2 Simple Comedy Writing Exercises that Secretly Make You Faster and Funnier

wax-on-wax-off

“Wax on. Wax Off.”

Do you ever have those days when you don’t feel inspired to write comedy? You want to write but you don’t feel funny? Or you’re feeling defeated because you don’t feel like you are growing or not growing fast enough?
Here are 2 simple comedy writing exercises you can do just to stimulate your comedic instincts. These are great when you just want to keep up your writing but you don’t feel like you have anything to write about.

These exercises are like the “Wax-on-wax-off” exercises Mr. Miyagi gave to his student “Daniel-San” in the movie “The Karate Kid.”

In the movie, the kid is bullied by a group of rogue martial arts students, he is saved by a man name Mr. Miyagi, who offers to teach the kid how to defend himself.

Mr. Miyagi starts by giving Daniel-San some chores. One chore is to wash and wax Mr. Miyagi’s cars. To the kid this makes no sense.

What does this have to do with learning karate? 

The kid later learns that the muscles used in putting the wax on the car and rubbing the wax off the car are important muscles used while executing defensive moves in karate.

With comedians, we want to get to the laugh. We want to get to the punchline. But just as most of Karate is not about punching, but redirecting the energy of the other person’s momentum, comedy is often about leading the listener and using the momentum of their expectations to create a surprise ending.

Comedy is more than just trying to “be funny.”

The comedy writing exercises I’m going to show you here may seem to have very little to do with your actual stand-up comedy. But what they do for you is sharpen your instinct and your skill with comedic technique, ultimately making you faster on your feet.

There is an app online called a random sentence generator. Just for kicks I loaded up 10 random sentences and tried to come up with some jokes using a variety of techniques. I came up with a couple of useable jokes, but that’s not the goal of this exercise. It’s just to get some practice in “thinking” like a comedian; looking beyond what’s implied by the the statement.

Start with 3 Questions

I start by taking the sentence, then asking three questions:
  1. What is assumed, expected or what do I imagine the audience sees, and can I shatter it?
  2. Is there a double-entendre in the sentence that I can write an alternate meaning on. In other words does a word have an implied meaning that I can turn to a comedic meaning?
  3. Are there two dissimilar ideas converging that I can do a list with and juxtapose those ideas?

When I was little I had a car door slammed shut on my hand.  

After that my mom thought it would probably be better if she just spanked me.

My mom didn’t really know how to raise kids. Like one time when I was little I had a car door slammed shut on my hand. And my mom was like “next time I should probably just spank him.”

She wrote him a long letter, but he didn’t read it

I dated this girl that I met originally when we were five. I hadn’t seen her in years. But she wrote me a letter. Which was fascinating because the day we met she drew me a letter. Yeah. And I drew her one. It was a letter D for her name Danielle. She cried because I wouldn’t give it to her. We’re gonna have dinner tonight. I’m excited because I think she still wants the D.
Then I rewrote it to tighten it a little below…

This girl I hadn’t seen in years just wrote me a letter. Which was interesting because when we first met when we were in kindergarten, she drew me a letter. I drew her one too. It was the first letter of her name, Danielle. I remember she cried because I wouldn’t give it to her, I wanted to keep it. Anyway, We’re gonna grab dinner tonight. I’m pretty excited because I think she still wants the D.

Notice how in the second draft I changed “we met when we were five,” to “when we were in kindergarten.” It’s an important change. The 5 elements of story are:
  • Character
  • Theme
  • Setting
  • Conflict
  • Plot
Adding “when we met in kindergarten” accomplishes two things: It states our age and it gives the audience a setting; kindergarten.
If the audience sees a kindergarten classroom in their imagination, the line did its job. When the audience sees the colors, smells the smells and feels the textures of the story you’re telling–even in a quick joke–then they are more compelled and involved emotionally in your story.
Therefore, they are not just hearing a joke, they are experiencing it. Big difference.
In taking a random sentence, keep in mind that the 3 questions I ask at the beginning is only the start. I can apply 10 other comedy structures to find a way to turn a sentence into a joke.

Using Inflection to Find an Angle

This next exercise, I just repeated the line aloud multiple times while emphasizing a different word each time, this has an almost magical effect in that it gives the reader a different perspective on the meaning of the speaker’s intent.
What I did with this line is imagine a scene at the airport and the chauffeur is saying the line to the arriving passenger at the luggage carousel. I underlined each word that I emphasized to write each response.
Let me help you with your BAGGAGE.
No need. We left my mother-in-law at home.
Let me help you with your BAGGAGE.
That won’t be necessary. I left the kids at their moms.
Let me help you with your BAGGAGE.
Wait. You can get rid of my wife?
Let me help you with YOUR baggage.
Because it would be weird if you helped me with THAT GUY’S Baggage.
Let me help you with YOUR baggage.
Thank you, Jeeves and uhm… feel free to help with my wife’s baggage too.
Let ME help you with your baggage.
Why? Did you have somebody else who was gonna do it?
Let me HELP you with your baggage.
When you’re done with that can you HELP me find a sex worker?
Let ME help you with your baggage.
Let you? Geez, look at you. Who’s gonna stop you?
Let me HELP you with your baggage.
You’ll get a better tip if you just do it yourself.

I may never use this in a stand-up act, but if you allow your imagination to see all the possible ways you can play the intent of this simple line, you can imagine a character in a movie or on TV respond to a chauffeur in a similar silly way.

See if you can come up with your own, based on what I did on this page, then go generate some of your own random sentences and see if you can come up with some yourself.
Some of you might think this exercise is childish, but when you practice these techniques they have a big impact on your overall skill. They make you wittier, funnier and faster. And every comic wants that!
Like in The Karate Kid, you have to work those muscles you never knew you even had, because when you’re on the stage, there may come a time when you have to “sweep the leg.”

Have fun!

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

One of the problems is they don’t know 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!

Are You Spending Your Energy on the Wrong Things?

Are you spending your Energy on the Wrong Things

I was in between meetings in in Hollywood yesterday and I went to a coffee shop. I remember it clearly because it rained. I know right? Rain in L.A.

That’s like a successful Hollywood marriage. You’re surprised about it and you’re still not sure it’s really happening…

I ordered a latte and the barista was like, “Oh! There’s an open mic going on in the back.”

I seriously thought about going in there and checking it out, but I had some writing to do and I didn’t want to sit in an open mic with my laptop open, not paying attention while comedians are testing their material. I’d immediately be singled out as—well, probably one of the other comedians also not paying attention, (more on that later…).

But I didn’t go in I just sat in the front area, did my writing and drank my latte. After a while, some of the comedians came out and were talking to each other.

The subject: the comedian Carrot Top.

I overheard one of the guys say, “He’s nothing but a hack prop comic.” The others blindly agreed and they started going off on who else was a “hack” comic.

But the conversation eventually came back to Carrot Top and his “stupid” props. And this conversation went on for about 30 minutes.

I could’ve written 10 jokes in that period of time!

And it struck me. These comedians were probably half my age, but the conversations hadn’t changed. They’re still disparaging other comedians.

Which brings me to this question:

Why? Why would any comedian put down another comedian? Especially one who’s reached the level of success that Carrot Top has reached?

Carrot Top is one of the highest paid entertainers in World. He’s got his own theater in Vegas. His shows are always—I mean ALWAYS sold out.

Why would anyone spend that kind of time putting down that kind of accomplishment?

As an artist, isn’t there a more productive way to spend your time?

What if those comedians spent that time exploring Carrot Top’s career trajectory? Or how Carrot Top reached that level of success? Wouldn’t that be more productive, more conducive to one’s own success?

Carrot Top found a niche. He found something memorable, something he could make funny. Something that worked, something the audience loved, and he turned it into a huge multi-million dollar comedy enterprise.

I mean that’s the dream, right?

Find something you love, do it as a career and you’ll never work a day in your life.

It is such a strong show, that one of the main resorts—the Luxor–on the strip in Las Vegas, the entertainment capital of the world, felt compelled to give him his own theater.

What’s to criticize?

Normally I take the stance that I only have control over my own behavior and no one else’s but I’m also a stubborn Irish fool from New York…

So I said, “Excuse me. I overheard you talking about Carrot Top. Why would you spend that kind of energy putting down one of the most successful entertainers in the World?”

Wouldn’t you get more benefit studying how he became that successful? Asking yourself how he got there? What could I do better that might help me and my career?

The guy who seemed to be the leader was like, “—you a comic, brah?”

I said, “you might say that…”

He said, “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’d rather keep my integrity than be a prop comic.”

I said, “Dude, it’s Friday night. At this very moment, Carrot Top’s playing two sold out shows in Vegas in his own theater, and you just did an open mic at a coffee shop.  You just spent more time ridiculing a successful comedian than you spent actually doing comedy.”

I left it at that.

The point is. There’s so much work we all need to do on ourselves to get our craft to be the best it can be. There’s so much more work we need to do to jump start our careers.

Why would you focus your energy on the wrong things?

Don’t Listen to the Schmucks!

don't listen to the schmucks

There’s a condition out there that some people have called the “I-know-everything” condition and it’s terminal.

If there’s one thing in your journey to success that will stop you cold in your tracks, it’s being the guy who thinks they know everything.

That’s what today’s video is about.

I call it “Don’t Listen to the Schmucks!” 🙂

I hope you enjoy it… and as always, leave a comment, and if you like the content, consider subscribing to the channel.

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.