If you want to be a comic you have to write yourself some material. No worries. Don’t try to write your 45-60 minute HBO special today. Just start writing. Here is one method t o try…
Every comic bit starts with an idea. Every comic will sit down daily and just write a list of ideas. They keep a journal of these ideas. These days most use a smart phone notepad app of some sort. I still like to put pen to paper as I think it stirs some sort of link subconsciously. Same reason I will try writing out my lines for a scripted play or TV script.
When I get stuck I go right down this list. What has happened to me in the past week, month, year? What have I witnessed? Make the rounds of your life… At work, at school, on the bus, subways, walking in the streets, at the park etc etc etc. What is going on in the news? What movies are out? What do you love? What do you hate? WHO do you hate?
We are not writing bits here, just a list of possible things. We are not trying to be genius. We are not trying to be clever. We are just vomiting ideas to paper.
At this point I like to just get on stage. Simply talk. Have your list of ideas by your side. Just ramble. Video yourself. Don’t even worry about how the room is responding, especially if this is an open mic.
Watch the video. Listen with your eyes closed. What feels right? What just is YUCK?
If you noticed I call this stage IMPROV. New comics, as far as I am concerned, should NEVER get on stage with a script and start reading or reciting from memory. That is not stand-up comedy. That is one person show, or maybe acting. Comedy is a conversation between you and the audience, hopefully mostly one sided and heckler free. There are exceptions to this but rare. A few reaading this might say, “NO I am the next Emo Phillips”, sit down for 8 hours to write the perfect 1 minute joke i and deliver. That is not the norm. If you do not know who Emo Phillips is, try my method.
OK. So one of these initial ideas for material strike your fancy. Something about it warrants digging deeper. Sit back down with some paper and now brainstorm about this idea. STUCK? Think about the 5 senses – great check list. Think about characters and setting.
Get back on stage. Now retell the story. Change something – words, inflections, order of things – every time you retell the story/joke until it is just perfect. Don’t keep retelling the same mediocre story. Dig deep.
A comic will repeat this process dozens of times before trying a new bit on a main stage Friday/Saturday night, 100s before for putting in a TV set or major special.
Why? Because pen, paper and our mind alone do not make a joke/story. The audience is a vital piece of the puzzle. And hearing the joke aloud changes from when it made you laugh in your head. Finding just the right set and punch line takes time.
Comics will introduce a new idea on Monday, and by Saturday Night, 20 shows later have a new amazing bit ready for prime time. But they will also have a pile of crap that never made it past Tuesday.
ADD THE FUNNY
There are many ways to put more funny into a bit.
THE MAGIC THREE
It worked for Shakespeare. People understand things in threes. When you learned to write book reports in grade school, the teacher would say write an opening paragraph with three statements. Then write three paragraphs, each with three supporting facts. Then wrap up your paper with a closing statement.
LESS than three and our arguments are weak, unsupported. Three points make a plane in math, three points make an supported argument in debating.
MORE than three and we risk babbling aimlessly.
Suppose you are telling a story about something that happened on the Subway. It feels good but its too short or has that WHO CARES stink. Think of other things that happened to you or others on the subway. Maybe even something form a bus or plane. Put a series of events from different episodes of your life into one crazy moment.
While we say “JUST YESTERDAY I…” we combine 10 years of problems into one TERRIBLE day.
THE Nth DEGREE
Taking something to THE Nth DEGREE means exaggerating the premise or solution to the problem. We are not reporting news we are here for laughs, so taking liberties with truth is expected.
Depending on your style, absurdity may or may not work. But I like to go absurd and then pull back to what works. Never fear pushing your comfort zone a bit.
After 20 years I can honestly say I can predict how a joke or line will sound to an audience. I can honestly say I right predict correctly about 50% of the time.
Comic timing takes time to develop. This only happens on stage. Listen to your audience. Listen to your material. When you review your video after EVERY SHOW, if a bit is not working, maybe reorder how you present the bit. Maybe slow down or speed up a line, word. Maybe add a pause. There is power in silence. DON’T FEAR IT. Learn to use it and shape it.
A true artist is ALWAYS reworking their material. Until it is on video and being sold or broadcast, it is never a finished complete work. Your material will change as you change as your life changes around you. The same bit that killed 5 years ago might die on arrival now.
DEVELOPING A SET
A “SET” is a series of jokes and stories. At the beginning you will need a solid 5 minutes of material to get stage time on a real show. You will have 7 minutes to play, with a few seconds to say hello (Although many comics say JUST GET TO THE MATERIAL). To get paid on a real show you probably need 15-20 minutes; To headline, about 45 minimum.
Developing a great set is like developing a great joke or story. The order of material is key. What is your opening line? What is your closing?
The most important things to any act – comedy, music, theater etc – are the first and last minute. How do you start? How do your finish?
If you have 7 minutes on a 2 hour show, your first minute (10 seconds) will determine whether you get laughs or a line at the bathroom and/or bar. They have to pee sometime. Hate for that time to be yours.
So you need to get them early. That does not always mean telling the greatest joke of all time. They just need to like you, or like your joke. or be interested in your wisdom. SOMETHING needs to make them say. lets give this a shot. The, sitting in front of you is no guarantee they will stay there.
You closing bit might determine whether or not they remember you, maybe even follow you on instagram.
The middle of your set can get into details. You can explore a bit more. But the opening and closing needs to make a mark. Put your best stuff there.
You may have great material but a bad order will kill a possibly great set.
Just like each bit, play with your set order and transitions every time you are on stage. Great material can be destroyed by bad transitions. Sometimes mediocre material can be helped by some great planning and direction.