After attempting stand-up comedy a few times, I realized that there’s a big difference between spontaneous humor amongst friends and getting up on stage and delivering a set routine with the sole purpose of making the audience laugh. In the first situation, there’s no pressure to be funny. You can choose when and how to interject a humorous joke or comment, and if it falls flat, it’s no big deal.
But when you are up on a stage in front of a bunch of strangers, you are the only one talking and the expectations are that pretty much everything you say will be funny and result in laughs. No pressure!
So, if you’re going to do stand-up comedy, you probably should have some prepared material aka “jokes” before you get up and ask for the mic.
The problem for me was that I only knew how to do the spontaneous humor stuff, and had no real experience with writing jokes. In fact, I thought jokes were supposed to come to you in “moments of inspiration.” In hindsight…that’s pretty funny!
Unfortunately for me, I rarely had even a nanosecond, let alone a full blown “moment” of inspiration. So I realized I needed some help. And, that is exactly what I got in “Step by Step to Stand-Up Comedy,” written by Los Angeles based comedy instructor Greg Dean.
Greg has been teaching comedy for over 30 years and has developed a well defined and effective method for creating “funny.” But before introducing his system, Greg spends some time explaining the theory or mechanics of humor and why people laugh at somethings and not at others. This, for me, was revelatory in itself.
I mean, how was I supposed to create something funny, if I didn’t even understand the underlying causes of laughter? Moments of mythical comedic inspiration? Nope! What I needed was an understanding of the cause of the effect, aka the of laughter. If I had that, I could then try to create and recreate the cause as often as possible.
So what’s the cause of laughter? Well the Mark Shriner short version is that people laugh at surprises in dialogue. But to surprise someone you need a setup that leads them to expect something other than or possibly even opposite of the surprise.
Greg provides a longer, more articulate, more detailed, and much more effective description of the cause of laughter in his book. And, he gives plenty of super clear examples.
Not wanting to plagiarize Greg’s work, I’ll, instead, steal from Bill Burr who starts a famous bit by saying, “That’s the funny thing….” At this point, your brain, or at least my simple one, is thinking, ok. he’s going to talk about something REALLY funny. But remember, according to Greg, humor comes from surprises or by saying the opposite of what the audience is expecting.
Well what’s the opposite of something really funny? How about a murderous sociopath? That would surprise the audience. And that’s why Bill Burr completes the above line by dropping the name of the mother of all murderous sociopaths, Adolph Hitler. The complete line goes like this, “That’s the funny thing about Hitler.” It’s funny because everyone is expecting him to talk about something funny and BAM!, he starts talking about Hitler.
O.K. my explanation might not be that effective, but trust me, Greg Dean’s is, and his examples are!
After explaining how jokes work, Greg goes on to explain more about the structure of jokes, and the assumptions that underly each part of the structure. He then provides a systematic approach to leverage that understanding to create effective setups and punches.
I’ve found that understanding the theory and using Greg’s heuristic to create jokes has been incredibly helpful. At a minimum it gives me something to do while I’m waiting for inspiration to strike. More often, is helps me with the creation of some original, possibly even mildly humorous, material.
But Greg’s book goes beyond that. It provides guidance on how to rehearse effectively, the proper use of the mic, timing of jokes, how and when to make your entrance on to the stage, how to deal with hecklers, bombing, going blank, and many other important topics that weren’t even on my radar while watching stand-up or had I considered during my attempts to perform.
In fact, just becoming aware of the all the elements involved in performing a successful comedic routine removed much of the mystery and provided me an appreciated toe hold of specific things I can do and focus on, not only to create jokes, but to deliver them in an effective and humorous manner.
Oh, there is one final ingredient that Greg Dean stresses both overtly and sub-textually, being an effective stand-up comedian takes lots and lots of hard work. Darn it! 😉
So, if hard work doesn’t scare you and if you want to perform stand-up comedy, or just up your inner funny and be a more effective joke teller, don’t walk, RUN! to your nearest…….computer and order Greg Dean’s ’Step by Step to Stand-Up Comedy.” No Joke!