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!

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!

Trying to Write Jokes, but Feeling Stuck?

So you’re writing and you get a premise down on the page and then… it just doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Does this happen to you?

I was Skype-coaching with one of my students today and he said, I’ve been trying to write, but I keep feeling like I’m getting stuck.”

It can be super frustrating, especially when you’re just writing to put something, ANYTHING, on the page.

So how do you take that idea and make it into something?

First off, it’s important to understand WHAT you’re writing. Often you have an idea but you can’t figure out where to go with it.

Come up with an Angle

Sometimes it’s because you haven’t come up with an angle.

Writing comedy is much like journalism or script writing. You’re telling a story, but for the story to gain interest right at the setup, it must have an angle.

An angle in story writing is much like your opinion on the matter. It’s what starts to shape the premise. Without an angle there is no premise and without a premise, it’s usually not interesting.

Sometimes the angle is subtle. It’s stated in what’s called a topic statement or in script talk it’s often referred to as “theme stated.”

For example. I talk about having 5 kids. Then I say I have 5 kids from 3 different moms. Often, someone in the audience will emit an audible gasp, or a “Wow,” or “Ohhh…” That’s when I’ll laugh, point out and say, “There’s the judgement!”

I’ll follow that with a couple of tags. But it’s when I say, “I just couldn’t figure out relationships…” That’s when it becomes interesting to the audience. That’s something almost everyone can relate to. Also by saying “I just couldn’t figure out relationships…” Gives me an angle to approach the rest of the story.

Now I can talk about each relationship the curious craziness of my ex and my glaring failures.

Some times it’s easier to find the angle once you step out the idea…

I approach it like I’d approach writing a script from the seed of the idea. One of the first things you have to remember is a story isn’t a story without the Maxim of the 5 W’s being present.

Meaning Who? What? Where? Why? When? and How? Without answering all those questions, there’s going to be huge gaps.

In comedy, by answering those questions you start to clarify the imagery and enhance the idea by adding more specifics, more detail.

Sometimes the jokes are in the details

Sometimes the detail is what gets you to the jokes and the detail can change the direction of the joke, just like a screenplay or a story.

So my student said he went shopping for a washer/dryer with his wife. He was just looking at why he AND his wife need to go shopping for appliances. But as we stepped out the idea it began to shape up in a different way because he was inspired by a new angle.

We talked about the reasons why, answering one of the maxims. Then I asked “What?” As in what kind of washer did you wind up buying?
He said, “Samsung.”

To me, Samsung seemed like a weird answer. In my head I was thinking, Samsung doesn’t make washer/dryers!

Boom! That sparked an emotion. Which indicates a point of view or an angle. And that’s when when we started riffing on an idea that fleshed itself out to a decent first draft bit.

The premise started to flesh out like this:

My wife and I bought a Samsung washer/dryer combination. Yeah, Samsung is now making washer/dryers. (This is the angle)—->That’s not cool. There’s a time when a company starts making shit outside their specialty and you know they’re just starting to get out of control. <—- Like Samsung makes cellphones, computer screens, flat screens. I mean I have a Samsung phone. Now they’re doing Washer/Dryer combos? That’s great and all, but every time it goes into the spin cycle my phone drops a call. Samsung Washers just don’t make sense…

So that got it started. But I try to treat a premise like a wet towel and wring it out for everything I can find.

Use an analogy to open up the premise

Often in a premise it’s a good idea to find an analogy. An analogy will introduce a second element (a dissimilar idea). This gives you a chance to do a listing technique and come up with possible associative jokes. And since it’s comedy, we heighten the reality.

So you ask, “What’s it like?” Samsung, the smartphone manufacturer making cellphones is like… (Here I’m going to wildly exaggerate to see if the analogy works), so the bit continues…

…That’s like buying a Kotex Motorcycle. What would their slogan be? “Already comes with the girl riding it.” Come down and buy a new, 2017 Kotex V-Twin. We’ll make you a great deal. Swear to god, No strings attached.
Nothing handles like a Kotex Motorcycle. Accelerates fast, turns on a dime, and it can navigate in the tightest places. AND, you can tell when she needs an oil change because she gets really moody.

A good ‘first draft’ approach

Realize that this is just a first draft approach. I don’t even know if the jokes will stay in the set, but it’s a good effort, especially considering he felt like he was banging his head against the wall and his premises didn’t seem to be going anywhere at all.

So next time you feel like you’re stuck… start with an idea, step it out with the maxim of the 5-W’s, create an angle, drop in an analogy, look for the similarity between the dissimilar ideas and write the jokes.

It’s just one great way to keep yourself from banging your head against the wall.