I know a lot of Russian-Americans and there are two things they know how to do: laugh and drink vodka!
I’m sure while I’m there, I will be doing plenty of both.
I’ll be there five days. Think about it five days of caviar, vodka and comedy. What could be better?
Flight & Weather
It’s a 10-hour flight to Munich, then a layover and 3 more hours to Moscow. I arrive at 11pm Tuesday night.
It’s gonna be like 90 degrees here today, and when I arrive in Moscow, the low will be 15. Bring on the vodka!
I’ll be updating several times daily, here on my facebook and twitter pages, so come join. Give me some feeback, give me shit give me your thoughts and prayers that my comedy translates well and doesn’t somehow wind up insulting an entire nation and put me in the gulags somewhere in Siberia! So if you don’t see an update, you know I’m rotting in a Russian prison.
You’re attacking someone or something. Even yourself. The basic rule about attacking is: Always attack up. What this means is that in our society an audience roots for the underdog. If you are a white male and you are making jokes about a minority, it is technically attacking “down.” Because the white male still dominates in our society. If you are a male and you are attacking a female (for no understandable reason), you are also attacking “down,” because we still see women as the fairer sex. If you are anyone and you are attacking Special Olympics kids, you are technically attacking “down,” because Special Olympics kids are seen as people that can’t take care of themselves and they need our help. This is a general rule and can be broken from time to time, but I think you get the idea.
However, this is not to be misunderstood. If you can set the person up (who is “beneath” you) as an antagonist that needs retaliation, then the audience will root for you to get back at them and make fun of them. Don’t be afraid to attack “down,” just make sure there is just cause.
I missed out on a Letterman audition because the talent coordinator told me that I was attacking my ex-wife for no reason. For time sake, I had cut the set-up to the joke which was how she cheated on me. If the audience had that information, the joke would’ve been more effective.
Don’t Worry About Pleasing Everyone
If someone gets offended because you use the word pee or if you curse, GOOD! Maybe they are NOT your audience. You cannot be all things to everyone. Be YOU! Unless you are doing corporates or kids’ shows or doing warm-up for studio audiences, don’t worry about being all things to everyone. In comedy people love to hear a unique perspective. George Carlin said “there’s nothing wrong with fluff. Sometimes the audience needs it, but do comedy that says something.” If you’re doing comedy that “walks” some of the room that could be a good thing. Out of those people who stayed, there could be a percentage that wind up being die-hard fans; You know, people who will follow you anywhere!
It may seem simple to understand. But what is funny? I run into people all the time (sometimes in my classes) that say, “I just want to express myself. I don’t want to write it down.” “When I write it down it doesn’t come out funny.” I understand this dilemma. It makes total sense. Sometimes when you try to hard to stick to a script, it can feel awkward or unnatural. In doing stand-up comedy, there is a fine line between doing the material as written and “free-styling.”
Here’s the key to understanding comedy: Every time the audience laughs, there is a stimulus present in the material or the action. In other words, SOMETHING triggered the audience’s laughter. Part of the science of comedy is learning what those triggers are and then how to exploit them whenever you want so that you can repeat them, almost at will.
Those laughter triggers are hidden within the structure of comedy. So whether it’s Jerry Seinfeld using recognition triggers and incongruity or it’s Bill Burr using compare and contrast, incongruity and incongruity act-outs, driven by a strong emotional point of view, their structures are very strong and very present in their material. In other words they are NOT just riffing at will. If you have read my book “Breaking Comedy’s D.N.A.,” you will learn those structures and you will begin to be able to identify them in all comedians. When you do that you can then start to plug them in to your material and you will find that the laughs start increasing exponentially.
Without the structure in your material, it simply becomes a story or an opinion that you’re sharing with the audience. All the while the audience is thinking: That’s nice, but I’m here to laugh.”
In other words, be natural. Sound conversational, but your structure is going to get the laughs.
Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” is just finishing its first week and it has been an experience in engaging entertainment. Fallon has found that “something” that the show has been missing for the last 20 years; FUN!
Fallon’s ability to do impressions and his talent with music is the driving force of the show. Not to go without mention, the hipness and playfulness of his house band “The Roots,” makes Fallon’s “Tonight” totally entertaining and has turned the Tonight Show from that show than Mom and Dad watch before they go to bed, into a show that could entertain the tweens through the fifty-somethings at least.
I’m fifty (hard to admit it), and I find that show totally engaging.
How does that affect you as a comedian or a writer?
Simple. As a comedian or writer it is always good to reinvent yourself. Update, reboot, rewire, retrofit, restore rehab or renovate. Whatever you want to call it, keeping up to date and staying “now” is what drives engagement.
Now this should not be confused with age or birthdate.
Although Jimmy Fallon represents youth and will help NBC acquire the coveted 18-34 demographic in the late night slot, it doesn’t mean that in order to capture that demo, you must utilize only 18-34 talent.
The biggest draw on cable for a nightly show is still Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. (Stewart turns 52 this year and Colbert 50).
The key to driving engagement, at least where Fallon is concerned is his ability to be recognizable with his entertainment. He engages the audience with stuff they recognize (Ie: Song parodies and impressions). Even in the sketch above with Justin Timberlake, he slips into a Snoop Dog impression, a Dr. Dre, Ton Loc and Beastie Boys.
Familiarity and recognition drive engagement. If we recognize something we react physically to the television with a point a gesture like, “I’ve seen that,” “I know that!” “I remember that!”
This keeps the viewer watching and the ratings high.
It doesn’t have to be impressions. In fact, I would warn against that, unless you really nail the voice.
But doing something that creates an “in the moment” and “now” dynamic like engaging with the audience, act-outs, interaction with the band, keeps it moving and keeps it now.
There’s an old theatre science theory that states: "The audience is in whatever state the performer is in." Watch Fallon and Timberlake below and see just how much fun they are having and ask yourself, Is the audience having fun too?