Big Idea Comedy Vs. Small Idea Comedy

For lack of better terms, I tend to look at comedy in two very broad terms, that can be elaborated on later.  Big ideas and small ideas.

Big idea comedy, at least in the way that I think of it, are premises that try to tackle the big issues in our society.  Poverty, inequality, women’s issues, race, are what I would call Big ideas.  These are things that people have an idea about, but may not have thought of them in a comedic way.  I think a lot of comedians start out writing material with these ideas in mind. Why?  Because it can be easier to grasp for both the comedian and the audience.  We have been confronted with most of these ideas, so there is not much set up required.  As soon as you start going into the bit, everyone more or less has an understanding of the topic at hand.  This does not mean it is easy. On the contrary, big idea comedy writing is usually the hardest to write effectively.  There is a reason they are ideas that still linger in our society, and there are many different ways to fail an idea you are trying to get out to the audience.  I have sat at hundreds of open mics where the person wants to say something witty about these issues, but instead comes off as offensive or tone deaf.  If that is the idea then, to make it seem as though you have no idea what is going on, then exaggeration is your friend.

Newer comedians tend to want to go  after these topics for another reason, they have seen their favorite comedians knock these topics out of the park.  The problem is that we tend to not see the work that is involved with crafting a joke so it seems easy when in actuality it is quite difficult.  So, how would I advise a new comedian to go after these big ideas?  I wouldn’t.  I would tell them to go after things that others can’t duplicate (this is where small idea comedy comes in).  If they really want to though, I would tell them that saying the same thing that every comedian in the world is already saying is not a good way to differentiate yourself from the masses.  That is why blue collar comedy is what it is.  It says something completely different from what hundreds of other comedians are saying.

Small idea comedy may sound like the opposite, and you would be partly right.  Small ideas, as I am writing them, are things that are happening to you directly.  It is not as big as race relations, but it can be, just as long as it is happening to you.  This seems to be how a lot of comedians progress as they get more comfortable with the way they write. They start off talking about really heavy ideas, and then they look within their own lives to find humor.  To a lot of newer comedians, this seems daunting.  You may be young and thing the things that are happening to you directly would not be funny, but have you sat down and thought about it?  Have you taken time to assess situations in your life that could be funny?  When you start thinking about comedy differently, you start to realize that you can find a lot of good material in smaller ideas.  How does going out in public make you feel?  Do you hate your in-laws?  These are things that do not affect the lives of many, but can still be funny.

How can you get to these small ideas and write effective material about them?  First, think about the things that bother you.  The things that make you laugh.  These are things that a lot of other people may find weird enough to laugh at.  Some of the greatest comedians ever made their names from looking within and being able to articulate it in ways that made others laugh.  What is great about this material is because it is more personal, it is harder for others to duplicate.  This is the material that audiences will remember you for.  Do you have funny stories?  That is small idea comedy!

I hope I was able to get these idea across in an effective manner.  If not please let me know in the comments.  While you are at it, go here to pick up the new book from my friend Andrew Oullette.  Thanks!

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You Are Not Owed Anything

This may seem harsh, but I will keep it short so it stings a little less:  You are not owed anything in comedy.  There.  If that surprised you, or got your heart rate up, that means you are the perfect person for this blog post.

I think what happens is we take what we know from other industries, and assume it should work that way in comedy.  Longevity does not equal experience.  Experience does not equal ability.  Ability does not equal employ-ability… None of these things mean you are a shoe in for certain things.  This isn’t like working down at the docks, where if you were there for five years you get promoted.  You don’t get promoted in comedy just because you have been going to open mics steadily for five years.  If that were the case a lot of people would have HBO specials.  When someone tells me that they have been doing comedy for x number of years, it means nothing because you can get on stage once, never get on again for 10 years, and still call yourself a comedian.  Have you been writing?  Have you been performing?  These are the things that I think are more important than just how many years you have called yourself a comedian.

Just because you have been on showcases a bunch of times doesn’t mean you should be featuring at a club.  I see it time and time again.  Someone has been getting spots on shows, and now they think they are ready to feature.  Getting on stage is good experience, but that doesn’t mean you have the ability to perform for 20-30 minutes.  Ask a comedian that has been doing it for about six months to a year how much time they have, and most will overestimate.  Why?  Because open mics and such may give them  the impression that they have a lot of material that works.  That is not the case.  Once you get in front of a paying, attentive crowd, they are not going to let things slide because “everyone is just working on stuff”.  Get honest with yourself.  Do you have 20 quality minutes, or 10 decent minutes and 10 minutes of bonus ramblings.  Getting honest with yourself will help you not burn yourself when you are trying to get work.

So, you have been doing it for a while and have the chops.  You feel you have what it takes to start working.  What’s this though?  No one wants to work with you?  You can’t get booked anywhere even though you are funnier than all the other comedians that get booked?  Have you ever thought that maybe you’re an asshole?  Close you eyes (later, not now), and think of all your interactions with other comedians. Is it you and a bunch of probably skinny white dudes running through a meadow?  Or, is it a bunch of arguments and Facebook post telling comedians to eat a dick?  If it’s the latter, than that is your answer to why you are not getting booked.  You can not expect to be a piece of shit, AND be booked.  It may seem like the world of comedy is this large expansive network, but it is much smaller than that.  There are only so many comedy bookers and the odds that they have dealt with someone that has dealt with you is probable at the least.  If you have a great set, a set that makes bras fall off and guys get tramp stamps, but you can’t be worked with than people will just leave you off of shows.  There is a limit to this though.  If you are in the upper levels of comedy, like the Tom Seguras, and Phillip Kopczynskis  of the world, then you may be able to get away with not being the coolest person to work with, because you are putting asses in seats.  If, however, you are trying to get booked on your local show, and you are a total asshat, then why would anyone put up with that, no matter how funny you are.

Just remember that just because someone was doing it for 6 years and got on SNL doesn’t mean that is the trajectory for you.  Things happen to people differently.  I know comedians that started after me and are all over the country.  That doesn’t mean I deserve to be there as well.  That means that they may have had more connections, or were more personable to people, so they could network easier.  Maybe their material isn’t 80% dick jokes.  You have to be honest and look within when things are not going the way they should.

 

Stand-up Comedy May Not Be For You…And That’s Alright

I love stand-up comedy.  I love watching it and I love performing it.  I love pouring over my jokes trying to come up with a set that will appease a group of people that paid a nominal fee to see it.  There are hundreds of people out there just like me.  That may not be you, and that’s alright.

Stand-up comedy, I would argue, is probably one of the hardest ways to entertain people.  Most of the time, you are the writer and the actor.  You do not have a cast of people to blame for any mishaps, if you messed up YOU messed up.  No best boy or gaffer to point at and accuse of trying to ruin your career.  If the jokes don’t work then it means, most of the time, that you are not writing good jokes. There is more to stand-up than just writing jokes and then getting paid.  You have to sit at open mics and develop your material three to four minutes at a time.  You are sitting somewhere a lot looking over your jokes like they are a Rubik’s cube, but instead of colors, there all the other things you could be doing instead of trying to make a room full of people that don’t know you laugh. Let’s not forget that if you are trying to make a living at it all the obstacles in your way!

You may ask yourself, “why would anyone that doesn’t want to do stand-up go through all of that?”.  There are many answers to that.  One is that it is simply the lowest entry point into entertainment.  If you want to act, you have to find a theater and try out.  If you want to perform comedy, all you have to do is find a place that is already letting people do that.  There are no auditions, or test, or pokes and prods.  So, this allows people who want to entertain, but don’t yet know what they are good at try something out.  More rare are those that assume that stand-up is the easiest way for truly talented people to get noticed, so they go into it thinking that their immense talent will over shadow all the talent-less grubs fighting for $25, and they will soon be whisked away to Hollywood, or Vancouver, or wherever they film things now.

Then reality sets in.  They realize that because stand-up has a lower bar, it means it takes longer to prove you are capable of consistently making people laugh.  They talk to the grizzled vets, that have, “stand-up is hell!” tattooed on their foreheads, and find out that most of these performers have been doing it for years!  Still searching for that one joke that will catapult them into the next rung of the stand-up hierarchy, where they will have to fight tooth and nail to maintain what they worked so hard to obtain.  This can shock many an aspiring entertainer who thought they would stand out in a sea of plebs.

It hits a lot of people that looked at this as maybe an easier way to their end goal, or as a way to achieve fame hard.  Going out multiple times a week for a little sliver of stage time can wear on you. Not to mention dealing with the many different personalities that you meet while performing (great article topic by the way), and a lot of people can see it as just not worth it.  So, they stop coming out as much, and anyone who goes to the gym a lot and stopped for whatever reason, can tell you:  It is so much easier to not do stuff than to do stuff.  Next thing you know, you haven’t been out to comedy for six weeks and you feel like a failure.

There is nothing wrong with finding out this isn’t the route you want to take to get to your end goal.  If your end goal isn’t: Stand-up comedian, then doing stand-up is not a great way to venture into other things.  Some people find out that stand-up isn’t for them after the first couple of times getting up there.  They notice that they get a little too nervous when they are on stage, or they have to drink a lot of calm their nerves, and that bothers them.  Nothing wrong with finding a different way of getting your creative soul out there.  Maybe you just want to write, or you want to perform sketch comedy.  There are many ways to be funny without getting up on stage by yourself.  If you thought that stand-up was the best way to advance because you believe in yourself so much, maybe just try auditioning at your local theater, or try improv.  Those things may be more of what you are looking for.  However you go about it, just try to get that creativity out because those who don’t end up being the Unabomber.

How to Survive a Comedy Competition

Comedy competitions are weird beasts.  You are asking people to evaluate you as a comedian on criteria that is totally subjective.  What one person thinks is a funny joke, another person may see as a stinker.  Competitions can be stressful and pit you against people you thought you liked.  It can also bring out the best…or worst in people.  I will help you survive this upcoming competition season.

I think it is important to know, going into a competition, that losing doesn’t mean you are not funny, or a comedian, it just means through the process of elimination, you were not good enough to defeat people who were also being judged subjectively. Another thing that you MUST NOT do, is walk into a competition already counting the money.  This is putting the cart before the horse!  You still have the actually competition to go through, and you have already put yourself in such a corner.  Don’t think about the money or the prizes just yet.  Think about your performance.

A lot of people think there are prime spots in the line up that can increase your chances of winning.  I am here to tell you that is false.  Going first is not a death sentence and going up last doesn’t mean you are perceived to be the headliner.  It all depends on the comedian.  In competitions I have participated in, I have gone first many times and I have won, and lost.  It has nothing to do with your order and how the audience or judges perceive your order in the show.  It has more to do with how the audience and judges are feeling.  Did the show start on time?  Did the host do a decent set? Is it hot or cold in the building?  These have more to do with how a judge will perceive you then the order in which you are.  If anything, going first would be a great advantage.  You are the first comedian so you set the tone.  If you come out and light a fire under the audiences’ ass, then that can play with the rest of the comedians’ heads.   Going up last can have the opposite!  What if all the other comedians have done really well and now you go last?  There is no way to tell, so don’t worry yourself about the order.

Competitions are graded in different areas.  Some just leave it up to who’s friends can yell the loudest.  Some just pick random audience members and then others like to use a panel to do the judging.  I have personally competed in all of these types and I will tell you that the one that is the least scientific (for lack of a better word) is the audience response.  It is hard to judge who got more noise slung after their name was read.  I have seen people so butt hurt over this and I can see being competitive, but it isn’t worth it.  Just bring more friends next time.  Random audience members come next and they are better than just yelling, but not by much.  You don’t know if the person that was given the task of judging has ever been to a comedy show before.  This type of judging can be most influenced by biases.  The best type of judging in my opinion is the panel.  These people have usually been briefed on how to judge and because they are there to do that, they have a tendency to take it seriously.  When you just leave it to any old audience member, they may have gone out to smoke, or they have a tiny bladder meaning they miss parts of the show.  There are variants of all of these. Like some competitions have all the audience members judge.  This is better because the odds are better that a comedian hasn’t filled the ENTIRE room with just their friends or family.

Comedy competitions should be fun!  There is money or work at stake, but you should be walking into it thinking of what it can teach you about yourself as a comedian.  Do you go over time a lot? Well, competitions will cure that right up! Do you have jokes with way too many words in them?  That will disappear soon!  Do you spend the first 30 seconds asking the audience how they are doing? You will see how redundant that is at a competition.  Some comedians are not built for competitions.  Do you tell big epic stories?  It is tougher for you because you’re stuck on one thing for the entire allotted time. Do you have a dryer sense of humor?  That is tough because it may take awhile to get them accustomed to your way of joke slinging. If you are a nervous Nancy (sorry Nancy) and it takes awhile to shed that when you are up there, then competitions will only magnify this.  These are just my opinions from what I have witness.  There are exceptions to everything.

I can not end an article (or blog post if you must) about comedy competitions and not talk about some things.  If you are thinking that the best way to advance your career is to do competitions, then you will soon see that it is not.  They can be expensive and time consuming, and there is only a payout to a select few.  I performed in both the Seattle and San Francisco comedy competitions, placing 6th and 7th respectively.  All told, I spent about three grand and received about two grand in prize money.  I was able to afford it, not everyone can. Don’t go broke thinking that winning a comedy competition will put you in a spot to make more money.  That is all up to you as a person.  Some of the best comedians in the world apply to these competitions, and you have to be aware that you may end up on the losing end more times than not.  That’s even if you get accepted.  Competitions are looking for the best, but they are also looking to create a great show for people to see.  If you have been doing it four years, understand that it is harder to get in than someone that has been doing it ten and has done other competitions, and has a lot of credits to their name.

Have fun and be nice to all the competitors.  These guys are you competition today, but may be a booker tomorrow.

Invest in Your Comedy Career

I usually start off an article talking about my thoughts and then I end it with my experiences.  I am going to do the opposite this time.

When I first started performing comedy for pay, I was trying to cut as many corners as possible.  I had just gotten out of the military, so money was really low.  So, every chance I could, I went cheap. No business cards, head shots done by my girlfriend at the time, and I had no website.  I would go from show to show and I realized that people would come up to me and ask me if I had a business card. I would direct them to my Facebook page, and would hear nothing from them again.  As I got more work, and saw that this could be a career, I realized that I needed to do things to help me look professional and get more bookings so I didn’t have to have a second job!

I think this is common for a lot of comedians to assume that you don’t need to really put much into your career because you don’t really need much!  95% of us only need an amplified mic. So, we go in thinking there isn’t much to enhance our careers other than better jokes.  I really wish that was the case!  There are a lot of comedians out there that have a great act, but because they haven’t done anything to make themselves look more professional and ready to work, they don’t get the gigs that they deserve.  On the other hand, there are plenty of comedians that have invested in their careers and they are working every weekend!

As soon as you know you are going to start performing for pay, you need to get some head shots.  I don’t mean getting your friend to take photos of you with their iPhones.  No dig against camera phones, but if you want photos that will look great no matter what promoters and bookers are doing to them.  Find someone in your local area that take head shots professionally.  I must add this disclaimer that I have taken head shots of comedians, actors, and other artist.  I am not trying to tell you to hire me (it would be nice, my prices are really reasonable), what I am saying is when bookers open your email you don’t want them to ignore your promo package (I have an article on that, but I am too lazy to find it…I have written a lot of these things!) because your photo can’t be used on promotional material. Depending on where you live, you may be spending some coin, but it is one of the first things people see attached to your name!  You want people to see you as a professional comedian, it will pay for itself in a matter of time.

It may seem dated, but a business card is a great way for people to remember you.  I know it may seem cooler to tell people to go to your facebook page or website (more on that later), but just being able to hand them a card that has EVERYTHING on it is great!  That way when they are not within eyesight of you, they can look down at your card and see how you spell your last name.  Business cards are a great thing to hand to promoters as well. The great thing about this is that it doesn’t cost that much, so you can buy some and have them on your just in case.

A website!  A dedicated Facebook page is one thing, but if you have a website, it kind of elevates you in the minds of people looking you up to see if you are a good enough comedian to blow 15 bucks on.  There are many places to get a domain name, and hosting.  You can also have someone build it for your from scratch.  There is a lot more flexibility in having someone build it (as opposed to just templates that do it yourself sites may have), but it will cost more.  If you want someone that is looking you up to at least have a passing impression that you may be worth the price of admission a website is key.

Investing in your comedy also means finding ways to get more money out of the shows you do get.  Maybe join a site like Gigmasters or Gigsalad.  These sites are a like a database for entertainment. Say someone needs a comedian for a private event.  They go to one of those sites and find you. Gigmasters is free to join, but you will only be able to get seen from people up to ten miles away.  For $269 bucks, you will be able to be seen by anyone in the country looking for a comedian.  I have gotten a lot of work from this site and I haven’t even paid a nickel to them (except for the booking fee that they both charge if you take a gig from their site).  $269 is not that much if you can get booked a couple of times.

There are also other smaller things you can invest in to help you along your comedy career.  Acting classes can help you a bunch, especially if you want to get work as an actor as well as perform stand-up.  Getting a fuel efficient car can cut down on  fuel expenses. Getting a camcorder or voice recorder to help you sharpen your act.  I am sure I am forgetting some, but you understand what I am getting at.  If you want this to be your career, you have to do more than just convincing people that you want to take this seriously.  You have to actually do the little things that shows people you are.

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.

Comedic Styles: The Clean Comedian

We will continue our series on comedic styles with the clean comedian.  Some would probably say this isn’t a style, but I think it is.  Being a clean comedian or telling “clean” material is about more than just not cursing.  A lot of people associate this type of comedy (or they used to) with the boring comedian that tells jokes in front of a conference room full of people.  That stigma has changed in recent years because of comedians like Brain Regan and the fact that writing clean comedy is the fastest way to get on network TV, which leads to possibly getting booked in comedy clubs. So without further ado… let’s get into it!

Pros:

The ability to perform anywhere.  No one has ever kicked a “clean” comedian off the lineup (unless they are just not good).  You have the ability to perform in all group settings, so if there is a mixed aged audience (like with children) you will not worry anyone with your presence.

The ability to quickly advance.  If you are a clean comedian, you have that ability to work as a host much sooner because you won’t turn the crowd as quickly as someone that may be little more coarse. This is great if you are trying to get into clubs.

The ability to make more money as a corporate comedian or maybe on cruise ships.  There is so much money out there for a comedian that works clean!  If you can show promoters that you have quality clean material, you can book these gigs that my not be on the radar of people looking to get into clubs, but pays way better.

Cons:

Bar shows can be hard.  A rowdy bar may not pay attention to the clean guy if he doesn’t have a couple of jokes that can get their faces out of their beer.

Depending on you joke writing talent, writing clean material can be harder.  Not saying that curse words or dicks are essential to making a joke, you may not be digging deep enough into you mind to find material that can work out as clean.

I think every comedian should have a clean set.  Whether that means pulling curses and the more lewd details out of your existing jokes, or writing an entirely new set of jokes just for those cases, I think if you are trying to get work as a comedian, you should be as flexible as possible when it comes to your content.  When I am booking a corporate show, it is much harder to suggest comedians that I know are funny, but can’t do solid clean time.  If you don’t care about paying your rent with comedy then that is cool.  I don’t want you to sacrifice your beliefs just for money, but isn’t it cool to be able to get paid doing something you love?