Welcome back from the world of Open Mics. Hope you returned unscathed with at least a minor victory or two.
By now you’ve seen at least twelve Mics’ worth of jokes by who knows how many comics.
Have you noticed any of the same topics coming up?
What topics seem to come up the most often?
Have you seen any comics with the exact same take on a topic?
It is almost certain that you have. And I can guess that at least somewhere on your list of repeated topics are porn, pot, alcohol, masturbation, and sex. Don’t worry if I just listed half of your set. My first five minutes included a “hand jobs suck” joke, a “pot smoking makes you dumb” joke, and a joke that hinged on my own, now embarrassing, unease about bisexuality. Why do these topics seem to crop up again and again? People love to laugh at what makes them uncomfortable, and these topics leap out as uncomfortable topics. All are examples of areas of life where we succumb to urges beyond the conscious mind. Even though these activities are fun, there is a nagging sense of unease about surrendering control of ourselves. Also, thinking about these topics can feel shameful for this same reason.
I don’t bring this up to rip on the comedians who write jokes like this. THESE TOPICS CAN AND HAVE PRODUCED SOME OF THE BEST JOKES THAT EXIST. The comedy masterpiece, “Skanks for the Memories,” by Dave Attell, is almost nothing BUT these topics and it is one of the funniest albums of all time. But these over-used topics have produced millions of shitty jokes as well. Maybe some are in your act right now. They certainly were in mine when I was at your level. But, hey… You got to start somewhere. I am not bringing this up to tell you to take the jokes out of your act. As you build towards your first five minutes, and even beyond to your first fifteen minutes, you can’t afford to ditch anything that works. Not yet, anyway. Learn to make people laugh first. THEN learn to make them laugh in the best way you are capable of. Although, if you are coming at one of these topics from the same angle as another comedian in your scene, then dropping the bit is probably the thing to do. You don’t want to be accused of stealing and you don’t want an act that’s just like someone else’s.
I bring this up because I want to talk briefly about “what to write about.” After you have worked on making jokes out of the “funny thoughts” you wrote down in the course of your week, it’s time to write new material from scratch. Sometimes you can draw a blank. But those overused topics actually point the way past that blank. There’s a reason we are drawn to them as comedy writers.
Our mind goes to these topics because people cannot help feeling strongly about them. And these feelings are often unsettling, uneasy emotions. This is perfect ground on which to make people laugh. People want to laugh about what makes them uncomfortable. Del Close, the Improv guru, famously said that if you want to make people laugh in an improv scene, “follow the fear” in the scene. The Loony Tunes cartoons were always funnier than the Disney cartoons because the stakes were life and death. If Bugs and Daffy did not outsmart Elmer they were going to die. Laughing in the face of death carries much more power than Goofy wondering if his ski trip was going to be ruined. I would like to broaden Del’s point a bit: If you want to make people laugh, write about things that evoke strong emotions.
Ask yourself, “What do I care about?” If you care, chances are someone in the audience does too. Louis C.K. once said, “Write about what you can’t stop thinking about.” Combine this with an eye towards what you have an emotional reaction to and you are on the right track. People will always appreciate laughing at something that ordinarily gives them negative feelings like fear or sadness. Everyone likes when you turn the light on a dark room and show that there’s nothing there to fear. And if you can turn your own negative emotions into something that makes you laugh, chances are someone else will have felt the same way. You will be helping them face their own fear. It is one of the greatest strengths of our art form.
This is not at all the only thing to write about, but when you are faced with a blank page, it’s a good way to get started.
I want to repeat something here though. Looking over your jokes a month later you may be embarrassed by some of them. However, IF THEY GET LAUGHS, I WANT YOU TO KEEP THEM FOR NOW. This feeling of embarrassment over earlier work is part of being a standup. Eventually it will help you hone your act into a better representation of your comedic sensibility. At this stage of the game, however, I want your act to be a “no shame zone.” Build up your act to at least fifteen minutes before you start throwing away bits that work. You need the practice telling successful jokes. You need the ability to do that much time, and you need the confidence that comes from having an act that works. Let the pride of having written successful jokes cover any shame you feel about their subject matter until you can fill fifteen minutes with Group One jokes. Then you can think about whether those jokes represent you well.
Let us now switch gears to the other half of your comedy education: performance. Many times in an Open Mic set, you will feel like the crowd is not into what you are saying, or you will feel that a joke that bombed has lessened their trust in you. I want to comment about two common habits that comedians get into in this situation. Please take this as only my two cents, but I feel strongly about it.
You may feel tempted to “get the audience on board” by asking them rhetorical questions. Maybe you’ll ask, “Have you guys been to Burger King?” if you are about to talk about Burger King, or “Where are my drinkers?” before a booze joke. I would caution against this. For several reasons:
A. It encourages talking. In a rowdy bar setting or a bored audience of comics, this is not what you want. Why spend your set hearing their answers instead of telling the jokes you came to try? If you want to do crowd work, by all means, ask them questions. But if you don’t actually want to hear them talk, why give them the opportunity?
B. It comes off weak. You are the performer. You are on stage. You have the microphone. Talk about what you want to talk about. They have already given you that license. Use it with confidence. Who cares if they have been to Burger King? Were you not going to do the bit if they hadn’t? They can figure it out. You do not need their approval to do your act. And they would always rather be laughing than clapping because they have been to a common restaurant.
C. It clutters your act with sentences that aren’t funny. Anything that isn’t a set up or a Punchline is time wasted. Polling the audience on each topic just adds more boring sentences to your act. Worse, it subtracts from the already small amount of time you have to do what you came to do: Make them laugh.
I will never tell you never to do something. If you have a joke that somehow hinges on polling the audience, or if you actually want to do crowd work about Burger King, the time you have on stage is yours to do what you wish. However, I feel any feeling of support gained by audience-polling could be gained just as well by confidently delivering your material without pausing on every topic to see if it is okay with the audience.
The second habit I would like to discuss is acknowledging that a joke bombed. When a punch line doesn’t work, there is a tendency to want to agree with them. You may want to say something like, “Wow, that sucked,” or “Note to self: don’t do that one again.” I know that comedians like Andy Kindler get big laughs off of this. Hell, Conan O’Brien does it almost every night.
Unless, like Kindler, you have written actual, complete jokes that only work in this situation, I would advise you not to do this. Furthermore, Conan has two advantages that you do not:
A. He has built years and years of good will with his audience, who have laughed countless times at his antics. When a joke doesn’t work, he can draw on this good will to make them laugh with him at the occasional stumble.
B. His audience knows those jokes were often written by someone else and don’t hold him accountable.
You have neither of these advantages. When you say that you sucked into a microphone, the audience is apt to believe you. You start to erode the all-important trust they have placed in you. Saying that a joke sucked right after it bombed does not fix the problem, it compounds it. Better to just accept the silence and move on. It didn’t go well. So what? You are in charge and your performance continues. You can’t win them all. On to the next one. This is the stronger position.
HOWEVER, I am just as equally against saying things like, “Fuck you, that was funny,” or, “Oh, I guess you don’t get the smart jokes.” You have no idea why they didn’t laugh, and it doesn’t do you any favors to attack them for it. That looks just as weak as apologizing for the joke that bombed. You come off thin-skinned and delusional. A joke that bombed will never feel good. But it is almost always better to just move on. Don’t show that it rattled you. You are a comedian and you neither expect nor need everything in your show to work. Let the audience react how they will. You came to put on a show regardless.
Continue the Comedy Refinement Process. Write down anything funny you see or say in the moment. Form those into jokes once a week.
Evaluate what worked last week and adjust as described in previous classes. Any joke that has worked consistently can graduate to Group One. Any joke that needs work but is getting too familiar to your audience can be put aside for awhile.
Build the rest of your set like we did last week. Make the Shit Sandwich. Perform this set at three Open Mics like always.
At one Mic this week, sit down and perform your set from the stool. It’s there. It’s part of your work environment. Use it. Comedians like BIll Cosby and Marc Maron use it to great effect.
After you do it, ask yourself these questions:
How did your delivery of your jokes change from the stool?
Did you use your face differently when you could no longer move freely?
Did you use your voice differently?
How did it change the energy of your jokes?
How did it feel to relate to the audience this way?
Did they react differently?
Did you enjoy it? Would you want to incorporate this into your act further?
Regardless of what you ultimately choose to do in your act, it is important to experience as many performance styles as you can, so that your ultimate style is an informed and purposeful choice.
Assignment Three: Watch the following videos:
From the 2:24 mark, watch this Marc Maron story:
Answer the “Giraldo Questions” (the questions I asked about the Greg Giraldo video in Week One.) Then ask yourself the following:
How does Marc Maron keep the audience engaged sitting on the stool?
How does he use movement, even when confined to a sitting position in one spot?
When he leaves the stool, how does this affect that part of the story?
How does the contrast with his seated position affect the power of this segment to get laughs?
Though we have not discussed stories in detail, I would like you to focus on one aspect of a standup story that is CRUCIAL. Keep in mind that this story was told on a special storytelling show, so it is not as tight as a standup story usually must be. The audience knew this going in and gave the performers some leeway. Even so, one necessary aspect of a standup story is demonstrated here. Marc does it perfectly.
Ask yourself this: When does Marc set the Expectation for the audience for his story? When does he tell them Why They Are Listening?
When does he fulfill this Expectation? How does this serve the same function in a long story as it does in a joke?
In other words, what is the Set Up for the whole story? What is the Punchline?
How many other Punchlines can you find within the story? How are they set up?
Now watch this:
What topics does Nikki Glaser cover here?
For each joke, name an issue that the audience would have a strong emotional reaction to.
What fears does Nikki touch on in her jokes? Name one emotionally uncomfortable subject for each joke. There is one (at least) in each bit.
How does Nikki make the fearful subjects funny?
That’s it. Kill ‘em. See you next week.