When John Park, my first juggling partner who eventually fled the country to get away from my never-ending notes, and I first started performing together, we were lucky enough to have great comedy mentors to learn from including:
The best comedy teacher I know: Greg Dean.
The fastest hands and fastest mind in comedy juggling: Frank Olivier.
My BFF and FWB Ben Decker.
And comedy genius Frank Miles.
(Take THAT Googlebot.)
We watched each others’ shows. Gave each other notes. Wrote jokes for one another. I learned most of the techniques, structures, and comedy theory I’ve used for the past 30 years from and with those guys. And I hope they learned something from me, other than how to calculate compound interest.
I think collaborating is the best way to be funnier.
Not Everyone Agrees
When we got our first gig in Las Vegas, I thought this was how everybody in show business worked. One night John and I went to see a magic act called (and you have to picture this being announced in a darkened theater by a Don LaFontaine voice-alike) “The Magic of Fairchild and The Exotic Betty.” After the show, we went out for a late dinner at The Peppermill with Joe Eddy and Exotic Betty Fairchild. Before the menus even arrived, I started giving them notes and pitching them jokes:
“You know Joe, after you produce the 7’ python and place it around your shoulders it’d be really funny if you said: ‘Any magician can make his assistant disappear. But only a master magician can make an audience member disappear.’ Then you approach a planted audience member, start to put the big snake around her shoulders, and she jumps up and runs screaming out of the theater.”
I’m pretty sure that the subtext of the stunned silence that followed was: “Kid, I’ve been doing this act for 20 years and my father did it for 30 years before that and YOU think YOU can come up with something we haven’t thought of after seeing our act ONE TIME?!?!?”
Yes. Yes I did.
When You Help Others, You Can’t Help Helping Yourself
As my generation of performers started to hit Vegas, things began to change. Guys who later formed the core of Vegas’ magic and juggling scene: Michael Goudeau, Mack King, Lance Burton, Michael Holly, Mike Close, Penn & Teller, all seemed happy to get pitched new jokes. The new guys coming up now, like Goudeau’s ex-interns Jacob Jax and Dustin Knouse, actively ask for notes.
I find writing comedy with and for other people to be much easier and way more fun than writing alone. Many of the jokes in my show today were written by and with others: BeeJay Joyer, Tim Kelly, Michael Goudeau, Ben Decker, Robert Lind, Frank Miles (mostly Frank Miles), Frank Olivier, Greg Dean, Paul Nathan, and of course Kat Meltzer, Rich Ross, John Park, Katrine Spang-Hanssen, and Mitch Barrett, plus a bunch of others I’m just not remembering. All of them deserve more than the hyperlinks I’m too lazy to add right now.
And of course I have to add Thomas John to this list because he and I still write together almost every week via Skype or email even though he’s off becoming a comedy juggling star in Germany, in German, which he doesn’t even speak. Plus, adding Thomas to the list ensures it includes all of the jugglers featured in the Vegas Round of America’s Got Talent 2011 who didn’t make me want to shoot my television in the face.
Learn From My Mistakes
When you’re writing with others you want to make it easy for everyone, including yourself, to be creative and funny. You don’t need to tell anyone that you don’t like the joke they’re pitching. And you don’t want to worry whether the joke you’re pitching sucks. (Trust me. It does.) Just write ‘em all down. Brainstorming is about filling the page with ideas, germs, assumptions, shatters, and lots and lots of bad jokes.
When it comes time to choose which jokes to try onstage you never have to cross out the ones you don’t like. You just circle the ones you do and move forward with them.
If I’m not under a deadline, I like to wait at least a day before going back and choosing which gags to move forward with. If I don’t have that luxury, I try to wait at least a few hours.
Here’s the thing that took me over 20 years to learn: Your performing partners will never circle the jokes they pitched that you hated. They didn’t like those jokes either. So there was no reason for you to tell them how lousy they were. There was no reason to shut down their creativity with your criticism. There was no reason to bully them into seeing how inferior their jokes were to yours.
If I knew this back when I first started, John Park might still live in the US and Rich Ross might still be juggling.
Doing the Diagonals
One of the most fun experiences I’ve had writing comedy was with Susan & Paul Phariss. They hired me to live at their house for a week and write gags and routines with them for their Riley The Wonder Dog show.
Each morning, we would brainstorm till we filled a few pages with new gags, ideas for routines, new tricks to work on with the dogs, and anything we thought might be fun or funny to do onstage someday. Sometimes we’d start by watching a video of a routine they were already doing. Sometimes we’d start with a blank page. We didn’t worry about whether the tricks were possible, like if they really could teach one of the dogs to type on a custom made doggy sized keyboard or there would ever be room on stage to do a doggy demolition derby. We just filled our pages. There was no criticism, no editing, no judgment, and no responsibility to make any of it happen. For me, it’s that last one that removes most of the pressure.
After lunch we’d go back and circle stuff that we wanted to move forward with from the brainstorming session on the morning of the day before. After letting that raw material sit for just over 24 hours, we had some distance and more perspective than we would have if we were looking at that morning’s pages. A lot of times, after more than 24 hours, no one even remembered who had come up with what so there wasn’t a lot of scorekeeping about whose stuff was being selected. And since we never crossed anything out we didn’t like, we just circled the ones we did, nothing and no one was ever being rejected.
This helped us separate our creative selves in the morning from our critical selves in the afternoon. (Separating the creator from the critic is just one of the really good ideas you’ll learn from Greg Dean’s book and in his classes.)
Each afternoon we put the gags we liked into routines. Wrote tags. Edited each gag to try to make it punchier. Wrote more tags. Tried to figure out how to make the tricks actually work. And then wrote more tags. During this phase someone would often have to say “No, the dog can’t do that” or “We can’t afford that prop” and we’d try to find solutions. There were lots of objections and practical considerations in the afternoons but by moving them away from our free writing mornings, we made those mornings freer and looser.
Then dinner. One sit-and-go. Dog training. And back to the show.
Each night we’d take a routine we’d written on the previous day’s afternoon, rehearse it, direct it, rewrite it, try to get the dogs to do it, play improv games with it, and try to get it ready to put on stage in front of a real audience. We’d switch roles, having Paul play Susan’s role and Susan play Paul or have me play one of them while that one directed. You know, all that experimental theater crap.
I called this schedule “doing the diagonals” because, for example, on Monday morning we’d just fill a page with new gags, Tuesday afternoon we’d write a routine from the Monday morning gags liked, and then Wednesday evening we’d rehearse the routine from Tuesday afternoon. And we’d do this every day, brainstorming in the morning, editing in the afternoon and rehearsing in the evening.
When I taught comedy writing at Celebration Barn we added another step to our diagonal. We had live shows several nights a week where we could try out what we had rehearsed the previous evening either in front of a real paying audience or in front of one of the other classes there that week. When I taught at MotionFest and MiniFest there were showcases every night where the audience of teachers and other students would give the performers notes and pitch gags to them.
Adding this feedback step, in front of a live audience, was the most valuable step of all. But you want to keep that critical feedback away from your creative time. You want to separate the creator from the critic.
Taking these steps:
1) brainstorming & free writing,
2) editing & routining,
3) directing & rehearsing,
4) performing & feedback,
and doing them diagonally, over a period of days, instead of vertically in a single day removes a lot of pressure, provides more perspective, allows for a better separation of functions (writer, editor, performer, director) while still maximizing your output.
I certainly don’t expect anyone to do this grueling a schedule for more than a week or two. I don’t think anyone other than Penn Jillette could. These were isolated weeks of crazy, intensive work done once or twice a year at most.
It’s Just So Crazy It Might Work
But you could take this same diagonal idea, spread it out over a month and keep that schedule up. The key is to have always have stuff in the pipeline and to keep the pressure off the front of that pipeline. You remove judgment from the front end and shift it to the back.
Make friends with the other performers in your town. Watch each others’ shows. Pitch each other jokes. Give each other notes. Write tags for each other. Get funnier together.