We spend a lot of time on Improv here, but i wanted to prepare a course outline for students to follow. Everything below is spoken about in class, but perhaps we can share this with students and parents to increase potential outcomes for this class and all your future projects.
I will start by laying out our curriculum, but please read below for more about applying these exercises. This curriculum may seem sparse as it is part of our “Comedy Classes” that includes Improv. When I work with stand-up students one on one we can complete this entire process in 1-3 sessions (2-3 hours plus a life time of open mics and shows)
WEEK 1 – Brainstorm Ideas
HAND OUT – http://eightimprov.biz/brainstorm
Simply list 10 things you may want to talk about. For Teens/Kids the hand out gives more specific prompts about School, Family, Friends and our world. HOMEWORK – Start witnessing the world you live. New York City is the most amazing back drop of characters and places. Don’t stare, but take a mental note of characters and events you witness on the Subway or bus. Watch people at school, home, park, theater or shopping areas. Keep a journal and record things you see. Many comics will keep a notebook or recording device next to their bed so they can remember ideas that pop in before falling a sleep or during dreams. Inspiration for comedy is everywhere, and the best comics forget great ideas when not recorded down.
WEEK 2 – Brainstorm Details
HAND OUT – http://eightimprov.biz/brainstorm2
Pick a topic from week one brainstorming exercise. Start to remember details about the event. Who was there? Where did it happen? What Happened? Think about the 5 senses as you jog your memory. What did you see, hear, smell, taste, feel (physical touch or emotions)? We are not writing a script yet. We are not picking things to talk about. We are simply jogging our memory and find ways to expend our memory. If you need more space, continue in your journal. By class number two we will have a folder with plain paper and handouts for you to keep at the club.
WEEK 3 – TELL US A STORY
Review your notes from past two weeks. Finally we get on stage. Don’t worry about scripting your routine yet. Just tell us the story as you remember it. Every one will get 1-2 minutes. After the story, write in your journal. How did it sound? Was it received well? Was it funny? Be kind to yourself but honesty is usually best. We are not looking for performance ready yet, but by telling us the story with out a script makes it far more natural. We have 5 or more weeks to make it awesome and funny.
For this class we will pick one routine and stick with it for the entire session. When students change routines every week they never learn how to develop a great routine.
Performance technique – When we perform stand-up comedy, their are a few basics to remember. As you gain experience this will become routine OR you will develop your own style. When in doubt go with this…
When your name is called, get on stage quickly with full energy. Shake hands with the MC. Acknowledge the audience. Take the microphone off the stand and introduce yourself. You want the audience to know your name AND it is your own quick sound check. How does your voice sound? How loud is the mic? Do I need to hold it down or right at my mouth? All this time, place MIC STAND behind or to your side. A mic stand w/o a mic in front of you is distracting. If you are a younger comics – or just shorter – we may have a hard time seeing your great performance. Present your story. “THAT’s MY TIME” (When in doubt OK to wrap in your own way but this standard works well for many). Place mic back on mic stand for next comic. Wave and thank audience on way out. Shake hand with MC once more to pass the show back.
RECORD EVERY SHOW!!!
Ever since technology was affordable and available, comics have been recording their shows to increase their work time. Why try and remember when you can record and review? So when you can use a video camera – most comics just use their phones tehse days – or audio to record your sets (time on stage in the music / comedy word. Also called SPOTS). If you do not have a recording device, go to your journals the second you get off stage and take some notes while they are fresh in your head.
WEEK 4 – OUTLINE
HANDOUT – http://eightimprov.biz/SKETCH_COMEDY_WRITING_blankoutline.pdf
Before getting on stage this week, make an outline of your story. Review your notes from brainstorming and telling us the story. Start to think beginning – middle – end.
How does your story start? What does the audience need to know upfront to understand the story? (WARNING – LESS IS MORE HERE – long set ups easily bore us).
What is the most important part of your story? That is your climax. In comedy get there sooner than later.
How does your story end? What do your want the audience take away? WHY did you tell the story (Because teacher said so is not the answer LOL)?
Now get up and tell the story again. What changed from last time? Anything work better last session? What gets a big laugh? Be objective. Remember you are now telling the same story to the same crowd again. This is practice time. Comics tell the same story 100’s of times to different crowds but often repetitively to their open mic colleagues. you jokes may seem to fall flat simply because they have been heard before by this crown. That’s OK.
Rather than worrying about writing an exact script I firmly believe in always outlining your act before a show. If you develop specific jokes great. But otherwise, scripting the story somehow limits us to discovering ways to make it better through Improv in a live show. Every audience is different and will respond to different parts in their own way. Some comics like to pin point every gesture. That is fine once you have some experience, but do that as a young/new artist and your final project will be sub par no matter how naturally talented you are.
WEEK 5 Rough Draft
As new comics, I think totally expecting you to wing it is a lot to ask. So for the sake of class, to organize your thoughts further and otherwise better prepare for performance, go ahead and script your routine. I never want to see you on stage with a script reading verbatim (word for word). That is when our routines look like student actors trying to remember lines and all the interesting things about you are out the window.
But now you have another guide to go back to when you are stuggling. And you now have a script that can be edited. What you write today will not be word for word the same as your performance. Still feel free to improvise. If you forget something, WHO CARES? If you forget something important, write it down after your rehearsal time.
From now on, every time you perform your routine, use your journal to reflect and review that performance. And not just words and jokes. How did you feel being on stage? Is this getting easier? Harder? Am I more comfortable now? Less Comfortable? Go deep. And if anything is not working, ask for help. Hence why we have teachers. Trust the process but don’t wait till the performance to bring up an issue you have now.
It worked for Greek tragedy. It worked for Shakespeare. It works for me. Human beings LOVE things in threes.
WEEK 6 FIND THE FUNNY
So here is a little secret. When comics say things like…
“Yesterday I saw…”
“Last week i went to…”
“This morning on the way into the city I …”
Chances are what comes next did not happen when they said it did. Unless it is Open Mic and it literally happened that morning and this is the first time they are talking about it on stage. but even then I would be suspicious. But by saying it happened this morning we raise the importance. We increase the drama of the now.
But on a large scale, anything you do to change your story does not have to be true. I like starting new comics off by talking about real events. But what happens in the show can be different.
1) Start to make comments. Too many and we lose the rhythm. But while it is the job of reports to report on the news, our job as artists is to interpret – as comics, we need to find the funny. WHY is it funny to you? What did you think / feel as you witnessed/experienced the event? Start to play with side comments.
2) Combine events to form one crazy event. When ever you see a road movie – a movie where characters travel to solve a problem – you often get crazy events from many road trips forced into one zany story. In the real world, no one has ALL THAT happen to them in one trip. But if you combine every possible crazy thing that could realistically happen and then maybe a few that only happen in our dreams and imaginations, you get a fun filled 1-2 hour film.
So lets say you are talking about some bizarre that happened at the school cafeteria. But the story is coming up short. We need to beef it up. Try adding details/events from another time. Maybe this story is about the time your best friend trips on spilled milk. Maybe on that same imaginary day, the same friend was trying to ask someone out on a date. Maybe during that same day, the cook burned the food. Maybe on that same day teachers wig fell off. This is the craziest lunch room EVER!!!
3) Embellish the story. We do this every day when we try to impress our friends about our summer escapades. Take the story to the next degree of insane. Maybe in real life you fell out of a tree. But in the new story, you fell out of a tree, rolled down a hill into a freezing rain puddle. Now your sore, cold and wet. before, just sore. Raise the stakes!
AS comics we constantly look for ways to make our work funnier, more important, more memorable.
At this point you have a routine. It may not be perfect but you have the makings of a great one. To make it better continue to reflect and review every time you perform it.
Start to consider HOW you are performing the material. If you have characters, consider all the things an actor considers when developing a character. How old are they? What clothes do they wear? How do the talk, walk, sit, dance, breath? Again go deep with your choices. We may not see them all but they will focus you. Great characters take over and often crate better things for themselves than we ever could. Turn them lose and watch them play.
Professional / Experience comics will consider every look, every pause, every gesture. Often an audience will react to a visual cue more than vocal ones.
WHY LEARN STAND-UP COMEDY?
For every famous comedian there are 1000+ hopefuls in every city in this country, so I do not at all say anyone or everyone should try and become a stand-up comedian. But like so many other amateur visual, theater, music and dance artists, learning stand-up comedy can be a great way to enrich your life experience and learn many valuable life skills along the way – Public Speaking, Leadership, Self Respect, Self Confidence and more. For many stand-up comedy is a form of therapy. Why pay someone to hear you complain about your life for an hour, when you can get paid to do the same for 100’s.
I combine stand-up and Improv in one class because I believe I can teach different skills with either curriculum. But when learned together, one feeds the other. Brainstorming activities for writing stand-up are great to help focus your mind for Improv shows and classes. Improv immensely helps writing that is dry and boring on the page. Most of the best comedy writing involves Improv at some point in the process.
WHAT IS STAND-UP COMEDY?
Like so many questions there is a hard and easy answer. For me, anyone getting up in front of an audience by themselves with a microphone is doing stand-up comedy. For me as soon as there are two comics, we are doing sketch comedy in some form. But while my definition is perhaps limiting I love a comedy show that includes duo and sketch teams, music and variety. Jeff Dunham will tell you clubs never took him seriously, but from my earliest years he made me a huge ventriloquist fan long after I cared about kiddie puppet shows.
HOW DO I BECOME A COMIC?
AS far as I am concerned, anyone that gets on stage with a microphone and something to say is a comic. This blog post is more about that early stage. To become a professional that gets paid – maybe even supports himself/herself – is a process that takes years of experience and networking.
1) You have to develop you act
2) You have to get experience
3) You have to network with clubs and producers to get paid spots, tours, corporate events, private parties and eventually TV and other high profile projects.
All three of these happen from the very first day you say – I want to do comedy.
HOW DO I DEVELOP AN ACT?
Over time you will find your unique style. As a new / young comic, consider all the comics you love. What are your favorite movies / TV shows? Who are your favorite performers. There are books with volumes of pages analyzing music, theater and dance techniques. Not a whole lot for comedy, beyond a few biographies. But even as a professional actor, singer or dancer, those books do not really capture what it is to perform, and memorizing volumes on information does not make you a great performer. You have to get out into the world and perform, whether on stage or in the class room, to truly develop your self as an artist.
1) Write material
2) Develop how to present your material
3) Connect bits – stories, jokes etc – into an act with a beginning, middle and end.
Start simple. Before you ever put a pen to paper, At the beginning, go to a club. Sign up for OPEN MIC. Get up there and start talking. Talk about what you had for breakfast. Every see Seinfeld “THAT’S A SHOW!” Do that enough times and your act will find you. Constantly alternate writing and improv to find the perfect set.
GET ON STAGE
You could just keep coming to classes but that gets expensive quick. here are ways to get on stage.
Almost every club in the world has at least one Open Mic time. Some have one every night before the professional shows start. Search online or go to the club websites. These days most OPENMICS are not produced by the club. You will need to find the producers. Some are free. Some require a drink purchase. Some may have as small fee.
Many clubs have show requiring the comics to bring an audience to perform. 2-20 friends show up to watch you play. They have to buy some drinks.
BARK FOR STAGE TIME
Many thinks this sounds degrading, but you only have so many friends. So you may have to go out with flyers and beg folks to come see your show. Many shows will pay you for every one you bring in to the club. Often the stage time is the goal.
Why do BRING & BARKER shows? Open mics are mostly populated by other comics. They maybe nice. Often they are not. They are focused on their work. You do not often get a good read on your material.
FREE SPOTS – If you have never been on stage before don’t call me an ask when you can perform on my shows. But if you have been doing some OPEN MICS and maybe even some Bringers/Barkers you probably have been able to meet some producer s and maybe even some club bookers. They may give you an AUDITION set. Or maybe you have a great 5-10 minutes. Clubs will put you up with the pros
PRODUCE YOUR OWN SHOW
At some point all comics should do this. 1 in 1000 comics get plucked up right away. Most spend years at the showcase level before getting paid to perform. And Open Mics, Bringers and Barkers can get tedious. But try to start your own show. Run your own Open Mic, Bringer, Barker or Booked Showcase. If a comedy club does not give you a showtime, start your own at any place with a microphone. There are about 10 real comedy clubs in New York, but there are over 200 rooms with a comedy night. Still in college? Start a club in a class room. What is great about comedy, an audience and performer can happen in any venue. Coffee shops, bars, lounges and more all tend to have some sort of entertainment at some time. Go online and do a search for comedy shows in New York. They happen EVERYWHERE.
Hardest part about producing your own show? GETTING AN AUDIENCE! That is for another time. Another Blog Post. But the whole point of doing comedy at this stage is practicing with an audience. Get to social media. Make flyers and posters. Email everyone you know. Ask other comics to do same.
REAL QUICK ABOUT AUDIENCES – Audiences will attend your show because…
1) They know you or someone on the show (AKA Bringers)
2) They were walking by and had nothing better to do (AKA Barkers)
3) You have booked a comic with a following – a pro with credits or fans. (Professional Showcase)
4) Other reason – They are there for a fundraiser, good food & drink, to see some art.
5) Private Event just gives you money to come perform a show.
In the early days of EIGHT IS NEVER ENOUGH, I produced a short film festival at Fusion on A. For 5 consecutive Mondays I screened short films. Actors and crew brought their friends to see their work. We put up flyers and posters everywhere. This was before online social media was a big thing. I think we were one of the first in NYC to utilize MYSPACE. And every night we had 100-200 people to see the films, but they first got 30 minutes of our comedy show – mostly sketch and improv. Stand-up is even easier to assimilate. Before comedy clubs, stand-up comedy happened between musical sets at dance clubs and parties. Get creative. Partner up.
Like I say in improv…
MAKE CHOICES NOT EXCUSES
GETTING PAID as a Comic
MC – Many comics get there professional start as MC. Perhaps you have 10-15 minutes of good material. You are great with audiences. MC in a club showcase often just does a little material, some crowd work than introduces other comics. MC’s of Showcase shows often get to perform for free or even get a small pay, free drink or other compensation. In some clubs, the MC gets paid better than the comics because they are stuck there for a full show while other comics bounce around to other clubs in town.
TIP – Want to start getting paid sooner than later. A lot comics get work for corporate events and smaller college gigs because they have a car and can MC. Even better they have a small PA system, microphone and stand. They drive and run the gig. Even if you did not produce/book the event you may have to deal with the client upon arrival.
Feature – you probably have 15-30 minutes. You have plenty of experience. You can “bring it” every time. You probably have some sort of brag-able credit by now. You are ready to be a road warrior, touring the country with a car of other comics going town to town.
Headliner – Your name/face on a poster/flyer sells tickets. You can do 45-minutes in your sleep.
THE CLASSIC SHOW
MC 15 minutes
Features 30 Minutes
Where do comics get paid.
Self Produced Shows – I know many comics that completely support themselves producing their own shows. Some are good enough to go beyond, but they know how to produce and make better money booking them selves. Many comics have a weekly show they rpoduce, long after they have made it on the scene. But this way they always have a home to play with new material and they have extra spending cash.
Private Events / Corporate Events – Holiday parties, team building, reunions, graduation, prom, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and even weddings will hire a comic to liven up the event. This work is available to anyone willing to pimp themselves out or start working with an agency. Often you are the only comic bridging other activities. Often you have to do about 15-30 minutes as dinner ends before a band or DJ takes over for dancing. Other times, you and other comics put on a full show, turning their venue into a comedy club.
Comedy Clubs – Most clubs around the country pay well. Urban centers usually pay less for a show, but the best comics will do shows all over town in one night. In New York City there are only 1-2 clubs that book true headliner shows – you are the big star and getting most of the money that night. Most are professional showcases with 4-5 comics performing 10-25 minutes. In New York, comics with do 5-10 shows/night at $20-100/show. Get to know bookers at your local clubs.
Theaters – Most theaters hire comics to perform. At this stage you are either a big name, or performing with a booked tour by an agency.
Colleges – Most college comedy is booked by agencies, but I have booked myself at many schools. These pay well – most of the time – and are a great place to find new fans.
VIDEO – I used to just talk about TV here, but these days sky is the limit. Cable, Internet, TV, DVDs, Podcasts, and now you can even live stream your own shows. The great thing about video in any form, it lasts forever. Once it is created it can be monetized forever. PLUS once you have a TV credit, no matter how small, you are no longer just you. You are now YOU from Somewhere People Recognize.
10 years ago I started producing my own shows. 8 years ago I ran across the TV screen naked – don’t ask – But the overnight I went form being called WALT FRASIER to WALT FRASIER (MTV). Still no one knew who I was but now I was someone that had been on something they knew. Then I rode bike on Letterman. Then a reality show on WE. Then a commercial for VH1 and few others. Then I said a few lines on NICK. Eventually I was Dr Oz’s Fat pants and had spoken lines on three real shows (Blue Bloods, Royal Pains, Lilyhammer). And now not only do I perform whenever I want, I get auditions for major movie and TV roles. These days I have to chose which shows I talk about.
1) You need to anything/everything you can to get on stage
2) You need experience to get work. (We start to see some cash for our efforts)
3) You need to get better to better work. (We can quit or at least cut back day jobs)
4) You need recognizable credits for anyone to care. (We work all the time)
5) You become a house hold name – hopefully for good reasons.
Most of us never get to step 5. Many settle for step three. I am in the beginning stages of step 4.
If you are lucky enough to get to step 5, remember this – The 5 stages of an actor’s career as told by Ricardo Montalbán (The first I can find say this popular phrase by famous actors)
- Who is Ricardo Montalbán?
- Get me Ricardo Montalbán.
- Get me a Ricardo Montalbán type.
- Get me a young Ricardo Montalbán.
- Who is Ricardo Montalbán?