The Biggest Secret in Comedy

the brain

In this article I’m going to share with you the biggest secret in comedy.

Recently I posted an article and promoted it on Facebook. I got some great comments on that article, but some of the comments…? Disappointing. Hilariously, disappointing!

The article talked about the brain. Left-side/Right-side theory and how it is involved in processing information.

One of the comments was, “Stupid! I thought this was going to be an article about comedy, but this dude is talking about the brain. What’s the brain got to do with comedy?!”

I get it. There are a lot of people out there who have been told that  you can’t learn comedy.

You hear them say things like, “You can’t learn to be funny.” “You either got it or you don’t.” “You’re born with it.” And they just take that as the unwavering truth, the gospel–despite the fact that there’s evidence right in front of them that, so easily, proves that theory wrong.

Those skeptics just haven’t taken the time to really think it through. To really drill down and understand what makes comedy, comedy. They go up on stage, talk to the audience and HOPE that the audience sometimes laughs.

Understanding WHY an Audience Laughs

And they do this without even understanding WHY an audience laughs.

When you think about it that way, that just sounds crazy!

Could you imagine trying to fix a light switch and connecting one wire to the another wire and just hoping that it will work?

When you understand WHY, then you can start the process of developing your own level of mastery when it comes to comedy.

I’m not saying that every joke will work. The audience is always the final judge. Even the masters get shit wrong.

But when you understand comedy from a mastery perspective, you get a lot more of it right.

George Carlin said he knew with 98 percent accuracy that a joke was going to get a laugh before he got on stage.

Ninety-eight percent! I want to be like that.

However, to get to a level of mastery with your comedy, you first have to understand why people laugh and how comedy works.

The Biggest Secret in Comedy Is…

And here’s where I share with you the biggest secret in comedy…

The human brain responds with laughter to nine psychological stimuli, I like to call them “laughter triggers.” I cover these triggers in depth, in my book “Breaking Comedy’s DNA,”  and in my joke writing and stand-up classes.

The most common laughter trigger is surprise. The irony –for most of you–is that understanding that the most common laughter trigger is surprise is really no big surprise.

But there’s more to it than that...

It all boils down to expectation and anticipation.

When you surprise someone with what they expect you to say or do, odds are–if nobody gets hurt– you will trigger their brain to send a signal out that makes them laugh.

If you read on, you will find out that creating that surprise can be relatively simple.

It is based on how the brain works. Our brains are wired to create very definite expectations.

It’s how we learn and evolve from babies to adults.

Expectation is Developed Through Experience

When we learn to catch a ball, we develop an expectation of how that ball moves through the air: the speed, the trajectory. We process that data and we move our bodies to where we expect that ball will wind up. But we need the experience and the practice to develop that expectation.

That’s why when we first learn to catch a ball, we suck at it, because we haven’t had the experience of learning what to expect when the ball is thrown.

After some practice, we move effortlessly to where we expect the ball to be, instantly processing the data of speed, friction, trajectory that is being presented to us from the moment the ball is released, when it’s moving threw the air and the instant before it hits our hands.

We’ve developed definite expectations based on that repeated experience. After some repeated practice we feel like we’ve gotten really good at it.

Then, someone throws a frisbee…

Remember the first time you tried to catch a frisbee? It kind of jerked up and down, went over your head and passed you. You thought no way I can catch that! Only to watch it reverse directions and come back to you. WTF?!

Surprise!

It’s all because we develop definite expectations based on our experiences.

It’s the same thing in comedy. Audiences are made of people (last time I checked), and people create very linear expectations with language so they anticipate what we are going to say logically, linearly and in the context of what we are saying.

That’s how we process conversation. When we listen to what people say we are already anticipating the endings to their sentences.

We have no choice. That’s how the brain works.

Comedians can exploit this scientific brain fact and use it to their advantage to create laughter.

If someone says to you, “Knock, knock…” how do you instantly want to respond?

If English is your first language and you understand the game of Knock-knock jokes and have had some experience with them, odds are you wanted to say, “Who’s there?”

Because that is the expectation that has been created from your experience. And that’s such an advantage to comedians and magicians.

Surprise in Simple Conversation

It happens with simple sentences and simple situations too.

If I say, “I was at the Silver Legacy Hotel and Casino in Reno, Nevada last week. I woke up in the morning and the housekeeper was banging on the door… finally I had to get up and let her out.”

If you’ve stayed at hotels and had experiences with housekeepers banging on your door, you’ve created expectations based on your experience that the housekeeper is outside the room, wanting to come into to the room so they can clean it.

The audience has this expectation too. It is so ingrained in the mind of the person in the audience that they are already finishing the story you are telling with acutely linear expectations.

That last second switch of the expectation is what triggers the laugh.

Here’s where it gets really powerful

If you already know this, good! What you might not know is that if you do it correctly, the audience will always fall for it, because their brains cannot process what is expected and what is not expected at the same time. It’s impossible.

But this is just the simplest example of shattering the audience’s expectation. There are tons of other methods and techniques you can learn to use to create laughter.

So the next time someone says to you, “What’s the brain got to do with comedy?” You can say, Oh, I don’t know, how about everything?!”

 

How to Write a Joke like Chris Rock

how to write a joke like Chris Rock

That’s right. In this post, I’m going to show you how to write a joke like Chris Rock…

Well, I’m going to show you one specific way that Chris Rock writes his stand-up comedy material.

I’ll tell you what brought me to this. As you might know, I have a YouTube channel where I post a lot of videos based on questions the comedy-curious send me on Twitter. I get great questions from comedians at all levels, beginners to professionals, because, let’s face it, we’re always learning!

This particular video addresses a comment I received on my YouTube Channel regarding a comedy writing tutorial I put online. I demonstrated how to write jokes using incongruity by utilizing the listing technique.

This guy wrote a comment that said, “Nobody uses this technique to write comedy.”

I replied, “What is your experience in this field? It must run deep since you imply that you know everyone in comedy.”

He wrote back, “Oh. Sorry Jerry. I didn’t even know you read these things.”

So what’s that say about his character? When you’re not looking I’ll talk shit about you…”

Now, don’t get me wrong I appreciate the skeptics. I used to say I respect them, but it’s hard to respect someone that simply defaults to negativity and commits themselves to a fact when all the evidence to the contrary is right before their very eyes.

And if they just took a little time to research the field they are in, they could find the truth.

But sometimes people need a little more than just somebody like me telling them they’re wrong. They need examples from someone with a LOT more credentials and fame than I have.

So that’s why I put together this video where I deconstruct a bit that Chris Rock does.

Then, as a bonus I demonstrate that if you actually go deep with the lists you can write like 20 more jokes on just one premise.

To really put a nail in the coffin of the skeptic, I include a downloadable PDF worksheet so that YOU can print it out and do some writing yourself on the same premise.

It’s great practice. And you’ll have a ton of fun doing it.

So watch the video. And while you’re there don’t forget to leave a comment, subscribe, like and share!

What Makes a Joke Funny?

Comedy Material Generator - How to Write a Joke

I was teaching a weekend writing workshop. It’s 2-days packed with comedy writing concepts.

At the beginning of that workshop, I explain that there are 3 types of comedians; the “coincidental,” “architect,” and “humorost.”

It’s too detailed for this post to go into each one, but in a nutshell the coincidental comedian sees something, reads something or hears something and turns it into a joke in that moment.

We all do this, but the problem with being a coincidental comedian is that we have to wait for that coincidence to occur in order to come up with material.

Why is that a problem? Because sometimes it’s a while between coincidences. Have you ever gone days or weeks without writing a joke?

It can be deflating. You begin to wonder if you’re funny anymore… or if you ever were…

“Have I been kidding myself this whole time?”

So this one guy sitting in my class looked familiar. Then I looked at the roster at his name. He was a comedian I had started with back in my open mic days.
He was ahead of me back then (had more experience) and I was always a big fan of his and his clever material. It was all observational comedy.

At the lunch break he asked if he could buy me lunch (hint for anyone who sits in my 2-Day Writing Workshop) 🙂

We caught up a bit. He had been working full time as a cruise ship comedian. But what struck me was that he said,  that, sitting in my workshop, for the first time in years his head was buzzing with creativity and ideas.

He said he already wrote a ton of jokes this morning and has many more ideas that just need to be formed!

He was abuzz with energy and excitement.

He said to me, “All this time, I’ve been a coincidental comedian. And now I feel like I can write jokes any time I want, because I finely feel like I understand what makes a joke funny!

And this was day one of the workshop!

So what changed?

What changed with this comedian who had been doing comedy for 25+ years professionally that finally made him feel like he now had the ability to write jokes at will?

He finally understood WHY.

He finally understood why people laugh.
and what makes a joke “funny.”

Now some of you may read this and think, you can’t know what makes a joke funny! It either is or it isn’t. (Yes, I’ve heard that argument.)

I assure you you can. (at least with high odds). George Carlin said to me that he knew with 98 percent accuracy that a joke was funny before he took the stage. When I asked how he knew that he said, “because it contains all the elements necessary for a joke to be funny.”

Identifying the Laughter Triggers

I’ve spent my life identifying those elements Carlin spoke about and cataloguing them so they can be taught and people can learn to use them to apply in their stories and their jokes.

I call these elements “Laughter Triggers.” They are hard-wired into the human psyche. They are:

  1. Surprise
  2. Superiority
  3. Embarrassment
  4. Incongruity
  5. Recognition
  6. Release
  7. Configurational
  8. Ambivalence
  9. Coincidence

Many jokes use one of these laughter triggers. But most good jokes contain 2 or more of these triggers.

As an example, let’s take this Chris Rock joke:

You know the stripper myth? There’s a stripper myth, that’s being perpetuated throughout society. The myth is, “I’m strippin’ to pay my tuition.” No you’re not! There’s no strippers in college! There’s no clear heels in biology! S—, man. I didn’t know they had a college that only took one-dollar bills. And if they got so many strippers at college, how come I never got a smart lap dance? I never got a girl that sat on my lap and said, “If I was you, I would diversify my portfolio. You know, ever since the end of the Cold War, I find NATO obsolete.”

It’s a funny bit that get’s laughs both by him telling the story and in him “acting out” the stripper.

The laughter triggers included are recognition, embarrassment, incongruity, superiority, surprise and coincidence.

Let’s break that down a little bit.

But first, please understand that there’s not ONE way to deconstruct comedy. But this is one way that you can use to help you identify the stimuli necessary to get a laugh in a joke, even when told as a story, like with this example.

On with the deconstruction:

1. RECOGNITION is present in this joke because he’s talking about a stripper, most of us have seen a stripper (either in person or on TV) so we’re familiar with them and the image is in our heads.

2. EMBARRASSMENT is also present since we’re talking about a subject (strippers) that we probably don’t talk to everyone about, especially in public.

3. INCONGRUITY… by Rock introducing the concept of the stripper going to college, he’s revealed a contrasting element and that is the essence of incongruity. Once that second element is introduced you can now take elements from the subject of stripper and juxtapose them with the elements of college. Combining the two elements gives us the humorous premise of a stripper in college.

Keep in mind that incongruity is not just a laughter trigger it is also a comedy structure. (There are 13 Comedy Structures). And that’s the exact structure that Rock used to tell this story. Once he introduced the stripper being in college that incongruity structure makes the audience want the comedian to tell us how that is going to work.

In addition, because we don’t normally perceive a stripper going to college but in Rock’s scenario she says she is there is also…

4. SURPRISE that is present.

Since every joke is a veiled attack. Rock is attacking the concept of a stripper being in college. The audience not only recognizes the scenario and is a little embarrassed by it, but that means

5. SUPERIORITY is present because the audience feels superior to the stripper because the joke is on her.

6. COINCIDENCE is ever present in this scenario, as it is in most incongruous (or associative) jokes. Putting two ideas and stating what results and / or acting them out usually makes the audience saying something to themselves like, “Wow! I never thought about it that way that’s so true! What a coincidence!

This is what makes Chris Rock such an excellent comedian. In one joke he is using 6 stimuli to trigger the laughs in the joke.

There’s a ton of possibilities when you use this technique of incongruity to create a premise.

But this is only the beginning when it comes to making the jokes work. You also have to apply structure. That’s something I will cover in another article.

Or you can always take a class to learn or further develop your comedy writing skill set.

Learning these concept will help you put together jokes like the one above from Chris Rock.

Which is exactly what George Carlin meant when he said he knows a joke is funny because it contains all the elements necessary for a joke to be funny. When you have one laughter trigger in your joke it has the chance of being funny, when you have 6 laughter triggers present, it has a “98 percent chance”  of being funny.

3 Cool Ways to get Started Writing Your Comedy Act

how to write a stand-up comedy act

I get this question a lot. How do I write a stand-up comedy act? What’s the best way to start?

That’s a typical dilemma in comedy, isn’t it? Just getting started writing.

The big problem actually arises when people try to write something funny. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true. People have a skewed concept of writing funny.

A lot of times when people try to write funny, they wind up with something zany, whacky or implausible. What they should be shooting for is plausible but unexpected.

Now, I don’t know if there is a “best” way to start, but in nearly 30 years on the road and 8 years writing for the Tonight Show and others, I’ve learned a few things about getting started writing comedy for television and writing for my own stand-up act. So I will share some of my techniques for getting started.

Please note that this is by no means the ONLY way to get started, but it one way I’ve used successfully through the years.

This is also part of a concept I learned from one of the best, George Carlin. Carlin said, “I know with 98 percent accuracy that a joke is going to be funny before I step on stage.”  I said, “How do you know that?” He said, “Because it contains all the elements a joke needs to be funny.”

So when I write, I use those elements.
There are two primary ways you can write comedy. Internally and externally.

Internal is personal. It’s about you. External is not about you but everything outside of you.

For this article, I’m going to talk about the internal.

First I write down 50 facts about me.

I don’t prejudge the facts, I just write them down. They include who I am, where I’m from, my heritage (lineage), my parents, family, religion, politics, relationship status, my idiosyncrasies, flaws, failures, etc.

The facts also include what I’ve been doing the last few weeks, days, hours.

The general idea is that a comedian should be able to take any logical grouping of words and turn it funny using structure.

Applying Comedy Structure

Once I have the facts down on the page, I take each one and apply comedy structure by asking 3 questions:

  1. Is there a double-entendre play? (Is there a word that has an implied meaning that I can turn into a comedic meaning using cynicism, sexuality, or sarcasm)
  2. Reverse: Is there something assumed in the statement that I can shatter. Can I take the expected outcome and flip it at the last second.
  3. Incongruity: Are there two or more dissimilar ideas that I can turn into a joke using association or juxtaposition. (most common technique used in comedy; incongruity).

This is the simplified approach using 3 major comedy structures of Double-Entendre, Reverse and Incongruity.

Since there are 13 Major Comedy Structures, I will often see other possibilities in the sentence and use one of them.

For example. If I was to open my act by saying, “I have 5 kids.”
I could turn that into something like, “I have 5 kids…that’s right 5 kids… because I’m only half-Mormon. I have 5 kids from 3 different moms. (audience responds with audible surprise)… Oh, there’s the judgement. One part of you was going “Oh, 5 kids. That’s quite an accomplishment. The other part’s like, “5 kids from 3 different moms? That’s trailer trash…”

Then I might add an act-out… “If I was in an episode of Cops, it would be like, (AO: Cop pointing a gun) “Sir step down from that milk crate!”
ME: (Trailer trash me): “Milk crate? Shiiiiit, that’s my porch!”

There are a lot of different ways to go with that one fact but it all started from the fact “I have 5 kids.”

Keep in mind, that comedy material like this is not meant to be read, but spoken and acted out. It might not sound funny on the page, it has never failed on the stage.

Another way I like to start is by writing what’s happening in my life.

“Yesterday was my wife’s birthday so I bought her a gift certificate for a His and Hers Massage. She was like, (AO: My Wife’s voice): “Jerry, this is a ‘we’ gift, not a ‘me’ gift.” So I returned it and got her a gift certificate for dinner for ONE.”

This particular structure is called Benign Retaliation. I call it the perfect joke structure because it automatically contains an antagonist and a protagonist. And when you have an antagonist and protagonist, the audience is compelled not to just listen to the joke, but to root for the protagonist to win.

Therefore, the audience is emotionally more committed than just laughing at a simple surprise-style joke.

Here’s another example of a benign retaliation joke:

My Ex–who cheated on me–called me on Halloween. She was like, “Jerry, I don’t know what to pretend to be for Halloween.” I said, “Why don’t you dress normally and pretend you’re in a committed relationship.”

Double Entendre Structure

If we look at a simple double-entendre style joke, I might take it and finesse it into a story so it’s more compelling:

“I used to coach soccer and I remember our team got into the playoffs one time—yeah “one time,” that’s how bad we were. But this one time we got pummeled. Afterwards, the local paper interviewed me. The lady was like, Coach Corley, how do you feel about the execution of the offense?” I was like, “I’m all for it… and while you’re at it, do me. We all need to be put out of our misery.” Yeah, that’s what I said. They quoted me on that.

Reverse Structure

Another way to get started is with a quick Reverse. That’s where the fact you wrote has a strong expectation. The human brain is programmed to anticipate and create an expected ending of a story. That’s why you have couples that often finish each others sentences.

So I might say something simple like, “So, I’m in love… don’t tell my wife.”
Or I might say, “Six months sober… thank you very much. (Then take a beer or flask out of my pocket, take a drink) I’m so kidding! But you guys wouldn’t have applauded if I said, “I’ve been drinking since I was 18 and I don’t punch my wife.”

Another reverse might be to talk about my kids.

I’m trying to teach my daughter how to tie her shoes… which is weird, cuz’ she’s twenty-two. I’m just kidding. She’s five. Five years old and I’m trying to teach her how to tie her shoes. She’s like “Dad, I can’t Dad. I can’t!” And I’m like, “How many times have I told you not to use that word. I am NOT your Dad.”

Incongruity Structure

The last technique (but most popular in comedy) is Incongruity or juxtaposing contrasting elements in a sentence by using free association.

Like if I opened with “I’m Irish and American Indian… that’s my lineage, Irish and American Indian.

Now I have two clearly identifiable incongruous ideas. Irish and American Indian. If  I was to list everything I could think about dealing with Irish and do the same with American Indian, I might come up with this simple joke.

I’m Irish and American Indian. That’s my lineage. Irish and American Indian. You know what that means; I pretty much have VIP seats waiting for me at any AA meeting. (Then I might add an act out) I walk into that meeting it would be like (AO: meeting proctor, greeting me walking in) Hey! Running Bear O’Reilly! We have a seat for you in the front row…”

Or something like that.

This is just a simple approach to getting started writing a stand-up act. It’s based in the science of what triggers human laughter, then uses the structures that pull those triggers.

Again there are endless ways to go about writing your comedy. Most people are what I call coincidental comedians. We just wait for something funny to happen then if we record it or write it down, we can remember to tell it to an audience. The problem is, you have to wait for that “coincidence” to occur in order to write an act.

I prefer to understand comedy at it’s intrinsic operational level so that I can write comedy at will.

IMPORTANT: One thing to keep in mind is that learning how to write the way we talk is a skill that has to be practiced. We’re taught to write prosaically, but we speak in broken sentences, use contractions and slang. Therefore, we have to learn how to write the way we talk.

When you write your jokes you have to now get up on stage and perform them by telling them to the audience, like you you’re just talking to your friends.

I hope this helps you get started!

Holidays Can be Stressful or They Can be Comedy Gold, Your Choice!

Stay funny during the holidays

First of all Merry Christmas to everyone.  And those who don’t celebrate Christmas, Happy Hanukkah! And let’s not forget Kwaanza, Boxing Day, Winter Soltice, Pancha Ganapati, Yule, Yalda and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. Happy that to you too!

And the rest of you will probably burn in an eternal Hellfire.

Festive Huh?!

I try to include everyone because I’m a self-proclaimed Catho-Christi-Hinuistic-Musli-Morma-Jew. I am! I don’t want to miss out on Heaven because of a technicality!

I love the holidays, but every year we hear stories about how stressful the holidays can be.

Suicide rates go up, family arguments occur, anxiety and depression increases, crime increases and so do heart attacks.

That’s not fake news, those are facts and I know it sounds drastic, but as a comedian I say, “Comedy Gold, right?!”

This little blog post is just a friendly reminder that despite the chaos and heightened everything that trends significantly upward during the holiday season, remember that you are a jester and revel in it!

Keep your eyes out for funny nuances of family members. Remember that little squabbles that feel so stressful during the holidays can become hysterical bits of comedy for your stand-up, your columns or your tweets.

One way to be sure you’re keeping your sense of humor is to remember to keep your cynical glasses on. Every comic is a bit of a cynic. We look outside the situation to see the funny in the situation.

If you’ve followed this blog at all you know that I’m emphatic about looking toward the opposite of expected to find the funny. If the number one psychological human laughter trigger is surprise, then looking for the opposite of expected is almost a magical way to find the funny. Or a funny start to a bit.

One exercise that helps is to utilize a top 10 list as a punchline generator.

  • Top 10 Reasons you know it’s Christmas in Los Angeles, (or where you live)
  • Top 10 Reasons you know it’s the Holidays at your house.

I know a lot of people who are in mixed marriages or whose parents are two different religions. You could start with something like…

“My father was raised Catholic. My mother was raised Jewish…”

Then do a top 10 list related to how you know it’s the holidays at your house to generate joke ideas.

Remember the Top 10 exercise is not designed for you to create a Top 10 List for your act, per se. That was Letterman’s bag. It’s there for you to generate punchlines and joke ideas for you to finesse into stand-alone jokes or jokes to fit into an bit.

Whatever works for you, just remember that humor is everywhere and seeking it out during the holidays, may reduce the stress that can actually come from the holidays.

Making it your goal to find some funny will help you to actually keep your Happy Holidays, happy!