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.


Joke Punch Up: Cadence

This is the first of a series of posts about ways to punch up material. When I say “punch up” I mean taking material and making it funnier or making it funny in the first place. These won’t be terribly long posts, but I hope they help the novice be able to sharpen their jokes.

Cadence

When I mean cadence I am talking about how the joke is actually coming out of your mouth. How are you saying the words that you wrote. A lot of comedians starting out will emulate a comedian that they admire and copy their cadence. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but at some point you should want to sound like something else.

Some comedians will write the way they will tell the material on stage and never really change it much after that. When the material doesn’t “hit” as hard as they expect or doesn’t work at all they will ditch it for stuff that does work when it was the way the jokes is being said that is at fault. When you are telling this joke, look for instances where the problem isn’t the writing itself, but how you are saying it. Should the joke be told with a more mellow inflection in your voice? Should the premise sound hopeful? These are things that can help a joke without touching another word in it.

Timing is Everything

I see a lot of young comedians step on stage with their three minutes and rush through it with no feeling: like they are reading a book report. Putting feeling into material will help it more than trimming ever can! I would say timing is a component of cadence and is a skill that if mastered, can make a ok joke pretty good. Pause for a second before you deliver the punchline. Give complicated setups time to be understood. Don’t step on laughter by moving on with material. These are great ways to make a joke better without rewriting.

Conclusion

So, cadence is an easy way to make a joke better. Changing the speed at which you are saying the material and learning when and where to pause can add more suspense to material. It can also hide flaws in your stage persona. Go to your next open mic with these things in mind and try all the material that you have been having trouble with and see if this doesn’t help. If it doesn’t then stay tuned for next week’s post on punching up your material.

International Comedian

I went up to Victoria, British Columbia last weekend, and had a blasty blast. Here is what I learned.

It’s Not Hard to Get Booked

I have been doing comedy for almost fifteen years, and this was my first time going abroad for comedy. I think I was just afraid of the disconnect. Even though it is Canada, and I didn’t have to learn a new language, it is still another country with a culture all its own. I now know that all that worry was for nothing, and I want to go back VERY soon.

Certain Details May Be Lost…

We normally write about the things we are familiar with. So sometimes your material will have a landmark or event that is unique to a time and place. I had to make sure they knew what a Costco was because one of my favorite jokes is very detailed about the warehouse shopping giant. I would advise people going abroad their first time to comb their material and make sure you can substitute a replacement for whatever it is you are talking about. If you can’t then you may want to avoid the joke as to not confuse people.

Politics

The last night performing, I made a comment about their Prime Minister and heard a light hiss from the audience. That is because from the time I heard of him until that set, he has been in a scandal. I don’t keep abreast of world politics, so I would not know that. After I said he seemed cool, my brain immediately yelled for me to stop. That is when I think I saved it by telling them of the alternative. If I had the chance to do it again, I would have avoided the subject all together or just research a little more so I could be better prepared.

Some Things Everyone Knows About

R.Kelly. Michael Jackson. Donald Trump. People know about these things. Some things are universal and will work as long as the culture isn’t a 180 degree departure from your own.

The Take Away

I learned that comedy is comedy and people will laugh as long as you are funny and spend a little time getting to know them. I got a lot of laughs from talking about walking around their city. People know things about their city and when someone points it out, it can bring an audience together. I would advise again troupes that cities may have heard before. Like I would not perform in Tacoma, Wa and talk about the smell, or go to Detroit and talk about the empty houses…unless I thought I had a unique spin (which is seldom, but possible).

I think if you are a working comedian, you owe it to yourself to go to another country. It can really tell you a lot about your material and the way you perform. Do you have too many local references? Do you have a tendency to alienate the populace? These are things that could help you as a performer.

Next week I will begin a series of blogs on punching up material. I think we will start with just performing the material and work from there. Hope to see you back next week!

Why The Feature Act is So Underrated

When an audience goes to a more tradition comedy show, they will usually see an MC or host, the feature act or middle, and the headliner. Out of all those spots, I believe the feature act is the most underrated part of the show. Now, let me explain why.

The “Middle Child” Effect

I am coining this term today! The middle child effect works like this. When the MC gets up, everyone is trained to expect that they are just introducing stuff. They are gonna talk about the drink specials and the comment cards and tell you who is on the show. They are not expecting much from the guy that just told them to turn their phones off.

A comedy club rarely puts a more seasoned person in this spot because of how the pay for host usually work. So, they get someone that hasn’t been doing it long, but shows promise to fill that spot. People can usually tell that this is a comedian’s first couple times on stage in front of that many people so their expectations drop a little bit knowing that the comedian may stumble a little bit and be a tad awkward.

The crowd expects a lot from the headliner. I mean, his face is on the poster, but because he is last there is the expectation that he knows what he is doing. He is usually a seasoned person that travels the world performing and so, for the most part, an audience is expecting to laugh.

The feature on the other hand has the tough job of going up after someone that may not even be a comedian. I have gone up as a feature after the cook has come up to the stage, grabbed the mic and cursed the guy who was supposed to be introducing me, and then mess my name up. When I used to do more shows in Montana, audiences were trained to not show up until thirty minutes after the show started because they figured the feature was bad. The “middle one” is never expected to do much, but people put a lot of pressure on them because they are the official start of the comedy show.

The Pay Makes it Hard to Stay a Feature

Most clubs pay feature acts enough to break even on a gig. You are not going to keep the comedians that are great features because no one can make a living as one. Everyone wants to be a headliner, but the problem is a lot of people have a great fifteen or twenty and the quality suffers after that, but instead of staying a feature act they have to write that next twenty minutes so they can actually make money when they go out.

Because clubs don’t pay enough for a feature to travel to them, that means they have to find features from the area. That is a good thing when you have a club in a larger city because you are sure to have features who can perform and you don’t have to worry about the cost of putting them up somewhere. The issues arise when you are in a medium to small area and the talent pool isn’t as large. Now you either have to have the “good” features perform a lot, or you have to promote comedians to feature when they should be hosting longer.

So because of the pay to feature and the audience’s expectations of the “second guy”, it is really hard to be a feature act. I seriously think most comedy clubs do not hold feature acts in much regard. Think of it from the business aspect though: They are not putting any asses in seats. They don’t serve a more central purpose like the host, and they don’t have the clout of a headliner who has TV credits and name recognition, so the feature is where a lot of leeway is afforded if you are booking shows.

This is how I see it though: (Remember, I am a feature is 90% of the clubs in the country so you can take this however you see it.) A show is only as good as the assembled pieces. If one of those pieces has been skimped on, it does the paying customer a disservice. Features are important because they lay the groundwork to make the headliner’s job that much easier. A feature that can hold their own is so valuable that a lot of bigger headliners just bring their own.

How do you fix this? The answer is simple. Venues need to make it so a feature can actually make money when they perform. That will keep a lot of good talent from leaking out to other places just because they want to get paid enough that they aren’t losing money when they perform. Maybe try putting them up in a hotel or condo (Clubs do this a lot, but some don’t). That keeps the cost of doing business way down (for the feature not the club). It will cost more money, but how much? Will it be offset by the fact that audiences will talk about how the entire show was awesome and not just “the last one”? This is a question only a person writing the checks can answer. All I can do is offer this suggestion as a way of making shows more entertaining.

How The Economics of Comedy Clubs Make Stormy Daniels Possible

There are some comedians in the industry that are up in arms after exotic dancer and business woman, Stormy Daniels announced that she was going on a comedy club tour. There are many opinions on why it is wrong and many on why its no big deal. I can see both sides of this argument, and I will present to you why her doing this is even possible.

People like spectacle

I think it is obvious, but humans have been attracted to the odd and scandalous forever. So there is always a market for people on the “fringes” to make money if they know where to find people willing to see it. This is no different. She had sex with the President of the United States. People would pay to hear her talk about just that alone. Comedians need to understand that spectacle will put more asses in seats then a great, non famous joke teller.

Comedy clubs are the new vaudeville stages

For those that don’t know, vaudeville was like a travelling stage show for variety acts. They would play in theaters and you could see everything from comedians to singers to a guy that set his beard on fire (I made the last one up, but it could be true). Vaudeville disappeared roughly the same time comedy clubs started taking off. Comedians had a legit place to perform! Except that left a lot of other acts out in the cold. Vaudeville shows would have famous people that would basically sit on stage and talk about their life. So when those stages disappeared these people had to find a place to go, and that is when comedy clubs became that place. Most comedy clubs have comedy from Thursday to Saturday. What about those days when they don’t have comedy? That is a great time to bring in a popular person that may not be a comedian, but can put asses in seats.

When you combine the two…

So, you have people wanting to see certain individuals and a place with a stage that is empty sometimes three nights a week…that makes it pretty simple to see why a comedy club would bring in someone like this. Go to your local club’s website and I am sure you can find one date on their calendar that isn’t considered comedy in the tradition sense. Mike Foley, Jake the snake Roberts, male reviews, a podcast recording, all these things bring people into a club at times when no one would be there otherwise.

I wish it wasn’t true, but it is hard as hell to get people to just come see a comedian. I did two shows this past weekend, one in a legit theater, and the total number of people that attended these shows was probably 70 people. That is good for a person with no name, but a comedy club can not possibly sustain themselves on 70 people a weekend (depending on size of course). Comedy clubs are not like the Philharmonic, they are not just presenting art for artistic sake, they are trying to make money. They have payrolls and bills to pay just like anyone else, and if an exotic dancer can put asses in seats and get people to buy drinks then they will do that.

I don’t think most people care that she is an exotic dancer. At least I hope. I think there is a subset of comedians that think comedy clubs should only be for comedic acts and that isn’t the case. With the increase in other forms of entertainment, a club has to rely a lot more on food and drink to make it and so they have to open their stage to a larger variety of entertainment. It is cost effective to the act because they don’t have to rent a theater that will have you paying a bunch of money and not do much to promote your presence. It works for comedy clubs because they may not have anything going on that night and it only helps their bottom line to have someone with a following come stand on their stage. Since the person putting on the show may only get paid based on the amount of people paying to see them, it makes sense to have them if there is no risk to the club.

I hope this helped those that do not understand the issues at hand. I think comedians need to not worry about acts like this because they have no impact on comedy as a whole. I think the average adult is not thinking less of a comedy club because they had a male review there last night instead of some comedy act. The average person will only go to anything if they have an interest in that thing and no matter what you do, you will not be able to force them to see comedy for comedy’s sake. It doesn’t hurt women comedians because her presence doesn’t mean they will not hire another woman, it just means that date is no longer available to anyone.