This week’s a full plate, so let’s get started.
Hope you all enjoyed your first Open Mic week of the class.
I hope you all got a chance to go up at least three times. If you didn’t, wait until you have before reading this week’s installment. I think three times is necessary to let a week’s lesson sink in. As you no doubt saw, Open Mics are not always full or supportive and I feel that one or two shots is not enough to see if a joke actually works.
Hopefully at least one of your performances this week took place in a room that wasn’t empty, full of jaded comics who didn’t listen, or drunken patrons talking over the comedy. A lot of open mics, unfortunately, fall in to these categories. It’s something you are going to have to deal with, like a golfer accepts that sometimes the course sucks. But if no one’s getting good laughs, how do you know if your joke is funny? It’s hard, honestly.
It’s not perfect, but you can sort of “read the room” by noting how big the laughs on jokes you thought were funny were. You then have a rough idea of what counts as a “win” in that room. Also, Open Mics are reflections of the group of comics that populate them. If you want a more supportive Open Mic, you can be a part of that change. Laugh when you think something’s funny. Watch the other comics. Keep your face out of your phone when someone’s doing a set. If someone you like is going up, tell the comic next to you that this person is good and they will be more likely to listen and laugh. Just a couple comics actively trying to foster the kind of environment in which they would like to perform can make a big difference.
As a beginner, you won’t have a lot of influence in how the Open Mic is run, but if you continue on in comedy, that will change. Here is an article with some insights into what can make an Open Mic a nurturing environment to develop in.
Why three times? It’s the number of times a week you need to go up to get good enough at standup to be a professional. Only getting up once or twice a week is fine for the purposes of this class, and to see if you enjoy it, but if you want to go beyond that, you simply will not progress quickly enough if you cannot increase it to three or more. Standup is a physical activity that relies on muscle memory. The memory of how your last set felt must be fresh in your mind to learn from. Perform less then three times a week and you seriously handicap your rate of growth. If that is all you can do, changing your work schedule or city of residence will be necessary if you decide to get serious about standup as more than a hobby.
However, If you are one of the lucky ones who got to go up more than three times, don’t skip ahead to the next week of the class after three shots at it. Take advantage of your good fortune and practice the same lesson all week. You will have a great handle on what you were working on.
Also, if you had a beer or two or a hit of a bowl before you went up this week, I understand. I didn’t say anything about this because I just wanted you to get on stage and get started. There is nothing wrong with a bit of a substance before you go up from time to time. However, there is something wrong with needing it in order to perform. I’d like you to not do this for the rest of the class. If you are afraid when you perform, it is to be expected. I was for years. Conquering that fear is part of standup, and learning to do it from within, on your own, is a necessary skill to being a comedian. Using substances to skip that step creates much bigger problems down the road, especially in a scene that pushes such substances (especially alcohol) at you all the time. I don’t care what you do after the show, but during this class’ duration, go up sober. In addition, so many formative experiences are happening at this beginning stage. You owe it to yourself to observe them as carefully as possible.
Answer these questions in whatever you are writing all this shit in.
How did it feel to go on stage?
What did you enjoy?
What did you not enjoy?
Who was your favorite performer of the night? Why?
Answer the same questions of that performer’s set as you did for the Greg Giraldo video last week.
Who was your least favorite performer of the night? Why?
Answer the same questions again for this performer’s set, only flip them backwards. For example: “How did he use his voice to get laughs?” becomes “How did the way he used his voice contribute to his failure to get laughs?”
Keep something to write in that fits in your pocket. Record anything you say that makes someone else laugh and anything you think or see that makes you laugh. You are now the Head Writer for your own show and that show requires material. Constantly. You cannot afford to waste anything that could become a joke. You need to do this from now on. Also, write the whole idea down. You will think that one or two key words should be enough for you to remember what you meant. Believe me, from experience, a lot of times it isn’t.
Once a week, look through what you have and try to form what you wrote into jokes. Ask yourself why you thought it was funny (or why they laughed when you said it) and then add the information you would have to tell the audience for them to get it.
Assignments Three through Eight
Look through the jokes that you performed last week.
Did any of them work? Congratulations. You just did what most people trying standup never achieve. You got a laugh for something you thought of and performed. If you can do that, you can do standup. This is the basic building block of standup comedy and you have proved you can achieve it.
Did none of them work? Don’t despair or panic. You just had the same kind of beginner experience that some of the funniest comedians who ever lived had. It is so completely normal to not have your first set work that it isn’t worth a second thought. You just did the hardest thing there is to do in standup, to bomb, and you found that it did not kill you. Congratulations, you just endured the worst thing comedy can do to you. There is no longer anything to fear!
But if you didn’t get any laughs, it’s important to understand why in order to fix it. I deliberately told you not to adjust anything last week. I wanted you to feel what something not working feels like, and to feel that frustration and desire to fix it. So what might be broken? Standup is a combination of writing and performance. Did you perform your material clearly? Could they understand your words?
If at all possible, make an audio recording of your next set. A lot of times people think they are talking clearly when in fact they are racing through their words, mumbling, or yelling. Make sure they can understand the jokes.
Were they comfortable with you? This is important. Just launching into your jokes at the top of the set can be jarring. You are a new element in the show. The audience needs time to take you in and get comfortable with you. Next time you perform, take five seconds before you say anything at all. Let the audience see you and get used to, take their initial impression. Then they are are ready to process your jokes. If you have a specific character you want them to see, you will want to be in character during this moment as well. If not, just be yourself and let them get used to that.
Were you comfortable performing? Obviously it is a new experience so nervous tension is a given. But were you okay with the space? Was the stool in your way? The mic stand? This can take you off your game.
Next time you go up, take time to ensure your performance space is how you like it. Hate that mic stand? Get it out of there. Want to sit on the stool? Do it. We are our own Stage Manager as well as Director and Actor and Writer and everything else, so arranging the stage for your show is your job too. As is making sure the Tech is okay. You may not have a sound engineer at an open mic, but if the mic is off, broken, or screeching, deal with that before the set starts.
At some point this week or next; some night after your five second pause; take ten seconds at the top before opening your mouth. This will seem too long and probably is. Just once is fine, but I want you to feel what it’s like for the audience to observe and assess you. They will be doing this anyway, every set for the rest of your life, but it’s important to feel it once without talking. To just experience the judgment process. It will also get you a little more comfortable with silence on stage. It’s gonna happen and you need to be cool with it and not fear it. During this ten seconds, try to convey to the audience non-verbally whatever you would like them to get about you or your stage character. You may even get a laugh or two from a facial expression.
This is also a helpful tool to use in the future, in the middle of a set that’s gone haywire. It can help when you need to focus an audience’s attention. Silence and stillness often prompt people to look and listen more carefully.
If you feel the audience understood your jokes clearly, and you were comfortable enough and situated enough to give a competent performance and it still didn’t work at all, it’s time to look at your writing. I am a believer in letting you write whatever you like. I don’t want anyone to feel that there is a “right” way to write comedy. But understanding the basics of joke writing is necessary if your approach is not bearing fruit right now. However you ultimately write, it’s important to observe what comedy writing is at its most fundamental level. A chef must be able to cook an egg to order before he can make his own unique ceviche.
Anthony Jeselnik is a master joke writer, and he works in a very old-school way. His jokes have perfect structure. Understanding what makes them work can help you diagnose why your jokes may not have clicked the way you wanted them to.
Watch the following video:
Answer all of the questions I asked you about Greg Giraldo’s set last week. Asking these questions of each new comedian you encounter is invaluable to deepening your understanding of the art form, and to thinking about how to approach your own act. But just this once, I want you to take an extra step.
Write out Anthony’s jokes. I’m serious. Circle the sentence with the most surprising element of the joke. This is the Punchline. This is where the audience’s expectations are fulfilled, but with an added twist they didn’t expect.
Now look through the other sentences in each joke you circled.
How did Anthony prepare you for his punchine?
How did he lead you to an expectation of where he was going?
What was the element in the resolution that was unexpected?
Now go back to your jokes from last week. Make sure what the audience is being told to expect is clear. Make sure the surprising element comes later, and AFTER all the information they need to know for it to be effective. I am NOT asking you to Jeselnik-ize your own writing. I am simply asking you to identify the basic elements of joke structure and see where they are in his jokes. Then make sure your own jokes contain these elements, in whatever way you like. But they gotta be in there somewhere, or you have written words, but not comedy. “Really?” you might say, frustrated, “Sometimes it doesn’t look like the comedian is telling ‘jokes’ at all.”
Watch this video.
James Adomian does not work in the strict set up/punch style Anthony works in. Stories and character monologues abound, all in a conversational style. But basic structure is still there.
After answering the “Giraldo Questions,” look through his act. Write down as many examples as you can of an expectation that is set and a surprising fulfillment of that expectation. See how many pairs you find. They will start to reveal themselves more and more frequently as you get used to spotting them. Once you have found such pairs in James’ act, write one or two of them out as a setup/punch style joke just to pound in the lesson.
Again, you can write any way you like, but the elements of expectation and a surprising fulfillment of that expectation are necessary for comedy and should be present in your work. Even in the absurdist act of Steve Martin, in which a joke might simply be Martin standing there with a gas nozzle and bragging about how he got it for five bucks, these principles apply. This is an actual Martin bit from the 70’s. For a long time, Martin stands with the nozzle silently. This silent pose with a prop is the set up. Your expectations about a man with a broken piece of a gas pump kick in in your brain. He’s going to have to address it at some point. Then he fulfills that expectation, but pride in getting the useless piece of garbage cheap is a surprising thing to hear. Even in this strangest of all comedy pieces, those basic elements, while not clearly spelled out, are there.
Get out your jokes from last week. Anything that got a laugh; write that down at the top of this week’s set list. I want you to open with those jokes this week. Opening with something that you know has worked in the past is a good way to…
A. Get the audience to trust that you are funny and thus give you a fair listen in your subsequent performance…
B. Get a read on the room. Gauge what a decent joke’s getting in terms of laughs from this crowd, so you can judge how well the new jokes do compared to an old standby, and…
C. Start your set with a feeling of comfort as you do something you’ve practiced, instead of a nerve wracking feeling of uncertainty.
As you look over the jokes that work, think of ways you might improve them.
Could the setup be shorter? Getting them to the surprise quicker? No one has ever said, “Man I wish that comic’s setups were longer.” Do you tell them more than they need to know to understand your joke?
On the other side of the issue, is the language colorful and specific? While brevity is your friend in comedy, bland colorless words are not. Is “car” the best word? How bout “rustbucket” or “82 Fiero?” It seems contradictory to my last point, but it’s all about balance. In general, the most vivid picture you can create in the audience’s sense memory, while using the least possible words, is the comedy sweet spot.
What is your emotional point of view? As in, how do you feel about what you are saying? Is it clear in the writing? Is it clear in the performance? Do you love that “everyone has an Iphone,” or do you hate it? How you feel about what you are saying is very important. The audience should always know this, or else they aren’t fully understanding you.
Apply these questions to the jokes that work, but don’t overthink it. If nothing obvious jumps out, let’s trust the jokes that worked to work again and not try to fix what isn’t broken. Just do them the way you did last week. If something from the above questions really strikes you, make the change. But don’t be afraid to go back to what worked if the change turned out to be a wrong move.
First do the jokes that did the best. After those,I want you to do the joke that didn’t work that you feel you have the best shot at repairing. Whatever joke suggests the most obvious fix. Whatever joke you think you might best be able to help by applying the lessons from the James and Anthony assignments. Re-tool it so it has clear elements of expectation and surprise.
Fill up the rest of your set with new jokes. Make sure at least one minute of your set is all new, written this week.
DON’T THROW THE UNSUCCESSFUL JOKES FROM LAST WEEK AWAY. Make a new file and file them under “In the Shop” or whatever similar phrase you prefer. No idea is dead, and there is always the possibility that you will return to them with a new perspective in the future. We’re just putting them aside for now.
Go do three open mics (or more if you can fit it into a week) and come back for Week Three. (Of Twelve. This is probably as good a place as any to say how long the class is.)
I know I just put a lot of work on your desk, but I deliberately left the first week light. I didn’t want you to begin with anything guiding you but your natural comedic instincts. I also didn’t want there to be a bunch of crap in your head that you were trying to remember while also trying to do one of the hardest things in show business.
So some of the basics got saved for this week and you had to get it all in a big dump. But it’s all elementary stuff that you had to get eventually. I at least wanted to wait until you understood what doing standup felt like before dropping it on you. Next week won’t be nearly as heavy in new ideas. We will let these ones sink in. I never want to add new elements beyond your ability to process them. Doing your act as a newcomer to standup comedy is hard enough.
As always, if some of this didn’t make sense, go ahead and e-mail me a question or two and I will do my best to answer.