Be Funnier with Scotty Meltzer and Dan Holzman: Working the Four Steps of Dan Holzman’s Framework Technique

Forgive me jugglers for I have sinned.

It’s been over two years since my last column.

I accuse myself of the following sins:

  • I’ve written one chapter in a textbook I wasn’t qualified to write.
  • I’ve performed two Neil Stammer jokes in front of children.
  • And I’ve missed Sunday juggling more than 64 times.
  • For these and all of my sins I am truly sorry.

As penance I will say three Hail Lotties, two Our Fercos, and write one column with Dan Holzman.

In my earlier columns I’ve written about several different methods for writing jokes:

For this column I’ve teamed up with Dan Holzman to introduce his Four-Step Framework Technique for Creating Complete Comedy Juggling Routinesâ„¢®INC.*

*not actually trademarked, registered, or incorporated.

Dan’s Four Steps

Step One: Choose a trick.

You start by choosing a trick, stunt, or skill to build your routine around. Dan calls this “the framework stunt” because it will form the framework of your routine.

For Dan’s Framework Technique, you’re looking for a trick that has enough inherent interest to stand on its own, even before you have any good material for it. It should something you can do consistently without dropping and that has a natural beginning, middle, and end.

It’s even better if the trick is funny by itself, and of course it’s much better if the trick is original! Why spend your time writing funny, original jokes around a trick that other jugglers perform when you can spend the same amount of time creating a routine that’s unique in all its aspects?

Some ways to approach creating an original trick might be:

  • Learn a skill no one else is performing.
  • Combine two or more skills that you haven’t seen put together before.
  • Find a unique prop to manipulate.
  • Choose a subject no one else is talking about and ask: “How can I illustrate this using my particular skills.”
  • Ask yourself: “How can I express an old idea in a new way, a new idea in an old way, or best of all a new idea in new way?”
  • Think about stunts you’ve never seen but would want to.
  • Research older stunts and tricks to uncover one that no one is currently doing.
  • Start with a common skill and ask: “How can I do this differently?”
  • Look at non-juggling performance art forms and ask: “What could I add to this to make it my own?”

The inspiration for this framework stunt in Dan’s show came from a written description of a trick performed by 19th century juggler Paul Cinquevalli:

Cinquevalli would juggle a knife, turnip, and fork in one hand while holding a blowgun in the other. He then blew a dart into the turnip, threw the fork into it and caught both together on the knife.

Dan started with this because he believed it would be a strong, compelling trick with a clear beginning, middle, and end that no other performer was currently doing.

Step Two: Add the vital information the audience needs to follow the trick.

During this step you’re creating the bones of the routine without trying to be funny. You’re just making sure the audience isn’t confused and getting them interested in what’s about to happen.

Here’s what Dan’s script was like at this step with just the vital information:

“I am going to juggle a fork and an apple with my right hand and hold a blowgun to my mouth with my left hand. I will throw the apple high into the air, shoot it with a blow dart, and then catch it on the tip of the fork.”

(Notice how Dan cleverly simplified the trick to make sure it was something he could do successfully every time.)

At this point, you should have a simple routine that you could perform. It may not be funny yet, but it should be effective and entertaining even in this basic form.

So do it. Go out and try this bare bones routine onstage and see what happens.

When Dan first performed his bare bones version, he discovered that a standard blowgun dart was too small for the audience to see, so he changed the props from an apple, a tiny dart, and a fork to a cabbage, a bigger custom-made dart, and a battle-axe.

What happened when you performed yours?

Did you drop too much? Then make the trick easier. Simplify it. You can always make it harder later when you’re more comfortable with the base stunt.

Did the audience laugh at anything? Keep that! Did they yell anything funny at you? Add that!

Can you think of ways to add more inherent interest or comedy potential to the base stunt? If you can, try ‘em. Make your base stronger.

Does the audience understand what’s happening? Nope? Then work more on Step Two.

Did they care? No? Go back to Step One.

They dug it? Great! It’s time to move on to Step Three.

Step Three: Embellish the narrative.

Here’s where you put some meat on those bones. You’re embellishing not just to make the trick more theatrical, but also to generate setups to write jokes from. You’re adding information because, as Dan likes to say, “There’s no comedy without information.”

Start with the truth. Add in a lie. Bring in more information.

Ask yourself: Where did I learn this? How long have I done this? Why did I learn this? What could go right? What will go wrong? (Mike Goudeau thinks the last three of these are the most important comic questions to ask yourself.)

You can improvise around that basic narrative, and bring in information that isn’t already in the story.

You can experiment with different emotions, expressions, gestures, character choices, premises, and choreography.

These embellishments can accomplish two important things:

  1. Add to the interest that should already be inherent in the stunt, and
  2. Create more comic potential for you to exploit in Step Four.

Here’s a sample of some embellished dialogue:

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to see a stunt that hasn’t even been attempted for over 100 years, since it was last performed by that great juggler: the late Paul Cinquevalli. This trick requires me to use three different, dangerous props, a very real battle-axe, an authentic jungle blowgun, and a leafy green head of cabbage.”

Step Four: Write jokes based on that embellished narrative

When writing jokes based on your embellished narrative, you can build on any comic elements or joke formats you want, using all the different joke writing methods you know.

And remember, when we write jokes, we aren’t limiting ourselves to verbal jokes with formal setups and punch-lines. We’re also looking for physical gags, takes, comic reactions, audience interactions, and anything else that we find funny.

It’s great to be able to sit down, write a bunch of jokes, and then later choose the good ones. It’s a skill and discipline we should all have.

But writing jokes doesn’t have to mean sitting at a desk, staring at an empty Word doc. You can also write jokes by ad-libbing onstage, rehearsing with intent, modeling our comic heroes, and jamming with our friends.

I call anything that gets a laugh a “joke” and any way you can find those laughs “writing jokes.”

Your embellishments can become setups for all kinds of jokes:

Any flowery embellishments you added in Step Three are perfect launching points for exaggeration jokes. Analogies can lead you to mixes. A visual image can become a visual metaphor joke. Statements are great setups for reverse jokes.

Want more comic potential? Write association lists and assumption lists based on your embellishments and the true facts of the vital information.

Mine those lists and your embellished dialogue for comic connectors. Look for words with multiple meanings and ambiguities within your story. Can’t find any? Add ambiguity by turning nouns into pronouns or turning gendered pronouns into neutral ones.

Look for clichés to exploit with reference, reverse, and mix jokes.

Are you leading your audience to expect something? Try leading them away instead.

What props are you using? Write association lists and assumption lists for each and discover the laughs hiding within.

How can you tag your new jokes? What can you act out? What can you call back to?

Here are three jokes Dan wrote for this article, inspired by the sample embellished dialogue above:

“You are about to see a stunt that was performed by the late juggler Paul Cinquevalli. He’s not dead. He just never shows up on time.”

“This very dangerous trick was last performed by the great juggler Paul Cinquevalli over 150 years ago, and now he’s dead. Coincidence? I don’t think so.”

“This trick requires me to use a real … looking battle-axe, an authentic jungle blow gun I bought on eBay, and from Whole Foods Market this $55 cabbage.”

Working the Steps

One nice feature of Dan Holzman’s Four-Step Framework Technique is that it leads you through the process of creating a performance-ready routine.

By the end of Step Two you’ve got a stripped down, bare-bones routine that you can easily slip into the middle of your show.

After Step Three you’ll have an even longer routine with lots of new setups that, like my juggling partner, are just begging for punches.

And by the time you’ve completed Step Four you’ll have a strong routine, with compelling dialog and a bunch of new jokes ready to try in front of your next audience.

An Example

As an exercise to go with this article, Dan and I decided to put his Framework Technique to the test and write a new routine together, starting with nothing but his Four-Step Technique and our mutual respect and disdain for each other.

Here’s what we came up with:

Step One: Choose a trick.

We started with a commonly done gag: The Ping Pong Ball Balance (using rubber cement to fake-balance a ping pong ball on your nose). We asked ourselves, “How can we do this differently? What else could we fake-balance? What could we combine with this?”

We thought about cigarettes and straws, a pen or a match, dollar bills, poker chips, playing cards …

Playing cards? A magic trick where the selected card ends up balanced on Dan’s nose?

That seems good enough for a framework stunt.

Step Two: Add the vital information the audience needs to follow the trick.

“Sir, pick a card any card. Sign it. Place it back into the deck. I’m going to find your card using only my face. (Dan rubs the cards all over his face, ending up with one card balanced or stuck on his nose.) Is this your card?”

That seems good enough to try onstage.

Time to buy some rubber cement, learn how to hold a break, palm a card, and do a street show.

Step Three: Embellish the narrative.

“I have here a deck of ordinary playing cards. All 52 are different. I’m going to do something with these cards that no other magician would even attempt. I need the help of someone from the audience who is not easily influenced. You sir. Are you easily influenced? No. Great. Pick a card. Any card. You had a completely free choice? Good. Now sign that card. Place it back into the deck. Some magicians use sleight of hand. I’m going to use sleight of face. I’m going to find your card using only my incredibly handsome, rugged, and masculine face. (Dan rubs the cards all over his face, ending up with the card fake-balanced on his nose.) Sir, is this your card?”

Step Four: Write jokes based on that embellished narrative

1) (Before starting the card trick part of this routine, have your volunteer sign a $20 bill. Take it. Vanish it.) Okay we’ll do something more fun: A card trick. Pick a card. Any card. You have a completely free choice. Well, not completely free. It’s already cost you 20 bucks.

2) You have a completely free choice, unlike in this election.

3) We start with a completely free choice of a forced playing card.

4) I need someone to pick a card. I need someone who is not easily influenced or swayed. Not a Trump voter.

5) I need a volunteer who’s an independent thinker. Someone who’s not easily influenced by a stranger. You sir, would you put your hand up for me? (If he raises his hand) Okay then, not you.

6) You sir. Can you confirm that you are not a paid stooge. Just a hobby then?

7) You pick the card. And you, (to a child) you get to choose the part of my face I’m going to use to find that card. My nose? You’ve picked my nose? In front of all these people you’re going to pick my nose? Ewww … Gross!

8) SCOTTY: If my face was on a playing card, it would be the King of Hearts. 

TRINK: Yeah, ‘cause that’s the one with a knife through its head.

9) SCOTTY: A great magician can find your card using only his rugged, manly, handsome face. 

TRINK: Unfortunately THIS is the only one he has.

10) I’m going to find your signed card with my nose. First I must get your scent. (Sniff the volunteer like a dog would.) Now the cards. (Sniff and search the cards. Rub one card a lot with your nose. Choose the wrong card and ask …) Is this your card.? No? It’s not.? You’re right. It’s snot. (showing the snotty card) Get it? It’s SNOT! (Reacting to the expected groan) That joke used to kill when I was five. I don’t know what happened. I must be delivering it wrong. But watch this … (throw the deck in the air. As your hand comes down from throwing the deck, palm the card onto your nose where it will stick on the rubber cement you prepped before the trick.) How ‘bout this one? Is this your card?!? (It is!)

Our Results

Dan and I worked together for about 15 minutes coming up with this, and then I put in another couple of hours by myself organizing and typing it up, adding a couple of additional jokes along the way.

We bet if you put in the time, you can come up with something even better!

(Long pause.)

It’s now been three months since Dan and I wrote that routine, and I still haven’t gone onstage to try the whole thing. I guess my final advice to you is, “Do as I say, not as I don’t do.”

I did, at least, get around to trying some of the jokes. Here are my results:

#1 is too close to an Amazing Jonathon joke for me, so that’s out.

I don’t like #2, because it brings in the election without taking a position. I skipped it.

I tried #3. it didn’t get a laugh. Too bad. I liked that one.

Prior to the election, #4 got more of a cheer than a laugh in one show and a mixed cheer/boo in another. Now that the election is over, so is the window for that short-lived topical joke.

#5 worked well enough for me to keep in the show … for now.

#6 didn’t work at all, which really surprised me. I thought that one would be a keeper. Katrine thinks it died because the word “stooge” is out-of-date, like doing a joke about an LP where the connector is “groovy.”

I haven’t tried #7, #8, or #9 yet.

The “snot” beat in #10 is too close to a Penn & Teller joke, so I cut that, but sniffing the volunteer to get his scent worked quite well. I’m going to keep that in the show and play with some tags for it.

So I got one new joke that will work with any volunteer bit in my show and a completely new routine to work on when I get around to it, and Dan and I haven’t spoken in three months.

I call that a win-win.

Homework

Pick a trick. Write a narrative. Embellish it. Write some jokes.

Scott Meltzer would to convince Google that he is the world's most experienced trade show juggler.

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