“Guy Walks into a Bar” (a series)
A Guide for Comedians. Stories for Comedy Fans.
Getting it Ready (Structuring 101) #3
When we last spoke (10/25/21):
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
READERS: My goal is to make future issues shorter. I felt this topic needed to be thorough, to be useful.
The things, that you will talk about (your material), come from “anywhere” and are “about anything” that you want them to be, at this early point in your career or venture. One day, you will find “your voice” and know what type of act/constant that you wish to have. Otherwise known as your hook! Regardless of what topics that you write or rant about, it’s going to have to be structured (whether a little or a lot) to become words that you can rely on, repeatedly. I’m aiming here for an article that is an interesting read, despite its necessary elements…fingers crossed.
“Is all that stuff true?” “Is that an act or do you just make it up as you go?” These types of audience reactions are some of the highest compliments that you can receive. “I’m a funny guy, and I did Stand-Up once, I told my funny stories, but I sucked!” In this article, we’ll learn how you begin to make your act seem as if it’s thought up at the moment and why YOU WILL SUCK when you don’t understand that there is a technique to this.
Addressing Counter Points Right Up Front -
- What about improvisation? This can be a shining moment for some and still for others, a consistent gift that they utilize often when they work (see; Joseph Anthony ). But you MUST have an act, as “improv is case-specific,” even when it’s 1*canned, you will still need the catalyst for your words/jokes.
[We will explore improvisation more in later features]
- What about joke book jokes, also known as street jokes (whether original or passed on through generations)? You know the type — jokes that begin like my ironic newsletter title, “Guy walks into a bar.” When someone goes on stage (barring a social get-together with friends or a family wedding, etc.) and calls themselves a Comedian, even the street joke follows a certain structural rhythm, in order to be super successful. This article will touch upon this.
- This story is just … too … funny, I must tell it onstage! Ah, the great misconception by layman and Comedians alike. It may very well be a funny story or hysterical situation that “appears” readymade. When you retell it to a crowd, reliving the moment with the zest and zeal to which it happened, your enjoyment (your perspective) will transcend to audiences, and they too will laugh. How long will you mentally and emotionally connect to the original moment? Enough to relive it night after night for years, telling it to perfect strangers, with the intent of them seeing what you saw or heard, and enjoying it to the point of uncontrollable laughter? If you want to keep it in your repertoire, it must be made communicable through a format, so that it has a long professional shelf life. Otherwise, before long, you will find yourself saying, “you had to be there.” Trust me! If you don’t, try it your way, then try it my way (forthcoming in this article), and see which works better.
OK, so you’ve got a bunch of life’s observations jotted down, or personal stories spoke into a recording device, or even a wacky obscure fictional scenario fleshed out on your laptop. Whatever! Let’s mold that clay into STAND-UP COMEDY. Be forewarned — this is a process and the least fun part of the craft. It’s tailoring the words to have comedic weight and not just your reaction to them (aka delivery). How concerned you are with the final product (on the obsessive side of things, what’s truly the best words is sort of infinite), will determine when the joke is done. The good news is some material does write itself.
The Basic Foundations
- The Set-Up — In writing a story, such as an essay, a book, or a movie, the writer tries to implore a style of, this happened, then this happened, then … you get the point … and then a result or twists, that moves the story in a different direction. The setup is similar. It is a piece of information, but brief is the goal, for the longer the Set-Up, the stronger the payoff (punchline) better be! Just enough to build a premise. Whether non-fiction, universal theme, or complete bull poop. A good analogy is to think of it as a Cliff Hanger (such as in literature and media). In comedy, however, it’s this happened/happens, THEN THIS HAPPENED (“BAM”- the punchline)! The more an audience feels, “Wo, I didn’t see that coming,” typically the stronger the return on your investment. Investment, being the set-up … Return being the laughter … Which leads us to -
- The Punchline — this is “the funny!” This is where you put “a spin” on the Set-Up. There is NO one single formula for this (worth repeating)! You can think of it in terms of a turn. In the setup, you are basically traveling straight. In the punchline, you will make a smooth, yet jarring, 180 to 360 degrees turn. Here is where Comedians can, should, and do, get creative! Some are very visual or physical in an exaggerated way, to show you the funny. Others, take an intelligent or cerebral approach to dissect/comment on the fact they just laid out in the set-up. Typically, using a touch of sarcasm that we subconsciously connect with (aka in the back of their minds an audience will go, “yeah — I know, right!”). Still others (and I tend to write in this vein) choose words that embellish and expand upon the Set-Up in ways that create a hysterical “image” in the mind of the listener — “CONTRAST” IS A GREAT TOOL HERE! Also, the latter is worth repeating. Naturally, the Comic’s (my) apparent visceral reaction to what they (I) have just said, reinforces the punchline. Suddenly we see and feel the words, not just hear them. It’s the ACT portion of the Stand-Up’s act! Again, referred to as delivery and as such, is as unique as the individual (we pray) themselves. The “we pray” refers to the alarming number of copycats that exist! THERE IS NO ONE CORRECT PUNCHLINE AND THEY CAN (and should) “ALWAYS” BE IMPROVED! Do you see why teaching this stuff in a textbook fashion is such bullshit! [REF.: Do’s and Don’ts (On Comedy Classes) #2]
Now, you have some jokes/material written out. You have formatted those notes that were written on napkins (in 2021 — iPhone Notes app), whittled down your lengthy recorded ramblings, and taken your real or fictitious story and given it a nice rhythm — whereas before, it was just one long note! That’s my cool jazz analogy of structuring words for the comedy stage … ya’ dig man?
“Bye everyone, I’m going to an open mic to spew my words, and receive my praise” Whoa … Easy Trigger, we’re not done! When the audience gets in the car with you (a metaphor of course), you want to avoid hitting the gas, then slamming the brake … hitting the gas, slamming the brake … and so on. Let’s shoot for a smoother ride.
“TA — DA”
- The Set List — Simply put, a cheat sheet or an order, to your act. Keywords (“God, SEO marketing has really made me hate words such as keywords” … I digress) or phrases, arranged from start to finish for your intended stage time. Intended, because unless you are a precisely calculated robot (and they do exist in the comedy world) who brings a pre-programmed audience with them to each appearance, actual stage time versus planned, will tend to vary. These bullets, trigger the joke or whole bit (aka 2*“a chunk”) in your mind for you. I stink at memorization and find that the setlist helps a great deal. It may also have a purpose to its design! “Oh F#@K, he’s taking all the fun out of this shit for me!” Calm down … there’s a reason we have terms like an art form. Its core is always art, but it helps to incorporate some form. See what I did there? This is not, THE WORD OF THE COMEDY GOD, but a strong setlist might follow certain subtle rules, that will work well subliminally.
- i.e., Escalating Intimacy — This is where your material builds up towards the more personal stuff. Useful for acts that follow a story-like thread. Straight-up traditional joke tellers don’t usually concern themselves with such things … buuut … it’s not off the table. The “Shock Comic,” (they are more deliberate in their writing) might open with, “So my wife was fucking my best friend.” But I can guarantee you, that they are not going to close with, “What’s the deal with how little airline seats recline?” So, you see that barring certain styles, a steady climb (or depraved decline, as it were) is a good rule of thumb? Even Magicians, typically don’t open with sawing the woman in half. In short, the adage, “leave em’ laughing,” does apply! If during a thirty-minute performance set you destroy with twenty blockbuster minutes and end on a weak ten — the ten, will be the only taste left in the mouths. Pace yourself! “COMMIT,” to what you say (even if it’s ludicrous content), talk TO the audience and NOT AT them and (barring hell gigs) they’ll stay in your vehicle for your whole ride.
- “EXCEPTIONS” — More than ever, in today’s comedy market, the venue can and does dictate your setlist on many occasions. The material you choose. The order in which you say it. Your choice of language (profanity, social awareness, etc.). To keep working and succeed in an insane number of varied environments, I’ve become more of a master of the Shell Game with my notes, than what’s contained in the notes themselves.
[Venue types and being a working comic versus NOT, are all set to be written in future editions]
I almost never record (video or audio) anymore and I’m a fool. But my passion for pristine comedy these days is very different than it was several years ago. It’s why I took to writing this newsletter and it shall bleed into my articles over time. Did you think I’d sell you the farm in issue number three? It was not always that way. In fact, I am building an extension on my house with my collection of video and audiotapes, which I will never preview again. If I decided to, I probably couldn’t anyway, because the device for playback is obsolete — HA! Yes, I am a dinosaur and I have TAPE! Screw you! My choice to write this newsletter is in great part to help new comics. So, listen, it’s very important for your development, not to mention how the hell are you going to show the industry (bookings, contests, festivals, agents, etc.) what you do? Write them a strongly worded letter? No, you must show them. They probably won’t watch it or all of it, but it’s fundamental. Let’s get back to your desire to grow as a MONSTER of an act.
Why Record Anyway?
The recording, all be it uncomfortable for most (except the conceited … “kiss, kiss, I love me”) to listen to or watch on playback, can be very helpful. The immediate tendency is to judge the success (or failure) of the material by the audience’s reaction. Be careful with making that the barometer for a bit’s success, as every crowd and every night is different — but YOU are essentially the same! Try your best to separate from the recording and listen to this person (you of course) as if you don’t know them. By becoming a listener, as opposed to the natural impulse we have, to judge and criticize ourselves (especially attention-starved artists), you begin to ‘tune in” and hear where your set-ups should be shorter, punchlines need to go further/be funnier, even areas to speed up, slow down, inflect your tone, animate your delivery, and more. Treating yourself as the Coach of You, when you watch or listen, leads to learning and improving. Thinking you’re great when things get laughs and horrible when they don’t, is a mind trip you do not want to go on! It’s a “technical” way to hear yourself and is much harder than having fun with your craft — but it will reap rewards.
[Marketing your recordings is a HUGE TOPIC for a future newsletter(s)]
I have made my fair share of mistakes with my material — with my career is another whole book! But I have always referred to myself as “a Purist.” As such, my goal was always to be a great Comic. Write. Practice. Listen carefully and re-write. Find and know my voice. Then repeat the latter an infinite number of times. In full transparency, Purists rarely fast-track their way to the Bentley dealership, but we’re good at what we do, people appreciate it and respect us, and our conscience is usually as clear as our bank accounts. On the flip side, in my over three decades, I have seen Comedians, who after as many years of history as mine, constantly miss the funny target! Many times, understanding structure (or lack thereof) is the glaring reason why!
The steps in this article, if applied, and if you have the talent for this — sorry, some of you may have this as a dream, but it’s the wrong one — will teach you to do it right and keep improving and growing. You might just become a SUCCESSFUL STAND-UP COMIC. Now, a successful comedy career is something we’ve yet to get to.
After this “textbook edition,” let’s have a little fun in the next issue (11/22/21) with, “The Artist Journey” — A look at inspiration and creativity.
NEW JERSEY FANS
A rare local & intimate performance on November 19, 2021 -
Click for More: The Strand Theater
*1. Canned — Verbal lines that are repeated in similar situations or audience interactions, that may “appear” improvisational, but really are “a comedy bit.” That is not the definition of Improv. Examples of canned humor — The thing a Comic will say EVERY time about a Spanish attendee, low attendance venues, the size of a stage, etc.
*2. Chunk — Several different jokes put together that are about one topic.