When to Stash & When to Trash

“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.

Comedy Courtesy

As every comedian is well aware, it’s not likely that you’ll do a show that is going to pay thousands of dollars and be in a theatre packed with avid comedy fans.  More often than not, you’re getting paid in leftover popcorn and watered-down beer to perform in the basementof a pizza place where comedy-haters who came for a quiet slice were herded downstairs by the show’s promoter.  As you can imagine, this audience can be a hard nut to crack.  If you see the audience isn’t reacting the way you would hope, there are a few key things that you can do that will keep you from falling into a pit to despair.

FOUR SIMPLE RULES

Firstly, try to read the audience and give them what they want.  Every audience is different and will laugh at different things.  Be aware that a group of middle-aged, wine-sipping tourists will react differently than a group of beer-bonging college kids, and be respectful of that.  It’s your job to make people laugh and in order to do that you may have to alter your set and/or delivery.

Second, commit to your jokes.  Even if the audience is sucking your will to live, stay confident.  You know you are funny and unique, so stay true to yourself.  If you normally deliver jokes as a cheerful optimist, fake that you are cheerfully optimistic and people may just believe you!  The last thing an empty/quiet/laughless room needs is negative commentary on how the night seems to be going.  The audience will remember the comic who went up there and just told their jokes in a way more positive light than the comedians who got up there and scoffed at the poor turnout and lack of laughter.

Third, keep it tight.  This particular situation may not be the time to do your seventeen minutes of new rape jokes (but then again, it never is).  Maybe you just do the tight five that you know rocks and throw in one or two new bits to test the waters.  Just try your best to give the audience what they came/were forced down there for, and that’s all you can do.

Lastly, and most importantly, don’t you DARE beg for laughter.  I can’t stand it when comedians stand up on stage and belittle an audience because they won’t laugh at their jokes.  Sometimes people aren’t laughing because the comic is just NOT FUNNY!  Pure and simple.  A comedian’s job is to entertain an audience, not scold them.  Shame on you for thinking that!  Make light of the situation and it won’t end up being such a big deal anymore.

THE SUMMARY CHEAT-SHEET

DO                                                                             DON’T

– stay positive                                                     – lose confidence in yourself

– know your audience                                      – try to force laughter

– appreciate the audience you have          – berate the audience

– your best!                                                          – give up and admit defeat

– a tight set of good jokes                               – try 10 minutes of new material

Whatever obstacles you may run into performing, all you can do is your best and give the audience what they came for.  As long as they leave having had a positive experience, who cares how much they laughed.

Fu*k This Sh*t

True or False: Swearing always makes comedy funnier.  FALSE!  Despite the way many people think nowadays, swearing is highly unnecessary and often has the opposite effect intended.

Remember back in the day when people would speak as respectable human beings who wanted to sound intelligent and demanded respect through being respectful?  I DON’T because I was born in the 1980s.  Swearing has always bothered me because it’s so negative.  It makes me feel uncomfortable and gives off an air of hostility and ignorance that my inner old lady does not appreciate.  The quality of stand up comedy is diminished by “bad words” because it takes the emphasis off the content itself and puts it on the crass delivery.  Swear words have been around for a long, long time, but the fact that they are so tolerated in mainstream society is beyond disappointing. 

It’s true that comedy is about pushing boundaries and provoking a response from the audience.  As a result, over the last couple of decades especially, swearing has become a lot more prevalent.  I don’t have a problem with swearing in comedy, I have a problem with excessive swearing in comedy.  And there is a difference.  Far too many comedians rely on combinations of horrible words to shock their audiences.  But why, because shocking = funny?  Sometimes, but only if that person is actually making a funny point.  If they’re just swearing for the sake of being outrageous while making no point at all, who cares?!  So many amateur comedians resort to excessive swearing when they are floundering on stage, berating the audience in an attempt to make themselves seem bigger.  Jerry Seinfeld agrees that “most of the time…it’s someone who’s lost and scared and uses swearing to save their tail” and it’s generally unsuccessful.    

BUT I do believe that swearing can also enhance comedic writing if used properly.  British writer and comedian Arthur Smith says it perfectly that “a well-placed swear word is a marvellous bit of grammar.”  Go ahead and punctuate with a little swear word if it will actually compliment the material.  But if bad words are overused, they lose their effectiveness and just come across as trashy, ignorant, and offensive. 

I recently got to visit my marvellous grandparents and my Nana can’t stand modern-day stand up comedy because of the extreme amount of swearing.  Isn’t that sad?!  Personally, I like to be able to share my passions and talents with all my favourite people, without fear that they may feel alienated and uncomfortable watching.  Everyone likes to laugh which means that everyone should enjoy stand up comedy.  And comedians constantly need audiences.  So why would anyone completely chop off major demographics just because they feel that the only way to be funny is to curse like a sailor? 

Comedy doesn’t constantly need to be cruel.  With some intelligence and effort, we can all be PROUD of what we do and even invite our grannies to come watch. 

Writer’s Block – Make it Stop!

“What the HECK am I going to write about today!?” Vanessa asks herself as she sits down, uninspired, at her dilapidated computer.  Writer’s block happens to every writer at one point or another.  The tricky part is to get past it, but hoooowwww?

I find that it helps to do a “mind dump” – just start writing out anything and everything that comes to your mind.  Keep writing and writing for two or three minutes without letting your hand stop moving or your mind stop thinking.  Mind dumping clears the mind and makes room for your creative juices to start flowing.  Plus, when you read it back, you’ll see what’s REALLY on your mind (sicko).  Maybe there’s even something in that mind dump that you can use as a jumping-off point (with your psychiatrist).

Second, don’t think of writing as such a serious and daunting task.  It’s hard to think that way if writing is your job, but it will take some of the stress off and let your mind be free, man, to think whatever the heck it wants without pressure from The Man.  Do some doodling, or mind maps to help get the brain warmed up in a fun way. That’s why I make seriously unserious cartoons.  What’s that you say?  You don’t remember what a mind map is?  Here, I made one just for you:

It’s also important to write about things that you feel strongly about.  This is the first tip I ever received with respect to stand up comedy, but it translates into most any sort of writing.  If you want the audience to have a strong reaction to your writing, it has to make you feel something too.  This again can be difficult if writing is your job and people hire you to write stuff for them.  In this case you have to do some research and see what aspects of their business, etc. you are most interested in and can get excited about.  We all know how easy it is to see right through B.S. that someone has written that they don’t really believe in themselves.  It’s pathetic and boring.  And why should others get excited about something that YOU aren’t even excited about?!  What’s the point?  Whether it’s jokes or “real work”, your energy will translate into engaging material that an audience will have a reaction to.

In this same way it helps to write about things that you are familiar with, and things that a good portion of people can relate to.  Like yoga! ….right?  If you aren’t very familiar with a topic that you want to write about, MAKE yourself familiar.  Do a little research and get some facts (there’s a new thing called The Internet that is great for this), and you’ll become a wealth of knowledge.  I wrote a joke recently about black people – I mean eHarmony!  I wrote a new joke about eHarmony, which I don’t know that much about, so I looked it up.  Turns out there isn’t that much to learn from their website unless you are willing to sign up and find YOUR match today.  But I did learn that if you DO want to sign up for eHarmony, you have to answer a 400 question survey!  Pssshhhhaw!

Writer’s block sucks nards, there’s no doubt about that.  But whatever the damn cause may be for your blocked brain, you’ll get past it….eventually.  These tips have worked for me on several occassions, and I hope they will help you.  Now get back to work!  Aimless internet surfing isn’t going to write your material for you.  I don’t even know how you found my little website, but I sure am glad you did.

Something To Tell You In Confidence

As I mentioned in the previous post, “Thou Shallt Not Quit”, the key to getting through a tough perfomance is confidence.  I have chosen to write about this topic again in more detail because I’m hoping that the more I THINK about it, the more confidence I’ll gain myself.

The ol’ boyfriend and I recently had a discussion about how I could take my abilities to the next level, and the biggest thing for me is my confidence.  We established that I’m very comfortable on stage, but not necessarily confident.  Especially when I am working through relatively new material that I’m not 100% sure is even funny. 

It’s tough to deliver that material confidently when you’re not even confident in it yourself.  “WHAT DO I DO THEN?!”, you ask.  “Pretend?”  Yes!  Sure the material may be new, but no one else knows that and the idea is a JOKE so there will always be someone who will appreciate at least the premise.  If you deliver your ideas with conviction and sell them like you believe in them, you may be surprised at how many people will buy into what you’re selling.  The results are a huge growth potential to take things to the professional level.  So be fearless!  Like a menstruating woman doing yoga in white spandex!

And the MOST important thing to have confidence in: YOURSELF.  Be confident with who you are as a person, what you do, and in your talent.  I struggle with this because I’m not a “look-at-me-I’m-so-great” kind of person.  But it’s time to get over that and get used to the fact that yes, I AM funny and I have funny things to tell you!  Say it with me now!  I AM a comedian!  Can I get a witness!? ALLELUIA!

Not everyone wants to or is able to get up on stage.  And some just shouldn’t.  So when you meet new people, introduce yourself as you want to be known and say it like you mean it.  Function Writing has a great article about this exact topic.  “I’m (insert name here) and I work part-time as a data entry clerk and sometimes I do some stand up comedy but that doesn’t really pay at this point and what I really want to do is be a TV writer except I don’t think I’m good enough at writing yet”….. OR “Hey, I’m Vanessa Lever.  I do stand up and sketch comedy and I’m just starting out in my voiceover career.  All of which are pretty exciting, so be excited for me!”  What!?  You’re awesome, Vanessa Lever!  “I know.  But thank you.”  And just to clarify, I don’t mean become an egotistical prick.  OWN your extraordinary abilities and share them with the world.

As the great Julie Andrews says in The Sound of Music, “I have confidence the world can all be mine…I have confidence in me!”  Now make like Julie Andrews and dance off into the streets to take what’s yours: LAUGHS.  You work hard at it, so allow it to pay off for you.

Joke Sandwiches

One of the most nerve-wracking parts of doing stand up comedy is trying out new jokes for the first time.  It’s like introducing your new significant other to your family at Thanksgiving and hoping they don’t judge them based on their face tattoo.  (Never again)

I have discovered that there are a few key ways to try out new jokes.  First of all, especially for me as an amateur, practise your jokes and say them out loud before you open your mouth on stage and have nonsensical verbal diarrhea (eww).  Some more experienced comics can improvise brand new material on stage and make it work relatively well right away.  But I know for me, this is the kiss of death.  So in the words of the boy scouts, BE PREPARED.

Secondly, don’t do an entire five or ten minute set of brand new jokes.  That’s silly!  The WRONG kind of silly.  I made this mistake a couple of times in my earlier days and it did not end well.  With every new punch-lineless joke that drowns in a sea of groans, a bit of your confidence also melts away and you find yourself floundering in a puddle of tears by the end.  Instead, sandwich the new stuff amongst some tried and tested material so that you can start strong and end strong.  You can also get a more accurate reaction from the crowd because they aren’t expecting to groan after everything that comes out of your mouth.  Build that trust with the audience and they’ll love you even more!

Lastly, go to a smaller open mic night that a lot of other comedians also frequent to test out new ideas.  This is a better idea than biting it while being featured at The Comedy Mix beside some international comedy sensation.  You can get useful feedback and suggestions from your fellow comedians on concepts, punch-lines, delivery, etc. and really workshop your jokes.  I have given and received (ha ha) suggestions at open mic nights, and it’s a way more relaxed and supportive atmosphere. The Sin Bin on Sunday nights in Vancouver is awesome!

I used to dread trying out new material.  Now, as I gain more experience and confidence, I actually get excited to try out new jokes and develop them into refined GOLD!  Whether or not the first time you expose a joke to the light of day is successful, you always have to keep working and refining.  And the more fun your jokes will become.  Woooo!!

Record Yo’self!

Everyone loves to hear the sound of their own voice, right?!  Especially as a poor quality recording. No, just me?  Oh wait, no I don’t!  But I do appreciate the importance of it.  I have recorded almost every one of my stand up sets, and in the beginning I could barely tolerate listening to myself.  But the benefit of listening to yourself far outweighs the annoyance of it. 

Recording myself has taught me a LOT that I might not have otherwise realized.  I have met comedians that don’t ever record themselves and it seems to take them longer to improve.  People who record themselves and listen to or watch those recordings can fix their mistakes and weak points, and also play up their strengths.  You may think that you are going to take specific mental notes on yourself, but it’s probably the last thing on your mind when you’re up there performing. 

I feel like I have grown significantly over the past year and a bit because I force myself upon myself (yup).  I could go back and listen to the first few sets I ever did, but I won’t.  EVER.  I’ve learned which bits are too wordy, that I say “umm” WAY too much, that I could afford to pick up the pace, and that people like the term “rapey”.   I can tell which parts get the most laughs (those are the jokes I keep doing), and which ones could use more. 

I also recently video recorded a couple of my sets.  Now, I really do not enjoy watching video of myself.  Self-conscious!  But I did learn from this too, not just about poor wardrobe choice.  Believe it or not, there are some aspects of a performance that don’t come across in audio that do in video.  Namely the visual aspect.  There is really a lot more that can be gained from seeing your entire performance.   How you interact with the audience, seeing your physicality and how it works with what you’re saying,  and seeing what kind of energy you emanate. 

Now that I do voiceover work too, it’s even more obvious why recording myself to practise is important.  Did you know that just feeling happy sounds COMPLETELY different than speaking with a giant shit-eating grin on your face?  It does!  There are so many subtleties that you are capable of that you don’t even know about until you listen, see, and learn from your own self.

Everyone already knows that it takes a lot of guts to be a performer because people are always scrutinizing, but no one is the biggest and best judge of your own work than YOU because YOU have the know-how to use this judgment for your own good. So keep growing, you little tulip, you!

(NOTE: I just got home from doing a show at The Comedy Mix, and I forgot to hit record on my phone.  Of course!)