Interactive Writing Guide Chapter 1
What No One Else Will Tell You
Note 1: The Interactive Writing Guide provides the foundation for Training Modules 1-5 in the Killer Stand-up Online Course.
Note 2: Embedded Multimedia in this chapter — 4 Audio Files, 3 Video Files.
When I provide private stand-up lessons for aspiring comedians, I always start with the same statement:
Once you’ve performed for an audience and have gotten the really big laughs, the only difference between performing stand-up comedy and heroin is… you can quit heroin.
As John Goodman’s character said about his wife (played by Sally Field) in the classic old movie Punchline, “It’s like living with a Goddamn junkie.” Anyone who has ever had a killer stand-up set knows just how true that comment can be.
If you’ve been successful at stand-up comedy at all, it stays with you… even if you’ve been away from it for years… even if you eventually became a big movie star.
Here is a part of an interview Michael Keaton did with Byron Allen on Entertainers. For those of you who don’t know, Keaton got his start in stand-up comedy in the late 1970’s, then went on to star in a number of hit movies.
Michael Keaton Interview Clip
The text from the clip is as follows:
BA: We’ve known each other for years. We met, what, back in, what, ’79 or so at the Comedy Store? What year was it you started doing stand-up?
MK: Somewhere around there.
BA: Around there? ’78, ’79?
BA: Yeah. You miss doing stand-up comedy?
MK: I miss, you know, that thing that happens when you’re on stage live being, you know… and it happens to be funny. I like being on stage live anyway, but being on stage live when a comedian is really cookin’ there’s nothing… you know, there’s nothing that can get close to that ever… ever. And I’ve played a musician, and everybody thinks that’s the ultimate.
And it is, because there’s that emotional thing. I hate to say it’s easier, but in a way it is easier. Because, you know, people go nuts, and you can get thousands of people going insane just playing music.
And you won’t get that amount if you’re a comedian. But when it works, man, there’s nothin’ better than that… ‘Cause it’s that real… ‘Cause it’s you saying, here’s what I think is funny. And then if you actually are… You know, it’s point of view, it’s philosophy, and all that comin’ together at the right time.
Entertainers with Byron Allen, 2001.
Great stand-up comedy is a high that you cannot forget. It’s a high that you cannot get rid of.
I’ve was addicted to performing stand-up comedy for 13 years before medical issues got in my way. It was something that I was good at and the personal and financial rewards along the way were fantastic.
But life wasn’t always good for me on stage…
How It All Started For Me
My very first attempt at stand-up comedy was no less than tragic for me. I was 23 years old and in the Navy on shore duty in Jacksonville, Florida. I wasn’t making much money in the Navy at that time — I had only been in a couple of years at that point. So I got a part-time job as a bar back (someone who restocks beer in the coolers) at the Enlisted Club on the base.
It was 1982 and the comedy boom of the 80s was just about to take off. My Navy job required me to conduct many adult education classes on a variety of topics. The content of most of these classes ranged from boring to absolutely coma inducing. So in order to keep people from falling asleep, I started interjecting my own sense of humor into the classes and the topic areas in general. It was not the result of any formal training I had gotten in being funny — it just kind of happened.
Armed with the knowledge that I had the ability to make a classroom of strangers laugh, I began thinking about trying my hand at stand-up comedy. I watched comedians on TV and it looked easy enough. I felt I was probably a natural. So I talked the club manager at the Enlisted Club into giving me 5 minutes of stage time after the magician scheduled to perform that week. I will never forget what happened next…
I had invited two of my dear friends to the club to watch my premier performance. I was confident and had no reservations about going on stage. The MC gave me an introduction and there I was — instantly, I was a comedian! But the next few minutes would change my life for the next 10 years and beyond.
There were about 50 people in the audience. When I hit the stage, the first thing I did was fumble with the microphone. I had never held one before and I found it awkward — so much so that my voice faded in and out because I didn’t keep it next to my mouth. But I kept talking. I thought that was all there was to it.
I talked for about 3 minutes — probably the longest 3 minutes of my life. The audience stared at me. I heard someone say, “What is he doing up there?” Some of the audience members just broke into conversation with one another.
I said “Goodnight” after about 3 minutes. I fumbled to get the microphone back into the mic stand and got off the stage. By the time I got off stage, I was reduced to little more than some sort of interruption that occurred after the magician. When I got to the table where my friends were sitting, they didn’t say a word. I quickly thanked them for coming. They said, “Better luck next time,” and I quickly left the club — feeling more humiliation than I had ever felt in my life.
On the way home I vowed I would never even think about doing stand-up comedy again. The experience had such a negative impact on me and my self-esteem that it took me an entire decade to get over it.
As I continued on with my Navy career, I continued to frequently conduct a very wide variety of training classes. I became a sought-after trainer because I could take the most boring topic and make it fun. I never planned my humor in the classes I gave — it just kind of happened. And I was very content with my success as a trainer and teacher.
Then, a strange thing started to happen with increasing regularity. I would be in the middle of training a group of people and some of the students would be laughing so hard, I would have to stop and wait for the laughter to die down before I could continue.
This was happening with greater and greater frequency, even though I couldn’t even begin to tell you why or how it happened. All I knew was that I was very comfortable in front of a class of strangers and could make them laugh with great consistency. Soon, the idea about becoming a stand-up comedian began to creep back into my head.
Six Books and a Bunch of Jokes Later
The year was 1992 and I was stationed in San Diego, California. Even though my first experience with stand-up had been devastating, something in my heart told me I could do it and do it well. I made the conscious decision to pursue it yet another time.
But this time would be different. I would try to get my hands on every scrap of information I could about stand-up comedy in order to have the best possible chance of success. Well, at least I thought it would be different…
I started looking for books on stand-up comedy. I got my hands on the six books available at the time. Taking the guidance from the books, I started writing jokes and preparing an act for the stage. It was then that I started to make some important discoveries.
Some of the books were hard to read and understand. Some of the books only had the most basic of information. All of the books focused on understanding joke formulas as the basis to write and develop comedy material. Some of the books either stated or implied that it took a long time to be a great comedian.
Still, I was committed to becoming a comedian. I set out to get on stage wherever I could, with my “finely crafted” act. Then, I ran right into the brick wall of reality…
As a newcomer, I found it difficult to get stage time at open mike events. When I did get on stage, I was riddled with stage fright. I would go into my “act” and get some laughs, but I was very dissatisfied with the results. I could get longer and harder laughs in a classroom than I could with my act.
Every comedian I talked to said, “To get good, you need lots of stage time.” But in a 3-month period, I was only able to get on stage four times total at the only open mikes available at the time. I figured that at this rate, I would need to wear adult diapers by the time I was able to develop a decent act. I needed an alternative — some way I could get in front of different audiences frequently and get the stage time I needed without having to fight so hard to get stage time at open mikes.
I was telling a friend about how difficult it was to get stage time, and he suggested that I teach Comedy Traffic School. I didn’t even know what it was, but he explained it to me. In California, they have a thing called traffic school.
Basically, it is 8 hours of driver’s training that is made available to people who get traffic tickets. It is a way to keep points off one’s driving record, subsequently keeping car insurance rates low. But the courses offered were notoriously boring and hated by the community at large.
So some companies began to offer Comedy Traffic School as a marketing technique to get people into classes. I checked it out. After minimal training, I was a certified traffic school teacher by July of 1992, soon teaching two to three classes a week in order to get my “stage time.”
But it didn’t take me long to realize that my “jokes” weren’t working. I remember trying so hard to make the people laugh, but most would not. Some would roll their eyes back into their head at my corny attempts at humor. I even resorted to some material that was really too adult and not really appropriate for a general public class. Some people complained. I knew this wasn’t the way it should be.
The Way It Should Be
I realized that while I was trying hard to become a comedian, I had never really been to a real comedy show with real, working comedians. Since there was an Improv very close to my home, I decided that I should go and check out a show. It was October 1992 and the beginning of some of the most important events that would shape the rest of my comedy career.
I had never heard of any of the comedians performing that night. I was like most people — I only knew of the comedians on TV shows. I didn’t realize that there were literally thousands of comedians working “the road” that most folks would rarely recognize outside their stage performance.
The opening act went on stage for 10 minutes. He may have gotten one laugh from the audience for his entire set. He introduced the middle act. The middle act came on stage and got several laughs in the beginning of his 20-minute set, but overall, he just wasn’t funny at all.
I was with my wife (now ex-wife) at the time and I remember commenting to her, “Maybe you have to develop a taste for this stuff.” But as I watched the crowd around me react to the first two performers, it was easy to see that these comedians were hardly getting any laughs.
The headliner that night was Bill Engvall. I had never heard of him or seen him anywhere. He hit the stage and after the fastest 45 minutes I had ever experienced, I laughed so hard my face hurt, my sides hurt, and I had tears pouring from my eyes. It was one of the most incredible things I had ever experienced. I didn’t want it to end.
I left the Improv that night knowing exactly what level of impact I wanted to make with an audience when I got the chance to perform. I would settle for nothing less.
Back to Work
I worked even harder to write and rewrite jokes. I read and reread the few stand-up comedy books I had. I talked with other open mike comedians, but they could provide little insight. I was doing everything in my power to improve as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to wait for years to get good at stand-up comedy. I wanted to be good at it now.
I remember one traffic school class in particular. It was late in November 1992. The 8-hour classes during the week were split over two nights. Weekend classes were held in one 8-hour session. I started the first 4-hour session of a traffic school class on a Monday night.
By the end of the first night of this class, I was ready to quit the whole idea of being a comedian and just give up. And I really didn’t want to come back and face these folks for another 4 hours on Tuesday after a particularly dead, laughless evening like I had just experienced with a group of people who were less than impressed with my comedic talent.
I was driving home, thinking to myself, “I’ve done everything possible. I’ve followed the rules in the books. I understand the joke formulas. Still, I can’t get the laughs I want.” At that point, it appeared to be hopeless and I would just have to face the cold, hard fact that I just wasn’t cut out to be a stand-up comedian.
The Night Everything Changed
As I was getting ready to leave the next evening for the last 4 hours remaining in the class, an odd thing happened. I usually wore slacks and a tie to teach class. (This was the school policy.) I figured since I was going to quit anyway, I would just wear what I liked to wear. I put on my jeans and polo shirt. I wore my tennis shoes and my favorite ball cap. What were they going to do, fire me? I was quitting anyway.
As I drove to the class, I made the decision to just drop all my “jokes” and have fun like I normally would when I teach a class. At this point, I just didn’t care. My dreams of being a stand-up comedian were in the toilet anyway, so I figured, why not just have some fun?
I killed the class that night. They laughed most of the night and I had fun for the first time since I started teaching traffic school. It was that night that changed my whole outlook and approach to stand-up comedy.
I realized that the so-called rules and formulas I was studying in the books really didn’t work for me. But when I could truly be myself, I could make people laugh. It was at this point that I set out to discover exactly why I could make a classroom of people laugh but I would choke on stage when I was trying hard to be a comedian. I was determined to develop my own guidelines and tools by which to play the stand-up comedy game.
The Before Me and the After Me
Within 6 months of throwing away all the old “rules” and developing my own tools, strategies, and philosophy about how to become a stand-up comedian, I won a comedy competition. Shortly after that, I was performing in every comedy club in the area on a regular basis.
I actually still have videotape of the “before me,” even though I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted to burn it. But it does serve one useful purpose. It illustrates what I’m talking about.
When you check out the “Before Me” video clip, you will see something that’s personally very painful for me to watch.
It shows a short clip of one my very early stand-up comedy performances when I was trying to perform “jokes” like I had been taught in the books I bought.
The second clip was taken just 6 months after the first one, shortly after the comedy competition I mentioned. The second clip is the “after me.”
It was a long time ago, so it doesn’t represent exactly what I was like in the latter years of my stand-up comedy career.
But what I want you to see is the drastic change in my act from the first clip to the second one in only 6 months.
The last video clip is one of a “more seasoned me” performing a headliner set several years later for an audience of 1500 people at a venue called 4th and B (about 30 months or so after I started using my own system).
It’s not that I happened to have a bad set in the first clip and a good set in the second clip. It’s much more than that.
It’s that my comedy career has two very distinct halves, and I can isolate the turning point to one night in a traffic school class in California in November of 1992.
The first clip represents the first half of my comedy career — a time when I was mediocre at best on stage, when almost all of my sets were bad. I was trying my hardest to be a comedian, telling well-crafted jokes, but I was headed nowhere.
The second clip represents the second half of my comedy career — a period in which I’ve consistently experienced big laughs on stage night after night, when most of my sets have been good.
Within 2 years of these clips, I was already an established headliner with an act powerful enough to keep me working, even though the comedy market was taking a serious nosedive in the process. I went on to perform with stars and in venues I only dreamed of as a beginning performer, and the best part of it all for me is that my comedy career is continuing to blossom.
About Teaching Stand-Up Comedy
It took me a number of years to fully develop and hone my writing, performing, and marketing techniques. In 1997, I started teaching these techniques to select newcomers who sought me out for my advice. I am very proud to say that of the relatively few students I have had, most have experienced significant success in stand-up, acting, and other areas of entertainment since they first sought me out for guidance.
The few students I’ve had who haven’t made much of a dent in the comedy business are still stuck in the mode of trying to write perfect “jokes,” one at a time. They just couldn’t seem to grasp what I had to say.
Let me say this: Even though my days of actively performing have passed, I still consider myself a student of comedy.
I continue to try to grow and learn everything I can about this profession that I am so thankful to be involved in. Unlike many stand-up comedy teachers, I have no desire to become a full-time stand-up comedy teacher. I don’t want to become a seminar guru.
I am old enough now to know that life is very short and that I want to have the most fun I can in whatever time I have left on this planet. And I have the most fun making audiences laugh. I can’t think of any experience quite like it. (Don’t get me wrong — sex is close, but stand-up comedy lasts longer.)
Now I have a great interest in helping new comedians succeed, my focus will continue to be on the development of my own stand-up comedy career. I consider myself very fortunate to be in a time when digital multimedia allows me the flexibility to provide offer cutting edge stand-up comedy training to both new and experienced comedian alike.
But make no mistake. When I started this business, I was just like you. I was hungry for information. I read all the books available on the subject. I spoke with dozens of comedians. I took an absolutely horrible course on stand-up comedy. Here’s what I discovered:
• Comedy writers (rather than real, working stand-up comedians) write many of the books on stand-up comedy.
• The material in the books lacked sufficient tools or had an “old school” approach to stand-up comedy.
• It is difficult for most comedians to explain what it is they do or how they really do it. They just know how to entertain an audience from years of doing it. Unlike many comedians, I can tell you exactly how I developed my act. I know what worked for me and what didn’t.
• Some of the books I read were confusing. They’d hook you by implying that anyone can be funny, but then they’d contradict themselves by saying the opposite. They’d tell you to be yourself and see things from your perspective, but then they’d try to prompt you to magically develop a label, persona, character, or style — almost as if it were some prerequisite for success.
I ended up on the same path as most every other comedian — fending off the dragons with a paper sword. To me, there is nothing worse than walking around in the dark.
This writing guide (as well as my other guides) reflects my inability to make “joke formulas” by themselves work for me as a stand-up comedian. It is also a reflection of my years of experience as a comedian, teacher, trainer, public speaker, my quest for self-improvement since my teens, and 20 years of military experience. I didn’t choose any one specific discipline to give me the answers I needed to succeed — I used every possible resource that I could.
Speaking of resources, when you read this guide, you’ll notice references to a variety of sources. Many of these references are to the movie Punchline. Why?
Because it’s one of the few feature movies that’s been made focusing solely on stand-up comedy. There are actually a lot of valuable lessons you can learn from that old movie. However, keep in mind that Hollywood has made sure that the movie also contains a lot of very unrealistic situations. For example…
• You’re not ever going to have your own locker at a comedy club (especially if you suck).
• Nobody transforms from total stage discomfort to total stage comfort quite as fast as Sally Field did.
• You’re not going to be able to drive around New York and just “drop in” to a packed comedy club to do a long set anytime you feel like it (unless you happen to be someone like Jerry Seinfeld or Eddie Murphy).
Can Anyone Be a Stand-Up Comedian?
As you read this guide, please realize that I make no claim to be the end-all resource on writing and performing stand-up comedy. While I have enjoyed great success in this arena with more on the way, I can’t make anyone funny. Anyone who makes such a claim is blowing smoke where one generally does not care to have it blown.
I have a tendency to be very blunt and I am going to take that opportunity now…
As of this writing, there are no professional football players without arms or legs. That may seem like an obvious prerequisite to be a professional football player.
But my point is this: There are tons of folks who want to be stand-up comedians but do not have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever getting past first base. So the answer to the question above is cold and hard, but it is very simple…
No. Not just anyone can be a stand-up comedian. Sorry.
Everyone thinks they have an awesome sense of humor. Just ask them. While there may be some truth to that, the reality is this: Not everyone has a sense of humor that will translate to huge laughs on the stage. So how are you supposed to know if you can cut it as a stand-up comedian or not?
Well, you can’t until you try it. Unlike most books on stand-up comedy, I will not say that anyone can be funny on stage. It’s just not true. I’m not going to ask you five or ten silly questions and if you answer “Yes” to most of them, then you should be a comedian. But I am going to assume that you have determined that you have what it takes to become a comedian.
This guide is written with the assumption that you have a sense of humor that will translate well on the stage and that you are ready to work hard to meet your goals. But you will find no promise of success from me in anything I have written.
I will tell what I know from personal experience. I made the decision to be a stand-up comedian based not on how funny I thought I was, but how people around me would react to what I had to say when I was just being myself — not just friends or family — anyone. I found that people would laugh at what I was saying, whether I was joking around or not. Sometimes, it would amaze me that people would laugh at what I would say even when I was being dead serious.
My point is this:
No one can give you a “new” sense of humor when it comes to stand-up comedy.
Your sense of humor is developed as a result of your life, your experiences, your parental influences, and a whole host of other factors that no one has even thought of. In some respects, you got what you got when it comes to your sense of humor.
My focus in this guide is to help you hone and refine the sense of humor you already have instead of trying to help “push” you into becoming something you are not. Only continued experience, effort, persistence, and application of the techniques that truly work for you as an individual will determine if you are cut out for stand-up comedy or not. Trust me, you will know for sure when the audience starts laughing.
Is this Guide Really Different?
Absolutely. That is one thing of which I am certain. The only reason this guide even exists is because I simply could not make conventional wisdom work for me. I put into practice the teachings from all of those other books, but the laughter just didn’t happen for me on stage.
Look, I’m not saying that those books have nothing to offer you. In terms of writing “jokes” one at a time or learning about all the different types of “characters” that can be done on stage, I don’t hold a candle to those books. If that’s what you’re after, you need to forget about this guide right now and pick up a few of those books.
Maybe they’ll help you do wonders with your act. If so, more power to you. All I am saying is that they didn’t do a whole lot for me and my students. I sucked at writing jokes one at a time, and I couldn’t come up with a character that both the audience and I liked. And that’s why I had to do something else — something that worked for me, something completely different.
Yes, I do cover some areas in my guides that can be found in other courses and books. All publications on stand-up comedy discuss many of the same things, such as callbacks, bombing, and the magic of “k” words. You can’t discuss stand-up comedy without talking about them.
But my philosophy, methodology, and approach are almost completely backward to the conventional wisdom that exists today regarding how to become a stand-up comedian. And there are many things in this guide you won’t find anywhere else.
My goal in this guide is to give you the best possible instruction and tools to help you develop your material based on who you are — not what you think a comedian should be — in the fastest way possible. Beyond that, the ball is in your court.
Two Things You Need to Know Before You Continue
There are a couple of other points I should make before you read further.
The first thing you need to know is this:
No matter what you do, you need to be having fun.
Your material needs to satisfy two entities — you and your audience. I cherish the freedom to say whatever I want to on stage. But if an audience isn’t laughing, it’s not any fun for me. I have found that the best situation to be in is when I like the material I’m doing and the audience likes it too.
When your act is no longer fun for both parties, you dry up. Frustration can set in. That’s when stand-up becomes just like any other stupid job, instead of the love of your life. Look around you. You probably won’t have to look far to find some comedians who appear to be dried up. Either they no longer love their act, or the audience doesn’t love it, or both. The fun is no longer anywhere to be found.
The addictive nature of this business is directly related to how much fun you have on stage and how much fun your audience has when you are performing. Believe me, if stand-up comedy was still not fun for me, I would not be doing it. The “before me” wasn’t having any fun at all, but the “after me” has been having a blast on stage for years.
The second essential thing you need to know before moving on is this:
Successful stand-up comedy takes a lot of hard work.
Folks, I hate to burst your bubble, but there is no replacement for hard work. I may have moved up very rapidly in the stand-up comedy food chain, but it didn’t just fall into my lap. I got to the point where I am because I worked at it all the time.
Stand-up comedy requires a lot of hard work. But I do believe that you can work smarter and faster if you have the right approach, the right tools, and the right techniques at your disposal. My goal is to give you the tools and techniques you need.
Okay, now that you know my story and where I’m coming from, let’s set you up to start developing some comedy material…
What No One Else Will Tell You
There are many things that the authors of stand-up comedy “How To” books simply will not tell you. I don’t think it has anything to do with wanting to deny the reader knowledge on purpose. If I had to guess, I would say it might be because their teachings are rooted in very old ways and methods of developing stand-up comedy material.
The contents of my guides are not rooted in these old ways of doing things, because those old ways did not work for me. That’s why I developed my own methods. And that’s why I’m going to tell you what the others won’t.
In this chapter, as well as the next one, there are several very important key points I would like to make before we dive into the mechanics of creating a stand-up comedy routine.
I teach my students a somewhat unconventional approach to developing and refining material for the stage. But before I begin to share this approach with you, let me expose you to a bit of background on this topic.
Here is the picture of conventional wisdom that many have when they enter the world of stand-up comedy:
1. The prospective comedian writes some jokes.
2. The prospective comedian tells the jokes on stage.
3. The prospective comedian gets huge laughs, gets discovered, becomes a big star, and stops buying Lotto tickets.
Here’s a more realistic picture:
1. The prospective comedian writes what he thinks is funny.
2. The prospective comedian tells these jokes on stage, doing his impression of what he thinks a comedian should do and what he thinks an audience will laugh at. The comedian struggles and can’t understand why.
3. The prospective comedian continues to buy Lotto tickets.
I started this business with the first snapshot described above firmly planted in my head. I quickly found out that it just wasn’t quite that easy.
The second picture is a far more accurate description of what was happening to me before I decided to develop a different way to approach the challenge of stand-up comedy.
Here’s what I know for sure. No matter what methods you use to develop your act — whether they are mine, your own, or someone else’s — the following truth will always prevail:
Your success in stand-up comedy is directly related to your ability to develop a solid, consistent killer act for the stage, no matter how you do it.
I have grappled with how to explain to you what really makes my approach to building a killer act so drastically different from anyone else’s. But if I had to boil it down to a single, simple concept, it would be this:
I don’t teach people how to write great “jokes.” I teach people how to truly express themselves on stage in a process that helps them capture and refine their own sense of humor.
My techniques are designed exclusively to:
• Help you write and develop comedy material that reflects who you really are right from the beginning.
• Help you reduce the amount of trial and error required in the process. Your ability to reduce trial and error and quickly make effective adjustments to your material have a direct impact on how quickly you will have a killer act.
• Give you a perspective about stand-up comedy that has helped me shave years off the time it usually takes a comedian to get really funny.
Stand-Up Mental Traps
In order for you to get the most out of this guide, you need to be aware of and avoid some mental barriers that can hold you back – the same ones that held me back in the beginning. I call them “Stand-Up Mental Traps.”
What I am about to tell you is probably more important than any specific technique I could give you on developing stand-up comedy material.
Like almost every comedian, I fell into several mental traps when I first started. The mental traps I’m referring to are mostly based on assumptions made by the unsuspecting new comedian. Virtually every author who discusses the mechanics of writing and performing stand-up comedy covertly helps to generate these traps in the mind of the new comedian.
I want you to be able to avoid these mental traps. They are severe limitations to your creativity and your ability to be yourself on stage. Trust me, stand-up comedy is hard enough without self-imposed limitations or mental traps.
I am about to completely contradict views and perceptions that have made becoming a stand-up comedian even harder than it actually needs to be. I fully realize that what I am about to tell you is comprised of my own personal views and may grind on some folks — especially some of the old “joke tellers” in the business. So be it. As a comedian, I am a risk taker and I am willing to take that risk now.
Mental Trap #1 — The primary means of producing comedy material and making it funny is with “joke formulas.”
First of all, what is a “joke formula”? A joke formula is simply a writing technique (or group of writing techniques) used to help people produce the funny parts of their stand-up act (punchlines). Double entendres and the “Rule of 3s” are two joke formulas commonly mentioned by comedy writers.
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with using “joke formulas,” even though that phrase is sometimes looked down upon by folks in the business. Personally, I prefer the phrase “comedy writing techniques,” but they’re basically the same thing. So the problem is not with using joke formulas. The problem occurs when your material revolves around or is completely dependent on joke formulas in its creation. That is the basis of this mental trap.
I made this very assumption myself when I started this business, mostly based on the fact that most comedians, as well as the books on stand-up comedy, appear to focus heavily on the use of joke formulas in the development of comedy material.
Outside of mere recognition purposes, I don’t believe that trying to use joke formulas offers much in the way of actionable value when it comes to developing stand-up comedy material that will actually work.
This is also reflected in the online course lessons.
However, not to leave a stone unturned and will the slim possibility that knowing a bit about joke formulas may prove useful in some way, I will discuss them at length later on in the guide (Chapter 10 to be exact). Just know that I also believe that if you try to use joke formulas as the primary basis for determining what you want to say to an audience, you will severely limit your ability to express your sense of humor on stage.
Unfortunately, many people think that joke formulas are the “magic pill” to making someone hilarious on stage. I know that I thought this way when I started to build my act. I figured that if I could just learn and apply all the joke formulas, stand-up would be a breeze. I was dependent on these formulas to make all of my material work.
Guess what? My act suffered and so did my audiences. All I can say is don’t fall into this trap.
Joke formulas are most effective when you are trying to get a line of material to read funny on paper — which would be great if audiences read your act (they don’t.) They are great for writing greeting cards and other written types of funny material. But whatever you do, don’t forget this:
Stand-up comedy is about what is funny when you SAY IT, not necessarily about how funny something looks on paper. There may not even be a joke formula for the funny stuff you want to say.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear. In my methodology for developing stand-up comedy material, it is not essential that you even know what joke formulas are or that you use them in order to get the laughs you want on stage. I know very funny comedians who couldn’t tell you what a double entendre is.
You know what? It doesn’t matter to them. But they know very well how to make people laugh when they are talking on stage.
Want to take the slow, hard road? Then be totally dependent on joke formulas to build your act. Let me explain why joke formulas can be limiting if you become dependent on them…
I believe that most people think about becoming comedians because they recognize that they have the natural ability to make people laugh on a fairly frequent and consistent basis. This was the case with me. I knew I could make people laugh in a variety of environments and situations, even though I didn’t know the mechanics of how I did it. In other words, before I knew one damn thing about joke formulas, I could make people laugh.
So you make the decision that you want to be a comedian. You assume that you must learn the “tricks of the trade” in order to succeed. It seems logical that one of the first things you should know is every possible joke formula in order to make people laugh, right? That’s how everybody else does it, right?
But by using this train of thought, you end up subtly bypassing or drawing your focus away from the one thing that actually got you started – your own sense of humor. In essence, your sense of humor ends up being replaced in the search for the right “formula.” If I had stuck with trying to be a joke formula wizard, I’d still be doing open mikes and wondering why my act consistently sucked.
Most new comedians start out doing their “impression” of what they think a comedian should be. They write “jokes” that they think are funny. They try the jokes with varying degrees of success. Working toward a killer stand-up act in this manner is much like panning for gold.
Then after 5 to 10 years of sorting through mounds of “dirt” in order to find the “gold nuggets,” some comedians actually evolve backwards in a sense. They finally develop the ability to deliver an act that is representative of their own sense of humor.
Seems kind of silly that you should have to work 5 or 10 years until you get to the point where you can finally be yourself on stage and be funny, doesn’t it? Want to know why this happens? It happens when you let yourself be led around by the joke formula mental trap.
Mental Trap #2 — Jokes are developed one at a time on paper. The more jokes you write, the more “good” ones you will “find.”
I started my comedy career doing exactly this — writing one joke at a time and trying to connect them in some sort of logical way in order to create an act. Why did I do this? Because that’s how the books said to do it. If you have any of these books, just look at the examples they give you to work with.
When I explain development of comedy material in this guide, you will see several examples from my act. But you won’t see any “jokes.” What you will see are examples of chunks I have actually done on stage (and still use today). Not two or three lines, but in many cases, a large part of the chunk.
I can already hear you asking, “What the hell is a chunk?” Well, a “chunk” is simply the term I use to refer to a large part of my comedy act. You will also hear me refer to “bits.” A bit is simply a small part of my act.
You can think of chunks as major topics and bits as smaller topics or as subtopics underneath chunks. Two or more related bits can make up a chunk, and chunks and individual bits can make up a comedy act (or performance).
Please note that I do not consider “bits” as being the same thing as “jokes.” Stand-up jokes are quite short, with one joke ending on a punchline and another beginning with the next set-up. Bits, on the other hand, can be short or they can be quite long, being comprised of several set-up/punchline combinations.
This may seem a little confusing right now, but I think it will become a lot clearer as you work your way through this guide. For now, think of it like this…
Let’s say you’re an architect and you’ve been hired to design a residential community. Your master blueprint includes some individual houses and some apartment complexes (which, of course, are made up of individual apartments). Together, the houses and apartment complexes make up the community.
Using this analogy, think of the individual houses and the individual apartments as comedy bits, and think of the apartment complexes as chunks. A bit can be something that stands alone in its own right (individual house), or it can be one of many related subtopics (individual apartments) that together form a chunk (apartment complex).
Using this same analogy, think of “jokes” as being individual rooms; they’re not even big enough by themselves to be houses or apartments. Now, put a billion rooms (jokes) side by side and voila, there’s your community (comedy act). It’s like a village of people living in little pods. This might be a cool way to live if you’re a Smurf, but it seems to me like a much harder way to build your community.
So when I develop comedy material, I don’t think in terms of individual jokes; I think in terms of bits and chunks.
I found that writing and perfecting one line or joke at a time is absolutely the hardest way to get to material that will kill on stage. I will show you how to develop and refine bits and chunks of raw material.
To me, trying to come up with single jokes out of thin air using joke formulas is like trying to work on your computer with a hammer.
I don’t even like the term “jokes” to describe what I do on stage. That’s just not what I do. And don’t think that I’m alone in this. In fact, most of the really good, modern stand-up comedians tend not to do “jokes.”
Following is part of another Byron Allen interview that comes from his former magazine show Entertainers. This one is with Howie Mandel and emphasizes my point.
Howie Mandel Interview Clip
The text from the clip is as follows:
BA: You come to LA…
HM: I come to LA…
BA: You go on up at the Comedy Store, Monday night tryout night…
BA: What was your big joke?
MK: I don’t have one. That’s the joke. I still don’t have one. I don’t have a joke, per se. I just… I’m me.
Entertainers with Byron Allen, 2001.
But Howie Mandel makes audiences laugh hard, right? So how is that possible without jokes?
You see, the problem is that the term “joke” is used very loosely to describe too many different things. I find it simply amazing the Inuit (formally known as Eskimos) have 100 words for “snow.”
But in the English language, one of the most versatile in the world, we basically have the word “joke” to cover almost anything funny, including the use of a whoopee cushion. It’s no wonder that folks could easily get confused with a single term that can mean so many different things.
The word “joke” is used to describe the joke told to you by a co-worker. It’s used to describe a funny cartoon. It’s used to describe what comedians like Bob Hope and Bill Cosby do on stage, even though the way these two comedians entertain an audience is drastically different. Virtually anything that’s funny is simply called a “joke.”
Sorry folks, but from my perspective and from the standpoint of being a professional comedian, this simply will not do.
So, in order to avoid what I do on stage as a comedian and what I teach others to do on stage from simply being lumped loosely into the broad “joke” category, I may refer to it differently on occasion. I would much rather call it a “bit” or my “comedic expression.”
While I may still use the term “joke” as a descriptive reference, I want you to be acutely aware that there are stark differences between the type of comedic expression or “jokes” I use and teach new stand-up comedians and the old style of telling one “made-up,” paper-written joke after another. This brings me to another topic…
You will also hear comedians refer to “writing” stand-up material. Unfortunately, this gives the wrong impression that it is written words on a piece of paper that determine how funny you are on stage. (It’s not surprising. Writing jokes on paper from thin air was the standard until people like Bill Cosby and George Carlin changed the way comedians could express themselves on stage.)
While I go into this topic more in the next chapter, let me just say now that from my perspective:
Stand-up is about talking and making people laugh.
For me, “writing” stand-up comedy material is about using paper only to structure and refine what I have to say (my comedic expression). It is not about fabricating “jokes” in the conventional sense. This will become more and more apparent when we start on the road to producing your material. And let me say, you won’t find this approach to stand-up in any book.
If you are looking at becoming a great joke writer from this course – producing hilarious one-liners on paper from thin air – you have the wrong guide. There are plenty of books much better suited to show you the mechanics of this difficult and hard road. But if you are looking for the fastest path I have found to develop killer stand-up material, keep reading.
Mental Trap #3 — If you tell a story, you are not doing stand-up. Stories are not jokes, and they have just one punchline at the very end of them. Therefore, they’re not stand-up.
One prominent stand-up comedy author actually says in their book that if you are telling a story on stage, you are not doing stand-up. Others don’t breech the subject of telling a story, but show you how to take your “jokes” and form them into a storylike act.
Let me say this: If I couldn’t tell a story on stage, I would have about 3 minutes of material left, and I couldn’t even say for sure if it would work well.
You can tell a story on stage. Bill Cosby does. David Brenner does. Paula Poundstone does. As a matter of fact, you can do or say anything you want as long as it gets big laughs.
But just because you happen to be telling a story doesn’t mean you have the license to ramble on for 5 minutes before getting a laugh. Comedic stories must be structured to get laughs at frequent intervals. When told properly, they should produce laughs throughout. And if people are laughing throughout your story, guess what? That’s called stand-up comedy.
Mental Trap #4 — Who you are on stage is some sort of other character – it’s not really you.
First of all, you can be yourself on stage. You don’t have to go on stage thinking you have to be someone else to make people laugh. Let’s think about this for a moment…
Common sense dictates that if it was your unique sense of humor that brought you to want to be a comedian, then you should use that sense of humor to the maximum extent you can.
Conventional wisdom dictates that you and “your act” are two separate entities, almost implying that you need to have two separate personalities in the game of stand-up comedy. I suppose that this is a good approach if you have multiple personality disorder.
I do not subscribe to this approach. When I go on stage, the person standing before that audience is me (albeit a focused, refined version), not someone else. It is the one thing that truly makes me different from any other comedian.
Don’t get me wrong. You certainly have two options in this business:
• You are more than welcome to develop some sort of special character specifically for the stage.
• You can be yourself.
There is no right or wrong way. But I found that for me, being myself made it a great deal easier to get to the big laughs than my feeble attempts at trying to impersonate a comedian or be someone else. It also made writing material with my unique point of view and sense of humor a lot easier for me.
I always hit the stage with the intent to express myself — not to rattle off one “one-liner” after another in order to get laughs. I don’t go on stage with a bag full of “gags,” nor am I willing to wear a chicken suit and swim fins to get a cheap, short-lived laugh or to get recognition as some sort of different “character.” I go on stage to talk about things that I know.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some great and famous joke tellers out there. Steven Wright and Rodney Dangerfield are two of the best I can think of. There are also some people who have had very successful careers based on characters they have developed. Bobcat Goldthwaite and and Pee Wee Herman are two examples.
If you want to go that route, I wish you the best of luck and I hope you can find someone who can tell you exactly how to create such a “character,” because I’ve never found anyone who can.
But telling “jokes” and being some “character” is not the only path you can take. There is another path, a much easier path. When I’m on stage, I’m different from any other comedian — not because I developed a “unique character,” but because I was already my own unique character before I ever started stand-up. Ray Romano’s style and approach is unique too, but not because he’s doing a character.
Ray Romano’s “character” is Ray Romano. He’s being himself. George Carlin’s “character” is George Carlin. Tim Allen’s “character” is Tim Allen. Get the picture?
I believe this whole business about “character” comes from acting. In fact, one stand-up author even comes right out and says that comedians are nothing more than actors playing the part of stand-up comedians. As Mother Theresa would have put it, that is complete bullshit. Okay, Mother Theresa wouldn’t have said that, but I would still agree with her if she had.
The goal of an actor is to become the character he is trying to portray. Unfortunately, I think this same mentality spills over into stand-up comedy, because comedians do an “act” on stage – an act, meaning that they are performing in a role and are “acting” when they are in front of an audience.
If I wanted to be an actor, I would pursue it. But I don’t. I am a comedian. I go on stage with something to say — to share my own personal views and make people laugh. The “character” that audiences experience when I start performing is none other than me.
The bottom line is this:
You do not have to develop some sort of unique persona, character, alter ego, or whatever else you want to call it to be a successful stand-up comedian.
Realize that of all the things about you, probably the most unique feature that you have, above all others, is your sense of humor. Wasn’t it your unique sense of humor that brought you to stand-up? Then I would ask you this: Why would you toss that into the can in search of trying to become someone else on stage?
I cover the topics of character, hook, and stage voice in more detail in my Interactive Performing Guide. But let me just say for now:
You don’t need to become somebody else on stage.
That’s exactly what I tried to do when I started performing. I was trying to be someone else. I was trying so hard to be what I thought a comedian should be on stage instead of just being myself. My “character” was my own poor interpretation of the consummate “joke teller” — a guy with a tie and what I thought was a slick, funny line for everything.
If I had to describe my character, the word “cheesy” seems to come to mind. While I was doing this character, I would get some laughs. But I could never seem to generate the level of laughs I wanted. The character I was doing was phony and audiences knew it.
As soon as I ditched the character and started being myself, the size and frequency of the laughter I got on stage went up tremendously.
If your desire to perform stand-up is based on becoming someone else, having an alter ego, or developing some sort of special character (for whatever reason), I must admit that I cannot help you create that character.
I can only help you develop the natural sense of humor you already have. But if you do have a character in mind that you want to be, this guide can still be hugely beneficial when it comes to developing comedy material for that character.
Mental Trap #5 – Success in stand-up is largely dependent on having a unique or original look, hook, persona, character, presence, point of view, or anything thing else that will make you stand out from the rest of the comedians.
This trap is related to the previous one, but it takes that trap even one step further. It says that your very success in stand-up comedy depends on your ability to come up with some kind of “original thing” that makes TV executives froth at the mouth and throw money at you.
You might not realize this, but there are relatively few comedians working today who fall into the category of hilarious, but there are tons of struggling comedians who are trying desperately to come up with some “original thing” that will set them apart.
You’ll soon discover this for yourself as you begin to regularly watch other comedians perform. It’s the truly hilarious comedians who actually get most of the work, not the swarming masses who are trying to create some unique gimmick for themselves. Let me say this now and you will see it again:
Funny can’t hide.
If you want to be recognized, get plenty of work, and have opportunities cross your path, then be hilarious. Settle for nothing less. That one thing alone will put you head and shoulders above most comedians. There is no substitute for undeniable, hilarious talent.
I find it very sad when I see so many comedians (new ones and very experienced ones) spending most of their creative energy trying to magically develop some sort of original look, hook, persona, character, presence, or point of view in order to get ahead in this business. They are looking for a gimmick instead of focusing on the one thing that really counts — making audiences laugh until they can’t breathe.
No matter what anyone says, I’m here to tell you this:
You don’t need any kind of gimmick if you are truly funny on stage.
To drive the point home, here’s yet another Byron Allen interview clip. This interview is with Sinbad.
Sinbad Interview Clip #1
The text from the clip is as follows:
BA: What’s the most important thing to you about comedy?
S: About comedy? Be true to the game. Be true to yourself, but don’t try to manufacture what you think is hip.
Entertainers with Byron Allen, 2001.
One of my favorite stories concerning “originality” is about the band Hootie and the Blowfish. They had great difficulty getting a record deal. They were told over and over again that their music was too “vanilla” and not original; their sound was too common. They didn’t have the “hook” that the record companies were looking for.
Even the record company that did eventually sign them thought the same thing and did not have high hopes of success for the band. Their first album was almost not released.
But audiences did like their sound, and their songs shot to the top of the charts. They sold more than 17,000,000 copies of their first album… Gee, it sure is a good thing they had a clever “hook.” (I’m being sarcastic here, in case you can’t tell.) The fact is, the band didn’t have a hook. So how on earth were they able to sell a gazillion CDs?
Well, because 17,000,000 people thought they were really good. Audiences don’t give a shit about a hook; they just want something really good.
So if you want to go far in this business, worry about slaying an audience, and stay as far away from this mental trap as you possibly can.
Mental Trap #6 – It takes many years to become a funny comedian on stage.
Here’s a little more from that interview with Sinbad.
Sinbad Interview Clip #2
The text from the clip is as follows:
It takes 5 years to be a comic. I don’t care what no one says. And if someone told me that, I didn’t want to hear it either. It takes you 5 years to find yourself.
Entertainers with Byron Allen, 2001.
As much as I respect Sinbad and his ability to entertain audiences, this is one place where I strongly disagree with him. As far as I’m concerned, this business about good stand-up taking many years is nonsense. But if you want to believe it, go for it. I know I did when I first started.
I’m not talking about how long it takes to “get discovered” or “make it big” or “become famous.” Believe it or not, that sort of thing doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how good of a comedian you actually are. I’m talking about how long it takes to become a really good comedian, whether you become famous or not. I am here to tell you that it does not have to take you 5 years.
Make no mistake. Doctors don’t become doctors in a year. I’m not saying you’ll necessarily get your own HBO special right away. And I’m not saying that you won’t get better and mature as time goes by and as you continue to learn, because you will. What I am saying is this:
It doesn’t have to take years to become a really funny stand-up comedian.
Here are my personal beliefs on why it usually takes people so long to get funny on stage:
1. Go back and take a look at Mental Traps 1-5.
2. There is a lack of quality information available to help new comedians succeed.
3. Everybody says that’s the way it is and there’s nothing you can do about it. So people simply accept the myth blindly and use it as an excuse for why their act is not killing.
All I will tell you is this: You can have a killer act for the stage in mere weeks and months provided:
1. Your sense of humor translates well on stage.
2. You take every opportunity to continually improve your act.
3. You perform on stage often, honing and refining your material.
4. You avoid the mental traps I have described.
If you want to take many years to get good at stand-up comedy, it’s your call. As for me…
I was unwilling to wait. I was headlining about 18 months after I threw the mental traps I have described into the trash and developed my own techniques.
And let me make this clear: It wasn’t because I was some great marketing wizard. It was because wherever I performed, I made an undeniable impact on the audiences I performed for, which led to more opportunities being handed to me.
I don’t say this to toot my own horn. I have great difficulty even discussing my own personal success. But I do want you to be aware that you can move relatively quickly in this business if you have a killer act — period.
While there is no substitute for experience on stage, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to take 5-10 years before you have a killer act on stage. Just leave the mental traps for someone else to deal with.
Everyone in entertainment has to “pay their dues,” no matter how talented they are. It’s just a fact of life in this business. It takes time to become a seasoned performer. But I will tell you this. How many “dues” you have to pay and the type of dues you have to pay are directly related to how quickly you have an act that kills.
I paid dues throughout my active stand-up career. But the dues I paid were a hell of a lot easier (and were that way for most of my career) because I did not having to pay those dues so deep in the “trenches.” I had an act that allows me to pay dues at a level far beyond the open mike, hell gig arena. So…
Don’t screw around with this thing. I give you the tools you need to get the job done. Use them. Focus on your act. Get good at what you do and do it as quickly as you possibly can. Your comedy career will thank you for it.
Now that we’ve dissected these six mental traps, there’s something else very important that you need to know before we move on…
If you have already been performing, listen up:
• You probably have some of what I can only describe as “stage baggage.” By this I mean that you have already developed habits that may seriously conflict with the methodology presented in this course.
• The longer you have been in the “joke-writing” and the “becoming-some-other-character” mode, the harder it will be for you to deviate from that course. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for you to return from “the dark side.” I did. Many of my students did. All I’m saying is that it will be harder for you than if you were just starting out as a brand new comedian, free from all the “stage baggage.”
• The bottom line is this: What I present is a completely different way to develop and refine stand-up comedy material.
If your “stage baggage” or previous habits are too strong to overcome, or if you are unable or unwilling to open your mind to other ways of doing this stand-up business, what I have to say to you may be of minimal value. But if you are able and willing, read on…
Are There Rules To Stand-Up Comedy?
For the brave souls who have gotten this far, let’s get down to business. I want to take this opportunity to urge you to consume this guide with the following in mind:
It’s not how you do it; it’s the laughs you get. In the end, the only true “rule” in stand-up comedy is… be funny.
One of the prominent books on stand-up comedy says there are no rules in stand-up comedy. Then, the author gives you some rules.
I’m here to tell you that while stand-up comedy may not have “rules,” it does have a definite structure. Any “rule” I give you does not pertain to what you want to say, but rather how to structure your thoughts and ideas — how to pare down, refine, and condense what you have to say.
You will find in this guide many guidelines, techniques, and tips to help you along the way. While I wouldn’t call them hard and fast “rules,” they have been included for a reason. They’re not arbitrary things that have been included just to fill up space.
They’re the result of years of real stand-up experience on stage and the observations that have come out of it, both my own and other professionals like myself.
I also need to let you know that there is no right or wrong way to do stand-up comedy. If you find something works for you, keep it, and I’m not just talking about this guide. If something doesn’t work for you, ignore it and move on. Keep looking for that which works for you. Audiences don’t care how you do it. All they want to do is laugh and be entertained.
Stand-up comedy is not an exact science. So any “rule” or guideline I give you in this book can be ignored or modified in any fashion you see fit. The bottom line is this: Is your audience laughing?
I want to prepare you to be absolutely as funny as you can be on stage. The funniest comedians usually get (on the average) four to six laughs per minute. Again, this four to six laughs per minute business is not arbitrary nonsense.
If you don’t believe me, listen carefully to your favorite stand-up comedian’s CD and count the laughs per minute yourself. What you will hear, with few exceptions, is four to six laughs per minute. What that means is that the audience is laughing constantly throughout their acts.
And that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about making the crowd wait for 2 minutes before you hit them with what you hope is a good punchline.
Over the last several years the term “alternative comedy” has been tossed around. I’m not sure if that term is relative to content or style. No matter what, common sense would dictate that if you are in front of an audience to make them laugh, then you would want to do it at the highest level possible.
I can only hope that this “alternative comedy” is not a way to label and make more palatable a poorly constructed comedy act. No matter what the topic of discussion, no matter how “bizarre,” “cutting edge,” or “ground breaking” the content may be, if the audience is there to see stand-up comedy, they shouldn’t have to wait to laugh, “alternative” or not.
Stand-up comedy is not about converting anyone to your political view or starting a social revolution of change. If you can do that at the same time and start your own country, fine. But that’s not what it’s all about. This is stand-up comedy, remember?
And stand-up comedy is not about extracting strong emotions such as anger, embarrassment, or groans of disgust. (That’s what families are for.)
Successful stand-up comedy is about getting constant, huge laughs from those butts in the chairs and knowing you can do it time and time again.
Now, let’s move to the next chapter, where we’ll look at nine secrets you must know before you write a single word.