Biggest Mistakes Comedians Make When Writing Comedy

By Jerry Corley | Founder – The Stand Up Comedy Clinic

man-scratching-head-300x200Comedy writing is rewarding. There is no better feeling than writing a joke and getting an appreciative laugh. Okay, maybe there is a better feeling but that belongs in a different blog…besides, if I told my wife that the things she does don’t compare to joke writing, she might get offended. Winking smileBut I digress…

The dichotomy between the fun and the reward of getting the laugh versus the sometimes tedious and frustrating process of comedy writing,   is often misunderstood. Comedy writing is fun, but it’s also work. Most comedians and comedy writers forget about that. You have to put in the work to get the rewards. The more work you put in the bigger and better the rewards…usually.

It is like guitar playing. I play guitar as a hobby. The more I practice, the better I get. The better I get, the more I want to play. But when I stop practicing and just play the songs I already know, I stop getting better. Got it?

Sometimes the work might not produce material that works. But that’s the process. You have to learn to accept that sometimes the writing session comes up without truly rewarding material. You have to brush it off and return the next day. Everyone goes through that. The better you get, the fewer encounters you have with that kind of failure, but it does happen.

There are two major mistakes comedians and writers make when writing comedy.

  • Giving up too soon.
  • Trying to find something funny to write about.

Giving up too soon is very common with comedians and comedy writers. Recently I did a comedy writing seminar at the World Series of Comedy in Las Vegas, a week-long comedy conference/competition I recommend to all comedians. While at the seminar I asked the comedians how many of them spent a minimum of 3 hours a day writing material? Five comedians raised their hands—that’s out of eighty in attendance!

If you’re not spending a few hours a day writing, then get the hell out of the business. It’s cut-throat out there and if you’re not putting in the time on your comedy writing, then you’re not going to be able to compete in the stand up comedy business. Besides, if you treat yourself as a professional, the results will begin to start coming back to you in a more professional way. Dig in. Dig deep and get to work.

I learned this many years ago. I was touring with a guy who used to be the head writer on a comedy show. I wrote a joke about Congress that I was pretty proud of. I told it to him. He said, “dig deeper.” I wrote another one, he said, “dig deeper.” He kept repeating that until I had put 3 hours in on the joke. By the time I was done I had 30 lines for that one joke and the more I worked, the funnier they got.

Because of that one event, I started digging deep all the time. It wasn’t long before I got 30 lines in two hours, then an hour.

The Biggest Mistake We Can Make When Writing Comedy

The other big mistake comedians and  comedy writers make when writing comedy is they try to find something funny to write about. It’s uncanny. We’ll look at the newspaper and online stories and repeat like a mantra: “that’s not funny…that’s not funny…that’s not funny.” Until we conclude that there’s nothing funny in the news today. And that’s the biggest mistake we can make when writing comedy.

A joke in its simplest form is STRAIGHT LINE – PUNCHLINE. It’s not FUNNY LINE – PUNCHLINE. So the comedy writer must be vigilant in taking the straight line, the fact, the statement and writing it down. Isolate it in its most unfunny state, then, turn it funny by finding the double-entendre play, or doing a reverse, or doing a listing technique or an analogy play or apply 7 other comedy formulas to turn it into something funny. But always start with a straight line first.

Set a goal: When you sit down to write, just tell yourself you’re going to write 25 straight lines. For some of you that could be the most writing you’ve done in a while.

Keep checking back I’ll have more on this later.

Lessons New Comedians Learn From “Bringer Shows”

By Jerry Corley | Founder of The Stand Up Comedy Clinic

comedy-storeLet’s face it, one of the new realities in the comedy landscape in L.A. (and probably New York and San Francisco), is what is known as the “Bringer Show.” So we’re all on the same page, here’s the idea behind the bringer show: A bringer show ‘producer’ (usually a comedian), develops an arrangement with a local comedy club or bar, to produce comedy shows so that both the producer and venue make money.

Usually all the promotion of the show is up to the producer. On occasion, the venue will post a marquis or sign that bears the name of the show, but other than that all the promotional responsibility is on the producer. The producer, in turn, puts that responsibility on the comedian. How do they do this? By forcing the comedian to bring a minimum amount people (audience members) to the show as a requisite for getting stage time. That’s right. If you bring 10 people minimum, the producer will give you stage time. Of course those audience members have to pay a cover charge and are usually subject to a drink or “item” minimum. This assures that the venue sells product and makes money.  The producer usually takes the door or a percentage.

This is not a new concept. Music venues have been doing this with bands for over 30 years. Is this good for the comedy industry?

I am an old-school thinker with regard to shows and show business so initially the bringer concept and I didn’t get along at all. I’m not a big fan of “pay-to-play” schemes for artists—and let’s face it, when the artist is forced to bring the audience and have them pay a cover, plus a drink minimum—it’s “pay-to-play.”

In my opinion, this business model promotes a quantity over quality mentality and that has never worked out successfully in the long term for any business and I can go on about how this diluting mentality is having a long-term negative impact on the public’s perception of comedy, but that’s for another time. I want to focus on how this affects the comedian.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this show-producing mentality and a comedian needs to have a thorough understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of the “bringer show” concept, especially early in his career. If a comedian understands that he/she has been asked to work the venue based solely on the fact that they have brought enough people, then the comedian is one step ahead of the game.

The advantage to this is that the comedian can use the bringer show to get some stage time in a quality venue or invite some industry (casting director, agent, manager, etc.). They get to see you perform while you have a decent sized audience. You, as the performer must make sure you bring enough people,   however. If you don’t, you risk getting a lousy slot in the lineup (like last), or you risk not getting on stage at all. If you brought an agent and he/she had to wait and was forced to slog through mediocre talent before they got too see you, then their appetite for coming to see you in the future will be seriously diminished. But if done right, the bringer show can be very useful.

The disadvantage to the bringer show, (if I didn’t already reveal it), is that if the comedian doesn’t understand that most likely, the ONLY reason the producer is having you perform at his/her venue is because you ‘bring’ people, then you may suffer the impact of that harsh reality like the unexpected pass of a basketball to the face. The rejection or even rudeness in some instances from producers can be a major disappointment when the comedian fails to bring people. In addition, the subsequent lack of future bookings in their shows, due to the fact that you are no longer bringing people, may promote a setback in your confidence and in your motivation to write or perform comedy.

In this case, knowledge is power. If you already know that the only thing a bringer show producer wants from you is the money your people bring when they buy tickets and drinks, then you will be better prepared for the inevitable day when none of your friends is accepting the invitations to your shows and the producer stops booking you. 

A Solution?

Use the bringer show sparingly and use it to your advantage. Don’t take every bringer show offer. Politely turn down some of the gigs. I usually say, “Love to, but sorry, I’m booked on that date.” That way you don’t wear out the people you have in your life who come to see you and you can save those invitations for really important gigs. Also, don’t get offended when the bringer show producers stop calling you when only two people showed up at your last gig. But most importantly, DO NOT USE the bringer show as your only way to get stage time. Hit the open mics and hit them regularly and often. You’ll eventually find the ones that are worth it and the connections you’ll make can be invaluable.

“I’m Getting Bored With My Comedy Writing”

By Jerry Corley | Founder – The Stand Up Comedy Clinic

I just had a session with one of my private students at my studio. After he ran some of his material, I asked him what happened to some of the other bits he was working on last time we met. He said, “I’m getting bored with it.” Does that sound familiar? It does to me!

I remember writing material, working on it then after doing it on stage once or twice, getting bored with it, despite the fact that it was good and getting laughs. Worse, I would get a showcase for a spot in a club or a television show and I would abandon my trusted material because I thought it would be best if I wrote new material for the showcase.

Problem is when you do that, the material might be fresh, but it’s untested and when it’s untested and you’re in a higher tension situation like an audition, the new material sounds like just that, “new.” Therefore, you sound “new.”  It doesn’t sound honed. It doesn’t tight, because you’re still working out the kinks and you don’t quite “own” it.

When you showcase, audition or make an important appearance at a club, you want your act to look effortless. You want it to look like it’s just coming out of your mouth for the first time even though it isn’t and that takes rehearsal, practice and stage time.

Anthony Hopkins reads a script two hundred times before he starts to work on it. That way the material is now a part of who he is. Does his work ever look stale? Does he ever look bored?

My father, Pat Corley, a character actor for almost sixty years said that it takes eight hours of rehearsal to “own” five minutes of material. You can memorize that material in far less time, but owning it, is a completely different story. It has to be a part of you.

Jay Leno said, whenever you’re working on new material, do the “tried and true” up front, slip some new material in the middle and close with the “tried and true.”

Rita Rudner adds a new joke or a new routine every week and in a year she has a whole new act.

Part of being a professional is learning to continue to make the material you’ve been doing sound fresh every night. That’s part of your craft.

I saw Kevin James, (star of “King of Queens, ” a hit show on network T.V. for many seasons), when he did his first showcase in L.A. for network executives. He did material I’d seen him do for years. But the networks guys were seeing for the first time. He killed. It resulted in a sitcom that made him a star.

To build an act, you must have material to build on. That material might be stuff you’ve done enough to get bored with, but the guy in the club drinking a beer, has probably heard it for the first time.

How To Be a Better Comedian

By Jerry Corley | Founder – The Stand Up Comedy Clinic

Student Robert NarholzA young comedian came up to me the other day and asked, “how can be a better comedy writer…I mean, right now?”

My first thought was to give him the standard rhetoric about how it’s a process and it takes time, blah, blah, blah. But, instead, I watched his act and I got a sense of where he was in his comic “trajectory, ” for lack of a better term. It was as I thought, so I just told him, “You want to get better right now? Stop trying so hard. Stop trying to find “funny” things to talk about and start talking about what’s true.

Comedy in it’s most basic structure has a straight line and and punch line. The straight line (aka: setup) is crucial. It’s got to be believable. It must be a situation or a statement that sounds logical is recognizable to an audience. Once the straight line is clear, you can spin it with an unexpected result. But it’s best if it starts with something that is true.

In addition, I know a ton of comics—okay, one guy, but he weighs about two-thousand pounds—(see what I did there?). I know a lot of comics in all levels of their careers who have trouble coming up with material because they are always looking for something funny to write about. Talk about putting the pressure on yourself to write everyday! If you’re just looking for “funny things” to write about, then you’re going to find yourself creating your own writer’s block. Just write the truth then turn it into something funny.

You can start with yourself: What’s true about me?

  1. I’m Irish and American Indian…
  2. I come from a large family…
  3. I’ve been married a total of 19 years…
  4. I went to a very strict Catholic school…

On the surface these are just statements about my life. I’m not looking for “funny things” about my life, I’m just looking for statements that describe me. Nothing funny there right? But if you understand that comedy has structure and it’s in the surprise where the jokes come from you can apply the ten major comedy formulas to any of these statements and make them “funny.” Let’s do it… write jokes that is…

  1. I’m Irish and American Indian… so you know pretty much that I have V.I.P. seats waiting for me at any A.A. meeting. I walk into that meeting it’s like, “Hey ‘Running-Bear O’Reilly, ’ we have a chair for you in the front row!”
  2. I come from a large family… four Moms, Five Dads…
  3. I’ve been married a total of 19 years… it would be nice if it wasn’t split between three wives.
  4. I went to a very strict Catholic School… I had A.D.D…. Once!

Very simple straight lines can become very effective jokes. Of course it’s much easier once you understand the ten major comedy formulas and how to apply them. But the key is they didn’t come from trying to write about “funny things.” They came from just writing about what’s true.