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!

Why Wait? Plan your Own Success!

plan your success

A DREAM written down with a date becomes a GOAL.

A GOAL broken down into steps becomes a PLAN.
A PLAN backed by ACTION makes your DREAMS come TRUE.

But a DREAM minus GOALS and a PLAN becomes REGRET.

I know that sounds just like some cliche fluff that you’d find on one of those cheesy motivational posters in an office.

I know, office? Yuck!

But you would be amazed at how many people—especially artists—don’t even write down their goals.

You know how most people go through their lives? They WAIT for something to happen. Writers, Actors and comedians are most vulnerable here.

One of the reasons this happens is because they’re waiting for success, not planning for success.

When you want to be a lawyer, you know you can go to college, then law school. You talk to a counselor and they map out a plan of classes that will get you to a certain number of units of a certain selection of classes and you graduate.

Maybe you’re working as an intern for the last part of school. If you do well in school, sometimes that firm hires you.

Then you take the bar exam with a certain number of questions on that exam and you have to get a certain percentage of answers right so you can pass the bar.

In many cases you are hired right out of college and the firm you’re working for pays the expense for you to take and pass the bar. Congratulations! You have a job. You are a lawyer!

Unfortunately, it is not the same thing with show business. You don’t have a specific amount of classes you need to take, you don’t have to achieve a certain amount of units, you don’t have a test and you don’t get a degree that says you are qualified.

So what are you supposed to do?

As an actor, you go to class, you develop the skills, you do an agent showcase, you get an agent and they send you out for auditions.

But what about comedian or comedy writer? It’s really the same thing, but it’s up to YOU to develop the skills, then submit for the job.

Just as you would with a regular job. It’s really no different except that you don’t have a test and you don’t have a specific amount of units you have to pass and you don’t have to have a degree.

The good news is that you don’t have to attend a specific amount of years or earn a specific amount of credits at a university or trade school.

You just have to prove your competence.

There are two primary ways of developing that competence.

  1. Go out and just do it and do it and hope for the best.
  2. Take classes, get coaching to master the fundamentals from someone with real experience. Learn to avoid the mistakes and have a safe environment where you can workout, receive guidance, have accountability and develop a set faster and more efficiently.

I’ve tried both ways, and trust me, it’s much faster working with a professional.

 

Each method has their benefits and their pitfalls. Getting out and performing is great, but I’ve seen 10’s, maybe hundreds of comedians getting up at the mics regularly doing the same material that doesn’t work, the very next week they come up and do the exact same material and it doesn’t work.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I’m sure you’ve heard this: Albert Einstein is credited with saying that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

Famous UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Having a coach or a good teacher,  can help to guide you through the writing of solid material. Can help to give you the extra tip or pointer that can take a joke that’s not working and make it work.

I believe that if you think an idea is funny, but it’s not getting laughs, then most likely it’s funny, but it’s just missing an element that is needed to trigger the laugh.

In my classes, part of what we study is WHY people laugh. What triggers that?

When you understand that at its most intrinsic level you can begin to make changes to a joke to take it from a semi-chuckle (because it’s a funny idea) to a triggered laugh because it a funny joke.

Here’s an example:

One of my students went up and did this joke:

I’m in menopause and I’ve been getting these terrible hot flashes lately. I mean they’re bad. Last night, we were home, the kids are asleep and I got this awful hot flash. I was burning up. So I just peeled off all my clothes. I swear I almost game my husband a heart attack. Thank God we weren’t at Starbucks.

It’s a funny idea. But it’s not quite a joke.

One element that should be present in all jokes is surprise. So I suggested changing the set up to a more assumptive set up by removing one of the elements from the maxim of the five W’s (Who? What? Where? Why? When? and How?). So we removed where, (“we were home”).

So that changes the set up. Keeping “the kids were asleep,” helps support and misdirect the audience to assume  she is home and give her a better opportunity for surprise. So the joke becomes:

“I’m in menopause and I’ve been getting these terrible hot flashes lately. I mean they’re bad. Last night, the kids are asleep and I got this awful hot flash. I was burning up. So I just peeled off all my clothes. I swear I almost gave my husband a heart attack… ‘Cuz we were at Starbucks… 

Now, with the sudden change in location (surprise) and using Starbucks as the punchline, it offers another opportunity for her to add a tag to the joke:

… (Shrugs shoulders) the coffee wasn’t the only thing that was hot…” 

After understanding this concept, it enabled the student to add her own tag after that. She said, “I just took my husband’s coffee cake and said, ‘would you like me to heat that up for you?'”

Fixing the funny idea and making it more of a joke, gave it a much bigger laugh in front of the audience. Also adding the two tags, allowed for her to get three laughs from the idea, instead of just one.

Having the guidance from someone who’s a professional who understands the mechanics of comedy writing and performance can help you learn a lot faster and reach your goal of developing an act in a much more efficient way.

So getting up on stage and just doing it over and over and over the same way is not the most effective way of getting better, it’s just the definition of insanity.

The New Year is right around the corner.

If you have a DREAM…
Set some GOALS…
Make a PLAN…
Take ACTION…

… and make your DREAMS come TRUE!

and may you have an amazing 2018!

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!