What Creates Massive Success In Comedy?

In this article, I’ll introduce you to a new way of looking at creativity. I’ll also show you examples of how this type of creativity was applied by the greatest comedians of all time. Then I’ll go a step further and show you how this type of creativity actually lead to their future success.

This simple change in a single belief can unleash a wave of creativity. Since this isn’t a “strategy” or “tactic” there’s no action that needs to be taken… it’ll work in the background while you are working on your material.

Understanding Comedian Creativity

For years I thought I was maxing out my creative potential simply because I was “doing creative things.” What I didn’t realize at the time is that creativity wasn’t inherent in the writing or performing process itself… it’s HOW writing or performing is actually carried out. Simply put, you can write all day and not be creative, or you approach your writing from a fresh perspective and have a highly creative ideas right away.

But first, let me back up and explain what creativity really is. Creativity is a very broad term, but a creative idea requires at least two features: It must be “useful” in some way (in the case of stand-up comedy… this means it must get a laugh) and it must be unique.

While the act of writing is creative in a sense, it is false to believe that all creativity is equal. Creativity researchers recognize at least two types of creativity, which they (uncreatively) called Big-C creativity and little-c creativity. Big-C creativity is the type of creativity that breaks through boundaries and has a sizeable impact. It is no coincidence that the top three comedians of all time (as ranked by Comedy Central) all exemplified this type of creativity.

Little-c creativity is the type of creativity that works within a current set of rules. Instead of seeking to break rules and create new ones, little-c creativity seeks to perfect the current rules of the game. If I were to ask you to write ten “your momma” jokes, you would be exhibiting this type of creativity. While many of the answers would be unique, they would hardly stand-out among countless other comedians doing the same thing. While “your momma” jokes are an extreme example, many comedians restrict their creativity in a similar way. They embrace the “rules” of comedy, almost entirely dismissing the unknown territory that lies beyond those rules. While working within the rules may be necessary in the beginning of a comedian’s career, to be successful, a comedian must move beyond the rules.

As Richard Pryor said “I know all the tricks. I assume that everybody does. But people like me because I won’t use them, and if I do, they can tell”

Why have comedians embraced little-c creativity?

First, because they do not understand there is another option. If all types of creativity are lumped together as a single action… then you either “do” or you “don’t,” there’s no room for strategy.

Second, because little-c creativity is what they are taught, either implicitly through comedy schools’ and books’ heavy emphasis on the rules or unconsciously through observing other comedians who hold the same beliefs. As much as we’d all like to admit to being totally unique, no man is an island. We are all shaped by our environment on some level.

Third, and most dangerous, because it appears to work. Little-c creativity does benefit a comedian. Clearly, a comedian can rewrite their material to get a better audience response. However, those rewrites make the material tighter, they don’t serve to break through boundaries or differentiate the comedian in the eyes of the audience. The danger here is that a comedian is left with the false conclusion that “excellence in comedy” is simply applying this single type of creativity (little-c creativity) at ever-higher levels. This creates a moving target that is unreachable (“IF I apply these rules even better… THEN I will be successful”).

Why is the goal unreachable? It’s because more of the same never adds up to the best. Top comedians exhibit both types of creativity. It’s the comedian’s skills in applying little-c creativity that make him proficient at getting laughs, but it’s his skills in applying Big-C creativity that make him unique to the audience, and thus memorable.

You can prove the importance of uniqueness for yourself by simply analyzing your favorite comedians. Do you enjoy Chris Rock because he has a high PAR value (PAR value being the percentage of laughter a comedian gets throughout their set) or because he offers a unique experience that cannot be found elsewhere, even by look-a-likes? Are you a die-hard fan of Louie C.K. because he says five jokes per minute when other comedians only tell four? Or is it because you identify with him on a deeper level, if only because he’s being truly authentic? No matter who your favorite comedians are, it’s safe to say that laughter wasn’t the deciding factor… uniqueness was. And this uniqueness is never found inside conventional writing strategies.

If one believes that playing within the rules is all there is to comedy success, then they must also believe that they can take a great comedian, strip them of everything that makes that comedian unique, and that that comedian would still wind up on top. Would people have put on bunny ears and packed into stadiums to see Steve Martin if he wasn’t “A Wild and Crazy Guy?” Would Andy Kaufman have been a great comedian without his practical jokes? Would George Carlin have been able to stay on top of the industry for over 40 years without constantly pushing boundaries? When you strip a great comedian of their uniqueness you’re left with a comedian that, at best, is slightly better than average.

If a comedian fails to move beyond the current rules of the game, he has little hope of differentiating himself as a comedian. He will be competing head-to-head with every other comedian in the world on neutral ground… May the best 45 minutes of jokes win. But even the winner won’t truly win because laughter is not the only factor in stand-up comedy success. If this were true Pryor and Carlin would not be held in such high regard.

The Good News: Creativity Is Not “Fixed”

Creativity isn’t fixed… It is actually made of three different components, all of which can be honed through a mixture of education and practice. The “official” terms are Domain-Specific Knowledge, Creativity-Relevant Skills, and Motivation… but here’s what that means to us.

Domain-Specific Knowledge: “Practical knowledge about stand-up comedy”
(how to write/revise material, perform, market yourself… etc.)

Creativity-Relevant Skills: “The ability to move beyond conventional strategies/techniques and differentiate yourself”

Motivation: “The ability to not just “know what to do”… but “do what you know.”

The comedy industry has excelled at teaching the first component. Comedy classes, books, and seminars all teach these skills. They have been so successful that almost all comedians are aware of these principles to one level or another. In fact, they might have been too successful.

The emphasis on this single factor leads new comedians to believe that this factor is the only one that’s important. One cannot differentiate himself by doing what every other comedian is doing, no matter how much he is motivated. At the same time creativity-relevant skills have been almost entirely left out.

Two points are important here.

First, because the vast majority of comedians do not learn these creativity skills, there actually is an opportunity to gain a significant competitive advantage. Instead of seeking to apply the same tools better than others, comedians can learn a new set of skills that provide new tools for their career.

Second, even if creativity was widely taught, it would still be the only way for a comedian to differentiate himself in the eyes of the audience.

Success in any creative pursuit requires all three components. Without deep knowledge of stand-up comedy a comedian cannot skillfully craft and deliver material. Without extensive creativity a comedian cannot break through the noise made by the sea of other comedian or differentiate himself. Without motivation there is no forward movement. All three must be present.

Creativity Precedes Success

There is a very important factor that has been unrecognized by the majority of comedians. Creativity precedes success. As more and more comedians began pushing the boundaries and gaining success in the early 70’s, both audiences and fellow comedians have, in large part, viewed those comedians as “exceptional” rather than as simply creative or differentiated. As if they were born with a talent those outside the limelight do not possess.

This is far from the truth. Careers like Rodney Dangerfield’s exemplify this. Dangerfield was far from “a natural.” In fact, he once quit comedy and became an aluminum siding salesman, later stating “to give you an idea of how well I was doing at the time I quit… I was the only one who knew I quit.” It was only after he reinvented himself, approaching comedy as creative self-expression that audiences began to take notice. If comedy success is about being “exceptionally gifted” then his career, and those of numerous famous comedians that found success only after “reinventing themselves” simply don’t make sense.

It is important to note that “exceptional” is only an attribute we bestow on comedianafter they make an impact. However, we rarely dig deeper into how they were able to make their impact. When we do, we always find creativity. We also find that these same “exceptional” comedians were less-than-stellar before they began using Big-C creative thinking. No matter what level of proficiency they had as a comedian, there was always a “before” and an “after.” When comparing their early and late careers we may conclude that they were simply “still learning the ropes” or “just hadn’t gotten their big break.” However, these are false conclusions as well.

Pryor and Carlin both went through a phase of reinventing themselves after they had gained success. But they didn’t reinvent themselves by “trying harder” or “learning more about comedy.” They did it through embracing higher levels of creative thinking. When they reemerged onto the comedy scene they brought an entirely different strategy. It was only afterward that major success followed: Soon after coming back onto the comedy scene Carlin got his first ever standing ovation, writing in his journal “this is what I aspired to… the hair on my arms was probably standing up, it was just so moving. Such affirmation of what I believed about myself.” Pryor’s career took off as well; he developed a cult-like following and was eventually ranked the top comedian of all time. It is no mistake that Pryor and Carlin became the top two comedians of all time. There is nothing more powerful than the mastery of all three components of creativity.

So how can you explain the early success of Pryor and Carlin if they had both gained success before embracing Big-C creativity? The most likely explanation is that these two comedians were working within a different context. The Golden Age of Comedy had not yet begun. There was very little that differentiated any comedian from another. This was an era where it was very common to have a staff of writers churning out jokes for a comedian who acted more like a CEO than an artist. When you take Big-C creativity out of the picture, you’re left with only two significant deciding factors for success: domain-specific knowledge (how good a comedian is at applying the “comedy rules”) and motivation. Pryor and Carlin excelled at the two factors that were the most important at the time.

As the Golden Age emerged, success became more and more about creativity. Comedians started breaking boundaries, and audiences took notice.  Comedians that belonged to the “old order” were made nearly obsolete. The success of the old generation was eclipsed by the new. Once audiences saw what they had been missing all along, they no longer wanted the highly mechanical setup/punch line structure of comedy. It is because of this shift in audience demand that satisfying post-Golden Age audiences started requiring all three factors: competence as a comedian, high creativity, and motivation. Playing within the old rules no longer works. The audience demands more.

But along the way the comedy industry lost its lust for exploring the unknown. While the industry never reverted back to its pre-Golden Age ideals, it has none-the-less lost its edge. Instead of challenging the new rules created during the Golden Age, we adopted them as fact. We have sought the path of great comedians rather than seeking what they sought… comic originality.

As Richard Zoglin, author of Comedy At The Edge writes, “The sense of adventure [characteristic of the Golden Age of Comedy] has been replaced by the programmed predictability of a general motors assembly plant. The comics all sound pretty much alike these days, with the same patter to loosen up the crowd… the same recyclable loop of stand-up topics… just when did the fun go out of stand-up comedy?

It is a natural, but false, conclusion to believe that laughter predicts success in comedy. In fact, the biggest factor getting in the way of success for comedians today is their creativity… not their ability to gets laughs. It is a far more dangerous path for a comedian to emphasize laughter over creativity. The quality of material can always be increased through rewriting the material. However, the uniqueness of material, as well as the performer, cannot be increased through subsequent rewrites. One cannot take un-unique material and make it significantly more original. Nor can the comedian add unique material into their un-unique material. Such material would not fit well within a set.

This is why comedians like Pryor and Carlin scrapped all of their material and started from scratch, applying their deep understanding of “the rules” of comedy that they had gained earlier with a powerful desire to break the rules they saw were holding them back. Contemporary comedian must approach comedy from a similar perspective: comedians must diligently learn the rules of the game, but also seek to move beyond them.

Every comedian has an opportunity to reinvent himself. The reinvention need not be as drastic as Pryor or Carlin. “Big-C” creativity does not require that one “go crazy” or shatter long-held industry beliefs. I use these examples only because it is easy to see the differences between comedians using Big-C creativity and those resigned to apply only little-c creativity. Nor does reinvention necessarily require throwing out material. Drastic changes, like Pryor and Carlin may require throwing out material. However, less-drastic breaks from the past may not. Reinvention doesn’t even need to take place at a certain stage of a comedian’s career. Past greats have reinvented themselves early on in their career (Steve Martin), while struggling (Rodney Dangerfield), and after gaining success (Carlin & Pryor).

 

What it does require is a shift in thinking.

Jared Volle

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The Death of Joke Writing: Why You Should Un-Joke Your Material

Sometimes, a comedian is the only sane person in a room because he’s the only person willing to question the obvious and so reveal the false as false.

In fact, we’re so good at misdirection and questioning the obvious that we have the pattern set in stone:

  1. Setup: Here’s what we all assume to be true.
  2. Punchline: Surprise! Surprise! … it’s not true!

For professionals (or aspiring pros) who depend on questioning everything and looking at old ideas in a new way, it’s ironic that we’ve been unwilling to question something so fundamental to comedy… and something so fundamentally wrong with comedy.

Somewhere down the road, we began assuming stand-up comedy and joke-writing/joke-telling were the same

Here’s some food for thought…

 

YOU DON’T LIKE LISTENING TO JOKES:

Which would you rather listen to? A lawyer joke or a story about going to court? You’d choose  to hear the story because stories are how people naturally share humor. That’s how human beings like to connect to other human beings… through story.

The only time anyone has said “That comedian is a hack” is when the comedian is joking… not when they were being authentic and sharing their natural humor with the audience. I could literally choose the most hacky stand-up comedy topic possible (like airplane food is so bad) and get my audience engaged in the story just by being real with them. 

It feels better to listen to a real, authentic story than a joke or series of jokes revolving around a topic. When you (and audiences) are listening to “a joke,” you know that you’re being “joked at.” 

When someone says “Let me tell you a joke,” what you really think in your head is “F***, this is going to be awful.”

 

YOU DON’T LIKE JOKE-TELLERS:

When somebody is telling you a joke in real life, you know that they’re repeating words they heard from somebody else, or, if they’re a comedian… you know that they’re repeating words at you that they wrote sometime in the past. Either way, it’s safe to say that you never really connect with the joke teller. There’s an invisible wall between you that was placed there by the joke.

 

YOU DON’T LIKE TELLING JOKES:

Before being taught that “comedians have to write jokes,” how many actual jokes did you tell people? How many times a day would you say a setup line like “2 men walk into a bar…” or “How many blondes does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” For the majority of comedians, this number is zero.

If you compare your pre-stand-up comedy life (where you used your natural sense of humor) with your joke-writing life… you would have to admit that you were a lot happier and a hell of a lot funnier before being told you “must write jokes if you’re serious about comedy.”

If you’ve been in comedy for more than a year, you can also identify with another problem with jokes… they’re unfulfilling. Just like it’s hard for the audience to connect with you when you’re being unreal with them by telling jokes… it’s also difficult for you to feel a connection.

If you don’t have much experience in comedy yet, just imagine how motivated you’ll be a year from now to wake up and try to write 10 jokes about lamp-shades. Early on, it’s incredibly rewarding to get ANY kind of a laugh as a new comedian… we all went through this period of our careers. But after the “Oh My God… I actually got a laugh on stage” period is over… then what? How are you going to move from open mics to semi-pro? How are you going to become a professional?

 

 

YOU DON’T LIKE WRITING JOKES:

If you compare how much fun you’re having when you’ve got all your friends laughing with how you feel “writing jokes”… which would you rather be doing? There’s no comparison. Using your natural sense of humor is always more enjoyable… whether you’re talking with friends or writing stand-up.

But if a comedy teacher tells you that there’s “only 1 way to write jokes” and that you have to:

  1. find a topic
  2. create a setup line
  3. create a list of all the assumptions the audience would have
  4. then write a punchline that breaks those assumptions
  5. repeat #1-4 until you have 45 minutes of “jokes”

… how much fun would that be?

For those of you who have already been taught this method… answer this honestly… Have you ever had a “peak experience,” that is to say, have you ever thought “Yes. This is what I was meant to do with my life. This is what I love. I can happily do this until the day I die” while you were using joke formulas? Not a chance.

So …

Why do super-successful comedians say the exact opposite of what comedy teachers teach?

Remember this: Creativity is the weapon of choice for those who want to live a significant life.

How significant your career becomes will be directly determined by how remarkable you are as a comedian, not by your joke-writing or joke-telling ability.

 

Richard-PryorRichard Pryor (ranked #1 on the Top Comedians of All-Time List) isn’t loved because he was the best at structuring jokes. He is significant because he was unique, memorable, and remarkable. He’s one of the most important people in the history of stand-up comedy because he was one of the first to reject joke-writing techniques. He acknowledged how his success came to him, stating “I know all the tricks. People like me because I refuse to use them.

 

andy_kaufmanIt doesn’t matter if your a great joke writer if you’re worth talking about. Andy Kaufman (ranked #33) didn’t even think of himself as a “comedian,” much less a good writer.

 

 

robin-williamsRobin Williams (ranked #13) didn’t even write his material down, much less use conventional writing techniques. 

 

 

 

steve-martin Steve Martin (ranked #8) rejected conventional strategies altogether, stating in his auto-biography “I was seeking comic originality and fame fell on me as a by-product.

 

These comedians and many, many more have been on record as stating that their success wasn’t due to conventional tactics … In fact, they say the exact opposite: that their success didn’t occur in spite of not using jokes, but because they didn’t use them. 

 

There is nothing unique, memorable, or remarkable about jokes written through a joke writing technique

 

So ask yourself these questions: How would your career change …

  1. … if you un-joked your material?
  2. … if you were real and authentic with the audience?
  3. … if you embraced your natural sense of humor instead of attempting to squeeze it into a pre-made joke writing technique?

 

The person with answers will assume. The person with questions will explore. Allow yourself to have more questions than answers. It’s a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.

~ Jared Volle, M.S.  (Comics Rock Convention)

Deconstructing A Blonde Joke

We’re going to break down the #1 ranked blonde joke (the #4 ranked street joke) of all time. A street joke is simply a joke that is commonly heard from non-comedians.

This is a great way of punching up your material. Be careful to never use this while writing new material. It’s only beneficial when punching up existing material.

In this breakdown, I’m only going to focus on tightening the material.

I’m going to go through this process slowly for this article… but it shouldn’t take you very long to do this.

 

STEP 1: COPY DOWN

When I’m punching up material, I always begin by hearing the joke performed on stage. So step 1 is getting the joke copied onto paper:

‘A young blonde woman is distraught because she fears her husband is having an affair, so she goes to a gun shop and buys a handgun. The next day she comes home to find her husband in bed with a beautiful redhead. She grabs the gun and holds it to her own head. The husband jumps out of bed, begging and pleading with her not to shoot herself. Hysterically the blonde responds to the husband, “Shut up…you’re next!” ‘.

STEP 2:  BREAK INTO CHUNKS

In this step, we’re looking for sensible places to insert a pause. The first sentence of this joke is 26 words. This is far too much time without a pause. Try to say the first line without taking a breath or pause. It won’t feel natural. You’ll feel like you’re running out of air part way through. We want to capture our natural speaking rhythm in our writing.

Take a look at this joke… where would you insert the pauses?

The first line and the last line both have commas where a natural pause can go. The middle lines are short enough that we probably don’t need a pause before the period.

Assuming an average speaking speed, here how I’d parse out this joke.

HERE’S THE BREAKDOWN

‘A young blonde woman is distraught because she fears her husband is having an affair,

so she goes to a gun shop and buys a handgun.

The next day she comes home to find her husband in bed with a beautiful redhead.

She grabs the gun and holds it to her own head.

The husband jumps out of bed, begging and pleading with her not to shoot herself.

Hysterically the blonde responds to the husband,

“Shut up…you’re next!” ‘.

For clarity, I’ll put an “S” in front of a setup line and a “P” in front of the punch.

S- ‘A young blonde woman is distraught because she fears her husband is having an affair,

S- so she goes to a gun shop and buys a handgun.

S- The next day she comes home to find her husband in bed with a beautiful redhead.

S- She grabs the gun and holds it to her own head.

S- The husband jumps out of bed, begging and pleading with her not to shoot herself.

S- Hysterically the blonde responds to the husband,

P- “Shut up…you’re next!” 

IDENTIFY IMPORTANT INFORMATION

All we’ve done so far is get the joke into a form where we can see everything written out.

The first step of the actual punch-up is going to be identifying important information. The setup line contains all the information necessary to understand the joke. If we edit any of the key information out then our joke will either suffer or die completely.

We identify this information for 3 reasons:

  1. To make sure we don’t accidentally edit it out while punching up the joke.
  2. It tells us how spread out the key information is.
  3. It helps us find places where we can reinforce key information.

 

Here’s how I broke down the key information. Yours doesn’t necessarily have to be the same… but it should be very similar to what I have below.

S- ‘A young blonde woman is distraught because she fears her husband is having an affair,

S- so she goes to a gun shop and buys a handgun.

S- The next day she comes home to find her husband in bed with a beautiful redhead.

S- She grabs the gun and holds it to her own head.

S- The husband jumps out of bed, begging and pleading with her not to shoot herself.

S- Hysterically the blonde responds to the husband,

P- “Shut up…you’re next!”

WHY I CHOSE EACH KEYWORD/KEY-PHRASE

blonde woman

I didn’t choose this as a keyword just because it was a “blonde joke.” Identifying the girl as a blonde is a key piece of information for the audience. Once “blonde woman” is said, we have a different set of expectations than if it was simply “a woman.”

If you edited this out of the joke, the punchline “Shut up…you’re next!” would likely fall flat. As the audience identifies “Shut up…you’re next!” as a punchline, they’ll instantly try to connect that information to the setup… but if you edit out “blonde” than the only other place to connect the punchline to is “a woman” (or whatever is substituted in for blonde). The joke is no longer a lighthearted blonde joke. Now the audience has to figure out if you’re saying “all women are this stupid” or something else. Best case scenario, they don’t laugh… worst case, they’re offended… all because you didn’t tell them what to connect the punchline to.

find her husband in bed with _____

This gives reason to her actions. I edited out everything after with because it’s not actually important to the joke. You can put in any noun in the blank and the joke’s structure wouldn’t change (the laughter would… but the structure wouldn’t).

grabs the gun

Introduces the gun.

holds it to her own head.

The word “Own” here is very important here because it reinforces where the gun is pointing. Technically, the phrase “holds a gun to her head” and “holds a gun to her own head” are the same once you say the next line: “The husband begs and pleads with her not to shoot herself.”

So why not edit out “own” if it’s saying the same thing as “herself” in the next line? The word “own” gives the audience much more time to digest the important information than if you only had “pleading with her not to shoot herself.” The word gives the audience a full second or so to understand that piece of information before hitting the punchline.

It also cuts down on confusion. If you only say “holds it to her head” then the audiences likely response is going to be “who is her?” As a comedian, I’m saying the next line… but the audience isn’t paying attention because half of them are still trying to make sure they understand the setup. Now the comedian hits the punchline and half of the audience isn’t sure if she’s shooting herself and then her husband or shooting the mistress and then her husband… two very different endings.

pleading with her not to shoot herself.

“Not to shoot herself” is the most important information here for the joke. This is the final piece of the puzzle before the punchline. After the comedian says “herself” the audience should completely understand what’s happening. They should have a very clear mental picture of what you’re saying.

“Pleading with her” isn’t entirely necessary for the joke, but I added it as a keyword because it supports the emotions of the situation. The structure of the joke doesn’t change whether you say “pleading with” or “talking to” or “asking her.” The only thing that changes is the emotions behind the scene. Since the joke makes the most sense with the blonde being “distraught,” the phrase “pleading with” is likely the best choice.

“Shut up…you’re next!”

If the comedian has done his job right then the audience should instantly see the comedic conflict. They should easily be able to connect a very short punchline with all the necessary information above. All of this connecting happens in about 1/10 of a second after the punchline.

Tightening The Joke

Now that we understand how the joke is working right now, we can look for ways to fix it.

The first thing I generally do when I’m coaching new comedians is cut out the fat in their setup. If you’re a new comedian, you’d be surprised at how much fat can be cut out of a joke.

The original joke started with 79 words. Lets see if we can cut that down.

ORIGINAL

S- ‘A young blonde woman is distraught because she fears her husband is having an affair,

S- ‘A blonde woman thinks her husband is having an affair,

Do I care if she’s young? Mostly likely not. I’d edit this word out and see if the joke gets the same laughter before deciding on it.

“Distraught” can be edited out. We clearly understand her emotions when she puts a gun to her own head. No need to introduce that emotion now.

“Distraught because she fears…” is a long-winded way of setting up a cheating husband joke.

S- so she goes to a gun shop and buys a handgun.

S- so she buys a handgun.

Why do I care where she bought it? Needless information. All I need to know is that she’ll have a gun at the time she catches the husband cheating.

S- The next day she comes home to find her husband in bed with a beautiful redhead.

S- Later, she finds her husband in bed with a beautiful redhead.

“The next day” is OK… but not great. Any word that sets up her having a gun and catching the husband cheating works. I chose to say “later” because it’s shorter and does the same thing.

“She comes home” probably doesn’t need to be here. Simply saying the wife “caught his husband cheating” is enough for us to already have a mental picture of what’s happening.

I’ll keep “beautiful redhead” in the setup because it adds to the story. The joke structure wouldn’t change if you said “a woman” or “a beautiful redhead,” but I like how it adds to the story. Simply saying “a woman” is kinda boring.

S- She grabs the gun and holds it to her own head.

S- She grabs the gun and holds it to her own head.

I wouldn’t change this one.

S- The husband jumps out of bed, begging and pleading with her not to shoot herself.

S- The husband pleads with her not to shoot herself.

Jumping out of bed isn’t important. It doesn’t help the punchline and it doesn’t make the story more interesting to listen to.

Just saying he “pleads with her…” is enough. The purpose of this setup line is for the audience to understand that she wants to kill herself with the gun. How hard the husband was trying to convince her not to kill herself isn’t really important here.

S- Hysterically the blonde responds to the husband,

S- Hysterically the blonde responds to the husband,

P- “Shut up…you’re next!”

P- “Shut up…you’re next!”

So we’ve cut out a lot of the fat in the joke without losing any of the important information. The joke has gone from 79 words to 66 words. By dropping 13 words, we’ve cut the setup time for the joke down by over 15%.

That means…

  • You can get to more jokes because you’ve saved time in this one
  • The audience now has less information to sort through in order to understand the joke

Both of these are excellent outcomes. Less setup lines means getting to more punchlines. At the same time, we’ve increased the quality of our joke by helping the audience connect all the important information in the setup to the punchline.

Stop Over-Thinking & Start Writing

Over-analyzing and over-thinking are huge creativity killers. Tap into your authentic self while writing. Forget about trying to satisfy 100 different “comedy rules.” If the price of a laugh is giving up your authenticity, your creative freedom… then it’s not worth telling.

If you feel like you take 1 step forward and 2 steps back, this video is for you. If you want to get into a creative flow, then you have to get out of your own head and enjoy the process.

Special thanks to all the newsletter subscribers who have been asking a ton of awesome questions. Keep your comedy questions coming.

 

The Perfect Set List For Remembering Your Material

This is a ridiculously awesome way of remembering your set.

I’ve been very open about my past struggle with stage-fright and perfectionism. The intense fear I felt early in my career lead me to search for better ways of remembering my material. I developed this strategy for remembering comedy material very early in my career and I never stopped using it.

The perfect set list should …

  1. … be very discrete. The less attention it gets the better.
  2. … be very easy to read. You shouldn’t need to bend down or squint to make out the words.
  3. … be very fast. You should be able to figure out exactly where you are in a split second.

 

The best set list is the setlist that you don’t actually need to look at. Ideally, the setlist will stay in your pocket for the entire performance. Set lists are for emergencies only. The main benefit of having a setlist with you on stage is that it provides comfort and security. Knowing that you have a backup plan relaxes you on stage and allows you to be more personable.

 

The problems with most set lists.

  1. It’s difficult to read tiny words on stage without being very obvious, but large words leave no room for material.
  2. Quick glances at your set list are difficult. You have to begin at the first bullet point and then scan down before figuring out which bullet point you’re on. That can take a lot of time.
  3. It’s very difficult to remember which bullet point goes where. There’s nothing to stop you from going out of order unless you’re checking your setlist on stage.

 

Here’s how my set list would appear using a conventional strategy.

comedy-setlist-conventional

Imagine being on stage and having this in your pocket.

  • Could you keep this set list in your head without looking at it?
  • What is there to stop #4 and #5 from switching around? Nothing. If you’re on stage and you’re trying to remember the next joke without looking at your set list then you’ll try to imagine this picture. How fast and accurate cold you be?
  • Try this exercise: look at this set list for 15 seconds then try to rewrite the set list from memory. If you’re good, you might get 50% or so… but it’d be very difficult.
  • Try the same exercise with my set list below and see if you can recreate it from memory.

 

Now lets look at my strategy for set lists in action…

My Set List From 2008

comedy-setlist-remember-jokes-picture

Here’s a picture of the first set list I ever made using this strategy.

The picture on the left was the original bit I wrote about being turned down for a job at Jamba Juice. The picture on the left segues into my experience working at Wal-Mart, a bit that I still perform. All told, this set list represents 21 jokes directly, but it indirectly represents over 15 minutes of material.

The more I use this strategy, the less detail I need to put in the picture. Some jokes naturally lead you into the next one in a way that makes it easy to remember, so there’s no need to represent every single joke on the set list. The worst that could happen is that I forget a joke not represented and skip to the next “large” joke in the bit. As an audience member, you’d never know I had made a mistake.

When people see this at a show, they generally look confused at first, but after I explain to them how it works they get excited about trying it out using their own material.

My Set List…

  1. Doesn’t require any words at all. Zero reading necessary (though optional). I never have to squint to see a word.
  2. Shows me exactly where I am in my performance without needing to scan down bullet points in my notes. I don’t have to scan through joke 1-10 to figure out which joke is 11. I can go straight to 11.
  3. Makes it nearly impossible to mix up the order of my material. If I used conventional bullet points then it’d be very easy to switch them around. It’s impossible to switch the picture around in your head. Joke 10 is always after joke 9 and before 11. To change the order of material, I draw a new picture. The mental image of my set list cannot change, but the mental image of a normal set list is very difficult to keep from changing.
  4. Makes it very unlikely that I’ll even need to look at my set list at all. If I do it right, it’ll stay in my pocket for the entire set. That’s because by the time I reach for the set list in my pocket and pull it out, I can already see exactly what the picture looks like in my head. So it’s actually faster to not use my set list than to use it.
  5. Works for any amount of time. I’ve used it for doing 2-5 minute up mic sets and for doing over an hour.

 

Here’s how powerful this strategy for remembering your performance can be. This setlist was made in 2008. This was the height of my stage-fright years and I was still relatively new. I haven’t performed the first half of this set in over 6 years. As I became a better writer and performer, this bit gradually went from something I was proud of to something that was holding back the rest of my performance.

It’s been 6 years and I can still tell you exactly…

  1. … what each symbol means on the set list
  2. … what word or phrase begins each symbol
  3. … the exact order of each joke, from opener to segue into other material.

stand-up-comedy-setlist

Here’s what going through my set list would look like. That means I could literally throw this material back on stage at any moment. I could even decide to throw it into a performance while I’m on stage without messing up my rhythm or potentially forgetting where I left off.

 

What’s the best way to save a story or joke that bombed?

This is easily the best strategy for turning a bombed joke around. “Calling the moment” is a way of saving jokes that was popularized by Johnny Carson. The brilliance of Johnny Carson was that he could get just as many (if not more) laughs from a bombed joke than a good one. Calling the moment is about bringing the show back into the present moment. It’s about stopping the show for a second and saying “yes… that just happened.”

Novice comedians tend to plow through a bombed joke to get to the next one. On the surface, that makes sense. You need to “rush” to the next good joke to recover from the last bad one. But usually this is a recipe for disaster. When you rush a joke, your deliver changes. So not only are you working with low momentum, but you’re delivering lines in a forced, almost stressed out way.

Here’s a few great examples of calling the moment taken from 2 of my favorite comedians. Remember, all of these lines come directly after bombing the previous joke:

Eddie Izzard

  • (writing a fake note on hand) “nobody… knows… what… I’m… talking… about.”
  • (writing a fake note on hand) “Should be funnier.”
  • (while talking to an imaginary person about he audience) “they don’t seem to be going for it… … they’re obviously bastards”

Mitch Hedberg

  • “Man, I hate it when a joke don’t kill. It’s like every joke I say is pre-approved as funny by me”
  • “I don’t even know what I was trying there”
  • “Bombing a joke sucks… It’s even harder when you’re high on stage.”
  • I hate bombing jokes. As a comedian, you can’t be like pancakes. All fun and exciting at first, but by the end of it you’re f$&@*% sick of ’em.

Jared Volle at the Comics Rock Convention in Los Angeles

I have exciting news for all the people emailing me about seeing me live. I’ve been invited to speak at the 5th annual Comics Rock Convention in Los Angeles.

If you don’t know the Comics Rock Convention, think of it as the “TED Talks” of stand-up comedy. The convention has a ton of other awesome speakers, including a very special surprise guest (no, I’m not going to tell you).

I’m both excited to teach the principles that have helped me succeed in comedy, as well as learn new tools from other thought-leaders.

If you want an easy way to grow your skills and network with other like-minded comedians, join us April 26-30th in Los Angeles.

Learn more about all the speakers at the convention and buy your tickets at Comics Rock Convention now.

Can I Become a Comedian If I’m Under 18 or 21?

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Many great comedians got their start in comedy before turning 18 or 21 your of age. If you want to become a comedian but are under 18 or under 21, you’ll have a unique set of benefits and challenges What’s important is that you use benefits to your advantage. This article will show young comedian show to use the benefits to their full advantage and eliminate the disadvantages.

Benefits of Being a Comedian Under 18 or 21

The biggest benefit of learning how to do stand-up comedy when you’re under 18 or 21 is that you have plenty of time to learn how to write and perform. Like any art form, stand-up comedians get better as they grow more experienced. Comedian don’t “reach maturity.” They continually grow and evolve as artists. Many of the greatest comedians of all time started out with sub-standard careers. It was through the continual process of evolving as artists that eventually drew audiences to them.

Being a stand-up comedian requires learning the stand-up comedy inside and out. Being a young comedian gives you plenty of time to study comedy and learn what works on stage and what doesn’t. When comedians first start out, their material isn’t very tight. They tend to take shots in the dark when writing jokes because they don’t know what works. Being under 18 or 21 allows comedians to have ample time to discover who they are as a comedian (often referred to as “finding your comedic voice”).

Some new comedians worry that audiences won’t “get them” because they are too young. This is actually opposite of reality. Audiences crave originality. They enjoy hearing different points of view from comedians. As a comedian younger than 18 or 21, you have a very unique point of view. You can talk about subjects differently than other comedians, which makes you more unique to the audience. What’s important is that you use your age to your advantage… not as a challenge to be overcome. Learn more about the importance of being original in stand-up comedy here.

Challenges of Being a Comedian Under 18 or 21

The biggest challenge I hear again and again from underage comedians is that they are unsure if they are even allowed to perform. Most shows at the open mic level occur at bars or comedy clubs. Neither venue tends to be too keen on minors. However, many underage comedians have learned that performing isn’t nearly as difficult as they thought it might be. First, find a list of open mics to perform on (Google it for your home-town). You should be able to get a phone number for either the booker or the venue. Call and ask them if they allow underage performer. Usually, a booker will say that they don’t know but that the venue never cards anyone unless they buy a drink. That means you could get on the list to perform simply by showing up. Comedy clubs can be a little trickier. Comedy clubs almost always card at the door. You’ll have to check with your local venue own whether or not you could get in the door. Some venues will allow you in the door with a chaperon. Others won’t even consider it. You’ll just have to ask.

But bars and comedy clubs aren’t the only venues where you can perform comedy. There are many open mics at pizza joints, coffee shops, etc. that never card. Again, search open mics in your area to find them.

Worse case scenario, you won’t find a place to perform. Usually this is because the comedian lives in the middle of nowhere and there are few shows to choose from. In this case, the best option is to learn stand-up comedy fundamentals and begin writing comedy yourself. My favorite place to learn stand-up comedy is through watching and analyzing YouTube videos. Learn more about how you can learn comedy online for free by reading the How To Be A Comedian Series, which has many tips on learning to write and perform comedy.

 

Jared Volle

CreativeStandUp.com

The Truth About Alcohol and Writing Comedy

I’m breaking away from the normal “how to write stand-up comedy” blogs and decided to have some fun with this one. This article will look at the affects alcohol has on writing stand-up comedy.
Ever felt like you write better if you have a drink first? You’re not alone. In fact, creativity researchers have studied alcohol’s affects in depth and found that a tiny bit of alcohol can actually make you more creative. But, as you would expect, it’s only up to a point. After that point, your ability to think clearly goes downhill FAST. Researchers have also identified that there are times when alcohol helps creativity as well as gets in the way.
Alcohol helps to inhibit the part of the brain that constantly “checks” to see how we’re doing when we’re being creative. The upside to this can often be breaking through writer’s block. Writer’s block in stand-up comedy is most often causes by a comedian’s perpetual need to both “create” and “constantly check” their material. Interestingly, these two processes are the exact opposite to your brain. When you do one it’s impossible to do the other, so writer’s block occurs. You’ve basically told your brain to both “stop” and “go” at the same time. Since it’s impossible, the brain gets into gridlock. When comedians stop scrutinizing the quality of material as they’re writing they often break through writer’s block easily. This is why our stand-up comedy course breaks writing into two separate phases: vertical writing and horizontal writing.
So how does this apply to stand-up comedians? If you’re the type of person that wants have a drink before you write then make sure it’s only one. After that the benefits of alcohol are outweighed by the consequences. Also, make sure you use alcohol at the appropriate time. Writing stand-up comedy requires a lot of mental skill. You have to write new material as well as evaluate the old material and fix it.
Alcohol, if it’s used at all, helps only with the generation of new material as well as it’s originality. Since a comedian is less likely to check your material against the “status quo,” they can often come up with more novel ideas. While the material may not be “up to par,” it will help you get words on the page. However, it does not help a comedian actually analyze any of their old material, as this requires very clear thinking ability. This means that it shouldn’t be used when you are revising your material.
So there’s the truth about alcohol and writing comedy. Here’s how you can use this information without drinking. By understanding the benefit of drinking alcohol, comedians can duplicate them in much healthier ways and still get the benefits. There are two great applications of this knowledge.
First, a comedian can increase their originality simply by not checking their material against other comedian’s jokes. This makes the stand-up comedian more original in the eye’s of the audience and helps the comedian create a fan base. Because the comedian is being more original, they are also going to perform in a different way from most other comedians, making them more memorable to audience members.
Second, a comedian can overcome writer’s block by simply concentrating on one part of the writing process (either “writing new material” or “analyzing old material”). A comedian can duplicate the affects of alcohol simply by not giving any weight to “analyzing” their material while they are writing it.
Jared Volle

CreativeStandUp.com

Stand-up Comedy and Self-Expression

Take a look at the stand-up comedians that you are a big fan of. What do they all have in common? Aside from the ability to get laughs and high creativity… each one of them uses stand-up comedy as an art form of self-expression.

What happens when a comedian DOESN’T use stand-up comedy as self-expression?

The most important consequence of not using self-expression is that the comedian comes off extremely hack. They use their stage time to talk about “stuff” without ever giving the audience a real reason to remember them after the show. Before the Golden Age of Comedy, this was fine. It was all audiences demanded. When the Golden Age of Comedy hit, stand-up comedy became about raw creativity and self-expression. Excluding self-expression from your performance is like excluding the main course from a dinner… it doesn’t matter how well the food was prepared because the customer’s expectations weren’t met.

Why Many Comedians DON’T Use Self-Expression To It’s Fullest Potential

One reason few stand-up comedians at the open mic levels use self-expression is because it requires showing your weaknesses instead of your strengths. In comedy, your strengths are your weaknesses and your weaknesses are your strengths. When you let the audience in on a weakness there is HUGE potential for laughter because there’s comedic conflict involved. Not only is this material extremely relatable (comedians often don’t give the audience enough credit for sharing these types of experiences) but the audience is able to view both the weakness and the ideal “front” that most people put up to hide similar weaknesses. The joke isn’t ACTUALLY about your weakness, but about how we have all attempted to hide that weakness to appear better to others. The ability to shed new light on the world is one of the ways stand-up comedy gets it’s power. And because most open mic comedians DON’T do this, you’ll be seen as a more original performer than your peers. Find more articles on Originality in Stand-Up Comedy and how to be a more creative comedian here.

What Happens When A Comedian Uses Self-Expression

When the comedian shows ACTUAL reality instead of the “fake reality” that most people put up, there’s huge potential for laughter. They also get a new and different point of view, which makes you more memorable as a comedian. It is also more relatable. It’s very difficult to relate to someone who’s only interested in “looking good” in front of others. They come off as fake and inauthentic… certainly not the right ingredients making them a fan of your stand-up comedy.

Combine all this with the fact that most new comedians DO NOT relate to the audience and you can see that showing your weaknesses are a powerful way of being unique in the eyes of the audience and develop a fan base. Learn more about how to develop a fan base in stand-up comedy here.

Jared Volle 1999

CreativeStandUp.com


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