Lots of stuff to do and lots of stuff to think about last week. Good news. This week will be mostly exploration of what you have already learned. The process you began last week will serve you well for the rest of your comedy career. Repeat the process each week and you will improve steadily every year, to the limit your ability will allow. There is a new idea about putting a set together this week. There is an aspect of comedy to observe a little more closely. But mostly you will be getting used to making what you began last week a regular part of your comedy life.
Think about the other performers you saw at your Open Mics this week. Who was the best? Answer the “Giraldo Questions.” That is, the questions we first asked after the Greg Giraldo video in Week One.
Who was the least successful? Answer the questions “backwards,” just like last week.
Was the same person the best both weeks? Did their sets have anything in common? How was that element a factor in their success?
If the best comedian was different this week from last week, how did their acts differ? What made them similar? Ask the same for the performers who were least successful.
Look over the funny things you said and wrote down last week. Can any of them be made into jokes? Make as many as you can into bits for this week’s set.
Make your set list for the open mics this week.
Last week you went through your jokes from Week One and kept the ones that worked. Do this again for Week Two. Also, if a joke worked two weeks in a row, it stays on the list.
Even if you’ve already done it nine times, you need to get used to repeating the same bit over and over, infusing it with new energy each time. You will be surprised how much better at delivering it you can be once the words are second nature. Jokes improve dramatically when you start with confidence in the material and a knowledge of how people tend to react to it.
This week, take the joke that has gotten laughs the most consistently and ask yourself these questions:
Without changing the words of the joke, how can I improve its effectiveness?
How can I use my voice to emphasize the important points of this joke?
How can I use movement to communicate this joke more effectively?
I am not asking you to scream and jump around the stage. Unless that’s what you feel would help the joke. Just be aware of how non-word elements might help make the bit funnier. Make sure that you are thinking actively about what those elements are in your act. How are you saying what you are saying? What are you doing while you say it? Remember that your performance is equally as important to your effectiveness as your writing. If it wasn’t, standups would simply print out the jokes, hand them to the crowd to read at their leisure, and it would be just as entertaining. Make sure that the way you use your voice and body is as much an informed choice as your words.
As I said, a non-word element in your act doesn’t need to be big and hammy. Your goal is to enhance the effect of your writing, not distract from it. It could be as simple as casually walking around the stage and then stopping for effect when it is time to deliver a punchline. Or doing a small double-take when you want to show that something surprised you. Or maybe you want nothing to distract from your words so you remain entirely motionless during a bit. Or whisper the set up and turn your volume up on the punchline for effect. You don’t have to make exaggerated movements like Jim Carrey, just start to think of how you can enhance your words to affect the audience.
Now ask yourself this:
How does my stage character feel about what they are saying? How can I convey these emotions using my face, body, and voice?
When you tell the audience you went to the post office, is there an inflection you could use that might let them know you hate it there? How would you say it if it was your favorite place on Earth? Is there a facial expression you might use? This doesn’t have to be extreme. Yelling every sentence where you are angry and sniffling through every sentence where you are sad would look bizarre. In general, think about how you would convey these emotions in regular speech, and try to do that on stage as well.
There are many ways of relating emotionally to your material. What do I mean by this? Greg Giraldo does his best to infuse his jokes with the emotional state he is conveying. Think of his portrayal of the flabbergasted McCain pointing out Obama’s blackness to the crowd. it is straight forward, direct, and heightened. This is his approach throughout his entire act. While he may be sad on one joke and happy on the next, he is going to act out those emotions fully.
By contrast, Anthony Jeselnik uses the same detached attitude towards all his jokes, investing no emotion in the specifics of his stories. He also adds a layer of arrogance that is heightened to where the audience can see he is faking it, along with the occasional smile. The message: this isn’t serious. It allows the audience to enjoy his dark jokes.
You will find that in general, standups have a consistent approach to emotion in their act. If they are easily irritated by small things in one joke, they will be that way in their other jokes as well. This helps the audience relate to them, understand their point of view, and invest themselves in the performance. Performing one joke from Anthony’s detached perspective, and the next from Giraldo’s highly emotional point of view without any justification for the switch will be jarring to the audience. It will work against their ability to connect with your comedy. This may seem confusing and abstract. It’s OK. Don’t think about it too much. I just want you to start considering how your stage character, or the persona you put forth in your act, feels about what they are saying. Look for more on this after this week’s videos.
After you have written down the jokes that worked, write down the jokes that didn’t.
Did anything work last week that didn’t this week? Ask yourself why this may have been. Did you perform it differently? Change the writing? What can you do to make it successful again?
Write down the premise of each joke that didn’t work as a declarative sentence. Does the sentence make sense? Does the joke you wrote express that idea clearly? Did your performance help that idea to be understood?
Does it have an element of expectation and a surprising fulfillment of that expectation? Is the expectation clearly set up before the surprising element is revealed?
Modify your jokes until you can answer “yes” to the above questions.
Take at least one joke that didn’t work last week and try and fix it.
Put the rest of the jokes that didn’t work in your “In the Shop” file. Every month or so, read the bits in the file. See if a new angle on how something might be fixed presents itself, either from the performance or the writing side. Give it a shot. Sometimes your mind sees a new solution after some time away from the idea.
Fill up the rest of your set with new jokes from this week. You will notice that this is the exact same process as last week. It will be the same next week, and every week you do standup. This is the never ending “joke refinery” that leads to a great standup act. I call it the Comedy Refinement Process. This process has produced every joke I have ever told onstage. This process works.
We will talk next week about the long term goals this process is working towards. For now, just run it again, continue to get used to it, and let it work for you.
If you feel a real call to do crowd work, to get laughs off interacting with the audience, I understand. Please hold off another couple weeks. Get used to the material generating process until it is second nature. Open mic sets are very short, and I want to make sure you get to practice the most successful jokes, the “fixed” jokes, AND the brand new jokes in every set. In a few weeks, when you’ve gotten the hang of it, it will be OK to add a minute or two of crowd work to your set.
The “Shit Sandwich” Structure.
“Okay, so I have selected my jokes for the week. What order should I do them in?” Good question. I like a set structure I named after a line in “This is Spinal Tap.” You can use it in any length of set and it will serve you well. It is by no means the only way to structure a set list. It may not be right for you down the road, but try it for now.
It’s based on the psychology of the audience. It is great for open mics because it gives your new bits the best possible chance at being well-received.
I call it the “Shit Sandwich” because your best jokes are at each end (the bread) and your newest, most unsure stuff is in the middle. You open with your biggest, quickest laugh. This establishes that you are funny, winning the audience’s confidence and trust. Do another bit that you know works after that, so the audience builds a positive impression of your act.
Then, do the newer jokes dead center. The crowd will be more willing to take in your new stuff with an open mind now that you have built some trust and good will. Also, If they don’t work, it won’t ruin the good feeling you built at the top enough to derail your whole set.
Close with another thing that usually works, so you reward the crowd for sticking through the experimental stuff and leave them with a positive impression of your act. Give the good seals a fish treat for their patience.
This structure allows the audience the maximum chance of enjoying your set while creating a safe space in your performance for you to take a risk.
Also, since you are simply arranging your set so the most unsure material is in the center, with the best stuff on either end, the Sandwich can expand or contract to fill any length of show you desire. It is simple, elegant, and versatile.
This week, structure your set as described above.
After you perform in this week’s Open Mics, write down how arranging your jokes this way affected your set. Did you notice any difference from last week?
If nothing worked at all this week either, relax. You are still at the very beginning of your engagement with standup comedy. This is completely normal. Just repeat last week’s steps until you start to see success, and move to this week’s lessons when you do.
You may be wondering how to judge how much time a joke will take when you perform it. I am constantly telling you to put five minute sets together, but until you perform the jokes, how do you know how long they take? You don’t want to plan too many jokes to get to, or too left to fill your time. Eventually, you will learn to judge the duration of a bit off the page. For now, you have to do it the hard way. Once you have your jokes in order, time yourself saying them out loud. This next thing sounds beyond stupid, but you can allow time for the audience to laugh by saying “laugh laugh laugh” after each Punchline. For big, fat, bit-ending punchlines, or if you are preforming for a big audience, say “laugh laugh laugh” THREE TIMES after the last word of your joke. It is possible for a fat applause break to take longer, but if this happens at an Open Mic, you will be so happy you won’t give a shit if you got to all your bits. You probably want to just get off the stage right then and look like a genius.
It is a crude system, but it is a shockingly accurate predictor of how long it takes a crowd to laugh. I have used this to time sets within seconds. But it is a rare Open Mic audience that will give you the kind of response reserved for the triple “laugh laugh laugh.” Saying it once after each Punchline when you practice your set should give you a good idea what is going to fit in the time you have.
Watch the following videos:
As always, ask the old “Giraldo Questions.”
It is important to try and understand as many different approaches to comedy as you can.
Now that you have thought about each comic’s approach, how do the three comedians use non-verbal elements in their act? Write down one thing each comedian does with their face or body to make their material connect.
What is their approach to emotion? Find one line from each comedian’s act that conveys a strong emotion. How did they deliver this line? Did they do anything with their voice to enhance or to downplay the emotion in their words? What?
Patton Oswalt presents many characters who all feel differently about the KFC Bowls. How many different viewpoints does he present? How do you know they are different characters? How does he underline this with his performance? How does he show you when he’s switched parts? Which point of view does Patton seem to agree with? How does he let you know? What can you learn from this set about differentiating between characters in a joke? About clearly presenting conflicting emotions?
What is Dan Mintz’s emotional relationship to his jokes? Hint: He definitely has one. And it is well chosen and specific. Does it seem appropriate to what he is talking about? Is he closer to Anthony Jeselnik’s approach to emotion or Greg Giraldo’s?
Describe the mood and emotional state of Dan’s stage character. In what ways is it unusual? How does he make subtle use of his body, face, and voice to convey this? How does this affect the way the things he says are viewed by the audience? Find a laugh Dan gets from the disconnect between what he is saying and how he seems to feel about it.
How many characters does Louis C.K. play in his bit? What are their emotional states? How does the mom feel about her kid? How does the kid feel? How does Louis feel about all of this? Is Louis’ approach more like Anthony’s or Greg’s? How does Louis heighten the emotions of the abusive dad? How does he show you that he doesn’t agree with him?
Look at your own bits from the last two weeks. Do you use any similar techniques to the comedians you watched this week? Do you know how you are using emotion in each of your jokes?
Write down a list of the emotions you convey in each joke. Ask yourself how you can convey it clearly, both verbally and non verbally.
If all this stufff about emotional viewpoints seems like too much to pile on to material that you are still working to just get out clearly, don’t deal with it this week. Work on what we learned last week until it feels comfortable before adding new elements. It is ALWAYS cool to skip a week, as long as you keep going to your Open Mics, writing new jokes, and refining your set the way I taught you. It’s an on-line course after all. Move ahead at your own pace.
But when you are ready, I want you to begin to consider the following elements when you develop your jokes:
Can the audience understand your premise?
Do they know how your stage character feels about this premise?
Do you use the most concise and colorful language you can?
Does it have elements of expectation and surprise?
Do you use your voice and body to perform it clearly and effectively?
All of these elements will ensure that your material has the highest chance of success.
And that’s it. Give the “Comedy Refinement Process” another week. Think a little about emotion in standup comedy. Try and make a Shit Sandwich. Perform the set at least three times. Record your observations. Kill ‘em! Contact me with any questions and I’ll see you in a week.