Joke Punch Up: The Act Out

For the final entry in this series on sharpening up jokes, we go to the one that doesn’t really involve any writing at all. The act out.

What does this mean?

The act out is just using actions to better emphasize your material. The act out can be subtle or outrageous, but sometimes jokes need a visual aid to push what makes it funny.

Timing is crucial during any act out you are going to do. An act out too soon and you telegraph your jokes and one too late loses all impact. It should look natural to the audience and not seem forced. Look at your material and see what things can be added visually to help sell the joke.

Subtle and not so Subtle

You don’t have to flop around on the ground to sell a joke. If you are a more laid back comedian something as simple as rapid movements during intense parts of your jokes may be enough to add more spice to it. Simple hand motions that elaborate on certain aspects of your material can be enough to paint a more vivid picture for the audience.

Not everyone is good at being subtle however, some of us need to be a little more animated when performing act outs to get the point across. Use sounds to better describe detail in your jokes instead of just talking about it. Use the stool if need be (don’t hump it though because every open mic comedian has done that) what you are trying to do is add effects to what you are saying.

Extra Tips

If you plan on act outs make sure you know where everything on stage is located. If you place the mic stand right beside you and decide to twirl you may end up hitting it. I like to set it behind me and use the front of the stage more, but you have to make sure you know where the edge of the stage is. I have almost fallen off many stages acting like an idiot.

I would suggest if you are going to include act outs in your sets, to try subtlety and increase it as you get comfortable with it. Don’t just get up and start running around the stage if your material doesn’t warrant those actions.

Out of all the ways to punch up material, this is the one that is the most optional. I have seen it turn good jokes into great jokes, but that is if you are comfortable with doing it in the first place. Don’t think of it as acting crazy on stage. You don’t have to be like Jim Carey. You can do simple things that can really make a joke bite!

Well, that is it for this series I really hope you enjoyed it. Come back next week where I will tell you how to turn your back hair into a makeshift mic stand. Nah, I’m not gonna do anything like that, but I will do something.

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Joke Punch Up: The Tag

We have gone over cadence, and cutting down material. This week, we will be discussing a way to enhance your material by adding tags.

What is a Tag?

A tag is another punchline attached to the end of a joke. The usual structure of a joke goes setup > punchline. With tags, the structure is now setup > punchline > tag.

Tags are Important

One thing I see with a lot of first time comedians is that they will have a great premise, but after the punchline they move on to another joke. There is nothing wrong with that, but if it is a great premise, like say a crazy news story, you can make that joke even better by adding tags to it. That means writing less material to get the same amount of laughs.

Some of the greatest comedians on the planet use this to take even an ok premise and turn it into something golden. Tags can be used to build up the funniness of the joke. Take this example: You are writing a joke and the first punchline you thought of was alright, but after looking at the joke a couple more times, you see that you came up with a couple even better punchlines. You can stash those punchlines away and switch it up depending on the situation, or you can build upon the original punchline by tagging it with the other punchlines you created. It ramps up the material and you got to use all the punchlines you thought of and made a joke even better.

Tags can Lengthen a Joke

By adding tags to your material, you can also make a joke longer. If you came up with a premise for a joke and have a punchline for it, but like the joke enough to add on to it, just tag onto the premise. Add questions and answer with punchlines. You are still talking about the same premise, but you have made the joke longer by attaching more to the original joke.

Pitfalls of Tags

Some fall into the trap of tagging with less funny punchlines. If you are not sure of the other punchlines you wrote for a joke then it would be better to leave that joke to one punchline and moving on then to make a joke worse by adding tags. It is better to leave a premise with more to pull from later than to kill it with a bunch of tags that aren’t funny.

Conclusion

I don’t consider myself a very good tagger of jokes. I will write a punchline and not really have anything else to add to it. There are times when I will have a question about a situation I discussed in the premise and so I will just answer it myself either ridiculously or seriously. Either way I can pull a bit of laughter from that.

Tagging isn’t a substitute to good joke writing. If the premise is not connecting with people then no matter how many times you tag the joke, it won’t make it magically funny. This is like a steroid. It enhances a joke that already works. I can’t recall ever seeing a bad joke become good by adding more to it.

Next week should be the final article on this subject with act outs. Thanks for reading!

Joke Punch Up: YOU NEED TO CUT IT!!

This is the second of several articles that I am writing about ways to “punch up” your material. Last week, I wrote about using cadence as a way to easily punch up a joke. This week, we will discuss trimming of material.

Here is one of the biggest faults I see in material written by new comedians, the jokes are TOO DAMN LONG! See the thing is, school has trained us to write at length about stuff. When you have a report you need to turn in, and it has to be four pages long, we will write and add a whole bunch of details to get that word count up.

The thing with writing jokes is that less is usually better (we will talk about when it isn’t later). Some people can write a joke and immediately tell that a parts need to be cut in order to get to the funny sooner. Some of us can not do that.

What Needs To Be Cut?

Sometimes too much detail will spoil the punchline you are about to deliver. When you are looking at a joke to rewrite, ask yourself these questions: Did I hint at the punchline too soon? Did I explain the premise of my joke so thoroughly that it weakens the punchline? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then you need to CUT IT!!

Another thing I see in a lot of material is when the comedian writing it hasn’t slimmed down the premise to a precise point and has to spend a lot of words just to explain what they are going to “turn on”. If you have to spend more than ten seconds trying to explain what you are talking about, then the joke may not be any good. You should write the material in a way that when you are setting it up, everyone should understand what you are saying (or almost everyone, not everyone will get every reference you are trying to go after).

Look at your material for any pieces that are just dangling there with no purpose. If you mention someone’s shirt, it should either pertain to the joke in some way or be a way to get laughs (like if you are telling a story). In a book, authors love to go into detail about things so they can paint the picture more vividly. In Stand-up comedy, you want to obscure enough detail so that the punchline paints most of the image in. If you are talking about how incompetent your boss is and that is the punchline to the joke, more detail about his incompetence dilutes the punchline to the point that it can just be seen as the end of a funny statement.

You should think of your material how a magician thinks of their tricks. You should only show the audience what you want them to see in order for them to understand what you are doing, but not know how it is going to end.

When To Not Cut

I said earlier that there is a time when more is better and that is when you are telling a story. Now, trimming of your stories should still be sought after, but not to the degree that normal jokes are. You want to paint more of a picture because the parts of the story that will be considered punchlines need context. You can’t tell a story about a gun going off accidentally if you never talked about the gun. I would suggest you not pull a Moby Dick and talk for five minutes about the seat fabric during your first make out session, but you should let the audience know (if it will help the punchline of course) that the fabric sucked.

Conclusion

There is a saying in writing: “Kill your darlings”. In stand-up, you don’t necessarily have to kill them, but you may have to amputate a couple limbs. Trimming material can make it more precise, can add more spice to the punchline, and help you get in more material. I think a lot of comedians are so hung up on just being able to stay on stage for a certain amount of time that they do not consider that they are up there with a lot of “hollow” jokes. You don’t want to tell a show booker that you can do 15 minutes if most of that is filled with hot air.

A lot of veteran comedians and my creative writing teacher got me to a point where I take a joke and sometimes I will perform it, and then realize that it is too long and complicated. Comedy competitions are a great way to cut material out of necessity. Sometimes when a joke works out of the gate, we never really look back and see if there is any correcting that needs to be done. It’s not until you see great joke writers with material so razor sharp that you realize that you have to cut stuff to hit the punchline sooner or you just wasted five minutes of time to tell three jokes.

When we talked about cadence last week, I feel as though that is more of an elective way of punching up a joke. Cutting material down is something every comedian should be trying to do to make their jokes more effective. I hope I helped you with that. I will be back next week with part 3 of the Joke Punch up series.