What’s So Funny?

Years ago, when I was first starting in comedy, I worked with a headliner comedian who said he hadn’t written a new joke in 11 years. Why do so many comedians and comedy writers have such a difficult time writing material? Are you one of those comedians? Do you write everyday? Do you have a difficult time coming up with stuff that’s funny? That might be your dilemma.

What?!

Yeah, that right there! That might be your dilemma; you are trying to come up with something “Funny.”

A comedian or comedy writer doesn’t just come up with something funny, he’s able to take just about anything and turn it into something funny. See the difference? When you sit down to write; you look at the news, read the N.Y. Times, look at the headlines on the internet. Do you ask yourself, “What’s so funny?” What’s funny? Nothing is funny, because most news reports the facts. (I said most because, well, there’s FOX). But what do you do with something that’s not supposed to be funny? The answer is: you do your job. It’s your job to turn it into something that is funny and you do that in comedy by applying comedic formulas.

Two guys walk into a bar…

I come from a large family…

My father was a bastard…

I’m Irish and American Indian…

I have five kids…

Millions of fish washed up in the harbor around Redondo Beach…

On the face of it are any of these lines funny? If you said yes, you’re either really damn funny or your need your head examined! Either way, both are great qualities for being a comedian…

At first glance, those lines are not funny. They don’t read funny. So, what’s so funny?

What’s funny is that you can take these lines and easily turn them into something that is funny. First, you have to understand the basics of what makes people laugh [link]. Once you understand that, you can start to apply the basic comedy formulas. They are basic, but they are so powerful that, when used correctly, they can trigger the laughter from an audience and that’s what you’re looking for as a comic.

I’ll take these lines and use two comedic formulas (Incongruity or The Reverse) to make the lines funny by doing a take-off (commenting on the sentence).

First, if we know that surprise is the number one element that triggers human laughter, then we know we have to try to get into the head of the listener. Let’s look at the first line:

Two guys walk into a bar. In the listener’s head, what are they thinking? What kind of bar? A bar that serves liquor would probably be the best assumption right? So let’s change the meaning of the word “bar.” What if we changed the meaning of the word bar to like a post or a steel bar that’s hanging so low that we would bump our heads on it if we didn’t duck. Now how does the line read?

Two guys walk into a bar…which is kind of stupid, cuz’ if the first one hits it, the next one’s gonna see it, right?

See what we did there? We shattered the audience’s assumption of the meaning of the word ‘bar.’ And came up with something funny. So if we look at the other lines we might have:

I come from a large family…four moms, five dads.

My father was a bastard…he wasn’t a bad guy, he just didn’t know his father.

I’m Irish and American Indian… you know what that means; I pretty much have V.I.P. seats waiting for me at any A.A. meeting.

I have five kids… so I’m half-Mormon…

Millions of fish washed up in the Harbor around Redondo Beach… There’s good news and bad news; The bad news is it’s going to take weeks to clean that up that mess. The good news is: Now the common man knows what it smells like when Kirsti Alley sunbathes nude.

So instead of looking for something funny to write, just find something and turn it into something funny.

Then when someone asks, “What’s so funny?” You’ll be able to say, “Me!”

How To Be A Famous Comedian | Letterman Jabs Leno…

People often ask me how Jay Leno is viewed in the public eye. I don’t like to talk unfavorably about anyone (that’s a lie), but here’s Letterman taking a jab. Notice how much he enjoyed the poke…

It’s fun to watch Letterman have some fun with this!

How To Write Comedy | Conan Writer Rips On His Boss…

Conan Writer Deon Cole talks about Conan’s tattoos…or the lack thereof, and how he wrote a joke that didn’t make the cut…

Deon talks about how he became a writer on "The Conan O’Brien Show." It’s an interesting story and revealed a side of Deon that I’ve seen before, liked and I’m glad to see he still embodies it. I have enormous respect for Deon. He can get on CNN and talk about a joke that didn’t make the cut. Talk about keepin’ it real, huh? We spend so much time trying to show how good we are, because we have fragile egos and Deon just lays it out for all of us. What does that teach me as a writer and comedian? It teaches me that candor is cool.

When you’re honest with the audience they love you for it. Relate it back to the Ricky Gervais video in my previous post: Rick said that "comedy is about empathy…I want to see someone who stumbles and falls and brushes himself off…" Important lessons. How do you apply this lesson? Time and time again I am asked what if I bomb? What if the audience doesn’t like you. If you’re just trying to get from point A to point B and encountering obstacles along the way, we will like you. We will root for you. In other words, let us see you stumble. Let us see you get back up, because we will root for you the whole way!

How To Be A Comedian-Actor and Book More Gigs

What do I mean by “comedian-actor?” Well in my years as an actor/comedian I’ve never seen the acting business be so competitive as it is today. My actor friends are constantly complaining—and rightly so—that they’re not working as much as they used to. Nobody is really. There are valid reasons for that: more reality television, less scripted, would be one reason. But another reason is competition.

Think about it, years ago we used to be submitted to jobs by our agents who used a messenger to drop off headshots and resumes at casting offices. We were usually up against anywhere from 100 to 600 other actors for one job.

Now, everything is done electronically. Submissions are done with the click of a mouse and we now find ourselves competing with 1200 to 1600 submissions and more. How do you stand out? One suggestion: Don’t just stand out, Stand Up!

That’s right. I studied acting for many years both in New York and L.A. My father was a successful character actor for 60 years and I learned that you could be out of work for a stretch. That was why I originally started doing stand up. So I could work when I “wasn’t working.”

I found that doing comedy kept me busy and also kept me on the radars of casting directors I had built relationships with…

Why? Because, for the most part, industry decision-makers revere comedians. They have enormous respect for what we do, partly because they fear doing it themselves. When a casting director, creative director or rep sees you doing comedy and having a good set, they equate that laughter to laughter coming from an audience in a movie theatre or a living room. It’s quite powerful…as Dick Cook, former Chairman of Disney said, “Funny is money.”

I’ve had several actors take my course and wind up getting some great traction in their careers. Several have booked jobs or gotten agents. One of my favorite stories is Michelle Gomez (above). She took my class, I helped her develop a 10-minute comedy routine that she performed at the Comedy Store. She had a lot of industry attend and she wound up booking 2 pilots. And in the year prior, she couldn’t get arrested!

After she booked the pilots she sent an email to me that said, “Jerry, thank you for single-handedly restoring my confidence…”  That is a lovely compliment, yes?

What’s my point? Stand Up Comedy is an excellent showcase for an actor. It shows that you have confidence and poise and shows that you can deliver the goods and get laughs…and after all, funny is money, right?

How to Write Comedy | Using Analogy to Write Jokes

How to write comedy using analogy and incongruitySo you sit down to write comedy and what happens? Nothing! Now what?

I teach a lot of techniques so that people can learn how to write comedy. Most of what I focus on is writing comedy for a stand up act.

However, the same techniques are used in blog writing, script writing or any other writing, because the fundamentals of comedy and the goals, (getting people to laugh), remain the same.

The difference is the style. Stand up is more conversational. It’s about persona and empathy. In other words, as a stand up comedian, the audience has to like you. They want to root for you, while you share your struggles and life situations and observations. Also, as a stand up we have to connect with you and one of the best ways to do that is to share with your audience, you emotional point of view. If we don’t know how you feel, then it’s harder to connect.

Therefore, one of the best things you can do as a stand up is to focus on stuff you give a damn about. George Carlin once told me, “Take the shit that drives you absolutely crazy and make it funny…” That’s great advice, because if you, as the stand up comedian don’t give a damn about the material, the audience won’t either.

Here’s the key: Start with something you care about, that gets your blood up. Not something that is funny. The funny comes after you’re talking about what you care about–get it? DON’T SIT DOWN TO WRITE SOMETHING FUNNY!

But enough on that, let’s get to how to come up with the jokes. One of the techniques I use I call “1-2-3 Jokes“. It’s based on the most common comedy formula used in comedy today; incongruity. It’s putting a square peg into a round hole.

Whenever I use 1-2-3 Jokes, I can come up with subject matter to start writing about. I was talking today to a friend about relationships and break ups. Whenever I talk about a topic that is primal, (and relationships certainly is), I come up with analogies. My friend Rob Rose, was talking about break-ups that tend to go on forever and I said,

“…breaking up with crazy chicks is a lot like buying a smartphone on credit…you’re still paying for it long after it’s functionality is obsolete. You’re still stuck with 3g technology, but you want to move up to 4g. And why not? It’s faster! It comes with a touch scream.

…and if I sat down and made lists of everything ‘smartphone’ and everything ‘relationships’ or ‘breakups,’ there’s probably another 10-20 jokes sitting there…

Analogies are almost instant jokes. Why? Because, by their nature they are incongruous. Incongruity causes surprise, and surprise is the number one element that triggers human laughter, which is our goal when we’re learning how to write comedy, So next time you’re looking for something funny, just use an analogy.