Got an email from a kid, (I say, kid but for all I know the guy could’ve been fifty!), it said, “Hey Jerry I’m new in comedy. What’s the best way to start building a comedy set? Should I write it down first or just do stuff that my friends think is funny?”
This is a great question and one I receive a lot.
One of the benefits of people leaving me comments at the bottom of my blog posts and sending me emails is that I can then turn around and answer them on my comedy blog.
So how do you write a comedy act if you’re an absolute newbie?
The thing is that there’s no single answer to this question. Comedians work different ways.
I emphasize writing, because that’s how I started.
I studied other comedians then started taking the things that happened in my daily observations and wrote them down.
I didn’t begin performing until I had what I thought was an hour of material. I didn’t think you could start until you had an hour, because that was about the length of all the comedy albums I was listening to at the time.
Of course we know differently now. You can begin to perform in comedy if you have three to five minutes.
I started by doing observational, external material, because I wasn’t yet comfortable talking about myself.
Two things that stand out in my recollection:
1. When I was twelve I went to the Post Office with my father and there was a sign on the door, it said, “NO DOGS ALLOWED, except seeing-eye dogs.”
I said to my father, “Dad, what’s a ‘seeing-eye’ dog?”
He said, “It’s a dog that helps blind people get around.”
I then said, “Then who’s this sign for?”
My Dad thought it was funny. I didn’t even think it was a joke. Years later I heard Garry Shandling do almost an exact version of that which I didn’t even think was a joke and he got big laughs.
But at that time I was playing soccer and music and didn’t have any interest in performing or writing comedy.
2. When I started studying comedy another Garry Shandling joke stood out. The joke was, “I just sold the house I live in. Got a great price for it too. Made the landlord mad as hell…”
The first Shandling joke just stuck out to me as simple observational humor, (which I now know is more than just a simple observation; it’s more paradoxical, possibly tipping into irony), which is more powerful than simple observation.
The second one is pure structure. It is a perfect reverse. Being armed with this information changed the way I went about creating my early comedy sets.
I still have my very first performance on VHS. I watch it and it’s okay, but the structure is sloppy and it just sounds unorganized. It was me telling stories and observations that weren’t economized and reduced to what I know a tight bit should sound like now.
There are three primary techniques I use when creating a comedy routine. The first way is to always write down things that are funny. Usually when I’m with a group of friends and something occurs that makes me and them laugh, I will write it down to possibly use later.
The other technique is to sit down and write jokes. I prefer this technique because I don’t have to wait for the coincidence of the moment with friends or a funny situation to just happen to ‘occur’ to me. I can just sit down and generate material.
I do this by utilizing about 23 different approaches, but for the sake of this blog post, I will just write about two approaches. Here they are…
They are simple called “Fifty Facts” and “Fifty Random Lines.” That’s where I will write down fifty facts about me. The procedure usually goes like this:
- Write down 50 facts about me; just facts.
- Sometimes I will get the facts from answering questions on a personality profile quiz.
- Select 10-25 of those facts that seem to antagonize or inspire me most.
- Put each of those lines on a page and try to utilize 3 primary comedy structures:
- Double-entendre using the implied meaning of a word and turning it into the comedic meaning. (Ie: Came home from work the other night and I say to my wife. “How you doin’? She’s says, “Having some gas pains. I’m like, “Everyone is, it’s like four bucks a gallon again.”).
- Incongruity (finding and juxtaposing 2 or more contrasting ideas that are in the line ie: “I’m Irish and American Indian. You know what that means? I pretty much have VIP seats waiting for me at any AA meeting.”).
- Reverse (as in the Gary Shandling joke above. Ie: “You know what my baby loves to play with? Chest hair and she’ll yank on it too. Finally I had to say to my wife, ‘You know, you might want to get that shit lasered.”).
- After I have several jokes written, I go back and flesh the jokes out with tags, toppers and act-outs, to bring the jokes alive and get more laughs per minute from each.
- I will then repeat this process with the 50 Random Lines which are external facts, headlines, ad copy, statements from leaders, etc.
This is of course the simplified version and a lot more goes into it. But this is the beginning. After I have about five minutes (a page and a half at a 12 point Times New Roman font ), I then rehearse it out loud. When we say our material out loud, different creative parts of our brains are being accessed and new ideas will be inspired. I audio record all out loud rehearsals so I don’t miss anything. After I rehearse it 25 times all the way through, I then perform it on stage…
Remember I said I used three techniques? This is the third; performance.
When you’re on stage in front of an audience you, once again, have new sensations that are occurring and your brain is in somewhat of an altered state resulting in new impulses and ideas which will continue to help you to shape the act even more.
So in answer to the “Kid’s” question, you can use what works for you, but for me it’s a combination of writing jokes, recording coincidental observation and letting the act evolve in performance.
This is a simple approach I also look for paradoxical situations, comedic irony and one of my favorites, benign retaliation. To really dig deep into all of the available laughter triggers and comedy structures dig into my eBook writing system, “Breaking Comedy’s DNA” and start to really break into comedy writing.
If you have any questions about getting your act started, leave me a comment below. Love to talk to you!