Hope your week out in the comedy trenches was a fun one. If it wasn’t, I hope that at least, it triggered a realization about how to do better next time.
By now the Comedy Refinement Process should feel like second nature. You look through the things you wrote down, form them into jokes, write new jokes from scratch, and fix the old ones that look fixable. Arrange them with the hardest hitting jokes at the beginning and end. Give your untried material a safe space in the middle of your act. Graduate any jokes that are ready for Group One.
I have generally been describing this process in the abstract. This week I’ll get specific. Some of you may be wondering, “OK, I’m supposed to see what elements I can use to improve a joke that isn’t working. That’s easy to say, but what do you mean, exactly?” Or, “You say to cut useless setup words, but how do I know what’s useless?” I felt this week I should bring the abstract down to earth. I will use an actual Open Mic joke to demonstrate exactly what I mean.
Some time this past year, I was at an Open Mic. I won’t say where. I watched a beginner comic tell a joke. I won’t say who it was. It’s not important. I’m also going to leave out a detail about the joke to protect their identity. But I am going to use a version of their bit to show you exactly how I would go about the “fix the jokes that didn’t work” part of the Process.
In the joke, the comic used the name of a low-income town adjacent to the town the Open Mic was in. This place was the butt of many of the local comedians’ bits. This is a stock device you will often see on the road. A comic will ask ahead of time which town everyone thinks sucks. Then he will slam it with generic “Mad Libs” bits than can apply to any crappy place. If you are trying to be an original comedian, it’s generally a hackneyed device to steer clear of. However, I give beginners a lot of leeway. Comedy is hard, and when you are starting, you are allowed to use whatever you need to. You need to figure out how to get laughs at all. I won’t give the name of this particular low-income town to protect the Open Micer’s identity. We’ll just call it “Junktown.”
I want to do something a little different. Can I read a poem I wrote about the young woman I saw working at the Subway in Junktown?
(pulls out poem, adopts overly emotive, formal voice)
Oh, young lady I saw working at Subway…
(switches to blunt and incredulous)
where are your teeth!? Where are your fucking teeth! And without teeth, how did you find someone to get you pregnant?
So here we go. First of all, I’d like to point out that I don’t like this joke. It’s mean-spirited. It is cruel to a low status person whose only offense was to be poor. Losing your teeth is something that happens to rich people too, but they have the means to fix it. Is kicking an unfortunate fast food worker when they are down a worthwhile use of comedic power? Is this person a worthy target? If you feel this arrogant point of view is worth writing from, what element elevates the joke into clever comedy and away from easy bullying?
Remember when I asked you to write your jokes as declarative sentences? This is a good exercise in clarity. It is also a good exercise in judging whether the statement you are making is one that fits with your values, or the values of your stage character. Maybe that character is an exaggerated jerk, or is completely ironic and it fits. Or maybe, like Daniel Tosh, or Dennis Miller, you want to express the funny if arrogant thoughts we all sometimes have, and you don’t mind low status targets. This is a valid approach. But thinking about exactly what you are saying and why should be a requirement of your writing process.
I also don’t like the joke because I’m not sure I believe it. I’m not saying a joke has to be true. However, if you are presenting a joke AS true (as opposed to Anthony Jeselnik, who almost screams that a joke is false with his entire style) it should seem like it COULD be true to the audience. The idea that Subway has hired a toothless counter employee, even in Junktown, seems like a real stretch to me. It takes my skeptical mind out of the bit right as the Punchline hits.
ALL THAT BEING SAID, I still don’t think the comic should dump the joke right now. It got a laugh. Even though I find the joke distasteful, I picked it to prove a point. I said “ditch no jokes that work until you have fifteen solid minutes.” I am sticking to my guns, no matter the bit. At this stage, laughs are precious things and we need to cultivate and protect our small collection of jokes that work.
If this comic were you, I would advise you to wait until the point where you had, say, three five minute Showcase Sets ready. To wait until you could do a fifteen minute set of Group One material. At that point, this is exactly the sort of joke I would expect you to cut out of your act. The kind of joke that would go as you honed down your act to material that best represents you. It’s mean, and it’s not clever enough to offset that meanness. It rings kind of false, and it’s not saying much except reinforcing the idea that Junktown indeed sucks. But for now, as we work towards our first five minutes of Group One material, there is no room for those thoughts. You wrote it and it gets a laugh, which is an accomplishment you can feel justifiably proud of. For now, it stays.
But it needs work. The comic got one good laugh, and then two chuckles, but it’s a long bit. It’s not strong enough to put at the beginning of the set yet. It’s not Group One. Time to “fix the jokes that are fixable.”
We can start by cutting setup lines that are just clutter; that don’t add to the meaning of the joke. Let’s cut “I want to do something a little different.”
I can imagine the audience thinking, “Then do it. Make me laugh.” It’s a needless setup line. It adds nothing. It’s gone.
The second line is a question. Why? Don’t ask their permission. Don’t set a heckler up to answer, “No!” Change it to a stronger, more confident, declarative sentence. “I am now going to read a poem… about the young woman I saw working at the Subway in Junktown.”
No longer a question, this is now a fine setup line. The comic sets the audience’s expectation well. They are going to hear a poem. The comic physically pulls out the poem, setting another expectation that it is something too complex to have memorized. They worked hard on it. They actually wrote it down, unlike the other material they have been delivering. This is special. And it starts a bit of curiosity in the crowd, as Junktown Subway employees are not usually the subjects of poetry.
It does its job, and with the first set up line cut, there is now less pressure on the Punchline. The more sentences before the surprise, the harder that surprise is going to have to work to make your audience laugh. By cutting a line, you’ve just empowered that Punchline. Think of the surprise as the heart of your joke. The more weight that joke loses, the more effectively that heart can pump.
Depending on your individual taste, you may want to alter the poem itself. “Oh, young lady I saw working at Subway…” it begins. I like that it is short. I like that it mirrors the set up exactly. However, could it be more “poem-y” here? Is it enough that the comic begins to read from a page and changes his voice?
Maybe. This part worked and I don’t want to overthink it. But there is a chance here to make the language more colorful without adding too many syllables. You could change young lady to “spry maiden” or something more archaic and play up the contrast in style to the punchline. Or perhaps you find it funnier that the “poem” is hardly poetic at all. In that case, remove the “Oh” and essentially repeat the set up line as a “poem.” Or you may decide not to fix what isn’t broken and leave it as it is.
The Punchline works. The comic drops the affected tone and hits “Where are your teeth!?” in their normal voice. They pump it full of the combined fear and disbelief they feel as the customer. Furthermore, writing a poem is an intrinsically sensitive act. Having it be so harsh is another surprise. The whole crowd laughed when I saw it performed.
The next two laughs were just chuckles. Perhaps, having gotten the first laugh, the comic figured this premise had enough juice to fuel a longer bit. But they already gave the surprise. “Where are your teeth?” is suprising for a poem, and it fulfills the expectation the audience had from hearing “Junktown.” Without a new expectation or a twist, there’s no where else to go from there. The comic can get a chuckle from adding profanity, and another one from making her pregnant, but neither of those things add anything new to the idea. They force small laughs by making the audience uncomfortable, but they are not really jokes. I say cut them both. If you want, you could move the “F Bomb” to the original punchline, making it read “where are your fucking teeth?” and MAYBE get a bigger laugh with the further contrast between this vulgarity and the original “poem” premise.
You may also want to switch out the exasperation in the delivery for a different emotion. Maybe fear works better, or intense concern for the employee. Either of those might contrast nicely with the new, swear word-infused punchline and pump the laugh up harder.
Then again, whatever power you gained from adding the swear word may be evened out by what you lost from adding two more syllables to your formerly quick punch line. Here is another instance where your individual taste in comedy can steer the joke one way or another though both are probably equal outcomes. Another option might be to read the whole thing in an emotionally detached style, without switching to exasperation on the Punchline. This might give a slightly delayed but perhaps bigger laugh when they realize the poem is over and process its message. Not acting out the emotional change might add a subtlety that might even dispel some of the meanness of the bit. Again, it is all a question of your individual style. What is funny to you?
So now the medium length bit that got one laugh and two chuckles is now a lean two-liner. Losing a whole sentence at the top should make the Punchline hit harder. The joke lost weight so its heart pumps more efficiently. Changing the question to a statement demonstrates confidence and removes a chance for the joke to be derailed. Remember, if you don’t actually want to hear the audience talk, don’t ask them things. The chuckles were not strong enough laughs on their own to use up valuable minutes of your act where new, stronger, ideas would do better. Eliminating time spent getting mediocre half-laughs makes your overall set stronger. Slight changes to the wording of the joke give you a chance to put your own comedic spin on the idea. And now, you can make a big deal of folding the poem back up and maybe get a second laugh. There is something funny about a one line poem that you somehow needed to read.
For now, a joke like this is necessary to keep in your act for the laugh. But translating the joke into a declarative sentence shines a light on the idea you are conveying to the audience. By doing this we can see that this is exactly the kind of joke that you cut when you have the luxury of having more material than you need.
Hope that made the previous lessons a little more concrete, and applying them to your own work a little easier.
Assignment One :
Prepare your set the way you have been these last few weeks. Pay special attention to the above example during the process. Update your bit list accordingly, moving any joke that deserves it into “Group One” and putting giving any joke the audience has heard too many time aside for a month.
Perform at your three Open Mics. Advance your set toward your goal of a five minute Showcase Set of all Group One material.
Begin keeping notes after each set you do in a notebook or notepad file. Write your set list along with the date and venue at the top of a page. Maybe somenotes about the night for context, like “small crowd” or “followed a guy who bombed.” Then write down how each individual joke did, and anything you noticed that gave you an insight into your act.
You can make this as simple as a star by each bit that did well and a question mark by each bit that had problems. Then add a sentence or two about anything that jumped out at you. Reviewing this each month can help chart your progress and spark new insights on improving your act.
In addition to the five minute set you work on each week, I want you to add one more goal for your open mic sets. This is a Performance Goal. Pick one thing that is not at all related to your writing that you want to work on this week. This can be anything. Some examples:
I want to smile more.
I want to wear my “character face” the whole time.
I want to hold eye contact with audience members.
I want to move around the stage.
I want to keep completely still.
I want my delivery to sound more conversational.
I want to stop shuffling my feet.
I want to stop fiddling with the mic stand during my act.
I want to add sound effects to my stories.
Anything that isn’t writing-related, but only one thing for the week. I find that consciously working on any performance element adds enough difficulty to your set that only one thing is feasible to work on at a time. Next week will be all about performance. I want you to go in having been thinking about one aspect of performing for a week.
Watch the following videos:
After answering the same questions you’ve asked since the Greg Giraldo video in Week One, make a list. How many things can you spot either comedian doing to add to the impact of his words? This can be anything: a gesture, a sound effect, a movement, a change in voice tone, a face, anything. As you get ready for next week’s emphasis on performance, I want you to see just how much thought goes into this at the highest level. Do not finish your list until you have at least twenty-five things. Trust me. There are many more.
See you next week. Kill ‘em! And if you have any questions, I will answer them here.