Hope your third week went as well as it possibly could, given the never-ending Army Ranger obstacle course that is Open Mic comedy. Congratulations, you are almost to ten sets! This is a meaningless landmark that gets you nothing, but it’s cool, isn’t it?
Hopefully, by now, at least one of your jokes has worked more than once.
Which of your jokes is working most consistently? Why do you think that is? Can you identify any elements from the last three weeks’ lessons in your most consistently successful joke?
If not, don’t worry. Keep going through the process I laid out last week, and eventually you will shape a joke that hits more often than not.
While we’re on the subject, I might as well write it all out. Here, in easy to copy bullet point form, is the Comedy Refinement Process, which we will further refine this week:
Write down the most consistently successful jokes from last week.
Do any possible improvements jump out? Such as:
A movement, facial expression, or vocal emphasis?
Cutting needless words in the set up?
Substituting more colorful language?
Clarifying how you feel about what you are saying?
If not, write them at the top of this week’s set list.
What less-consistent joke from last week do you have ideas on how to improve?
Change it, keeping in mind these questions:
Is it clear what you are saying?
Is it clear how you feel about what you are saying?
Is there a clear expectation set up for the listener?
Is there a surprising fulfillment of that expectation?
Write that joke next.
Fill the rest of your set with new ideas from this week. Form them into the best jokes you can, keeping in mind the above points.
Arrange these jokes into a Shit Sandwich, with the most successful two jokes at the top, another consistent joke to close, and the most untried material in the middle of your set.
And that, in as few words as possible, is the Comedy Refinement Process. It is an always-dependable construction set of a standup comedy act.
“If I keep repeating last week’s jokes, eventually all the jokes will be successful, and then there won’t be any room in my set to work on new stuff!”
Good point. At some point you will need to “graduate” your successful jokes from the Process, and make room for new ones. It would be my fondest wish for you to not have to do that until you have five awesome minutes. I would love it if you got to take a victory lap week where your set was “all killer no filler.”
Unfortunately, and this may already be evident, when you do the same Open Mics over and over again, people start to hear your material over and over again too. It starts to lose power, as it is no longer surprising to most of the room. There is no hard and fast rule for when this has happened. You’ve got to feel it out. But if a joke that once did very well starts to do poorly in the same rooms, and you can tell they’ve heard it before, it’s time to move it out of your Open Mic setlist. It will go into a new file that I will address shortly. It’s also time to celebrate, because you now have your first solid bit! Your first go-to joke. The first piece of your showcase set.
Make a computer file. Notepad will suffice, but you may want to use a better Word Processor. You can use a notebook for this too, but it will have to be revised constantly. If you want to do this long hand, you better like rewriting things.
Call it whatever you want. When I started, I called it the Massive Bit List. This was ironic at first, but I watched with pride as it slowly became accurate. Divide the file into three groups.
Group One is your best jokes. This is the pool of material you would draw from to make a showcase set. That is, a set you would do for real audience members who are not comedians, on a real comedy show. The jokes you would pick to give yourself the best chance of doing well. A showcase show at a bar or off night at a comedy club is your next most likely venue. Performing at such a show is the first goal of a beginner comic. As always, character lines and story beats go here as well, if you are doing those on stage.
Don’t write each entire joke, just whatever one or two word phrase you know that bit by. Whatever you would write on your set list to let you know which joke it is.
Make sure Group One is really your best jokes. These are bits that don’t need to be done at Open Mics unless you really want to open or close strong. If you feel in your gut that a bit still needs work, or has a shaky part in it, don’t put it here. If a joke needs work but you feel you can’t do it at an Open Mic anymore because the other comics and patrons have heard it too much, just rest it for a month. Then bring it back. Don’t worry. They won’t remember it any more than you remember their shit from last month. You will have a fresh chance to fix whatever you felt it lacked.
BUT: Just because something gets to Group One doesn’t mean it’s “finished.” Comedy is a living breathing medium. Bits are always yours to change. As long as you still enjoy a joke, you can add things, find new lines, new act outs, and new angles to explore. We are not writing a script. Never think of your old material as set in stone. Comedy is nothing but a series of moments that we inhabit, and any bit has the potential to grow and change with your overall act.
Now write down Group Two. Under this, write down whatever jokes you have that are getting laughs here and there, but still need some work at the Open Mic level before you would trust them at a showcase show.
Finally, Group Three is your “in the shop” file, where bits go when they aren’t working in their current form. Bits you need to put aside for awhile until you gain a new insight that makes them work. I have had things in Group Three for years and then one new thought fixes them. Don’t throw anything away.
This Bit File sticks with you your entire career. It’s a great way of seeing where you are in comedy at a glance. You can see what works; what doesn’t; what themes seem to resonate with audiences; what topics you may have difficulty with. So many insights can be gained just seeing your material laid out like this in one place. Watching it grow and watching Group One fill up with material is also a rewarding way to see tangible evidence of your progress as a comedian.
Your goal at this point should be to fill up Group One until you have a solid five minutes of comedy. This is the smallest building block of a standup performance. It is the least amount of time you would ever be asked to perform on a show. It is also the length of a standup set on a late TV night show. Well, four and a half to six minutes, but that is nitpicking. Five minutes is to a comedian what one song is to a musician. You need to get that first single ready to perform.
This can take a while. Don’t rush it. Let the Process work. Take time with each new joke and make sure it is ready. Make sure a Group One joke is one you are confident about doing in front of any crowd, with a reasonable expectation of success.
As you progress in comedy, you will often be asked by bookers of shows and clubs, “How much time you have?” This does not mean, “If you did all the material you have developed, how long would that take?” This means “How many minutes of Group One jokes do you have?” You will be doing yourself and your reputation as a comedian a favor by being as hard on yourself as possible when answering this question. The booker is trying to judge how much of their show they can reliably entrust to you. Be honest and they will be pleased with the result and likely to book you again. Inflate that estimate, and you will look like a fraud, a rank amateur, or a crazy person. You want to cultivate the reputation of someone who does what they say they are going to do. A comic they don’t have to worry about. A comic who gets the job done.
Make your set list for this week’s Open Mics, exactly as you have been doing. Get used to the Process until it becomes second nature.
Watch the following video, from the 4:30 second mark on.
Then watch this one:
I did not select them because they are both about food, but because they are both long sets about the same premise. Long chunks with tons of individual jokes in them. This may not be a coincidence. Food is a juicy comedy topic: you need it to live, you eat too much of the wrong food and you die, you do it every day, and it fuels the entire world economy. Food is on people’s minds a lot. People feel strongly about it. Whenever those things are present in a topic, it has the potential for great bits.
After asking our good old “Giraldo Questions” from week one, ask yourself these:
How many individual jokes can you identify in Jim Gaffigan’s set?
How many individual jokes can you identify in Kyle Kinane’s?
Express each individual joke as a simple declarative sentence.
Express each entire piece as a simple declarative sentence.
How does Jim feel about Hot Pockets? How does Kyle feel about the giant pizza? How do they feel about each individual sub-topic under the larger premise? How do they communicate these feelings to the audience?
Do this, and don’t read ahead to the next paragraph until you have answered all of the questions.
Notice how there is an expectation that is set and a surprise delivered on each piece of the larger bit. Notice how each individual joke under the larger premises of “Hot Pockets are disgusting” and “this giant pizza is a ridiculous example of American excess” has its own individual premise, such as “Hot Pockets would be ludicrous on a menu” or “someone who got extra cheese for thirty bucks would be a dick.”
Look at your own writing. Have you tried to tackle a large subject on which you had a lot to say? This is how you do it. Look at your joke and ask the exact same questions you just answered about the videos. What is the over-arching premise? What are the individual premises? How do I feel about each one? You have to begin, and then complete, each individual joke one after the other. You have to clearly state each point of what you are saying. If you don’t do this, just as carefully as Kyle and Jim did, the audience can get lost and confused and the bit can fail. Each point also must be funny in its own right or it should be cut from the piece. You are a comic. You do not have the luxury of making points that aren’t funny, even if they are part of a larger piece. If it is going to stay in the bit, find a way to get a laugh.
Maybe, like Anthony Jeselnik and Dan Mintz from previous lessons, you don’t write in large chunks. Just use this week as further practice in identifying premises, expectations, surprises, and emotional angles. You can never do this too much as you begin to write your own material.
If you DO write or care to write large multi-joke bits, use these videos as a blue print. Ask yourself:
What is my main point?
What individual points am I making to illustrate this main point?
Is each one distinct enough to get their own joke?
Do I have a way to make each point funny with an expectation and a surprise?
Do I wrap up each bit in its own space within the larger piece, allowing the audience to keep up and digest each individual point?
That’s it for this week! Hit the mics! Kill ‘em! See you here next week.