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?!”

 

Boring Premise to Great Routine

boring premise to solid routine

Give me your tired. your poor, your huddled, boring premises…

I received a terrific question in a in a recent Tweet and I put together a video to answer the question. You’ll find a link to it below.

I was asked if there was a way to find good premises to start writing jokes from:

Premise to Routine Tweet

There’s no sure-fire technique that I know of that can get you great premises to begin with, but I do know how you can take a bland subject and turn it into a curious (at the least) and great (at best) premise that will stimulate laughter.

To be clear, it’s important to understand what a premise is in the first place. A single word is not a premise. A single word–say “dating,” is not quite a premise. In order for it to be a premise there needs to be some context.

It’s okay if you didn’t know this. Not a lot of people do, but it’s one of the main reasons people get stuck writing in the first place. Knowing the difference should open up a world of possibility in your writing.

If you added a modifier, (using the Maxim of the 5 W’s Who? What? Where? Why? When? and How? to help you get there), then you have a premise.

If you just say “dating,” there is no context, but if you add What? How? When? Who?, then dating takes on a new connotation.

For example, what if we applied “When?”

Then we might have something like:

Dating at 55 vs. Dating at 25.

You can already feel the premise taking shape, can’t you?

You can also incorporate your point-of-view, or an angle (usually discovered by exploring your attitude toward the subject) to help you find your premise and a strong emotion to support it.

Attitude might be something like, Dating at 55 is so much more difficult than dating at 25.

Now that you added an attitude you can see even more possibility with the premise.

That’s what this video deals with. So take a look at it and don’t forget, you can always leave a comment for clarification. I love to help!

So try this yourself. Take a subject. Then give it context and a point of view and see if it helps you take a bland premise and turn it into some good material.

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.

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!