How Comedy Competitions Ruined Me

I was talking to my lady and she was saying how my comedy has changed over the years. Now, when I first started doing comedy, I had a more rigid structure (set lists) and my jokes were a little more absurd in nature. When I got more comfortable, I would more or less walk on stage and “write” while I was up there.

When I say write on stage, what I mean is that I had a concept or premise and I would work it out while on stage. This led to a lot of jokes I told for a long time. This is the time frame she is talking about. A time when I seem more free on stage. I didn’t have a answer other than, “I changed because of competitions”

How Competitions Can Change Your Style

My first time doing a legit competition, it took me a couple of nights to figure out that people are not doing whatever came to them before they walked on stage. They had a polished, curated amount of time that was supposed to tilt the judges opinion in their favor. My dumb ass was just walking up there talking about giraffe necks. Yeah it might be funny, but the way this goes about is more of a group discovery. What I mean by that is I would go up there with the premise and just explore it out loud. That meant it might not work because the punchline came to me while on stage. That is a very dangerous way to tell jokes in a competition atmosphere where everyone is trying to do their best work.

So after the first night of doing this I started arranging a set of jokes that went together and I thought would work, and guess what? They did. I think after that I was just conditioned into working on jokes in that way, the way others were doing it, mainly out of fear of not succeeding, or losing to people that had an automatic amount of jokes to peel off for just such an occasion.

Success With A Style Can Turn It Permanent

Once I was done with the competition and I started getting more work and working for bigger acts, I started not even attempting that style out of fear that what I was doing was the reason I got the work in the first place. That style was replaced with a return to the writing on paper and theory crafting at open mics. Instead of using open mics as a laboratory to mix different ingredients to come up with a joke, I was using it as a lot of people were using them as which is a place to strike out or rewrite material.

That meant going weeks telling mainly the same material. This hadn’t been a part of me since I started. It has gotten to the point where I will just throw out a tried and true joke whenever that fear overcomes me. I will walk off stage feeling as though I am trapped because the thing I liked most about comedy, well, at least my comedy, was slowly devolving.

How To Reverse It

I noticed this about myself way before my girlfriend brought it to my attention, but I didn’t think anyone thought any which way about what I was doing. I mean, I just thought this was the way to go about it from now on because it seemed like people more successful than me were doing it this way.

I don’t know anyway to reverse this other than to go to open mics unprepared. Five or six years ago, I would go to open mics and not have any idea what I was going to talk about for my allotted time. I would sit down and then the floodgates would open and I would get ideas and I would write them down. It didn’t matter if they were just premises or full jokes, I just wrote them (typed them because I am part cyborg) down and when my name got called I would go up and work em out. That’s what an open mic is for in my mind. A place to experiment and if the experiment worked, think about putting it in my actual act.

Working On The Mind

That isn’t the only place I need to try to reverse what has been going on however. I think my mind has been scarred from seeing what works in successful comedians and not wanting to make the journey longer by adopting a method which is not common. My mind switched from having the audience come along with me on this journey of my thoughts and turned to me trying to give them a less trying means to laughter.

What got me hooked on comedy was not getting paid to do it, but watching people enjoy the silliness I concocted out of thin cloth. This means taking this mindset not only to open mics, but also to shows where I am getting paid. I think this could return me to that former comedian that seemed relaxed and free on stage…or it could blow up in my face. But that was half the fun of this endeavor anyway.

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.

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.

The Pros and Cons of Set Lists

I have always been of two minds about set lists. If you don’t know, a set list is what (in this case at least) a comedian brings on stage with a list of the jokes they want to tell. I used them early on, but decided to abandoned them so I could work a bit more organically. Lets look at the good and bad and have you decide what you should do before you step on stage.

Pros:

  • Keeps new jokes, that you haven’t memorized yet, at the ready
  • Ensure you keep certain jokes together that would ruin a flow if they were separated
  • For those that have trouble remember most of their jokes, this can kick start your memory

Cons:

  • Makes it harder to work organically within the show
  • Can become a crutch and keep people from memorizing their material
  • Can look unsightly when a comedian looks down and stares at the stool

The way I see it, if you are at an open mic, or working with a lot of newer jokes, then you may want to use a set list so you can keep the jokes you want to do at the ready. There is nothing weirder then a comedian that gets on stage at an open mic and can’t remember the jokes they wanted to tell.

I think it is important to have some etiquette when it comes to a set list. Don’t write your set on a big piece of paper and bring that up with you (talking about shows, take whatever up at an open mic). It looks like you are not prepared. Don’t write the entire joke on the paper. Just the title (if it has one) and a couple of words to jump start your memory. The set list shouldn’t be there for you to read and recite your jokes, it is there as a handy reminder.

Another thing worth trying is hiding your set. I have seen comedians put it on their beer or water bottle. That way when you take a drink you can look at it. When I am using a set list, I will right the title on a comment card or something and leave it on the stool. While I am prancing around on stage I can take a quick peek at it and see where I am supposed to be going next.

There is nothing wrong with a set list as long as you remember that it is supposed to help you remember material, not replace your memory all together. The audience doesn’t want to see a comedian spending most of their time reading a note card when they are supposed to be performing. Just think about what you would think of if you saw a comedian doing that.

What I Learned From A Comedy Class

The local comedy club had a comedy class and it was revealed later that it was mandatory if you wanted to work at the club.  I was going regardless, but a lot of people wondered what a class like this would entail.  Would it try to sway the way we write jokes?  Would it try to brainwash us?  Would the lunch be satisfactory?  These were just a few of the inquiries that were floating around before the date of the class. I just wanted to go over some things that I got out of a class of this nature.

The class was ran by comedian Cory Michaelis.  I’ve known him for several years, and he is a former teacher turned comedian.  That background helped him build a class to teach those looking to give comedy a shot. The class he was teaching us was a bit more advanced. What I thought was really cool was how, at the very start of the class, he told us that he was not assuming to be an expert, just someone that through experience as a teacher and comedian, could deliver it in a fruitful way.  That is how I run this blog.  I am not a big time comedian, just a guy that has seen a lot of stuff and wanted to share that information.  I think a lot of people were wondering what gave him the right to teach a class when he doesn’t have whatever credit needed to be seen as a “real” comedian.  He was headlining the club this past weekend, but I got the feeling that a lot of people wanted appearances on late night and stuff like that.

He started off with the simple stuff.  Premises, punchlines, tags.  The stuff that people claim to know about, but when you ask them about it they don’t have a firm grasp of these concepts.  We saw videos of people using techniques that were taught, giving you thorough understanding of each thing taught.  He then went into hosting, and asked for any questions.  I thought it was a great class and I took away quite a lot of information.

I am always trying to write more material.  I got a couple of tips on how to make that happen more than just those eureka moments.  I learned more about hosting (one of my many weak areas), and what is required of a good host.  I was able to see techniques applied to actual jokes, and I learned a lot more about why my emails probably were not getting answered.  All in all I think it was worth my money.

Sadly, I also learned some not good things from this comedy class and it has nothing to do with the club, or the teacher.  Spokane, like I have said before, is pretty much an island when it comes to performers.  We are here with no other large cities around for hundreds of miles.  That means that a lot of people have a warped sense of where they are in the grand scheme of the comedy landscape. Before the new club came to town, if you just kept doing alright for a couple of months, you could get paid to perform.  That means that we have a lot of people who have only been doing this for a couple years that have gotten paid and now they think they can take on the world.  When the club came to town a lot of those same people wondered why they were not getting the same work, and instead of turning the critique inward, looked out and tried to find the reason for these failings elsewhere.  When the class was announced a lot of people chimed in that it was fishy because it was aimed at comedians.  Not thinking that maybe it was the club’s way of saying that we were not up to the standards that they are looking for, and that the class could help.  When it became known that the class was needed in order to work a the club, you got a lot of defiance.  This perplexed me.  As some one who has had to sit through orientations and training meetings, it is not unheard of to ask your employees to sit down and see what is required of you.

I was asked why I, a comedian of 12 years, would attend a class on comedy and I think the answer should have been obvious.  I am not an expert at comedy.  I don’t know every single thing there is to know about comedy, so I want to know as much as possible in order to become better. To see fellow comedians look at it not as a chance to get better, but as an attempt to get $25 dollars from them (the discounted price to attend, from $125), seemed short sighted and pretty egotistical.  To assume that you need no direction because you have been paid, or have been doing it for some time is just a weird thing to me.  How do we get better as artists if we don’t sharpen our skills?  How do we move from just getting paid every so often, to having comedy pay our bills, if we are not trying every thing possible to make it happen.  I also think that getting upset over the date (the weekend before the 4th) or the cost, or the fact that it was mandatory, was just a cover for something larger. Comedians are some of the most sensitive people I have ever met, and any affront to their ability to make people laugh is an affront to them and their very being.  So to some, to have someone come in (mind you someone that has a successful club that is one of the best in the nation), and tell them they need to work on their comedy is a slap in the face, and that saddens me.  It saddens me because I am a champion of a lot of the comedians in this city, and to see that they don’t want every little edge possible to be the best they can be is disheartening.  It’s not the fact that the class cost money, someone had to spend their off time to teach it so it should cost something.  It’s not the fact that it is a class.  We take classes for all sorts of other things and pay way more money for it.  It’s not that it was mandatory. We have all worked places were we had to sit there and listen to someone tell us not to talk about our co worker’s tits, and to not steal the bandages (this was orientation for a job I had at the VA).  It’s about comedians who do not want to admit that they can work on being better then they currently are.  So, one of the biggest lessons I learned is that you can not drag people to their potential. The only career I can control is my own, so I will continue to write, perform, and get better.

Oh, and the pizza we got for lunch was pretty good.