“Gahhh, I have to tell these jokes AGAIN?!” That was me last night. And many other nights too. Making jokes funny doesn’t often happen the first time you tell them (not for me anyway). You have to work on jokes and tell them over and over to different audiences and review what works and doesn’t work until you have found the ideal formula. And it’s exhausting! But once you have found the winning joke potion, how long do you continue to tell that joke before it’s time to retire it? I watched a really interesting documentary/interview on YouTube called Talking Funny with Louis CK, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Ricky Gervais and got some good insight.
ASK A PRO
There are some pro comedians, like Louis CK, that throw out an entire set after one year. Louis CK says about joke writing that “there’s a weird almost fruit-like cycle to it, because it gets ripe and then it starts rotting a little bit”. That makes complete sense! If you are out on the road telling these jokes for a living several times a week, after a year, you’re damn well ready to move on. Jerry Seinfeld, on the other hand, throws out 10 or 20% of his act every year. He’s got stuff in his act that is 10 years old and some that is less than a year old. His act is a mix of a greatest hits as well as newer material. If you want to go see your favourite professional comedian every time they come to town, do you want to hear the same jokes every time, or do you want to hear new material, different stuff from last time? All the comedians in this video agree, however, that if a pro is doing the same set all the time without making significant changes, the audience will be less inclined to come back because they’re a one-trick pony.
Chris Rock mentions that he will do his material 200 times before his act is ready to be a TV special. 200 times!?! That’s…a lot. But it’s practise. And like mom always said, “practise makes mediocrity. Get a real job.”
WHAT ABOUT THE LITTLE GUYS?
For someone with far less experience (like me), 200+ shows is an overwhelming thought. I asked my friend Ivan Decker, who is a local pro comedian in Vancouver, how long he tells jokes for to get some closer-to-home insight. He says that he keeps his material until he’s bored of it and then uses it to fill out longer sets. He also says that “a joke is never really finished. [He’s] told jokes for years and then discovered a way to make them better even after telling them hundreds of times”. This is so true. Stripping down a joke you may be sick of, or working it into another part of your set may reveal some new aspects of the joke to make it funnier.
The point all of these comedic greats are trying to make, is that it’s always about the evolution of your material and your set. Do what is working, fix what needs fixing, and don’t be afraid to toss the crap. For someone who is less experienced, don’t worry about over-doing jokes, they’re still in the working phase. While it may be stale to you, it’ll be new to most of the audience. And for seasoned professionals, well, they can do whatever the hell they want. You have to do what works for you and where you are at with your career. The most important part is to keep practising and perfecting your material.