I was recently asked “what’s the key to a good joke?” The answer is quite simple actually. Some people think it’s subjective. I asked a couple of pretty popular “comedy teachers” and they said, “laughter, ” another instructor said, “a good punch line.”
Well, “laughter” might be the response when your joke actually contains the key, or “a good punchline” might be a good comedy catch phrase, but it fails to give the student of comedy any real answers. Nor does it give a comedy or humor student any idea on how to design a good punch line. Want the answer? The key to a good joke is the same thing that is key to a good sleight of hand trick. The key is surprise. That’s right, surprise.
Surprise, according to experts is also the number one element that triggers human laughter. If you surprise the audience as to what you are going to say, then they will usually laugh. If expectation was a balloon, you, as the humorist would inflate that expectation and then…pop it.
“I’m losing my hair. It really bothers me. Like in the mornings, when my wife is running her fingers through my hair—but I already left for work.”
“I woke up in the hotel this morning and the housekeeper was banging on the door…just banging—finally I had to get up and let her out.”
“My daughter’s five and I’m trying to teach her to tie her shoes. She’s like, ‘I can’t, Dad. I can’t.’ I said, ‘How many times have I told you not to use that word? I am not your Dad.’”
In each of these jokes, you can see that the expectation was inflated, then “popped, ” at the last possible second.
But surprise isn’t the only element that is the key to good humor. Today, the best comedians out there are using four major formulas to get laughs. That’s right: Four!
In fact, there are 10 comedy formulas that are used in conventional comedy. But only four are used by the best comics out there. Whether it’s Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, Robins Williams, Kat Williams or any other comedian that makes you laugh, you’ll find that they pretty much use only four.
I teach all 10 formulas in my comedy courses. But you really only have to master four to be a successful comic, and yes, because they are formulas and contain structure you can teach them to anyone.
To learn more, sign up for my newsletter (located in the right sidebar). You’ll find it is very useful when it comes to writing or performing comedy, or humorous speeches.
In other words, it could give you the answers to the question: “What is the key to a good joke.”
For all the negatives I see in Charlie Sheen’s current behavior and what sometimes just seems like a drug-induced rant, the important thing to consider is that he’s doing something—anything to keep busy. His television show, ‘Two and a Half Men’ is on hiatus and he, (according to the network’s latest information), is no longer a part of it. That would take most actors and put them into a funk. But Charlie Sheen took the disagreement that got him fired and created a live show (if you want to call it that), and took it on the road for a 20-city tour. That’s a good thing. I could say he should’ve hired some writers to really pump it up and make it funny, but after he dissed all the writers on Two and a Half Men, there’s probably fewer writers who are willing to jump up and write for him. Hell, I’ll do it! I’ll put some words into his mouth and make him funny.
But I digress. My point is that Charlie went out and did something. He stayed creative.
He’s going to learn A LOT from this tour. First, he’ll learn that you can’t just go up there and try to be funny. It doesn’t work. Just ask Jersey Shores’ “Situation.” When he tried to be funny on Donald Trump’s roast, he nearly got booed off. You need structure. You need material. Comedy is only comedy when people laugh and people laugh when there’s irony, incongruity or surprise. It’s a very simple concept.
So my point is—really this time!—that when you are an artist, (a writer, comedian, painter, actor, musician, etc.), and there seems to be nothing going on for you…get out and do something. Figure out a way to write, tell jokes, paint, act or play music! It creates energy around you, it makes you seem busy. It keeps your creativity flowing and you get better at what you do!
A couple of students in my comedy class that I teach in Burbank are screenwriters and directors. They’ve been studying comedy for various reasons. One of them, David Conolly, was in a slow point in his directing career, so his wife got him involved in my class—probably to get him out of the house!
Hindsight News Ep. 102
As a result of being in my class, he’s stayed busy. His comedy act is taking off, he’s kept people notified via social networking and literally hundreds of people are aware that he’s doing stand up. As a result, he’s gotten standup comedy gigs and other acting entertainment-related opportunities have also come his way. He’s got a really big project in the works now, but that’s something I’ll only mention when it is signed, sealed and delivered.
Another student, Robert Narholz, is a screenwriter/director. He came to the class to explore comedy structure, (as his next writing project is going to be a romantic comedy.) He’s learned a ton and he’s gone from being one of the most serious people I’ve ever met to a guy with a very interesting and witty personality. He’s still serious, but seriously funny too!
These two ‘comedians’ wanted to continue “doing something, ” so they decided to explore producing online content in the form of a sketch show. They’ve done an amazing job with this project and I’m proud to share it with everyone I know—which is about 6 of you now. (Isn’t it exciting? My fan base has doubled since my last posting!)
Online content is still very popular. Industry is still looking for good ideas and I think these guys have hit that mark with their new sketch show, “Hindsight News!” It comes at you in short, 6-8 minute episodes that resemble “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” It’s quick, it moves and it’s funny.
How might this benefit them professionally? First: they’re putting out content. They are writing. They are acting. They are utilizing their skills to stay busy. They are also using other actors, such as cast members Annie Girard and Brian Zuanich. They have a casting calls for guest actors, thus giving other actors something to do too. As a result they are building more relationships, further developing their network of people and through the internet they are reaching more people than they ever thought possible.
As a result, just like Charlie Sheen, they too, are “Winning.”
That’s right. The students at the clinic are getting work! Tommy Otis who plays “Itchy” on “Car Warriors,” (Wednesday nights @9pm on the Speed network), is great on ”Car Warriors.” I’ve been working with Tommy in the comedy class and doing private coaching with him for about a year now and his ability on and off camera has really blossomed. He’s a naturally funny guy and he’s taking his comedy and his career to new levels.
Tommy’s one of those people who is out there doing the work. Like many comedy students, he’s a little undisciplined, but that also give him the ability to remain unfiltered and just say what’s on his mind.
Car Warriors is an extreme 72-hour custom car build-off where a team of car “all-stars” competes against a team of locals from various shops around the country. In just 3 days they have to build and customize a car. Who would’ve thought there would be so much drama in car customization. These guys can get upset. During an episode, one guy actually starts to choke Tommy. I wasn’t too surprised. Hell, I’ve wanted to choke Tommy!
I’m used to just seeing cars in guys garages as they slowly re-do and re-build. I’ve re-built two engines in my life in my friend’s dad’s custom transmission shop. And I say two engines, because the first time, we screwed it up and had to rebuild it. It took us two months. There was no choking, there wasn’t even a gag. But I guess when you add to the mix 72 hours and competition against a rival team of customizers and you’ve got a show. A show that one of my students is in and that’s cool!
Tommy is an award winning pinstriper, so he had the skills, but add in that he’s working on his comedy skills at the Stand Up Comedy Clinic and he became someone who was a great candidate for the show. Great work Tommy!
I was asked recently if I would post who I thought were the top comedians of all time. At first I thought, “No problem!” Then as I began to put together my list I realized that it was an impossible task. There are so many great comedians. They are great for so many different reasons. I would just make the list anyway and post it, but it’s by no means an accurate list. I’ll also add an honorable mention. I have to because when I first scribbled my list, I lost it. Then I made a new list. I found the old list and they were different so this is by no means an official list. I would love to hear your thoughts, as comedy is an art and art is subjective. Everyone has different tastes. Feel free to contribute.
1. George Carlin
George was my Mentor. I grew up listening to George. I studied him and actually got to share a limo with him to the airport while in New York. He was both a socio-political comedian and an observational/word-play comedian. His “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television” is classic. He, in my view, was the best, but then again, he gave me the best advice. He said, “Take the shit that drives you absolutely crazy and make it funny!
Bill Cosby is, of course, on the list. Here’s another comedian I grew up listening to. Bill wasn’t just a stand up. He was also a sit-down. He was a story teller. His inflections and stories about family and human behavior were so familiar we laughed because we had experienced the “same thing.” in our homes. One of my favorites is “Kids Are Brain Damaged!”
3. Richard Pryor Richard Pryor was a favorite and yes, another one of the comedians I grew up listening too. My parents used to play his albums, alongside Carlin and Cosby. The language was never a big deal. My parents used to say, “If you have any questions about the words, just ask.” You could imagine the dinner table discussions that inspired. In general, human behavior sense, there are two types of performers: Givers and Takers. Pryor was a giver. He shared his pain, admitted his faults and pleaded with the audience to like him. And we did!
4. Lenny Bruce – What else could you say about Lenny Bruce. He took the bullet for all comedians. Some say he paved the way for just the comedians who use profanity in their routines. But Lenny was grander than that. He paved the way to allow “free speech” in entertainment. Even though his life was short (he lived to 41), his effort and love for the art form and to be able to speak freely in this country, allowed all who followed to do the same.
5. Bob Hope – People forget that when Bob Hope was 75, he was still at the top of his game. He continued to shoot television specials and tour the world. Hell, he ran NBC. When he wanted to do a special, he would call the head of N.B.C. and say, “Fred, we want this Sunday.” The head of N.B.C. would say, “Okay, Bob.” And reprogram the network’s entire Sunday evening lineup to accommodate Bob Hope. He was loved all over the world and gave millions to charities. He never did a re-run, EVER! He always wanted his material to be fresh. The only thing that would leave him off this list is that he didn’t write all his own material. He had a well-paid writing staff that was available 24/7.
6. Jerry Seinfeld – Some people would say, “What’s the deal with putting Jerry Seinfeld on the top 10 list?” That’s pure and simple, Jerry Seinfeld took observational material to a whole new level. So much so that he spawned a T.V. show that was nearly canceled in its first airing. It was entitled “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” The show was brought back as “Seinfeld.” It had a very successful run of 9 seasons. Jerry, decided to end the run, not the network. Then despite being set for 6 lifetimes, Jerry went back to doing stand up. Now that’s a comedian. Jerry is worth over 2 billion dollars. So when you ask why Jerry? I got 2 billion reasons. Here’s a clip of Jerry’s first appearance on H.B.O. He was doing the Smothers Brothers special.
7. Paula Poundstone – I had to get a female in here. I know there are a lot of funny gals out there, but Paula is one of my favorites. Who else can make fun of her suicide attempt and make it funny. She’s quirky and likeable. I always enjoy watching me some Paula Poundstone. I could have put in work-a-holics like Joan Rivers or Phyllis Diller, but, to me, they seemed more like volume contributors rather than substance contributors. Plus, Paula wrote all her own material. Paula is also one who is a “giver” in the Richard Pryor sense. She shares her pain and struggles. The best part of that is that she does it in a way that makes me laugh!
8. Bill Hicks One of the most honest comedians on the face of the planet. His honesty got him notoriety but also got him in trouble. He had limited options because of his honesty and I think that’s why he’s one of my favorites. He took on everything and basically to the “nth” degree took George Carlin’s saying, “Take the shit that drives you crazy and make it funny.” He is one of a kind in my book.
9. Steve Martin – Like Lenny Bruce, Steve Martin changed the face of comedy. But he went the other way. His zany antics and use of props took comedy to an entirely different place. He was unique and basically dressed the part. If comedy is incongruity then his white suit, coupled with ‘happy feet’ and the arrow through the head, at the time was legendary. I don’t know how it would play now. But Steve Martin left an impression on the art form.
10. Eddie Murphy – Okay, okay… I know many of you are wondering, “Where’s so-and-so? How can you put together this list and not mention Brian Regan, Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Jack Benny, Sam Kinnison, George Burns, Mitch Headburg, Ellen DeGenerous, Alan King and so many more? The only thing I can say is the list was not long enough and I put together a list that impacted my life. So Eddie Murphy makes the cut. His Delirious album was one of the funniest I’ve ever listened to, although I preferred Richard Pryor. Eddie sly persona was revealed through that goofy classic Eddie laugh that he carried into films…you know the good ones: Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, etc. Here’s one of my favorites: “Ice Cream”
So that’s it! Please feel free to add your own. Comedy is an amazing art form and I applaud all comedians who work hard in this business. I’m in awe of the struggle they go through to make it and the commitment it takes. To all the comedians out there: YOU ROCK!
I had the most amazing lunch the other day. I was contacted by Bob Mills, one of the legendary writers for Bob Hope. He started in the business at the age of 39. He was a lawyer in San Francisco before that. He contacted me via my website and liked what he saw, so I asked him to lunch. I scheduled 90 minutes into my calendar for the lunch. I had a dentist appointment after that. We met at the Daily Grill in Studio City, one of those places you walk into and usually have some celebrity sightings.
Bob was already waiting for me as I am notoriously late. From the moment we shook hands I knew I was talking to someone special. We barely ordered iced-tea and we were already neck deep in talking about comedy. This was subject that we both clearly had an absolute passion for. Since I’m the one who usually does the talking about comedy I had to remember to shut the hell up and let him speak, for he had experiences that I’ve always dreamed about.
Bob was a member of one of the most famous writing teams comedy will ever know. Bob Hope’s guys–or I should say guys and one gal–were extremely loyal and they were well-paid. Bob could call them at any time of the day or night and ask for material and boy did Hope use material. He never did reruns with his specials of which he did close to 100 and he always needed fresh material for his live performances.
The stories Bob told me were fascinating. To have an insight on one of the most legendary comedians the world has ever known was priceless. Needless to say the lunch lasted 3 hours. So much for the dentist.
Bob wrote a fascinating book about his experiences with Hope, the specials, the tours and the stars they worked with. It’s called “The Laugh Makers.” I read it and I couldn’t put it down. I recommend this book to anyone interested in writing or performing…or anyone who loved Bob Hope.
I’ve included a widget for anyone who might be interested in buying Bob’s book. If you’re a comedian or a writer or remotely interested, get the damn book.